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. ♦