Steampunk is one of those weird things that is popular among those crazy nerd kids out there today. Inspired by the works of writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, steampunk is a subgenre of sci-fi and fantasy seemingly obsessed with the Victorian technology and aesthetics.
So similar to our own time yet so utterly different, 19th century may have been the last period in history when both the world around us and the technology used to explore it seemed to hold the promise of infinite excitement and mystery. We bring you a tiny bit of that sense of adventure with our list of The 13 Best Steampunk TV Shows Of All Time.
13. The Wild Wild West
Way back before the very term steampunk existed, CBS broadcasted a TV show about secret agents battling mad science in the Old West. In The Wild Wild West, gunslinger James T. West (Robert Conrad) and inventor Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) fight various megalomaniac villains, chief among them Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless (Michael Dunn) – a diminutive genius of enormous criminal ambitions. The series also contains all kinds of steampunk craziness: from the steam-powered cyborgs to the earthquake machines.
The Wild Wild West premiered on CBS in 1965 and successfully aired for four seasons. When the network finally cancelled the show, it wasn’t due to low ratings but because of the growing government concern about the violence in the media, following the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Jr.. The show was briefly revived in two made-for-TV movies in late 1970s. In 1999 Barry Sonnenfeld directed a movie remake of the show starring Will Smith as West and Kevin Kline as Gordon. However, Wild Wild West proved itself a miserable failure in cinemas.
12. The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne
What if all the stories by the French sci-fi writer Jules Verne were based on the real events covered-up by the government? The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne takes place sometime in the mid-19th century when young Verne (Chris Demetral) meets British secret agent Phileas Fogg (Michael Praed), his cousin Rebecca (Francesca Hunt) and their manservant Passepartout (Michel Courtemanche). Verne joins this trio as they fight the machinations of the League of Darkness – a secret organization of super scientists using technology way ahead of its time, led by a steampunk cyborg named Count Gregory (Rick Overton).
A relatively early attempt to cash in on the steampunk craze, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne first aired on Canadian network CBC in June of 2000 and was later picked by The Sci-Fi Channel. Throughout its single season run, the show featured numerous guest stars such as John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Margot Kidder (Superman), Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space 9), Mako (Conan the Barbarian) and Tracy Scoggins (Babylon 5).
11. The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells
What if all the stories by the British sci-fi author H. G. Wells were based on real events covered-up by the government? This premise somehow sounds awfully familiar… In the last days of the World War II a group of government officials contacts old H. G. Wells (Tom Ward) regarding certain mysterious artifacts. As Wells explains to them the origin of the artifacts, the show jumps back in time to Victorian London, where young Wells (Ward again) investigates strange cases accompanied by his romantic interest, Jane Robbins (Katy Carmichael).
The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells is a four-hour miniseries that first aired on Hallmark Channel in August of 2001. The miniseries mixes reality and fiction, casting Wells himself as a protagonist of his own short sci-fi stories such as The New Accelerator and The Stolen Bacillus. The series was directed by the British filmmaker Nick Willing who has over the years directed several similar re-imaginings of the classic fantastic tales, such as Tin Man (2007), Alice (2009) and Neverland (2011).
Legend is a story about a mad – or, at least, wildly eccentric – scientist and a pulp novelist who join forces to fight evil in the Wild West. Ernest Pratt (Richard Dean Anderson – Stargate SG-1) is a writer of cheap Western novels whose private life is a mess. This changes when he meets Janos Bartok (John de Lancie – Star Trek: The Next Generation), a brilliant European scientist who is a huge fan of Pratt’s most famous creation – heroic gunslinger Nicodemus Legend. Together they hatch a strange plan: Pratt will pretend to be Legend while Bartok will supply him with all the gizmos and gadgets he needs to defeat his foes.
The first of the several TV shows on this list inspired by the The Wild Wild West, Legend was created by Michael Piller, an American screenplay writer best known for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Legend first aired on UPN in 1995. Unfortunately, the show failed to draw in the audience and got cancelled after its first season.
9. Murdoch Mysteries
Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) of the Toronto Constabulary is a man ahead of his time: in 1895, he’s pioneering investigative techniques such as finger-printing and trace evidence. Not only that, but Murdoch also effectively invents new technologies such as sonar or telefax for the purpose of investigations. With such brilliant policemen, no wonder that the crime rates in Canada are so low! Despite his obvious genius, Murdoch doesn’t solve cases alone: he’s assisted by the old-school Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig), eager young police Constable Crabtree (Jonny Harris) and pathologist Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy).
Also known under the title The Artful Detective, Canadian TV show Murdoch Mysteries is loosely based on a series of crime novels written by Maureen Jennings that were, in turn, equally loosely inspired by the real-life 19th century investigator John Wilson Murray who in 1875 became first government detective in the state of Ontario. Murdoch Mysteries first aired in 2008 and it is currently in its ninth season.
For a person born in the mid-19th century, Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) is a remarkably vivacious modern-day scientist who investigates Abnormals – fantastical creatures hiding among us. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne) is a forensic psychiatrist who accidentally stumbles upon this secret world of gods and monsters. He joins Magnus on her quest to help Abnormals and learns about the weird steampunk inventions created by the Magnus’ equally long-lived Victorian friends and enemies – from the melancholic Jack the Ripper (Christopher Heyerdahl) to the mad scientist Nikola Tesla (Jonathon Young) who specializes in the electrical reanimation of the dead.
Set in the present day, Sanctuary is a show about hidden monsters, mad science and the secret history of the world. The series began in 2007 as a web series produced by Amanda Tapping, who is best known for her role as Dr. Samantha Carter in TV shows Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. After 8 webisodes, Sanctuary was picked by SyFy, where it premiered in 2008 and aired for four seasons until 2011.
