Animation is the ideal art form to portray the most bizarre situations, so it would only make sense that animation and science fiction go hand-in-hand with each other. Sci-fi and cartoons have had a long, enduring relationship that has always proven popular with the masses and, more times than not, thought-provoking. In a dizzying medium where anything is possible lies a world that contains giant robots, alien bounty hunters, and fantastical monsters that capture audience’s imagination.
On this list we’re counting down entries that have made a lasting impression in the realm of animated sci-fi, either through adventure epics, goofball comedies, or sometimes both. We’re excluding superhero shows that touch on sci-fi since there are so many it could make up a list in itself.
So with that in mind, here are 16 of the Best Science Fiction Animated Series.
16 Gravity Falls
The Disney Channel isn’t exactly known for their comedic sci-fi series but the exception to the rule is the animated gem Gravity Falls. When twin siblings Dipper and Mabel Pines get sent to their great-uncle Stan’s in Gravity Falls for the summer, they think they’re summer vacation will be a dud. But things change when the pair starts to find all sorts of strange things happening in the town.
Gravity Falls has been called the best show on the Disney Channel thanks to its potent mixture of humor and adventure. The voice acting is top-notch, as is the animation, making this sci-fi cartoon one of the reasons to start watching the Disney Channel again.
15 Dexter’s Laboratory
Animator Genndy Tartakovsky cemented his place in the halls of legends with this '90s cartoon, which originally broadcasted on Cartoon Network. Dexter is a boy-genius protégé who has built a super-lab within the recesses of his room. The only problem is his klutzy sister Dee Dee, who often finds her way in causing chaos, mass destruction, and unwanted headaches for Dexter to fix. Despite the frequent interruptions Dexter still finds time to make killer robots, give super powers to monkeys, and battle with his arch-nemesis Mandark.
Tartakovsky’s series is a great slapstick cartoon set against a sci-fi backdrop. Its animation style, especially in the early years, is a playground to the imagination and really something to admire. There’s loom and gloom when things go boom, but there is also a fresh cartoon for all ages in Dexter’s Lab.
Trigun is a lesson in superb science fiction storytelling. Taking place on a deserted planet in the distant future, Vash the Stampede is a blood-thirsty, ruthless gunfighter with a gigantic bounty on his head. At least that’s how most people see him. The truth is, Vash is much more heroic and, more or less, a real dork. He is a seasoned gunfighter, but tends to not like violence, and instead prefers spreading messages of peace and hope. Of course, most bounty hunters don’t believe that so they come after him anyway.
Trigun starts as a comedy and progresses slowly toward something more refined and dynamic. With each episode we deviate a little more into Vash’s mysterious past and what made the man into the myth. The series is a pure rush of action, comedy and sci-fi making it a top-notch animated series.
13 Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
Giant cartoon robots with machine guns fighting each other? Yes please. What could be a better premise to a sci-fi anime than Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. The series has a futuristic Earth being ruled by an evil totalitarian organization. In order to fight back, the numerous rebel colonies across space come together with high-tech Gundam Suits; giant combat robots piloted by humans.
Aside from some pacing problems, Gundam Wing is a very solid sci-fi outing. For the time this came out in the 90s, the animation was remarkably cutting edge and still holds up remarkably well today. The action scenes are stunning and the various characters are well-fleshed out. Out of all the Gundam series and spinoffs, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing still remains the strongest in the franchise.
12 Invader Zim
You couldn’t tell by watching it now, but back in its heyday, Nickelodeon was famous for pushing the envelope for kid’s television. One of the series that pushed the envelope farther than anything else was the cult sci-fi show Invader Zim. Part of an alien takeover of the entire galaxy, the insecure Zim travels to earth in order to blend in with human society, in preparation for a full-scale invasion. Along with his dimwitted robot named Gir, Zim sets up his questionable base of operations to learn more about humanity.
Invader Zim is a unique blend of 1950s alien B-movie mismatched with off-the-wall comedy and spectacular animation. It’s random and sporadic while at the same time a clever satire on human conditioning and consumerism. It’s a twisted piece of dark animation and one of the most funny and original sci-fi shows that never really got its due.
11 Star Wars Rebels
Set between the events of Episode III and IV, Star Wars Rebels is about a band of ragtag rebel fighters that stand up against the newly formed Galactic Empire. Following the events of the prequels, the evil Empire is now hunting down the last of the Jedi Order to strengthen their control over the galaxy. The brave rebels must come together in order to build up an alliance strong enough to rival the Emperor’s forces.
