Time travel is all the rage on TV these days, nearly taking over from post-apocalypse scenarios. From a silly sitcom (Making History) to two unnecessary remakes of two of my favorite movies (Frequency and Time After Time) to a slightly entertaining light adventure series (Timeless), the space/time continuum has never been in more danger.
And, of course, Dr. Who and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow just skip all over time willy nilly. And Outlander is a bosom-busting romantic fantasy take on the old Edgar Rice Burroughs device where John Carter of Mars can travel between worlds by some unexplained ancient mystery, it’s just she goes back 200 years, not to another planet.
But there actually is a terrific time-travel show (that also has a post-apocalypse angle) based on a classic movie, along with some other very good science fiction offerings currently going on TV right now.
What is not included in this list: fantasies, however good, like Dr. Who, Outlander, or Game of Thrones. Superheroes and anything magical or supernatural will also have to wait for another list.
8. The Walking Dead (AMC) and The Strain (FX)
Okay, fine, The Walking Dead and The Strain are merely contemporary takes on the old zombie movie, but they do attempt a scientific explanation for the Zombie Apocalypse—a virus. That’s not original, of course, but both attempt to keep their shows within the real world and include reactions by real world humans.
The Walking Dead is at its best when it keeps the focus on the choices humans must make to remain humane and still survive, while The Strain, with its setting of New York City and a hero who is a top doc at the CDC, paints on a much broader canvas of the political, military and law enforcement response to the plague.
Nor does The Strain openly defy the laws of physics and anatomy like The Walking Dead does with its mushy skulls.
I guess the best comparison between the two shows would be the first two Alien movies. Alien was Dawn Patrol terror as protagonists are picked off one by one, while Aliens was about war against the Aliens (with a few stupidly ambitious humans trying to harness rather than kill them).
Lately, fans have rightly complained that the new villain, Negan, played by the estimable Jeffrey Dean Morgan, has the show wallowing in sadism. I agree, but just about the time I decide to give up, there is a brilliant episode that reminds me why I’ve stuck with the show for all these years.
7. The Last Ship (TNT)
The Last Ship is far better than I expected from Michael Bay. I expected rah-rah patriotism as a Navy ship that escapes a plague that devastated the Earth returns to save the world. But as I summarized here, it plays out in often unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable ways.
6. Colony (USA)
What if resistance really is futile?
That’s the question the Earthlings in Colony have to ponder, as an unseen alien force with unimaginable power takes over our planet. Not only has their technological advantage made them all but omnipotent, their ruthlessness at reprisal makes even the most freedom-loving warrior pause in striking back.
This question is what sets Colony apart; most alien invasion shows ponder how to resist—not whether.
The show stars Lost’s Josh Holloway (and his three day’s growth) as a former FBI agent pressed into duty with the aliens’ security force; The Walking Dead’s Sarah Wayne Callies as his wife who is, unknown to him, in the Resistance; along with a top flight cast of TV regulars. The show is first class all the way.
5. Westword (HBO)
The anticipation for Westworld, the TV show, could hardly have been higher, with J.J. Abrams, the master of reboots, updating and expanding Michael Crichton’s first story about man’s creations in a theme park going wild. And starring Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris!
It didn’t live up to the insanely high expectations, but Westworld was still a very good, thoughtful mind trip.
Westworld may have lost a few viewers in the early going, as the “storylines” for the characters kept repeating with small variations—but the careful viewer was rewarded.
The new Westworld wasn’t just about robots going beyond their programming, of course, it was about artificial intelligence becoming self-aware—or did it? Was even that just another program in Dr. Robert Ford’s game? Is this playing God, or just pretending to play God?
4. 12 Monkeys (ScyFi)
Somewhere in a studio, I am convinced there is a wall with a giant timeline diagram where the producers and writers of this excellent series keep track of every anomaly, paradox, or change in time that is made by the time travelers hoping to avert a worldwide plague that killed 7 billion people.
Unlike most time travel shows in which the complication is trying to avoid changing the present/future, in 12 Monkeys that is precisely the point, so it allows for more storytelling freedom.
Obviously based on the trippy Terry Gilliam movie of the same name starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, 12 Monkeys expands the role of the cult “The Army of the 12 Monkeys,” as our intrepid time travelers chase them through time trying to preserve life on Earth.
It’s a wild, suspenseful and intelligent ride. Easily the best time-travel show ever. Just don’t try to pick it up midstream.
3. Humans (AMC)
Better and more accessible than Westworld, Humans is a British import for AMC that puts AI awakening in the context of everyday life.
It posits a world where many menial tasks are performed by extremely lifelike robots, and some of them are becoming self-aware. On one side, activists try to protect the rights of the wakened robots—and even push out programming that will create more; while others legitimately worry what this means for mankind.
Complex, involving, and very well-produced and thought out, Humans is the kind of show science fiction buffs always say they want, but rarely get.
2. Stranger Things (Netflix)
The only thing keeping Stranger Things from the Number 1 slot on this list is its tenuous ties to real science fiction. But since everything generates from a mysterious government research station and there is nothing magical (as long as you buy the multi-dimensions of time and space as science) in the show, this wonderful mash-up of every ’80s horror/sci-fi/mysterious-stranger-with-special-powers convention is can’t-miss streaming TV.
1. The Expanse (ScyFi)
While I’ve mocked the notion for years that the Millennium Falcon—essentially a brick with rocket propulsion—could pull aerodynamic maneuvers inside a plant’s atmosphere and gravitational pull, I didn’t know until I watched The Expanse that you could pull G forces while engaging in violent maneuvers in space.
That was something that even the very fine film, The Martian, fudged on. (Very minor spoiler alert, but the slingshot maneuver around the earth would have squished the rescue crew into something resembling raspberry pancakes.)
Based on a series of novels by Daniel Abraham and James S. A. Corey, The Expanse is television’s only hard science sci-fi show right now. But that’s not the only thing that puts it in the top slot here.
Somewhere between Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica in tone, The Expanse begins with an ex-cop private eye (Thomas Jane, complete with cynical voiceover) looking for a missing girl. Wider implications ensue—and wider is an understatement.
In the universe of The Expanse, Earth has colonized Mars and is mining in much of the rest of the Solar System. Three political entities have sprung up. Mars revolted to get away from Earth’s heavy hand (with similar grievances to the American Revolution). But miners on various moons and asteroids with no ties to either planet (some born in space) call themselves Belters and are somewhere between a labor union and a nascent nation.
The Expanse has a very… expansive cast, and a very detailed and logical political setup. There are heroes, villains, opportunists, hawks and doves on all sides, which makes for good, unpredictable drama—far too much to summarize here. But if you crave top-flight, ambitious, intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction, The Expanse is your ticket.