December is here, and while some are gearing up for Christmas, nerds all over the world are getting ready for a far more important moment this month: the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This continuation of the iconic franchise is huge news for space opera fans, as we are promised the same sweeping inter-planetary battles, action, adventure and romance that made the original trilogy some of the most popular movies in cinematic history.
We also learned recently that Star Trek will be returning to our screens yet again, with an entirely new TV series coming in January 2017. And let’s not forget that Star Trek Beyond is still scheduled for a release next summer. It’s a great time to be a sci-fi fan! However, while there’s little doubt that Star Wars and Star Trek are two of the most popular sci-fi franchises, they definitely aren’t the only great ones out there.
So here are the 15 Best Space Operas That Aren’t Star Wars or Star Trek, for those of you who can’t get enough.
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Widely considered to be one of the sci-fi series greats, Battlestar Galacticais also a darker, more combat-based show than many on this list. This opera is classic look at warring civilizations, with the added twist of the Cylons’ creation by humanity – referencing many traditional science fiction themes as well as more religious ones. As Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and the rest of the Battlestar crew cope with the pressures of constant threat and the awareness of their responsibility for keeping the last remaining humans safe, this action series delves into some serious subject matter, and does it beautifully.
Red Dwarf (1988 -)
What do you get when you mix classic British humor with the sweeping scope of the space opera? Red Dwarf. This hilarious series follows the adventures of (probably) the last human being in the universe, stranded on a mining ship along with a hologram, a robot, a computer, and a new breed of cat-human-creature.
Their adventures through space (looking for Earth, looking for other humans, looking for something else entirely) become a backdrop for odd-couple comedy and a whole range of hilarious situations. As with any good space opera, the characters are the main focus, as our hero (of sorts) grapples with the expanse of the universe and his place in it.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Luc Besson’s take on the space opera is brilliantly colored, fast-paced and accompanied by an epic soundtrack. This is an all-hands-on-deck action flick, starring the king of ‘80s and ‘90s action, Bruce Willis. The characters, the technology, everything in this fictional version of the 23rd century is over the top and fantastically intense.
Crazy colors aside – as though you could ever push Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) aside! – the heart of this film is in the love story, and it winds up with much more than an epic battle to save the world; with an uplifting and sweet scene guaranteed to leave you grinning.
Babylon 5 (1994 – 1998)
Designed specifically as a five-year series, Babylon 5 received praise for both its complexity and its stunning CGI (for the time and the medium, of course). Set on a space station that is central to creating and maintaining peace in the galaxy in the year 2258, the series is beautifully crafted and explores a range of themes around war and diversity.
The pre-established length of the series means that nothing is wasted, and there are no awkward filler episodes. However, the massive popularity of the show spawned multiple TV and TV-Movie spins offs, as well as multiple book series that (unlike the Star Wars novels) are almost entirely canonical, which means that there is plenty more material for Babylon fans to enjoy.
Starship Troopers (1997)
This shoot-’em-up space opera has everything that sci-fi action fans could want; a team of plucky soldiers, a threat to human civilization, and a love triangle to top it all off. This futuristic society and the bugs that plague it make for fantastic viewing, with plenty of all-out battle scenes using futuristic weaponry, ships, and space suits. The relationships between the characters may be formulaic, but that doesn’t meant that they aren’t still a pleasure to watch.
Lost in Space (1965-1986, 1998)
Both the original series and the ‘90s movie reboot are a twist on the classic space-pioneer story. Instead of intentionally setting out to explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, the family Robinson (aptly, if unsubtly, named after Robinson Crusoe) were knocked off course and are now hopelessly lost, with only each other for company. One of the most interesting aspects of the show was that the main “villain” (Dr. Smith) is trapped alongside the “heroes,” leading to a bizarre situation where the family is continually being placed in danger (usually unintentionally) by the actions of one of their own crew.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Drawing from the ultimate classic, Star Trek, this hilarious (but touching) movie wonders what might happen if a race of aliens watched the adventures of an intrepid TV crew… and mistook it for the real thing. Enter Galaxy Quest, a space-based series with a cast of increasingly frustrated and washed-up actors, enduring endless guest appearances and each other as they cling to fame.
The humor comes straight from the mistaken-identity classics as a race of peaceful aliens asks the cast for help; and of course, they do lots of flying, shooting, and battling aliens (and learn plenty of heartfelt lessons, too). It’s sweet, funny, and by Grabthar’s hammer, is it quotable!
This epic movie of war and intrigue set against the backdrop of space centers around a fictional drug trade and the battle to control it. Based on the series of novels by Frank Herbert, the film (and its TV mini-series remakes Dune and Children of Dune) has all the elements of classic sci fi, set against an incredible backdrop of gorgeous extraterrestrial desert landscapes. On top of the aliens, worms, mélange and precognition, there are plenty of family politics and deviously convoluted plots to spice things up (see what I did there?).
