The 25 greatest sci-fi TV series of the past 25 years

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Sep 15, 2017

September 2017 is SYFY's 25th anniversary, so we're using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We'll be doing two "25 greatest" lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back.

Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.

What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!

The past 25 years has seen TV rise from its status as cinema’s second banana to a storytelling format that draws the biggest names in entertainment both behind and in front of the camera. It’s no surprise (to us, anyway) that a lot of what makes up "prestige" TV has fallen into one of the genres we cover. Here's our look back at 25 of the science fiction series that helped us get where we are, Golden Age-wise. Note: Fantasy series are coming later, y'all. 

babylon 5 centauri festival

Babylon 5

J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5 is a seminal work of science-fiction, molding a story set hundreds of years in the future that blended religion, political rivalry, and space exploration into one beautiful canvas. The characters evolved as the series went along, and in a way, it was the anti-Star Trek (at the time), taking a more mature approach to the genre and set in a world where everyone doesn’t just get along. The series also pioneered the use of CGI effects, moving away from the models and practical effects that had been so prevalent in genre shows up to that point.

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Batman: The Animated Series

Animated series or not, this is arguably one of the best takes on the Dark Knight ever put to screen. Period. From the jump, Batman: TAS was designed to be a more timeless take on the character, from the look of the show to the stories it tried to tell. And it worked. Decades later, fans are still falling in love with this version of Batman. Bonus points for introducing the world to Harley Quinn, as well. (Note: Some could argue this is fantasy, but we're putting it in the sci-fi camp because of its detective roots. Arguments could be made this should be on our fantasy TV list).

Battlestar Galactica: The Last Jump to Earth

Battlestar Galactica

The modern-day reboot of the cheesy, 1970s sci-fi series was turned into a post-9/11 lens through which to grapple with the ideas of war, humanity, and what it means to survive. Creator Ronald D. Moore crafted one of the most compelling shows of the past few decades, laying out a drama where even the bad guys were sometimes more compelling than the heroes we’d been following in the Galactica’s fleet. To this day, it’s the standard most space-set sci-fi shows aspire to reach.

Black Mirror S03E01 Airport scene

Black Mirror

This anthology series is basically The Twilight Zone if it were made on the bleeding edge of technology, telling one-off stories that tackle everything from our obsession with reality TV to how technology can warp the ways we grieve the dead. The show’s format has allowed for all kinds of stories to be told, but almost all of them are set in a terrifyingly familiar five minutes in the future, which makes the drama all the more unsettling.

Sad Cowboy Bebop Scene

Cowboy Bebop

This acclaimed late '90s anime series is one of the best the genre has ever produced. Set in a future in which the Earth has largely been made uninhabitable, Cowboy Bebop followed bounty hunters as they tracked down criminals on the rocky planets and moons where humanity has made its home. Critics positively raved about the way the series deftly approached the story, and the characters who populate it, with some calling it the sweet spot at the nexus of John Wayne, Elmore Leonard and Philip K. Dick. Doesn’t that sound like something you positively have to see?

Donna Noble Has Left The Library - Silence In The Library - Doctor Who - BBC

Doctor Who

The cult hit British sci-fi series reclaimed its throne with a modern day revival, casting stellar actors such as David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi in the role of the time-traveling Doctor. The show’s wide-open premise — a rogue alien, usually accompanied by a young woman, traveling anywhere in time and space — has made for some fantastic episodes over the years. From space-set horror, to mind-bending one-offs, and historical stories that weave into real-life figures, Doctor Who has it all.

THE EXPANSE | Season 2, Episode 5: 'Miller Meets Julie' | SYFY

The Expanse

The Expanse has been hailed as Game of Thrones with space ships due to its ambitious approach to storytelling (sadly, no white walkers in space, though there is a protomolecule causing a lot of trouble), and it’s only gotten bigger and better as it goes along. The world-building is beyond impressive, with entire off-shoot languages that have evolved in this future version of our own solar system, all wrapped around well-rounded characters digging into a conspiracy that could lead to all out war.

