It’s a common science fiction trope. Humanity is faced with an alien or technological foe, and faces insurmountable odds, but fights on despite not having a chance of winning.
Television, has, on numerous occasions, attempted to depict what it would be like for humanity to be engaged in warfare sometime in the future. Whether it’s here or on some other planet, or even another dimension, these military adventure fantasies have proven to be some of the most enjoyed by fans, and for a good reason. They combine some of the best elements available in genre entertainment, adventure, action, and mystery, along with the war story tropes of heroism, cowardice, betrayal, intrigue, and drama.
I have listed here some of the best (IMHO) of the of the sub-genre of military science fiction television series, to examine them and determine which has been most successful in achieving its goal of portraying future war and does it best.
None of these shows are perfect; some are better and some worse. I feel they all feature something that recommends them as good genre TV. There are others such as Farscape that deserve an honorable mention and made a big impression on fans despite being canceled early. The thing about commercial television is it’s always hit or miss. Poorer examples, of course, being more of the latter than the former. The bottom line is it’s a matter of opinion, not fact, and science fiction fans sometimes confuse the two as being the same thing. They are not. With that in mind here is my list of shows I feel best to personify the best in science fiction about a future war on TV, in order of the ones that are least successful in being a great series to the ones I consider the best.
This series started out looking quite promising with a better-than-average premiere that was pretty good. However it quickly seems to lose its focus and got bogged down in subplots about in-vitro people created in labs nicknamed Tanks, and the bigotry they are subjected to by natural born humans. This sort of prejudice seemed like a somewhat silly notion, given that in-vitro births were already commonplace when this show’s production began without any of those issues becoming a problem in reality.
Recently revisiting the series it also became evident this show quickly descended into personal melodrama with little attention paid to the science fiction aspect of the show. In place of drama based on the war, the characters were involved in and stopped paying attention to what the show was supposedly about, a future war with an alien race. Production quality was also not the best, giving the show the look of an unpolished production.
The show did have some good qualities, like some pretty good CGI effects and a lot of visually appealing props, but the show suffered from average to poor writing and an overall feel of being a low budget production. The show was never really given a chance to develop being canceled after the first season.
This series had an uphill battle winning favor with fans from the start when it ran into an intense dislike for its theme song, the first ever for a Trek series with vocals. Along with the choice of Scott Bakula as Captain Archer that fans found questionable. Whether it deserved or not, the show’s creators seem to have forgotten the age-old adage of ‘the customer is always right’ especially when the customers are a bunch of over opinionated science fiction fans.
Personally, I enjoyed the series a lot, even though, admittedly I never really warmed up to that song or the voice of the guy singing it. The early episodes were, like most other shows in their first season, hit or miss in how good they were. One thing I thoroughly enjoyed was how the series turned the whole relationship between the Vulcans and Humans on its head, even going so far as to portray some Vulcans as being corrupted by their egos and more emotional than previously depicted. These ideas were not only amusing and entertaining but engaging as well. It was a revolutionary way of seeing the Vulcans in a whole new light.
The show hit its stride when it started the Xindi story arc, this was science fiction at war done well, but it became a bit muddled when they introduced time travel elements to the story. As usual, adding time travel to a story can be a risky business, it sometimes becomes confusing for fans, and sometimes leads to the temptation to resolve a storyline for writers, by explaining it away with time travel as an easy way out.
The series, after this story arc, began a slow downward spiral in its appeal, culminating in a disastrous, and infamous finale.
This series, almost immediately, became very popular with fans and was known as the Trek slayer, one of the only series to offer some real competition to the long-lived Roddenberry created franchise. It matched the Trek shows and even sometimes surpassed them in regards to production quality, special effects, and the all-important epic story it told. Out of the 110 episodes that aired, 92 were written by creator J. Michael Straczynski who also served as executive producer on the series.
The show started with interplanetary war and ended on the same note. Slowly building a story that spanned star systems and encompassed multiple alien species, it is nearly unmatched in its epic scope. In regards to actual warfare, the show was mostly limited to depicting and stayed focused on space battles between spaceships, and despite doing it well, the series never delved into the depth of being at war as portrayed by other series.
One of my favorites from the Trek franchise, this series did a lot of things right about depicting future interplanetary war. It starts out re-introducing, more thoroughly, the Bajorans who have just gained their freedom as a race after decades of military occupation by the Cardassians.
Admittedly I found the Bajorans annoying at first, with all of their religious festivals and worship, they seemed like religious zealots who were more trouble than they were worth. Later I came to appreciate them more. They answer the question of how would you react if you found out the gods you worship exist and answer your prayers? The ‘gods’ in question are revealed to be aliens that have transcended time, and even dimensions, and seem to dwell in a permanent wormhole near the Bajoran’s planet Bajor.
