Over the decades, fantastic exploits on television have only gotten better–and better-looking. Done well, sci-fi removes us from the mundane and into the realm of the fantastic. A writer’s medium, it’s acted as a metaphorical cloak for topical social issues; serialized, it allows us to spend years–sometimes decades–following characters, often with the same emotional investment we put into real life.
Hours of fiery debate, interns–and time travel via DVD have led us to assemble an indisputably disputable list of the top 25 sci-fi series of all time. Since that’s a chunk of real estate that could easily get unwieldy, we decided to keep the focus on primetime, live-action series and miniseries. And while we’re sure something great is lurking on the dial in Japan or other countries, we gotta be able to understand what we’re watching
The adventures of a pre-tights Clark Kent (Tom Welling) is the most geek-friendly comic adaptation ever, crammed to the margins with inside jokes (Clark wears glasses!), guest appearances (Is that Doomsday?) and an encyclopedic knowledge of DC lore. Filmed with an appropriate sense of scope, it may also be the handsomest sci-fi series on TV.
23. Red Dwarf
(BBC2, 1988-99, 2009)
“Space madness” is the appropriate diagnosis for this lunatic series starring Craig Charles as Dave Lister, a last-in-command ship bum who wakes up millions of years in the future and millions of miles from home. His companions: a man who evolved from cats, a neurotic hologram and an unpredictable robot. All four are, like the show itself, brilliantly stupid.
22. The Incredible Hulk
Simple fact: Lou Ferrigno scared the bejesus out of us–guy looked like a bunch of doorknobs jammed in a sack. But the real muscle of the show was Bill Bixby as haunted alter ego David Banner, who made our hearts bleed every week in his quest for normalcy. His tortured soul could bench-press even the flimsiest plot.
21. Night Gallery
Encores are never kind to visionaries, and Rod Serling’s post-“Twilight Zone” effort was no exception: Fans didn’t know what to make of the genre-bending blend of sci-fi and horror. But when “Gallery” dropped anchor on great source material from masters such as Richard Matheson, there wasn’t anything more disturbing on TV. “Zone” was light on its feet; “Gallery” turned the lights off.
The Winchester brothers: middle America prom kings or demon hunters? Li’l from both sides. What fans had feared would be little more than an “X-Files” for tweens morphed into one of the dial’s best chillers, a gothic soap opera with family bonding serving as the glue that keeps Sam (Jared Padaleki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) from cracking under the paranormal pressure.
19. Highlander: The Series
If there can be only one, make it Adrian Paul: The actor’s portrayal of gloomy, haunted Duncan MacLeod blows away Chris Lambert’s big-screen relative. Though the series was formulaic–you just know heads will roll in act four–the isolation of immortality has never been so romantically realized.
18. Babylon 5
With unparalleled creator ownership–he wrote most of the series’ 110 episodes–J. Michael Straczynski’s “5” dismissed the dopey, simplistic yarns of its era and presented nothing less than a televised novel, a sprawling story about a space station teetering on the precipice of war and peace, and a giant metaphor for Earth’s own territorial teeth-gnashing.
17. The Outer Limits
Unfairly cast by some as a cheap knockoff of “Twilight Zone,” “Limits” was essentially pulp mag Amazing Stories come to life: tales of benevolent and malevolent aliens, often with a twinge of despair, and the dangers of brilliance run rampant. Unbound by any network mandates for cheery speculative fiction, producers had few limits; fans had few complaints.
16. Quantum Leap
Viewers love to be in on a secret, and the idea that time-traveling Sam Beckett (the terrific Scott Bakula) inhabited troubled men (and women) gave good giggle. But where “Leap” really made strides was using the classic tenet of sci-fi to mask the medicinal taste of social tolerance: Beckett would jump into the literal skin of the bigoted, the persecuted, the downtrodden–and so would we.
15. The Dead Zone
John Hughes alum Anthony Michael Hall starring in a moody fantasy about a tortured seer? Yeah, couldn’t wait to miss it. But how could we know Hall’s Johnny Smith–culled from Stephen King’s novel–was pitch-perfectly brooding, haunted by his visions of an apocalyptic future courtesy of slimy Greg Stilson (Sean Patrick Flanery)? Or that we’d ache for him as he observed his beloved Sarah (Nicole de Boer) happily re-married after he slipped into a coma? Or that the stories would be genuinely gripping suspense yarns, full of dread calm, tension and even outright horror? What are we, psychic?
Spinoffs of popular shows usually have the product quality control of peanut butter. One happy exception was Joss Whedon’s “Angel,” which granted the tortured ex-beau of Buffy his own detective agency with which to investigate paranormal doings in L.A. If that sounds like Hellblazer, it’s a happy homage: The series has more in common with that influential material than even “Constantine” itself. As glowering antihero Angel, David Boreanaz is the oxymoronic vampire, a bloodsucker with the soul of a human. As sidekick Cordelia, Charisma Carpenter made the rare evolution from vapid bimbette to valued heroine. Full of imagination, “Angel” staked its rep on its characters. Smart.