Farscape: The Flax, final scene

Farscape

This story of an astronaut who gets sucked through a wormhole and dropped in the middle of a wild, alien world is one of the best sci-fi shows you quite possibly didn’t watch. Over the course of its run, Farscape built a rich and fascinating world, creating some of the most memorable villains to ever grace the small screen (Scorpius, anyone?). It also explored the concept of home and family, as Crichton finds his true calling and the love of his life billions of miles away from Earth.

Firefly: Train Job (choice)

Firefly

If all the fans who have seen it now would’ve seen it then, Firefly would’ve broken ratings records. Joss Whedon’s short-lived space cowboy series has become the de facto one-season wonder, and has found a legion of fans in the years since Fox pulled the plug. Thankfully, all the love is well deserved. Firefly put together a motley crew of future stars and set them off on the wild west of space, with a clunky space ship, a whole lot of Whedon-esque humor, and a deep sense of family to tie them all together. It was pure magic, and we’ll always have “The Train Job.”

The Flash - Epic Ending Time Travel Scene (S1. Ep.15)

The Flash

It might’ve started as a spinoff from Arrow, but the Flash has arguably taken up the No. 1 spot in The CW’s DC universe. The series is one of the most accessible, and fun, superhero stories to ever grace the small screen — and serves as a template for how to take this material seriously, but not too seriously. Plus, all these years in, they still find a way to keep that super-speed from getting boring.

Fringe - Best Scene!!!

Fringe

It was never the biggest hit, and often gets forgotten in the shadow of J.J. Abrams’ much bigger TV success (a little show called Lost), but Fringe more than earned its place in the sci-fi pantheon. It’s basically The X-Files reimagined for the modern day, but instead of a confusing alien invasion conspiracy narrative, there’s a family drama at the center of a battle brewing between alternate realities. It’s big, smart, icky, and has a mountain of heart. It also perfected the art of telling a Monster of the Week story that actually moves the plot forward in a meaningful way (just go watch “White Tulip” for a master class).

Jurrasic Bark Ending.

Futurama

Simpsons creator Matt Groening traded suburbia for the far-flung future with Futurama, and created one of the smartest and funniest shows ever along the way. Following the story of a slacker who accidentally wakes up 1,000 years in the future, Futurama tackled everything from potential robot takeovers to our obsession with smartphones. it also told stories with a ton of heart around these characters, and even branched out from its concept with one episode framed around the story of the family dog Fry left behind when he was frozen (just watch “Jurassic Bark” and try not to cry).

The Handmaid's Tale 1x04 by Hulu : Final Scene (1080p)

The Handmaid's Tale

Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale was a breakout hit that used the classic novel to explore real issues about women’s rights that still plague our society today. Set in a world where the birth rate crashes and fertile women are basically taken as slaves in an effort to repopulate the Earth. It’s smart, dark and positively horrifying. The A-list cast of Elizabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, and Alexis Bledel also make the most of the excellent material.

Talked About Scene: Episode 105: HUMANS

Humans

Telling a story about artificial intelligence and what it truly means to be human, AMC's Humans is an under the radar hit that is doing some of the most clever and ambitious sci-fi storytelling you’ll find on television today. It zeroes in on how the creation of “synths,” basically androids with artificial intelligence, would affect the world we live in, from a psychological to cultural standpoint. It also manages to wrap all those ideas in a taut, thrilling package that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Man in the High Castle Season 2 - Opening Scene | Amazon Prime Video

The Man in the High Castle

With Netflix stealing most of the limelight, Amazon was looking to make a splash with a high-concept drama. The streaming service rolled the dice on the Philip K. Dick adaptation Man in the High Castle, and a reality-hopping, alt-history hit was born. The series imagines a world where America is no more, and the Nazis rule most of the United States. It’s a fascinating window into just how different the world could be, as it digs into the stories of those trying to survive in this bizarre, yet strangely familiar, world.

Misfits - Videogame (Clip)

Misfits

What happens when a group of teenage misfits get supernatural powers? That’s what Misfits hilariously, and cleverly, aimed to find out. It was dark and funny, but never took the bait to get too goofy with its premise. The show’s mix of humor, action and effects made it a hit in England, and the series also jumped the Atlantic to find more than a few fans in the U.S., as well.

