Since its very inception, science fiction has maintained a tight hold over the imagination of its principal audience, achieving mainstream appeal with the advent of television. Like literature or film, the best-written sci-fi television transports viewers to exciting new locations, forcing them to look at the uncomfortable reality behind such issues as deep-space exploration, interplanetary colonization, or new technological innovations.
As with any genre, sci-fi requires a basis in stellar writing, with the best-written sci-fi series continuing to win acclaim years, sometimes decades, after the show itself has aired on television.
1. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
Often imitated yet never duplicated, The Twilight Zone remains among the best-written sci-fi television programs for good reason. With stories spanning science fiction, horror, and fantasy, creator Rod Serling used The Twilight Zone to ask fundamental questions about life in the mid 20th century, creating intricate allegories for the Cold War, racism, human suffering, and the dangers that lurk behind mankind’s fascination with the stars.
2. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Reviving the middling ‘70s space opera Battlestar Galactica for a new generation, showrunner Ronald D. Moore rebuilt the series from the ground up. A stylistic departure from the kitschier presentation of most space opera series, Moore utilized a grittier, more realistic tone for 2004’s Battlestar Galactica, allowing the show to achieve a sense of true weightiness and inherent drama. It ranks as some of the best-written sci-fi of the 21st century in any medium.
3. Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969)
In no uncertain terms, Gene Roddenberry created the modern space opera with his work on Star Trek: The Original Series. Combining the comic book aesthetic of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon with the drier tone of 19th-century adventure fiction, Roddenberry constructed a complex sci-fi universe more expansive than any other of its day and age.
As a result, Roddenberry not only spawned one of the most successful sci-fi series of all time–he also popularized a genre that gained further traction with the release of 2001, Star Wars, and Alien in the decade that followed.
4. The X-Files (1993-2018)
A forward-thinking television series, The X-Files zeroed in on the concept of a police procedural series with a “mystery of the week” theme behind it, replacing murdering fugitives and serial killers with U.F.O.s, government conspiracies, and paranormal monsters from folklore. What followed helped revitalize televised science fiction for mass viewership, achieving the same level of avid popularity as The Twilight Zone.
5. The Prisoner (1967-1968)
A key narrative influence on everything from Lost to Twin Peaks, The Prisoner also offered a sharp rebuke of the traditional espionage genre. Incorporating numerous themes taken from James Bond, The Prisoner’s subliminal messages and surreal presentation allowed for a thought-provoking Orwellian portrayal of conformity, individuality, and the precedence of Cold War hostilities.
6. Stranger Things (2016-present)
One of the best-written sci-fi shows of the modern era, Stranger Things also appears among Netflix's flagship series, helping give the streaming platform a vital foothold in premium content on par with HBO. An endearing love letter to all things ‘80s, Stranger Things strings together every cliche and pre-existing convention of dated pop culture, including meticulous references to early Spielberg films, kitschy slashers, Dungeons & Dragons, Stephen King novels, and Bronze Age comic books.
7. Severance (2022-present)
A show that reflects the darker aspect of corporate sci-fi (a niche but fascinating subgenre in itself), Severance also offers a poignant depiction of unscrupulous business practices. Exploring the differences in individuals’ personal lives and workplace personalities, Severance asks all the right questions regarding contemporary capitalist society.
8. Lost (2004-2010)
While viewers continue to lament its somewhat disappointing finale, most television scholars still credit Lost as one of the greatest TV shows of the 21st century. Borrowing the comic book presentation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Lost’s split narratives and shifting protagonists allowed for an in-depth study of numerous characters’ backstories.
Aside from its fascinating episode structures, the show also boasted an unending array of unforgettable mysteries, several of which centered around sentient pillars of black smoke, ‘70s fringe scientists, and a Biblical duel between good and evil.
9. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
The best of the Star Trek spin-off series, The Next Generation, harked back to The Original Series’ dialogue-heavy tone. Introducing a cast of new characters every bit as endearing and three-dimensional as Kirk or Spock, The Next Generation’s preference for strong characterization over stylized spaceship dog fights gave Trekkies a chance to bask in everything that made Star Trek so remarkable in the first place.