13. The Prisoner
The strongest ideas are often the simplest, and Patrick McGoohan’s acid-trip series announced its arrival with an easy premise: What if James Bond goes and retires? With everything he’s seen and heard, is Her Majesty really about to let him roam around in the Caribbean? Not even. McGoohan’s secret agent, having turned in his resignation, wakes up in a seaside resort, free to be anything he wants–except free. Is his own government holding him, or is the enemy? Alternately confounding yet visually stimulating, its brief 17-episode run is as rewind-worthy as any series ever.
12. The 4400
According to Biblical promises, the Rapture will see a giant portion of humanity up and disappear come Judgment Day, leaving us sinners to rot on terra firma. But what if they came back? That’s the central issue of “4400,” which refers to the number of people who vanished as far back as the 1940s. When they spontaneously return, the government has a lot of questions. And when some begin displaying powers–telekinesis, premonitions–those questions become increasingly urgent. Like the best sci-fi, it works as a parable for our own fears of abandonment, isolation and ill-prepared authority–along with our innate ability to destroy ourselves better than any external force ever could.
Remember when Calvin (of Hobbes, not Coolidge) imagined dinosaurs zipping along in F-14 fighter jets? That’s the kind of genre-sexing concoction that may have inspired “Firefly,” a much-missed series from “Buffy” creator Joss Whedon that fearlessly took on the oddball label of space Western. As commander of the titular cargo ship, Nathan Fillion’s Malcolm Reynolds is an ersatz Han Solo: good-natured, but sternly protective of his command and crew–made up, in part, of survivors (and losers) of a galactic war against The Alliance–which ekes out a living however it can. Any show that can plausibly segue from a galactic dogfight to smugglers riding off into the sunset on horseback did something worth watching.
While sci-fi had long been home to thinly veiled allegorical framework, none had quite the scope and panache of “V,” the miniseries that turned World War II into a spaceship parable. Like the Nazis, the “Visitors” were only disguised as humans; under their flesh, they were lizard-like creatures eager to slurp up Earth’s water supply! And like their fascist inspiration, they used intimidation, propaganda and character assassination to achieve their goals. Though the aliens possess the superior technology, the series leads–macho Marc Singer and delicious Faye Grant–have one advantage: an indomitable will to survive. “V” stands as a singularly ambitious miniseries that ends on a surprisingly downtrodden note.
(BBC One, 2007)
Every bit the mutated monster of its title, BBC’s sensational six-part miniseries flies from genre to genre without skipping a beat. As Tom Jackman, the beleaguered scientist who periodically transforms into the shameless, vicious Id boner he comes to call Mr. Hyde, James Nesbitt doesn’t need to rely on expensive prosthetics or false choppers: Body language, a subtle hairline change and marvelous acting transform him into a cauldron of testosterone that’s best regarded at a distance, as though he can bite. (And oh, can he ever.) Hunted by a shadow organization eager to harness his power, Jackman struggles to make sure his family isn’t harmed by Hyde’s mischief. Not exactly a sequel to the Robert Louis Stevenson story–in this tale, it’s considered fiction–”Jekyll” is the best gothic-horror-romance-adventure-comedy you’ll ever see. Catch it before Hollywood goes and mucks it all up.
8. The X-Files
Wouldn’t we all liked to have had Mulder and Scully on the case for every strange thing that ever went bump in our nights. In a way, we did: Thanks to creator Chris Carter’s “Kolchak” stepchild, the aliens, monsters and dark, creepy inexplicables that populated video shelves (and our imaginations) were finally audited by authority. Who could fear the Boogeyman with a couple of federal agents on its ass? As co-chairs of the FBI’s laughed-at–and eventually, decommissioned–paranormal office, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson did more than just let the mutated cats out of the bag: They told a gentle, subtle love story, helping ground the unlikely proceedings in emotions we could all recognize. Thanks to their obsessions, we were never left alone in the dark.
7. Star Trek
Musing about the legacy of “Trek” is a little like trying to find a new way to say the Beatles transformed music: Both are a monolithic media presence with few angles left to explore. All we can do is reflect on the show with 2009’s eyeballs, surveying the landscape of film, television and books that have either been directly spun off from the mythology or owe a substantial debt to it. William Shatner’s Captain Kirk is still one of the great boob tube icons, a hyena of emotion with a bedroom résumé to rival Bond’s; Leonard Nimoy’s Spock is still his logical counterpoint; the stories are still subconscious lessons in civic tolerance. Above all, “Trek” preached–without really preaching–that peace and prosperity are within our reach, and that being a galactic superpower comes with a series of responsibilities. If you cannot find food for thought for today’s climate in Gene Roddenberry’s fables, you’re just not hungry enough.
Fans should reconcile one important margin note: It was never about the island. Granted, a giant slice of dirt in the middle of the ocean that can disappear, summon smoke monsters and seemingly grant immortality makes for fascinating TV. But we’re invested because the show invests most of its time in building, brick by emotional brick, the stories of the men and women who contend with its mysteries and challenges, most of them haunted by demons long before they ever took step on Oceanic Flight 815. “Lost” is that rarest of TV success stories: The anthology, with a revolving door of personalities and narratives, all of it affixed to the fulcrum of their sedimentary prison. No one is safe, and no one quite knows what the rules are.
