After Battlestar Galactica wrapped up in 2009, what happened to television science fiction? There were some fantasy shows, some horror, things that might approach sci-fi, but overall there was a definite dearth for years.
As I noted in another post about TV shows, Orphan Black premiered in 2013. It doesn't take place in the far future or deal with aliens, but it did mark the start of an increase of sci-fi on TV.
I also mentioned The 100 in my other TV post, and it's worth saying that I still think it's one of the best continuing shows right now. I care more about its characters and I'm on the edge of my seat watching it more than I am with most forms of entertainment.
But what's happened since then? What's new? Has sci-fi made enough of a comeback to start sporting some space ships?
The answer is a definitive yes. Below I'll examine the front runners, giving a broad overview of the most prevalent shows in the genre, generally descending in the order that I like them. I thought about including some shows I think are downright bad and critiquing them, but ultimately decided against it. For what it's worth: avoid Extant and Humans. They're both a waste of time.
Continuum is the only show on this list that has aired its final episode. It also had the lowest budget. I'll be the first to admit that it's probably not for everyone. Time travel inevitably leads to plotholes. And there are some slow spots. But it is filmed in Vancouver, which is always a good sign, and it means there are some familiar faces, namely Tamoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani.
The casting is particularly good. Rachel Nichols and Victor Webster are the leads - I've never seen either before, but they both give great performances. Nichols in particular gets great at conveying complex emotions toward the end of the series. She's put in some unique situations that most actors couldn't handle, but she deals with them deftly.
The supporting cast is also worth mentioning, with Erik Knudson and Stephen Lobo both playing quirky characters. Lobo's "Kellog" is a favorite of mine. Charismatic and pragmatic, he supplies comic relief and occassional villainy.
The action and intrigue keep things moving, and there are some awesome special effects sequences involving the stealth suit. Sadly, the series is marred by some equally bad CG at points. But when it shines, it shines brightly.
I'm really thankful that Continuum got a controlled ending. It was very satisfying, albeit bittersweet, worthwhile journey.
Colony is the most criminally under-watched show on TV right now. It's a harsh, modern dystopia where the US has been divided into blocs by massive walls. Friends and family are separated from each other, travel is heavily restricted, curfews enforced, while people are disappearing or shot on the spot. This is all overseen by a hostile occupying force.
And that force is alien.
No one has ever seen or spoken to an alien directly, but they have terrible weaponry and don't tolerate resistance. Nonetheless, resistance persists. And one family gets caught up in the middle of it.
Colony excels because it focuses on the human aspect of an alien encounter. It's about how humans treat each other, as well as how they react to circumstances out of their control.
It also uses a realistic style to make this sci-fi setting more believable. The cinematography has occasional moments of excellence, such as in the recent Season 2 Episode 8 "Good Intentions." There's a continuous shot action scene that has a Banshee quality to it: fraught with tension and executed perfectly.
There are mysteries slowly being revealed, and all I want is for USA to give the show enough seasons to get through them all without rushing. It has so much potential.
I originally had The Expanse at the bottom of this list. I did not enjoy most of the first season, nor did I particularly like the book it's based on. I read it a while ago for the same reason this show was probably greenlit: one of the authors works with George R.R. Martin. I also love the idea of sci-fi taking place throughout the solar system once humanity has spread out a bit - indeed, that's the setting for my own first novel - but in this case I was thoroughly unimpressed.
Season 1 Episode 4 "CQB" was a solid action entry in the series, but I found the show otherwise incomprehensible. Production techniques like desaturating an already ill-light set made it hard to see what was happening on screen. Accents not based in reality made it hard to hear what was being said. Hand cams and fast cuts exacerbated the problems. The plot was far too meandering. And I really didn't like Miller.
But the second season. Wow.
They've improved on everything. The difference is palpable even in the first episode. Gone are the gray scenes and frenetic shots. Instead the camera remains still, moving only with purpose. Neon purples and reds keep the scenes lit, while remaining distinctly sci-fi. The direction and cinematography are both so much better that it feels like a totally different show. It's like the crew grew up a bit, or hired some veterans, or possibly even listened to some critics. Whatever the reason, the change is welcome.
