Space is a scary place, as we’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows — but the thrills that come with these stories prove that while the dangers of venturing off this planet are many, there are still thrills a’plenty in the great unknown, and adventures beyond our potential comprehension.
Timed to the Season 3 premiere of Syfy’s “The Expanse” and the launch of the Netflix’s “Lost in Space” reboot, here’s a look back at all the great sci-fi television we’ve seen set in the cosmos, a rich tradition of storytelling that’s captured our imagination for decades. (For the record, while “Lost in Space” Season 1 was a bit too grounded on one planet for consideration here, it may make the cut in future seasons.)
Debating what counts as a “space show” is tricky, though one easy rule was that the show has to center around a spaceship or space station of some sort (sorry, stargates don’t count). Some of these selections below didn’t last all that long — several Season 1s weren’t followed by Season 2s — as television, much like space itself, can be an unforgiving environment. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t shine brightly when they had the chance.
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18. “Defying Gravity”
In retrospect, it’s kind of hard to believe “Defying Gravity” was actually ever a real show made for broadcast television — one starring Ron Livingston, even! It’s not just that the ABC drama about a team of astronauts embarking on an epic tour of the solar system was tonally much closer to “Grey’s Anatomy” (romantic entanglements and all) than “The Right Stuff.”
But what did air was fascinating, as it gave real effort to ground the storytelling in ways that made the scenario seem legitimately plausible. Well, that is, until the glowy space rocks showed up, all part of a series of twists creator James Parriott explained after the show’s cancellation would have led to some of the most bonkers TV ever. “Defying Gravity” was one weird show, and we would have liked to see more of it.
17. “Final Space”
It’s still early days yet for the TBS animated series created by Olan Rogers and David Sacks, but so far the first season has proven itself to be far more than the comedy we might have expected based on early trailers, with some epic-scale space-set sequences. Plus, the stellar voice cast includes Fred Armisen, Tom Kenny, Tika Sumpter, Steven Yeun, Gina Torres, Keith David, David Tennant, and also… Mooncake.
Mooncake is the best — adorable and yet highly lethal. He adds a level of cute darkness to the adventures of Gary (voiced by Rogers), a one-time prisoner who gets drawn into an intergalactic conflict over Mooncake’s fate — even though Mooncake is more than capable of taking care of himself.
16. “Space: Above and Beyond”
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Glen Morgan and James Wong left “The X-Files” in 1995 for this one-season adventure, which tracked a team of young fighter pilots who get enlisted in the war to save humanity from alien invaders. There were plenty of interesting sci-fi touches to the action, including the introduction of clone soldiers that brought up some deep questions about the nature of humanity. But more importantly, there were kick-ass space battles (especially given the level of technology available in 1995 for such things). More a war show than an exploration show, “Space: Above and Beyond” still showcased the thrill that comes with breaking out of our atmosphere.
“Virtuality” had a lot of early buzz associated with it in 2009, as it represented “Battlestar Galactica” creator Ronald D. Moore returning to sci-fi television for a pilot directed (brilliantly!) by Peter Berg. Plus, check out this stacked cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”), Kerry Bishé (“Halt and Catch Fire”), Joy Bryant (“Parenthood”), Jose Pablo Cantillo (“The Walking Dead”), Ritchie Coster (“Happy!”), James D’Arcy (“Cloud Atlas,” “Agent Carter”), Clea DuVall (“Veep”), Omar Metwally (“The Affair”) and Jimmi Simpson (“Westworld”). The premise was also an exciting one, albeit somewhat similar to “Defying Gravity” (which coincidentally came out the same year) — an ensemble cast heads out on a dangerous deep space mission, one that’s being documented live in part as a reality show being broadcast back to Earth.
However, “Virtuality” was less about weird glowy space rocks and more about two big ideas: Our home planet is currently besieged by environmental crises that threaten the end of mankind, making the crew’s mission all the more important. And also, the crew’s primary form of entertainment — a virtual reality system that lets them live out all manner of fantasies — is malfunctioning in a major way. There were a ton of big ideas here, but while the show never went anywhere beyond a one-time airing on Fox in the summer of 2009, you can still find the full-length pilot available for sale on DVD.
14. “Red Dwarf”
The rare space show that plays as a comedy, “Red Dwarf” has been a cult favorite for decades, initially premiering in the UK in 1988 and continuing to release new episodes even as recently as 2017. Iconic for both its longevity as well as its relatively bonkers plotting (which involved several major resets over the years, killing off every character at one point and then resurrecting them), the series quickly developed its own wackadoo world view, while also having a great deal of fun playing with sci-fi tropes with pure irreverence. Bopping around space with Lister and his pals might not be the safest of adventures, but they did seem to have a good time.
13. “Black Mirror: USS Callister”
When publicity photos for the Season 4 premiere of Charlie Brooker’s Netflix anthology series began to circulate, they led to a lot of questions — most especially why the show, normally based in a world that looks a lot like ours, was doing a “Star Trek” homage. The answer not only proved to be one of the show’s most intriguing twists to date, as we discover that the world of “Space Fleet” has been recreated by bullied-turned-bully Robert (Jesse Plemons), and he’s using his virtual world to torture those he feels have wronged them. While “USS Callister” is in many ways a postmodern riff on “Trek,” it also manages to build up to an exciting climax that J.J. Abrams himself would be proud to direct.
12. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
Proving that “Star Trek” wasn’t just the domain of Kirk and Spock, the 1987-1994 series featured some pretty epic moments. While not as dark or complex narratively as subsequent “Trek” installments, “Next Generation” did manage to wow us both narratively and visually — whether facing off against the Borg, the Klingons, the Romulans, or beyond. Life wasn’t all that tough on board the Enterprise (compared to other ships, the place was basically a Lexus) but it didn’t skimp on the action when the time came for it.
11. “Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2003)”
The 2003 animated series technically no longer exists in “Star Wars” canon, but while later shows like the 2008 “Clone Wars” and “Star Wars: Rebels” represented quality efforts to extend the universe to new worlds, artistically neither reach the same levels as this. In hiring “Samurai Jack” creator Genndy Tartakovsky to tell his version of the events between “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith,” Lucasfilm ended up with a truly groundbreaking series that was rich with striking visuals and exciting action; as Tartakovsky recently discussed with Uproxx, his work might continue to have a strong influence on the franchise.
10. “Babylon 5”
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Created by J. Michael Straczynski (who would later collaborate with the Wachowskis for the Netflix series “Sense8”), this five-season adventure took some very odd twists and turns, with epic interplanetary struggle getting showcased alongside some groundbreaking CGI effects. While the battles were good, it was the political aspect of the show that was the most intriguing, as the premise focused on a space station created to serve as a neutral ground for peaceful deliberations between alien species — whose battles often took on a Shakespearean feel. But there were also religious overtones introduced, warring telepaths, a Earth government which becomes increasingly totalitarian in scope, and some badass standoffs. “Babylon 5” had great ambition that has kept it memorable for sci-fi fans. (Never forget Ivanova’s take on the Babylon 5 Mantra.)