Before you go into the world of “The Matrix” and “Inception,” let me just take out the time to say — for me, it’s rarely about the effects. Those movies are amazing in their own regard, but we’re going to shift slightly into the domain of the classics. There’s a lot of sci-fi out there with a sore lack of plot and characterization, more special effects and explosions than realistic situations, or a bunch of white guys rescuing themselves from an evil alien villain set to destroy everything around him. If you’re okay with them, that’s completely fine! They just don’t do it for me.
Science fiction, at its core, aims to explore very real issues, in very creative ways. It dares to explore the potential for where humanity is headed, and it lays out the problematic elements through the vision of that future. Yes, there are spaceships and aliens involved sometimes, but they don’t always have to be explosive to be good.
In fact, not counting the styrofoam backdrops and cheap CGI (I’m looking right at the 60s), the category ranges from the hard sci-fi: Usually very technical in following the rules of physics and focusing on scientific accuracy, to the soft sci-fi: The good old-fashioned speculation between society and people, with mixes of science jargon galore.
And if you’re looking to find them — Here are my top 3 science fiction shows, the best in the genre:
This is an obvious and huge one for me. The biggest and most popular cult science fiction show to date, Star Trek has been around since 1966. It revolves around a team of explorers and scientists “seeking new life and new civilizations.” They literally go around the galaxy looking to find and establish connections between humans and everyone else. Traveling via the starship: USS Enterprise 1701 — The main characters encounter aliens and planets brimming with multiple issues about race, gender, religion, identity, and politics. Of course, these issues were cleverly disguised by bad makeup and cheesy fight scenes, but hey, what network would object under the pretense of it being social commentary? It’s just aliens and planets, as far as they can see!
Gene Roddenberry, the creator behind the franchise (No, not J.J. Abrams), envisioned a world without crime and injustice, a world completely united and at peace — which is why the cast is delightfully diverse, something that caused quite the stir back in the day. Not only were they of multiple races, the characterizations and interactions between them are what make the show so great. They were all the best of friends — and this is widely evident through the episodes. For those looking for “feels,” Star Trek is the prime place to experience them.
It was a leap far ahead of anything the media or even people had seen, and it still is extraordinarily progressive, even by today’s standards. It is usually compared with Star Wars, but has little in common with that franchise, other than the initial “Star” in their names. Star Trek is and always has been more of a philosophical eye into the universe. Star Wars, in contrast, is more plot and action-based. But anyway, before you dismiss the trekkies and their weird hand-sign thing (ahem, Vulcan salute), try to watch an episode (or season) and watch it for the characters and the vision, not the alien costumes.
There are six separate Star Trek shows, with five separate casts.
- The Original Series (Star Trek: TOS), from 1966-1969
- The Animated Series (Star Trek: TAS), from 1973-1974. This had most of the same cast from TOS, but the show was, you guessed it, animated.
- The Next Generation (Star Trek: TNG), running from 1987-1994
- Deep Space Nine (Star Trek: DS9), from 1993-1999
- Voyager (Star Trek: VOY), from 1995-2001
- Enterprise (Star Trek: ENT), from 2001-2005. This was a prequel series, taking place before TOS within the universe.
There are 12 Star Trek films.
- The first 6 feature the TOS cast — after the events of the original series.
- The 7-9th movies feature the TNG cast. Mostly.
- The 10th and 11th are a reboot of the franchise. Yes, they’re J.J. Abrams’ alternate universe with TOS characters, but a different and younger cast, as the events take place before the show.
If you’ve only watched the reboot and are looking for something with equally amazing production value — The original series isn’t it. If, however, you were captivated with the characters and their friendships, fascinated with Starfleet itself, and want to see what else the franchise can offer: You’re in for a huge adventure. And if you really can’t stand the effects, don’t worry, they improve in the later series. I promise.
