We’re living in a golden age of television viewing. Not because of what’s airing on network or cable television right now, most of that’s reality programming crap, but because of all the great, older content that’s available with the touch of a button thanks to the genius of Netflix Instant Watch.
Unfortunately, this golden age may be woefully short lived. Netflix is in trouble. Greedy content providers have seen dollar signs and in response all that on demand content currently available in one spot is on the verge of being pulled out of circulation to be scattered to the four winds of the internet, or in some cases buried in a deep vault somewhere hidden until the rights holder can squeeze a few more dollars out of some other content provider. Maybe Netflix could find a way to survive that, but other recent business decisions made by the company seem destined to doom them entirely (Qwikster? Seriously what are they thinking?).
Maybe they survive but just in case they don’t, now is the time to maximize your Netflix Instant Watch usage to catch up on great science fiction that, unless you were willing to pay top dollar for a box set on Amazon, there was just no convenient way to watch before. Because getting TV shows one DVD at a time in the mail just won’t do, these are the best science fiction series available on Instant Watch, right now.
Both the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica television series and the new, Ron Moore shepherded version are online, but unless you’re some kind of purist there’s probably no reason to watch the old ones. Stick with the Ron Moore version which, in spite of a somewhat unsatisfying ending, is still one of the best television experiences of all time. The show follows a group of humans from a far off civilization fleeing their own creations, human-like robots who have destroyed their world leaving only a handful of survivors. Those survivors are on a quest to find a new home on a lost, mythical planet known as Earth. In the end their destination doesn’t actually matter so much, BSG is as much an exploration of the human soul as it is a journey across the cosmos. Prepare to be changed by it.
# Of Eps Available: All 73 episodes which originally aired over four seasons between 2004 and 2009.
Like Battlestar both the older and new versions of The Doctor are on Instant Watch. I’d recommend sticking with the new version, unless you have some nostalgic attachment to the classic episodes. For the uninitiated, old Doctor Who just doesn’t hold up well. New Doctor Who though, is brilliant. You’ll have to slog through the sort of mediocre first season with Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor to get to it, but it’s so worth it. Once you get to the second season with David Tennant the show utterly soars, becoming a deeply moving adventure show about an ancient man who travels through time and space, conquering evil with science, romance, and sheer intelligence. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be better for having watched every single second of it, even the dumb parts in season one where Eccleston battles a bunch of mannequins with machine gun arms. Hey, nothing’s perfect. Side note: Don’t miss the Doctor Who mini-movies which are in some cases available only separately on Netflix. “The Waters of Mars” for instance, is deeply haunting.
# Of Episodes Available: 69 episodes which originally aired over five seasons between 2005 and 2010.
Maybe the best television series in the history of medium. That’s how I describe Farscape when anyone asks about it, and I still feel like I haven’t said enough good. Somehow, despite the effusive praise of everyone who’s been lucky enough to spend time on Moya, Farscape still flies under the radar. Make sure you give it at least five episodes before you make a decision on whether it’s for you. The thing is Farscape, like life, is complex. Not in that sci-fi, brain-bender way that so many genre shows are, but in the way it builds relationships between the characters involved in what’s going on. It’s the story of an American astronaut named John Crichton, sucked through a wormhole and stranded in a different galaxy on a ship, a living ship, with a group of escaped prisoners. They hate each other first, they can’t get along, they’re all aliens after all… but over time these characters become a family. A family you’re a part of, a family lost in a deadly and dangerous galaxy written by some of the best storytellers in the history of television. For those of you who’ve already seen it, you know what I’m talking about. When you re-watch it on Netflix (and you will), clicking play on those old episodes feels like coming home.
# Of Episodes Available: All 88 episodes which aired over four seasons between 1999 and 2002.
Firefly had the potential to be the next big science fiction franchise, but the Joss Whedon created space adventure series was cut short by short-sighted executives. There may not be many episodes, but what’s there is worth your time. It’s the story of a crew of smugglers and almost pirates in a far off future where the galaxy has been colonized by man but things aren’t going very well. It takes the whole idea of a space western pretty seriously, imagine the crew of the Firefly class ship Serenity as a group of generally well-meaning bandits roving from one frontier town to the next stirring up trouble and you’ll get some inkling of what you’re in for, if you’ve never seen it. Though the series was cut short, there is Serenity, the feature film which followed and incidentally, made my list of the best space operas of all time, to sort of sum it all up. Firefly is undeniably great, but given time it could have been so much more. Watch it, fall in love, and wonder what might have been.
# Of Eps Available: All 14 plus Serenity the feature film which followed the show’s cancellation.
Futurama could have been a show which just makes fun of science fiction, but in the process of doing that, Matt Groenig’s piece of clever, animated hilarity often ends up being pretty great science fiction itself. Sci-fi fans can watch and get all the in-jokes, noobies tune in to watch Bender drink beer. You can’t really go wrong with Futurama, particularly in the show’s first couple of seasons when things really seemed to be firing on all hyperspace engines. Futurama’s back on the air now with new episodes, but these older ones are just better. It’s about a pizza delivery boy from our time, frozen and awakened in a far off future where he works for an inter-galactic delivery service run by one of his ancestors, becomes best friends with an alcoholic robot, lusts after a Cyclops woman, and eventually defeats a bunch of invading brains while riding a Scooty Puff Jr.
