I’m going to start this list off by saying that sadly I’ve not seen every example of sci-fi ever made, so this list might be missing some things. In fact, it’s a certainty. There are shows and films I’ve not seen yet such as Expanse and The Arrival, which I’ve heard are amazing, along with a whole raft of others. That said, I’m still going to give it a go and showcase some of my favourite examples of sci-fi:
1) Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
Arguably my all-time, far and away favourite science-fiction show ever. Quantum Leap follows the adventures of Dr. Samuel Beckett (no relation to the playwright) as he bounces around his own timeline and ‘leaps’ into the lives of others and tries to, as the show puts it, ‘put right what once went wrong’. He is accompanied by hologram and old friend Al, a sometimes sex-obsessed aid who helps Sam travel through time and fix the past.
At it’s heart this is a show that aims to put some good back into the world, in an era of doom and gloom Quantum Leap for me is a beacon of what we should all hope to be. It’s a highly moralistic tale of a man who constantly sacrifices his own life to he can help other people. Sam Beckett is the hero that modern tales sometimes forget. Whereas today our heroes must be flawed and imperfect, Sam Beckett strives to always be the best version of himself that he can be. Yes, the stress of his situation can get to him and it makes for some interesting scenes as he struggles to cope with the help of Al. But fundamentally, he is a good man and an amazing role model.
But Quantum Leap wouldn’t be the wonderful show that it is without the friendship between the two main characters, Sam and Al. They don’t seem like likely friends, Sam is highly intelligent, unwavering in his kindness and honourable. Al can be crass, rude and a bit lecherous but as the show goes on it becomes more and more apparant that this is a front to hide the pain he hides from losing his wife to another man. Al’s story is a tragic one of loss and sorrow, he laughs and jokes but underneath the surface is a man that needed help. In his hour of need, when all felt lost, Sam was there for him, as Al is for him throughout the series. The two share an unshakeable bond and it’s that friendship which really makes this show stand out from the crowd.
I watched this show first when I was a kid and it’s stuck with me ever since. It holds a special place in my heart and despite it not having the special effects, big budgets and hardcore sci-fi plot lines of some other shows and films on this list it manages to tell heart-warming and deeply touching stories. It deals with tough topics, mental health disorders, rape and racism to name just three, but it does so in a manner that gives hope. Sci-fi has always been about commenting on modern problems and issues and Quantum Leap does that with senstivity and care, it never passes judgement and always tries to show that no matter how dark things might seem that they can always get better.
2) Back to the Future Trilogy (1985-1990)
Everyone’s favourite time-travelling adventure staring a high-school slacker, a mad scientist and a car that shouldn’t reach 88 mph let alone travel in time. Back to the Future and it’s sequels are classic science-fiction films for the whole family. Though the first one struggled to get going initially, thanks to rejections based on the parental love triangle and the re-casting of Marty McFly, I think everyone who has ever watched them is grateful that they didn’t stay locked in production hell.
The story starts being about Marty McFly, his parents and how the hell he’s going to get them to fall in love after he accidentally made his own mother fall for him instead of his father. But by the third film it’s less about Marty and more about Doctor Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown and his time-travel love story in the Old West. Both characters are loveable and delights to watch, although Christopher Lloyd as Doc was a stroke of genius. He plays the over the top scientist perfectly managing to make him larger than life and yet still feel genuine.
Back to the Future has helped bring sci-fi to a wide audience, made people who wouldn’t consider themselves ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks’, or any other term, enjoy a story based around time-travel. It’s a trilogy that I’ve watched countless times and is my favourite film trilogy of all time. Yes there are plot-holes and yes the special effects aren’t great and the trip to 2015 now seems ridiculous, but there is a magic to the films that is hard to replicate.
3) Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
The first of the two Star Trek mentions that I’ve made, DS9 is the story of space Commander, and later Captain, Benjamin Sisko and Starfleet’s effort to bring peace to the war-torn Bajor which had been occupied by the Cardassians. Of course this is Star Trek so that’s not just it, there’s war, time-travel, and enough phaser fire to make even Captain Kirk wary. But the commentary at the beginning on occupied nations post World War Two is startling to say the least, and DS9 doesn’t shy away from social commentary. In the Pale Moonlight flings Sisko back to the 1950s where he struggles with racism, The Visitor deals with loss and grief as Jake Sisko struggles through a life without his father. It also tackles war, whether Starfleet is really a ‘good’ institution and the complexity of spying and double agents through the guise of Garak, a Cardassian spy who insists he’s a tailor.
All of these themes are not for the casual viewer, DS9 is arguably the most thought-provoking and challenging series of Star Trek. Unlike The Next Generation the characters all argue, fight and are not perfect. Their flaws are there for everyone to see, Sisko in particular is a man who struggles with following his moral compass in the seemingly impossible grey areas that he continues to find himself in.
