For the past decade or so, the grandest sci–fi films and shows have tended to be dystopian—Elysium, Westworld, The 100, etc. Other space movies have come out in that time, but they’ve failed in one way or the other: Interstellar tried to resurrect golden–age films and impress us with hard scientific fact at the expense of its plot. The only truly sci–fi thing about Passengers was that it happened to be set in space (read Street's anti–sci–fi piece here).
The following are true space movies and shows from the past two decades. They fulfill two of the genre’s most important criteria: in their own ways, they critique our present social and political systems (as dystopian sci–fi does), but they also fill us with the wonderful sense that there's something beyond our corner of the solar system.
These two shows aren’t quite the granddaddies of them all—that title goes to the original Star Trek series of the 1960s—but each took Trek to another level, beyond what we (still) think of as Star Trek. The Next Generation (TNG) keeps the optimistic, lighthearted tone of TOS (The Original Series), but features 1) a far more measured, contemplative man in the captain’s chair and 2) an android with an “emotion chip"—the combination of which leads it to continuously explore, among other things, anthropological issues such as the boundary between man and machine.
Deep Space Nine (DS9), on the other hand, is far darker than the first two iterations, and it’s the only Star Trek series to take place on a space station rather than a spaceship. This allows the series to have a larger cast of recurring characters and longer story arcs. If TNG’s the philosophical Trek, DS9's the socially–conscious one; its finest episodes deal with racism in 1950s America (of all things) and the consequences of wartime deception.
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2003–2009)
We were too young to appreciate Battlestar Galactica, the reboot of a '70s space Western, while it aired. The show is very much a product of post–9/11 America. Episodes fixate on disastrous presidencies, rigged elections, and suicide bombing. Our heroes spend the entire series voyaging in search of the planet we now call Earth, but that’s not how Galactica drew such huge numbers. Throughout its run, like so many classic sci–fi films before it, Galactica focused on whether “humanity” is exclusive to those who are biologically human. (Fun fact: there are only humans and robots in Galactica. No aliens! In the grand timeline of sci–fi television, Galactica came on the heels of decades of Star Trek’s Romulans, Ferengi, and Klingons; as such, Galactica’s curmudgeonly lead actor had an “anti–alien clause” in his contract.)
THE FOUNTAIN (2006)
The Fountain’s storyline has nothing to do with space. At its core, it’s a love story—that is, a hugely ambitious love story that manages to span eternity, from the time of the conquistadors to the far, far future, in which humans travel through space in golden bubbles, even though its main characters exist in our own time. Plenty of sci–fi films have religious underpinnings, but The Fountain is actually a visualization of how one man deals with his fear of his wife’s death. It's simply beautiful to watch.
THE EXPANSE (2015– )
The Expanse is often called the best sci–fi show on television, and for good reason. It brings Battlestar Galactica–esque political intrigue to a similarly tumultuous time in American history, but it’s more far focused than Galactica, which makes it an easier sell to jaded viewers who lived through the zillions of poorly–done sci–fi shows of the 2000s. The show envisions a scarier future for humanity than Star Trek does: the world of The Expanse is one in which humankind has managed to colonize the solar system—and the aliens aren’t non–human life forms, they’re members of off–world civilizations long separated from Earth. The Expanse’s strength lies in the fact that it focuses on the details (humans) rather than the big picture (space), so it’s not the purest sci–fi, but it’s a wonderful yarn for those who want to give the genre a shot.
And if your preferred sci–fi story’s not set in space—or if, God forbid, you don't have a preferred sci–fi story—you should give it a shot.