What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.
Science fiction came to prominence in the 20th century through magazines and extensive series of novels that allowed authors to build complex worlds over time. That tactic has found a new manifestation through television shows, where writers can bring their visions of the future to life in a way that allows viewers to also process contemporary issues.
Bigger network budgets, more sophisticated special effects, and the success of genre blockbusters has led to a boom in science fiction television during the past decade. These shows have done everything from extrapolating the implications of social media to imagining distant futures where humanity lives among the stars.
We’ve limited this list to shows that explore Earth’s future, which means skipping some excellent series like The Mandalorian, which set in a galaxy far, far away, and those relying on alternate histories, such as Watchmen. These aren’t necessarily the best science fiction shows out there, but they offer some of the most compelling predictions and cautionary tales for humanity made in the last decade.
Imagining how humanity would react to some people developing extraordinary abilities is a thought exercise as old as superhero stories, but Syfy’s short-lived Alphas put a novel and powerful twist on the genre. The show was mostly an exploration of neurodiversity and mental health, with every Alpha power like mind control or supersenses seemingly coupled with a serious drawback like addiction or OCD. While the Alphas team up to investigate crimes, possibly committed by other Alphas, the protagonists are as much a support group as a superhero squad.
The biggest deviation from the usual “humanity has evolved” formula is David Strathairn’s Dr. Lee Rosen, who lacks any powers of his own but dedicates his life to helping those who do. In a genre where regular people are typically relegated to victims or villains, a character who accepted and welcomed seismic change that would ostensibly negatively impact him was a revelation.
The writers of Altered Carbon, based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel of the same name, crammed as many cyberpunk and space opera tropes as they could into two seasons before Netflix canceled the big budget show. While not all of it worked, the result was a wildly ambitious vision of the future where alien technology allows humans to download their minds into new bodies. Like all new technologies, the benefits are distributed unequally with the wealthy able to achieve immortality and cement their grip on power while the less fortunate have their bodies commoditized.
It’s a shame that the writers didn’t have more time to explore some of the many technological and social movements that they touched on, such as people who abandon the world of flesh to upload their consciousness into a virtual paradise or who borrow a body once a year after to visit their family on the Day of the Dead. The setting’s advanced technology also included dilemmas about the nature of AI, with neglected programs struggling to find purpose while debating their relationship with humanity. Altered Carbon used gratuitous sex and violence combined with plenty of intrigue to show a far future made recognizable by recreating timeless philosophical and social dilemmas.
Altered Carbon is streaming on Netflix.
Set in a very near future, Away imagines the mix of politics and personal sacrifice involved in the first manned mission to Mars. Its conflicts are all highly recognizable and personal, with astronauts representing the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K., and India learning to find common ground in their shared mission even as they deal with obligations to their increasingly distant families and governments on Earth. The show tackled deeply personal issues, like the guilt of leaving family behind, while also envisioning the negotiations involved in deciding who the first person to step foot on Mars would be. How would they be photographed?
The show’s creators worked closely with former astronauts and other scientific consultants to make it as realistic as possible, incorporating technology like artificial gravity that is already being researched, while basing the physical and emotional trials of long-term space travel on the accounts of the first U.S. astronaut to spend a year in space.
Away is streaming on Netflix.
The 2019 Norwegian series Beforeigners reconceptualized the modern refugee crisis by imagining people from the past stranded in the modern world. Set two decades after waves of “time migrants” from the Paleolithic era, Viking Age, and 19th century began appearing in Oslo, the show weaves together a fascinating world showing the complexities of cultural integration and identity and the universality of the human experience.
With cavemen running private security companies, Viking ravers, 19th century muckraking journalists, and homeless camps spanning all time periods, Beforeigners creators Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin sharply criticize the idea that successful assimilation has anything to do with the culture you’re from. The show also provides a fascinating look at how social mores change and remain static over time, with Vikings being perfectly comfortable using Tinder while Victorian era migrants express frustration over the persistence of sexism.
While the core of the show involves the predictably shoddy treatment of these migrants, whom most modern people view as novelties or outright drains on their society, Beforeigners’ creators also imagine a host of other implications of the blended societies including cross-temporal romances, religious clashes, and Neo-Luddites who create enclaves using only technology from bygone eras.
Beforeigners is streaming on HBO Max.
A mostly bleak anthology series about the dark intersection between technology and human nature, Black Mirror skips around from the very near future in episodes like the video game horror story “Playtest” to full on post-apocalyptic like “Metalhead,” where humanity is hunted by Boston Dynamics robots. As the series developed, creator Charlie Brooker developed a mythology that interweaves seemingly disparate episodes while dwelling on favored themes like how technology can be used to alter perception and memory, and the idea that a digital recreation of a human consciousness would be indistinguishable from a real person.
Not all of the episodes or imagined futures are created equal, but at its best the show pushes viewers to reconsider their relationships with social media, reality television, and smart home technology. Some of the technologies that Black Mirror’s writers imagined, like a virtual afterlife or an app that can find your perfect romantic match, are so compelling that they’ve wound up as the plots of full series.
Black Mirror is streaming on Netflix.
