A Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Television (Part 1)
The following is a general guide to which science fiction and fantasy television shows I believe you should watch. Now, I’m just one man so I couldn’t possibly have accounted for all science fiction and fantasy shows in existence, which is why I am calling this ‘Part 1’ so that I have an opening to add more later. But in general the following is a list of television shows in the science fiction/fantasy genre that I believe are a cut above the rest. I’ll explain why in each part.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Description: Fresh off of burning down her previous high school's gymnasium, Buffy Summers tries to start a new life in Sunnydale California only to discover that her calling as ‘the slayer’ is going to catch up with her no matter where she goes. While fighting vampires and demons, Buffy must learn to balance her life as a hero and as a teenage girl in high school.
Why you should watch it: I’m going to recommend that you watch any show by Joss Whedon, but what sets Buffy apart is that it takes a concept (teenage vampire slayer) that is seemingly cheesy, and creates some of the most thought provoking storylines in any show I’ve seen. Not only that but the humor, action and special effects set new bars for the genre. And don’t think that you can judge the series by the movie of the same name. That movie was terrible, this series is amazing and shouldn’t be passed up by anyone who is a fan of all things fantasy and sci fi.
Description: The first and only spin-off of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series follows Angel, a vampire with a soul who must atone for his past sins and carve a place for himself in Los Angeles. Part detective show, part action and part humor, Angel finds himself being worthy of the slayer he spun off from.
Why you should watch it: You don’t need to have any prior knowledge of Buffy to watch Angel. I personally watched Angel before ever having seen an episode of Buffy and I fell in love with the show just the same. You’ll get a lot of similar thrills with Angel, but with darker undertones because all of the main characters are adults. Truly a worthy spin-off, this show shouldn’t be missed either.
Description: Set in the future, Joss Whedon’s short lived science fiction series is a mash-up of old-style westerns and futuristic space ships. But those who really shine here are the crew members. Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity are a joy to watch as they struggle to make money in a universe ruled by ‘the alliance’. To make matters worse the Alliance’s two most wanted fugitives have just smuggled themselves aboard Serenity.
Why you should watch it: I promise this will be the last Joss Whedon show on the list (although I do enjoy Dollhouse). Though Firefly is very short (barely half a season) it managed to do so much with both its lore and its characters. This was the first Joss Whedon series I’d ever watched and it floored me. And once you’re finished you can pick up the DVD for ‘Serenity’ as an added bonus.
Description: If you’ve ever wanted to go deeper into Superman’s origin story, this is the show for you. Breaking in the first season with a meteor shower that brings young Kal-El to Earth, we realize early on that this superhero didn’t introduce himself smoothly. The meteor shower caused terrible havoc on the residents of Smallville, leaving a peppering of kryptonite in its wake. Once Clark comes of age in high school, it’s up to him to clean up the mess that his arrival left behind.
Why you should watch it: I’m a big fan of Superman, so this show was somewhat of a no-brainer. The first season gets off to a rocky start. It’s fun to watch Clark battle ‘meteor-freaks’ but it takes a while for the show to establish the superman lore which will make up the bulk of the later seasons. Keep with it through about half of the first season, and the show will take off. (Just try to ignore Lana entirely.)
Description: Three sisters, separated by their differences find themselves coming back together. The youngest sister, Phoebe, has returned to live with her sisters Piper and Prue. But shortly after their reunion, something happens, unlocking magical powers in each of the three sisters. In no time they learn they are a legendary trio called the ‘charmed ones’ and it is their duty to protect the world from demons.
Why you should watch it: Though a show like this might be more popular amongst women (sisters in particular) I thoroughly enjoyed it as a man. It isn’t as action packed as a show like Buffy, but the twists and turns the sisters go through are interesting and a lot of fun. The show tends to contradict itself in the later seasons and loses its sense of direction, but when the show is good, it will have all of your attention.
Legend of the Seeker
Description: Based on the ‘Sword of Truth’ books by Terry Goodkind, this epic fantasy follows Richard Cypher as he becomes the legendary ‘seeker of truth’. He has to decide early on whether or not to accept his destiny and fulfill a prophecy that says he will destroy Darken Rahl, the evil master of D’hara. But before he can fulfill his destiny, he must help the struggling people of the midlands get back their confidence.
