20. BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979-1981)
Astronaut Buck Rogers, frozen in 1987, returns to a postapocalyptic Earth 504 years later. But dig it: The show, which debuted in disco-tastic 1979, is actually about a totally swinging cat bagging hot future-chicks. The fun is in watching hacky Gil Gerard, a.k.a. ”Lucky Buck,” smirk his way from cleavage-baring space pilots to midriff-revealing aliens to distressed damsels in every corner of the galaxy. Sadly, with every sweet innuendo and outlandish guest star (Jamie Lee Curtis as a penal-colony prisoner? Gary Coleman as a thawed-out genius? Groovy!) in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century comes a plodding sci-fi plot. —Neil Drumming
19. THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (1974-1978)
”Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.” C’mon, after hearing that opening narration, which kicked straight into one of the best themes in TV history, didn’t you either want to be a bionic scientist or an astronaut? That’s the power of sci-fi, baby. Not only does science fiction change lives, it changes your perception of what life could be. Plus, it allows you to fight Bigfoot. —Marc Bernardin
18. THE JETSONS (1962-1963)
Say what you will about this animated sitcom — yes, it’s a dimwitted look at a schlub’s life in a ”world of tomorrow” that’s essentially the flipside of The Flintstones — it defined the future for a generation of children. Jet packs, briefcase cars, moving sidewalks, a robot in every home; tell me, wouldn’t you still love to live there? —Marc Bernardin
13. TOM SERVO AND CROW T. ROBOT
FROM Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1996)
VOICED BY Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) and Trace Beaulieu (Crow)
PROGRAMMING As on the long-running TV series, these wisecracking robots and human custodian Mike Nelson serve as a peanut gallery trapped in space and forced to watch legendarily inept old sci-fi movies ? in this case, 1955’s This Island Earth.
SPECIAL FEATURES They can’t do much ? Tom appears to be little more than a modified gumball machine, while Crow seems a cross between a bowling pin and a box of takeout food ? but their snark capability goes up to 11.
WHY THEY PUSH OUR BUTTONS Watching delightfully bad cinema, they say what we’d say if only we were clever, witty, and fast enough.
16. ALIEN NATION (1989-1990)
So, what if refugees from what seems like another world came to live among us? What if they learned our language, aped our customs, took many of our jobs? How would we treat them? And what would that say about us? That fact that those questions feel like they could be played out in any border town in America speaks to the prescient nature of Alien Nation, which found Earth serving as the new home to an extra-terrestrial race, who are just trying to fit in. While it could be a little too on-the-nose with its social allegories, Nation can still strike a chord, 20 years after its premiere. —Marc Bernardin
15. THE PRISONER (1967)
A handsome secret agent tears into his London headquarters, confronts his superior, and angrily resigns. Content in his decision, he repairs back to his flat to pack for a vacation. Without warning, an ominous gas is pumped in through his keyhole, rendering him unconscious. He awakens in a strange resort-like village, the life he knew, gone. And this all during the opening credits. Cocreated in Britain by star Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner was unlike any other TV show before it: intensely cerebral, subversively allegorical, maddeningly mysterious (no wonder it lasted only 17 episodes). The only thing that you knew for sure was that the nefarious powers that be would stop at nothing to break the will of defiant Number 6 (McGoohan’s character never revealed his name), who steadfastly refused to be ”pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered.” —Marc Bernardin
14. OUTER LIMITS (1963-1965)
Prime-time TV’s first anthology series devoted solely to sci-fi lasted barely two seasons, but it profoundly influenced genre fans, writers, and filmmakers. Creator Leslie Stevens and writer-producer Joseph Stefano favored sober, thought-provoking tales: Alien visitors were prone to admonishing us barbaric, suspicious earthlings; scientists frequently suffered terrible fates after tempting Mother Nature with ill-advised experiments. Although the show failed to live up to ABC’s expectations, it went on to succeed in perpetual syndication.
