At its best, science fiction uses fantastical and supernatural phenomena to highlight questions or issues that we face in the real world, whether those are moral, social, or political. In any case, it is this approach to storytelling that gives these series gravitas and helps them resonate with audiences beyond a pure spectacle level. Although a great many series manage to tap into some fundamental human truth and build characters and a compelling story off of a thematic foundation, few have managed to capture our imagination in the way that Westworld appears poised to.
The new HBO series is already being positioned by the network as the heir apparent to Game of Thrones, which only has two more seasons left before fans say goodbye to Westeros. However, it — and other recent sci-fi hits like Netflix’s Stranger Things — still have some work to do to compete with some of the headier sci-fi shows in recent memory. For this list, we’re limiting it to one series per franchise and focusing mostly on the past couple decades of television. Also, no horror or fantasy shows will be popping up. So fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the aforementioned Game of Thrones are out of luck.
1. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
The third live-action Star Trek series often gets lost in the shuffle by mainstream viewers, since it is stuck competing with iconic captains Kirk and Picard. Yet, Deep Space Nine brings a wholly original perspective to the franchise, and Avery Brooks’s Captain Sisko still stands as one of the most memorable leading men in the Star Trek universe. Moreover, the show’s confidence in tackling dark, complex themes involving war and religion as well as its complex characters have helped it remain appreciated by fans.
2. The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016)
Few shows tackled both the “creature of the week” and the conspiracy theorist angles as well as this show. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are such powerhouses as Mulder and Scully, respectively, that the series began to decline when they left the cast. Despite the presence of a film in the interim, The X-Files only truly returned when its two stars slipped back into their iconic roles for this year’s revival. It is hopefully the first of many batches of episodes that will see the two investigators looking into aliens and other extra-terrestrial and paranormal happenings.
3. Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)
The 1994 film after which this show is named may not have set the box office afire, but it developed enough of a cult following to justify a TV adaptation. This series — set about a year after its source material — creates a universe that is far more expansive than what was up on the big-screen. It took a similar approach as Buffy the Vampire Slayer in building a larger mythos off of a single film. Stargate SG-1 helped the franchise blow up into multiple shows and other multimedia projects, and remains among the longest-running sci-fi shows ever.
4. Firefly (2002)
Though most of the entries on this list were on the air for multiple seasons, this Joss Whedon fan favorite barely got through its first season. Regardless, Browncoats everywhere have embraced its distinct mythology and the show’s seamless blend of sci-fi and Western motifs. Stars like Nathan Fillion and Morena Baccarin have gone on to lead fruitful careers, and the 2005 film, Serenity helped to give some sense of closure to the show.
5. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Ronald D. Moore helped to revamp the 1978 Glen A. Larson TV series into something more modern, and it worked like gangbusters. Loaded with social and political commentary, the new Battlestar Galactica is a cornucopia of gifted performances, impressive visual effects sequences, and detailed writing that made it an instant classic among sci-fi fans and critics circles. The success of this show is perhaps the single biggest roadblock in the planned big-screen reboot, since no one wants to envision the story any other way.
6. Orphan Black (2013-present)
Star Tatiana Maslany recently won an Emmy for her standout work on this sci-fi series, in which she plays a group of clones. The premise raises interesting questions about the morality of cloning itself, identity, and many other larger issues through the prism of the sci-fi story it’s trying to tell. This past summer, Orphan Black was renewed for a fifth and final season. We can only assume that its place in the canon of great sci-fi shows will be cemented in the months ahead.
Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable
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