With Rogue One entering its third week in theatres (go see it, like, now!), and with 2017’s sci-fi outings like Alien: Covenent and Ghost in the Shell still months away, genre fans might find it hard to get their fix as the new year dawns. Fortunately for all of us, the small screen offers some fine science fiction snackage, thanks in large part to the advent of streaming services.
Now, TV arguably has a leg up on movies when it comes to sci-fi. For our purposes though, we’ve narrowed the genre definition a bit. Shows like Legends of Tomorrow or the outings from the MCU certainly qualify as sci-fi in a loose sense, though at this point, superhero shows have become their own sub-genre. Ditto series like Z Nation and The Walking Dead—they veer more toward horror than thoughtful science fiction, and for that matter, zombie TV could also qualify as its own genre these days (not to mention, we’ve got a nasty case of zombie fatigue). The shows we have listed here stick to a stricter, more traditional sci-fi definition, and offer some of the most addictive TV on the box today. Get ready to binge watch, and check out The 15 Sci-Fi Shows You NEED To Watch Right Now!
When it debuted in 2015, TV critics dismissed Sense8 as too weird and too silly to find an audience. Of course, said critics watched only the first two episodes (standard in the TV review biz), which robbed them of a vital point. Series creators, the Wachowskis and J. Michael Strazynski, intended viewers to binge watch the show!
Sense8, indeed, has more in common with film than with other TV shows. The story centers on a group of Sensates, eight people around the world mentally connected to one another. The source and reasons for the connection’s sudden manifestation remain a mystery, as do the motives of a sadistic scientist and fellow Sensate, Whispers (played by Broadway legend Terrence Mann), who seems bent on killing or torturing every other Sensate on the planet. Sense8 marks a great return to form for the Wachowskis, and features a number of hallmarks that made their Matrix movies into a phenomenon almost 20 years ago. Perhaps it helps to have TV veteran Strazynski (creator of Babylon 5) on board to help give the series form. The creators have outlined Sense8 as a televised novel, set to run five seasons. A winning cast–possibly the most diverse in history–gives life to a group of intriguing characters, making Sense8 one of the most original and captivating sci-fi shows ever.
14. The OA
The OA comes from the collaborative minds of sci-fi indie darlings Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling. Marling has already developed a reputation as an original, thoughtful writer, having penned the overlooked genre gems Sound of My Voice, Another Earth and The East. She also happens to be a fine and capable actress—good thing considering she casts herself in every one of her own projects.
The OA concerns a missing blind woman found after seven years. Her sight has returned, and she’s begun calling herself “OA” without offering any explanation for either. Convinced she can imbue special powers in those around her, she befriends a violent, steroidal jock, a young transgendered boy, a middle-aged math teacher, a stoner-slacker, and an overachieving nerd. Much of the show revolves around the meetings of these six characters, as OA recounts the story of her missing years, and the horrors she endured.
In fairness, The OA has problems. Episode length varies wildly, running anywhere from a scant 26 minutes to almost two hours per installment. The story also focuses too much on Marling’s OA rather than a number of other more interesting characters. By that same token, The OA almost feels like a series version of Marling & Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, with Marling playing the same character! Even if first season ends in a preposterous New Age-hipster climax, The OA still captivates every step of the way, making the show a must-watch, if for no other reason but to discuss it.
13. Stranger Things
You knew it was coming! Netflix’s biggest sensation of 2016, Stranger Things combines familiar elements of sci-fi with loads of 80’s nostalgia, including endless nods to the two “Steves” of the era, Spielberg and King. The show unfolds like a novel, beginning with the mysterious disappearance of a neighborhood boy, and the appearance of a young girl with telepathic powers.
Stars Matthew Modine and Winona Ryder win the 2016 Comeback Awards for their work as a cold, if conflicted, scientist and a maddened single mom, though Stranger Things belongs to its cast of kiddie stars. Much as King would popularize the “kids in peril” genre with It, or as Spielberg did in E.T., Stranger Things places its young cast in one dangerous situation after another, letting their characters unfold as intelligent, corageous and fascinating characters. A potboiler plot makes the show both thrilling and maddeningly addictive, and the endless homages to 80s pop culture give it a unique “spot the reference” rewatchability. Stranger Things might just be the series of 2016, and given its popularity, it’s a good thing creators the Duffer Brothers have already started work on season 2.
