There's a long weekend ahead of us, and that means one thing: DVD box sets. You could break out the Firefly and Babylon 5, or you could venture into the wild unknown. Television is full of undiscovered worlds — here are 12 underrated or overlooked science fiction and fantasy TV shows to mainline this weekend.
Top image: Angel.
1. Star Cops
What it's about: Title basically says it all. The first police force in space — this British show comes from Chris Boucher, who crafted all the sparkly dialogue on Blake's 7 and created Doctor Who's "savage" companion Leela. Noir insanity in space!
Why it's overlooked or underrated: The title is silly. It got cancelled after one season. It's even less well known stateside than Blake's 7, and some people hate the Moody Blues theme tune.
Why it's worth watching in one go: It's a classic "morally gray characters in a deadly environment story," in which half the cops are either slightly corrupt or just dicks. Every episode has some clever bits, and the main character, Nathan, never stops being a fascinating protagonist, even in the weak episodes.
What it's about: It's the spin-off to the acclaimed Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which follows a vampire detective who tries to save people to atone for years of being a monster, and tangles with a law firm from Hell.
Why it's overlooked or underrated: Angel never got quite as high-profile as Buffy, or Joss Whedon's Firefly. And it must be said, the first couple seasons have their ups and downs, with some what-were-they-thinking episodes.
Why it's worth watching in one go: Even when the show is limping in its early seasons, it still packs a lovely amount of snark and a surprising arc where Angel's quest for redemption winds up turning him into just a different type of monster. And each season is better than the last, culminating in a twisted final year that will make you absolutely glad you watched the whole thing.
What it's about: It's a goofy Star Trek/Star Wars spoof about the crew of a garbage scow, who somehow have to keep saving the galaxy despite being utter losers. Shout-outs to classic science fiction are interspersed with just general wackiness and weirdness.
Why it's overlooked or underrated: It's a seriously goofy show, that kind of flew under the radar even 35 years ago. Some of the humor admittedly has not aged that well, here and there.
Why it's worth watching in one go: It's still kind of demented take-off on your favorite space operas, and it helped set the stage for Galaxy Quest, Spaceballs and countless other great science fiction spoofs. The best bits are definitely reminiscent of Get Smart, whose co-creator worked on this.
4. The Survivors
What it's about: Terry Nation, who created Blake's 7 and Doctor Who's Daleks, also created this post-apocalyptic show about people picking up after a deadly plague. And it was pretty recently remade, with a version that's surprisingly faithful to the core ideas of the original.
Why it's overlooked or underrated: This show definitely never made much impact in the United States, but even in the U.K., it's less well known than Nation's other creations, and the fact that it's a slow, unrelentingly grim show doesn't help.
Why it's worth watching in one go: This is a post-apocalyptic show that actually grapples with questions like just how we'd go about replacing things like nails or batteries once we ran out. Like The Road and similar stories, it's really about the dark side of human nature, and it does a great job of twisting the knife. The recent remake is also worth checking out.
What it's about: An underachiever, working in a Niagara Falls gift shop, suddenly finds that tiny figurines are talking to her — pestering her, even — and telling her to do things, which usually wind up helping people.
Why it's overlooked or underrated: Compared to Bryan Fuller's other whimsical network show, Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls just didn't get any attention, and hasn't had the same amount of fan frenzy since it went away after airing only a few episodes.
Why it's worth watching in one go: Anyone who loves Daisies will definitely love this show's magical-realist vibe, and the cast is pretty great from top to bottom. Plus the mystery of just what is going on with the figurines and stuff has some neat twists and turns over the course of the single short season. Image via Tumblr.
6. Odyssey 5
What it's about: The Earth is destroyed mysteriously, leaving just the small crew of a space shuttle as the only survivors, floating where the planet used to be. But then the crew meets a mysterious alien, who sends their minds back in time so they can try to stop the planet being blown up before it happens.
Why it's overlooked or underrated: This Canadian import had a brief life on Showtime, and later on Syfy, but was already DOA by the time most people in the U.S. saw it. And maybe it's just a little too high-concept? Also, some of the individual episodes are less enchanting, and there's too much "wacky thing of the week" at times.
Why it's worth watching in one go: It has a neat mythology, as much as we get to see of it in a single season. The cast is great, especially Peter Weller as the shuttle captain, and watching them pretend to be the people they were five years earlier never gets old. This show was created by Manny Cotto, who went on to make the last season of Star Trek: Enterprise surprisingly watchable, except the finale.