Andromeda (2000 – 2005)
Based on notes from legendary Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Andromeda charts the adventures of a sentient ship and her crew as they struggle to come to terms with waking up after being effectively paused in a black hole for hundreds of years. The world that they knew is gone, and the existing universe is chaotic and dark. Obviously, Captain Hunt (Kevin Sorbo) and his crew set out to bring the values of the long-dead Commonwealth to the new world in which they find themselves.
This multi-award-winning series sadly declined after Robert Hewitt Wolfe (the man who originally developed the idea from Roddenberry’s notes) left the show, but it’s still a great series to watch, and many fans believe that had Wolfe stayed, it would have continued for much longer.
One of the few space-operas not set in the distant future, Farscape instead makes use of a helpful wormhole to fling our hero John Crichton (Ben Browder) into a very different corner of the galaxy, one filled with alien races in the midst of a vast conflict. The show is also unusual in that humans are not the dominant species in the series – Crichton himself is essentially the only human around.
Of course, most of the aliens are still humanoid (for budgetary reasons!) but with the help of Henson Productions, there are some truly incredible creatures in the Farscape universe. Although the series unexpectedly ended on a cliffhanger, a miniseries was later created to wrap up the show, so new fans should follow up the series with the three-hour Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars.
This modern classic plays on a fascination with ancient Egypt, creating a world where the military has possession of a gate that allows them to pass into other worlds, and a team that heads out into these strange places to explore how other worlds have affected our own. After the initial movie received mixed reviews, initial plans to create a movie trilogy were put on hold, and the premise shifted to the small screen.
A slew of spinoffs followed, starting with the hugely popular Stargate: SG1 (1997-2007) and followed by Stargate: Atlantis (2004 – 2009) and Stargate Universe (2009- 2011). Multiple direct-to-DVD movies have also been made for the franchise, and a reboot was announced in 2014.
Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005- )
It’s no wonder that the Doctor has been wowing viewers for over fifty years (on and off); the series is chock full of aliens, laser-weapon battles, strange and wonderful technology, and of course, time travel! All of time and space is explored, but it’s not just sci-fi, the heart of the series comes from the quirky uncle-figure of the doctor himself and how he relates to his ever-changing cast of companions.
Friendships and romance tug on the heartstrings as the Doctor wanders through time and space, battling with loneliness as much as world-destroying evils. Ignore some of the time-paradoxes (because that’s really just a framework for the zany fun) and let it all wash over you.
A cult classic, Barbarella chronicles the adventures of a ridiculously over-sexed female astronaut as she travels across a distant planet of sin to defeat the evil Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea – and yes, that’s where the band Duran Duran got their name).
Definitely a B-movie, this movie is all about over-the-top sex appeal, featuring pleasure machine/keyboards, lesbian queens and women smoking the “Essence Of Man.” Expect plenty of breathy conversations and ill-made clothing that practically falls off our title character. It’s silly and definitely not meant to be taken seriously, but there is a good reason that this has such a place in the halls of sci-fi history; it’s just incredibly fun to watch.
Firefly/Serenity (2002-2003, 2005)
Universally acknowledged to be a show cancelled far, far too soon (something FOX will simply never live down) this wild west sci-fi genre-mash is everything that a space opera should be. Set within a collection of planets rife with danger, intrigue, and gruff heroes, it is absolutely incredible. One of the most appealing elements, however, is Joss Whedon’s inimitable brand of humor, as his complex characters spice up their adventuring with quips that viewers will be quoting for years. The Firefly crew was brought to the big screen two years after cancellation with Serenity, which is essentially a big budget, two hour episode of the show.
While the chances of seeing Captain Mal (Nathan Fillion) and the rest of the Serenity crew on screen again are slim (cue Browncoat sobbing), the series has found a home in comic book form, where the Serenity series lives on.
John Carter (2012)
Another portal-based story, John Carter’s (Taylor Kitsch) story begins in 1868, as our title character is attempting to live a normal life – a hope dashed when he finds a medallion that transports him to Barsoom/Mars, where he finds himself right back in the kind of conflict he was avoiding at home. The choice to start his adventure so far in the past is an interesting one, and while we can say with some confidence that Mars is not, in fact, inhabited at this point, setting the film here still gives us a unique connection to the story.
Endowed with super-strength courtesy of the lower gravity on Mars (much like the Golden Age Superman here on Earth), Carter must try and find his way home, but is caught up in the struggles of the new friends that he makes.
Can you think of any other space operas that deserve to be on this list? Let us know in the comments!