It's been months since we last saw Doctor Who, and there's still a month to go before the anniversary special. But if you're having withdrawal symptoms, fear not — British television has spawned tons of other great science fiction and fantasy programming. Here are 20 lesser-known British TV shows that Doctor Who fans might like.
Note: For the purposes of this list, we're sticking to slightly lesser-known stuff. Which means you won't find The Prisoner, Blake's 7 or Red Dwarf on the list below. We assume you've already checked those out. If you haven't, consider those recommended as well.
1) The Omega Factor
Doctor Who was famous, in the 1970s, for arousing the ire of family-morality crusader Mary Whitehouse with its scary material and graphic violence. But The Omega Factor is one show that Whitehouse actually succeeded in getting cancelled. It's the story of a man investigating paranormal phenomena for the mysterious agency Department 7 — and then he learns he has psychic powers himself. Doctor Who's Louise Jameson co-stars. This show gave us the heebie-jeebies when we were kids. (Producer George Gallaccio was offered the producer job on Doctor Who before John Nathan-Turner, and might have made the show a lot more dark and twisted.)
2) The Fades
This show starts out as a weird tale of a boy who can see paranormal stuff — and quickly lurches into darker, more intense territory. The "Fades" are basically ghosts, who have been left behind in our world because they missed their chance to move on, and now some of them want to become solid and real again. Which would be very, very bad for the rest of us. Stars Iain De Caestecker, who's now on Agents of SHIELD.
3) Space Island One
This show's obscurity is one of the great miscarriages of justice. A British-German co-production, it tells the story of the first privately-funded space station, and is probably the most "hard" science fiction TV show ever. Episodes deal with the rise of artificial intelligence aboard the station, but also with the ethical dilemma of what to do when you're given the last remaining smallpox samples in existence. At its best, this show is top-class entertainment. (Not available on DVD, but I've seen bootleg box sets sold at conventions.)
4) Sapphire and Steel
This is an amazingly creepy show in which we follow a pair of ghost-hunters (David McCallum and Joanna Lumley) — except that they're not ghost-hunters, they're tracking problems in the time continuum. Because in this universe, time is somehow sentient and wants to "break through" into our world. A lot of these episodes are a slow burn — even by 1970s TV standards — but the show plays with the idea of the past trying to colonize the present in ways that are rewarding if you stick with it.
5) Dead Set
After Doctor Who spoofed reality TV, including putting the Doctor inside the "Big Brother" house, this show went one better — it's basically an episode of Big Brother in which the zombie uprising happens. And the Big Brother house is filled with zombies. Eventually, the Big Brother producer and staff have to join forces with the last remaining contestants to try and survive. Deliciously sardonic.
Starring Ramsey Snow from Game of Thrones! This show about a group of juvenile delinquents who get hit by some kind of mysterious lightning and develop weirdly character-appropriate superpowers just keeps getting better and better in its first couple seasons. It goes way beyond superhero tropes, into an honest and weird examination of growing up and friendship, and how to ask someone out when your friend has just taken a dump in her bed.
7) Star Cops
After being the script editor on Blake's 7 (where he wrote all the best lines of dialogue), Chris Boucher went on to create his own TV show, about police officers in the final frontier. (Sadly, this show used to be cheap on DVD, but is now going for a crazy sum. But try here.) The first few episodes of the show are wonderfully dark — half the cops are corrupt and/or slightly incompetent — although you can see Boucher losing creative control in the later episodes, when everything becomes warmer and fuzzier. Still a great ride.
8) The Tripods
You're going to need a region-free DVD player for this one. The BBC made a pretty faithful adaptation of John Christopher's post-apocalyptic saga of teens after an alien invasion, when most of the human race is under alien control. It features spanking great special effects for a 1980s British production, but also has some really neat character development and wonderfully tense storytelling. This show is everything Falling Skies wishes it could be.
9) In the Flesh
The zombie uprising is over, and the human race won. But the remaining zombies — now partially "cured" — are ready to be reintegrated back into society. How will people deal with having sufferers from Partial Death Syndrome (PDS) in their midst? The first season of this terrifying and thought-provoking show only just aired in the U.S., but you can already get the DVDs.
