10 of the best science fiction TV episodes that ever aired

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012

Science fiction has been a television staple for the past 60 years. And of the thousands of episodes that have been produced in that time, we've chosen 10 of the most memorable, transcendent hours of sci-fi TV -- the best the genre has to offer. As always, your mileage may vary, but if you wanted to show an alien civilization how we feel about our own tomorrow -- as well as how we view ourselves today -- these episodes are a good place to start.

What would your personal Top 10 episode list look like? Let us know in the comments.

STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES "City on the Edge of Forever"

Airdate: April 7, 1967
Written by: Harlan Ellison
Why it's great: You will believe a Kirk can cry. Oh, yes. As the captain of the Enterprise and his science officer chase a wild-eyed Bones through a temporal portal, they find themselves in the New York of the Great Depression. There an inexorably cascading series of events makes him, finally, heart-rendingly, face a very personal no-win scenario: save the woman he loves or maintain the sanctity of the space-time continuum. Joan Collins has never been more luminous as the saintly relief worker Edith Keeler.

Interesting notes: Ellison's original script was too long for broadcast, so many of Star Trek's staff writers -- including creator Gene Roddenberry -- took turns whacking it down, much to Ellison's displeasure.


Airdate: Oct. 11, 1996
Written by: Glen Morgan and James Wong
Why it's great: Chris Carter's groundbreaking, pantsquaking show was never better than when it brought the insanity of the outside world inside. And meeting the Peacock family -- a batch of powerfully inbred hill folk who pop on Mulder and Scully's radar after a misshapen infant is found murderered -- is an experience in the homicidally grotesque that burrowed into viewers' consciousnesses like few episodes before it. "Home" carries an old-school, Texas Chain Saw Massacre charge, with a new-school, subversively comedic charm.

Interesting notes: This episode was allegedly inspired by a story in Charlie Chaplin's autobiography in which he visited a family who kept their limbless son under the bed.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE "The Eye of the Beholder"

Airdate: Nov. 11, 1960
Written by: Rod Serling
Why it's great: How badly does Janet Tyler want to fit in with the rest of the beautiful people in her beautiful village? So badly that when we first meet her, her face is swathed in bandages after her 11th operation to make her look "normal." This being The Twilight Zone, we know that normal won't mean what we think it does. Also, this being Twilight Zone, we'll enjoy every lush moment up until the shockingly logical twist ending that realigns everything we'd seen before. It's hard to pick the best episode of a show whose misses are still terrific, but "Beholder" plays with such universal emotional content it's hard to overlook.

Interesting notes: Of the 29 episodes of TZ's third season, Rod Serling wrote 20, including "Beholder," "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" and "The Obsolete Man." He was, for a while, the hardest-working man in show business.


Airdate: Dec 14, 1999
Written by: Joss Whedon
Why it's great: When a group of floaty spectral demons known as the Gentlemen visit themselves upon Sunnydale and steal everyone's voices -- in advance of their hearts -- Buffy and the Scoobies must execute the standard "save the world" maneuver, all while wrestling with a powerful set of communication issues. If you can't talk, what lies can't you tell? What truths must you swallow, even if you don't want to? Some may call this dialogue-free episode a gimmick, but it's only a gimmick if it doesn't work. And "Hush" accomplishes everything it sets out to do: namely, to create a world where words just get in the way.

Interesting notes: "Hush" is the only episode in the entire run of Buffy to have been nominated for a Best Writing in a Drama Series Emmy.


Airdate: Jan. 14, 2005
Written by: Ronald D. Moore
Why it's great: Every 33 minutes, without fail, the Cylon fleet attacks. A sleep-deprived crew of the last Battlestar must protect the ragtag fleet of Colonial refugees long enough for them to jump to safety. And then reset the clock and do it again, just as they've done more than 200 times previously. This was the first episode of BSG, after the miniseries, and it perfectly established the tone of the show that would follow: tense, harried, hopeful, mindful of real-world necessity, earnestly attempting to snatch survival from the jaws of defeat. Plus, even a sleepy Starbuck is hotter'n Georgia asphalt.

