16 Of The Most Underrated Sci-Fi Shows
Sci-Fi has been the red-headed stepchild of TV for years, forced into bad and shifting timeslots, broadcast with episodes out of order, mocked and ignored. Even though we’re currently we’re going through a period where science fiction has miraculously become a media darling, there were still decades where it was critically ignored as a genre, and during that time some real gems got lost in the shuffle. In this list, we’re going to hold a memorial for those fine shows, now long gone and forgotten.
16. Perversions of Science
I miss the old format of single story shows, the one that developed with the likes of The Twilight Zone. You’d start with an intro by a familiar character: Rod Serling, Elvira, the Cryptkeeper, or someone similar. Then the show would launch into that week’s tale. The format allowed for artfully crafted short episodes, with different casts and tight writing, entirely self contained. Running for a scant season, Perversions of Science had only 10 episodes, but managed to cover a vast array of sci-fi, with some great actors and writers behind it. It skipped between titillation, horror, action, and just about anything else. It was a great little show, and a format that could do with reviving.
15. Aeon Flux
Perverse, surreal, borderline unwatchable, yet absolutely magnificent. Remember when MTV was actually willing to do interesting shows? Aeon Flux was utterly amazing for its time, eschewing continuity and often dialog for the sake of dynamism and action. Creator Peter Chung intentionally created characters who would bend in almost impossible ways due to his frustrations working with limited character motion when he was employed doing Rugrats. That’s right, he was one of the early animators behind the kid friendly family show, who went on to do a cartoon filled with sex, ultraviolence, deposed gods, clones, drugs, and a bunch of things beyond description. Too bad the movie was so crap.
14. Mann and Machine
Flush with success for creating Law & Order, producer Dick Wolf decided to try his hand at combining the police procedural with science fiction with the short-lived Mann and Machine. The eternally hot Yancy Butler starred as a prototype gynoid, partnered with a robot-hating human. Not exactly the most original combination, but one that could be made to work. Long before titles like Ghost in the Shell had penetrated the American market, Mann and Machine was questioning the nature of self and identity within a sci-fi police procedural. Unfortunately, it was before its time. With a bit more of a budget, I completely believe the title could be revived, and something awesome could be made of it.
13. Alien Nation
Long before District 9, Alien Nation told the story of a slave population of extraterrestrials who crashed on earth, trying to assimilate into a non-willing population. Not quite as bleak as the South African story, Alien Nation started as a noir-ish movie, and turned into a surprisingly witty cop dramedy. The newcomer’s society, religion, biology and culture were all expounded on and dealt with in impressive detail, creating a concept of a rich and vibrant (if utterly alien) immigration flood. The greatest thing about it? The human protagonist banged an alien. Oh, like you wouldn’t?
Wonderfalls probably falls more under the banner of “magical realism” than science fiction, but it deserves a shout out for being a really interesting series that Fox killed before its time. They do that a lot, don’t they? The creator was the same guy behind the fantastic Six Feet Under and Amazing Screw On Head, in other words the best shows to never go anywhere. Wonderfalls was about a young woman stuck working in gift shop at Niagara Falls, and inanimate objects keep talking to her. Anything in the shape of an animal will speak up, haranguing her into action. The things she’s told to do often sound bad, and for her seem to go that way, but usually end up making someone’s life a little better. She just ends up being shafted over, and over. It was funny, quirky, and interesting. No wonder Fox killed it.
11. Invasion America
Steven Spielberg produced this 13-episode tale, which has unfortunately never been made available on DVD. The story of a half-alien hybrid struggling to find his identity against the backdrop of a possible alien invasion of Earth, it could have been another boring re-hash of the monomyth. Instead, it delved deeper into the conflict, with multidimensional characters and ethical dilemmas. Sure, sometimes it was pretty textbook, but there was a gem of brilliance there, and an intriguing start. Invasion America was the first animated, prime-time sci-fi mini-series in the country, and was designed to be the first part of an much larger story. Unfortunately, it never continued.
10. The Avengers
Oh, Emma Peel, you do things to me that no-one else can, with your sexy spy ways, and your catsuit. Dat catsuit…and then her as the Queen of Sin? Oh my stars and garters. The Avengers was what a spy-fi show should be. Extremely British, with a dry sense of humor, gadgets galore, and the occasional alien invasion, the exploits of of Mr. Steed and his companions were the stuff of legends. Unfortunately, now no-one seems to remember the Avengers, confusing for the Marvel title, and that abysmal movie from the 90s. Seriously, when putting Uma Thurman in a catsuit can’t rescue your film, then nothing can. The Avengers came to typify everything we wanted out of 60s spies, with Mod fashions, witty one liners, and stereotypical villains. The series even pre-dated the Bond films, and arguably heavily influenced them. Too bad it’s so forgotten.
9. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace
Genre fiction should never be afraid to mock itself, which Darkplace does to perfection. It perfectly recreates a zero-budget 80s horror-sci-fi-medical-mystery show, even though that never existed. The sounds warps from poor quality reels, the acting is wonderfully wooden, continuity non-existent, and everything about the show was absolutely perfect. Racist and misogynistic the show was played as the brainchild of a d-rate horror writer, complete with self-insert character. Garth Marenghi: author, dream weaver, visionary, plus actor, playing Dr. Rick Dagless. It’s a shame the show only lasted a single season, but maybe it’s better that way, as I doubt the magic could have lasted much longer. The spinoff show “Man to Man with Dean Lerner” was great, but not quite as amazing as the original.
