What are the best sci-fi series of all time? Boldly going where no man has gone before, science fiction is one of the cornerstones of genre TV. Exploring brave new worlds, giving actors fascinating roles to dig into, and presenting a moral dilemma or three, a good sci-fi TV series can give plenty of food for thought.
But, if you’re trying to chart a course, what space-age adventure is worth the investment? Time-travelling drama series are cool, but maybe you prefer things metaphysical. And there are how many Star Trek captains, again? Nobody likes having their time wasted, especially not an entire season’s worth to figure out something isn’t for you.
We’ve watched and rewatched many of our old favourites, and a few new arrivals, to create a definitive list of the best sci-fi series for you to explore. Spaceships, clones, cool gadgets, conspiracies, robots of every description, and even some digital monsters, it’s all here. You can go to space, or stay on Earth, find human drama or try to leave us all behind. Either way, hit the telecom – it’s time for beaming up.
What are the best sci-fi series?
- Cowboy Bebop
- Star Trek: Voyager
- Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
- The Outer Limits
- Battlestar Galactica
- The X-Files
- Babylon 5
- Orphan Black
- Doctor Who
- For All Mankind
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Cowboy Bebop (1997 – 1998)
Starting off with one of the best anime series ever, Cowboy Bebop is one of the major crossover hits of ’90s anime. In the year 2071, bounty hunters Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, Ed, and their pet corgi Ein are constantly in search of work aboard their ship the Bebop. They face rivals and personal demons alike in their hopes of gaining lucrative contracts in the intergalactic wild west.
More to binge: The best animated series of all time
Kinetic and thrilling, the seamless blend of futuristic technology with the gunslinging of your average western has been hugely influential. Director Shinichirō Watanabe originally wanted to make a movie, and said that when producing the episodes, he kept that format in mind. The 26 episodes enjoy the grandeur of one with the length of the other, giving the best of both worlds.
Star Trek: Voyager (1995 – 2001)
Including a Star Trek was a given, and no matter which one, it’d be controversial. We’ve gone with Voyager, the ship led by Captain Kathryn Janeway. When her crew is warped into the delta quadrant, they spend years exploring the region while trying to figure out a way home.
The concept of being lost at sea, yet still representing the Federation, makes it a middle ground between the human drama of Deep Space Nine and the moralising of The Next Generation. Sometimes you can really see the barrel being scraped for ideas, but it’s rarely predictable and feels quite singular in the grand canon.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2007 – 2009)
We’ve had several Terminator 3s; this is by far the best one. Subverting the premise of the movies, Sarah and John Connor are warped forward in time, from 1999 to 2007, to prevent another Judgment Day from happening.
A T-900 is on their side, but a T-888 and the FBI aren’t far behind. The show embraces how little the franchise makes sense and stays committed regardless, a younger Lena Headey, of Game of Thrones and Dredd fame, in the lead role.
The Outer Limits (1963 – 1965)
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture.” – if you haven’t seen any of the Outer Limits, you’ve likely seen it satirised or riffed on. ABC’s darker, stranger cousin of The Twilight Zone was often decidedly more morbid than Rod Serling’s anthology, painting a nihilistic future for mankind.
SPACE: The best science fiction movies
Sometimes that means irreversible infection due to space travel, or clones being used as hired killers. One of the more famous episodes is ‘The Zanti Misfit’, where aliens make us use Earth as their prison. Grim, yet riveting.
Digimon (1999 – Present)
Cool kids watched Pokémon, really cool kids watched Digimon. Originally a wave of branded Tamagotchis, the lovable virtual pets became their own franchise, an anime about camaraderie, growing pains, and loss and heartache at the centre of it.
Digital monsters! Best monster movies
A group of kids at summer camp are chosen as the DigiDestined, and transported to the Digital World where they meet their digital monsters – in the late ’90s this all sounded much cooler. Together, they work to defeat the Dark Masters. Each season has another generation of chosen ones, while previous groups pop in as they get older. Disarmingly affecting in its prolonged, ever-changing arcs.
Dark (2017 – 2020)
A show that requires you have its Wikipedia section open to clarify each episode, but in a good way. Winden, a small German town, endures some strange happenings every 27 years, that eventually leads to one generation figuring out it’s at the centre of a rather large time vortex.
Best on streaming: Best Netflix series
Multiple generations of several families are covered in the large ensemble cast, the three seasons getting bigger as they go, delivering answers that only beget more questions. Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese’s experiment is prog rock television, and brilliant at that.
Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009)
Machines have humans on the brink of extinction, except these people aren’t from Earth, and they’re now trying to find it. Ronald D. Moore’s reboot of the 1978 series transforms a pulpy Star Trek-like into prestige sci-fi that’s unabashedly self-serious and grounded.
Spot some UFOs: The best alien movies
Instead of multiple alien races, we have but one, and the robots they built that have almost wiped them out. The Galactica’s crew hold no glory, carrying the shared trauma of surviving a nuclear war, led as best as possible by commander Adama and President Laura Roslin.
The X-Files (1993 – 2018)
UFOs have never had a stronger true believer than agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). He and agent Dana Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) fervent discussions about what’s plausible made The X-Files a great engine for strange sci-fi. Episode to episode, they could be up against sentient black goo, or what’s suspected to be an actual gargoyle, or something completely different.
The truth is out there: Best ’90s TV shows
In its early seasons, Chris Carter’s show had the zest of an anthology with the drive of serial drama. Things get shakier from season six on, when the conspiracy subsumes all other narrative threads. But when it’s great, it’s truly something else.
Futurama (1999 – 2013)
In the world of tomorrow, we have theme parks on the moon, fully autonomous robots, and the housing market is still dire – go figure. Matt Groening’s 31st-century follow-up to The Simpsons has just as much heart on its sleeve amid the far more aloof and unscrupulous plots and ideas.
Fry, a 20-something that’s been cryogenically frozen for a thousand years, joins Planet Express to deliver parcels around the galaxy. He develops feelings for Leela and spends much of his time hanging with robot friend Bender, or any of his other coworkers. Well-placed emotive beats cultivate a strong fondness for the entire cast, and it has the rare honour of sticking two disparate endings. Plus Futurama is back!
Babylon 5 (1993 – 1998)
Well before prestige TV formalised having a set number of seasons, J. Michael Straczynski’s space station drama began and ended as a televisual novel with five instalments. Across a five-year timespan, crewmates aboard the titular neutral vessel navigate intense multi-species conflicts and political dilemmas, all the while dealing with personal relationships.
Take a break: The best adventure movies
The backdrop is given extra emphasis by being the only constant – when anyone is reassigned, even original lead commander Sinclair, they essentially leave the series, letting us share the loss like actual coworkers. Characters ranking up and moving around complement the extensive lore to make the universe feel alive, and worth rewatching again and again.
Orphan Black (2013 – 2017)
In terms of televisual heavy lifting, Tatiana Maslany’s ability to play multiple versions of herself through Orphan Black‘s five seasons is jaw-dropping. When one clone assumes another’s identity, more and more start coming out of the woodwork, leading to a bizarre experiment that’s had global implications.
It’s Maslany’s work that’s the most engaging, her many personalities bouncing off each other without any getting lost in the mix. Graeme Manson and John Fawcett’s mystery isn’t bad either, and it all reaches a satisfying end.
Doctor Who (1963 – Present)
At nearly 60 years old, Doctor Who, the BBC’s flagship programme has managed to do something right, and do it repeatedly. Now 13 lead actors in, the Doctor and their TARDIS is a staple of pop culture that’s brought us, and more than a few companions, on some very wild rides.
A timelord, the Doctor can move within time and space like it’s just a load of, well, timey-wimey nonsense. Not every alien encountered enjoys a visit, mind, but most tend to provide memorable stories. The modern iterations, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith, in particular, are perhaps the most widely known, but every generation has its merits. If the many episodes seem like a chore, err toward the crossovers and whatever the last season is, and work outward.
For All Mankind
What if, instead of the US landing on the moon, it was the Soviet Union, and what if that created an endless space marathon? For All Mankind answers this hypothetical by mixing Mad Men, Star Trek, and The Astronauts Wives Club into a stylish, hard-science drama about where we’d be if Apollo 11 hadn’t happened.
NASA would have rudimentary colonies in space by the ’70s, add another icy front to the Cold War. Politics are constant when it comes to sending people to stars above, proving that solving problems up there doesn’t always help what’s down here. This Apple TV drama from Ronald D Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi handles it all with deft sincerity.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
In-keeping with the perpetual ridiculousness of the radio play and novels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy became a live-action TV show in 1981, refuting preconceptions that it was somehow unfilmable. Director Alan J W Bell translates Douglas Adams’s fantastic, idiosyncrantic concepts into a series that’s remarkably easy-going despite starting with the end of the world.
Simon Jones and David Dixon play protagonists Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, respectively, who’re more amicable than you might expect when they suddenly wind up journeying through space on spaceship the Heart of Gold. Meals at the restaurant at the end of the universe provide all sorts of remedies, and good complement to the eye-catching sets.