One of the most intriguing episodes, which is often over-looked, is Dax. Unlike the beloved In the Pale Moonlight this episode came in the first series when the show was just finding its feet. It asks the question of whether Jadzia Dax, the latest in a long line of Daxs who move from host to host (similar to how the Doctor regenerates in Doctor Who), is guilty of a crime committed by her previous carnation Curzon. Not only does this episode explain the Trill, the relationship between Sisko and Dax and examines the idea of whether guilt can be transferred from host to host. Each host is different, adds a new personality and elements to Dax, but the symbiont (the creature inside that is Dax) stays the same. The exploration of such a complex issue and an alien culture shows that this show isn’t scared to deal with heavy topics and it’s this that makes DS9, for me, one of the best series of the Star Trek franchise.
4) Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)
My other pick of Star Trek, I know it’s unusual for fan of Trek to not be in love with either TOS or TNG. They’re okay, but for me Star Trek really got into it’s stride when Voyager and Deep Space Nine were running. By that point Star Trek was an established franchise with a loyal fanbase and this meant experimentation. With Deep Space Nine that meant a space station and the tensions of an intergalactic war, for Voyager it meant a crew divided (initially) by ideological tensions, a TV look at the Borg and a female captain: Captain Katherine Janeway. It still had the same format as the original two series, explorering space, finding aliens and admiring the wonder of the galaxy but it did so in the Delta Quadrent. This was a portion of space we had never seen and it meant new aliens, new planets and the dominant threat of the Borg.
The Borg introduction at the end of series three and the beginning of series four were for me where this series came into its own. Seven of Nine was an amazing creation, intelligent, acerbic and a crew member who didn’t want to be there but came to love her fellow crew and accept her humanity. The Borg themselves were actually a terrifying enemy, seemingly unstoppable and unable to be reasoned with. Their catchphrase ‘Resistance is Futile’ is pretty accurate as they assimilate more and more races which just adds to their power.
The crew of the Voyager is also one of my favourites in the franchise, they are all fantastic characters but stand-outs are: The Doctor, Seven of Nine, Janeway and Tuvok. Neelix also adds a welcome sense of comic relief and constant chirpiness, though this dies down in the later series as his role shrinks. But each member of the crew is important and goes on their own journey of change and self-discovery. The isolation of their situation encourages a sense of self-inspection and improvement. This is perhaps exemplified by the EMH or Doctor, a simple computer programme at first who later becomes a fully developed and realised being filled with desires, emotions and ambitions. He’s rude, ambitious, musical and egotistical. Hardly the defining characteristics of what should have been nothing more than a glorified laptop. He is a machine and this is something Voyager discusses time and time again as the character develops.
If Deep Space Nine tinkered with the tried and tested formula, Voyager returned to the roots of Star Trek. There’s that sense of wonder, awe and joy at exploration but also the classic good vs evil conflicts that were such a key part of the Kirk era. For two an example of sci-fi at its best, its most meaningful and faceted any series of Star Trek is hard to beat.
5) Bicentennial Man (1999)
Speaking of machines that want to be human, Bicentennial Man centres around the question of whether humanity is strictly limited to the biological and can a robot ever be deemed to be human? A film inspired by the sci-fi legend that is Isaac Asimov, Bicentennial Man gets little of the credit it deserves. Panned by critics and not eagerly picked up when it went on sale as a VHS and then DVD this film is a hidden gem that many people dismiss.
Andrew Martin, the robot owned by the Martin family, is special. He is creative, inquisitive and imagines a better life for himself. He can feel love, heartbreak, grief and guilt. He’s more than a machine, but his manufacturers think that he’s simply broken and do not accept him for the truly unique being that he is, in fact most of humanity fails to do so.
The films follows Andrew’s struggle as he attempts to become more human but also asks questions on life, why do people fall in love if only to be sad when that love eventually ends? Andrew can live forever, but that long of a life span comes with a cost and he begins to question the meaning of his existence. But most of all he simply wants to be recognised for what he is, or at least what he thinks he is, a human being. Can a machine be human? Is the soul something only monopolised by humanity? What does it even mean to be considered human?
These are the questions which drive Andrew’s journey as well as his love for the Martins, some of whom adore him and other believe him to be a freak. Andrew’s existence drives a wedge in the family again exposing the fragility of relationships. But instead of being a cynical commentary on the fleeting nature of existence, Bicentennial Man is a story which acknowledges that while everything will always have its time that doesn’t make it unimportant.
This film left me deeply caring for a machine and it is worth saying that Robin Williams gives a masterful performance as Andrew Martin. For anyone wanting a story driven film, a sci-fi with character and heart, then there is no finer example. There are barely any special effects and that helped the writers to create a truly touching tale of a robot who just wants to be accepted.
