Movies + TV

The Stuff of Dreams

A sci-fi roundup.

Recently I saw a Mazda commercial advertising their new “Skyactiv technology.” I got all wide-eyed and said, “Does this mean they’re developing FLYING CARS!?!” Go ahead and laugh at me—all of my friends have—but I couldn’t help my wishful thinking. I grew up on a steady diet of science-fiction movies and TV, including Back to the Future Part II, which was set in 2015 and featured flying cars. Hello, that is only three years away. We need to get on it!

This is just one example of why sci-fi, which is often perceived of as strictly geek territory, is so essential. Maybe the idea that one day I’ll be able to fly a car (!!!) is a fantasy, but it keeps me hopeful for the future. Science-fiction stories are crucial because they remind us to dream, and they inspire innovations. On the flipside, they can also be cautionary tales that make us examine our actions and philosophies so we don’t leave a bleak and scary legacy for future generations. In other words, sci-fi is both a wonderful escape and a great teacher. To help you explore this fabulous genre, here is a rundown of the science fiction TV shows and movies that have had the greatest impact on me:

1. Voltron: Defender of the Universe (original release: 1984-1985; broadcast by Cartoon Network in 1988)
This cartoon is where it all began for me. Voltron is “a mighty robot, loved by good, feared by evil.” He fights only to maintain peace and justice in the universe, which is probably why my pacifist parents allowed me and my little brother to watch it even though G.I. Joe was banned in our house and the Transformers were iffy. The show starts with a “super force” of five space explorers—Keith, Sven, Lance, Hunk, and Pidge—from Galaxy Alliance on Earth, heading to help to people of Planet Arus, who are under attack by the evil King Zarkon of Planet Doom. They crash, get captured, and are taken to Planet Doom, but they eventually escape and form Voltron. My little brother and I were OBSESSED with this show. “Playing Voltron” was our favorite game. I know it sounds childish, but this show single-handedly expanded my imagination. There is a 2011 version, but I haven’t seen it. I got my brother the original series on DVD recently, and though it has its cheesy moments (proclamations like “We’re space explorers and we need space!”) as well as a lot of praying that we didn’t remember, we thoroughly enjoyed re-watching the Voltron force defend the universe against King Zarkon, Haggar, and her seriously bad-ass blue cat. It’s on Netflix Instant, so I highly recommend it for light sci-fi fun.

2. Explorers (1985)
Before we got cable, my brother and I were always desperate for something good to watch. Fortunately for us, this movie played on channel nine pretty much nonstop. It is the first feature film for both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, and they are adorable as Ben and Wolfgang, who, like me and my brother, are obsessed with sci-fi and outer space. I’m pretty sure Billy Corgan used this movie as inspiration for the Smashing Pumpkins video for “Rocket.” Explorers made my brother and me even bigger dreamers, and once we got our cousins to watch it, we started plotting to build our own spaceship. Sadly, those plans never came to fruition.

3. Solarbabies (1986)
We got cable the summer I turned 10, and Solarbabies was always on one of the movie channels. My brother wasn’t really into it, but I thought it was the best thing ever because it combined two of my favorite things: sci-fi and roller skates. Solarbabies is set in a dystopian future where there’s a water shortage on Earth and as a result there’s martial law. A military group called the Eco Protectorate control “water privileges” and they also find/steal children and throw them into these orphanages that they use as training camps. The kids are allowed to roller skate, though, and they play this game called skate ball, which is like a violent combination of lacrosse and hockey on roller skates. They also do a lot of other stuff on roller skates, like give chase in the desert and zoom through a bunch of different colonies. When I rewatched this movie, it proved to be pure cheese. There are some cringeworthy stereotypes and really, really bad fashion (codpiece Speedo thingies!). But Solarbabies is still delightful because the cast spends 90 to 95 percent of the movie on roller skates, and it is on Netflix streaming.

4. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
ST:TNG was the big, earth-shattering sci-fi series for me. It was basically my life in junior high and actually caused a serious uprising in my house. My mom had always insisted that we eat dinner together as a family at the kitchen table, but once my brother and I discovered Star Trek, which was on every night at six, we refused to leave the TV to eat. Ultimately, Mom relented and let us have our dinner in the den. What made this show worth risking starvation? Captain Picard, Lieutenant Commander Data, Geordi LaForge, Transporters, replicators, warp speed, worm holes, time travel, goofy detective adventures on the holodeck, battles with the Borg, the Klingons, the Romulans, the Ferengi. Do you need me to go on? Don’t worry, I did.

5. Blade Runner (1982)
My dad introduced me to this movie, in which Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, who has to track down and destroy the genetically engineered robots called replicants. I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw Blade Runner, but I was definitely too young to fully appreciate it. I just thought that the dystopian vision of 2019 Los Angeles was visually stunning with all its big Times Square-style screens flashing advertisements in different languages. (And they had flying cars! Again, 2019 is not far away, let’s get on it.) Above all I loved Pris, the replicant played by Daryl Hannah, because she had insane acrobatic abilities, crazy blond hair, black eye makeup that looked like a mask spray-painted on her face, and incredible fishnet outfits. She was an early fashion icon for me. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school when my philosophy teacher showed Blade Runner in class that I grasped that this movie is not just about cool sets, costumes, and special effects. It gives us insight into human nature and the damage we can do if we don’t really think about our actions. Are the replicants dangerous machines that humans made and should destroy without a thought, or are they enough like us that they deserve rights or at least consideration? Watch it (preferably the final cut, because the original theatrical release has an unnecessary annoying voiceover and the studio changed the ending) and discuss.

6 & 7. The X-Files (1993-2002) and The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)
I almost didn’t include this show and movie on my list because they’re not straight-up sci-fi. The X-Files isn’t set on a spaceship or on a bleak future version of Earth. IMDB lists it as “drama” and “mystery” before “sci-fi.” But I think the core of The X-Files is expressed by the poster in FBI agent Fox Mulder’s basement office: a picture of a flying saucer hovering over a forest with the words “I Want to Believe” printed at the bottom. Mulder has a personal interest in working on the X-files—the unsolved FBI cases involving strange phenomena that no one else in the bureau takes seriously—because he believes that his sister was abducted by aliens. The woman assigned to work with him, Dr. Dana Scully, is a skeptical scientist. I loved her because she was incredibly smart and could kick ass. I loved him because I also wanted to believe. I really loved their incredible chemistry, and, like many fans, I was waiting for them to hook up. Most of all I loved the government-conspiracy take on aliens. The only reason I got a TV when I moved out of my parents’ house was because I couldn’t miss this show. When the first movie, The X-Files: Fight the Future, came out I scraped together what little money I had as a poor college student and saw it in the theater five times. Scully and Mulder’s near-kiss! Mulder’s up-close sighting of a real alien ship! The X-Files also broke my heart like no other show. I watched it to the bitter end, but the last couple of seasons were really bitter. And let’s not even talk about the 2008 movie. The first seven seasons of the show and the first movie are pure gold, though.

8. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
After being devastated by The X-Files, I snubbed the entire sci-fi genre for a while, but my friends, my husband, and my literary editor kept insisting that I just had to watch this Battlestar Galactica remake. Finally I gave in, and that Portlandia segment where Doug and Claire get so sucked into Battlestar that they don’t leave their couch for weeks and lose their jobs? That totally could have been me. The first three episodes were a three-part mini-series and you should definitely plan to watch them all in a row with some herbal tea on hand to soothe your ravaged nerves. I will admit that the end of this series also disappointed me, but overall it’s intense and captivating. Also Lieutenant Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, the bad-ass female Viper pilot, is probably my all-time favorite sci-fi character. She’s smart, she’s tough, she has crazy visions, she flies and fights just as hard as the boys, and she also smokes cigars and plays cards with them. I want to be her.

