Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Science fiction is built on some incredible failures. These days, we take for granted that science fiction's ideas and imagery dominate pop culture and define our collective reality — but many of science fiction's most important works were originally counted as flops. Science fiction wouldn't have most of its coolest riffs without these classics that went under the radar at the time.

Here are 20 awesome science fiction failures, that totally made the universe worth living in.

Update: A few people have asked whether the "they saved us all" thing in the headline is an overstatement. I'm going to stand behind it — the works listed below definitely shaped science fiction, which in turn has come to describe the world we live in. We're all using technology and trading ideas that only make sense in a world that's had Star Trek and Blade Runner. Without the kind of science fiction these works helped to inspire, we'd all be way worse off.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Firefly
Kind of the most obvious example — Joss Whedon's Space Western show was notoriously mistreated by Fox and wound up being cancelled without airing its entire first season. And now, just look at it — the anniversary panel was the hit of Comic-Con, and we routinely divide space epics into pre-Firefly and post-Firefly. Its influence can't be overstated.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Max Headroom
The first season of this show about cyberpunk journalism and snarky floating heads didn't even finish airing before it was yanked. But now, people regularly namecheck Max Headroom as a major touchstone for depicting cyberculture, networked journalism and dystopian weirdness. This show described the world we're living in.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

The Prisoner
Hoping for a slightly edgier follow-up to the spy adventure Danger Man, ITV instead got this head-shrinking trip down the rabbit hole, which looked like an acid-infused logorrhea nightmare. But soon enough, The Prisoner helped inspire countless "reality is fake" stories, including The Truman Show, and got an uninspired remake plus tons of tributes and print spin-offs.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Highlander
Not only did this movie about immortal swordsman get lots of bemused reviews, its first theatrical run was also deemed a failure, especially in the United States. But soon enough, there were sequels (even if you wish there weren't), a quite decent TV series, and an upcoming remake. But more than that, Highlander has become part of everyone's shared consciousness, thanks to phrases like "There Can Be Only One."

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Buckaroo Banzai
This is another example of a movie that didn't set the box office on fire but has become a huge, insane cult phenomenon. Phrases like "No matter where you go, there you are" have become common currency. And the cornucopia of weird images and plot devices that this impossible-to-summarize movie offers seem to pop up everywhere, in tons of other movies and TV shows.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Gattaca
One day, Andrew Niccol will direct a film that eats the world as much as Truman Show, which he scripted but did not direct. But meanwhile, the first of his high-concept flops, Gattaca, has had a huge second life as a widely admired classic — and its very name has become synonymous in our conversations with "genetically modified humans."

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

The X-Men
Yep. Marvel's most lucrative and popular superteam were a horrible failure in their first run, and were summarily cancelled. And then they were brought back in the 1970s and became the angst-fueled, oppressed, sexy, sexy mutants we love today.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

The Rocketeer
Joe Johnston's jetpack-powered superhero film didn't actually soar at the box office, despite some cool art-deco imagery. But it's had a huge influence on the growth of the superhero genre, and Johnston went on to direct Captain America: The First Avenger.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Philip K. Dick
Famously, the prolific and mind-expanding author died just before Blade Runner came out and his domination of the movie industry began. He never achieved financial success in his lifetime, but he's become a huge money-maker since then — and with authors like Jonathan Lethem championing him, his works have become required reading among highbrow audiences. Image via Lines and Colors.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Actually, this show got fantastic ratings for its first few episodes — and then the writer's strike happened, and gravity took hold. By the time its second season began, the show was already "on the bubble." But the show already had a huge cult following, which has only grown since then — and its clever approaches to the themes of time travel and artificial intelligence continue to resonate.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Brazil
Terry Gilliam's masterpiece was butchered for American audiences, and never even really got a fair chance. For years, Americans had to search for a bootleg copy of the original British cut. But meanwhile, Brazil came to be one of the most important dystopian stories, and its imagery started to permeate everybody's brains. And Gilliam reused a lot of that imagery for his hit movie Twelve Monkeys.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

John Carpenter's The Thing
It's hard to remember that this frozen monster movie was a flop, in its original theatrical run. Especially now that we've just seen a valiant attempt at making a slavishly accurate prequel, which also failed. The very existence of that prequel, though, proves that The Thing has become a major classic.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Dark City
Until pretty recently, we couldn't see Dark City the way it was meant to be seen — the theatrical cut was pretty badly mauled. But even that theatrical cut was full of dreamlike imagery and paranoid weirdness, that influenced everything from The Matrix to a ton of recent "dark" superhero films.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Tron
As we mentioned a while back, Tron actually did pretty well at the box office in its first run — but it was widely regarded as a failure, and is frequently mentioned as one of the most unsuccessful movies to become a cult phenomenon later. And now, of course, it's had a huge sequel and a popular TV spin-off, with more to come.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Star Trek
Gene Roddenberry's classic space adventure show did last three seasons, which would be considered pretty fantastic today — but it was cancelled in its prime and considered such a disaster, Paramount tried to sell it back to Roddenberry. It was only in the 1970s, when Trek started airing in syndication, that it became a mass obsession and spawned four more live-action shows and a dozen films.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

H.P. Lovecraft
The creator of Cthulhu and writer of countless eldritch mysteries was another author who labored in obscurity and died penniless. But whole generations of creators have grown up in Lovecraft's shadow, and his name has come to stand for a certain type of madness-inducing ancient evil, and his horrifying imagery has become legend. And there have been countless Lovecraft movies — which could have included Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron's At the Mountains of Madness. Image via RT66.com

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Dark Star
John Carpenter's first movie was a weird space comedy, featuring a sentient bomb and a collection of sad-sack space travelers. And this low budget film failed to make much impact in its original run, partly thanks to some extra footage that was just added to make it long enough for theatrical release. A totally reworked director's cut has gotten a lot more appreciation, and the philosophical weirdness of this film has won it a ton of fans, including a lot of creators.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Gundam
According to Brian Ruh with Anime Research, the original series was cancelled in the middle, and it was deemed a massive failure. It wasn't until Bandai started putting out Gundam toys that the show started to become super-popular, and its groundbreaking mecha storylines started to catch on, leading to tons of spinoffs and a huge sprawling universe.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Rocky Horror Picture Show
Notoriously, Rocky Horror was a huge box-office flop in its first run, and nobody knew what to make of this weird little musical comedy. Until Rocky Horror became a massive cult phenomenon, spawning millions of midnight showings and becoming synonymous with a certain kind of science fiction freak culture. To the point where Glee felt the need to do a horrendously miscalculated RHPS episode.

Science Fiction's Greatest Failures (And How They Saved Us All)S

Blade Runner
Ridley Scott's noir science fiction masterpiece failed to compete with E.T., but it's had just as great a lasting impact — nowadays, Blade Runner is the go-to reference when describing a certain type of neon-tinged dark future city. And thanks to a series of DVD releases which corrected the excesses of the original cut, Blade Runner has gained recognition as an all-time classic.

Thanks to Philip, Kevin, Uriel, Andrew, Paul, David, Joe, Vinnie, James, Federico, Rob, Fred, Ryan, Marc, Justin, Elmo, Kyle, Jiz, Farah, Chris, Steven, Michael, Lun, Kevin, Chris, Doug, Madeline, Ray, Brian, Matt, Emmet, Tim, Ramez, Bryan, Ed and everybody else who suggested stuff!

Further reading:
10 Classic SF and Fantasy Books That Were Originally Considered Failures.
15 Classic Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels That Publishers Rejected