Science fiction hasn’t always gotten its due. In the past it’s been dismissed as “kid stuff” or somehow less worthy and noble than mainstream fiction. Thankfully we know better than that. At its best, science fiction can examine who we are by exploring who we were, or who we will become. Thankfully, SF has long since proven that it has the potential to tell stories just as exciting and insightful as those of any other genre, but franchises such as Star Trek has proven it can be big business as well. For the purposes of this story, however, we’re not concerned with crass commercialism, but rather the writing quality of some of the genre’s best TV outings.
The Writers Guild of America recently shared their picks for the “101 Best Written TV Series” of all time, and wouldn’t you know it, several iconic science fiction shows were included on the list. Granted, they only occupy six slots out of 101, so I’m thinking there are some serious oversights, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, let’s examine the SF shows the WGA folks did deem worthy or recognition.
#26 — The X-Files (1993 – 2002)
When Chris Carter’s X-Files premiered in 1993, it had been a while since a massively successful sci-fi series had ruled the ratings. Quantum Leap was wrapping up and Star Trek: The Next Generation was in its final few seasons. Then along came the adventures of FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, and viewers got hard-core hooked on the show’s mix of supernatural mystery, Byzantine paranoid conspiracies, and two of the best-written characters in TV history. You can argue whether The X-Files deserves to be the highest-ranked of all the SF shows on the list, but there’s no denying how good the show was when it was on its game. Much of that can be credited to the show’s writing team, a who’s who of talent that included Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), John Shiban (Hell on Wheels), Howard Gordon (Homeland), and Tim Minear (Dollhouse).
#27 — Lost (2004 – 2010)
Coming in right behind The X-Files is Lost, another show rooted in a complex mythology but anchored by top-notch character work. While Lost may have hooked viewers with mysterious hatches and smoke monsters and the beguiling island itself, just as important was that we genuinely cared for the stranded castaways and their dire plight. And let’s face it, between the two elements of Lost — the mysteries and the characters — there’s no question that the writing of the latter was far more consistent than that of the latter. Over the years Lost’s mythology took missteps, wandered down dead-end alleys, and concluded with a series finale that left some viewers feeling cheated, and even insulted. Still, when Lost was firing on all cylinders, it was amazing appointment television, courtesy of writers such as Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man), and David Fury (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Oh, and some guy named “Damon Lindelof.”
#30 — The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964)
I’ve got to take issue with this one being this far down the list. Sure, this is a 50-year-old show, so some of the performances are a little bit dated, but the quality and influence of Rod Serling’s classic series can’t be overstated. The Twilight Zone was one of the first genre TV shows that demonstrated how science fiction could be about more than just rocketships and nefarious aliens. By enlisting the talents of folks such as Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, and Serling himself, The Twilight Zone explored the human condition through self-contained stories that were alternately hopeful, terrifying, wistful, or wickedly satirical. Knowing that censors wouldn’t let him directly address things such as racism, Serling draped his commentary in the trappings of the fantastic, effectively sneaking onto the airwaves things he never would have been able to approach directly.
#33 — Star Trek (1966 – 1969)
This is another one I think should be higher up the list, both for the quality of its writing and for the impact it’s had on pop culture as a whole. But alright, we’re only talking about the writing quality here, and Star Trek can definitely hold its own on that front. (And then there’s “Spock’s Brain,” but hey, everybody has an off day.) Like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek compiled its writers from some of the most best literary SF talents of its age, including Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, and, in a partnership that went sour in a big way, Harlan Ellison. (He notoriously butted heads with Gene Roddenberry about the direction of his script for “City on the Edge of Forever.”) Trek also mirrored Twilight Zone in the way it used science fiction as metaphor to explore very serious topics. It’s a legacy, sadly, that the franchise has wandered away from in recent years (and I say that as somebody who quite enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness).
#38 — Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009)
Ah, Battlestar Galactica. If ever there was proof that reboots aren’t always a bad thing, BSG would be it. While Glen Larson’s campy 1978 series has its die-hard fans, and I still have fond, nostalgic memories of it, Ron Moore took Battlestar‘s core concept and elevated it to a level of quality and intelligent writing that rivaled the best of the cable drama landscape. Battlestar was a show that never apologized for its genre trappings, but neither did it use them in lazy ways. BSG was very much a story about people in desperate situations, and those situations just happened to unfold on a ragtag fleet and involve sexy, sexy robot people. Sadly, like Lost and The X-Files, BSG stumbled in its closing episodes, and while I liked most of the way the show wrapped things up, its finale is still a bitterly divisive sci-fi talking point even today.
#79 — Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994)
Finally, we come to the first Star Trek spinoff, the show that returned Trek to the small screen and hooked an entirely new generation of viewers (including yours truly). Granted, I don’t think TNG deserved any writing awards during its awkward first season. This is definitely a show that suffered through some growing pains as both the cast and the writers found their footing. But once they did so, maybe midway through the second season, it embraced Roddenberry’s tradition of smart writing that explored big ideas. Over the years, TNG served up such unforgettable episodes as “The Inner Light,” “Best of Both Worlds” (both parts), “Darmok,” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” While there were some true gems in Deep Space Nine‘s run, if this list was only going to include two Trek series, I definitely agree that the Original Series and TNG are the right two.