12. The Man in High Castle
Nobody does sci-fi like Phillip K. Dick. For years, his most popular work lay untouched, until fledgling studio Amazon decided to tap it for their big-budget attempt to break into original content.
Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle is often cited as the defining work of alternate history sci-fi, and as one of the greatest (and most unfilmable) novels of all time. To adapt it, Amazon retained the general premise and a number of characters, and left X-Files alum Frank Spotnitz in charge of creating an ongoing narrative. Set in a universe where the Axis powers won World War II, the plot of the TV series follows a group of characters scattered across a North America conquered by Nazi Germany and Japan. As war brews between the two superpowers, film footage begins to emerge depicting an alternate universe dominated by the United States. The footage gives hope to the viewers, who form a resistance movement to discover the source of the films.
Well acted and directed, Man in the High Castle also boasts spectacular production design. Even if the characters are less than original, and even if the plot at times veers into the soapy rather than the suspenseful, the visions of an Axis-dominated world make the show never less than engrossing. The show might not be what Dick had in mind when he wrote his novel, but it might also be the closest anyone could ever come to doing it justice.
11. Doctor Who
The long-time sci-fi favorite about time continues to run, and run some more! Few shows have ever enjoyed the longevity or devoted fanbase of Doctor Who, the BBC’s perennial favorite about a time-traveling doctor who must save the world from everything from aliens to angels to crazed computers. The show underwent something of a rennasance in the mid-00’s, tapping a larger audience than ever before. It also helps that the series also benefits from a larger budget and the advent of computer effects, giving a show long known for its camp factor a hint of versimilitude.
At present, actor Peter Capaldi enhabits the title role, playing the Doctor as a somewhat aloof, witty and fiercely loyal to his friends. His sense of adventure continues to drive the series forward, as the Doctor must confront alien invasions, superheroes and even bloodthirsty Vikings. While nowhere near as ambitious or original as a number of titles listed here, Doctor Who nevertheless manages to find a unique voice, even after more than 50 years of adventures. Watching the series feels like a visit with an old friend, still familiar, yet always full of new and fun tales of daring doo and adventure.
10. The Expanse
The long shadow of Battlestar Galactica, the preeminent sci-fi TV show of our time, still looms large over cable network SyFy. The network had tried to repeat the galactic success of Galactica a spinoff, Caprica, which barely lasted one season. Another proposed prequel, Blood & Chrome, produced a positive buzz and an enthusiastic response, only to have SyFy kill the show before it went to series and release the pilot as a direct to digital film. Apparently, budget or the prospect of a big-screen reboot gave the network cold feet on further exploring the Battlestar universe.
SyFy turned instead to a series of cult novels called The Expanse, and while the network didn’t exactly hit Galactica-level paydirt, it did come up with a solid and engaging new series. The Expanse takes place in a time when humanity has spread out and colonized the solar system, creating a new level of politcal turmoil in the process. Earth and colonies on Mars sit at the brink of war, and as the United Nations tries to intervene, an even darker threat to humanity emerges.
Like Galactica, The Expanse aims for a degree of scientific accuracy with its space operatics. The show also takes a cue from Galactica in casting a classy, Oscar-Nominated actor in the lead; in this case, Shohreh Aghdashloo. Genre vets Thomas Jane, Jay Rodriguez and Jared Harris also turn up in the action, and while not quite as relevent as its SyFy predecesor, The Expanse offers enough fun to watch.
9. 12 Monkeys
Though it borrows its name and general setup from the Terry Gilliam film of the same title, the television series 12 Monkeys has more in common with other TV time romps like Quantum Leap or even Doctor Who. Aaron Sanford, who first became a geek star thanks to his role as Pyro in the X-Men movies, becomes a credible leading man as James Cole, a timecop charged with preventing a worldwide plague. 12 Monkeys plays with some of the intriguing paradoxes time travel proposes, and the idea of immutible destiny.