6) Doctor Who (1963-present)
Over fifty years old and still going strong, Doctor Who is the story of a timelord in a seemingly magical machine flying around in time and getting into scrapes and daring adventures with the odd companion or two by his side. Over the years the show has had many faces, much like the Doctor himself, and never stays the same as it continues to move forwards from generation to generation.
But the longevity of this show rests in the character of the Doctor himself, though he changes his face and personality from time to time there are fundamentals that will always remain the same. He’s a caring, lonely man who got bored of the humdrum existence of a people sworn not to interfere in other races destinies. Despite fifty years with him we know barely anything about him, but he is always there to save the day and tries to do the right thing.
There are people, and I am sometimes among them, who complain about the direction the show has taken over the last few years. I only do so because I care so much about the show which was such a key part of my childhood. Doctor Who should be family friendly fun, a romp around space and time, educational, escapist wish-fulfilment that is true to the core beliefs of its hero. It doesn’t have to stay the same, in fact it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if it did. The beauty of it is that it is always changing, one week can be set in Ancient Rome and another off on some distant planet fighting monsters.
7) Firefly & Serenity (2002-2003, 2005)
I can’t make a list about sci-fi without mentioning the beloved Firefly, adored by millions and cancelled by Fox this show is perhaps one of the most missed and treasured pieces of sci-fi in recent history. A western in space, it uses all of Joss Whedon’s classic humour, colourful characters and engaging story telling to give us a single series and one film’s worth of joy and the crushing sadness that that is it and it always will be.
Firefly uses the ensemble cast and space ship formula tried and tested by Star Trek and puts its own spin on things. A gang of widely different and vivid characters struggle to deal with life after a galactic war that left Malcolm Reynolds and his number two Zoe on the losing side. The Alliance now controls the galaxy and Reynolds and his crew are forced to take on shady business to stay afloat and survive in this somewhat bleak future.
Though we never got to see the true extent of the Alliance’s power, corruption and influence its safe to say after the events of Serenity that they are not nice people. Whedon almost appears to be inspired by Star Wars here as the Alliance is a huge galactic organisation that intends to rule with an iron fist, must like the Empire. The obvious good and loveable rogues against the clearly evil or bad government is an old story, but Whedon is able to weave elements like these together into a refreshing tale about survival and family with characters that anyone can fall in love with.
Serenity provided some much needed resolution and whilst it isn’t perfect – River’s escape varying wildly from the established version in the show, for instance – it does an amazing job of wrapping everything up and giving these characters the ending that they needed but not necessarily deserved. More series would have been the better way of telling that story, fleshing it out and giving the depth that Whedon’s creations always thrive off of. The space and time to breath and tell their individual stories would have been incredible, but sadly it wasn’t meant to be. Yet, the film provides closure and the series is a must watch.
8) Red Dwarf (1988-present)
This BBC sci-fi sit-com doesn’t take itself seriously, deal with ideological issues or create a world in which to explore the social issues of the day. It’s essentially arguing in space with steadily improving sets, guns and quarries that masquerade as alien worlds. There are some episodes which deal with psychological issues Confidence and Paranoia, Back to Reality, Justice, The Inquisitor and Polymorph (to name a few) and some of the social commentary is subtle. But mostly Red Dwarf is about the relationships between its main characters, Dave Lister (the last human alive), the Cat (a feline humanoid), Arnold J. Rimmer (Lister’s holographic superior and bunk mate) and Kryten (a mechanoid) and how they constantly argue and get at each other’s throats.
For me, Red Dwarf was at it’s best between series 1-6, 7 and 8 tried and failed with a new format and cast members and 10 and 11 are attempting to rekindle the old flame which made viewers fall in love with this useless bunch of heroes. Unlike most sci-fi crews, the crew of the Dwarf are utterly incompetent, sometimes cowardly and often ill-equipped to deal with their numerous space battles, laser fights and that one time where Rimmer was responsible for creating an world filled with his own narcissistic, back-stabbing, treacherous image. They are a merry band of misfits more like normal people than the elite squads of the Enterprise or U.S.S. Voyager.
This is primarily due to where the shows originate, America celebrates heroic deeds and loves a dashing hero; whereas England, as put by the national treasure that is Stephen Fry, celebrates failure. We’re a country that has produced some of the best sit-coms that are centred around self-deprecation, Only Fools and Horses, Blackaddar, Black Books and many more besides. Red Dwarf comes from that same culture of poking fun at failure and enjoys a sometimes sympathetic but always rubbish hero. Each member of the Dwarf crew is flawed, Lister is a lazy space bum, Rimmer is a ego-maniac who blames all his failings on his family, the Cat is a shallow, selfish creature and Kryten is constantly absorbed by guilt and its hilarious and utterly captivating. You love the characters because they’re so incompetent and sympathetic. Everyone knows people like that and this helped to make the sci-fi more realistic and viewers to enjoy some of the more traditional reflections on society and questions of morality that are often associated with sci-fi.
