Science fiction has long fared well on the big screen thanks to massive budgets and cutting-edge special effects. Installments of the Star Wars and Jurassic Park franchises have been shattering box office records for decades, attracting mainstream audiences with nothing but spectacle alone.
Meanwhile, the sci-fi on TV had to take a much more cerebral approach to the genre in decades past. Shows like Star Trek: The Original Series may not have appeared as sleek on the surface, but they were still beloved by a smaller, more devout following of science fiction nerds. In fact, if not for Star Trek's passionate fanbase, the once-canceled series could have faded into obscurity forever.
Within the last decade, some of the most popular science fiction stories have been made for the small screen. This is thanks in part to advancements in CGI and the ever-changing “TV” landscape, where interesting stories no longer have to be run through the network gauntlet to make their way into the homes of viewers.
Now, serialized science fiction can enjoy the spectacle of cinema while continuing to explore complex storylines and dynamic characters. Streaming services have also encouraged shows to become more intricate than ever before, as they no longer have to worry about recapping last week’s events or being interrupted by commercial breaks.
The critics tend to agree that some of the best sci-fi shows ever made have debuted in the 21st century, though there are still lesser-known gems from previous decades that also deserve recognition.
Here are the 19 Best Sci-Fi Shows According To Rotten Tomatoes (And 1 Stuck With 0%).
This CW series kicks off with a group of adolescent prisoners who return to Earth following a nuclear disaster. They soon discover that they weren’t the only ones to survive the apocalypse.
The 100 just wrapped up its fifth season earlier this summer, which managed to rack up an impressive 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics praised the show's bold storytelling, especially the time jump that occurred between the last two seasons, which opened the door for a number of interesting plot developments.
Unlike many series which usually start to drop in quality after the first few seasons, this sci-fi drama continues to impress.
Thanks to these strong reviews and an uptick in viewership, the sixth season of The 100 is already in the works.
One of the most talked-about shows of the early 2000s, Lost follows a group of plane-crash survivors who arrive on an island that has no shortage of mysteries or menacing inhabitants.
The show was an unusual mix of character drama, science fiction, and fantasy — something rarely seen on mainstream TV at the time. As a result, Lost pulled in an impressive number of viewers week after week while also earning the recognition of many critics.
While the later seasons are often criticized for failing to bring a cohesive conclusion to many of the show's mysteries, the sheer audacity of storytelling is enough to earn Lost its high marks.
We also can't forget how influential the series has been to the sci-fi and fantasy shows that have come since.
Co-created by Carlton Cuse (writer and executive producer on Lost), Colony is set in the not-so-distant future where humans are living under the control of a mysterious extraterrestrial race.
The series debuted on the USA Network in 2016 and it just recently wrapped up its third and final season.
Colony stars Josh Holloway (also from Lost fame), as Will Bowman, a former member of the Army and FBI. At the start of the series, Will takes up work tracking down Resistance fighters with the hopes that he will be able to locate his missing son.
Although Colony enjoyed largely positive reviews throughout its 36-episode run, ratings continued to slip, resulting in the series being canceled just a few days before its season three finale.
Often compared to The Twilight Zone — which debuted four years earlier — The Outer Limits is a sci-fi anthology series which turned out 49 episodes between 1963 and 1965.
Similarly to Rod Serling's series, the show featured an opening narration before every standalone episode, which often culminated with a twist ending. However, the overall tone of The Outer Limits was often much darker and serious than many Twilight Zone episodes, and the series is regarded as far more than a knockoff.
The Twilight Zone actually has a lower approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, coming in at only 79%. While many would disagree with these rankings, few would deny how influential both series have been to the genre of science fiction.
As a show that’s turned out over 800 episodes since 1963, there are understandably a large number of Doctor Who seasons that have not been rated on Rotten Tomatoes.
Ever since the series was brought back to life in 2005, the new seasons have received resounding praise from critics.
The beloved British series follows an extraterrestrial “Doctor,” who travels through time in a blue police box known as the TARDIS. There have been twelve primary Doctors to date, with Jodie Whittaker set to play the thirteenth incarnation of the character later this year.
Whittaker will make her debut in the Christmas special, which will also mark the first time that a Doctor has ever been played by a female.