On top of fixing all its production woes, The Expanse actually hit its stride when it comes to story too. The stakes are incredibly high - like planetary destruction high - and it's exhilarating to watch each episode. Having a sci-fi show back on the air that has actual space battles is a watershed event.
Despite my harsh critiques I'm beyond happy that this show has matured. It has quickly turned into one of the hours I most look forward to each week. Over half this list is made up of shows on the SyFy channel, and The Expanse is now the unquestionable leader.
SyFy started airing two sister shows in back to back timeslots: Killjoys and Dark Matter. They are both futuristic settings where Earth exists somewhere, but isn't as important as it used to be. Thy also both feature a small crew operating out of a single ship, and focus on the dynamic of those crew members with each other.
I prefer Killjoys because it's irreverent. The first season does not take itself seriously, and despite the life or death situations the characters often find themselves in they still have time for comic relief. There's love and messy relationships and desire and greed and guilt all contained in a little ship controlled by a sassy AI that goes by "Lucy." They're not afraid to talk about religion, and they're not afraid to hash it out with each other. Throw in a woman called "Dutch" that knows how to fight better than either of the men and you have the closest thing to Firefly since Serenity left theaters.
The second season didn't quite live up to the promise of the first: the show starts to take itself too seriously, and as a result loses some of its charm. But they've built an intriguing universe here. One filled with multidimensional characters, conspiracies, and conflicts. And that means there's still plenty of good TV to be made.
I read the Dark Matter graphic novel and really didn't like it. The story is filled with predictable tropes: the crew has amnesia, one of them is a traitor, what a surprise.
The early episodes are the worst. The characters don't know themselves, don't trust each other, and generally run around in circles, never progressing anything. Once the characters actually start to get backstories fleshed out and personalities finalized things improve a lot. This means the second season ended up being much better than the first. It also features Wil Wheaton as a bad guy, and that's worth the price of admission alone.
I think Dark Matter has potential to get even better, but it hasn't fully found its footing yet. It needs to give up entirely on the amnesia thread and not knowing who's who. Once it gets out of its own way there's plenty of plot to explore.
Into the Badlands
I forced myself to get through Into the Badlands. The intro music is done by Mike Shinoda, but that wasn't enough to make the pilot very good. Or the next couple episodes either. I was still so enthralled by the setup - a future US reverted to feudalism where all guns are gone - that I had to see it through all six episodes. The utterly bland Revolution had something similar and squandered it in mediocrity. It seemed impossible that another show would do the same.
And yet it seemed likely, until somewhere near the middle of the season. The last two or three episodes actually focus enough on moving the story forward rather than dreary exposition that it became enjoyable to watch.
You have to embrace the crazy unrealistic fight scenes. They evoke images of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The swordplay is quite good at points, and that's something most sci-fi that isn't Star Wars lacks.
AMC certainly took a gamble on this wild premise. It's the only show on this list not into its second season yet (although that starts very soon), and it has the least number of episodes in its first season to boot, so there's not a lot of material to judge. Yet what's there is trending upwards. Add that to the supernatural powers we only get a glimpse of and I'm excited for the future of Into the Badlands.
Fantasy Bonus: The Magicians
I'm writing about sci-fi and it's forever intertwined with fantasy so I have to include The Magicians. I think it's my favorite show on TV right now.
It does not start strong. The first four or five episodes are largely exposition, and if you're at all familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia then it feels redundant in extremis.
The Magicians starts with a purely cliche setup: normal boy living a depressing life suddenly finds out magic is real and he's special and has powers and gets whisked away to a magic school where he's at the top of the class except for the hot girl who's smarter than he is. Yes, it draws from Harry Potter heavily. And The Name of the Wind, all the way back to The Wizard of Earthsea. The Magicians is supremely aware of its place in the history of the genre. It's post-modern fantasy.
Then they start playing with your expectations. The tropes turn on you. Around episode 7 or 8 I went from mild disinterest to addictively hooked. It was a race to the finish from there. The show gets DARK. Eliot and Margo are some amazing comic relief characters, but the drama unfolding around Alice and Quentin and Julia works itself up to a feverish sprint and then doesn't stop, even into the second season.
I really can't say enough good things about The Magicians. Everything you think you know will be turned on its head. There's reveal after reveal after reveal and they all make sense and fit together. Go watch it.