The conventional wisdom says that the past 10 years have been a bad time for science fiction on television. Fantasy has been on the upswing. Space opera all but disappeared. Science fiction shows get canceled all the time. But a ton of great science fiction has been created since 2005. Here are 15 shows that changed everything.
And yes, this is only shows created in 2005 or later—so there’s no Firefly, no Lost and no Battlestar Galactica. Those shows get praised often enough already.
1) Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Many people expected The Sarah Connor Chronicles to be a cash-grabbing follow up to a beloved series—but it turned out to be a far superior extension of the Terminator mythology than any of the post-Cameron sequels. Ambitious, novelistic and psychologically layered, it differs from most sci-fi television in that it’s as much an artful character study as it is an ass-kicking genre show. Lena Headey’s complex, damaged and thoroughly compelling take on the character can stand comparison to the protagonist of any critically lauded prestige drama. Viewers didn’t expect introspection, nuance and emotional intelligence from a Terminator show. The Sarah Connor Chronicles proved them wrong, demonstrating that the sci-fi TV format (and spinoffs in particular) could, in the right hands, prove just as thematically dense or existentially fraught as an episode of your average HBO or AMC drama. What’s more, this show went into greater depth about the development of artificial intelligence than any show had previously, at a time when computers were increasingly taking over our lives in reality.
Pop sci-fi at its most exhilarating and outre, this show about a mad scientist and the war between universes demonstrated to television audiences that the genre didn’t have to choose between being intimate or spectacular, thoughtful or explosive, personal or universal. Fringe was, between the porcupine men and the universe-traversing ghosts, spectacularly imaginative. It pushed the envelope of television science fiction, by putting together a remarkably cohesive yet complicated mythos that still left breathing room for numerous tertiary stories and flights of fancy, a feat that The X-Files took a worthy stab at but failed to see through to the end. The show also breathed fresh life into the medium by remaining totally unembarrassed by its frequently bizarre science fictional elements while still keeping everything relatively grounded by a genuine philosophical bent. Several other shows have tried showering us in pulp and weirdness while still attempting an earnest consideration of faith, science and the universe. Most failed (Lost, I’m looking at you). Fringe redefined the genre by actually pulling it off. But most of all, Fringe managed to create a character that we’d never quite seen on television before: Walter Bishop, a mad scientist who had done terrible things but was still somehow sympathetic.
3) Agents of SHIELD
This superspy show is not perfect—and in fact, it’s had stretches of outright badness. But you can’t deny that the televised adventures of the Marvel Universe’s most famous government agency represents a new frontier in transmedia storytelling. Not only is Agents of SHIELD the MCU’s first incursion into the medium of television, it’s a groundbreaking experiment in how to build out stories told in one medium, via the judicious use of another. As the movies play out alongside the show, what happens on one side affects events on the other, beloved supporting characters in one medium get more face time in the other, and the creative enterprise of worldbuilding has grown more expansive and meticulous than ever before. Other franchises have attempted this, but none have done so in such a concerted, strategic and collaborative fashion. It’s the genre TV equivalent of rolling out a multi-front military initiative.
Love or hate the Wachowskis and their occasionally twee preoccupation with life, reality and spiritual awakening, it’s impossible to ignore the ways in which their Netflix drama about psychically linked strangers is a game-changer. The plot and its associated tropes are well worn and familiar to anyone who’s watched the duo’s films. Where the show shifts television’s science fiction paradigms is in its unprecedented embrace of diversity and its beautifully organic incorporation of issues relating to race, sexuality and gender identity. The show’s queer, transgender and female characters are front and center—not as progressive lip service, but as integral elements of the narrative, their struggles central to the show’s themes and core ethos. Sense8 is about psychic connection as a thinly veiled metaphor for empathy and, as such, fuses its politics and its plot in emotionally resonant fashion. If there’s another genre show that has presented such a complex and sympathetic portrayal of a trans character and then gone on to create a thematic link between her experiences as a trans person and the science fictional elements of the story, I haven’t seen it. It’s also worth acknowledging that whether or not Netflix spins it into a success, the show is still a pioneering sci-fi effort in the first wave of original streaming content, a format that is likely to become the standard iteration of what we think of as TV.
