The Top 25 Sets of the Past 25 Years

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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!

Genre fiction explores fantastic new worlds and iterations on our own. Set designers are charged with the task of creating these worlds. A poorly thought-out set can’t be hidden by a high-caliber script or a powerful performance. It instantly breaks illusions and drags down the quality of an entire production. A well-designed set, however, can quietly make an alien world feel familiar and the real world seem strange and wondrous. It can fill viewers with awe, or be so instantly believable as to blend into the background.

01

Avenger’s Tower – Avengers

Despite having terrible cell service, Avengers Tower has a hangar for superhero aircraft and a penthouse suite fully stocked Dom Perignon, and runs on clean energy.  Inspired by New York City’s MetLife building, Avengers Tower has been both a home base to the Avengers and a nexus of critical plot point. Spanning multiple franchises within the MCU, the Tower grows and changes as frequently as the heroes that occupy it.

02

Babylon 5

The last, best hope for peace might be easy to scoff at when you first see it. But then you look at its shape and realize that it is an O’Neill cylinder, and suddenly you get it. Like the very show that takes place on it, many of this station’s charms aren’t readily apparent. Babylon 5 was an early adopter of CGI effects, meaning the titular station hasn’t aged well on the outside. The inside is a true product of ‘90s science fiction sets, with all of the baggage that entails. But it grows on you over time, with its underlying ideas overpowering the failures of its low-budget execution. Ostentatious fake paint jobs give way to a place that feels like a breathing, vibrant community. Both Deep Space 9 and Ceres in The Expanse owe huge debts the Babylon 5.    

03

Deep Space Nine – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

At its time, DS9 had one of the most elaborate sets ever built for television. Herman Zimmerman’s design was like no other in Star Trek history. As a former Cardassian station, it needed to have its roots in that aesthetic – but the interior of a Cardassian vessel had never been depicted. This gave Zimmerman very little to build on, so he took his cues from Cardassian uniforms and the exteriors of their ships. The result is an imposing structure that makes no effort to hide its functionality. Where the Federation’s automatic doors open and shut with minimal noise, Deep Space 9’s are loud. The warm, open architecture that defines most Starfleet vessels is replaced with a cold, militaristic interior. As the series progressed, the promenade transformed into a crowded and diverse market-place, gaining vibrancy and life that had been absent in the early seasons.

04

The Dollhouse – Dollhouse

Though Actives won’t necessarily find it all that memorable, the Dollhouse is the perfect example of a striking set. Somewhere between a high-end spa and Lacuna Inc. from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Dollhouse serves as a perfect in-between space. The relaxing atmosphere and warm tones contrast starkly with the dystopian nightmare technology it employs. It’s the perfect place to forget your troubles.

05

The Galactica - Battlestar Galactica

The Galactica set thrives on a paradox. On one hand, it is a grim, bleak place, with sharp corners and a dreary color scheme. On the other, it is the thrumming heart of the fleet, a symbol of hope in hopeless times. The analog nature of the ship makes it feel like a U-boat. There are phones. PHONES. And not even the cordless variety. These retro flourishes are at odds with the conventional idea of a technologically advanced spaceship, but they are the saving grace of the Galactica, allowing it to survive the initial Cylon attack while most of humanity falls. 

06

Gate Room – Stargate SG-1

An elite military squad needs a hi-tech base of operations or what good are there? Iterating on the excellent design from the film, SG-1’s gate room is flashier and more colorful. The “embarkation” room is not only a springboard to multiple adventures, it is also the site of numerous action sequences. With the gate room as its glowing heart, Stargate SG-1 briefly held the honor of longest running North American science fiction television series, until it was overtaken by Smallville in 2011.

07

Halloween Town – The Nightmare Before Christmas

Jack might be bored with routine of Halloween Town at the start of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but viewers are sure to be thrilled and charmed. As one of the holiday worlds, it must hit all the tropes associated with its holiday. Having fun with clichés is one of the most challenging design tasks imaginable, as it is hard to be surprising when working in the familiar. Halloween Town is mesmerizing though, making boys and girls of every age clamor to see its particular brand of “something strange.”

08

The Hatch – Lost

There is magic in taking the perfectly mundane and imbuing it with power and mystery. The design of the hatch wisely lets its context do the work, and presents a functional, straight-forward design. The weirdness and power it has is due to the circumstances around it, not its inherent qualities, and as such it is a prime example of the power of “less is more” in design. Unlike many of Lost’s other mysteries, the hatch ends up getting neatly resolved.

