5 Ingredients for a Great Sci-Fi TV Show

Firefly, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Warehouse 13, Stargate SG-1, Mr. Spock

I think that by now any of you that have read my past articles understand that I am a geeky nerd, or maybe a nerdy geek. No matter, I think you get the idea.. and, because of this, I do have strong opinions on science fiction programming on TV. Over the years, I have watched most of it, although certainly not all.

Science fiction and TV do not always seem to mesh. The broadcast networks have mostly shied away from science fiction shows, or have tried them to less than stellar success. And, while some of these programs were and are successful, none of them rival the Nielsen ratings of dramas and comedies which were the staple of broadcast TV networks before the advent of reality TV. With cable channels there is now more variety and opportunity for science fiction programming. However, not all of it is great. I have therefore created a list of ingredients that I believe necessary to have a great Sci-Fi TV show.

Special Effects

Riker, Data, Troi - Star Trek: The Next Generation

This is the budget buster for many a Sci-Fi TV show. Good quality special effects are expensive, no question! If you are a fan of science fiction, and have watched some of the old classics, or the new cheaply done programs and made for television movies, the first thing you will likely notice are the cheesy, unrealistic special effects. Poorly done matte backgrounds, huge rocks that bounce like rubber balls, and spaceships and cities that look like models are just some of the examples.

Nowadays, state of the art special effects are capable of blowing the audience away, but as I said, they are very expensive and time consuming, which are two very bad things when producing a weekly TV show. If you read any books about the early days of Star Trek, you will get a feel for the kinds of trade-offs that occurred because of cost and time. In fact, the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, stated that the transporter was originally conceived as a cost saving device to avoid the expense of shuttle craft landings on the planets they visited! More recently, the now canceled program Sanctuary used a green screen almost exclusively to save money on sets, with backgrounds being created using CGI technology.

An Outsider

Mr. Spock - Star Trek: The Original Series

Good science fiction, in my opinion, examines the human condition or humanity’s activities. In order to do that effectively, you need to have someone or something who is an outsider. Star Trek: The Original Series had Mr. Spock the alien, Star Trek: The Next Generation had Mr. Data the android, Stargate SG-1 had Teal’c the alien, and Eureka had Sheriff Carter, the everyman in a town of geniuses (at least at first). And, in some instances, the outsider may be different from one season to the next or from one episode to the next; for instance, in Warehouse 13, Claudia was at first the outsider until she fully integrated into the team.

The importance of this character cannot be understated. He/she/it offers an alternative perspective and a variation on the standard commentary, which forces the other characters and the audience to think, which I think is a critical element of good science fiction.

Sense Of Humor

Cast - Firefly

While stories in science fiction can and do deal with serious issues, lighter moments are important to the viewing audience. As we sit there digesting the fact that our self-destructive tendencies could lead to our extermination, a little laughter helps soften the blow a bit. I am especially fond of shows that poke fun at themselves, or at other science fiction shows, or sometimes even at the fans!

A very good example of this was the short lived program Firefly. During its far too short one season run, they dealt with some very serious subjects. However, there was a lot of humor and snarky dialogue that made the show so much more interesting. Other good examples of this are Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, Eureka and Warehouse 13.

Characters You Identify With Or Admire

Sam and Daniel - Stargate SG-1

Since it is not likely that most of us will ever encounter an alien, the unexplained or travel to another planet in our lifetimes, it is important that the characters in the programs are relatable to us on a personal level, otherwise we probably would not care about them. We need to imagine ourselves as possibly traveling along with them, or dealing with some weird events, and that is made easier by having characters that we can relate to, possibly imagining them to be someone we could be friends with or colleagues of!

In addition, it is also important to find characters that are worthy of your admiration. In fact, many fans of science fiction try to emulate their favorite characters. We want to be as logical as Spock, or as composed as Data, or as compassionate and curious as Daniel Jackson from Stargate SG-1.

Intelligent, Creative Stories

Myka, Claudia and Pete - Warehouse 13

When I watch TV, I want engaging entertainment. And, in my opinion, science fiction demands creativity to have engaging entertaining programming. Let me be clear that I am not saying this necessarily means a monster or strange locale of the week. In fact, many great shows take something familiar and apply a creative twist.

Those variations make all the difference, in my opinion. We, the viewing audience, use the familiar to help us relate more easily to a movie or TV show. So, starting with a familiar idea, and then expanding on it or modifying it can improve a viewer’s enjoyment!

What we don’t need, and will turn off fans in a heartbeat, is a program that beats us over the head in the process of making their point. Science fiction fans are an intelligent audience, and need to be treated as such.


So, there you have it, my top 5 ingredients for a great science fiction TV show. What do you think of my list? Did I miss anything? Please let me know in the comment section below!