5) Orphan Black
There’s a lot that’s unique about this show about a group of clones. Orphan Black demonstrates that a complicated conspiracy story can actually be pulled off on genre television without devolving into a morass of Escherian plot machinations. It’s an extremely thoughtful consideration of scientific ethics and the moral dimensions of human cloning. But, most of all, it’s a unique example of the science fiction show as acting showcase. No other show has taken an astonishingly talented actress, and given her quite this much to work with. Tatiana Maslany is a revelation as the group of clones, making each one a distinct individual with her own personality, mannerisms and emotional arc. Showrunners generally supply a show’s guiding vision—but as talented and indispensable as Graeme Manson and John Fawcett are, Orphan Black is a unique example of lead actress as auteur.
This scrappy British show about juvenile offenders who get superpowers has become an unlikely hit—thanks largely to its revolutionary abandonment of narrative constraints as they relate to genre, format, character or pretty much any other aspect of storytelling. It’s a singular case study in how to take practical limitations and turn them into advantages. Truncated season lengths preventing you from making the most of serialized storytelling? Abandon longform conventions and tell insane, daring stories that have next to no long term fallout. No money for spectacular effects? Channel the imaginative potential that would have informed those effects into storylines that are just as spectacular and inventive. One would be hard pressed to find another show in which an entire subplot is devoted to a guy trying to find his penis. Misfits dedicates itself to demonstrating that science fiction TV doesn’t need to be limited by boundaries of budget, taste or convention.
7) The Venture Brothers
There have been funny science fiction cartoons before, but none quite like The Venture Bros. This may be blasphemy to some—but not even the excellent Futurama can hold a candle to this show’s unbelievably dense layers of joke-a-second setups and incongruously profound observations about humanity. Arch-villains or science heroes, we all have family drama and tragicomic personal hangups to grapple with. The Venture Bros is basically the animated science fiction equivalent of Arrested Development, a miracle of complicated continuity, baked-in references and psychological insight that somehow manages to stay hilarious in part because of how difficult it can sometimes be to parse. The Venture Bros bakes science fantasy and pulp into the impossibly intricate mechanism of its narrative, in the same way that Arrested Development incorporates reality TV and soap opera elements. The result demonstrates that genres that aren’t always equated with endless laughs and spot-on parody can actually supply both—while also establishing a huge cast of characters that spins perpetually in the tumble dryer of an insanely complex and vast fictional universe. What The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did for science fiction on the radio and the printed page, The Venture Bros does for animation.
8) Black Mirror
Social satire and techno-anxiety have long been major driving forces in the history of science fiction—but never before has a television show brought the two together in such a potent, blackly funny manner. Utilizing an anthology format that allows it to examine from various angles the ways in which technology and society overlap, it presents a series of dystopian scenarios that somehow mine nightmares out of banality. While television science fiction is mostly about the spectacular, most episodes of Black Mirror focus on the daily routines of their protagonists, routines that are altered just the right amount for satiric and entertainment purposes by scary and largely believable advances in technology. That said, the ultimate responsibility for the insidiously awful circumstances creeping through every episode lies with us, the human beings who create and embrace that technology in a display of gormless hubris. The best science fiction AND the best satire are grounded in recognizable truth and reality. Black Mirror demonstrates this better than any science fiction show that came before it.
This show about an underachieving nerd who gets a CIA spy program uploaded into his head might be the first to combine the highly disparate genres of science fiction, slacker comedy and rom-com. In between increasingly outlandish spy missions accomplished via tech-bestowed superpowers, Chuck struggles through a quarter-life crisis straight out of early career Richard Linklater movie and fumbles his way from a protracted will-they-won’t-they phase to a blossoming love affair with CIA agent Sarah Walker. Your mileage may vary with regard to how much of the mushier elements you can stomach, but no one has ever tried to make a spy-fi show that’s also a romantic comedy. Props to Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak for trying.