9) Galaxy Quest (1999)
Remember when I said Star Trek was a series of TV shows and films that provide stories about exploration, love, humanity and engage with sometimes dark and meaningful themes? Well, Galaxy Quest doesn’t do that. Instead it’s a spoof of The Original Series of Trek that acts as a love letter to the show, poking fun at the tropes that developed, examining the real tensions between the actors as they went to convention after convention whilst beginning to hate one another (Shatner and Nimoy), and creating a film interpretation of the loyal fanbase that kept the show going even after it was first cancelled.
Tim Allen plays Jason Nesbitt (totally not William Shatner), a minor celebrity who rose to fame off the back of Galaxy Quest and who is absorbed by his own ego that he doesn’t notice his friends and co-stars slowly beginning to hate him. They are all forced together though as a race of aliens, who believe that their televised adventures are historical documents and therefore real, ask for their help in fighting Sarris who is intent on destroying the last of their species. Despite being actors they save the day, beat the bad guy and become friends again. This isn’t a spoiler, that was always going to happen, it’s a film inspired by Star Trek: The Original Series where good always won.
What’s so interesting about this film is how each character represents a certain trope within the franchise, Guy is a ‘red shirt’ to unimportant enough for a last name, Alexander plays the alien with cheap make-up, Gwen is the token female part, while Tommy provides ethnic diversity and Fred plays the part of Scottie, engineer and comic relief. Yet, like quite a few parodies, this doesn’t feel like its trying to make fun of its inspiration. If anything it’s a playful homage, a film by fans that enjoys pointing out some of the classic elements of the old sci-fi leviathan but does so in a respectful manner. More importantly than that, the characters themselves are actually a lot of fun and by the end of the film you care about them. By making them actors who play the crew what Galaxy Quest is able to do is show the tropes whilst creating new characters and thrusting them into this very real and dangerous encounter. Sure, some of them were inspired by the actors who played characters like Kirk and Spock, for example. But Nimoy and Shatner were never forced to deal with real life aliens and this gives Galaxy Quest the chance to be its own film and not recycle old material.
10) Demolition Man (1993)
When I was making this list I almost didn’t include Sylvester Stallone’s action adventure Demolition Man. But, if I was going to include Red Dwarf a hybrid like this, I couldn’t disregard it. Demolition Man is an undeniably adrenaline enhanced take on a future world, like 2000 A.D. but less serious and more about explosions and witty one-liners. But despite it perhaps not being the most hardcore of sci-fi films, it is undeniably an enjoyable film and has for a very long time been among some of my favourite to watch.
It is, let’s face it, ridiculous. John Spartan is pulled from cyro-sleep to chase down Simon Pheonix, who is a psychopath. The logic is: ‘we need an old fashioned cop to catch an old-fashioned killer’. The police have forgotten how to deal with brutal murderers as crime has all but been eradicated, as shown by Sandra Bullock’s Lenina Huxley being useless in just about every action sequence in the film. Stallone, in his usual manner, blows up everything and anything that moves until he finally gets his man and wins, leaving a trail of carnage in his wake and, if this was anywhere near reality, a tonne of paperwork and a schedule filled with hearings to explain his reckless conduct. But this isn’t reality, it’s a Stallone film and so guns and stunts are the solution and nobody seems to really mind all that much.
At this point, Demolition Man could seem like just another action film with just a sci-fi background. But actually, underneath all the shouting and gunfire there is actually a story that revels in its sci-fi setting to talk about the nature of crime, what drives people to rebel against the law and if government is actually benign. Underneath the surface of this supposedly perfect world, it’s clear that everything isn’t really that rosy after all. Criminals are just starving for wanting to live free of complete governmental interference and the shady figurehead of this new regime is the one that woke Pheonix up in the first place and enhanced him to become a lethal killing machine.
Demolition Man then is more than just an action film, it has a good plot and watching Sylvester and Wesley Snipes back and forth as they attempt to kill one another is thoroughly entertaining, which is what the film set out to be. It didn’t intend to rival the sci-fi giants, it wanted to be a fun ride for viewers to enjoy and it succeeded in that. But, if they want to look, there is also a dark and twisted future that could reflect the real world all too closely and that’s why it’s on here as one of my sci-fi films to watch.
So, there you have it a list of some of the science-fiction I love, from the serious to the ridiculous and with everything in between. If there’s anyone who can think of something I missed or suggest something which you think I might enjoy then feel free to leave a comment.