Blending elements of science fiction and its most antithetical genre long before “Westworld” came along (though not before the 1973 Michael Crichton film), “Firefly” also forged a multicultural future from familiar American standards and East Asian cultures. The inclusive vision of tomorrow, where English and Mandarin Chinese are two commonly accepted languages is slightly undercut by the fact that there weren’t really any Asian actors in the show, but we suspect (hope?) this troubling oversight would’ve been fixed if Joss Whedon’s cult classic series had lasted more than 14 episodes.
Overall, “Firefly” has aged well because most of its themes were ahead of their time. From the existential theorizing to Nathan Fillion’s leading man status to the two main genres driving it all, Whedon’s space opera soared without relying on massive space battles. The Civil War had already been fought and lost. These are the survivors, and we get to know them very well, hoping against hope their drive to succeed continues to heal their souls. We’d follow these browncoats anywhere, especially with Captain Reynolds leading the charge.
One of the most dissected pieces of entertainment of the Internet age, it’s almost impossible to talk about “Lost” as a single unit. Over its six seasons, the show went through countless iterations of what it was attempting to answer and what its characters sought from this strange island world. As a concise bit of ensemble storytelling, perhaps the show was more successful as a generations-spanning multi-timeline story than it was when things ventured into the realm of the metaphysical. But throughout all of its time on the air, the show was a fascinating Rorschach test for an emerging kind of audience. “Lost” was a fundamental text for an era of direct fan interaction, doing just as much to shape the expectations of genre fandom as it did to shape the stories of Jack, Kate, Sawyer and the rest. Anchored by a impressive family tree of writers and directors that helped bring the story to life, not to mention the dynamite Hall of Fame TV score by Michael Giacchino, it was the kind of show that found success on a number of creative levels. The ambition, scope and breathless, week-to-week obsession may never be equaled on network television.
3. “Doctor Who”
While technically “Doctor Who” has existed for more than 50 years, well out of the range of the 21st century criterion, most Whovians can admit that the modern series that began with Christopher Eccleston in 2005 is a different beast from the “Who” of the past. The genius of “Doctor Who” is that it takes all of the best sci-fi tropes – time-travel, aliens, technology and the vast, unknowable aspects of space – and compresses it into one person. The Doctor is arguably one of the most intriguing and complex characters to be ever created, and not just because he (or now she!) has been played by multiple actors over the years. Adventurous, frightening, heartwarming, hilarious — all of these aspects of the Doctor are also words that could describe the show. At its core, “Doctor Who” is a rollicking adventure tale for us mere humans who identify with the Doctor’s earthling companions. It’s about exploring the furthest reaches of the imagination, no TARDIS necessary.
2. “Battlestar Galactica”
“Battlestar Galactica” proved that even with the galaxy as a canvas, stories in space can still be as compelling as a group of people trapped on a ship. That restrictive framework put the focus on character, forming a solid base for a story that could react to real-world developments unfolding as the audience was watching. A vehicle for social commentary as well as a mystifying series about the nature of identity, loyalty and optimism, it proved there was plenty of life in a premise that some thought was decades past its relevancy. It’s also a shining example of what stories can do when they consider the value of institutions, law and the standards we hold to each other under extraordinary circumstances. It’s certainly not the first piece of sci-fi to use robots as a way to understand the finer points of humanity, but on the TV side, it might just be the best.
1. “Black Mirror”
Few pieces of entertainment can pull off the tricky balance between being a time capsule of the moment and also existing in a timeless world all its own. But that’s exactly what Charlie Brooker’s twisted view of a not-too-distant future has done in each installment, regardless of its network home. Traversing the gap between worlds of the real and worlds of the mind, “Black Mirror” is a show that draws bleakness from human obsession and, in its most recent episodes, has even found a room for a glimmer of hope. For a tech-centric view of the future, it also has plenty to say about how we remember what’s most important to us. There are memories you can relive, ones that you can live inside, and the ones that you literally can’t escape from. As a series built on a number of alternate realities, it finds the scariest truths of how we live our lives in the present.