It’s no exaggeration that I’ve always watched a lot of Science Fiction television. A. Lot. Of. SciFi. It’s a genre that’s perfectly made for nerds: an emphasis on technology, a vision of the future, and exploration of space. With lower-budgets than most productions, action is usually minimized and a greater emphasis is placed on storytelling and good writing.
What follows is my highly-opinionated list of the shows that make the genre, with tips on viewing, explanations of why I choose them, and backgrounds on each. Ready? Let’s get started.
The #1 best show of all time: Babylon 5
With a shoe-string budget and unknown actors, writer and producer J. Michael Straczynski made the best Science Fiction show in existence. Strazczynski, who I’ll hereby refer to as JMS, hailed from the comic book writing world and personally wrote the vast majority of the episodes during the 5 season run. His long-ranging vision and talent for threading story arcs ultimately rewards the astute viewer with an unmatched experience.
Don’t let the special effects or slow-starting first season lead you amiss, Babylon 5 is worth every minute of your attention. B5 is a great mixture of what SciFi is like in a manner we can relate to it, and hits some serious questions about our own space future and how we may react to very similar situations in our own lives in set in the backdrop of a universe where humanity isn’t alone, and isn’t the most powerful species in existence.
B5 really took advantage of the internet in a way that few shows have ever done, and they did so in the mid-90s. JMS actively chatted and emailed with his fans and provided a vast array of backstory for viewers to learn. These have been collected at The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5.
If you haven’t seen Babylon 5. Do it. Do it right now. Watch all five seasons, but beware: after the end credits scroll for the last time, you’ll find yourself looking for a new even more awesome scifi show to start watching. And you won’t find one. This will hurt.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is the penultimate Star Trek. And let’s be totally real here, it’s because of Patrick Stewart. After a rocky couple of seasons, TNG comes into its own in Season 3, and truly fulfills Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopic federation. The supporting cast are all reasonably famous within trekker culture, and despite Wil Wheaton single-handedly destroying many of the otherwise enjoyable episodes he was in, it’s still a great show that ages well.
Now, let’s talk about the TNG movies. They’re terrible. Do not watch them ever. They have weird alternate-reality versions of the characters who are on hair-trigger alert to murder everyone and everything. Bad bad bad. Do not watch.
Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is the Star Trek they couldn’t make while Gene was still alive. It’s dark. It’s somber. It’s a future which doesn’t hold all of the answers and takes us to a universe where the Federation is simply a medium-sized fish in a very large pond. DS9 takes a lot of cues from Babylon 5 with regards to long-ranging plot arcs, and through careful character development the series makes a rag-tag bunch of characters into ones that you care deeply about.
Have I mentioned DS9 is dark? Because it is. There will be episodes of senseless death and destruction that ends in a main character just standing among the rubble and breaking down in tears. Wars will be fought. Lives will be lost. But DS9 continues to exist.
Star Trek: The Original Series started it all. Their characters are iconic, their stories oddly compelling, and the special effects non-existent. Because they all they had were stories, TOS has amazingly nuanced stories that touch on real issues, especially when you place the show into the context of when it was made.
Despite this, TOS is mostly silly. Watch it. Be amused. Because Kirk, Spock, and Bones want you to.
Firefly is a bit of a nerd’s dream. Despite a limited run of under one complete season, Firefly continues to capture a disproportionate share of attention even a decade later. I take a controversial opinion: Firefly was cancelled exactly when it needed to be. The concept is essentially “Cowboys in Space, with country western music.” Most of the plots are heists, involve odd references to the American west, or just don’t make a whole lot of sense. Firefly would have been better served with a short miniseries that involved a well-constructed plot rather than the smattering of episodes that were ultimately released.
They’re still fun to watch.
Star Trek: Enterprise was great for its final season, and only showed moments of brilliance the first two. If it hadn’t had been cancelled, Enterprise would have finally fledged into its own, but the alas, it was slipped the axe.
An Australian Sci-Fi, Farscape is basically “Star Trek with muppets, and a very confused main character.” It’s a fun show that does a lot of cool things, but ultimately turns out not to be an attention-grabber. Farscape is an odd mixture of hard scifi and stuffed animals. I’m not sure if I can recommend it for everyone.
Created by Gene Roddenberry, Andromeda is an Canadian Sci-Fi show that focuses on a captain of a very advanced starship (the Andromeda Ascendent) that was stuck on the edge of a black hole for approximately 800 years before suddenly re-appearing in a very strange and chaotic universe.
Andromeda is a very philosophical show, and the concept generally works well. Except for the characters. Ugh, the characters. This would have been an awesome show with just Captain Dylan Hunt on his own. With everyone else, it’s a mess.
I don’t like Stargate. It’s mostly a war-filled show that is light on the science fiction and heavy on the fighting, wars, and a strange mythology that never really makes sense. After slogging through the first few seasons, I finally gave up. If you like war in space, and mostly just war, give Stargate a try. Otherwise, forget it.
Stargate has also really weird moments of humor. Not like the rare but cringe-worthy humor like in star trek, but frequent bad humor that just makes you want to hide in shame.
Battlestar Galactica: the re-imagined version.
When I first watched the initial pilot of BSG, I immediately watched the rest of the season as quickly as I could. How is this possible?!? A show set in space that’s actually good? The plot was awesome! A race of nomads are seeking semi-mythological clues that their ancestors left behind to find a new world!
And then the rest of the show happened. And it quickly became complete and utter shit. An embarrassment to the genre. A disgrace to nerds. BSG turned into a weird plot that involved god(?), re-incarnation, and just really weird elements that made. Zero. Sense. Ever. It’s a show that never, ever, EVER had any sort of outlining story arc. They just made everything up as they went along. Whenever they think you may get bored, they kill off some main characters. Why? Just because the writers hate you and think you’re an idiot.
So what is BSG, and why do so many people like it? Because they’ve never seen anything better. Like all of the shows above on this list. Or they actually dislike Sci-fi, but they do like drama. In which case, yes, BSG is a great drama. It’s a lousy Sci-Fi.
If you ever feel like watching BSG. Just hit yourself in a hammer repeatedly and then scroll up and watch literally any other show. You’ll thank me.
Worst of the worst, #11: Voyager
After all of that hardness towards BSG, how can anything be worse? Voyager is worse.
Voyager has an amazing plot premise: “A medium-sized federation ship is suddenly warped to hundreds of years away from Earth. They are alone. And they need to face a brave new world to get home.”
And then they just throw that away in favor of zero plot arcs and instead creating seven seasons of cookie-cutter shows. They rarely try to characterize anyone, and the plots are unimaginative wrecks that ignore the premise that could have made this show great.
Voyager is crap. It’s Star Trek, but it’s still crap.