Daleks. Wookies. Tribbles. The diversity of sci-fi on film and TV is so rich it could fill an entire quadrant. In a universe that’s still expanding, here’s a brief history of highlights, milestones, and oddities.
A Trip to the Moon“] (1902) Georges Melies’ groundbreaking silent-film journey to the moon á la Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. One small step for man, one giant step for cinema.
Metropolis (1926) Fritz Lang releases his silent-film masterwork about a futuristic hypermechanized city. So visually stunning, it was rereleased in 1984 with a spacey rock & roll soundtrack.
Things to Come (1936) Based on H.G. Wells’ prescient novel, this ambitious epic predicts World War II — but guesses it will last until 1950.
Flash Gordon (1936) The proto- space cowboy bursts onto the scene in his trademark phallic spaceship. Film serials would rule sci-fi into the 1940s.
The War of the Worlds (1938) Before doing magic tricks on the Tonight Show, Orson Welles scares the bejesus out of the entire nation with an earth-shattering radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ classic Martian-invaders story.
Captain Video (1949) TV’s first spaceman beams onto the airwaves. His prop budget is only $25 a week, but he can still afford an Opticon Scillometer, Cosmic Ray Vibrator, and Atomic Rifle.
Destination Moon (1950) This Oscar winner (for special effects) becomes one of the first sci-fi films to be based on realistic contemporary science. Revived the genre for the ’50s.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) This anti-arms race parable still holds up in the post-Cold War era. What’s not to love about a movie that introduces the phrase ”Klaatu barada nikto” into the sci-fi lexicon?
The Thing (1951) Forget John Carpenter’s schlocky 1982 effects-heavy remake. Producer Howard Hawks’ spare, atmospheric original gives the sci-fi genre a touch of class-despite that carrot-from-outer-space alien.
This Island Earth (1955) Klingons weren’t the first aliens with big foreheads. This big-budget spacefest — introducing the brainoid Metalunians — is among the first sci-fi pictures to feature lavish sets and extravagant F/X.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Action director Don Siegel takes Cold War paranoia — and the sci-fi genre — to new heights with this classic pod-people horror story. So chilling, it’s been remade twice — in 1978 and 1994.
Forbidden Planet (1956) MGM’s elegant update of Shakespeare’s The Tempest — set on a planet called Altair IV — makes Robby the Robot as big a ’50s film icon as Rock Hudson.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) Sci-fi goes existential with an introspective little movie about a man who downsizes to oblivion.
The Twilight Zone (1959) Rod Serling’s anthology TV series not only visits the Fifth Dimension; it showcases such budding young acting talents as Robert Redford and William Shatner.
The Jetsons (1962) Prime time’s first animated sci-fi series makes life in the 21st century look almost livable.
Dr. Who (Britain 1963, U.S. 1978) This TV show is almost as old as its hero — a regenerating Time Lord who’s still traveling around the cosmos in an old London police box.
The Outer Limits (1963) ABC unveils a Twilight Zone wannabe. Most memorable for its haunting opening credits (”There is nothing wrong with your TV set .We are controlling transmission ”).
Lost in Space (1965) CBS sends a typical sitcom family hurling into space. Stars sci-fi’s cutest robot — the ‘bubbleheaded booby” whose most famous line is ”Warning! Warning, Will Robinson!”
Star Trek (1966) NBC launches the starship Enterprise — and unwittingly unleashes what will become the greatest sci-fi hit of all time.
Barbarella (1967) Yes, that’s Ted Turner’s wife in space-age minis. The ultimate psychedelic sci-fi movie.
Planet of the Apes (1968) Charlton Heston makes slapping his neck into an art form in this simian social satire. Spawned four sequels and two TV series.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) The trip of the decade, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal epic celebrates the beauty and banality of technology with visual effects that are unprecedented in their elaborateness. Finally, sci-fi for grown-ups.
Star Wars (1977) The first of George Lucas’ trilogy sucks up money like a black hole — and changes the look of sci-fi forever with its hyperrealistic F/X. Ushers in the cosmic video-game era.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) Steven Spielberg’s New Age answer to paranoid ’50s space movies — with nice aliens, for a change. Called the greatest movie ever made by science-fiction guru Ray Bradbury.
E.T. (1982) Steven Spielberg does it again. The alien looks a bit like a removed gallbladder, but he’s still one of the big box-office champs of all time.
Blade Runner (1982) Film noir meets the space age in this gritty, groundbreaking cult favorite about replicant existentialism.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) Even more popular than the original television series, this sequel brings feature film-quality effects to the small screen.
Terminator 2 (1991) One word: morphing. —Tim Purtell and Benjamin Svetkey