The best British Sci-fi shows available online (according to us)
Hopefully by now you’ve seen our lists for best British comedies you can watch online, and the best British dramas found online. This list though, this was our favorite – and most stressful – to write.
British dramas are great. The Brits do period drama especially well, but American TV has caught up, and in many ways surpassed them in quality. That’s not a knock on Brit drama, just praise for modern American TV shows. When it comes to comedies, the Brits have some exceptional ones, but comedy is arguably the most subjective form of entertainment. It’s a matter of taste. British sci-fi though… feel free to argue in the comments below, but the best British sci-fi is some of the best TV in the world.
Part of what makes British science fiction so remarkable is the limitations imposed on it. British shows have never had anything close to the budget of their American cousins. At least in terms of production values, until very recently, British sci-fi has been at least a decade behind, maybe two. And that’s a good thing.
British sci-fi TV writers were forced to find ways to create compelling stories without the benefit – or maybe the crutch – of big effects. There are British sci-fi shows decades old that are still more mind-bending than most of the TV on the air today. As a result, most of the shows on this list are years, even decades old.
We tried to look at the series as a whole. Sure, you can make an argument that shows like Misfits, Being Human, and maybe even Hex should be on the list for some of their run, they all went far off the rails at some point.
As with the others lists we’ve published, the choices here are unavoidably tinted with our opinion. That said, we’ll defend the selections on this list vigorously. As with the other lists, we can’t offer a location for where to find each show due to the shifting nature of license agreements, but the Hola app can help if you have the patience to scan through British streaming sites.
Check out our choices for the best British sc-fi available online, and let us know what we missed in the comments below.
Even today you will find few shows like Blake’s 7. Sure, the effects were crap, and sure, the sets were made of cardboard and imagination, but the story was fierce. And dark – so very dark. Created by Terry Nation (who is one of the most unsung sci-fi creators ever), the show ran from 1978 through 1981 and changed significantly.
Midway through the show’s run, its star left. Instead of stopping, Blake’s 7 simply reinvented itself on the fly, promoted a new character, and went from something being something like Star Wars, to Escape from New York without missing a beat.
The story opened with an oppressive human galactic empire, and a crew of outlaws and revolutionaries that find themselves in a unique position to fight back. It was filled with death and torture, but also a straight forward good vs bad plot. Then half the cast dies, the revolution is lost, and the heroes become vicious mercenaries. And yet it all somehow works.
The BBC keeps trying to reboot the show, but that’s easier said than done.
This one was the easiest, and most obvious selection for this list, but Doctor Who would have been here even if the show hadn’t returned to the air in 2005 and become a global phenomenon. The show debuted in 1963 and featured eight actors in the role before Christopher Eccleston reintroduced us to the Doctor. Some of those episodes were great, others were… not so great. But they were constantly filled with imagination.
The idea of a time traveling alien with the ability to change his body is still unique among sci-fi, and it was conceived over 50 years ago (technically, more like 49 years ago, when the first Doctor, William Hartnell, left the show). 91 episodes of the show are missing, but rather than hurting the classic series, that has just made it more appealing.
The relaunch kicked the show into a new stratosphere, and replaced bland corridors and cardboard monsters with a quality production. The original idea though, was so strong, so deeply noble, that it still survived with its fans.
It was about a brilliant, heroic alien that used his mind to fight evil. He never touched a gun, and offered a quirky alternative to the common hero that beats their way out of trouble. It’s not only one of the best shows out of Britain, it’s one of the best shows in the world.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
You can make a good argument that this belongs on the comedy list more than sci-fi, and that’s fair. Still, other shows like Red Dwarf were drenched in sci-fi trappings, but the jokes are still familiar. You had slapstick elements, characters making fun of each other, the odd-couple like relationships, etc. Hitchhikers was science fiction told in a very funny way, written by a guy who at the time had just come off working on Doctor Who.
Hitchhikers Guide was originally written as a radio drama for the BBC before it was later turned into a book. This show is an adaption of the radio show, and stars the majority of the audio cast. That makes this closer the original material than even the books.
Look beyond the jokes and you have a sci-fi story involving translator fish, engines that warp reality, and people that build planets. And that’s only the first story in the series.
Neverwhere only ran for six episodes, and yet it continues to resonate – enough so that a star studded audio drama featuring James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Natalie Dormer, and several others was released not along ago. There was also a film option (that has since died), a novel adaptation, and there is always talk of a possible sequel.
Written by Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere tells the story of London below, a world under the skin of our own, where angels live in prisons and souls can be kept safe in secret boxes. When an average guy stumbles into the middle of a plot far outside his understanding, he is forced into the role of reluctant hero – despite not having a clue what is going on.
