TV theme songs are often the first impression viewers get of a promising show. You never get a second chance to make a first impression (that's why my parents still refer to me as "Mr. Poopy Pants"). That's why it's so important that shows have a great opening, which has led to some absolutely stunning theme songs. On this, the 36th anniversary of The Greatest American Hero (and its corresponding theme song's) debut, we decided to rank the 30 best sci-fi TV show themes.
First, some ground rules:
- No shows primarily aimed at kids were allowed (otherwise every single entry in the list would be this mind-blowing theme song).
- Only the audio was considered (not the video portion of the intro).
- Original compositions only! Star Trek: TNG's theme was taken from the movie, and SG-1 was an amalgam of previous themes, so they weren't eligible for this list.
- To judge these, they were played through a TV, just as millions of viewers experienced them each week. So, people at work using headphones to duck your boss, your mileage may vary.
That said, let's take a look at the songs that, despite being on the air only once a week, manage to lodge themselves firmly in the collective mind of geeks everywhere.
When producers go out of their way to make a song that is both original and well-made, the results are usually quite fun. Dark Angel featured a rap intro from MC Lyte and Chuck D. Frankly. I would have preferred the MC Lyte verse alone, it really underscores the "this is a lady superhero and she is freaking hard" angle... I love Public Enemy, but the contrast between Chuck D's usual aggressive lyrical style and words describing lighthearted comic book action is jarring. Feels like if Malcolm X tried to sell toothpaste.
Perhaps the most jazz-infused entry on this list, Cowboy Bebop's theme, "Tank!," proves my theory that every song needs a solo. Every song. Also, some completely-and-totally-awesome Canadian figure skater took 3rd in the National Canadian Figure Skating Championships (yes, the world-famous NCFSCs) by doing a routine to "Tank!" while dressed as Spike Siegel from Cowboy Bebop.
Good... but not quite as good as ALF on Ice
The contest was clear, if eccentric: Submit a theme song for Angel that had, according to creators' demands, "dark superhero ideas" and "cello-rock." The winning submission was from band Darling Violetta (and, if you think that name is pretentious, consider the fact that they titled this TV theme song, "Catharsis of Sufferance"). Solid tune though, with a unique hook that does say, "cello-rock." It doesn't quite say, "vampire hunk sets up shop in L.A.," but that sentiment is difficult to convey with that particular string instrument.
This catchy synth-piece may not beat them all in terms of competition, but when it comes to making completely obsessed fans, it is #1. That's because, in 1999, a Northern Ireland fan released a two-CD soundtrack to the show, in conjunction with the original composer. Contrasting this in-depth exploration of the Airwolf sound, I wish the theme song did much more than showcase the same melody in different keys. Although if we're doing Airwolf wishes, I should probably start with "I wish the producers hadn't lost access to the Airwolf and the entire original cast before making the final season."
Walking the thin line between, "potent," and "over-produced," this Smallville anthem charted in several countries. The glossy song by band Remy Zero features amazing arrangements, quality vocals, and utterly contemptible lyrics (my dreams are falling down, crawling around).
Another case of too-much-exposition in the intro (how does seeing Patrick McGoohan resign every week "catch us up" on the fact that he is trapped in an old-timey village by a flying orb?). Still, that's not the fault of the brilliant instrumental that kicks off every episode of this underrated show. Originally, Creator Patrick McGoohan contacted composer Robert Farnon for a theme song. However, Farnon simply handed in a composition that was deemed too similar to his theme from the 1958 film "Big Country." As mentioned, the complicated plot themes of The Prisoner seems to have stymied composers, as McGoohan had to audition and pass on another veteran writer before finally turning to Ron Granier. Granier, who also wrote the theme for Doctor Who (which placed quite highly on this list), seemed to have a penchant for writing themes for shows where we have no idea what is going on (see the title of the 1968 Granier-themed film, Only When I Larf).
Space 1999 (Season One)
It's about time we got some funk up in our deep space. There are actually two different theme songs for this 1970s British space drama: One that was funky and one that was, according to producer Fred Freiberger, more "driving, searing." While the first series' danceable up-tempo number was composed by a veteran TV composer, the second and final year was scored by jazzman Derek Wadsworth. Both are great enough to co-share the illustrious title of "24th/25th best sci fi TV theme song"
Space 1999 (Season Two)
See description above!
Standard theme song fare meets surf rock in this Grammy-nominated theme song. Still, it's not really a song which evokes the notion of "monsters," which is one of the main reasons why this is not rated higher. There were actual lyrics written, but those were never used. Which, judging from some of the verses, is probably a good thing (If when you're sleeping you dream a lot/Ghoulish nightmares parade through your head/And then you wake up and scream a lot/Oh the Munsters are under your bed).
