The past 15 years have certainly been kind to science fiction on television.
Not only has the medium churned out some excellent sci-fi programs but it’s delivered some prescient ones as well. Black Mirror creator Charlier Brooker has all but thrown his hands up and admitted that there’s no point in continuing to make his show if reality is gonna look like … well, all this.
As the world and its technology grew increasingly futuristic over the past decade and a half, we don’t know where we would have been without good, serialized sci-fi storytelling to accompany the changes. That’s why we have decided to honor the best science fiction on television since Den of Geek arrived 15 years ago. Just like we did for film, a panel of Den of Geek contributors and our readers have voted on a list of the 25 best sci-fi shows.
It must be said, however, that this task was a bit more challenging than our movie list. For starters, many TV shows don’t belong to just one year like in the movie world. Modern sci-fi classics like Battlestar Galactica and Lost aired some of their episodes in-between the desired timeframe of 2007 – 2022, but not all of them. Ultimately, we decided to count only shows that aired the entirety of their runs within the 15 years since 2007. In addition to excluding the two aforementioned heavyweights, that’s why you also won’t see Doctor Who on this list as the revived incarnation starring Christopher Eccleston first premiered in 2005.
Additionally, many TV show’s sci-fi credentials are unclear. Some shows straddle the line between sci-fi and horror, others between sci-fi and superhero, or even sci-fi and romance. At the end of the day, however, if a show’s Wikipedia entry mentions “science fiction” or features a spaceship of some sort, it was probably a safe bet.
With all those qualifications and clarifications aside, please enjoy our list of the best sci-fi TV shows of the past 15 years!
Eric McCormack of Will & Grace teamed with Stargate SG-1 creator Brad Wright on Travelers, a wholly unique time travel series that featured visitors from the future taking over bodies of those in our present at the moment of their historically recorded death. The goal was to infiltrate key positions in the past to avoid a future catastrophe, giving the show a conspiratorial spy thriller feel.
Sadly, Travelers was cut short after only three seasons on Netflix, just as the show was starting to question the driving force behind these changes to the past, an all-powerful artificial intelligence known only as The Director. Because the operatives from the future inevitably grew close to the inhabitants of the past and learned more about each other, they began to expose moral conflicts and dissent within their ranks. Luckily, the finale did provide some closure, but fans were still left wanting more. – Michael Ahr
24. 12 Monkeys
Although 12 Monkeys is ostensibly based on the 1995 film of the same name starring Bruce Willis, the Syfy television show is its own thing, going well beyond the deterministic pessimism of the movie. The four seasons followed James Cole (Aaron Stanford) and a wonderful ensemble cast which included Amanda Schull of Suits and Emily Hampshire of Schitt’s Creek, the latter of whom played a much more nuanced and mythology-oriented version of the character made famous by Brad Pitt in the film.
After focusing on the worldwide pandemic from the film in season one, 12 Monkeys went deeper, exploring the true nature of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, which sought to destroy time itself. The show played around with every paradoxical time travel trope imaginable and executed them all perfectly, particularly with its Groundhog Day episode, but it solidified its place on this list because of its amazing finale, which provided more closure and poignant satisfaction than almost any science fiction series before or since. – MA
23. The 100
Initially, The 100 sounded like a typical CW teen drama with a sci-fi premise: one hundred incarcerated juvenile delinquents (all beautiful young people) from a space station orbiting Earth are sent down to test the viability of returning to the surface after decades of deadly radioactivity. The survival tale could easily have been relationship drama in a post-apocalyptic setting.
Although The 100 took a questionable path in later years, the first three seasons were unparalleled greatness with heartbreaking tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. Between the tribal culture of the Grounder clans who survived the nuclear holocaust, the motivations of the A.I. who caused the original disaster, and the struggle for power between the young protagonists and the adults that soon joined them planetside, The 100 explored every possible avenue for conflict, and the results were glorious. – MA
Syfy imported Continuum from Canada’s Showcase network before the time travel sci-fi trend really took off in television, and it was the first of its kind to really indulge in causal loops, paradoxes, and other brain-melting concepts associated with this subgenre. Kiera Cameron, a cop from the future played by Rachel Nichols, follows a group of terrorists who manage to travel to our present just before their execution. Trapped in 2012, she must contain the threat and get back to her family.