12 Monkeys may not have the haunting tone or quirky touches of Gilliam’s film, and the first season suffers from a bad case of uncertainty. The show finds its stride in the second season, which builds on the plot threats of the first, and does so with more confident plotting and tone. Though the show hasn’t captured the acclaim of a program like Stranger Things, or the high-profile promotion of SyFy’s own The Expanse, 12 Monkeys nonetheless offers plenty of fun for lovers of dark and dystopian sci-fi. Bold in premise, if not in execution, the show has plenty of potential to keep fans engaged.
8. Dark Matter
The big-budget sci-fi thriller Passengers, despite the presence of stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, opened in late 2016 to less than stellar reviews and middling box office. That might have something to do with the mishandled premise of the film–two passengers aboard a space ship awaken from hybernation to face one peril after the next. A television show with the same general set-up has already used the premise to far better effect, and to far greater acclaim. That show is Dark Matter.
Unlike Passengers which focuses on the sexual tension (and outright sexism) of its characters, Dark Matter uses the “waking up in space” setup to a creepier outcome. The characters of Dark Matter wake up without their memories, and teh show uses that element to examine the way personal experiences shape consciousness and personality. The brash, ragtag crew also recalls some of the best elements of Firefly. While not the most original show of the genre, Dark Matter still manages to find its own intriguing identity, and should keep genre fans interested.
7. Orphan Black
Send in the clones! Con artist Sarah Manning commands the screen in Orphan Black, a series that plays like the love child of The X-Files and Alias. In Orphan Black, Manning discovers she’s one of a series of clones spread out all over the world as part of a secret project. Sarah must band together with several of her sister clones, while fighting off others, all with the goal of discovering her origins.
Much as The X-Files hinted at larger conspiracies with ongoing mysteries, and much as Alias focused on a woman of gray ethics discovering secrets to her past, Orphan Black relies on well placed clues and twists to drive the plot. The series also relies most heavily on actress Tatiana Maslanay, the gifted woman who plays Manning, and her clones. Much as Battlestar Galactica tasked several cast members with playing multiple, distinctive but identical characters, Orphan Black showcases Maslanay’s versatility, letting her play the series’ most valliant heroes and flamboyant villians. Sci-fi genre vets Matt Frewer and Michelle Forbes also snagged recurring roles, making Orphan Black very much a sci-fi lover’s sci-fi show. Intriguing, challenging, and peppered with comic book-style fun, Orphan Black slays network competition with its imagination and boldness.
6. Black Mirror
Much as The Twilight Zone pioneered science fiction television by aggregating stories from great writers and directors, the Channel 4/Netflix creeper Black Mirror gives the genre some edge. Like The Twilight Zone as well, Black Mirror taps top-notch talent on both sides of the camera for one of the strangest—and most memorable—shows today. Black Mirror uses technology as fodder for its weird tales, which feature the likes of Bryce Dallas Howard, Domhnall Gleeson and John Hamm. The show’s boldest move, however, comes in its content. In that way, the show forgoes the tongue-in-cheek twists of Rod Serling’s classic anthology, and springboards right into the darkest twists of The Outer Limits. Perhaps because the show has only limited runs—the first two seasons feature only three episodes each—the quality of Black Mirror stays high and consistent. And, like the best horror movies, the series has an eerie way of haunting viewers after. Black Mirror might not be the most innovative sci-fi, and often veers into horror as well, but it’s the closest thing to creepypasta TV has to offer!
To be fair, Michael Crichton’s Westworld already had a remake. The author’s own Jurassic Park essentially borrowed the same premise of attractions run amok in a theme park, but substituted dinosaurs for android cowboys. The original 1973 film also had a short-lived TV series too: Beyond Westworld which only ran three episodes. Who would have thought then that a 21st century reboot would ignite a sensation?
