Even if you're a massive science fiction fan, there are probably still some great shows you've yet to discover. But for massively long-running shows, where to begin? Here's our guide to how to start watching twenty classic science fiction shows.
It should be pointed out that this guide is meant for potential new fans, not people who already love these shows. We advise in quite a few instances to skip entire seasons of shows, and that's not something a big fan of a show is likely to agree with. But this is all about the best way to get hooked on a show, and we of course recommend checking out the rest of a series once you've sampled the best of what a show has to offer.
We're also focusing more on seasons of shows than specific brilliant episodes, because it's easier to reach consensus - and thus make useful recommendations to the most people - on an entire season than one particular episode. So, let's start with the biggest, most daunting science fiction franchise of them all...
Star Trek: The Original Series
Since it only ran three seasons, the easy answer is just to tell you to watch all of it. Unfortunately, the third season has a whole lot of badness in it, which is the result of slashed budgets and the influence of new producer Fred Freiberger. (He also presided over the similarly derided second season of Space: 1999.) There are a few decent episodes in there - "The Tholian Web" is probably the best of the bunch - but most of the classics are to be found in the first two seasons, and almost all the notoriously awful episodes ("Plato's Stepchildren", "Spock's Brain") are season three entries. So just stick with seasons 1 and 2, then head into season 3 with extreme caution.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
This one is fairly straightforward - start with season three. The show hit some real lows in its first season, and anybody unsure about whether they like TNG is unlikely to get past the first dozen or so episodes. The second season, while a bit of an improvement, is missing one of the show's main cast members, as Gates McFadden's Dr. Crusher was replaced by Diana Muldaur's Dr. Pulaski. There's a lot to like about the second season (and Pulaski is hardly a total disaster), but everything clicks into place with the third season. That season has the added benefit of ending on what may be the biggest cliffhanger in television history. If that doesn't have you coming back for more, nothing will.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Deep Space Nine was a far more arc-driven show than The Next Generation, so there's slightly more to be gained with starting at the beginning and putting up with the show's growing pains (which, to be fair, were never as bad as TNG's). Still, there's a fairly clear division in arcs between the first two seasons, which is more heavily focused on the Bajoran/Cardassian conflict, and the third season onwards, which focuses on the coming war with the Dominion. As such, for those on the fence about DS9, we suggest jumping in with season three.
Star Trek: Voyager
There's really no sense in pretending otherwise - Voyager isn't really all that good of a show, and if you're going to dive into nineties Star Trek, I'd head to TNG and DS9 first. Still, the show has its charms, and it did get better as it went along. I'd jump right to the last episode of season 3, the first half of the "Scorpion" two-parter. "Scorpion" is consistently voted the series's best episode, and it also introduces the half-human, half-Borg, all-sexy Seven of Nine, who is pretty much the one iconic thing to come out of this show. Most of the show's best episodes come in the fourth season onwards, and you get to avoid the only Star Trek episode so bad that everyone involved disowned it. (Although, depending on your mindset, that might actually be just the sort of thing you want to check out.)
Star Trek: Enterprise
When it comes to latter-day Star Trek, there's just something special about seasons 3 and 4, because that's where I'd suggest you start with for Enterprise as well. The prequel series took a while to find its feet, spinning its wheels for two seasons with a lot of not terribly interesting stuff about a new alien race called the Suliban and a far future conflict known as the Temporal Cold War. The show was retooled at the end of both the second and third season, and both were arguably improvements.
The third season ditched the Suliban as the Enterprise headed into the war-torn region of space known as the Expanse, in the hopes of either stopping the coming war...or winning it. The fourth season went with less long-form storytelling in favor of shorter, more contained arcs, which again produced a bunch of standout episodes. Although do yourself a favor - unless you absolutely love Enterprise, skip the series finale. Actually, if you absolutely love Enterprise, that's even more reason not to watch it.
We're only going to talk about the new series, because a guide to getting into the classic series is an article in and of itself. (And here it is! Although I will say that "Robots of Death" is pretty much the perfect introduction to classic Who.) The best way to approach the new Doctor Who largely depends on what you want to get out of it. If you just want to get up to speed for the upcoming series, then I'd just watch the fifth season, plus "Silence in the Library"/"The Forest of the Dead" and maybe "Blink". That'll get you pretty much up to speed on the Steven Moffat & Matt Smith era.
