While many of you will be spending this weekend celebrating Valentine’s Day with your sweeties, a small subsection of the Internet illuminati will be observing an altogether different occassion. On February 11, 1938, the BBC broadcast an adaptation of R.U.R., Karel Čapek’s play that introduced the term “robot” to the world. And science fiction television was born.
With that in mind, perhaps you, too, will want to spend at least part of your weekend mining Netflix to take advantage of the wonderful history of sci-fi TV, from Rod Serling’s O Henry But Moreso to the Wachowski’s communal psychedelifest that is Sense8. (Yes, we wish Doctor Who was on the list as well, but it’s just been yanked off the service.)
Here are 10 shows to remind you how great small-screen science fiction can be.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE
The Premise: An anthology series of stories that all include at least one fantastical element, hosted by the none-more-calm Rod Serling.
The Appeal: Besides the lure of watching the oddly hypnotic Serling at work — really, that man could have made a fortune making self-help hypnosis tapes — there’s something wonderfully fulfilling about the morality plays Twilight Zone made its bread and butter. The show might have featured such unrealistic topics as gremlins, pigmen and superpowered children, but in many ways it was the most honest thing on television in its day.
The Premise: Dr. Samuel Beckett (no relation) is lost in time after an experiment gone wrong, and he finds himself constantly dropped into other people’s lives in order to improve them.
The Appeal: Let’s be honest: As fun as the situations that Sam found himself in might have been — and they were often very fun — the true appeal of the show lay in the interaction between the its two leads, Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, both of whom consistently elevated what they were given.
STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE
The Premise: At the far reaches of the universe, a man must recover his faith in himself (and more) as the leader of a space station surrounded by alien cultures.
The Appeal: While we’re willing to listen to arguments that the original 1960s Star Trek may be superior show — it’s also on Netflix, and highly recommended — Deep Space Nine did all the things that Trek as a franchise traditionally avoided (serialized stories, morally flawed characters) and created a compelling, dark and ultimately uplifting series that in many ways predicted the latter Battlestar Galactica reboot. (Also not on Netflix these days. Sorry.)
The Premise: The truth about everything inexplicable is out there. It’s just that there are those who’d rather we didn’t find it.
The Appeal: Despite the current (very successful) reboot, one of the most enjoyable things about the original X-Files is how dated it is: not merely the technology — although, yes, that — but the attitudes on display. Was it really so recently that people were so earnest in wanting to believe in something? We were so young!
The Premise: The world is a far stranger place than it seems, thanks to the dreamers, the believers, and the people from the future and/or parallel earths.
The Appeal: In many ways a makeover of The X-Files, Fringe improves on the formula by adding a genuine mad scientist (John Noble’s endlessly fun Walter Bishop) and some wonderfully goofy comic-book science. By the time you’re deep into the parallel world storyline, you know television has become a beautifully weird, pulpy place. (That said, just don’t watch the final season; it’s almost a lesson in how not to finish a show.)
The Premise: After a virus runs amok and decimates humanity, mankind has to try and start over. Unfortunately, things don’t go too well.
The Appeal: This little-known BBC series — itself a remake of a 1970s show that also died without too many people noticing — might be a little too grim for its own good, but it’s a watchable attempt to turn pandemic paranoia into something akin to The Walking Dead (which is itself on Netflix, in the unlikely event that you haven’t already devoured it). Along similar lines is Syfy’s Helix, which had at least half of a truly great first season that you should check out, as long as you’re willing to forgive the other half.
The Premise: Like Twilight Zone, an anthology series, but one that argues that the closer we as a race get to technology, the further we get from each other.
The Appeal: Sure, it’s science fiction, but Black Mirror’s selling point is that it’s unmistakably a show about our heres and nows, and specifically the way in which our here and now scares us in a manner that we can’t quite define. If ever there was a show that speaks to your concern that the phone in your pocket is probably killing you, it’s this one.
The Premise: Almost a century after nuclear apocalypse, humanity doesn’t quite believe the children are the future, but they are at least a disposable resource when it comes to the brave new world.
The Appeal: In theory, The 100 really shouldn’t work. Its premise feels like The Hunger Games Only Moreso, and the prospect of a post-apocalypse filled with CW actors isn’t necessarily a thrilling one. And yet, surprise of surprises, it ends up running like Teen Lost, only with more sense of where it’s going and less chance of a smoke monster fucking up your day with no warning. Give it a handful of hours and you’ll get hooked, too.
The Premise: That classic old story: Boy meets lightning bolt, lightning bolt transforms boy into remarkably charming superhero.
The Appeal: What makes The Flash work is that it’s fun. It’s a show that shamelessly embraces its roots and manages to convince you that it’s actually kind of great that bad guys have names like Captain Cold and Weather Wizard, not to mention having heroes that hide their identities from their loved ones and feel more angst than any one person should be able to. It’s a comic book from your childhood brought to life; what’s not great about that?
The Premise: Eight strangers from around the world suddenly find themselves telepathically linked for some reason.
The Appeal: Created to try and bring familiar sci-fi tropes to characters that don’t traditionally get to appear in traditional sci-fi (which is to say, anyone who isn’t a straight white male), Sense8 feels at once very familiar and excitingly unusual, with the latter making it easier to forgive some of the former’s problems. Somehow, Sense8 feels like the perfect encapsulation of where science fiction television is at the moment: one foot in the past, one foot almost, maybe, possibly ready to step into the future.