Maybe it has something to do with the casting. HBO’s new Westworld features Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins and nominee Ed Harris, alongside acclaimed actors Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and James Marsden. It also probably owes something to the creative vision of the man in charge: Johnathan Nolan, brother of Christopher, and writer of seminal films like Mimento and The Dark Knight. Under Nolan’s guidance, a high-concept premise has taken on new depth, as the show examines the motives and emotions of the very androids the story once used as one-dimensional villains. The contrasting points of view in the show—humans trying to maintain control vs. robots functioning like cowboys and madams—provides it with some of its most wild moments. Indeed, writers like us may look back on the show one day as the birth of a new genre, that of the “techno-Western.” Either way, Westworld makes for obsessive viewing, and a sci-fi show unlike any other.
Doctor Who sparked a hit spinoff with Torchwood back in 2005, and the latter-day series (also a must-see on this list) has tried—and succeeded—to launch another furthering of the Who universe. Class takes a decidedly darker approach to the Who-verse, revolving around a group of students and faculty charged by The Doctor himself to defend against alien attacks. Notably more violent and adult-themed, Class expands on the boundaries of the Who-verse, providing more depth and context to the Doctor’s adventures in time.
Still in its first season, Class continues to find its identity. Much as Torchwood needed time to develop a tone and story outside The Doctor’s usual mix of silly camp and adventure, Class strives to find balance between Whovian canon and the more dire stakes the show sets for itself. That doesn’t make Class anything less than compelling viewing, however, and should delight Who fans as well as sci-fi lovers alike.
The Star Wars revival hastened by the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney arrived with a resounding thunk as a new animated series tried to hybridize the best elements of the Prequel and Original trilogies. Rebels focuses on the years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and a band of unlikely heroes forming the Rebel Alliance against the Empire. The time period allows beloved characters from all the films to cameo in an episode here and there, and fills in more of the gaps between the rise of Darth Vader, and Luke Skywalker’s emergence as the last Jedi Knight.
Even better, Rebels not only benefits from the guidance of Star Wars alum Dave Filoni, who made the animated Clone Wars so memorable. The show also benefits from Disney’s cash reserves, often calling back actors from the films to reprise their roles. That includes names like Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz, and James Earl Jones, who’s Darth Vader becomes a major character in the second season. The show also provides its share of fan service, including re-introducing old Extended Universe characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn to the new continuity. In any case, Rebels is a must-see for Star Wars fans, and damn fun TV for sci-fi lovers.
2. Rick & Morty
Talk about berserk! Only the anarchists of TV programming at Adult Swim could commission an animated series so irreverent and goofy. Rick & Morty plays like Back to the Future on amphetamines. The story of an alcoholic mad scientist and his neurotic grandson, the show follows the titular pair on adventures through time and space. Like Back to the Future, the characters in Rick & Morty encounter alternate timelines, and alternate versions of themselves. Like Doctor Who, they also encounter aliens and other strange beings in their adventures, often with hilarious consequences. Unlike Back to the Future or Doctor Who though, Rick & Morty doesn’t fret over continuity, preferring instead a “laughs at any cost” mentality.
Rick & Morty uses decidedly adult themes and humor to generate plots, so viewers should watch it expecting South Park-style humor. Irreverent, wildly imaginative and side-splittingly hilarious, Rick & Morty plays like a breath of fresh air in a television landscape wrought with redundancy. It also makes for some of the best—and funniest—sci-fi on the small screen today.
2016 has seen its share of political upheaval on a global scale. Maybe that made a show like Colony inevitable! The series envisions a Los Angeles invaded by an occupying army. While most of the forces are human, the leaders of the invading army are said to be extraterrestrial in origin, and have taken a brutal, Nazi-like approach to controlling the city. Amid it all, a young couple searches for their young son, lost during the chaos of the invasion. As the series progresses, the characters learn more about the invaders, and form a resistance movement to repel the invasion and learn its true motives.
Colony plays like a more militaristic version of V, the popular franchise about an alien invasion. It also examines (and satirizes) the world’s current geopolitical state, with nations invading one another, the formation of resistance or terrorist cells, and the human cost of policies of war to produce peace. It also features some great action and effects, and has anchors in two appealing leads: Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies, two actors familiar to sci-fi fans. Now moving into its second season, Colony offers plenty of reasons to watch and a good mix of action and thoughtful writing.
Have some must see sci-fi we didn’t mention? Share in the comments!
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