9 & 10. Firefly (2002) and Serenity (2005)
I was uncertain about Firefly, which aired shortly after The X-Files crushed my soul, because it stars Nathan Fillion, and since I’m obsessed with the soap One Life to Live, I didn’t think I could ever see him as anyone other than Joey Buchanan. But my brother is both a sci-fi and Joss Whedon fanatic, so almost every time I talked to him, he always found a way to work “You know, you really have to watch Firefly…” into the conversation. Last year, I told him to get it for me for Christmas and ended up watching the whole thing plus Serenity, the movie based on the series, in three nights. What makes Firefly so awesome is that it’s a space western. Joss Whedon + sci-fi + western = pure bliss. The only disappointing thing about this series is that it didn’t even get a full season in before being canceled, and though the movie answers some of the series’s open questions, it had so much more potential! You will feel robbed, you will grieve, but since it is short, you will just watch it again. ♦

51 Comments

  • rrruthie March 26th, 2012 7:14 PM

    Fantastic article. I’m such a huge scifi fan for exactly the reason you said — hope for the future. Not only technological excitement, but the idea that humans will get past sexism and racism and any other prejudices–that’s a big part of so many scifi shows and part of why I love the genre. So much hope!

    I’ve been meaning to watch BSG for forever but after getting sucked into shows as long as LOST I’ve had to cut back on my TV watching time. Which was how I found Firefly… and thank God for that! Joss Whedon is The Man. You should definitely watch Dollhouse because although it’s not as good it’s such an interesting take on science fiction and fantasy and weird moral ideas.

    Ack I’m so excited to watch BSG… and Solarbabies. That actually sounds like the best thing ever.

    • Stephanie March 27th, 2012 1:13 AM

      I’ve got Dollhouse in my Netflix queue. Will definitely check it out!

      • Stephanie March 27th, 2012 1:22 AM

        Oh and also this: “Not only technological excitement, but the idea that humans will get past sexism and racism and any other prejudices–that’s a big part of so many scifi shows and part of why I love the genre. So much hope!” So right on! Agree 100%!

  • suburban grrrl March 26th, 2012 7:15 PM

    I love Blade Runner! Pris was cool, but I also really liked Rachel’s hair and make-up. . .

    http://sub-urbangrrrl.blogspot.com/

  • Moxx March 26th, 2012 7:47 PM

    YES

  • Lascelles March 26th, 2012 8:10 PM

    Squee!!! Explores!!!! I loved that movie. Aliens were kinda weird though. Not mentioned but I absolutely loved the sci-fi Flight of the Navigator as a kid. My own Pee Wee alien, time traveling space ship? I mean, come on, it can’t get any better than that :D

  • christinachristina March 26th, 2012 8:17 PM

    Battlestar = swoon. I am 8 episodes from the end of the series and things are getting seriously frakking crazy. BESTSHOWEVEREVERYONEWATCHITKBYE.

  • eliza dolittle March 26th, 2012 8:51 PM

    NEXT GEN FOR LIFE.
    alsooo, just by the by, once you hit about half way the entire page is in italics. you might want to check that :)

  • -alexandra- March 26th, 2012 9:20 PM

    No Doctor Who? I really recommend it for all the Rookies! It’s a phenomenal sci-fi- time travel, aliens, historical figures, and mystery. The characters + plots are completely captivating.

    • Stephanie March 27th, 2012 1:11 AM

      I have yet to see Doctor Who, but I will be remedying that very soon and I’m sure it will be added to my own mental list :)

  • missmadness March 26th, 2012 9:22 PM

    Fox Mulder is basically my ideal man. I knew my bf and I were soul mates when he told me that he wanted to be Mulder when he was a kid

  • KC March 26th, 2012 9:27 PM

    2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY!

  • mariaantoniavs March 26th, 2012 9:29 PM

    YESS! I’m a big sci-fi fan as well! It makes me dream about a better future!

  • Torrie March 26th, 2012 9:33 PM

    Hey Rookie — some unfinished html is making everything italic. Also, unless I was logged in, last Friday’s articles were always on the main page and whenever I would click on “Today” none of today’s articles would be clickable even if the time was appropriate (does that make sense?).

    By the way, this list is wonderful.