Steeped with originality, there is nothing else quite like Neverwhere. Plus, it stars a younger pre-Doctor Who Peter Capaldi as an angry angel. That alone is worth watching.
Debuting in 1967 and running through 1968, The Prisoner was not just unique for its time, it is unique for any time. To begin with, the main character, played by Patrick MacGoohan, doesn’t have a name, just the dehumanizing title of “Number 6.”
There is a long standing argument that the show is actually an unofficial sequel to McGoohan’s previous series, Secret Agent Man, which starred the actor as a Bond-like spy. But that’s just an interesting footnote.
The Prisoner is a perfect example of the 60s’ experimental thought taken to extremes. It begins with an ex-spy forcibly and mysteriously “retired” to an idyllic and utterly controlled place called the “Village.” Number 6 is then subjected to mental experiment after experiment to get him to give up his secrets.
It is deeply psychological and draped in fantastical metaphors screaming the concepts of individuality and freedom. An American remake on AMC tried to retell the story, but it couldn’t come close. Few shows could.
This one is a bit of a cheat, since there have been several adaptations of the property and all of them have been fairly good. The series began in 1953 as The Quatermass Experiment, and more than sixty years later people are still talking about it and looking at ways to bring it back. The most recent attempt was in 2005, and it probably won’t be the last.
By today’s standards, the story is simple enough: an alien life form lands on Earth and threatens to wipe out humanity. For the time though, it was revolutionary – and the original still holds up.
The story plays out like a mystery as much as an action show, beginning with a space mission returning to Earth with two of the three astronauts missing. Quatermass has gone on to influence dozens of movies and TV series, but the 60 year old original is still worth checking out. That version may be tough to find, but one of the several remakes should be available.
Sapphire and Steel
How’s this for a premise: A malevolent manifestation of time can break through at certain weak spots in the world, and the only people that can stop it are agents of a higher power who may be the personification of elements, minerals, jewels, and more. Throw in a post Avengers Joanna Lumley as a charming psychic agents, and a post The Man from U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum as the borderline antihero Steel, and you have the general basis for Sapphire and Steel.
It was a supernatural anthology show of sorts, with each story being more mind-bending than the one before, and it aired from 1979 through 1982. If it is really true that there are only a handful of stories that we just tell over and over in a different fashion, Sapphire and Steel is an exception.
One episode is about the ghosts of tragically killed soldiers using an abandoned train station to convene, while another is about nursery rhymes weakening the pattern of time. It then culminates with a twisted ending you won’t see coming. A reboot is supposedly on the way, but it’s unconfirmed.
The original was a realistic look at what the world after the apocalypse would look like, as society was forced to learn how to rebuild itself. It avoided the modern take of everybody in the apocalypse hating and murdering everyone else. There may have only been 20 guns seen in the whole show, and human conflict was just one of the many obstacles the survivors faced.
There were moments of action, but the show was at its finest when it was forced to decide issues of morality, like how to punish crimes and weighing risk versus the lives of people. It was an alien world built off the carcass of our own, and topics like the number of humans needed to reproduce were raised.
It was deep stuff, and offered a different look at the popular post-apocalyptic genre without the now familiar “people are all horrible” motif.
The Tomorrow People
Although The Tomorrow People was created as a children’s show (as was Doctor Who), it tackled complex themes of evolution and prejudice. That may sound like a Marvel-free retelling of the X-Men (the children with powers are even called “homo-superior”), but the show was more than that, and it managed to carve out its own niche during its run from 1973-1979.
The special effects were terrible, the sets were a bad wind storm away from being a death trap, and the original villain was a laughably bad looking robot. And yet it ran for 68 episodes, spawned a short lived US remake, and continues to have fans around the world.
With a better budget, The Tomorrow People could have been a worldwide hit. This may actually be the toughest show on this list to find, but there are episodes on YouTube, and a little digging through British online streaming sites using Hola can offer plenty of options.
Although Ultraviolet only ran for six episodes, it helped to launch – or at least cement – the careers of Idris Elba, Jack Davenport, Stephen Moyer, and Susannah Harker. The show even spawned a failed American remake, all after just six episodes.
It’s probably more accurate to think of Ultraviolet as a mini-series rather than a TV show, although it was technically a series.
The story may seem somewhat overly-familiar now, focusing on vampires secretly living among us, but Ultraviolet still stands on its own. If anything, you could argue that the show is one of the causes of the vampire saturation rather than a symptom.
Regardless, Ultraviolet is a somewhat realistic take on what vampires may be like, and how humans would fight them. It also lives in the gray area between the undead being evil and romantic. And it has a young, bad ass Idris Elba. What more do you need?
What are your choices for the best British sci-fi shows?
So those are our picks for the best British sci-fi shows, but of course, opinions vary. These are ours, what are yours?
Let us know in the comments below!