Everybody talks about Star Trek, the various Star Wars TV shows, and Battlestar Galactica. But space is way, way bigger than that—space is, in fact, pretty freaking vast, and there is room for way more interstellar adventures.
Here are ten live-action space-based TV shows that deserve way more love and appreciation:
Peter David and Bill Mumy created this YA TV show about kids exploring space, including a young Jewel Staite. It aired for two seasons on Nickelodeon, and it was cute as hell, not to mention quite subversive at times. George Takei plays an alien conqueror named Warlord Shank, and when I say Takei chews all the scenery… You’ll see tooth marks all over the sets. This show was sort of a precursor of Star Trek: Prodigy, and I remember it being fun as all heck.
Quark was a short-lived spoof of Star Trek and Star Wars that aired in 1977, featuring a host of campy characters. The thing is, it had so many cool ideas in the mix: Long before Firefly (or even Alien), this is the story of the crew of a humble blue-collar starship—a garbage scow, in this case—getting involved in vital, dangerous shenanigans. There’s a gender-fluid character, a pair of clones who both insist they’re the original (just like the Maulers in Invincible!) and a plant in humanoid form. In many ways, Quark was ahead of its time.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Yes, I know… this is a list of shows that don’t get enough love, and Hitchhiker’s is one of the most famous science fiction properties of all time. And yet, the original TV series of Hitchhiker’s really does not get the love it deserves, thanks in part to Doctor Who-level VFX. And I love the 1981-1982 TV version with all my heart: it’s got more or less the same cast as the original radio drama, and uses the format of television to good effect. The guide’s narration is actually quite well animated, and the fake-looking prosthetics they fit Zaphod Beeblebrox with actually look perfect. The story of Hitchhiker’s has been told in pretty much every format by now, but I think this TV version covers the first two books extremely well. And it’s zippy fun space action!
Gerry Anderson made a whole bunch of puppet-based science fiction TV shows in addition to Space: 1999, and this is quite possibly the best. The story of a family of space heroes who go out and get their Flash Gordon on, Thunderbirds is both campy and thrilling. They live on their own private island and each have their own space jet! There have been a few attempts to bring Thunderbirds back, most notably a 2004 movie directed by Jonathan Frakes, but scandalously this show is all but forgotten nowadays.
Space: Above and Beyond
A dark, somewhat more realistic space-war show from two of the X-Files writers, Space: Above and Beyond features humanity at war with some ruthless aliens who’ve destroyed some of our colonies. This show plays with some interesting notions—for example, humanity lacks the ability to travel faster than light, but our alien foes have limited FTL. I recently rewatched the pilot episode, and it’s definitely aged badly—there’s a whole subplot about discrimination against artificial soldiers created via in-vitro fertilization, or “in vitroes,” that feels like a ham-fisted attempt at an allegory on real-life prejudice. But this show remains groundbreaking and this type of (somewhat) more realistic space war still hasn’t been depicted on television that much.
Okay, back to campy spoofs. This Canadian show with a rock-bottom budget is just a silly delight. A group of misfits commandeer a living spaceship that wants to eat planets, and one of them is kind of a space vampire assassin? The main character is basically a space custodian, and everyone seems endlessly horny. There’s a disembodied head that’s madly in love. This show sometimes veers into actual pathos and weighty storytelling—especially about the imperfectly brainwashed sex slave and the undead assassin—before swerving back into silly camp. We need more low-budget Canadian space opera! (See below for more low-budget Canadian space opera.)
Space Island One
Okay, seriously. This is one of the greatest science fiction TV shows of all time, and when I get a moment I’m going to do a whole newsletter about why it’s the greatest. (I expect that newsletter to be read by dozens of people.) Space Island One takes place on a corporate-funded space station that’s doing pure science—with commercial goals. The crew includes a veteran astronaut struggling with bone density loss after too much space travel, and the show often grapples with real ethical issues. Like, in one episode, they are given the last remaining sample of smallpox to study, and some of the scientists on board want to destroy it. The space science is handled much more carefully than is typical on television, and the implications of allowing science to be controlled by corporations are endlessly debated. This show has some clunky episodes—what show from the 1990s doesn’t?—but it remains a high-water mark for science fiction television.
Chris Boucher wrote for Doctor Who and then became the showrunner (sort of) of Blake’s 7. Then he finally won the ability to create his own show about a space-based police force. Don’t let the silly title fool you! This show starts off great, with dark, conflicted characters, some of whom are very ethically compromised. The storylines are more grown-up than most SF television of the era would allow, and Boucher’s flair for wickedly sarcastic dialogue is on full display. Over the course of its one and only season, the show kind of falls apart—in the DVD special features, Boucher talks honestly about how he wasn’t ready to run his own show, and he lost control of it. But the early episodes are incredible.
Now for two recent shows, both of them Canadian (and aired on Syfy in the U.S.) Vagrant Queen, based on a graphic novel by Magdalene Visaggio and Jason Smith, is the story of a space queen whose mother is apparently killed in a coup. She goes on the run and becomes kind of a bandit, teaming up with two other misfits and roaming the galaxy. But there are loyalists who want to return the Queen to the throne. This show was utterly delightful, with a really beautiful mixture of humor and feels. Tim Rozon from Wynonna Earp plays a very different character than Doc Holliday, with hilarious results. Unapologetically queer and subversive, Vagrant Queen is one of my favorite TV shows of the past five years, and it deserved way better than it got.
And finally… this show is just everything. Dutch is a bounty hunter, along with her two friends, but she’s also a former assassin who was under the thumb of a creepy dude. There’s a whole walled-off city of undesirables, who are constantly being oppressed and attacked. Killjoys takes the Firefly template (small scrappy crew of underdogs against powerful entities with secret conspiracies) and gets much weirder and more irreverent with it. During the brief era when Killjoys and then Vagrant Queen were on Syfy, you could almost pretend we were back in the 1990s golden age of fun, devil-may-care space television.
I really hope one of the gosh darn streaming services out there decides to make some space TV shows that (A) aren’t Star Trek or Star Wars, and (B) don’t feature characters who scowl at each other.
Note: I know I’m gonna get hate mail for not including shows like Farscape, Babylon 5, Blake’s 7, Andromeda, yadda yadda. But consider: I would also get hate mail if I did include those shows, because I’d be implying they don’t have large robust fanbases. Which, y’know, they do. I feel comfortable saying the shows listed above don’t have the fanbases they deserve.
This article was originally published at Happy Dancing, Charlie Jane Anders’ newsletter, available on Buttondown.