Why you should watch it: I was reluctant to add this show, because it is still so new, but after watching the first season, I was already in love with it. It takes a considerable amount of liberties from the book, which may disappoint some fans, but what they change works for the show and creates an entertaining world that you can’t wait to get back to. Truly a high quality production, I can’t help but hope the later seasons are just as good.
3rd Rock from the Sun
Description: Created as a slapstick sitcom, this science fiction show revolves around the Solomon family, a group of four aliens that have come to earth to study humanity. What results is a hilarious stumbling through our culture as they try and fail to look like a normal Earth family.
Why you should watch it: I know the idea of a science fiction sitcom sounds weird, but 3rd Rock from the Sun is truly a great show. It takes the overacting and slapstick comedy that you might expect from a british show and places it in Rutherford Ohio. And while the majority of the show is about how the Solomons don’t know anything about Earth culture, there is also an underlying alien plotline that surfaces every now and again to remind the audience that these are superior beings in a much larger universe. The string of famous and talented actors only helps to elevate this show above the norm.
Description: Set in 1999 (before we knew what 1999 would look like) we follow one of the leading geniuses of our time, Samual Beckett, as he attempts to test out a time machine he created. The device would allow him to jump back in time, limited to his own lifetime. But something goes wrong. Sam finds himself in someone else’s body and his colleges back home can’t figure out how to get him back. Without any other options, Sam must pretend to be the man he leapt into and discover how he got here and how he can get out.
Why you should watch it: I have always found Quantum Leap’s interpretation of time travel to be an intriguing one. He isn’t going back in time as himself, he’s going back into someone else’s body. After he arrives he must discover what it is about this person he leapt into that has gone wrong, and then right the mistake. So for example, if he leaps into someone being abused, he must rise up against his attacker and carve out a better life for the person. The concept might sound confusing on paper, but it is very easy to fall into when watching the show. The series has a distinctly eighties feel to it, but the stories are timeless and it makes the show worthy of watching even now that we know 1999 didn’t introduce neon lights in our clothing.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Description: Earth, water, fire and air dominate this Asian inspired world where ‘benders’ can manipulate the elements like magic. Hungry for power the leader of the Fire Nation declares war on the rest of the world. The only one who can stop him is the Avatar; a single being that can control all four elements. The Avatar is resurrected again and again through time, but the most recent Avatar disappeared. Without being controlled, the Fire Nation has nearly destroyed the world. One hundred years later two siblings of the southern water tribe discover the fate of the last Avatar; he has been frozen in ice for nearly a century. The boy, named Aang, must now undo the damage that has been done and stop the Fire Lord before he gets too powerful.
Why you should watch it: Yes, this show is a cartoon and yes it originally aired on Nickelodeon. I myself was skeptical of it since it came from the house that Spongebob built, but Avatar is one of the most thoughtful shows I’ve seen in a while. The stories that they cram into each half hour are rich in detail and humor. Even though it’s a kid’s show, you’ll find yourself laughing at all the jokes and routing for the main characters just as much as any adult show. And if you have had trouble understanding Anime (none of it makes sense to me) don’t worry. Despite what it looks like this isn’t a true anime show. The story is straight-forward enough that anyone can get into it and the art style is more of an anime-inspired take on cartoons by American artists. There is much more movement and even pacing than traditional anime shows. In any case, you’ll find a timeless story with characters that you’ll grow to love.
Description: From Simpsons creator Matt Groening, we are frozen in time along with Fry, an every-man who just can’t seem to cut a break. We emerge in the year 3000 to find the world as a mash-up of every science fiction show we’ve ever watched. Fry has no choice but to adapt to his new environment where he becomes a delivery boy for Planet Express; which will have him going from planet to planet delivering things he never could have dreamed of. He’s joined by Leela, a Cyclops with a heart of gold and Bender, a booze drinking robot.
Why you should watch it: This show is unquestionably a comedy, but like 3rd Rock from the Sun it never forgets that it’s a science fiction show. With the cartoon medium it means the show can do things other science fiction shows can’t and this creates for truly creative worlds that the crew can screw up. The series has an odd timeline as it was canceled, then brought back as four new movies, then renewed on a different network, but so far it hasn’t impacted its quality.