7. Äkta människor (Real Humans)
What it's about: This Swedish TV show about androids debuted in 2012, and it’s the story of a group of consumer androids fighting for their freedom — and then one of them, Mimi, gets kidnapped, reprogrammed and sold to a family as their new nanny. Meanwhile, a housewife illegally reprograms her family's android so she can have sex with him.
Why it's overlooked or underrated: It's a Swedish show that hasn't yet appeared in the United States, and it's barely gotten covered in English-language media. We've done a couple things on io9, but we definitely need to cover it more.
Why it's worth watching in one go: Unlike the other shows on this list, I haven't seen Real Humans, apart from a few clips — but I keep hearing it's astonishingly great, the kind of show about androids we keep hoping for and never getting in the English-speaking world. Serious questions about our relationship to technology, as well as our relationships with each other.
8. Star Trek: The Animated Series
What it's about: In the early 1970s, when Star Trek was just going from "obscure cancelled space opera" to "enduring classic," they made a bunch of half-hour animated adventures, with almost the whole original cast and writers. Plus people like Larry Niven!
Why it's overlooked or underrated: Well, it's a cartoon. And it definitely has some silly moments, along with that "early 1970s cartoon" thing where the same background keeps scrolling past the characters over and over. The half-hour episodes mean the stories are over pretty fast.
Why it's worth watching in one go: It's a pretty serious attempt to continue the Original Series, with an all-star squad of writers and some pretty ambitious storytelling. And it's more fun and exciting than some of the original show's third season, including sequels to some of the most classic episodes.
9. Space Island One
What it's about: This British-Canadian-German co-production is the story of the crew of a privately-owned space station in the near future, doing science experiments and dealing with personal crises. There are no aliens, no faster-than-light travel, and when artificial intelligence shows up, it's built up to as a plot thread.
Why it's overlooked or underrated: This show aired briefly on PBS in the United States, and barely made an impression — and in fact, there still aren't any DVDs, so you might have to resort to other methods of watching. A lot of people were turned off by the ultra-realistic, character-based feel of this show, and some of the few websites that even wrote about it at the time complained that it was boring. Also, there are definitely some clunky episodes in there.
Why it's worth watching in one go: This might actually be the most well-thought-out space show ever, and the characters are incredibly complex and rich — without giving away too much, the people you start out hating become incredibly sympathetic, and you start to see some terrible aspects of the most lovable characters. The storylines include a lonely astronaut using the station's communication array for very expensive phone sex, a woman using the chemistry lab to create an aphrodisiac to seduce her male colleague, and the first baby born in space being exploited as an advertising mascot. This is one of my favorite shows, and it's the opposite of boring — it's actually downright thrilling, even without pew-pew-pew action.
What it's about: A newspaper reporter (Kevin Kidd) gets unstuck in time and starts warping back to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, where he has to help people solve their problems — but he keeps being tempted to change history instead. Which is a bad idea, for reasons that become apparent.
Why it's overlooked or underrated: We've sung the praises of this show several times, so perhaps it's a cheat to include it here. But it seldom gets any props elsewhere, that I've seen. The show suffered from the effects of the 2007 writer's strike, and then NBC pulled the plug on it — even though it was getting the kind of ratings NBC would kill for nowadays.
Why it's worth watching in one go: The first couple episodes make it seem like just a cute time-travel melodrama, like the TV version of The Time Traveler's Wife with less nudity. And then... it gets more and more intense, as Dan Vassar's journeys get more perilous and we start to glimpse just how strange the past really is.
What it's about: A British miniseries starring Idris Elba and Susannah Harker as vampire hunters, written and directed by Joe Ahearne (Doctor Who).
Why it's overlooked or underrated: It's only six episodes — short marathon, sorry — and it didn't really make much of a splash in the United States. Plus then they made a kind of terrible vampire movie called Ultraviolet that had nothing to do with it.
Why it's worth watching in one go: Idris Elba as a vampire hunter! Plus, this show makes some really clever, neat tweaks to vampire lore, and it's seriously creepy and intense.
12. Danger 5
What it's about: An Australian TV show (again, only a handful of episodes) that spoofs classic 1960s TV and action movies, with the story of an elite squad of adventurers who try to kill Hitler in every episode.
Why it's overlooked or underrated: This show hasn't quite made it to the United States, although I think it's easy to find online.
Why it's worth watching in one go: It's a really insane hilarious spoof in which there are Nazis in dinosaur uniforms and ludicrous James Bond-esque storylines and the insanity basically never stops coming.