09

The Heart of Gold – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

The size of a “small-ish restaurant”, the Heart of Gold is too small to have a cloaking device but just the right size to house an infinite improbability drive. How do you dress up a set for a ship that quite literally can have anything and everything? In its many incarnations, you make it all blindly bright and fill it with cheerful doors that live to open and close for you and depressing robots that wonder why they bother to go on living at all. The most recent film adaptation follows that template, but adds a nod to the Aries 1B with its circular shape and thin, horizontal bridge window. 

10

Helicarrier – Agents of Shield

Helicopters are cool. Aircraft carriers are cool. Combining them is almost too much coolness for one vehicle. The Agents of Shield utilize a helicarrier that isn’t content to merely be an airborne amphibious home base; it also has ejectable prison cells (for when you want to fling a Hulk at something) and a cloaking device. Though relatively new to the big and small screens, the helicarrier has already inspired other genre properties – most notably serving as a touchstone for XCOM 2’s home base, cheekily called The Avenger

11

The Hive – Resident Evil

Umbrella is a classic evil corporation and, as such, they demand a top secret underground bunker all their own. The Hive is the set that launched a billion-dollar franchise. A hi-tech facility with its own sinister AI, the Red Queen, the Hive mirrors the game franchise by having a variety of unique levels. The laser corridor sequence of the first film is a quintessential scene, one of the greatest death traps in genre history. As good as the design of the Hive is in the original film, its design in The Final Chapter elevates it further and makes this set the perfect bookend to the legendary series. 

12

The Iron Throne – Game of Thrones

The ultimate uncomfortable chair, the Iron Throne is the MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins. The highest seat in Westeros, it appears to have been stabbed about as many times as the show has stabbed our favorite characters. Despite its intimidating appearance, possessing it is the goal of the realm’s major players. The title of the show might make it seem like there are multiple thrones in play, but really this is the only one that matters. Its design is flawless, underscoring both the power required to rule the Seven Kingdoms and how uncomfortable and awful it is to wield such power.

13

Ministry of Magic – Harry Potter

The Ministry of Magic is a brilliant set because it takes the wonder of the Potter-verse and seamlessly blends it with the serious grandeur of a real world municipal building. Like many government buildings, the Ministry features architecture that quietly reifies calcified power structures. No capital building on Earth has a statue that depicts goblins, centaurs, and elves bowing before a wizard, but the Fountain of Magical Brethren feels analogous to the type of sculpture prevalent in many public centers of power. This is a set that not only speaks volumes about its world, but also sharply reflects truths about our own. 

14

Mulder’s Office – The X-Files

Fox “Spooky” Mulder’s office expressively conveys everything viewers need to know about his personality and commitment to the X-Files. It is a messy repository of information and ideas, inhabited by an investigator juggling multiple cases at once. It gains even more power when compared side-by-side to his stark bachelor pad. When seen through Scully’s eyes, both she and the audience gain insight into his deeper struggles. The poster with the UFO proclaims, “I want to believe” not “I believe.”

15

Pale Man’s Room – Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the most unique and haunting fantasy films ever made. The whole film is beautifully designed, but the Pale Man’s room is the showstopper. A feast for the eyes (whether you house your eyes in your hands or on your face), the room is inventive and idiosyncratic. From the striking imagery on its murals to the creepy pile of children’s shoes, it has enough menace in its specificity that the Pale Man himself almost seems superfluous. The grapes are certified organic, but be careful: The staff has a strict “no free samples” policy. 

16

Planet Express Ship – Futurama

The front of the Planet Express resembles an overbite and recalls the way Matt Groening designs his characters. From its “electric mucus” paint job to its ability to outdrink Bender, few spaceships are as much fun as the Planet Express ship. It could feel like cheating that the interior varies wildly from episode to episode, but instead it just contributes to Futurama’s absurdity. Also, it was once voiced by Sigourney Weaver, a claim that can’t be made Serenity, Galactica, or any of the Enterprises. The Planet Express stands tall as one of the most memorable spaceships in genre history.  

17

The Shire – LOTR

The Shire set needs to accomplish an awful lot with a limited amount of screen time. It needs to convey idyllic charm. It must represent the mundane beauty of life lived in harmony, but with more bucolic warmth than Rivendell. Most importantly, it must be a home worth fighting for, something that propels Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin on their quest. Thankfully, Jackson’s design team was up to the task. When we first see this happy village of many meals (most importantly elevensies), we are swept off our hairy feet. We know our heroes are thinking about it throughout the darkest parts of their adventure. At the end of the epic tale, when Sam finally comes home, seeing the Shire again feels like we are returning home with him. It is everything we’ve built it up to be in our memory and at the same exact time we feel the distance our heroes have traveled, and how though their journey has saved this perfect home, it has forever separated them from it.