The beauty of Continuum lies in its blurring of the lines between good and bad. The so-called terrorists, whose methods are admittedly extreme, are on the side of freedom in an oppressive corporate oligarchy, and if not for the danger of erasing herself or her child, Kiera may not actually want to preserve the future she came from. Continuum ended before it had the chance to really plumb the depths of its mythology, but it stands as one of the best early attempts at a more cerebral time travel show. – MA
21. The OA
To many, the premature cancellation of The OA is still a cause of actual-can-be-tested-on-a-medical-scale pain. Creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij apparently had a five-season vision for their mystery sci-fi Netflix drama, but fans were left three seasons short and on a cliffhanger that promised to change everything.
Even so, that shouldn’t put anybody off spending two seasons with this ambitious, mind-bending show. It starts as the story of Prairie Johnson (Marling), a young blind woman who returns home after a seven-year disappearance, having regained her sight. She attracts a devoted group of followers, and together they perform a ritual that aims to open dimensions. From there on in, it spirals out into a compelling and unforgettable sci-fi fantasy. The story shifts all over the world(s) and has ideas to spare. Maddening, yes, but a total antidote to bland television. Louisa Mellor
20. Voltron: Legendary Defender
All Voltron: Legendary Defender needed to be was a show filled with giant robot action to satisfy its audience’s nostalgia receptors. Instead it made itself into something so much more. You wouldn’t expect a show like Voltron to devote whole episodes to alien politics but Legendary Defender did it in gripping fashion. The show was like the politics of Star Trek meets the action of Star Wars, with a huge dose of anime inspired direction to send it all over the top.
Plus there was that time the loveable cast all visited a space mall and ended up leaving with a free cow. Voltron: Legendary Defender is a show that will satisfy any sci-fi fan, young or old, and is filled with plenty of fan service for old school Voltron fans. And yes, the giant robot action really is superb. We don’t want to spoil it, but that transformation sequence in season 7? Damn. – Shamus Kelley
Foundation‘s mere existence is a big win for sci-fi nerds of all ages. The fact that it’s also very good just happens to be icing on the cake. This centuries-spanning series based on Isaac Asimov’s classic novels is set in the Galactic Empire run by three cloned emperor “brothers” (one of which is played by Lee Pace). Though the Empire seems stable, “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) predicts that its dissolution is fast approaching. To hasten the rebuild of the world to come, Seldon establishes a “Foundation” at the edge of the galaxy and recruits all manner of scholars and survivors to enact his master plan.
Despite running on the, let’s say, lesser-subscribed-to Apple TV+, Foundation is quite simply one of the biggest shows to ever air on television. It looks mind-bogglingly expensive, taking Asimov’s already expansive imagination and casting it out into breathtaking reality. Many thought that Asimov’s series of Foundation novellas-turned-novels would prove unadaptable. But those commentators failed to foresee an entertainment environment that encourages trillion-dollar companies to hand VFX departments a blank check. – Alec Bojalad
18. Wynonna Earp
The little queer sci-fi show that could, Wynonna Earp ran for four glorious seasons of supernatural shenanigans on SyFy before coming to an end last year. Loosely based on a comic book series of the same name by Beau Smith, Wynonna Earp is the story of Wyatt Earp’s great-etc. granddaughter Wynonna, who inherits a curse that dictates she must send the reincarnated outlaws that Wyatt killed back to hell with the use of a magic gun called Peacemaker.
