The Best TV Teen Sci-Fi (That You Probably Never Saw)

So as you know, I’m pretty loopy about aliens and spaceships and things. And, though I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of young adult science fiction literature, the past few decades or so have been pretty glum–though you can find bright spots, if you look (Animorphs*! John Christopher’s Tripod series!). Still, you have to search pretty hard to find anything that hits the teen science fictional sweet spot.

Oddly, over the years, teenagers in space have popped up on television with surprising . . . well, I don’t know if I’d call it frequency, but they’ve certainly been an occasional presence. These shows tend to be sadly short lived (with one notable exception), but are often celebrated by their passionate fan-bases–and mostly with good reason.

Because they’re awesome.

And so I wanted to share with you, gentle reader, my four favorite teen sci-fi series of all time. I think any of the four listed below are worth a look if you’re a writer–because they each do some things really right in talking to their young audiences. But I also recommend viewing them–if you can find them!–even if you’re not a writer, because they’re pretty much plain ol’ awesome.

Space Cases

Oh man, Space Cases. This is the show that introduced me to fandom and, therefore, writing in earnest. It was a short-lived show, just two seasons on Nickelodeon, with one heavily derailed by executive meddling. But it was terrific.

What made it terrific? Well, the concept, for one–five misfit kids (and their teachers) from a remedial class in a space academy (“Starcademy”) find an abandoned biological ship which is then jettisoned to the other side of space. Adventures ensue. It was originally intended to have an elaborate, five-year story arc, a la Babylon 5, but, alas, that was never to be.

It’s got a great, jokey tone (reflected in the OMG-ridiculous theme song), but it balances that nicely with a touch of angst in the form of Radu (played by Kristian Ayre), their resident hunky alien. Now, I realize he might not seem hunky to you if you’re viewing the above clip as an adult–he’s short, with frizzy hair and cinnamon buns for ears–but he’s got the most complex biology and tragic history of any of the characters.

And he’s sympathetic!

I find it interesting, in our world of YA-bad boys, that this was the guy that ever fangirl loved on this show (and not, say, snarky human boy/black power ranger Harlan Band). He was a bit of a woobie, but he was also a really nice, sweet boy. With no family! A war orphan! How could we all not want to give him a big, super-strong hug?

Ahem.

The character interactions on this show are great, too, but what I love most about it is the core premise: a group of kids who haven’t done so hot academically are forced to overcome differences to fulfill their potential in the depths of space.

Oh, also, keep an eye out for Kaylee from Firefly wearing a rainbow wig and talking to herself. No joke!

The Tomorrow People (90s version)

The Tomorrow People aired contemporaneously with Space Cases, but other than their shared places in the SF genre, they couldn’t be more different. The Tomorrow People is mostly known for being a remake of a more popular, and fairly camp, British series. However, this 90s spin on evolved, psychic humans takes itself very seriously.

It’s the story of a scattered group of teenagers who realize that they are the next step in human evolution–evidenced, apparently, by the fact that they can read minds and teleport to a mysterious alien space ship. It more a collection of several miniseries than a real TV series, with a revolving cast (only two characters–dark cutie Adam and the bizarrely nicknamed “Megabyte”–appear in all of them), but that didn’t really matter. What was important here was the mystery.

Who were the tomorrow people? What was up with the alien spaceship, or the government agencies that pursued the kids? Even though viewers got few answers in the show’s brief three seasons, the central premise–that normal human kids from around the world might evolve awesome powers at any second–is the kind that remains hopelessly engaging to this day.

Mission Genesis/Deepwater Black

Mission Genesis (called Deepwater Black in Canada, in keeping with the kids’ book series on which its based) was a joint production between the Sci-fi channel and Canada’s YTV. I’m almost–almost!–loathe to call this a teen series, because, thanks to over-the-top Dawson Casting, all of the actors are in their twenties, and their apparent youth is never addressed. But it was produced by a kids’ channel in Canada, based on kids’ books, and, when I watched it as a teenager, I “read” the characters as seventeen or eighteen or so, even if I don’t now. And it was like crack to me back then. So I feel the need to give it a nod!

Mission Genesis opens with a mystery: six (preposterously attractive) teens wake up from cryosleep to find themselves on a spaceship that’s under attack. After they fight off the attack, the ship’s holographic on-board computer, Gen, informs them that they’re clones tasked to execute the Deepwater project. You see, all of humanity has been wiped out by a virulent plague, and their ship, the Deepwater, contains enough DNA to revive the human race. First, though, they have to find a planet suitable for habitation, defend the ship from attack, deal with “prexing” (the seizure-like recollection of their “pre-existing” memories, programmed into them from their long-dead donors), and not murder each other.

This was a bottle show, with an extremely small budget, and set. And it’s terrifically claustrophobic. But it’s also a character study; though the crew awakens with only some of their memories intact, they all (especially Reb, and Yuna) have strong personalities which often clash. And, as is the case in, say, a tiny high school, there’s no way for them to escape their peers if they don’t get along. They’re all they have! So you get a mysterious premise, with loads of simmering conflict.

Worth a watch particularly for the acting chops of Gordon Michael Woolvett, who plays Reb, and Nicole de Boer (aka Dax II from Deep Space 9), who plays Yuna. Some of the other actors are a little hammy, but this is really the Reb and Yuna show, and their palpable chemistry is really compelling.

(Did I mention that everyone on this show is really attractive? Seriously. It’s ridiculous.)

The Tribe

The Tribe was the most long-lived of all these series, airing five seasons in New Zealand, and, is perhaps, the most ridiculous. Its central premise is dystopic: a plague wipes out all the grown-ups, and kids descend into anarchy. Kids wear silly face paint, and form “tribes” to protect themselves from the roving, violent bands of punks who roam the streets. Our heroes are the “mallrats,” a group of kids who live in an abandoned mall (awwwesome) and attempt to live democratically and peaceably.

But despite this, and despite the fact that the show’s long-term story arc contains some ridiculous twists (like . . . there’s a cult! Based around one of the dead characters from the first season! Led by a guy who looks like Dwight Schrute!), this is, at its essence, a soap opera. I like to think of it as Alas! Degrassi. Episodes are frequently “issue”-centric, tackling topics like anorexia or teen pregnancy (several times), and much of the focus is on the characters’ romantic relationships.

But it does all of these things really well. Even the more villainous characters are sympathetically complicated (my fave is Lex), and the central characters Amber and Bray are really believable as teenagers forced to lead. Amber is probably one of my favorite strong women on TV, and she’s, like, fifteen at the start of the show (as is the actor who plays her). Intelligent, complicated, and fierce, Amber is exactly the kind of teenage girl we need more of, on the pages and on the screen.

Heads up, though, The Tribe has the worst, most ear-wormy theme song I’ve ever heard. EVER. You’ve been warned!

*Interrobang Sean tells me I must mention The Animorphs TV show. So here we go: The Animorphs TV show was really bad. Like, terrible!