  • talia anais March 26th, 2012 9:34 PM

    BLADE RUNNER. One of my very favourite films – my dad introduced me to it too! – that’s had a huge impact on me. I just love its atmosphere – so murky and textured and mournful. The lighting and locations alone are absolutely brilliant. And all the death scenes are so disturbingly poetic. It’s a movie that I can watch over and over and still find more to enjoy and ponder over, both visually and philosophically.

  • Ben March 26th, 2012 9:41 PM

    I really like that smashing pumkins video! Maybe I should watch that show. I also saw that porlandia skit. I love Portlandia. I also love scifi! Yeah! One of my favorite scifis is the neverending story. It’s sooo cool!

    http://bensstylecorner.blogspot.com/

  • Lurkingshadows March 26th, 2012 9:46 PM

    No Doctor Who?

  • marimba_girl March 26th, 2012 10:23 PM

    I LOVE Firefly! I still don’t know what make them end it so soon because the characters were great and it had really enjoyable dialogue. I have mostly given up on sci-fi movie though because I always tend to be disappointed in either the special effects the plot ( or lack thereof) or the characters, so now I just read a ton of science fiction books.

  • lavendersparrow March 26th, 2012 11:20 PM

    Very good article. I like Blade Runner also and agree about Pris being a fashion icon!

    http://lavendersparrow.wordpress.com/

  • Adrienne March 26th, 2012 11:29 PM

    For some reason, I’ve never really watched a lot of sci-fi movies, which is especially weird when my dad is the hugest dork on the planet. Star Trek: The Next Generation, though, I LOVE TO DEATH. DATA <3.

    I also enjoy the original Planet of the Apes! (does that count as sci-fi…?)

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

    • Impybat March 27th, 2012 11:57 AM

      The original Planet of the Apes was incredible! Yes, it absolutely counts :)

      • KinuKinu March 27th, 2012 8:37 PM

        PLANET OF THE APES!!!!! I LOVE THAT MOVIE. Planet of the Apes is awesome. I REALLY liked the prequel that came out recently. It was a good prequel. I thought it was gonna be crap….but they did a good job.

  • Zara March 27th, 2012 12:00 AM

    Ahh!!! Thank you! About a year ago I went to a drive in theater with a group of friends it was super fun. But I’ve been searching for the movie that was playing ever since that and now I know it was Solarbabies!

    • Stephanie March 27th, 2012 1:23 AM

      OMG Solarbabies was at a drive-in??!!! So jealous! That must have been awesome.

  • cherrycola27 March 27th, 2012 12:52 AM

    I love sci-fi! Sometimes it’s so depressing, though, because it’s so The Future Is Very Bleak. Some of those ones are my favorite, anyway.
    Next you should talk about sci-fi novels! I’m really into Robert Heinlein right now.

  • Mary March 27th, 2012 1:11 AM

    Oh no! You left out DoctorWho! Best thing out there, been going since the fifties! Check it out if any of you haven’t yet <3

  • tallulahpond March 27th, 2012 2:43 AM

    OMG OMG OMG I am such a Torchwood fangirl. No-one else I know loves it as much as me, but I basically go “squeee!” anytime I see it on TV, it’s gotten beyond the point of embarrassment. But seriously, any sci-fi fans out there, you might love it- try it and see!

  • tallulahpond March 27th, 2012 2:52 AM

    *cough cough DOCTOR WHO!* to echo another commenter. Longest running sci-fi TV show in history. My favourite TV show drama- tying close with Torchwood however.

  • allyishere March 27th, 2012 3:06 AM

    we studied blade runner in english! the aesthetic of the film was brilliant.

  • Carneece March 27th, 2012 3:12 AM

    The X-Files is the love of my life. If I could be even half as perfect as Scully and find a guy like Mulder than my life would be complete. Hey, go big or go home.

    • Carneece March 27th, 2012 3:12 AM

      *Then. It’s late, guyz.

  • iit_s_I March 27th, 2012 4:03 AM

    I was reading this article at work where my ‘I want to Believe’ poster is taped right next to my monitor!