That is the plot, but, in execution, the show was so much more bonkers and complex than the premise suggests: a story of biological and found family, a celebration of so many different kinds of love, and an unabashedly feminist western tale. It was all held together by showrunner Emily Andras who infused the sometimes discordant parts into a hilarious and love-affirming whole. – Kayti Burt
17. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Disregarding the events of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Fox’s fantastic, canceled-too-soon Terminator series followed battled-tested Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her son John (Thomas Dekker), the future leader of the human resistance movement against the machines, as they jumped in time to 2007 and tried to ward off cybernetic assailants from the future with the help of their own android, Cameron (Summer Glau). Tapping into the same concepts as the original techno thrillers — the exploration of fate vs. character — The Sarah Connor Chronicles is the most deeply human entry in the franchise, anchored by a powerhouse performance from Headey (Game of Thrones), who takes Linda Hamilton’s template and makes it her own.
Steely, yet vulnerable throughout, Headey goes deep into the more maternal aspects of Sarah and the show has time that the movies do not to explore the psychological toll that a life on the run and knowledge of impending doom can have on a person. The series also featured great visual effects for a television series of its time and managed to consistently deliver anxiety-inducing action sequences. If only we could travel back in time and stop Fox from terminating this fantastic continuation of the Terminator franchise. – Nick Harley
16. The Umbrella Academy
Netflix’s adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s The Umbrella Academy comic series reimagines an X-Men or Doom Patrol style team as a family of superpowered adopted siblings raised by a fascistic scientist. Following the siblings in their post-wunderkind, superhero days, the estranged team must reunite to stop an impending apocalyptic event. Featuring strange powers, a hefty amount of time travel, and some impressive world-building, The Umbrella Academy is a pulpy thrill ride boosted by dry humor and memorable characters.
We also be remiss not to mention the show’s killer soundtrack and ace performances by actors such as Elliot Page, Robert Sheehan, and Emmy Raver-Lampman. Slightly more left of center than your traditional superhero TV series, The Umbrella Academy stands out in what’s becoming a saturated market. – NH
Few TV shows ask as much from the viewer as German-language time travel epic Dark, which spans generations and universes, trusting its audience to put many of the pieces of its supernatural conspiracy together on our own. What begins as the story of one missing child in the fictional town of Winden masterfully unravels over the course of three seasons into something much larger and more complex.
Our current era of highly-serialized genre TV too often has audiences sitting through episodes or even seasons of beautifully-shot but ultimately pointless wheel-spinning, but Dark is the rare high-concept genre show that earns its ambitious premise, and pays off the audience’s attention and persistence again and again. – KB
Eight strangers discover a mental bond that allows them to interact with one other despite being continents apart. Netflix’s Sense8 takes that premise and absolutely runs with it, utilizing the mental bond to not only plumb the depths of its extremely diverse cast’s souls but also to deliver cinematic action that utilized each of its characters unique skills and talents.
The talents of The Wachowski sisters plus Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski gave us a show that says, as Straczynski put it, “that we are unique, but that we are bound by the common coin of our shared humanity, and that curious alloy makes us strong.” Queer viewers especially will find a lot to latch onto here, with muiltiple queer couples and plenty of plotlines devoted to solely to them. While the series ended far too early, the fan demanded finale movie helped give the story a solid conclusion. – SK
Season one of HBO’s Westworld gave sci-fi fans probably the greatest communal TV watching experience since Battlestar Galactica (which would likely have topped this list had it come out in the last 15 years). It too was adapted from a 1970s story about robots, updated and expanded to take in themes of consciousness, free will and faith. Westworld looked incredible, had a killer soundtrack and boasted a cast rarely bettered on TV. The real thrills though, were the twists.