If you're looking for a more general introduction, then I'd suggest starting with either the first or fourth season. The show definitely improves as it goes along, but the initial season, starring Christopher Eccleston, season has its own unique energy that's still a lot of fun to watch, and it's a good place to start (although the second season hasn't aged very well). The fourth season presents a great mix of stories without any real duds...well, until you get to the final two episodes. Those should be approached with extreme caution.
Finally, if all you want to do is sample the best (and biggest) of the new series to see if you like it, then here's the quick list: "Rose", "Dalek", anything by Steven Moffat and Paul Cornell, "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit", "Midnight", "The Waters of Mars", and, for better or worse, the five season finales.
But what of Doctor Who's anagrammatic spin-off? The first two seasons aren't a complete waste of time, but they're dangerously close, and even the best episodes (probably "Captain Jack Harkness" and "Fragments") are some degree of flawed or derivative. So unless your tolerance for nonsensical plots, general silliness, and lots of sex and angst masquerading as mature storytelling is epically high, I'd skip the first two seasons completely and head straight for the brilliant, brutal Children of Earth. The mini-series might represent the greatest jump up in quality from one season to the next in television history, and it's Russell T. Davies at his nastiest and most pessimistic - which, as he also showed in the Doctor Who episode "Midnight", also happens to be Davies at his absolute best.
While we're on the topic of British science fiction, let's talk about what is (pretty much by default) the best live-action science fiction comedy ever, Red Dwarf. I learned this the hard way when I tried to introduce a friend to Red Dwarf by showing him an episode from each of the six seasons: unless you fall instantly in love with the show, the first two seasons are very hit-and-miss. The show picks up considerably with season three, and it more or less keeps up the quality until the end of season six, when the original writing team parted ways and the show started to run out of ideas. So start with season three, save the first two seasons for later, and only head into the post-sixth season material if you really, really want more Red Dwarf.
The show only ran for seventeen episodes, so how hard can it be to start watching? The difficulty isn't the number of episodes, it's the order in which you should watch them. There are at least four different preferred orders in which you can watch The Prisoner, and the show's already challenging enough without have to figure out which episodes goes where. The fact of the matter is, although I think the so-called Six of One Order is probably the best, it doesn't really matter. Just watch "Arrival" first and "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out" last, and you'll be fine. Oh, and you can skip "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling." I'd say the same about "The Girl Who Was Death", but that one is just too stupidly fun to ignore.
The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling's legendary anthology series represents a particular challenge for potential new fans. There are 156 episodes, and nothing connecting any of them apart from Serling's iconic narration. Although the seasons have all been released on DVD - the first two are mostly brilliant, the third and fourth are a mixed bag, and the fifth is more bad than good - an entire season isn't really the best jumping-on point. I'd suggest seeking out some of the old "Best Of" DVDs they put out a few years ago. There are a few particularly brilliant showcases of the Twilight Zone format: "Walking Distance", "Time Enough at Last", "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street", "The Eye of the Beholder", "The Odyssey of Flight 33", and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (starring William Shatner!) are all excellent places to enter The Twilight Zone.
Mystery Science Theater 3000
MST3K presents the same basic problem as The Twilight Zone. There are very few episodes that aren't at least mildly amusing, and the vast majority of episodes are hilarious. So where do you start? There's no point in going in any particular order - the show has barely any continuity, and it's all the better for it - so it's just a question of finding the right introductory movie. Some of the show's most famous episodes, like "Manos: The Hands of Fate" and the Coleman Francis magnum opus "Red Zone Cuba", aren't the best places to start because the movies being riffed on are just too horrendously boring. It's better to start with movies that, while equally awful, are a bit more exciting, like "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians", "Space Mutiny", "Mitchell", "Time Chasers", or "Eegah", and then move on to the exquisite tedium that is "Manos: The Hands of Fate."
The X-Files is a good example of a show that, if you're going to start watching it now, it's probably wise to not get too invested in it, because it's all going to end in frustration. (Lost is another obvious example.) The show gets off to a good start in its first season, and it keeps up a consistently high quality for roughly its first six seasons, including the first movie. But the show starts running out of steam in the seventh season, and by the time Mulder has left the show in the eighth and ninth season the show is a pale shadow of its former self. Worst of all, the show's central mystery has never really been fully resolved, and it most likely never will. So definitely enjoy the first six seasons of The X-Files as nineties science fiction - hell, nineties television in general - at its finest. Just be prepared to have more questions than answers when it's all over.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This one is a bit tough, because there's no obvious consensus as to which seasons were the best, and there's even less consensus as to which season is the worst. Still, it's probably safe to say that season 1 can be left for later, and the second season is a good place to start. The show had worked through a lot of its first season growing pains, and the second season sets up a lot of the characters and arcs that would endure for the rest of the show's run.