13. BABYLON 5 (1993-1998)
While I’ve never been an overwhelmingly huge fan of J. Michael Straczynski’s interstellar sci-fi series set on the nexus-like space station of the title, I’ve always appreciated it. It’s not every day — or every decade — that genre fans get a densely plotted, character-heavy series that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator and manages to run for exactly as long as its creator intended. If that was all Babylon 5 did, there’d be cause for celebration. But that it also managed to be good…heck, champagne all around. —Marc Bernardin
12. V: THE MINISERIES (1983-1984)
Monster story. UFO extravaganza. Modern-day allegory of the Holocaust. Such is the miniseries V (and its 1984 sequel, V: The Final Battle), which tracked the invasion and infiltration of alien visitors who only look human (hint: Their skin would make a really nice wallet) and who only appear friendly (hint: They don’t just eat rodents). Although the spin-off weekly series degenerated into a shallow shoot-’em-up, the impact of the original’s bold images endured: Twelve years later, Independence Day would freely borrow V‘s ominous spaceship-hovering-above-Earth’s-major-cities scenes. (We’ll see if the new ABC revamp can pack the same allegorical punch.)
11. FUTURAMA (1999-2003)
The Simpsons plus sci-fi? This combo is more alluring to a geek than watching a Twilight Zone marathon on whippets. With the adventures of Fry, a 20th-century nitwit thawed out of a deep freeze in 2999, Groening’s writers married sharp Simpsonian gags with denser story lines, dazzling animated visuals, and knowing nerd humor. (A voice cameo by Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax and jokes written in BASIC computer language? Talk about downloading right into your pleasure center!) But for all the hilarity of Fry’s misanthropic robot pal Bender, the creativity on display was no joke: Futurama created a fantastically complete and unique world that rivals anything else in the 30th century. (Comedy Central was so enamored with Futurama they’re bringing it back from the dead and producing new episodes.) —Josh Wolk
10. MAX HEADROOM (1987-1988)
Set in a grim video-age dystopia where TV networks have become so all-powerful that it’s illegal for viewers to turn off their sets, Matt Frewer plays both Edison Carter, intrepid investigative reporter for the top-rated Network 23, and Max, Carter’s computer-generated, stuttering alter ego. Despite an intense media blitz, ABC unplugged Max Headroom after only 14 episodes. But over the years a cult following has grown — Max even has his own web site on the Internet — and today the show’s proto-cyber atmospherics couldn’t seem fresher. ”The show spawned a look, with its white light through the smoke and bleak Orwellian future,” says Frewer. ”We laid the groundwork for things to come.” —Benjamin Svetkey
9. DOCTOR WHO (1963-)
The BBC’s timeless Doctor Who is a 45-year argument for proper sci-fi priorities: (1) an ecstatically tangled, infinitely renewable story line and (2) an understanding that all science fiction, however time- and space-spanning, is local. (Top-flight special effects? Not, as it turns out, crucial.) The Doctor, a Time Lord, powerful but dispossessed, hops worlds and epochs like subway stops, but in spirit he never really leaves London. With its playful yet sincere commitment to social allegory, Doctor Who has always been a post-empire fantasy — unerringly progressive, but wary, dark, and full of doubts about human goodness. —Scott Brown
8. QUANTUM LEAP (1989-1993)
A stirring drama touching on issues such as race, feminism, and homophobia, Leap cloaked its social commentary in the guise of time-travelly goodness. The premise was uncomplicated: An experiment gone awry sends scientist Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) bouncing through time, inhabiting the lives, and bodies, of folks from the last 60 years. Only by saving the downtrodden, with the aid of holographic pal Al (Dean Stockwell), can the good doc leap into the next adventure and, maybe, leap home. Bakula was a wonder portraying everyone from an elderly African-American man to a pregnant teenage girl to Elvis Presley, but much credit goes to creator Don Bellisario, who reminded us with each nuanced episode that the human condition — and the comic appeal of cross-dressing — is timeless. —Paul Katz
Number of Episodes: 14
Yet another Fox casualty, this sci-fi Western followed the renegade crew of the ragtag smuggling vessel Serenity. The brainchild of geek icon Joss Whedon, the show featured sharp-tongued dialogue and a wonderfully quirky ensemble cast — current small-screen stars Nathan Fillion (Castle), Adam Baldwin (Chuck), and Summer Glau (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), to name a few. Firefly lasted less than a season, but it spawned a feature film (Serenity), comic books, and a slew of DVD sales.