Falling into the cyberpunk sub-genre of science fiction, Max Headroom is a satirical series which ran for 14 episodes between 1987 and 1988.
The show was set in a world where everyone is a slave to the television. All citizens are being monitored through their TVs — which can never be turned off — giving network executives complete control of the country. While the series relied heavily on humor, Max Headroom was also a cautionary tale about how people are becoming slaves to their screens.
Max Headroom was a midseason replacement, and only turned out six episodes during its first season. Despite critical praise for its surreal tone and bold storytelling, the ratings quickly fell off during the second season, leading to Max Headroom’s swift cancellation.
Orphan Black begins with con artist Sarah Manning assuming the identity of a woman she believes is her doppelganger. Sarah eventually finds out that she’s actually a clone, and that there are many more copies of her living around the world — all of whom are being targeted for assassination.
These clones are portrayed by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, who ended up winning the 2016 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her performance.
The show has been praised for its inventive storytelling, which often challenges the viewer to examine their own viewpoints on cloning and individuality.
Orphan Black ran for five seasons of ten episodes each, before wrapping up in the summer of 2017.
Few shows can make the viewer feel as bad as Black Mirror does and still come away with massive critical acclaim.
Like other sci-fi anthology shows that came before it, Black Mirror tackles a number of contemporary issues and how they might play out in the not-so-distant future. Many of the stories deal with mankind's dependency on and obsession with technology, and nearly every episode of Black Mirror ends with an unsettling twist.
It's the show's willingness to deal with controversial and timely topics head-on that has made it such a critical success.
The sci-fi series originally ran on England’s Channel 4 for two seasons before being picked up by Netflix.
Two more seasons have since been released, with a fifth currently in the works.
Yet another Channel 4 show that deals with the negative implications of technology, Humans is set in a world where androids are used as household servants. However, these extremely lifelike robots, known as Synths, start to wish for a life beyond servitude as they develop true consciousness.
While this initial concept has been explored in a plethora of other sci-fi stories, most agree that Humans is a cut above the rest. As Jen Chaney wrote “Forget Westworld. Humans is the most compelling, emotionally resonant robot-centric show on television.”
The series recently wrapped up its third season earlier this summer, which currently holds a 100% approval rating based on eight reviews. However, Channel 4 and AMC have yet to officially announce a fourth season.
Following the success of Doctor Who’s return to TV in 2005, Torchwood is a spin-off series which ran for four seasons between 2006 and 2011.
The series follows Captain Jack Harkness, a con man and time traveler from the future who lives on present-day Earth.
The character had previously appeared in the Doctor Who episode “The Empty Child", where he became a companion to Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation of the character.
The spin-off series picks up with Jack as he becomes a member of the Torchwood Institute, which aims to protect the planet from otherworldly threats.
Torchwood was praised for its unpredictable storytelling and ability to tackle mature subject matter — helping it appeal to the older generations of Doctor Who fans.
In the last few years, it’s hard to think of a more talked-about sci-fi show than Stranger Things.
The first season dropped on Netflix in the summer of 2016 and it immediately became a word-of-mouth success, earning Stranger Things praise from critics and audiences alike.
The series is set in small-town Indiana during the 1980s, where a mysterious girl with supernatural abilities accidentally opens up a portal to another dimension.
Stranger Things draws heavily from such beloved classics as The Goonies, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Stand by Me, and nostalgia may be reason enough to tune into Stranger Things. However, the sci-fi series has also proven to be extremely well-crafted and original in its own right.
A third season is currently in the works, though it looks like we won't get to revisit Hawkins or the Upside Down until mid-2019.
Though it debuted on Cartoon Network, Star Wars: The Clone Wars was by no means a show that could only be enjoyed by children.
The series takes place between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and it follows a number of familiar faces alongside some franchise newcomers as the unit to take on an army of droids.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars aired for six seasons between 2008 and 2014 — each of which received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. The show also increased in popularity and quality as it continued on, with the final season holding a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
A seventh season was recently announced at this year's SDCC, which will eventually be available on Disney's upcoming streaming service.
It’s hard to deny how captivating the first few seasons of Battlestar Galactica truly are.