Set in a playground for the mega-rich filled with humanoid robot ‘hosts’ there to indulge guests’ every fantasy, showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan gave Michael Crichton’s theme-park-goes-wrong original a bitingly relevant update. They wove in the ethics of AI, data harvesting and omnipotent corporations to a story that bucked and shifted. The show pulled off conceptual twists of such magnitude that its audience sort of… broke, becoming wary of accepting anything on trust. The show overreached in its divisive third season (a fourth is coming) but that doesn’t detract from the perfection of what came before. LM
Fringe became a natural successor to The X-Files when it first debuted in 2008, and though this was a much, much slicker sci-fi project from the minds of J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, they’d really done the hard work during the casting process. The show itself, which follows the outlandish casework of the Fringe Division (a Joint Federal Task Force supported by the FBI), simply throws the buttoned-down Agent Olivia Dunham into a working relationship with “mad scientist” Dr. Walter Bishop and his irreverent son Peter, and stands back to watch them cope with one ridiculous scenario after another. But the core acting trio of Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, and John Noble had all the chemistry needed to make the show work on another level.
The series still took some time to hit its stride. Again, like The X-Files before it, that breakthrough happened when the show’s mythology deepened in Season 2 and beyond. If you were still watching at that point, Fringe soon became appointment viewing with its wild take on parallel universes and alternate timelines, and still makes for an extremely bingeable cult classic. – Kirsten Howard
The existence of super-powered individuals doesn’t make any given show a science-fiction series by default. While superhero characters like Jessica Jones, Wanda Maximoff, and Barry Allen all whave powers that could be safely described as “supernatural”, they’re missing a certain space ship-y element to truly be considered science fiction. What sets Invincible, Amazon’s brilliant adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic series, apart? Well…it’s the outer space stuff, you see.
We chose a photo of Allen the Alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) above to illustrate the point that Invincible has a hell of a lot more going on than just super heroic action on Earth. The series’ central hero, Mark Grayson a.k.a. Invincible, is half-alien himself thanks to his father, Nolan a.k.a. Omni-Man’s heritage. Within the first few episodes alone, Omni-Man enters into a transdimensional alien dimension to absolutely lay waste to some Flaxans. And you know what? It’s all so, so, so, so cool. Invincible captures the best elements of superhero and sci-fi storytelling and blends them together in one slick, wildly entertaining package. – AB
10. The Expanse
The Expanse is special, that rare TV show that has a good story with something to say and the right people telling it. In the case of the political space opera that started on SyFy and finished its six-season run on Amazon Prime Video, the right people were book authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, as well as showrunner Naren Shankar. They were a passionate and talented ensemble of actors, including women of color Cara Gee, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Frankie Adams, and Dominique Tipper. They were the countless other cast and crew members who helped bring this epic to life.
The good story was a complex exploration of a future in which humanity has colonized the Solar System, taking our systems of inequality and exploitation with us. And the something to say perhaps best boils down to a series-ending voiceover from Tipper’s Belter engineer Naomi Nagata: “The universe never tells us if we did right or wrong. It’s more important to try and help people, and to know that you did. More important that someone else’s life gets better, then for you to feel good about yourself … It doesn’t matter if you ever know. You just have to try.” – KB
9. The Mandalorian
Star Wars has long been a little too beholden to one particular corner of its mythology. The Skywalker Saga looms large, perhaps too large, in pop culture consciousness. Deviate too much from it, or fail to pay sufficient homage to childhood classics, at your peril. But The Mandalorian managed to deliver everything longtime fans want from Star Wars, while also making the galaxy far, far away equally appealing to those who might be experiencing it for the first time. As much a space Western or a riff on Lone Wolf and Cub as it is an actual science fiction show, The Mandalorian is every bit as cinematic as the most famous entries in the franchise, exploring deeper corners of the Star Wars universe than we’re accustomed to seeing in live action (with apologies, of course, to the brilliant Rogue One).