18

Silent Hill

Silent Hill is the creepiest Everytown, USA imaginable, whether it is Silent Hill, Maine (as it is in the game) or Silent Hill, West Virginia (as it is in the movie.) The designs of the various Silent Hills work well because they bring a (literal) otherworldly quality into mundane reality. These sets function because their innate banality contrasts with the menace of what’s bubbling just under the surface. The foggy abandoned Silent Hill is frightening even without Red Pyramid skinning someone alive or the knife-wielding grey children are running amok. 

19

Stargate

Before Halo made large rings cool, there was Stargate. The eponymous Stargate appears primitive and advanced at the same time, at home in both a high tech military base and an ancient Egyptian temple. The timelessness and simplicity of its design make it one of the neatest looking plot devices in genre history.

20

Sunnydale High – Buffy

“Something weird is going on – isn’t that our school motto?” Xander asks Buffy. And even though she responds affirmatively, the truth is Sunnydale High is normal. Yes, the cafeteria will fill with snakes from time to time, and sure the library (and later the principal’s office) is built over a Hellmouth, but outside of these paranormal quirks Sunnydale is every suburban high school. The set manages to be broad enough to remind viewers of their own high school, but specific enough to feel like a real, fleshed out place. High school is hell. In Sunnydale, that it is just slightly more literal.

21

Serenity – Firefly

Episode 8, Out of Gas, has a memorable scene in which the salesman who ultimately sells Serenity to Mal tells him, “You buy this ship and treat her proper, she’ll be with you the rest of your life.” Thanks to a stellar design, the Serenity will be with Firefly fans for the rest of their lives, as well. Firefly is about outcasts finding a place to belong, and that place is a character all to herself. Serenity lives squarely in the “hunk-of-junk-that-has-it-where-counts” genotype of spaceship, but where it stands out is in how it manages to be everything to anyone. It both has the cake of lots of personality and eats the cake of neutrality upon which any character can be reflected. 

22

Themyscrira – Wonder Woman

Filmed primarily in Italy, the set for Themyscrira is paradise on Earth. With gorgeous, cascading waterfalls and lush tropical beauty, Themyscrira is a vibrant utopia. A stunning, peaceful place defined by its strong feminine energy, it is every bit the opposite of the grim, dreary, and masculine tones that dominate the trenches of World War I. Wonder Woman’s depiction of the banal brutality of war wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it didn’t have this brilliant realization of the home of the Amazons to reverberate against. 

23

USS Enterprise – Star Trek (Reboot)

Every version of the Enterprise has resisted the pull of sharp edges and cramped quarters that plague most space-faring vessels. Both the original series and TNG are iconic designs, but the films of the cinematic reboot have done an exceptional job evolving this concept. The bridge doesn’t cordon off or isolate anyone at their station. Everyone is mixed together in an open space. The captain’s chair is fixed right in the middle, the heart of the crew rather than some distant puppeteer barking orders down from above. The design underscores the most important progressive themes of Star Trek, signaling that everyone has value and contributes to the whole. Except for people down in engineering, but they’re just redshirts.

24

Welcome Center – Jurassic Park

The central hub of Jurassic Park is its welcome center. It is the perfect example of a set that does a lot of heavy lifting, but then blends into the background. The dinosaurs are the main attraction, everything else exists to make the spotlight on them brighter – which the welcome center does perfectly. Anyone who has ever been to a museum or public garden recognizes this type of architecture instantly. It is every visitor center everywhere. Towards the end of the film there is an incredible shot of the T-Rex roaring in the middle of the center as the “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth!” banner falls to the ground. That type of ironic thesis shot wouldn’t have worked if the welcome center hadn’t been a flawlessly executed design.

25

Xavier’s Institute for Higher Learning – X-men

Like many mutants, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters looks like innocuous on the outside, but contains marvels within. To the casual observer, the perfectly trimmed lawns and old academic buildings make the enclave look like a sleepy liberal arts college. To see the Cerebro supercomputers and experimental jet aircraft you must look beyond the surface. The X-Men films do an outstanding job realizing Xavier’s Institute, and it serves admirably both as a home base for the X-Men and as a fun place to blow up.

These were OUR choices from the last 25 years. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which sets you'd most like to hang out on!

And check out the rest of our "25 Greatest" lists here!

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