Top Ten lists are always two things simultaneously: lame and fun. Lame because their innate subjectivity renders the exercise supremely pointless. Fun because… well, because we are hierarchical beings who suffer from a pathological need to rank everything from shoes to past Presidents to TV shows to excretory experiences.
To rank the “best” American science fiction TV shows in history requires me to first do three things: define what I mean by both “TVshow” and “science fiction”, and state my parameters for quality.
To qualify as a TV show, the program must have survived at least one full season on either broadcast or cable television, and been produced in the USA or by an American production company. This is important, because once you expand the category to include British or Australian or others productions, the field gets confused very fast.
Individual seasons don’t count, either. But I was torn over whether to include non-episodic shows, like The Outer Limits, due to their inconsistency in theme, actors, writers and subject matter; but eventually chose to do so.
The harder bit was deciding on which criteria to apply. I decided to not be too overt about it, but rather to include some vague combination of production value, cultural impact, quality of science fiction content, acting quality, consistency in quality, internal consistency in logic (i.e. not messing with its own canon), respect for actual science, and the degree to which the show lingers in memory.
Another arbitrary rule is the disqualification of animated shows. This means no Star Trek: The Animated Series and no Futurama.
Okay, ready? Here we go…
10. Star Trek: Deep Space 9
With five shows in the live action Trek franchise, I was tempted to disqualify all but the first. But DS9 stands out from its brethren as having existed within its own conceptual framework: the exploration of interstellar war, conflated with religion and personal angst, told from the environs of a stationary space station. Mind you, I’m of the opinion that the producers stole much of the concept of DS9 from Babylon 5. But they executed it well enough to warrant a spot on this list. Ultimately, the fact that I still enjoy watching old episodes is indicative of how highly I rank this show.
Joss Whedon’s venture into space opera was a popular flop but critical triumph. The acting was of cinematic quality. The writing was as clever and tight as anything Whedon produced for Buffy. The production value was outstanding. The unfolding greater story was compelling and complex, and would eventually see a degree of fruition in the movie, Serenity. Most importantly, though, the characters were complex and beloved, ven when they were dicks.
If nothing else, Firefly should be noted for its brave portrayal of futuristic human society. For one thing, Whedon acknowledges that the primary human economic powers are American and Chinese, and that those cultures should be reflected in futuristic society. Secondly, by moving forward in time, he moved backward in time, essentially creating a space age Western. Very cool.
Only hardcore science fiction fans ever gave Farscape a chance. Its brilliance was in casting puppets (created by Jim Henson’s company) as aliens, creating a truly skiffy-ish feel. The greater story that emerged was truly a classic wide-canvass classic science fiction approach, involving interstellar war, wormholes, personal sacrificies, bended perceptions and, as always, old fashioned love at its core.
I love Farscape. Maybe it’s a good thing it’s not well known. That’s what makes for a good cult classic. It was, as well, that the storyline was finally given a proper ending with the miniseries, The Peacekeeper Wars.
7. Star Trek: The Next Generation
My very first article as a student journalist, more than 20 years ago, was a review of the pilot episode of ST:TNG. I panned it. All of us hardcore Trek fans were offended at the shiny new Federation, with all its taking and negotiating. Where was Kirk drop-kicking Klingons and bedding green alien babes? Instead we had a bald Brit with a French name, endlessly hand-wringing over the Moral Issue Of The Week.
But you know what? We of the Trek generation had entered adulthood, and were actually eager to explore some of the more intellectually challenging aspects of Roddenberry’s expanded universe. Some of the episodes, like The Inner Light, will linger with many of us for the rest of our lives. They were that good.
6. The Six Million Dollar Man
The opening sequence of this show is, in my opinion, the coolest thing ever broadcast on American TV. Astronaut Steve Austin is rebuilt as a cyborg after an operation costing an insane $6 million (a price tag that today would buy him a bionic toe). The science fiction is implicit. Heck, Austin’s very existence is science fiction. But in many episodes, he actually travels into the space, fights the Venus probe and, of course, Big Foot himself!
Yes, the science was flakey, to put it mildly. But this show made it cool to like science, and allowed an entire generation of chubby pre-teens to feel powerful while running in slow motion.
5. Stargate: SG-1
I’ve made no secret of my love for SG-1. Its basis was the absolutely transcended big screen film, Stargate. But it took that core DNA and created a team of beloved galactic explorers who weekly battled alien menaces that were believable and daunting.
For me, the beauty of SG-1 was its honesty and consistency. I recall one episode when a General tells our hero, Colonel O’Neill, “The US government does not interfere in the internal activities of sovereign nations” or something like that. O’Neill responded with a cynical, “Oh really? Since when?”
This is a small thing, but whn you consider that SG-1 is one of those rare shows that benefits from the full cooperation of the US Airforce. This relationship also resulted in spectacular and very believable military actions.
The consistency aspect of SG-1 is the degree to which the show developed an internal canon of facts, all based on somewhat accurate science, and the degree to which this canon was adhered to over the show’s record-breaking 10 seasons.
One of my favourite examples of this was the episode in which the Earth was connected to a Black Hole through the stargate’s wormhole. The effects of gravity and time dilation were well explained, to an extent I never would have expected from other American TV shows.
I’ve written many times that Lost is the finest TV show on American broadcast networks, in any genre. Lost officially and unabashedly entered the formal ranks of science fiction with an entire season based on time travel, and now its final season based on alternate universes.
Lost’s quality, though, is not based on its skiffy credentials, but on basic, old-fashioned storytelling. The acting, direction and production are all simply fantastic. The underlying story is, to put it mildly, spellbinding. It’s yet to be seen, of course, whether the pay-off will be worth it, but I have faith.