If you want to skip ahead to the even stronger third season, I don't have a problem with that. (Particularly because the bad guy is Mayor Wilkins! How cool is that... for me!?) As for when to stop watching... well, some people hate the later seasons, which had less direct involvement from Joss Whedon, and some think they're the best of the bunch. So this is probably one of those rare times to just bust out the pragmatism and keep watching until you no longer enjoy it.
Do yourself a favor - skip the first two seasons of Angel. A very worthwhile show eventually emerged, but it took a while for that to happen, and you're not missing anything if you just skip right ahead to the third season. Seriously, what is it about science fiction shows getting really good in their third seasons? If this is actually a general rule of science fiction, I'm a little scared to imagine how good Firefly would have gotten if it had survived another couple of years. I think we can safely assume it would have won multiple Nobel Prizes for Literature... and Chemistry, just for the hell of it.
For Joss Whedon's shorter-lived shows, the temptation is to say you should just watch them all. For Firefly, that's pretty much the case (although "Shindig" and "Safe" aren't that great), but Dollhouse definitely has some eminently skippable episodes. The first five episodes are all fairly inessential, the result of - this will come as a shock - meddling on the part of Fox executives, who wanted the show to be more episodic and less serialized. There's an argument that it's worth watching the first episode "Ghost", which helps introduce this strange new world, but the sixth episode "Man on the Street" rehashes most of the essential points anyway. After that, all the rest of the episodes are more or less essential. (It's also worth watching the unaired pilot, which is included as a DVD extra and covers a lot of the same ground as the first half-dozen episodes.)
Series creator J. Michael Straczynski always intended the show to be one big story told over five seasons - unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way. When the creative team thought the show would be canceled at the end of the fourth season, they condensed the final two seasons worth of story into one... and then they got a fifth season anyway, forcing them to come up with new stories from scratch.
So, although all of the first four seasons are essential to the show's overall arc, it's only in the second season that the ongoing story picks up and the show really starts cooking. (In fact, there's an argument to be made that you'll get more out of the first season if you come back to it after seeing the later seasons, the better to appreciate the more subtle groundwork Straczynski and company put in.) The fifth season has its critics and isn't quite up to the standard of what came before, but it's also worth checking out.
Highlander: The Series
Although the original movie is more stupidly enjoyable than legitimately good, the TV series it spawned enjoys a relatively solid critical reputation. Like a lot of shows on this list, its first season is a bit shaky, but the second season is definitely well worth watching, and the next few seasons are also a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the show goes over a cliff in its sixth and final season, so that one can be safely left alone.
When we're talking about shows with an overarching mystery and complex mythology, it's difficult to say if it's better to just start at the beginning or jump on when the show actually got good. Thankfully, the 21st century BSG removes that conundrum completely, because the first episode of the series proper, "33", is quite possibly the show's best episode. Indeed, the first three seasons are all consistently very strong, and I actually don't think there's much of a dip in the fourth season either. (That point is...debated.) So, unless you really don't think you can commit three hours to something you've seen before, just start with the mini-series and go from there. Although do yourself a favor and skip "Black Market" and "The Woman King" when you get to them. Anything worth knowing from those will be in the next episodes' recaps.
It's hard to imagine who would want to start watching this show right now, particularly after all the rancor over the series finale. Still, if you are looking to get into Lost, the show is so heavily serialized that it really only makes sense to start with the first season. That said, the show had a tendency to spin its wheels and go nowhere slowly, particularly in the second season. If a season becomes too much of a drag, you might want to skip ahead to the next season and restart - just be prepared for a lot of googling to figure out what the hell's going on. (Another trick is to track down those special recap episodes Lost would air before some of its seasons.)
The Stargate Franchise
Let's finish off with a look at the three Stargate shows. Of these, the original SG-1 is the most difficult to get into, considering it ran a colossal ten seasons. The first season is a bit bumpy, like a lot of the other shows on this list, and it starts to show its age in the ninth and tenth seasons. We'd recommend the second through eighth seasons, with seasons three and four as particularly strong. As for Atlantis, our resident Stargate expert Meredith Woerner recommends anything spotlighting Rodney McKay (but then...she would). The show was fairly consistent in quality throughout its five-season run, so you can just start at the beginning. Finally, Stargate Universe is still just starting out, so we can recommend particular episodes to get you hooked: "Lost" and "Time" are two of the show's strongest episodes, and should help you decide, one way or the other, if Universe is a show for you.