8. No Heroics
Another killer British comedy axed after a single season, despite being one of the funniest shows ever to grace the airwaves. Four loser superheroes, who spend most of their time at the pub. The Hotness, egotistical, annoying, and desperately yearning to be famous. Electroclash, daughter of England’s two greatest heroes, more interested in smoking and drinking than saving anyone. She-Force, superstrong, just wishes she could get a boyfriend, and that people wouldn’t notice her for being a superhero. Timebomb: Spanish, gay, alcoholic, expert in torture, with the ability to see one minute in the future. Semi-retired, in it for the money and casual sex. The four of them are completely and utterly ineffectual, and barely friends most of the time. The show almost got re-made in America, but that fell through too. For any serious comic geek, the entire season was packed with in-jokes and references, galore.
7. Max Headroom
For a brief time â€” now sadly forgotten â€” Max Headroom was a cultural milestone. He started as hosting a music show, which turned into a British TV movie, then a US TV series, before the character turned into a celebrity spokesman of sorts. The movie, and to a lesser extent the series, were perhaps the purest distillation of Cyberpunk to hit the small screens. Evil megacorps, hackers, punks, down-and-out journalists, AI, the whole shebang. It was also oddly prescient, predicting the rise of small news crews and reality TV. Sure, by today’s view it seems incredibly dated, and watching Mat Frewer under a pound of latex pretending to be CG is a bit odd, but Max Headroom tapped into a legitimate vein of cultural zeitgeist. 20 minutes into the future is still just around the corner.
6. Nowhere Man
Nowhere Man was a great series in the mid-90s, that effectively killed much of its own appeal with a mammoth letdown at the end of the first (and only) season. Photojournalist Thomas Veil went to the bathroom while at dinner with his wife one night. When he came back, she didn’t recognize him, his credit cards didn’t work, no one remember him, his best friend was dead, and his mother unable to speak. His whole life was gone, and he was nobody, because of a photo he took of an execution in South America. A classic tale of conspiracy, paranoia, and shadowy organizations, Nowhere Man was a perfect fit for the X-Files primed audiences of the time. Unfortunately the season finale ruined the whole thing, exposing that Veil’s memories were all false, and were planted there by the conspiracy. How boring.
Quatermass is perhaps the epitome of the British science hero. Not the showy, spandexed kind who flits about in space, but the professorial patriarch, stiff upper lipped, facing down unimaginable horror with nothing but his own knowledge to guide him. Quatermass was a major influence behind Dr Who, one especially noticeable in the earlier incarnations, the ones more serious and less twee. Professor Bernard Quatermass suffered through alien invasions, satanic dwarves, and hippy cults â€” all in a tweed jacket. Unflappable, gentlemanly, and educated, Quatermass is a gentleman’s hero.
4. Sapphire and Steel
There certainly are a lot of British shows on this list, aren’t their? At first blush, Sapphire and Steel seems to be a sort of Dr. Who rip-off, interdimensional aliens with abstract names fixing timeline problems. There are certainly similarities, but the tone of Sapphire and Steel was much more…creepy. The characters were distant and odd, wielders of superhuman powers, and undeniably “off”. The special effects budget was limited, even by ITV standards, so the producers worked heavily with what they had, intentionally limiting effects to create a more personal tension. Episodes played more like ghost stories than standard sci-fi, asking more questions than they answered, and were jam packed with a feeling of unease. There were only six stories told, each made up of six or so half-hour episodes.
3. Space: Above and Beyond
There was never a greater killer of good science fiction TV than Fox, and S:AB was one of its biggest casualties. Above and Beyond was a remarkably dark and gritty look at a war between humans and aliens. This was not a shiny ship space opera, but a cruel and unforgiving war, filled with death, pain, and dirt. The series delved into AI rebellion, artificially created slave races, drug use, and betrayal. The aliens were intentionally left mysterious up until the end of the season, allowing the writers to focus more on character development than an evil big bad. It’s the sort of show that was the on-screen version of the better class of military sci-fi literature, so it’s not surprising that it got killed so quickly. An intelligent discussion about the horrors of war, set in space? We can’t have that! To put it bluntly, S:AB was Battlestar Galactica before Battlestar Galactica was Battlestar Galactica.
There was never a show more batshit insane, off the wall bonkers, and just generally awesome than Lexx. It was a combined German/Canadian production, which gave it a European view on nudity, namely that they could get away with a lot. The story was absolutely nuts, starring a maintenance man turned ship captain, a sentient world destroying dragonfly ship, an undead assassin, a love slave, and a robot head, all on the run from the evil ruler of the Light Universe. And it just proceeds to get weirder. The set designers had obviously taken huge amounts of drugs then gone pawing through H.R. Giger’s books, as everything was creepy and biological, from the oozing showers, to the insectoid ships. Sometimes funny, often forlorn, Lexx was unlike anything else ever shown on TV. And it’s all available on Hulu!
1. Earth 2
Earth 2 was an utterly genius show that never lived to see a second season. No FTL drives. No lasers. Just a small colony trying to survive in a hostile environment, and trying to decipher the cause of a mysterious disease. Earth 2 stands as a pretty detailed exploration of the Gaia Hypothesis â€” that all life on a planet is linked incredibly tightly. The show did descend into weirdness at some points, with dream travelling aliens, and magic spit, but overall it was extremely well done. Given the sort of psuedo-magic that popped up a bit, the heavily obscured plot, and miraculous healing, you could equate Earth 2 to LOST but in space (but not Lost in Space). Too bad we’ll never see any more of it, or figure out what was actually meant to happen, as nothing past the original 22 episodes was made.