Why am I so sanguine? Because every season thus far has impressed me with the richness of thought that the writers have imbued in every scene of every episode. Everything has meaning, which might just be the final message of Lost.
3. Babylon 5
Yes, the special effects were laughable at times. Yes, some of the dialogue was cringe-worthy. And yes, this show is probably not very accessible to the masses. So why does B5 rank so highly? Mostly because of its role in history.
See, B5 proved, in the face of a sea of soubters, that arc-based TV was the future. It was the first TV show to have an entire season written by a single person, the legendary producer JMS. He had famously announced his intent to create a show that would prove more popular that Star Trek, and was laughed out of the room. But, for a brief shining moment, he made good on that promise.
B5 was a video novel that unfolded over 5 seasons, and that told a sprawling tale of ancient wars, crumbling empires and personal triumphs. The main characters were complete and flawed, and enjoyed personal cycles that mirrored the grander tale.
And, of course, its final episode –filmed a year before it was broadcast– remains, in my opinion, a Smithsonian-quality achievement, one of the most glorious achievements of narrative television ever.
2. The Twilight Zone
Here’s the thing about The Twilight Zone (the original one, not one of the many failed remakes): watching a given episode was like reading a fine science fiction novel written in the silver or golden age. No other show on this list, with the occasiona =l exception of our #1 entry, managed to fully portray the full meaning and importance of the genre of science fiction.
Skiffy is not about explosions and aliens and fancy technology or weird, otherwordly scenarios. It’s about the meditation on what if. It’s social, political, emotional, spiritual and, above all else, relevant. The Twilight Zone understood that.
1. Star Trek
It will surprise no one that Trek takes the #1 spot. Was it great SF? Not always? Did it have great production and acting? Sometimes, but often not. How was its science? Laughable, but sufficient for the era. But where it shone was in impact and cultural relevance.
Se, Trek put science fiction in a prime time spot, and thus in the living rooms of the world, for the first time ever. It knew how to use SF to explore larger concerns, like racism, sexism, imperialism and war. Sometimes it was absolutely crappy, but sometimes, like “City On The Edge of Forever“, it rose to science fiction splendour.
Many people aren’t aware that the freelance script writers for the original series included some of the greatest names of science fiction, like Harlan Eillson and Theodore Sturgeon (“Amok Time“). Many of its episodes were given the highest honours of the science fiction community; and, to put it bluntly, TV today would not be nearly as colourful, bold or imaginative if it were not for the original Trek.
Many will be surprised that I did not include the new Battlestar Galactica. But you know what? As great as that show was, and as much as it dominated the skiffy forums during its run, now that’s over, no one thinks about it. It had minimal impact on everything except filmmaking style. (The new Stargate: Universe borrows from Battlestar‘s approach, but that’s about it). Its finale was disappointing, and ultimately its skiffy content was questionable.
I adored Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles, but apparently no one else did. Same can be said for Jericho, even though I’m not sure that it can be considered skiffy.
The X-Files? Really? Outside of the aliens, there wasn’t a whole lot of actual science fiction going on in that show. It was mostly Mulder moping and Scully in denial. The writers had no idea what they were doing or where they were going, as proven in the very lame finale.
I’m enjoying Fringe, but it’s too early to tell if it will be great or just another forgotten, big budget ratings grab.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Space: Above and Beyond and Sliders were silly fun. The first was entirely tongue in cheek space opera. The second took itself wayyyy too seriously. And the third was tight, good science fiction, that ultimately forgot its purpose in the later seasons.
The remaining Trek and Stargate franchises were enjoyable, but ultimately do not stand out as major contributions to skiffy culture.
The Night Stalker and UFO are mostly forgotten by today’s generation of TV watchers. But they were important and ground-breaking in their day. Believe me, they both very nearly made the list.
Lasttly, I thought long and hard about Quantum Leap. It’s a great show with a really powerful and poignant finale. But uultimately I think it’s more sic drama than it is science fiction.
So what do you think? Please include your choices in the comments section below.
8 thoughts on “The Top 10 Greatest American Science Fiction TV Shows”
wow….star trek has beat all category and be the best science fiction movie….
As a kid, I remember watching Space 1999 – My strongest memories are of the Eagles, the staple-gun phasers, and one episode where an alien race agrees to take one of the Moon-base’s crew back to Earth. It was kind of terrifying – at least that’s how I remember it…
Not sure it should be in the top 10, but maybe deserves an honourable mention…
I thought about adding Space 1999. But somehow I assumed it was British.
You assumed correctly Dr. Deonandan – I should have searched wikipedia before going on about my memories…
I think this post was secretly a awesome kick off to a potential series of posts about this topic. Most writers pretend to know what they’re preaching about when it comes to this stuff and most of the time, nearly no one actually get it. You seem to really dominate it however, so I think you should start writing more. Thank you!
Thanks for the encouragement, Domingo! I hope you keep reading skiffy.ca.
I am a big fan of B5. My friends think that I’m nuts, and my ex will agree with them. I have no idea if I’m writing too late but I had to let you know that I think I can agree with your assessment of the standing of these stories in the American lexicon. Even as a fan of B5 I couldn’t in good conscience argue with the placement of it behind the two greats of The Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek. That said, i do take exception to the fact that it seems to be a common theme that the special effects were sub standard. What seems to be lost in the mix is that they were the first to use completely computer generated effects and pictures from the Hubble to give them the backgrounds for some of their scenes. The budget for the show was listed as $850,000.00 per episode I believe as opposed to the two million that STAR TREK TNG was getting by the time B5 came into production. Other than that small detail, I love your site and hope you tend it closely. We need more intelligent commentary out there on all fronts.