6. LOST (2004-)
A mysterious island that’s home to a shape-shifting smoke monster, a weird science project tasked with saving the world, and a secret society of sinister ”Others” who can’t make babies — yes, Lost certainly has its fair share of sci-fi stuff. And yet, like the best examples of the genre, this unfolding saga about plane-crash survivors trapped in a tropical twilight zone doesn’t wallow in its genre elements, but uses them to embellish an exploration of identity, community, and reality itself. Coyly sublimating everything from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to Star Trek and Star Wars, Lost aspires to be an important entertainment for a pop-soaked, soul-searching age. Now, at the risk of missing the point, how about some damn answers?! —Jeff Jensen
5. STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994)
Lightning is hard enough to bottle once, but twice? Just the same, Trek godfather Gene Roddenberry gave resurrecting Star Trek as a TV series a go, and in doing so allowed us to take TV sci-fi seriously again. And the masterstroke was casting Patrick Stewart. By signing on as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, the Royal Shakespeare Company veteran gave The Next Generation a gravitas-laden foundation to build on. (Having Brent Spiner as Data and Jonathan Frakes as Commander Riker definitely helped.) As time went on, the writers and producers erected a sci-fi gold standard, tackling subjects as varied as homosexuality, euthanasia, and slavery — all while flitting around the cosmos doing battle with Romulans, Klingons, and the Borg.
4. THE X-FILES (1993-2002)
Once upon a time, the FBI sent no-nonsense special agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) to debunk the crackpot theories of special agent Fox ”Spooky” Mulder (David Duchovny). What they got instead was a conspiracy-fighting team so powerful it threatened to bring down the shady men who’d infiltrated the highest levels of government with their dreams of alien/human hybrid technology. What did we get? One hell of a TV show — even if we never quite got the truth. For the first time since The Twilight Zone, viewers could ponder the mysteries of the universe and get scared silly. From inbred mutants to satanic cults, Mulder and Scully’s darting flashlights lit up some seriously freaky darkness.
3. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2003-2009)
You remember the show, right? Lorne Greene in a shiny cape leading a band of well-coiffed thirtysomethings as they flee from extras in shiny suits? Glen A. Larson’s original ’70s Battlestar Galactica: not the worst by-product of the Star Wars juggernaut, but close. So one could view the unmitigated brilliance that is the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series two ways: (1) They had no place to go but up or (2) it’s amazing they did so much with so little. The core of the Galactica plot — the last human survivors of a catastrophic genocide are on the run from their attackers, the Cylons — carried a new resonance in the wake of 9/11. And in keeping with science fiction’s grandest tradition, BSG tapped into the power of allegory to enrich its outer-space dogfights and military pomp with the gravity of issues like abortion, terrorism, stem-cell research, racism, even the war in Iraq. —Marc Bernardin
2. STAR TREK (1966-1969)
”A Wagon Train to the stars.” That’s how Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to TV execs in 1964. But though his hero, Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), was a classic space cowboy it was clear right away that Roddenberry had more on his mind than laser shoot-outs. Set in the 23rd century, Trek dared to imagine a future in which the human race had evolved in perfect harmony. Such optimism had obvious appeal in an era of anxiety and unrest. But Trek wasn’t just about escapism — it gave viewers a fresh perspective on their own world, with morality plays that were thinly veiled versions of 20th-century Earth problems. Echoes of Trek can be found in every corner of our culture: Witness NASA naming a space shuttle Enterprise. Star Trek didn’t just show us the future — it fashioned our future in its image.
1. TWILIGHT ZONE (1959-1964)
Its very title has entered our lexicon as a metaphor for eerie ambiguity. Which is only fitting, given that its creator, Rod Serling, embodied myriad contradictions. Optimist, naysayer, folksy storyteller, urbane futurist — all got play during the series’ five-year run. Serling camouflaged his secular moralism in fantasy, all the better to hide its bite from nervous CBS execs. But whether dealing with racism, Armageddon, or loneliness, Serling’s message got through — sometimes with a nudge, sometimes with a sledgehammer. The show’s most memorable episodes captured lightning in a bottle in a literate way other programs could only dream of. To television’s flickering shadows, Zone added substance.