Every TV showrunner wants to build a loyal audience, and one of the easiest ways to get hordes of people hooked is to introduce a long-con couple. You might give them a few introductory scenes together in early episodes, showing off their electric chemistry by allowing them some heated, flirty dialogue, but then you drive a narrative wedge between them. The best TV couples — at least, the ones that inspire diehard shippers — take several seasons to get close to each other at all.
There are a ton of examples of drawn-out romances across mainstream TV shows — you've got Niles and Daphne on Frasier, Ben and Leslie on Parks and Recreation, Jim and Pam on The Office — but geeky TV does romantic storylines especially well. In particular, the science fiction TV writers go to extreme lengths to provide fan service episodes for their shippers. An episode can dip into another reality where the ship exists, or one hero can have sex with their beloved's clone, or the romantic pair can be forced to act like a couple in order to, say, catch a dirt monster. That last one is The X-Files, of course. We'll get there.
These are the best and worst moments of romantic fan service in science fiction television, ranked from most lame to most satisfying. They're all shameless, but only a few are truly genius. In most cases, the writers became aware of what the fandom wanted to happen, and they responded by riffing on the idea, mocking it, or allowing it to happen in a dream sequence or some sci-fi narrative flim-flam.
It's been said ad nauseam that Sherlock Holmes inspired one of the world's oldest fandoms, but BBC's Sherlock TV series poked at a very specific subset of the characters' rabid following. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, this iteration of Sherlock and Watson is the most flirty to date. Through the show's three seasons, the characters have danced around their obvious affection for one another, even incorporating other male figures into their homoerotic power struggle. Namely, Lestrade and Moriarty.
Sherlock lands at the bottom of our fan service list because the writers threw a gag into Season 3, making Sherlock almost kiss Moriarty during a weird, fever-dream-like sequence, and the whole thing felt like the show was trying to jump-start its own heart. Fan service, when it's not done well, lack subtlety, and subtlety is what made Sherlock's first and second season so intriguing.
Before vampire Eric and heroine Sookie actually had sex (in a bed in a forest, no less), Sookie and Eric dreamed about each other over and over. Viewers got to watch the romance play out in their heroine's fantasies before it came to fruition, which is pretty good fan service, but a double-edged sword for TV writing.
Although True Blood earns points by bringing Sookie and Eric together in real-life, eventually, it took a slightly cheap-feeling narrative route to get there. Fans don't really want to see two characters make out right away; we want to want them to make out for a long period of time, and then get the payoff.
Star Trek: The Original Series
The kiss shared between Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) is often touted as one of the first interracial kisses on mainstream television. The problem with the scene, of course, is that both characters are only kissing because they're under alien mind control.
This narrative failsafe later became a staple in sci-fi TV, allowing writers to experiment with different romantic pairings without having to contend with story consequences. Although Uhura and Kirk mashing their mouths together is now an iconic shot, at the time it was a pretty wonky example of fan service. Plus, as J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot films later pointed out, Uhura had way more chemistry with Spock.
The Supernatural fandom is a rabbit hole that only gets increasingly insane as you dive deeper. The crux of fans' devotion to the show, which was renewed in January for a 15th season, is the idea of "Wincest," or a love of the baffling sexual chemistry that crackles between the Winchester brothers, played by actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. It's not clear whether the Supernatural casting team picked up on how flirty Padalecki and Ackles could seem when they assembled the team for Season 1, but by Season 3, the topic was unavoidable.
Supernatural ran a "very special episode" about fan fiction in 2007, introducing the idea of slash fiction to the characters themselves. The Wincest exchange, which places Supernatural on our list of notable fan service moments, is as follows:
Dean: There's Sam Girls and Dean Girls and... what's a slash fan?
Sam: As in Sam slash Dean, together.
Dean: Like together, together? They do know we are brothers, right?
Sam: Doesn't seem to matter.
Dean: Well, that's just sick!
It was funny, sure, but not exactly satisfying.
In Season 2 of the woefully underappreciated British sci-fi series Misfits, the show's writers pulled off an experimentation between two characters, Simon (Iwan Rheon) and Alisha (Antonia Thomas) by incorporating time travel. Though present-day Simon wasn't ready to date Alisha, it turned out a future version of him was mature and self-possessed enough to be the partner present-day Alisha really needed.
This, of course, created a weird love triangle between present-day Simon, present-day Alisha, and future-Simon (aka Superhoodie), which added some lovely tension to the mix and kept the romance from feeling stale after the characters' first night together. Fans wanted the satisfaction of seeing an AU Simon, and the Misfits writers gave them exactly what they wanted, borrowing a tactic from fan fiction tropes in the process.
Detectives Mulder and Scully are perhaps the perfect example of an OTP (one true pairing) that fans didn't actually want to see together. If we were analyzing any of the plotlines from The X-Files in which our heroes got together and shit got too real (and too boring), Mulder and Scully would end up lower on this list.
However, the bit of playful fan service the show gave us in Season 6's "Arcadia" remains delightful to this day. Writer Daniel Arkin placed the star-crossed heroes undercover in a mysterious suburban town and had them pretend for an audience of boring WASPs (and the TV show's audience) to be a happily married couple. We got to see Mulder act out all the intimate husband-and-wife conversations he clearly craved from Scully, and when the episode was over, everybody went back to tracking aliens and monsters as if nothing had happened. All in all, "Arcadia" is one of the most successful fan service episodes ever, precisely because it changed nothing about the show's structure.
Years before the Doctor regenerated into a woman for the first time, igniting a sexist outcry from fans of the show, he embarked on a different — though still controversial — adventure. In 2006, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) fell in love with his human companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and broke the pre-existing rules of Doctor Who canon by wanting to stay with her, on Earth and on her mortal timeline.
Doctor Who was jammed between a rock and a hard place, needing to continue the series with new actors, but also unable to break Rose's heart irrevocably. After all, she clearly had chemistry with Ten, and audiences had fallen in love with her as well. In a crazy sci-fi twist, Ten famously "burned up a star" to appear to Rose and (almost!) tell her he loved her. He also allowed the Meta-Crisis Tenth Doctor, an exact clone of himself, to live out an entire mortal life with Rose on Earth.
Despite being bound by the rules of mainstream children's television, Steven Universe is by far the most queer-friendly family sci-fi show currently airing. In particular, the love story between Pearl and Rose Quartz, who is the titular Steven Universe's late mother, unfolds to the viewer via flashback and vague reference.
Because we know that Rose Quartz never consummated or fully committed to her relationship with Pearl, choosing instead to marry a human man and have a Gem/human baby, any episode that explores what Pearl and Rose had is a nice little bit of fan service. We'll never see the characters together as they were, but Steven Universe is designed to dole out little snippets that would otherwise only exist in fan fiction.
There may be a new Roswell show on The CW, and it may be surprisingly good, but in 1999, the original paranormal romance series introduced alien Max (Jason Behr) and human Liz (Shiri Appleby), two characters who enjoyed a tumultuous romance across three seasons. They're not the ones that land Roswell in our top spot, though.
Season 1, Episode 9, is still a fan favorite for bringing together Max and Liz's surly best friends. The best part? The episode borrowed a fan fiction trope and introduced a freak heat wave in New Mexico, a weather pattern that acted like the mysterious Santa Ana winds and propelled our heroes into each others' beds. It was such a cheesy reason to kick off a romance — everybody's hot and sweaty in town so they all have to make out — but the episode's wild abandon felt like a direct comment on the nature of fandom and shipping.