TV theme song writing peaked in the 1960s. Even Futurama's extremely-catchy jingle was cribbed from a French psychedelic rock song from the Free Love era. The psychedelic rock song is called Psyché Rock, which hints that they may have run out of the "creative juices" during the naming phase. This adaptation proves my theory that the only thing you have to do to turn a psych-rock song into a futuristic song is remove the simulated-descent drumming.
Star Trek: Voyager
In 1995, this newly-launched installment of the Star Trek franchise won the Emmy for best theme song, with a sweeping orchestral movement that was of similar style to his theme from the first film. Composer Jerry Goldsmith might be best-known for his Oscar-winning score to the horror film The Omen. In my early 20s, I became convinced children could use telekinesis and wanted to kill me. Looking back, this was around the time I started watching Voyager, so now it all makes sense.
The driving guitar hook delivers the punchy excitement one would expect from a comic book come to life. The song spent 8 weeks on the chart in 1966. Unfortunately, the lyric(s) are horrible, to the point where it's been debated as to whether the extremely nasal singers are actually horns. Yes, I'm taking a novelty theme song wayyyy to seriously, because that's the whole point of 1960s Batman.
Lost in Space
This theme song's greatness is due to its legendary composer: John Williams (although he was listed in the credits under the totally different name of `Johnny Williams'). Williams wrote two different takes on the theme, both used at different points in the series, and did most of the score for the classic space show. Williams' familiar genius shines through: He actually manages to use the slide whistle in a way that is not completely offensive. It really makes the listener feel like they are lost in space. Except for, you know, the lack of atmosphere rendering any orchestral music utterly inaudible.
Big Bang Theory
As the story goes, this song was initially improvised by Barenaked Ladies at a Los Angeles concert. The lead singer had just finished reading Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know about It (hopefully not during the actual concert). By coincidence, attending the concert were BBT creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady. It would have placed higher, except for the glaringly bad insertion of the word "wait" into the lyrics (Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait / The earth began to cool, the autotrophs began to drool). I'd be less harsh, but this is the Barenaked Ladies, a genius band whom I don't mind holding to higher standards than most theme song composers.
We could do without the minute-long science behind the show, but that's really a common complaint (do we really have to be reminded that the Bionic Woman is a former tennis pro, each and every week?) However, the sweeping instrumental does rise and fall with a distinctive sax-o-philia that goes beyond normal TV show intro fare in the mid 1980s. It's no wonder it was a hit, as it was created by A-list theme talent Mike Post (he made the themes to L.A. Law, Magnum P.I., and, of course, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe).
Co-written by Oscar-winning composer Paul Webster. Fun rumor behind this one: It was whispered that the bassline was laid down by legendary jazzman Charles Mingus. Known as the "Angry Man of Jazz," Mingus had just a few years prior gone so far as to dismiss part of his band because he didn't think they practiced enough. Which makes the fact that this was a real rumor odd. It's also been asserted that Spider-Man ripped off a Mingus song. But, they get a free pass with me, there. It's jazz: there are a thousand random notes, what are the odds they won't hit E-G-A-A-G-E eventually?
The up-tempo tune does a whiplash-inducing sad-turn with the lyric, "Swinging on the Riviera one day, and then laying in a Bombay alley next day." Fun note: The Prisoner is thought of as an extension of the Danger Man universe, which makes the lyric "he's giving you a number, and taking away your name," pleasantly prescient.
I Dream of Jeannie
This theme song didn't even exist until the show's second season, when composer Hugo Montenegro laid down one of the most infectious hooks in the history of television. It actually has lyrics, which, if you can get past "just love how she obeys me," are actually pretty decent (but not as good as my Jeannie fan fiction, where tensions escalate after Captain Tony Nelson wishes for a second Jeannie while they are on their honeymoon).
Anachronistic country sets the stage for this quirky space western. Composer Sonny Rhodes, who may or may not have written his own Wikipedia page, is a fixture in the blues industry. Still, Joss Whedon decided to pen the lyrics himself. He did okay, depending upon whether you think burn the land boil the sea, you can't take the sky from me is a great lyric or merely a passable one.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
This punchy tune was penned by 1980s rapper Schoolly D, and apparently made their drummer go insane. In 2006, five years after he had played drums on the theme song, Terence Yerves filed a copyright on the lyrics. He then sued the makers of ATHF, demanding they give him $150,000 per episode already aired, and cancel the show, immediately. Even with all this in play, my main question about this theme song remains, "does he have ice on his toys, or ice on his Ford Taurus?"
A lot of people ask me if MacGyver is science fiction, to which I reply, "no, you really can make an airplane out of garbage bags and bamboo." In fact, the music transforms the intro into something great from something potentially off-putting. Composed by Randy Edelman, the song is so ubiquitously associated with the show that it was brought back for the theme song of the 2016 reboot. My wife and I submitted lyrics for the reboot, (Can I borrow some gum? I need to make a bomb. Can I borrow your gun? I need to throw it away... p-p-p-p-p-p-p-p-party in the back! That's my hair!) and are eagerly sitting by the phone waiting for the producers to call.