This is a highly underrated science fiction show that came out in the mid-90s. It explores a space station called Babylon 5, upon which ambassadors represent various planets in the galaxy. It’s the last of the stations remaining, and displays as a beacon of peace amongst hundreds of species.
The issues range from political to militaristic, and unlike Star Trek, there is dirt and conspiracy enough to go around, on Earth, in space, and on other planets as well. This show serves as a more realistic approach to humanity, with concepts like a black market aboard the vessel, presidential assassinations, a mysterious telepathic organization eager for power, alien species as old as the universe itself, wars, raids, planetary colonies, religion, sacrifice and politics.
But that’s barely the beginning! You may be thinking: Ugh, that sounds boring. But I’m not done yet! The female characters are the strongest written ones you’ll probably ever see, the romantic tension will keep you at the edge of your seat, the pain and deaths and surprises never seem to stop, and the plot is quite possibly the most brilliant for decades to come.
But what is most enticing about Babylon 5 is its unbelievable continuity — The writer, J. Michael Straczynski, manages to tie every single tiny element that you could ever question back into the plot somehow. Everything is always connected. The first viewing is simply not enough. Each time you watch, you find yet another tie-in to the storyline. Where every twist seems shocking, you’re shown that it was, in fact, brilliantly foreshadowed much farther back.
There are five seasons, and the first four are truly visionary. The fifth was never intended to exist — the show was to end after season 4. But the network said otherwise, and thus, the story was forcibly continued. Regardless, once you truly invest your time into it, it only goes up from there.
There are also five films, but they’re only loosely related to the original plot, and follow at set times within the seasons, not strictly before or after. They are, however, nowhere near the quality of the show by comparison, nor are they particularly necessary to watch. (Basically, just don’t. You’ll thank me.)
You probably have heard of this one. Doctor Who has been around even before Star Trek — with the first pilot airing in 1963. It’s British in origin, and they really don’t let you forget that fact. Doctor Who revolves around a humanoid alien called The Doctor. His real name isn’t revealed, and he’s from a race called the Time Lords, nearly immortal beings that travel about the universe in their ships, called Time and Relative Dimensions in Space — or TARDIS. The particular character of The Doctor is seen to be the last one of his species, even though all Time Lords have the ability to survive for so long due to regeneration.
Why the others are gone is a concept you’ll have to see and discover for yourself. But the reasoning for the regenerative capability is to conveniently have another actor take on the role when the previous one is ready to leave (hence why the show has been going on for so long).
Tragic storyline aside, Doctor Who is actually a family-friendly show! What I love is the fact that no human is ever made to feel inferior — it really emphasizes on the fact that even the most average person can be extraordinary. Since Time Lords are far more intelligent than humans, “companions” frequently travel with The Doctor serving as the bridge between the audience and his character. These companions are a lot of the times female humans, but it’s never exclusive. Each companion brings their own personality and wit into the equation — and they usually leave eventually as well, much like the actors playing The Doctor. Yet, the experiences never cease and the show remains to be one of the most popular franchises in science fiction today.
The adventures in Doctor Who can be independent episodes that are never referenced again, to continuous plot that requires diligent attention over entire seasons.
The series was thought to have ended after the seventh Doctor in 1989, but it was brought back for a movie in 1996, and then revived as a television series in 2005. That’s why a lot of fans enjoy bragging about being familiar with “Classic Who” vs. “New Who.” It doesn’t make much of a difference, both are part of the same franchise, and both bring varying perspectives to add to the universe.
Doctor Who also has literally dozens of Television Specials; the most popular being the Christmas Specials. These episodes air separately from the seasons and can include multiple Doctors, one-time companions, and singular events relating to Christmas or anything else. These are highly anticipated by the fans, as they’re aired between the season hiatuses.
There are also two spin-off series: Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures. Both shows focus on the main protagonists being past Doctor Who companions. Torchwood is on an indefinite hiatus, while the Sarah Jane Adventures ended due to the actress, Elisabeth Sladen, passing away mid-2011.