7. Warehouse 13
Warehouse 13 revolves around a secret government facility storing some of the strangest, most powerful artifacts in history. After Secret Service Agents Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly) and Pete Lattimer (Eddie McClintock) stumble upon one of these artifacts, they get promptly reassigned to the titular warehouse. Under the tutelage of the Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek), an agent in charge of the warehouse, Myka and Pete get assigned to grab, bag and tag as many of these dangerous items of myth, magic and mad science as they can.
Although not strictly a steampunk TV show, Warehouse 13 nevertheless featured plenty of steampunk gadgets, like the suppressed inventions of Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and the television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth. Part Raiders of the Lost Ark and part The X-Files, Warehouse 13 first aired on SyFy in 2009 where it proved itself fairly popular among the viewers. It aired for five seasons until 2014.
NBC’s TV show Dracula re-imagined the classical horror novel by Bram Stoker as a revenge tale. Alexander Grayson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers – The Tudors) is a charismatic American businessman bringing the latest scientific discoveries to Victorian London. But he’s actually Count Dracula, a vampire bent on a revenge against the secretive Order of the Dragon that, centuries ago, accused his wife Ilona (Jessica De Gouw – Arrow) of witchcraft and burned her at the stake. However, things don’t go as planned when Dracula meets Mina Murray (De Gouw again) who might be a reincarnation of Ilona.
Horror drama TV series Dracula was created by Cole Haddon and developed by the American screenwriter and director Daniel Knauf, who previously worked on such horror TV shows such as Supernatural, Carnivale and Wolf Lake. Filmed as a joined American-British co-production, Dracula first aired on NBC and Sky Living in October of 2013. However, due to the low ratings, the show was cancelled after its first season.
5. Jekyll and Hyde
Dr. Robert Jekyll (Tom Bateman) is a young English doctor working in Ceylon in the 1930s. As he begins to display superhuman abilities, accompanied by the strange changes in his temper, he embarks upon a voyage to Great Britain to learn the truth about his grandfather, respected physician Dr. Henry Jekyll as well as his sinister alter ego Edward Hyde. However, Jekyll is far from the only person with strange abilities. Sinister monsters as well as the secret government agency battling them want to enlist him to their side.
Although it misses the 19th century by few decades, TV series Jekyll and Hyde nevertheless owns much of its creative DNA to Victorian horror – from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to the urban myths about the demonic creature called Spring-Heeled Jack by the 19th century newspapers. Created by Charlie Higson, the series first aired on ITV in October of 2015. However, Jekyll and Hyde got cancelled after its first season.
4. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
It’s not every day that one gets to see Bruce Campbell, star of Evil Dead, as a 19th century gunslinger. In the TV show The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Campbell plays titular character – a Harvard-educated bounty hunter tasked to re-capture psychopathic villain John Bly (Billy Drago). Throughout the show’s first and only season, Brisco investigates weird events in the Wild West, in particular the mysterious orb that’s been sent to the 19th century from the far future.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was created by Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse, who previously worked on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and tried to capture the spirit of a pulpy, adventure story in a TV format. Their series was one of only two new network TV shows scheduled to air on FOX in September of 1993. Although some executives expected Bruce Campbell to become a new TV star, it was that other show that truly captured the audience’s attention. Its title? The X-Files.
3. Fullmetal Alchemist/ Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Set in the world in which industrial revolution was sparked by alchemy as much as by technological inventions, Fullmetal Alchemist follows brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric (voiced by Romi Pak and Rie Kugimiya in the original and Vic Mignogna and Aaron Dismuke in the English dub). These two alchemical prodigies are looking for a way to restore their bodies with the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. Instead, they discover a conspiracy of the powerful artificial beings known as homunculi who turned their country into a military dictatorship and started a long-running war with a distant desert land.
Based on a manga by Hiromu Arakawa, Fullmetal Alchemist was first made as a 51 episode anime series. It aired in 2003 while the original manga was still being published so it created its own ending to the epic story of the Elric brothers. By 2009, Arakawa has more or less concluded his Fullmetal Alchemist manga which was then faithfully adapted into a new anime series, called Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
2. The Legend of Korra
In a world in which people have a power to bend the four elements – air, earth, fire and water – to their will, Korra (voiced by Janet Varney) is an Avatar: the only person capable of manipulating all four elements at once. While her predecessors battled fantastic monsters and villainous warlords, Korra is facing a very different challenge. It is a time of an industrial revolution and the modern society of factories and airships clashes with the mystical traditions and the ancients spirits of the land. It is Korra’s duty to try and restore the balance to the world.
Throughout its original run, animated TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender proved itself a surprising hit not only with children but with their parents as well. The Legend of Korra continues that story two generations later as the world inspired by the medieval Asian cultures becomes increasingly more modern. Co-created and produced by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, The Legend of Korra first aired on the Nickelodeon TV network from 2012 to 2014.
1. Penny Dreadful
Set in the fog-shrouded underworld of the Victorian London, Penny Dreadful truly has everything: mystery, magic, monsters, mad science, mediums and mysticism. It’s a glorious mess that cherry-picks the best elements from the classic Victorian horror stories. In first season alone we get to see Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his monster (Rory Kinnear) all involved in a tale about demon-possessed Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and the veteran explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), who were both scarred by their encounter with the minions of Dracula.
Penny Dreadful was written and created by the American screenwriter John Logan, who was nominated three times for an Academy Award for work on movies Gladiator (2002), The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011). Logan also serves as the show’s executive producer beside Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes. Penny Dreadful first aired on Showtime in May of 2014 and it’s currently in its third season.
What are your favorite examples of the steampunk genre? Share them with us in your comments!