Interesting notes: "33" won a 2005 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

THE OUTER LIMITS "Demon with a Glass Hand"

Airdate: Oct. 17, 1964
Written by: Harlan Ellison
Why it's great: The Outer Limits, for better or worse, has not enjoyed the same popular immortality as The Twilight Zone. Which is a shame, as it still has gems like this episode, about a man sent back from the future, on the run from a handful of pursuers, with the fate of humanity literally in his grasp. It's a simple, linear story -- albeit one with a killer twist -- about a man learning to accept his destiny.

Interesting notes: Ellison sued the producers of the first Terminator film, claiming that the filmmakers plagiarized elements from both "Demon" and another Ellison-written Outer Limits episode called "Soldier." The case was settled out of court, and Terminator's end credits acknowledge Ellison's work.

STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION "Yesterday's Enterprise"

Airdate: Feb. 19, 1990
Written by: Trent Christopher Ganino, Eric A. Stillwell, Ira Steven Behr, Richard Manning, Hans Beimler, Ronald D. Moore
Why it's great: No single episode better synthesizes the charms of The Next Generation. You get an Enterprise model from the past, thanks to one of those handy temporal anomalies, which in turn triggers an alternate universe where the Federation is in a losing war with the Klingon Empire, the Enterprise D is a ship of war and Tasha Yar never died. It's an hour full of sacrifice, honor, doomed romance, ship-to-ship combat and Picard saying things like, "Let's make sure history never forgets the name ... Enterprise." In other words, it's the ne plus ultra of TNG.

Interesting notes: "Enterprise" began as a script submitted to the producers through The Next Generation's unique-in-all-of-Hollywood open submission policy, which didn't require would-be writers to have representation in order to have their ideas considered.

FIREFLY "Out of Gas"

Airdate: Oct. 25, 2002
Written by: Tim Minear
Why it's great: Malcolm Reynolds, captain of the smuggling transport ship Serenity, is bleeding, cold and alone, on the deck of his beloved ship. The story of how he got there -- which involves a busted engine part and a less-than-scrupulous salvage team -- is intercut with the story of how he recruited his crew. Ultimately it's a dramatically adventurous story about family, about how one man built a family through sheer will and the lengths he'll go to to protect it.

Interesting notes: Alan Tudyk gave Joss Whedon the big "recall" button from this episode, explaining that if Whedon could get a second season for Firefly, he could press the button and the cast would come running.


Airdate: June 9, 2007
Written by: Steven Moffat
Why it's great: If you're going to try and convert a nonbeliever to the ways of Doctor Who, this is the episode to use. It tells of Sally Sparrow's encounter with the Weeping Angels, a race of psychopaths who send their victims back to a time before they were born and feed off their potential energy. Oh, and they're "quantum-locked," which means that they freeze to stone whenever they're looked at. Using clues planted by the Doctor -- himself stranded by the Angels in the 1960s -- Sally finds the key to saving herself from the Angels and rescue the time-lost Time Lord. "Blink" is a perfectly horrific, perfectly human story.

Interesting notes: Sally Sparrow made her first appearance in a story Moffat wrote for the Doctor Who Annual 2006 called "'What I Did on my Christmas Vacation,' by Sally Sparrow."

"The Constant"

Airdate: Feb. 28, 2008
Written by: Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof
Why it's great: A man, unstuck in time, devoid of much of his memory, must negotiate the simplest of things -- a telephone call -- to restore both his health and his sanity. "The Constant" is a complex time-travel story told simply, through the eyes of Desmond Hume, who wants nothing more on Earth than to wish his beloved Penelope a merry Christmas. Lost's pilot episode may still rank as one of the best pilots ever shot, and, naturally, one of the best episodes of the series, but this one hour showed how much emotional power Lost could unleash. When it wanted to.

Interesting notes: This is the first episode in Lost's run that featured neither a flashback nor a flashforward.

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