# Of Eps Available: 75 episodes which aired irregularly on different channels from 1999 – 2009. There are also some direct to DVD movies, but I’d skip those if I were you.
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Back in the late 80s one smart and funny man by the name of Joel Hodgson had a brilliant idea: produce a show that is mostly a re-airing of truly horrific b-movies from film history, but do it with commentary. The conceit is simple, the execution hilarious, and the result is Mystery Science Theater 3000, a cult show that ran for 11 years and is one of the most beloved sci-fi series of the past two decades. Two mad scientists launch a janitor into space to force him to watch B-movies; there’s a reason but it doesn’t matter. Joel Robinson (played by creator Joel Hodgson) creates four robots to help maintain his sanity. With them, mainly Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, fans were treated to what are ostensibly the first mass market produced movie commentaries. The only difference between what you find on a blu-ray today and what MST3K started over 20 years ago is that Joel (and eventually Mike Nelson, who replaced Joel on the show in the early 90s) and his robot buddies spent the entire episode making fun of the films. You don’t go to MST3K to learn how they did the makeup for Hobgoblins, you’re there to hear Tom Servo analyze a film by saying, “They must have spent ten dollars on this.”
#Of Eps Available: Dozens, but not categorized as a season set. You’ll have to pick them out one at a time.
Quantum Leap was one of the smartest television shows of the 90s and back then in its own way, even a little edgy. It remains one of the best, most accessible pieces of science fiction ever to make it on television. It’s the story of a man named Sam Beckett who, in some not so far off future creates a machine which sends not his body, but his consciousness leaping through time. Every week he leaps into the body of a new historical figure, some famous, some utterly unfamous. In order to get home he has to keep leaping into someone else, and in order to leap he has to set right whatever’s wrong in the life of the person he’s leaped into. His only companion is the hologram of a man named Al, projected from the experiment in the future as a guide and mentor. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Sam’s “oh boy” persona almost instantly and the chemistry between he and Al is the stuff television icons are made out of. Whether tackling heady political issues or getting preachy with religion and mired in the nature of the human soul, Al and Sam’s relationship keeps Quantum Leap grounded. Whether Sam’s breaking the sound barrier or giving birth in an elevator, Quantum Leap is almost perfect.
# Of Eps Available: Most of the 98 episodes originally aired over five seasons between 1989 and 1992.
Red Dwarf could have just been a show in which people cracked jokes about how much Lister loves curry, but in between all the curry humor it’s also surprisingly smart. Alright you’ll mostly tune in for the comedy but the story of the last human in the galaxy trapped alone on a giant ship billions of years into the future is bound to have some good ideas once in awhile. Actually the whole thing is kind of like Mystery Science Theater 3000, except without the movies and with British accents. Dave Lister is utterly alone on the lost mining ship Red Dwarf, except for a smeghead hologram of his dead roommate, the ship’s computer, a life form which evolved from the ship’s cat, and a later on in the show a robot with a cleaning obsession. They keep him sane by irritating the hell out of them, and in return Dave gets back at them by generally not caring about basic hygiene. The story basically goes completely off the rails in later seasons but, well, Red Dwarf is always at its best when it’s completely off the rails anyway. It’s funnier and weirder than you can imagine, and even though most of the special effects are terrible, well that terribleness is somehow all part of the charm. I’m pretty sure it’s all intentional.
# Of Eps Available: All 47 episodes originally aired over 8 seasons from 1988 – 1999 (they take their time about these things in the UK) plus three newer episodes randomly created and aired in 2009 for some smegging reason.
There’s not much left to be said about the original Star Trek, except to re-iterate that unlike just about any other piece of science fiction produced in this era, it holds up. It’s still the greatest science fiction series ever created and the stories, even the one in which Kirk and Uhura pull off television’s first black kiss, are still incredibly relevant. Great writing based on ideas bigger than the show itself have helped keep it that way, along with iconic, unforgettable characters. The dynamice between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy has never really been duplicated anywhere else, not even in that 2009 movie they did where they brought in a bunch of kids as replacement actors. It’s Star Trek. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you haven’t seen it… at least watch the one with the tribbles. It’ll be no tribble at all.
# Of Eps Available: All 82 original episodes which originally aired over 3 seasons between 1966 and 1968.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Not quite as good as the original Star Trek, but so close to as good that it almost doesn’t matter, The Next Generation holds up pretty well too. In retrospect the show’s attempt to be more politically correct than the original now just seems sort of naïve. I maintain that Kirk’s shoot first and ask questions later approach to exploration was probably the right one. Still, brilliant acting, amazing stories, and a truly hopeful outlook for humanity kept this true to the spirit of Rodenberry’s original Trek dream. Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise are also available on Instant Watch but… much as I love Trek I can’t recommend them. Unfortunately, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which is worth your time, is the only Star Trek series not currently available on Netflix Instant Watch. Work your way through Next Generation and hopefully, by the time you’ve finished, Netflix will have DS9 on instant watch, right alongside it, where it belongs.
# Of Eps Available: All 178 episodes which originally aired over 7 seasons between 1987 and 1993.