The series ran for four seasons on the Sci-Fi Network, where it followed a group of humans searching for the mythical planet called Earth after their civilization is destroyed by the Cylons — an android race which the humans were responsible for creating.
Battlestar Galactica was a reimagining of the 1978 series of the same name.
However, the updated show dropped all the campiness of the original for a far more gritty and philosophical endeavor, earning both its second and third season a 100% approval rating.
Despite debuting back in 2013, Rick and Morty has only turned out three seasons and 31 episodes in that period of time. But that hasn’t stopped this animated sci-fi comedy from being one of the most worshipped shows of the past few years.
The Adult Swim series revolves around Rick, a self-absorbed mad scientist who drags his grandson, Morty, on a number of off-color adventures.
Regardless of the show’s abhorrent and nihilistic sensibilities, even the critics have to agree that Rick and Morty is wildly original and thoroughly entertaining.
After leaving fans on the edge following the season three finale, the show was officially picked up for 70 more episodes.
When exactly Rick and Morty will return is still anyone's guess.
Based on the comic book of the same name, The Middleman is a comedy/sci-fi series that ran for one season on ABC Family.
The show follows Wendy Watson, a down-on-her-luck artist who crosses paths with a secret agent, known as the Middleman, who is tasked with saving the world from a number of evil threats.
While Wendy trains to become the next Middleman, the duo fight against everything from a genetically-modified ape to an alien warrior who’s disguised as a 14-year-old girl. The series also features countless nods to other popular sci-fi and superhero stories.
While The Middleman was originally conceived to run for 13 episodes its first season, not even high praise from critics could save this series from early cancellation, and only 12 episodes ended up making it to air.
A favorite amongst hardcore sci-fi fans, Farscape was a four-season series that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel from 1999 to 2003. The series follows American astronaut John Crichton, who finds himself living in an alien world when his ship is sucked into a wormhole.
While plenty of space operas feature extra-terrestrial life, Farscape stood out in how much it committed to its alien concept.
Many of the characters were created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop using extensive make-up, prosthetics, and animatronics. Even the show’s primary setting, the spaceship Moya, is a living thing unlike any we’ve seen before. This originality is what earned it the respect of many critics.
However, the small but devout following wasn't enough to keep Farscape on the air for its planned fifth and final season.
The Prisoner is a one-season British series that ran for 17 episodes between 1967 and 1968. The show follows a former secret agent who is abducted and transported to a remote coastal village, where he is held captive and interrogated for information.
Though the series keeps the sci-fi elements to a minimum, The Prisoner has continued to be heavily influential on the genre. It has been remade into a 2009 miniseries and a 2015 radio play, and a number of British directors — including Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott — were rumored to be working on a film adaptation at one point or another.
The Prisoner has been praised for its ability to subvert the audience expectations at every turn, with Rolling Stone's Sean T. Collins writing that "everything from Lost and Twin Peaks to The Americans owe it a debt."
While Counterpart has only run for one season so far, it’s already racked up some impressive stats on the Tomatometer — consisting of 39 positive reviews with an average rating of 8.25 out of 10.
The Starz series debuted in December of last year, and it follows Howard Silk, a U.N. employee stationed in Berlin who discovers that the agency he works for protects a portal to a parallel dimension. Eventually, Howard comes to cross paths with his parallel self, who he can’t help but think lives a much more interesting life than his own.
Academy Award-winner J.K. Simmons has received praise for his performance as both leading characters, and the second season of Counterpart is currently in the works.
While plenty of shows have achieved a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, only a few have the distinction of holding a 0% approval rating. But such is the case with Hunters, a one-season series that aired on the Syfy channel back in 2016.
Hunters follows Flynn Carrol, an FBI agent trying to track down his missing wife, leading Flynn to stumble upon a secret organization who protects the world from otherworldly threats.
Critics ripped the show for being a knock-off of other sci-fi stories without bringing anything original to the table.
The show's low-budget look, unrealistic dialogue, and grim tone certainly didn't earn it any points either.
Audiences seemed to wholeheartedly agree. After the first seven episodes saw a massive decline in viewership, the remaining six episodes were aired at midnight before Hunters was inevitably canceled.
What's your favorite sci-fi show? Sound off in the comments!