10) The Quatermass Experiment
Before there was Doctor Who, there was this show. This 1950s production by Nigel Kneale follows heroic scientist Bernard Quatermass, investigating strange artifacts discovered in London — including some preserved alien specimens. Many of the storytelling devices of Doctor Who originated with this show, which also spawned a movie version.
And then there's this show about a team of people investigating strange phenomena — which was created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, who also created the Cybermen for Doctor Who. Once again, it's a heroic scientist joining a team that investigates strange phenomena — but Spencer Quist is a troubled "bastard," who feels guilty for his role in developing nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project. You can watch two early episodes here — including one where an artificial virus that eats plastic is released aboard an airplane. Plus there was a movie version starring the TV cast.
12) Out of the Unknown
This show may not really be worth mentioning, since almost none of it exists any more. (Thanks, BBC!) But this anthology show, in which the BBC adapted mostly existing science fiction stories for television, is legendary in its greatness. If you somehow invent a time machine and can go back to the 1960s, you should definitely watch this show.
13) Black Mirror
Charlie Brooker, media critic and storytelling genius, has produced two seasons (of three episodes each) of this anthology show, featuring darkly satirical stories which mostly take place in the "near present" or somewhere in the future. Hard to believe a show which begins with a story about the Prime Minister being pressured to have sex with a pig on television can get any darker or weirder — but it does. You'll need a region-free player.
14) The Pathfinders in Space
Before Sydney Newman created Doctor Who, he gave rise to this show — with writing by Malcolm Hulke, who helped create the Time Lords. Pathfinders features surprisingly sophisticated storytelling about problem-solving in space (see this clip where they figure out they don't have enough oxygen to get back to their ship) and arguably invented the sonic screwdriver. A major milestone in British science fiction TV, which is out on DVD in the U.K.
15) Day of the Triffids
There have been many adaptations of John Wyndham's classic novel — including a pretty recent one — but for our money, the 1981 adaptation, produced by frequent Doctor Who director David Maloney, is still the best. This miniseries brings out all the creepy horror of the novel's premise, both the widespread blindness and the rampaging plant monsters, and manages to avoid ever going over the top. There are sequences here that still make your skin crawl.
Before there was the disappointing movie starring Milla Jovovich, there was this stylish TV show about ancient vampires living among us, and the humans who hunt them. Starring Idris Elba, alongside a terrific cast generally. Directed and created by Joe Ahearne, who went on to direct some great Doctor Who stories, this show is still one of the most stylish and intelligent vampire stories ever told.
17) Moonbase 3
No, not Space: 1999. It's another show about life on a moonbase — this one produced by the team that gave us Jon Pertwee's era of Doctor Who, Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks. Some people praise the show's commitment to realism and drama, others find it a bit too slow and talky — but if you've enjoyed all of the Pertwee stories, this is definitely worth giving a look.
Speaking of Space: 1999... before Gerry Anderson created that show, this was his first attempt at making a science fiction drama without puppets. And it takes a few episodes, at least, for everybody to figure out how to stage action with people instead of marionettes. But once this alien-hunting show hits its stride, it's surprisingly great drama. Including the episode "A Question of Priorities," where the main character has to choose between saving his son and stopping an alien.
19) Adam Adamant Lives
After Verity Lambert stepped down as producer of Doctor Who, she went on to produce this show about a dashing adventurer who solves impossible problems — which has been cited as an influence on Jon Pertwee's Doctor. Similar to Austin Powers, turn-of-the-century adventurer Adam Adamant is frozen cryogenically and wakes up in the Swinging Sixties, where his archnemesis, the Face, is still around.
Terry Nation created the Daleks and Blake's 7, but he also gave us this post-apocalyptic show, about life after a deadly plague wipes out most of humanity. It looks like a "cozy catastrophe" at first, but turns upsettingly brutal and intense as the survivors do anything they can to survive. It was remade a few years ago, and the remake is also well worth checking out.
Note: I wanted to include A for Andromeda too, but it looks like almost none of that exists on video any more. Sad.
Thanks to Alasdair Wilkins for the suggestions!