10. Rick and Morty (2013-present)
Yes, one can describe Rick and Morty as a biting satire of Back to the Future and Doctor Who. Yet with each new season, Rick and Morty leans further into its own distinct brand of storytelling, alternating back-and-forth between meta-fictional sci-fi adventures and heartrending meditations on loneliness, substance abuse, and existential dread over one’s place in the cosmos.
11. Firefly (2002)
While Firefly’s abrupt cancellation after the release of its single season left most industry experts perplexed, viewers can always look at the series’ persevering cult status as evidence of Firefly’s superior quality. A rare mainstream space Western that featured as many easter eggs to Bonanza and Gunsmoke as it did to Star Wars or Star Trek, Firefly made a habit of providing vivid characterization to its lead cast.
12. Doctor Who (1963-present)
Most viewers can expect to see a show as long-running as Doctor Who ebb and flow in popularity over time. While certain periods in the show’s history fail to gauge viewers’ interests, Doctor Who’s prevailing inventiveness, whimsy, and distinct British charm continue to fascinate fans over six decades since its original release.
13. Westworld (2016-2022)
Canceled in the wake of declining viewership numbers and disappointing critical reviews, the initial season of Westworld remains one of the most successful television series to ever air on HBO. Taking Michael Crichton’s ‘70s sci-fi film and flipping it on its head, the show’s intelligent treatment of artificial intelligence, entertainment, and technological advancements left viewers awestruck in 2016, the series possessing all the complexity of Blade Runner, A.I: Artificial Intelligence, or Ex Machina.
14. Fringe (2008-2013)
Taking liberal inspiration from The Twilight Zone, Lost, and The X-Files, Fringe acted as the ideal sci-fi counterpart to the fantasy-based Supernatural, utilizing a similar “monster of the week”-style presentation. Like all the best TV series, the show’s self-contained mythological universe accounted for the main reason to tune in each week, with viewers delighting in its distinct portrayal of fringe science.
15. Black Mirror (2011-present)
The 21st-century successor to The Twilight Zone, whereas Rod Serling used his series to probe into the fundamental worries of the 20th century, Black Mirror showrunner Charlie Brooker uses science fiction to explore new advancements in technology and culture.
While the series’ writing quality has fluctuated over time, the best episodes of Black Mirror continue to challenge viewers, presenting them with an upsetting speculative portrait of what the very near-future might look like.
16. The Expanse (2015-2022)
The best space opera series since Battlestar Galactica, The Expanse’s detailed portrait of a colonized galaxy on the brink of war achieves the same realistic tone as Ronald D. Moore’s landmark series. Spending a significant portion of time on the political turmoil that foreshadows full-scale wars, The Expanse’s intelligent and even-handed depiction of science fiction makes it one of the greatest television series of the past decade.
17. Orphan Black (2013-2017)
If Westworld offered a nuanced look at the arguments surrounding self-aware artificial intelligence, Orphan Black raised those same arguments for the implications of human cloning. A wondrous look at individuality and personality, Orphan Black’s thematic discussions helped the series transcend the limits of science fiction, engaging viewers from an emotional and intellectual perspective.
18. The Outer Limits (1963)
The main thematic rival to The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits offered viewers a more dedicated depiction of science fiction than Rod Serling’s program. Employing a wide array of talented sci-fi writers like Harlan Ellison, The Outer Limits’ nightmarish presentation of the genre exploited the prevalent fears most Americans felt at the time, including imminent invasion and nuclear annihilation.
19. Futurama (1999-present)
Canceled, rebooted, and then revived once again, Futurama’s multiple resurrections over the years speak volumes about fans’ favorable stance towards the show.
Spawning his own fully-rendered sci-fi universe, Simpsons creator Matt Groening conjured up a hilarious galaxy filled with colorful characters and exotic settings, from alcoholic robots to anxiety-riddled lobster physicians.
20. Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)
A significant improvement over the 1994 sci-fi film of the same name, Stargate SG-1 never rivaled the storytelling prestige of Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek. Yet even when compared to those aforementioned sci-fi giants, Stargate SG-1′s intelligent handling of intergalactic conflict and its implementation of Egyptian, Arthurian, and Greek mythology make it a dazzling space opera in and of itself.