Best science fiction shows to watch on Netflix right now
- Alex Johnston
- 23 March 2020
Including Star Trek, Black Mirror and Orphan Black
As we get used to remaining at home, scrubbing our hands raw and gloating, Smaug-like, over the creaking mountain of painstakingly-hoarded toilet paper in the corner of the living room, the mind turns to thoughts of escape. And what better way to escape than through science fiction?
Or so you might think. In fact, the recent tendency among makers of sci-fi TV has been very much towards the downbeat and dystopian: You think you have it bad now? Check this out!
Well, thanks, lads, but that's valid too, especially because sci-fi can be very pleasing to the eye. If you want to take a break from Netflix's rich hoard of crime shows, here's a quick review of some of the highlights of Netflix's science fiction series – vintage as well as original – for you to binge on at your pleasure.
Star Trek (Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space: Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery)
Netflix has all of Trek except for the Amazon-based Picard, and there's no time like the present to catch up on possibly the most idealistic sci-fi show ever. Even the original series stands up surprisingly well, with James T. Kirk coming across as less of a skirt-chaser and more of a human rights activist than you remember, while The Next Generation is a high-water mark of episodic storytelling. From Voyager, Jeri Ryan's Seven of Nine became such a favourite that she gloriously returns in Picard as a hard-bitten, bourbon-chugging vigilante. It's not all great: Enterprise promised all the excitement of early interstellar flight, but delivered very little of it. Still, there are hundreds of hours of Trek to (re)acquaint yourself with.
Perhaps the ultimate in broad-spectrum-appeal science fiction TV. We take Who for granted, and we really shouldn't. Compared to most sci-fi shows, Who's most striking feature is its humour: no Doctor is wholly serious all the time, but whenever David Tennant's Tenth Doctor stopped smiling and told someone 'I'm so sorry,' it always meant that things had gone right down the crapper. Jodie Whittaker continues to make a winningly upbeat Thirteenth Doctor. The saga continues.
This sweary cyberpunk thriller is set in a world where human consciousness can be downloaded into a 'stack' and uploaded again into a 'sleeve', i.e. a human body, so being riddled with bullets is not necessarily the end of one's life — which is good news for the characters, who tend to get riddled with bullets. The show's body-swapping conceit means that protagonist Takeshi Kovacs can be played in season one by Joel Kinnaman and in season two by Anthony Mackie. There's a dry sense of humour at work: Kovacs holes up in a hotel staffed by a snarky, shotgun-toting, AI Edgar Allan Poe, and the whole thing works as a sort of industrial stress-test of Oscar Wilde's quip, 'Those who see any difference between body and soul have neither.' It does contain copious amounts of swearing and nudity, so maybe not one to stick on for the kids.
Adapted from the Norwegian show of the same name, this ten-episode miniseries starred Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as two lost souls who get swept up in an experimental drug program. It's a melancholy, funny and weird meditation on fantasy, identity and trauma.
The Wachowski siblings' drama about a group of people around the world who prove to have a telepathic link was bold enough to enlist the great Daryl Hannah to play a cameo role in the beginning of its first episode, and then have her character eat her own gun. The show as a whole is an extended metaphor for connectedness, and proof that The Matrix wasn't the only gem in the Wachowski diadem.
Charlie Brooker's anthology series has now run to five seasons, and either you're a fan of Brooker's jaundiced take on new technology or you're not. But even the non-persuaded are likely to be disarmed by season four's 'USS Callister', a darkly hilarious takedown of bullying in the creative industries.
The Umbrella Academy
Adapted by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way from his own comic book, this is a quirky little tale of a group of sibling superheroes dealing with an impending apocalypse, as though J.D. Salinger had tried to write a Terminator movie. Ellen Page leads a fine cast, with a standout performance from Aidan Gallagher as Number Five, a time-traveller whose adventures have made him a cynical middle-aged man stuck in the body of a thirteen-year-old boy. And Mary J. Blige plays a blinder as a deadpan badass.
If, by this point, you haven't watched Stranger Things at all, we can only assume that you've been time-travelling yourself, but if that's the case, just know that this pleasingly retro blend of sci-fi and horror is well worth it. The cast of kids is superb, and Winona Ryder's had a very gratifying career revival.
The Good Place
It's more fantasy than sci-fi, but Michael Schur's recently-ended comedy is one of the most brilliant feats of storytelling since Breaking Bad, as well as being one of the funniest and most inventive shows out there. Veronica Mars' Kristen Bell is splendid as Eleanor, a woman who dies, goes to the 'good place' and quickly finds out she doesn't belong there, and in a generally stellar cast, Ted Danson is outstanding as Michael, the good place's goofy but avuncular architect. A show which triumphantly second-guesses you until its finale.
This gripping Canadian cloning thriller is likely to be filed under most people's 'Shows You've Probably Heard Of But Haven't Watched'. It's a solid piece of reasonably hard sci-fi, exploring the ethics of human cloning, with well-drawn characters impelled by satisfyingly mixed motives. But the best reason to watch is the Emmy-winning performance of its star, Tatiana Maslany, who pulled off the incredible feat of playing no less than eleven clones, seven of which are principal characters, and all of whom are distinct from each other: an uptight soccer mom from Toronto, a semi-feral Ukrainian hitwoman, a sullen English petty criminal, and so on. There's a fair bit of violence, including a scene where one clone ends up on the wrong end of a sharpened pencil, but Orphan Black is a show with heart, wit and intelligence, driven largely by women characters, and with five seasons there's plenty to get your teeth into.
Stay safe, and wash your hands: it's weird out there.
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