Alternately as episodic as the vintage movie serials that first inspired George Lucas and as intricately woven as any other prestige TV effort, it’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s anchored by a riveting performance by its lead (Pedro Pascal), who spends all but moments of the show’s entire runtime so far hidden completely behind a mask. And then there’s Grogu (Baby Yoda), a character who should feel like the cloying, craven little cash grab he is who instead became an instantly (and deservedly) beloved Star Wars fixture. – Mike Cecchini
Alex Garland’s surprisingly bright and deceptively linear 2020 miniseries Devs was a complex and ambitious sci-fi diversion for a world being thrown into some very real turmoil. Exploring themes of free will and determinism in a way that only Garland can, the series follows Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), whose boyfriend and co-worker Sergei gets a coveted job in the Devs section of a large tech company run by the emotional-but-detached Forest (Nick Offerman).
In his first day on the job, Sergei mysteriously dies, and it seems to be up to Lily to uncover both the mystery behind his shocking “suicide” and the mystery behind the company itself, Amaya, which is attempting to use cutting edge tech to look into the truth of the past and an uncertain future. The show slowly unwraps the key to solving the riddle at the centre of Amaya’s dangerous endeavor, but as it does so it delicately delivers a haunting experience that belies its mind-boggling concept. Devs, like Garland’s various other critically acclaimed projects, will stay with you. – KH
2021’s Loki is a reminder that it’s never enough to just be a superhero show in the modern entertainment landscape. So saturated is television with super-powered heroes and villains than any show wishing to make a mark will have to trot out something new as part of its package. Thankfully for us all, Disney+’s Loki decided that its missing piece was some high concept science fiction.
As run by ex-Rick and Morty writer Michael Waldron, Loki is a shockingly satisfying exploration into science fiction concepts like time-bending, alternate universes, and predetermination. Following his daring escape from a new Battle of New York timeline in Avengers: Endgame, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) finds himself in the clutches of the Time Variance Authority. Instead of stamping him out of the Sacred Timeline, the chrono-bureaucrats decide to use his services to find a chaotic Variant: another Loki. What follows is some of the best sci-fi a TV viewer can enjoy on a superhero series or any other. – AB
6. Rick and Morty
At its core, Rick and Morty is an animated family sitcom dressed in the most outlandish sci-fi concepts and served with a healthy dose of cynicism. The show plays fast and loose with all of the best tenets of the genre — futuristic tech, alternate dimensions, exotic alien worlds, existential philosophical quandaries — and delivers them with a hearty burp. Creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon perfectly toe the line between high and low brow comedy, mixing in improvisational riffs just to keep the chaos swirling and the audience on their toes.
Something of an homage to Back to the Future, the series finds titular mad scientist Rick, an alcoholic with a God complex, dragging his naive high school-aged grandson around the galaxy and multiverse with almost no other purpose than to fight off his own crippling boredom. The show can get seriously dark, but it also knows how to bring levity and deliver the typical heart-warming family sitcom moment. Thrilling in its ambition and absurdity, Rick and Morty is a sci-fi high-wire act that continues to surprise and delight. – NH
5. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow
* Readers’ Choice!
If there’s one show on this list that best earns the adjective “delightful,” it’s Legends of Tomorrow. But it’s also almost impossible to properly describe. Legends has changed so much from its early days, but the core concept: C-list superheroes who have time-travel (mis)adventures remains the same. Yes, it’s part of the wider “Arrowverse” of TV shows, and sure, much of the roster at one time or another have been DC characters…but this isn’t a superhero show. It’s a workplace comedy with time travel, aliens, sorcerers, the occasional trip to Hell, and rules that exist only to be broken.
Legends has built up a dense mythology all its own, but it’s also so self-contained and episodic that you can jump into most of the later seasons and pick it up. Some whisper that the first two seasons are less than enthralling (don’t believe them) but don’t forget it took no less than Star Trek: The Next Generation a full two seasons to achieve greatness, too. Start at the beginning if it suits you, or jump into season three when things start getting weirder, hornier, and funnier. Delight in the (usually) wholesome fun, one of the best sci-fi ensemble casts of this century, and the coolest ship currently gracing TV screens. – MC
4. Russian Doll
There are very few TV series that can be described as “perfect”, but Netflix’s Russian Doll is one of them. Initially imagined by the viewing public as just the streaming service’s fluffy take on Groundhog Day, Russian Doll caught everyone off-guard with its distinctively weird, crass, and occasionally very unsettling time loop plot, soon becoming that incredibly rare and most wonderful combo: a word-of-mouth smash hit AND a critical darling. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, make watching Russian Doll a priority – Season 2 is incoming.