The Addams Family
Sure, it's stripped down and simple. But, of all the TV theme songs, only one is so-ingrained into human consciousness that it is used to teach children the days of the week.
The composer, Vic Mizzy, saw the theme song become so popular it was released as a single. However, the tune failed to chart, despite bringing the word "ooky" into the English lexicon. What other word has been made by a TV theme song (and don't say "Yabbadabbadootime")?
This non-traditional theme tune does a perfect job of matching the weird, somber, and sleepy pace of the show. David Lynch wrote lyrics for the song then, in a rare happening of self-awareness by a major director, decided to not use the lyrics in the show's theme. The song rose up the alternative charts, but barely missed the top ten, which must be as disappointing as entering a beauty pageant but barely missing out on getting kidnapped.
The first half of this theme song is epic, with majestic horns and sustained notes conveying the immense magnitude of space. As the tempo picks up, the music shifts into the classic late 60s/early 70s theme-song-meets-game-show theme. This combo is a bit off-topic for the show, unless, like me, you subscribe to the theory that "the holodeck makes every part of the Star Trek universe on-theme." Also, for the record, it is not a theremin making the song's iconic warble, but rather an opera singer.
The Venture Bros
This modern classic theme song closely parallels the Mission Impossible theme: Tension ratcheting opening measures, finally sent over the top by a powerful punch from the brass section. J.G. Thirlwell composed the song, dubbing it No Vacancy. The intensity and overall goodness of the Venture Bros theme supports my theory that crazy people write the best theme songs, as Thirwell is known for quips such as "I have this idea that after the apocalypse, there will be no power no electricity but there will be these sheaves of paper blowing down a dusty road and someone will grab one and it will be one of my scores and they’ll have a sort of broken violin and play it. They’ll have no Internet but they’ll have this piece of paper. Every time I go to Coney Island I stuff a few more in a bottle."
Staccato plucking with a throbbing bass line and super-80s synth combine to create one of the most unique and memorable theme songs of all time. The narration also wins the all-time award for "burying the lede:"
Knight Rider, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist. Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law.
WHAT ABOUT THE CAR, NARRATOR? Like most of your target audience, I'm 5 years old and/or high: I don't understand character development, corruption, or even death.
This haunting theme, which topped the charts in France, demonstrates a perfect use of rare sounds and slow tempo to mirror the show's theme of gradually exploring the unknown. As the legend goes, the echo effect which figures so prominently into the song's opening hook was created by accident when the composer slammed his arm down on the keyboard in frustration. I tried (yet failed) to recreate this magic on my album, Honking in Traffic by Slamming my Head into the Steering Wheel for 73 minutes.
One of the catchiest introduction themes of all time. The song resonated with music aficianados, charting just outside the top 40. The frantic pace comes from a time signature which composer Lalo Schifrin quipped was for "people with five legs." It turned out way better than my Mission Impossible fan video for "people with three eyes," which ended up painfully blurry to watch.
Greatest American Hero
Now, you might be saying "Hey, freakazoid, you said no kids shows!" But Greatest American Hero was initially aimed at adults before being retooled as a kids' show after the first season (also, I don't enjoy the nickname, "freakazoid").
A list of best theme songs without "Believe it or Not" is like a list of 9th century scientists without Ibn al-Haytham. The brilliant lyrics overlap the notion of being a suddeny-superhero with the notion of falling in love for the first time. Which is great, but also a stark reminder of the dangers of falling in love then thinking one can jump out of a window.
Spooky and edgy, this 1963 theme song possessed more never-before-seen technology than the Doctors themselves. Commercial synthesizers were not yet a thing, so the recorder (Delia Derbyshire, not to be confused with the song's composer, Ron Grainer) had to take recordings of guitar notes, white noise, and harmonic waves from oscillators meant solely for the purpose of testing equipment. By stretching out the analogue tape, Derbyshire achieved the out-of-this-world sounds. Every instrument and sound had to have its own "line" of manipulated analogue tape, then those tapes had to be adjusted so they were the same tempo, then played simultaneously on different playback machines so the entire thing could be recorded as an ensemble. This was, in a word, brutal: One mis-estimate in snipping tape or a playback machine that was not quite at the exact same speed as the others meant stopping, making the adjstment, then re-starting.
The creation of a well-synthesized, well-mixed song in an era before synthesizers and multi-tape mixers is what vaults this groundbreaking composition to the top of the rankings. With minor modifications, this served as the theme song for 17 years, four doctors, and two singing cowboys.
Didn't see your favorite them song here? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments section. Dissent is welcome, but don't call me a turd-monger (or I'll mistake you for my parents, which would get awkward).