Orphan Black Finale 4 Clone Dance Scene

Orphan Black

This series will go down in history as one of the most criminally under-watched shows ever made. Tatiana Maslany starred as a half-dozen or so different clones, all working to unravel the mystery around their own existence. It’s smart, twisty, and one of the best psychological thrillers to ever hit television. Maslany's performance(s) alone make it worth watching.

Rick and Morty - You pass Butter

Rick & Morty

Co-created by Community's Dan Harmon, this Adult Swim animated series has become a cult hit that reaches far beyond its slot on Cartoon Network's late night schedule. Born as a Back to the Future parody, the series follows a mad scientists and his grandson as they go on all kinds of misadventures in the multiverse. The show is both hilarious, and hilariously clever, and tackles everything from existentialism to Nietzsche through the lens of a hapless, animated family.

Sense8 — Sun Bak Fight Scene (Call me bitch one more time and I'll kill you.)

Sense8

This globe-trotting sci-fi drama brought together an assembly of disparate figures through shared dreams and emotions, and slowly peeled away the layers to create a fascinating human drama. The show comes with a high-profile pedigree, with the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski mapping out the concept. Sense8 has also been praised for its approach to LGBTQ characters. Sadly, Netflix pulled the plug on the show after two seasons — but work is underway on a two-hour movie, which will drop in 2018, designed to wrap up the story.

Sliders Season 2 Intro

Sliders

Sliders had an endlessly interesting presence: a ragtag group travels to a different parallel Earth each episode. Sometime the changes are subtle (green means stop, red means go) and sometimes they are drastic (dinosaurs are still around). But they were never, ever boring. 

Stargate SG1 - The Final Scene

Stargate SG-1

One of the longest running TV franchises in history, Stargate SG-1 is basically sci-fi comfort food in the best possible way. It featured a throwback approach to the days of Star Trek’s morality plays, and the near-limitless concept of a literal portal to anywhere never did get old. Over more than a decade, the Stargate universe grew to include myriad alien races, civilizations, and spaceships galore — but it never lost the heart that kept bringing people back to SG-1 through the 'gate week in, and week out.

Star Trek DS9 - Episode 218 - Elim Garak and Quark on Sentiment and Love

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

This series was a breath of fresh air for a franchise bordering on becoming stale, shifting the action from a starship onto a space station, and tackling themes of religion and bringing more long form storytelling into the world of Trek. It was also the first Trek show that let the cast clash, bending franchise creator Gene Roddenberry’s longtime moratorium on internal conflict. The show is also notable for featuring the first black captain in franchise history.

The Walking Dead 5x08: Beth's death scene

The Walking Dead

Robert Kirkman’s hit comic made the jump to television and proved the medium could have massive potential — and is a big part of why we have so many comic shows on television now. The show has become a cultural phenomenon, with fans stressing over every tease, every line, every hint, and every gruesome death. All these years in, and folks still can’t get enough of the shambling walkers — or Rick and his gang trying to carve out a life surrounded by them.

[Westworld] Maeve "You think I’m scared of death"

Westworld

What makes us human, and how should we treat others who aren’t? That’s just one of the questions tackled in HBO’s ambitious and mind-bending sci-fi drama. Critics raved about how it honored the source material, Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, but the real feat is how far beyond it took the concept. Critics raved about how it seamlessly blended genres, jumping from sci-fi to western to psychological drama and back again from scene to scene.

The X-Files Hollywood A.D. Bath Scene

The X-Files

The OG sci-fi series of its era, The X-Files is one of the first modern day genre shows to generate a massive, devoted fandom that positively devoured every morsel of Mulder and Scully’s adventures. It pioneered the use of long-form, narrative storytelling, and would inspire a generation of shows that would follow. Sure, it wasn’t always great toward the end — but The X-Files at its best stands above almost any other show. Period.

Those were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours?  Let us know in the comments which sci-fi television shows of the last 25 years you’d put on your list? And check out our complete "25 Greatest" lists here.