Television has always been an expensive medium, with Lost having an estimated per-episode budget of $4 million, and Game of Thrones clocking in at a whopping $6 million. And sometimes, these hugely expensive shows fail. But here are 10 of the best science fiction and fantasy shows, which were made for surprisingly low budgets.
Even outside of extremes like Lost, Fringe or Thrones, it's rare to find a science fiction/fantasy show that comes in under $1.5 million an episode today. We may talk about how CW shows are low-budget, but even Supernatural costs something in the low $2 millions. It's estimated that a one-hour scripted broadcast drama costs about $3 million per episode to produce, while a cable drama costs about $2 million. But check out ten shows that prove that a huge budget isn't a prerequisite for greatness.
You'll see a lot of BBC shows on this list, and for a good reason: back in the '60's, '70's, and '80's, Auntie Beeb took frugality to new extremes. Doctor Who began with a budget of £2000 per episode (around $50,000 today), a budget so small that the show's most iconic villains—the Daleks — were originally made out of egg boxes and that famous plunger. Even today, the show films for a reported $1.5 million per episode — a relatively modest amount compared to the U.S. sci-fi shows of similar stature.
Lost in Space
Another great (if campy) 1960's sci-fi adventure series, Lost in Space is estimated to have cost a mere $140,000 per episode (a little over a million dollars today.) Sure, the effects might not have looked that great — but the show still provides an awful lot of fun for its buck.
The Outer Limits
The Outer Limits (the original 1960's version, not the revival of the late '90's) has been called "the creepiest series in TV history." And it achieved all that creepiness for a song: $120,000 an episode. That's around $930,000 today.
The budget for the first series of the deliciously funny Red Dwarf was comprised of left-over money that had originally been earmarked for a second series of the BBC's Happy Families. While precise figures are difficult to come by, there's little doubt that when the show began it was dealing with budgets in the "extremely low" category: rumor has it that the first Starbug began its life as a lawnmower.
A show ahead of its time, the influence of Blake's 7 can be seen today across the science fiction television landscape—and they did it with a special effects budget of £50 an episode (although actually the total effects budget was spent on one episode). The first series was filmed for something below $250,000 in today's money, largely because they were replacing a police procedural that had naturally been budgeted far below what a science fiction series would usually cost. For reference, episodes of reality television usually cost between $100,000 and $500,000 today.
Moving a little closer to the present, this 1990's space opera managed to be completely game-changing for around $900,000 an episode (around $1.3-1.4 million today). Babylon 5 was designed to be reasonably priced from the beginning: J. Michael Straczynski chose to set the show on a space station because it would be cheaper than going to new worlds every week.
Being Human (UK)
A great blend of humor and pathos, Being Human was a quiet standout during its time on the air. It was cheap, too: around £500,000 per hour-long episode (approximately $786,000.) The budget constraints contributed to the show's restraint—for example, death is "a door with a light behind it" because the writers had a spare door and all the other ideas were too expensive.
Yet another BBC project, Jekyll is Steven Moffat's take on a sequel to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (featuring an awesome-as-usual Gina Bellman). Its budget was described at the time as being an amount that would "barely cover the catering on Heroes," but the fun writing easily trumps any monetary concerns.
Executive producer Petra Fried says that the constraints caused by a low budget (one Misfits director hesitantly recalls an average budget of less than $400,000 an episode) can actually help rather than hinder creativity. "You have to be constantly surprising, and that is often achieved by budgetary restraints. You are forced to think of inventive ways of doing stuff." For example, Misfits has a spare, empty feeling to it that apparently came about because the budget couldn't stretch to very many extras.
Reality TV meets Dawn of the Dead, this BAFTA-nominated five episode miniseries is set inside the Big Brother house during a zombie outbreak (those pitch meetings had to rock). Filmed on a digital-TV budget, the series nonetheless got acclaim for it's "cinematic" feel and biting commentary.