10) Doctor Who, Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures
Sure, Doctor Who has existed since 1963—but when it was brought back from oblivion in 2005, it was a very different animal. In particular, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat reinvented Doctor Who as a portal fantasy mixed with a domestic soap opera—a fanciful combination of genres that had never even been imagined, much less invented, before. The companions who travel with the Doctor through time and space keep one foot in their present-day existences on Earth, and still have romances and family dramas with normal(ish) people. But the TARDIS always pops up to invite them on adventures in strange worlds. Meanwhile, Doctor Who and its spinoffs, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, pulled off an incredible accomplishment: Having three shows set in the same universe, with closely linked continuity, but aimed at vastly different audiences. Torchwood was more adult (both in terms of sexuality and in terms of bleakness) than Doctor Who, while Sarah Jane Adventures was aimed at younger children. And yet, the three shows could (and did) cross over. Also, Torchwood changed science fiction forever, in two other ways: It starred a flamboyantly bisexual character, who has a hugely important same-sex romance, and its format changes with almost every season it was on the air, experimenting with serialization in ways that had never been done before.
It’s probably hard to remember, but when it started, Heroes was like nothing anybody had ever seen before — a heavily serialized show about a group of people with superpowers, in which viewers had to wait almost a whole season to see them team up. The globe-spanning storyline brought together characters from Japan, India and all over the United States, while the show managed to use its pervasive mysteries about an apocalyptic future to further its character development. (And then after the first season, not so much.) Also, the show’s development of the sinister HRG from scary stooge to a sympathetic, complex character was a marvel. For one brief, shining year, Heroes showed everyone how much superheroes could mean on television.
This Canadian show about a supercop who travels back in time from 2077 along with a group of anti-corporate terrorists manages to pull off some insanely complicated time-travel storytelling, building on the stuff that Sarah Connor Chronicles managed. (And helping to pave the way for Syfy’s new show Twelve Monkeys.) But the thing that makes Continuum really innovative, especially in its early seasons, is the way that it creates a conflict with no “right” side. Kiera, the show’s main character, wants to preserve law and order, and keep her family safe. But the Liber8 terrorists she’s fighting have some excellent points about the evils of the corporate-dominated state she’s defending. Coming on the heels of the Occupy Wall Street movement, this show gave us a new vision of a corporate-dominated dystopia—and then refused to give us any easy answers about. Most of all, the character of Alec Sadler, future corporate despot, is like Walter Bishop in reverse: Sympathetic even though we know he’ll do awful things.
13) Person of Interest
This show about a superintelligent computer that can predict crimes before they happen is a brilliant innovation in terms of format—Person of Interest is superficially a crime-solving procedural, but constantly wrestles with themes of artificial intelligence, surveillance, and the espionage-industrial complex. Along the way, Person of Interest asks questions like, Can an artificial intelligence ever adhere to human morality? Is a superintelligent computer destined to rule us, perhaps without our knowledge? Can surveillance ever be a benevolent or helpful thing? Thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations and the ever-encroaching security state, this show has had to move fast to keep up with reality—and along the way, it’s changed the rules for science fiction. More recently, showing a war between artificial intelligences, it’s had to find ways to depict something that television had never attempted, without any cheesy “virtual reality” scenes.
14) The Walking Dead
This zombie show is more or less science fiction—the zombies are apparently caused by a virus, and there’s some kind of conspiracy involving the CIA. And along with shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead has shown that “genre” entertainment can be as dense, character-focused and intense as any other “prestige” television. A lot of the broadening of genre entertainment on television can be traced to The Walking Dead’s popularity. And meanwhile, The Walking Dead represents a huge innovation on form: This is a serialized zombie movie, in which the characters can never reach the safety of a conclusion. Even in an era that’s given us many post-apocalyptic TV shows, this show has brought the apocalypse to a new level.
15) Star Wars: The Clone Wars
This animated spinoff of the Star Wars films started as a kid-friendly show, but quickly became something much more intense: a serious examination of war and the rights of soldiers. This show fully explored the horrible conundrum of enslaved clone warriors that the movies barely touched on. And with the relationship between Ahsoka and her mentor Anakin “Darth Vader” Skywalker, this show explored a darkness that few cartoons had ever touched on. Plus this is a brave experiment in using animated storytelling to expand and alter the continuity of a live-action film franchise. [Thanks to everyone who brought this one up — we really meant to include it from the beginning!]
Additional reporting by Charlie Jane Anders and Rob Bricken