The show follows game developer Nadia (series co-creator Natasha Lyonne in a career best performance), whose 36th birthday turns into a seemingly never-ending therapy cycle when she’s caught in a deteriorating time loop. It’s no coincidence that Nadia is also at a stage in her life when she has settled into a routine she seems a little too comfortable in, so when she finds herself dying repeatedly and coming back to life at the exact same moment during her birthday party, she has to figure out how to escape the loop and make peace with the past before she can even start exploring the future. – KH
3. Orphan Black
Sometimes heavy sci-fi can come across as a little soulless or removed from humanity. Orphan Black, the BBC America thriller developed by Graeme Manson certainly ran the risk of alienating sci-fi-phobic viewers with its high concept plot about a grand cloning conspiracy featuring shadowy corporate machinations and complex themes. Ultimately, however, Orphan Black is one of the most accessible series on this list thanks to one very important factor: Tatiana Maslany.
Now poised for superstardom thanks to the lead role in Marvel’s upcoming She-Hulk, Maslany puts in some incredible work on Orphan Black. The Canadian actress portrays countless cloned versions of the same character with five, Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix, Cosima Niehaus, Helena, and Rachel Duncan, serving as major ones. Maslany’s brilliant subtle distinctions between multiple identical characters goes far beyond mere novelty and helps the show’s explorations of identity feel far more real and personal. – AB
2. Black Mirror
If Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones hadn’t made Black Mirror, we wouldn’t only lack a twisted anthology series of the highest order, we’d also lack a shorthand for describing any scenario which is, well, a bit Black Mirror. You know the kind of thing – uneasily intrusive modern technology, or advances that get hijacked by humanity’s worst impulses. Whenever something that should be a Gene Roddenberry-style utopian breakthrough only ends up reflecting our essential weakness as people, that’s Black Mirror. Robot bees. Robot husbands. Robot stuffed toys containing the trapped consciousness of your comatose mother…
Or at least, that was Black Mirror. In its later life, other modes crept into the storytelling. Its Twilight Zone-ish tales expanded to include romance and hope. There was comedy that wasn’t entirely dark-hearted. There was the odd win. And there was ‘San Junipero’. Brooker’s ability to create the nastiest and most woeful scenario out of any technological premise broadened, and the show became all the stronger for it. LM
1. Stranger Things
Science fiction can be a vehicle to explore complex questions about fate, humanity, and the universe in ways that boring old normal life just can’t accommodate. Some of the best sci-fi stories, however, understand that the genre has a more pure, elemental appeal – that of adventure. Like many of the George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Stephen King genre projects that inspired it, Stranger Things uses science fiction as a jumping off point to tell some truly exciting stories. Through three, soon-to-be-four seasons on Netflix, the Duffer Brother’s sci-fi/horror mashup is far more than just a concentrated dose of ’80s nostalgia. It’s pop entertainment at its finest.
The fictional Hawkins, Indiana is not unlike many other medium-sized Midwestern towns of its era. It’s got a school, a police station, a mall – the whole nine yards. It also just happens to be home to a mysterious psychic research station that unlocks the key to the terrifying Upside Down dimension. Each season of Stranger Things unfolds a compelling sci-fi/horror yarn thanks to some smart storytelling sensibilities and the sheer power of its young cast. Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, Will, Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve have all grown in fascinating, yet logical ways through the show’s run. In that way the show’s arc is not entirely unlike that of a well-played game of Dungeons & Dragons. Everyone grows closer and everyone gets better. That’s the magic of good sci-fi. – AB