10 Retro Sci-Fi Shows With Deeper Meanings

Since the invention of television, audiences have tuned in to their favorite shows each week to be entertained and informed. With the development of science fiction programming, writers were able to carry on the tradition of many sci-fi authors by exploring subjects that weighed heavily on the public’s mind without having to speak about them directly.

Even though it’s easier to explore uncomfortable topics today, writers and viewers alike are still drawn to strange alien worlds to hold up a mirror to ourselves and our humanity. Here are ten examples of retro sci-fi shows with deeper meanings that did just that.

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10. The Prisoner, Prime Video and Sling TV (1967-1968)

10 Retro Sci-Fi Shows With Deeper Meanings
Credit: IMDb

The first retro sci-fi show on our list is The Prisoner, an allegory about a retired spy named Number Six. He is currently trapped in a place called the Village and earned his mysterious name from his captors. Supposedly wanted for the top-secret information he knows, Number Six tries to escape but is trapped inside the village by the land (mountains and the sea) and “rovers” which are mysterious balloon-like devices.

Number Six’s captors are the real underbelly of the show though. All named Number Two, these interchangeable superiors try to break Number Six in a variety of different psychological experiments that test his humanity and his sanity. The show itself is visually striking yet bleak, showing that not all “paradises” are what they seem in the beginning.

9. V: The Original Miniseries, Prime Video and Youtube (1983)

Retro Sci-Fi Shows With Deeper Meanings And Messages
Credit: Geek Tyrant

In May 1983, NBC viewers were treated to the arrival of “The Visitors,” a humanlike race that supposedly needed a chemical only found on Earth to deal with an environmental crisis. In return, they said they would be happy to provide humans with all the benefits of their superior technology, including cures for diseases such as cancer.

It was an offer humans couldn’t refuse. Then, one by one, the world’s leading scientists began to either confess to involvement in a conspiracy against Earth’s new friends or simply vanished. After infiltrating the mothership, the truth was revealed: the aliens were not humanlike at all, but rather giant lizards wearing well-constructed human suits. And what did they want for food? Us! Before they could tell the world what was discovered, the visitors took over the media and declared a state of martial law.

Although the series looks incredibly dated by today’s standards, it did have some important messages about helping others who are being wrongly persecuted by the powers that be, even if it means risking your life. It’s portrayal of America under alien rule shares similarities with Nazi-era Germany. For example, when a man refuses to help a persecuted scientist and his family hide, his Jewish grandfather insists they must help, stating, “We have to help them, or else we haven’t learned a thing.”

8. The Outer Limits, Pluto TV and Prime Video (1963-1965)

10 Retro Sci-Fi Shows With Deeper Meanings
Credit: IMDb

Similar to The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits features episodes draped in sci-fi and horror that probe at the deeper machinations of the human mind. Opening with the line “There is nothing wrong with your television set” for every episode, the show immediately puts you on edge and will not let go. Some episodes may include more of a “scary monster” motif while others zoom in on the sci-fi, there is an episode for any sci-fi-loving viewer.

Underlying themes could be anything since the anthology series was staffed by young writers, directors, and technicians who were allowed to stretch their creative boundaries. Some of these writers include Leslie Stevens and Harlan Ellison, one of whom is the creator of the show (Leslie Stevens). If you’ve already watched all of The Twilight Zone and want more, then try out The Outer Limits.

7. Alien Nation, Apple TV and Vudu (1989-1990)

Alien Nation (1988) - Imdb
Credit: IMDb

This next retro sci-fi show, adapted from the 1988 movie of the same name, focused on a group of aliens known as the Tenctonese who crash-landed in the Mojave Desert. The Tenctonese were passengers on a slave ship but were accepted by the United States as immigrants. The transition does not always go smoothly as we witness one alien family having to adapt to the melting pot that is America.

Alien Nation tackles issues such as racism and homophobia through the lens of science fiction. Although it was canceled after one season, the push from fans was so strong that it eventually spawned a comic book, a series of novels and five made-for-TV movies. Alien Nation has also developed a cult following and was included in TV Guide’s list of shows that were canceled too soon.

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6. Quantum Leap, Peacock and NBC (1989-1993)

10 Retro Sci-Fi Shows With Deeper Meanings
Credit: IMDb

Not to be confused with the new show by the same name, Quantum Leap aired in 1989 with the main character Sam Beckett, a former scientist trapped in time due to a failed experiment. Deposited into the body of a different person each week, all in different branches of time, the only companion Beckett has is The Observer (aka Al Calavicci) who gives him guidance on his new body and how to help those around him. The best part about this situation? Beckett has little memory to guide him, so he is often bluffing his way through helping each group of people.

