I might just be speaking for myself here, but Andor, the just-ended series from Disney+, reignited a bit of the passion for Star Wars that had been dulled by a run of entirely competent and entertaining movies and miniseries that, nonetheless, began to feel like empty calories. The franchise doesn’t strictly require strong messages and themes to thrive (sometimes space battles are enough), but SW had come to feel like product — which is, of course, what it is — without much else interesting to say. By digging into into the earliest days of the central galactic rebellion and focusing on characters with genuinely complex and surprising motivations, the show has felt like something a little closer to essential.
Of course, Andor isn’t the first series to deal with themes of individualism and community, and the dangers of government overreach vs. the dangers of insurrection and overreach. These shows are stories of (mostly) outer-space rebels and revolutionaries, and, with one exception, they’re all complete stories with beginnings, middles, and ends…it’s just that they’re not necessarily quite as compact as Andor’s twelve episode season.
The Expanse (2015 – 2022)
Set in a near-ish future, The Expanse (based on the book series by two writers who collectively call themselves James S.A. Corey) imagines a well-populated solar system into which we’ve carried all of the problems we’ve always had. Earth sits at the historical and cultural centre of things, while Mars colonists, by virtue of having to survive in a challenging environment, have developed technological and military superiority. Greed, fear, and shortsightedness make conflict nearly inevitable, but the series isn’t quite as cynical as it at first appears: James Holden and Naomi Nagata (Steven Strait and Dominique Tipper) head up the blended crew of the Rocinante, which winds up having an outsized impact on events just by being in the right place at the right time and having reasonably good intentions. Like Star Wars, generally, The Expanse is more in the slightly rusty, lived-in style of science fiction.
Battlestar Galactica (2003 – 2009)
In much the same way that The Expanse lends hints of Star Trek-style idealism to a grittier, Andor-esque world, Galactica mixes heady, philosophical sci-fi into its conflict-heavy world. The Cylons, intelligent machines that rebel against their human masters, are inspired in part by their growing religious convictions. Humanity is reduced to a population of just tens of thousands, and while the show dives into some existential questions with surprising depth, we’re never allowed to forget that we’re seeing humankind more than decimated, and surviving on a handful of sometimes rickety ships. The oppressed become the oppressors, and, while we mostly follow the human characters, the series never takes a hard stand on either sides’ moral superiority.
Killjoys (2015 – 2019)
What starts out as a relatively straightforward, but fun, action show about space bounty hunters (aka “Killjoys”) develops surprising depth over the course of its five seasons — as bounty officially sanctioned Killjoys, the trio at the the show’s heart (Hannah John-Kamen, Aaron Ashmore, and Luke Macfarlane) are to remain politically neutral at any cost. Initially, that’s a way to get them right into the heat of a fight, but as they develop ties of friendship and family in an exploited community, they come to see with clarity the high cost of allowing wealth and greed to go unchecked, and the ways in which neutrality always benefits oppressors. The show’s creators make good use of a clearly limited budget, and (aside from co-starring Bros’ Luke Macfarlane) offer up some impressive queer rep, which is still rare in sci-fi.
Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977)
Less politically revolutionary than philosophically engaging, Space: 1999 still has the fallen-kingdom feel that Star Wars, generally, plays with. In the future world of 1999(!), humanity is using the moon as a dump for nuclear waste. A chain reaction leads to an explosion that rips Luna from its orbit and propels it into space, along with the crew and visitors of Moonrise Alpha, the control centre and monitoring station for the waste facility. Faced with the practical problems of surviving, as well as internal strife, there’s also the existential dread that comes with the knowledge that there’s no way to ever return home. The spirit here isn’t exclusively revolutionary, but the conflicts arise over differing views of how to form a new community, and who deserves to lead. The second series tends more toward the “space is so weird!” style of sci-fi storytelling, but the contemplative first season represents some of the most thoughtful TV of the genre…in spite of the rather wacky premise.