Like its predecessors, Rebels is a perfect balance of light-hearted humor and thrilling adventure. Being geared at children, the series could have easily taken the material and dumbed it down, but Rebels is an intelligent, as well as dark, reflection of the series. Although it’s only on its second season, the show has promising potential with, hopefully, more good things to come.
Featuring landmark computer-generated animation, Reboot pushed the sci-fi animated expectations of mainstream audiences to the brink. The series takes place within a computer where evil viruses and programs threaten to destroy the cybernetic metropolis. The program Guardian Bob is sent from the Net to help battle these threats and soon meets up with friends Dot Matrix and her brother Enzo along the way. Together, they help each other protect their home, Mainframe, from the viruses Megabyte and Hexadecimal.
Reboot was released in the early '90s, which made its creative core concept about computer programs highly original. Also unique was the animation style which was completely computer generated, a trick that most shows couldn’t even dream of doing at the time. Guardian Bob and Dot are well written and properly fleshed out while the show slowly progressed into darker themes in its later seasons. Reboot is a sci-fi classic pioneer that still sets certain standards for shows today.
9 Rick and Morty
What started out as a simple Back to the Future parody quickly developed into one of the smartest and most creative sci-fi shows on the air. Rick, a functioning alcoholic scientist, has just reluctantly moved into his estranged daughter’s house where her family lives. Rick quickly forms a strong connection with his dweeby grandson, Morty, and together they travel across time and space taking part in miscellaneous adventures.
Rick and Morty is the best show you’re not watching right now, so if you haven’t seen it yet make sure to check it out. The series certainly has its dark moments but at its core is a well thought-out sci-fi comedy. Rick, Morty and all the supporting players are believable characters that find themselves in the craziest of situations like fighting intergalactic bounty hunters, or watching interdimensional TV shows ("Ball Fondlers" anyone?). Season 3 just got a target premiere date so make sure to catch up on this brilliant series before it comes out.
8 Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
When Mamoru Oshii’s feature length film Ghost in the Shell was released in 1995, it was highly praised for its stunning visuals and adult themes. It proved so popular that it spawned this spinoff series, which made its debut in 2002. Taking place in a distant future, members of a cybernetic law force, called Public Security Sector 9 are tasked with taking down dangerous hackers and terrorists. The series is violent and dark but has a lot to say about human evolution and behavior.
Although the series features most of the characters from the 1995 movie, the show is much different in tone, establishing a unique identity in its own right. Although there is an overarching storyline, most of the episodes of Stand Alone Complex are just that; standalones. Ghost in the Shell is reminiscent of the action-mystery noir genre while incorporating heavy sci-fi themes that makes this series an anime must-watch.
7 Aeon Flux
Starting as a short 2 minute cartoon airing on MTV, Aeon Flux quickly turned into a popular icon for its eccentric characters and bizarre animation. The titular character is a mysterious secret agent whose background and motives are left unexplained. She’s sent on dangerous missions that usually end up bloody and destructive. Strangely enough, most of the episodes end with Flux’s death, and the next entry usually ignores continuity and resurrects her.
This MTV series borrows several elemental stylings from anime, but remains distinctly American thanks to the writing and directing. Aeon Flux walks a thin line between outlandish and complimentary with its excessive use of violence and sexual appeal, but nevertheless is often credited for inspiring countless shows that came after it.
6 Samurai Jack
Another brilliant Tartakovsky production that blends sci-fi with the stylings of Japanese cinema, reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa. This breakthrough cartoon has “Jack,” a samurai warrior from the distant past, catapulted thousands of years into the future. He suddenly finds himself in a bizarre world filled with rockets and robots. Jack must confront the evil Aku who sent him into the future to get back to his own time and restore his destiny.
Samurai Jack is a fascinating pairing of rich animation with filmmaking techniques, like quick cuts and long shots of its cinematic environment. Though there are long stretches of time in which no characters talk, the tension inducing pacing and clever animation is too well constructed to not keep the viewer enthralled. The series was abruptly canceled after two short seasons, but thanks to its diehard fan base is finally getting a revival later this year.
5 Star Wars: The Clone Wars
The Force proved to be a powerful ally as a TV commodity with this long running show that lasted 129 episodes. The Clone Wars takes place between Episodes II and III and details the ensuing war between the Clone Army of the Republic and the Droid Army of the Separatists. Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are given their own Clone units to work with as they do battle with various droids and Sith Lords. Also in the mix are returning favorites from the franchise like Yoda and Mace Windu, as well as new character Ashoka who is taken on as Anakin’s apprentice.