The deeper meaning present in this show is the idea of going back in time. If you could go back in time, would you? And would you change anything? This can be problematic because events often correlate and affect each other, so changing one thing might lead to another more dangerous event. It also begs the question should we be changing the past? These are just some of the deeper insights that the main character will have to go through as he jumps in time.

5. Space: Above and Beyond, Youtube (1995-1996)

Justwatch - The Streaming Guide
Credit: Just Watch

This short-lived series, Space: Above and Beyond, ran from 1995 to 1996 and followed a group of young, untrained soldiers who are called to fight after the majority of Earth’s military is defeated by a group of aliens known as Chigs.

Most of this show is about young people experiencing the horrors of war, but it dealt with other heavy subject matter such as xenophobia, technophobia and the moral issues around human cloning. The show was well-loved among fans but ultimately met an early demise due to Fox moving its time slot. It is unavailable to stream today, but you can go old school and purchase the DVDs on Amazon or try to watch on Youtube.

4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Prime Video and Vudu (1981)

10 Retro Sci-Fi Shows With Deeper Meanings
Credit: Amazon

There’s something about exploring the dark reaches of space that puts into perspective how small our world is. Though not factual, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is about Arthur and his friend Ford who escape the destruction of Earth and go on an odyssey of epic proportions in the void of space.

Once in space, the pair must face incredible trials, tribulations, and adventures while traveling, and learn more about themselves too. This profound series reveals what it means to be human after you’ve lost the only home you’ve ever known. I love shows or books like this because they reveal who humans are when they are stripped from the Earth.

3. Star Trek: The Original Series, Paramount Plus and Pluto TV (1966-1969)

Retro Sci-Fi Shows With Deeper Meanings And Messages
Credit: StarTrek.com

Created in 1966, this is one of the retro sci-fi shows with deeper meanings that has never gone away. It was canceled after only three seasons in 1969 despite a huge letter campaign by fans, but it did something canceled shows rarely do: stuck around. With syndication, it found a bigger audience than it had during its original run. It became a cult classic and soon, fans of the show began to organize themselves into gatherings called “Star Trek Conventions.” If you like cons, you have Star Trek fans to thank. The movement eventually became so strong that the series came back as a string of major motion pictures and the release of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Could Gene Roddenberry, a former traffic cop-turned-freelance writer, have imagined the success it would become when he first sat down to write it? Probably not. Star Trek’s message still shines through in its many re-imaginings – it shows we are all more alike than we are different, there’s a place for everyone no matter your race or gender, and you’re stronger than you think. Furthermore, integrity doesn’t have to be sacrificed for you to be great. These are only some of the many takeaways from a show that inspired generations of kids to go into the sciences to become doctors, researchers, or astronauts.

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2. The Twilight Zone, Paramount Plus and Prime Video (1959-1964)

The Twilight Zone (Tv Series 1959–1964) - Imdb
Credit: IMDb

This show was an anthology as opposed to a serialized program, allowing viewers to tune in from week to week without having to worry about being left behind if they missed an episode. Running on CBS from 1959 to 1964, it was another series that led to a successful franchise. Spanning from straight sci-fi to horror to suspense, there was always something new on each episode, and often the ending would leave you baffled.

In its varied stories, the show served as a warning against racism, government, war, and inhumanity toward others. The Twilight Zone is a classic that still holds up when watched today, and its message is as relevant as it was when it first aired 60 years ago.

1. Otherworld, Youtube (1985) / Retro Sci-Fi Shows

Otherworld, A Lesson In Scifi Failure - Scifi Review
Credit: Scifi Review

Otherworld premiered in 1985 and consists of only eight episodes. The adventure begins when the Sterling family gets sucked through a pyramid and deposited into an alternate world called “Thel.” In Thel, there are no actual countries, only zones, and people are forbidden to travel outside their zone.

The residents of each zone know nothing about the lives of others, and the major religion involves only the worship of robots. It was your typical ‘80s cheese, but the warning here is about the dangers of dictatorship and isolation between nations that can lead to misinformation and distrust among citizens.

Science fiction shows are based in somewhat unrealistic worlds, but the most important thing to know about the genre is that real truths are hidden beneath the surface, often about the human condition. Whether it’s about race, gender, class issues, or the difficulty of accepting outsiders, there is always something to explore in a new world like science fiction. If you enjoy exploring science fiction, add these ten retro sci-fi shows to your to-be-watched list.