The series had a context that revolved mostly around the relationship of the Federation with the Klingons, Bajorans, Cardassians and the Romulans, and a few other races, who represented the tricky political environment the show’s events took place in and had to overcome. It re-introduced more thoroughly the races we had seen before in the earlier Trek series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Cardassians, and the Bajorans.
The Bajoran’s presence allowed the show to more fully explore themes of war and occupation, including guerrilla warfare, that end up as an interesting part of the mix. The Bajorans were a sort of outer space Jews and the Cardassians their futuristic, alien, Nazi oppressors
The series introduced a worthy opponent in the Dominion with its advanced technology, its ruling class shapeshifters, the Changelings, their genetically created servants and diplomats, the Vorta, and their genetically created soldiers the Jem’Hadar.
DS9 explored every aspect of warfare in the future, from guerrilla warfare, graphically and well-portrayed hand to hand combat, to epic outer space battles, and everything in between. It included multiple premises of future war, including mining vast areas of outer space with exploding devices, planetary conquest, and introduced the first Federation ship designed for war, the Defiant.
This series features stories of future warfare done well and is one of the best of its kind.
Battlestar Galactica is a series that needs no introduction; the series, developed by Ronald D. Moore and executive produced by Moore and David Eick as a re-imagining of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica television series created by Glen A. Larson. Battlestar Galactica first aired as a three-hour miniseries (comprising four broadcast hours) in December 2003 on the Sci-Fi Channel, and ran for four seasons after that, ending its run on March 20, 2009.
This series quickly gained a lot of popularity with genre fans. Replacing the almost camp approach of the original series with the more 21st-century approach of being a grim, gritty, and grounded approach. The characters were flawed and more realistic in their portrayal, endowing them with more humanity, in a series that implemented a grittier, grounded and grim depiction of war as the violent and messy business it is.
Although I felt at times, the show sometimes drifted into being more of a melodrama with Moore’s heavy-handed approach to personal relationships causing the series sometimes to seem more like a soap opera. There can be no denying it represents mostly successful portrayal of the sub-genre it represents and the grim reminder that war is hell.
One of the series strengths was its portrayal of the Cylons, the series antagonists. These latter-day versions of the old chrome plated 70’s-robot-voiced mechanical menaces were updated to human form, making them more relatable as enemies. Their hatred of people is at times almost palpable, even though it was never fully explained to my satisfaction.
The show succeeded in ways the original never did and gave birth to a franchise of sorts with multiple spinoffs that were initially, at least, eagerly embraced as great TV to varying degrees. Battlestar Galactica was science fiction at war done well and has achieved an almost legendary status among fans that has endured for years.
This show, which lasted for ten seasons, is, in my opinion, one of the most successful of its type. Created by Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner, Stargate SG-1 developed ideas used in the 1994 science fiction film Stargate by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. The premise of the Stargate is a great one, filled with the promise of mystery and adventure that is the stuff of science fiction basic to the genre.
If there is any question regarding how great this series was, don’t forget it endured for ten seasons, gave birth to two spin-offs, and several made-for-TV films. As far as being a good depiction of science fiction at war; it was indeed. Incorporating a plethora of concepts, alien races, and conflict on a grand scale while also portraying warfare on a more personal level, and how it impacts the individuals unfortunate enough to be affected by it directly.
SG-1 succeeds, in portraying the drama of war without indulging in the more heavy-handed melodramatic approach used by Ronald Moore in Battlestar Galactica, and does it just as well, if not better. The three most important story arcs the series portrayed were memorably great. They told stories filled with menacing enemies, intrigue, action, adventure, mystery and lots of old-fashioned science fiction goodness enough for even the most demanding of fans.
I do not mean to imply this series was perfect; it was not. Depending on the season there were sometimes as few as 2-3 episodes that were top notch.
The story arcs, the Goa’uld arc, the Replicator arc, and the Ori arc were delightful in their compass and included other memorable fringe characters and elements that were also great and contributed to the series and helped make it better and more entertaining. Things like the Asgard, Anubis, and the Ancients helped flesh the series out by populating it with memorable characters and served to help make it more complex and exciting as well.
Add to this the show’s signature touch of humor, and lighthearted, occasionally self-deprecating jokes, delivered by its lead character Jack O’Neill, whose statements often served as a device to let the viewer know the show is aware of how absurd this might be, but yes we’re going there.
This formula worked extremely well, serving to add balance to the show’s more dramatic moments, and helping to dispel the tension created by the steady diet of drama, in the form of killing and death, it portrayed.
So that’s it. What do you think? What’s your favorite example of science fiction at war on TV? Please leave your comments below.