  • Filia-Zissy March 27th, 2012 8:51 AM

    Oh yes, detective adventures on the holodeck! The Sherlock Holmes Episode of Star Treck is great! The Series is part of my childhood, my dad used to watch it with me. I also like the Episode were Picard and the barkeeper lady (you know Whoopi) were turned into teenagers. The Enterprise was invaded and they tried to save everyone and the school computer spelled Enterprise for them. That was hilarious.

    http://ordinarypeopleadorable.blogspot.de/

  • Pashupati March 27th, 2012 8:58 AM

    Anyone else like Sliders?
    They have a bunch of episodes in the two first seasons where those who reclaimed more rights (ie, women) are in fact the privileged ones! INTERESTING.

    • KinuKinu March 27th, 2012 8:41 PM

      ILOVESLIDERSOMGILOVEITSLIDERSISAN AWESOME SHOW!!!Sliders is so cool.I watched the whole show(lie,it got crappy towards the end).It is such an interesting show,WOW,I love it.
      INTER-DIMENSIONAL TRAVEL IS THE BEST KIND OF TRAVEL

  • walrussoup March 27th, 2012 9:50 AM

    Great list. The movie Close Encounter of The Third Kind is a great sci-fi as well. It one of my faves.

  • isabellehungryghost March 27th, 2012 10:08 AM

    star trek!
    http://therestlesswillstay.blogspot.de/

  • AYAtheOUSH March 27th, 2012 10:43 AM

    Netflix isn’t available where I live :’(

  • katie March 27th, 2012 11:27 AM

    doctor who!!!!

  • I.ila March 27th, 2012 11:33 AM

    I have to say that Doctor Who has to be the best Sci-Fi, because it is time whiney, and awesome and there is a small tool that can do everything, but there is really heart in it, and a lot of emotion.

  • KinuKinu March 27th, 2012 12:29 PM

    Awesome!!! I love Firefly.Me and my dad are HUGE Whedon fans.Great list of movies.VOLTRON. I LOVE VOLTRON.
    SOLARBABIES. I LOVE SOLARBABIES.I have watched almost all of these movies.My dad got me into this stuff really early.SCI-FI MOVIES ♥ ♥ ♥

  • R. March 27th, 2012 2:21 PM

    OMG X-files!!! This show is my whole childhood + teen years and you described it perfectly. The first seasons and the first movie, the most amazing chemistry and frustrating sexual tension the 90s ever saw… pure gold indeed.

  • eszterhazy March 27th, 2012 2:36 PM

    Dana Scully is my biggest hero of all time. You have no idea how happy it makes me to hear people still loving on the X-Files…it was such a brilliant show. And Gillian Anderson & David Duchovny are both such dreamboats!

  • airplanes.books March 27th, 2012 4:28 PM

    my cat’s name is pris!

  • marit March 27th, 2012 6:49 PM

    i must admit i’m not a scifi fan, but i LOVED back to the future as a kid. forget the flying cars… i can’t wait for someone to invent a hoverboard!

    faux style.

  • Hedwig March 28th, 2012 10:56 AM

    X-files!!!!!FTW!! (blocking movie memory)

  • preachypreach March 29th, 2012 2:15 PM

    i’d like to recommend brazil to anyone who hasn’t seen it!

  • Flossie March 30th, 2012 5:02 AM

    I almost submitted an article about The X-Files for last month’s Obsessions theme, because for my teen years it was my LIFE. MY LIFE, I tells ya. It meant EVERYTHING to me. And then….and then it “crushed my soul”, like Stephanie said. CRUSHED MY SOUL. Not even my worst break up (the one where he dumped me at his birthday party in front of his friends so he could hook up with another girl) compares. Those last two seasons…ugh…the disappointment, the betrayal, the fucking MEDIOCRITY. It was painful, like watching drunken Uncle Harry at Christmas dancing with no pants on because he doesn’t know when to stop, while you’re crying “Stop! Stop, Uncle Harry! It doesn’t have to be this way! Don’t let it end like this!” until finally you can’t watch any more and you have to turn your weary, tear-stained eyes away because Uncle Harry should have been put in a home years ago.

    Or maybe that’s just me.

  • Maggot May 22nd, 2012 2:02 PM

    I LOVE The X-Files… so of course no one I know watches them.

    Tales of a woeful hipster ;(