There are many great sci-fi series out there, but in order to narrow it down, the list below only features my favorite kind: shows in which the main characters have to live and work on a spaceship.
Like all good sci-fi, Star Trek: The Original Series mixes action, humor, and philosophy but with the added bonuses of tribbles, short skirts, and Leonard Nemoy. It opened a lot of doors in television and sparked a series of movies and some notable spinoffs that are good in their own right such as The Next Generation (1987), Deep Space Nine (1993), and Discovery (2017). While not every episode holds up to the test of time (something that’s also true of basically every show on this list), it’s still an enjoyable watch.
Red Dwarf is a comedy series. Even the premise reads like a joke. A low-level technician wakes up 3 million years in the future and finds himself isolated on a ship with a senile AI, a highly-evolved cat-person, and an unhappy hologram. Though there is dated humor, there’s also a surprising amount of heart in Red Dwarf. Perhaps the weirdest thing about this long-running, British series (which is saying something) is that it’s still happening. Though there have been many long breaks, the latest installment came out in 2020. If you’re looking for something off-beat and low-tech that doesn’t take itself too seriously this is a good series for you.
This show is about the diplomatic balance between alien races on a space station that is the ‘last, best hope for peace.’ Have you ever asked yourself what would happen if Star Trek’s premise weren’t so inherently optimistic and episodic? You might like this. It’s political. It’s exploratory. It’s philosophical. It has things to say. This series is a true classic in the genre and helped pave the way for the more serialized nature of television in general. Though the first season is a little slow, overall the show is layered and well done.
Astronaut John Critghon gets shot through a wormhole to another end of the galaxy with no way back home. He finds himself on a ship of escaped alien prisoners in the middle of a conflict he knows nothing about. This show has a little bit of everything. Action. Humor. Romance. Torture. Puppets. Though the first season is pretty uneven, when Farscape finds itself it’s truly something to see. It experiments. It stretches the sci-fi genre to its limits without ever truly breaking it (at least not irrevocably). Though it can be a little rough and dated, Farscape is a unique and wild ride that will stay with you.
In this show, smugglers and strangers trying to get by and come together aboard the spaceship Serenity. The cast is phenomenal and the love that the creator, Joss Whedon, had for this series is almost palpable. If you’ve ever watched Buffy or Dollhouse, you will recognize Whedon’s guiding hand in both the humor and the focus on character. If you aren’t currently mad at Fox for canceling Firefly after just half a season was made, you will be after you watch it.
Cylons overtake humanity in this series about survival and hope. Probably the most serious series on this list, Battlestar Galactica is intense and unrelenting. It pulls the audience in with heavy action, philosophical arguments, and memorable characters. It offers lots of politics, subterfuge, and action. There is a reason you have probably already heard of this show. The first two seasons are especially bingeable.
Two best friends get caught in a tangled web of conspiracies and family. From the first episode, this series promises to be entertaining and it delivers. Throughout its run, this show manages to keep itself fun and pretty lighthearted despite some dark circumstances. Though the plot can get a little convoluted, it never loses sight of its characters and it’s fun to watch.
Young members of Starfleet work behind the scenes on a ship that makes second contact with alien civilizations. Though every Star Trek show has its own flavor, this one stands out enough to get its own section. This is neither classic Star Trek nor an update to classic Star Trek. Instead, this animated comedy looks more closely at what all those people Kirk and Spock walked past in the hallway were doing. Though it’s a little more gruesome than early Star Trek installments, it’s still an easy watch.
A futuristic cruise ship gets stuck in space for far longer than planned as the terrifyingly realistic behind-the-scenes happenings of Avenue 5 are exposed little by little. This show, which comes from the creator of Veep and The Thick of It, is in a different vein than the rest. It’s a satirical take on modern life and corporations in a near-future setting. It’s highly entertaining and features a top-notch cast. If you ever felt like your job training was unsatisfactory or your company ran things haphazardly, you might get a kick out of this series.
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