5. Battlestar Galactica
“Galactica” confounded viewers expecting a rehash of the ’70s bootleg “Star Wars” knockoff, and instead got a dark reflection of the country’s post-terrorist era. As the anchor for a fleet of estranged humans desperately seeking solace on an undiscovered Earth, “Galactica” explored hot-button issues (ill-prepared authority, flexible morality, unspeakable evil) without reeking of preachy condescension. It all works because their reality isn’t far removed from our own: No rubber monsters are afoot, you can fly only with the aid of a ship and crewmembers rarely bark out techno-nonsense for the writers’ own amusement.
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
“Feminism” was a dirty word for nervous, adolescent geeks prior to Buffy’s ’97 arrival. But Joss Whedon’s biting wit and girl-power riff proved irresistible to genre fans. As a teenaged vampire mauler, Sarah Michelle Gellar was a bouncy confection of sex appeal and rabid independence; backed by her “Scooby Gang” of regulars, she stood as our last, unlikely hope for salvation against an army of pulp monsters. “Buffy” could’ve been a series of cheap gags, a vacuous one-joke premise that would sink like the vile 1992 movie. Instead, it’s a coat-hanger for a rich mythology, indelible characters and possibly Hollywood’s first hint that brash, comic-inspired projects didn’t have to be dopey: Buffy, like the series itself, was much smarter than she looked.
3. Star Trek: The Next Generation
“Next Generation” had logged two strikes before it even aired: It was a sequel to a successful cult series with a beloved original cast, and it was committed to syndication, where bad ideas (and actors) go to die. That it went on to become one of the most successful sci-fi series in history is owed to producers’ reverence for the source material and a cast that, incredibly, managed to outpoint Kirk’s brood in the minds of many. As Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Patrick Stewart was the General Patton of the spaceways, a man so sophisticated that he made even the most ridiculous circumstances digestible; a further stroke of genius netted Worf, a Klingon that stood alongside the Federation without abandoning his savage roots.
2. The Twilight Zone
“The Twilight Zone” represents the first, best example of television’s creative minds striking back at an oppressive standards and practices regime. Rod Serling, TV’s first true playwright, was already an Emmy-winning success, but his compulsion to explore society’s ills was never accepted. Out-smarting his suppressors, he disguised morality tales in the candy coating of science fiction. The result was a show about something–paranoia, isolation, prejudice–that had the flavor of a flimsy paperback thriller. When “Zone” was running on all cylinders, it granted itself the most fantastic conceit of all: immortality.
1. Doctor Who
(BBC, 1963-89, 2005-Present)
It happened around 1979: A villain bent on distorting time and improving his own standing at the expense of humanity has trapped the Doctor (Tom Baker). Erudite bordering on the effeminate, this evil agent regards the smiling, jovial Doctor with a mixture of bemusement and contempt.
“You,” he says to the Doctor, “are dangerously clever.”
And that’s it. That’s the sum total of the premise behind “Doctor Who,” the British sci-fi series that has proven itself to be the most durable, most charming, most altogether fun excursion into the unknown on the dial to date. The Doctor’s superpower is simply that he’s an incredibly smart man, a “Time Lord” with an ambiguous past who uses an antiquated police call box (the TARDIS, or Time And Relative Dimension In Space) to surf through the ages like an astrophysicist Laird Hamilton. Armed only with his wits (and a sonic screwdriver), often accompanied by a female companion (the audience’s gape-mouthed stand-in), the Doctor plunks himself into impossible circumstances and then finds a way out. Aliens want to vaporize Earth and then sell off the chunks to the highest galactic bidder? He’ll deal with it. A villain wants to steal the Mona Lisa so he can sell the six duplicates to unsuspecting art collectors? The Doctor will buzz himself into da Vinci’s pad and write “This is a fake” in black magic marker on each of the drafts. Wanna see the literal end of the world, five billion years from now? He’s got your first-class ticket.
To call “Who” a science-fiction fable is a bit of a mislabeling: Because of his kinetic, restless whims, he can drop himself (and the viewer) into any genre. Horror. Fantasy. Romance. Current Doctor David Tennant has even expressed interest in adding a musical to the series’ 725 installments.
More than 800 years old, the Doctor–we never learn his true name, hence his working title–has the ability to re-generate himself up to twelve times when critically wounded. The ’60s played host to Doctors who were older, sophisticated and charged gamely through cardboard sets; the ’70s employed Baker, who adorned himself with a free-flowing scarf that rivals the fabric of any Todd McFarlane cape ever drawn; the fabulously deranged resurrection of the series in 2005–after a 16-year hiatus–brought us Doctors Nine and Ten, with Number Eleven (Matt Smith) on call for 2010.
With his regenative lives running out, it’s possible “Who” could finally disappear into the black hole of time. If it’s truly the end, it will stand as sci-fi TV’s most deliriously imaginative creation. But if anyone can figure out the perscription for TV immortality, it’s the Doctor.