Farscape (1999 – 2004)
Leaning into fantasy elements far more than does Andor (at least visually), Farscape is still, at its core, a story about rebels fighting an oppressive empire. Ben Browder plays Earth astronaut John Crichton, hurled through a wormhole into a distant corner of the galaxy. Quite by accident, he winds up in between Moya, a prison ship that’s been hijacked by its prisoners, and the euphemistically named Peacekeepers. The mis-matched crew, including political dissidents and more conventional criminals, as well as one Peacekeeper, becomes, by necessity rather than intention, the focus of resistance against the oppressive government. The Jim Henson Company and its Creature Shop did the alien makeup, prosthetics and puppets, giving the show a very distinctive look and feel, sometimes playing like a lost, very dark, episode of The Muppet Show…which is obviously a compliment.
Blake’s 7 (1978 – 1981)
Political dissident Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) gets a second chance following his capture and conviction by the totalitarian surveillance state that is the Terran Federation. When his prison transport responds to a distress call, Blake and his fellow convicts take the opportunity to seize the advanced spacecraft they encounter. Renaming the ship “Liberator,” the borderline fanatical Blake convinces his new crew that the only peace for any of them will rest in bringing down the Federation. The series saw several significant changes in status quo over its four seasons (including a couple of swaps in lead characters), giving it a sense of consequence and unpredictability, and it comes to an unexpected and darkly memorable conclusion.
Babylon 5 (1993 – 1998)
Mature and ambitious, even if its budget couldn’t always keep up, J. Michael Straczynski’s dense space opera was well ahead of its time in its serialized format, well before that style became common (and a little tired). A diplomatic outpost run by the Earth Alliance helping to maintain a fragile peace between various spacefaring alien species, the title space station and port of call serves as the setting for the series, which, for the first few seasons, deals with attempts to prepare for a coming war with aliens from the edge of known space; even the more friendly governments are so wildly different in outlook as to make a united front seemingly impossible. In the background throughout, though, and coming to the fore in later seasons is the increasingly oppressive Earth government and its attempts to turn the war into an excuse to crack-down on freedom of speech and individual rights — eventually, the residents of the once officially sanctioned station find themselves independent and on their own.
Lighter in tone, mostly, than the typical dystopian science fiction, the series follows a crew of mercenaries lead by Mal Reynolds and Zoe Washburne (Nathan Fillion and Gina Torres), two disaffected former soldiers who’d fought on the losing side of a war for independence against the thoroughly conformist central government. The crew tries to stay just under the radar of law enforcement while engaging in activities that aren’t always strictly legal. The short-lived series didn’t get around to making much of that core conflict, but the sequel/wrap-up film, Serenity (2005), finds the crew forced to take a stand to protect one of their own, and makes clear the true horrors of the governing regime.
Snowpiercer (2020 – )
A reworking of the brilliant Bong Joon-ho film from 2013, Snowpiercer sees the remnants of humanity living together on a perpetual locomotive that circles the world, climate conditions having made survival otherwise impossible. Of course, the train is no utopia, with class distinctions thrown into sharp relief: rich at the front living in luxury, poors living in squalor at the back doing the labour. Initially, the series struggled to replicate the cutting critique of Bong’s film version, but came to tell a story that the movie couldn’t: the aftermath of revolution. After rooting for the oppressed heroes to win and overthrow the wealthy elite, it becomes clear that winning a war and governing are very different things, and that a desire for vengeance can quickly turn the oppressors into the oppressed and begin a whole new cycle.
The Prisoner (1967 – 1968)
Credit goes to The Prisoner for crafting one of television’s most starkly realised dystopias around a candy-coloured, mod, pop-art-inspired village that doubtless looks like a pretty great retirement community to many. Creator/director Patrick McGoohan plays Number Six (the only name we’re ever given), who’d resigned from his government job over a matter of conscience. Apparently knowing too much, he’s rendered unconscious and taken to the remote and all-but-inescapable “Village” full of others with numbers and no names, and all of the modern comforts and conveniences that anyone could want. Most are perfectly content there, but rebellious Number Six can’t bring himself to appreciate the luxurious surroundings of what he can only see as a gilded cage. The psychedelic and often surreal series builds to an absolutely wild conclusion, and makes as good an argument against the soul-crushing impacts of consumer culture and conformity as anything that’s ever been on TV.
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