The popular sci-fi series gave eager Star Wars fans a real glimpse into the chaotic times of the Clone Wars. It chronicles the relationship between Anakin and Obi-wan while at the same time including a fantastic cast of supporting players. The storylines are vastly unique, creating multiple character arcs for Clone Troopers, Ashoka and even Master Yoda. It’s a show that’s so good you wish the prequels had been more like this. If you love Star Wars and haven’t binge watched this series yet, make it the first thing on your list.
4 Neon Genesis Evangelion
This short-lived series still stands as one of the most controversial and influential animes ever created. Shinji Ikari is a troubled kid who is more or less chosen, along with a handful of others, to fight giant monsters. Shinji suddenly finds himself piloting EVA-01, a giant organic robot that is Earth’s only hope against the attacking monsters.
The reason Neon Genesis Evangelion is so highly praised is because of its risky move to focus on the psychological rather than mindless action. Make no mistake, there is a ton of action in this anime, but it’s a backdrop more to tell the story between the relationships of the characters. Shinji is not a happy-go-lucky person, but rather a troubled youth with a strenuous relationship to his father. A natural loner, he learns to accept help from others and open up as the series progresses. Along with Shinji, every character in the show is properly developed, and as such is elevated so much higher than the typical one note characters we’ve come to see in most TV shows. Along with its striking animation, creator Hideaki Anno’s Neo Genesis Evangelion is a true work of art that transcends the term cartoon.
3 The Jetsons
Meet George Jetson, the grumpy but lovable patriarch of a futuristic family. He has two children, his boy Elroy and daughter Judy. And of course there’s Jane, his wife, and together they make up The Jetsons, one of the most recognizable sci-fi cartoons in history.
Legendary animation studio Hanna-Barbera released this cartoon in 1963 which was more like a sitcom (complete with recorded laugh tracks) that the average Saturday morning cartoon. The characters and settings in The Jetsons are certainly atypical. The world is filled with floating treadmills, robot house servants and flying cars. However, the program proved relatable to 1960s audiences because it reflected issues a typical family would, just in a wacky space-age setting. The sci-fi parallel of The Flintstones, the Jetsons eventually met the Stone Age family thanks to a 1987 crossover movie. And while the sci-fi series never reached the heights of its prehistoric predecessor, it still became one of the most influential sci-fi shows in television history.
2 Cowboy Bebop
Influential, fantastic, gritty and entertaining are just some of the words that don’t even begin to describe this classic anime from 1998. Cowboy Bebop, like most great sci-fi shows, takes place in the distant future. Our hero, Spike Spiegal, is a nonchalant bounty hunter that sports some deadly martial arts skills and an easygoing demeanor. Together with his crew, which are composed of fellow bounty hunters Jet and Faye, he travels the galaxy on their spaceship, the Bebop, looking for dangerous criminals to bag for a profit. As the bounty hunting unit journeys from planet to planet, they grow as a team, sharing secrets from their mysterious pasts.
Cowboy Bebop is a show that has the ability to make the viewer laugh and cry all within the confines of a single episode. It manages to accomplish this difficult task through its in-depth character development. Bebop gives every character room to grow and have their personalities shine through during the course of the series as their personalities clash with one another. Couple the gut-wrenching character arcs with some fantastically animated fight scenes, and you’ve got the perfect combination for a winning sci-fi anime.
Claiming the top spot on our list is everyone’s favorite Planet Express crew. Matt Groening’s comedic science fiction doppelganger of The Simpsons, Futurama, encapsulates everything about the genre with this half hour animated program. Silly characters, clever writing and pop-culture satire come together to form a perfect mix of strange, silly and the uproariously funny.
After delivery boy Fry is inadvertently frozen in the year 1999, he wakes up a thousand years later in the land of the future. He finds that his job skills aren’t severely lacking in the year 2999, and lands himself another delivery position aboard the Planet Express. His crewmates include an attractive cyclops Captain, a giant lobster surgeon, a Rastafarian accountant, a klutzy Martian and a bigoted alcoholic robot. You know, the usual characters.
Futurama backs up its intriguing premise with heartfelt storylines and relatable characters. Leela maybe a mutant cyclops from the future, but her childhood abandonment is something that can touch base with a number of viewers. Just when you think Futurama can’t stop firing endless jokes at a rapid succession, they manage to fit in a compelling plot development that makes the audience stop laughing for a second, and really think.
Can you think of any other animated sci-fi shows that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!