Brave New World
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is one of the most prophetic and influential science fiction novels of all time, imagining advances in genetics, pharmaceuticals, and social conditioning that would allow the formation of a perfectly happy society where everyone understands their place. The Peacock adaptation adds in a homicidal AI antagonist and a council of nearly immortal architects of this dystopian future, but it’s at its best when it sticks closer to Huxley’s plot.
Brave New World tackles issues of class consciousness, the myths of meritocracy, the dangers of escapism, and the power of ennui to permeate even theoretically perfect lives. In its silly excess filled with orgies and catty politics, it examines how people find meaning and the hierarchies that we accept as immutable.
Brave New World is streaming on Peacock.
Religion and science are often in conflict in science fiction stories, but FX’s Devs follows in the tradition of Isaac Asimov’s 1956 short story “The Last Question” by examining how the two can be nearly indistinguishable. The miniseries, from Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland, follows the work of a powerful Silicon Valley company that uses quantum computing to discover that all human behavior can be predicted and that real life is essentially indistinguishable from a computer simulation.
Devs tangles with ancient questions about the nature of fate and free will through a decidedly modern lens, with the technology inspiring a mix of nihilism, greed, and obsession but also being used for porn. As predictive algorithms continue to grow more advanced and big tech companies accrue unchecked power, Devs writers posit that people still have the power to make the choice to live in a better world.
Devs is streaming on Hulu.
The relentlessly upbeat Eureka was fundamentally about the people who imagined what the future would be like. The largely episodic show followed the myriad crises and breakthroughs produced in a secret town in Oregon where the country’s most brilliant minds live and work together on everything from nanotechnology to smart homes.
While the metaplot often involved someone trying to use Eureka’s technology for evil, the show was deeply techno-optimistic. Problems were almost always solved by teamwork between the quirky geniuses and everyman town sheriff Jack Carter, who was constantly exasperated by the weirdness of his job but never doubted the power or potential of science. While any given experiment might end in disaster, the moral was that no problem couldn’t be solved through perseverance, collaboration, and compassion.
Eureka is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Based on the series of novels of the same name by James S. A. Corey, The Expanse envisions the geopolitics that might emerge hundreds of years in the future after humanity has spread across the Solar System. While all terrestrial cultures have been united under the auspices of the United Nations of Earth, new conflicts have arrived between the militaristic Martians and the neglected and overlooked denizens of the asteroids and moons of the outer planets.
All of these simmering Cold War-style tensions begin to boil over thanks to a discovery that kicks off a new arms race that could pose an existential threat to all of humanity.
The Expanse provides a fascinating examination of the way identity evolves, particularly through the lens of Belters who are physically changed by time in low or zero gravity in a way that makes it extremely difficult for them to return to solid ground. Every faction has its own strengths, failings, and stereotypes about everyone else, but time and again they prove themselves to still be people who can do the most good when they can put aside their differences and work together.
The Expanse is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Fringe started out with a largely monster of the week formula, following in the footsteps of The X-Files by focusing on a team of investigators trying to understand unexplained phenomena. One of those was the Observers, seemingly omniscient, bald, pale men with a penchant for showing up whenever something important was about to happen.
The show took a hard turn in its final season, which was set in a version of 2036 where the Observers had taken over the Earth. Revealed to be time travelers from a future where genetic engineering allowed humans to replace the brainpower used for emotions with extra intelligence, the Observers had effectively destroyed the Earth by 2609 so decided to colonize the past. While the noir-flavored dystopia felt fairly derivative of Dark City, it raised some strong issues about how others pay the price of environmental degradation. It also provides some fascinating speculation on the complexity of the human mind and a cautionary tale about trying to eliminate perceived flaws.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about a future where America has been taken over by religious zealots who relegate women to sexual slavery or domestic servitude became depressingly relevant in the Trump era, where costumes based on the show have become a fixture of pro-choice demonstrations. The show also casts a deeply skeptical look on the form of conservative feminism upheld by prominent lawmakers like Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
The show is often gratuitously brutal and glosses over racism in favor of just focusing on discrimination based on gender and sexuality, but the slide from democracy to authoritarianism feels almost too realistic at a time when an all-male extremist group is standing by to assist the President should he not like the results of the next election. An infertility crisis sets off the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, with fertile women becoming a commodity too valuable not to control, but the story was always meant to be a metaphor for how people will justify any atrocity and still consider themselves pious by dehumanizing those who they repress.
The Handmaid’s Tale is streaming on Hulu.
Set in a distant future where a plague has killed most of humanity and blinded the survivors, See imagines how society would rebuild among the ruins and develop new hierarchies, traditions, and technology. Working with blind actors and consultants, the show’s writers imagined new ways that people could explore and survive in a harsh world as well as plenty of methods for warring tribes to murder each other.
Characters use a mix of stone age technology and surviving modern materials that both speaks to human resourcefulness and creates the sort of discordance found in birds that partially build their nests from plastic. The setting also allows for an unusual spin on the “humanity evolves new power” narrative as it centers on children born with the ability to see who have the potential to either bring new progress or destroy everything humanity had managed to reclaim.
See is streaming on Apple TV+.
Another one of Netflix’s radically ambitious and short-lived science fiction series, Sense8 followed a group of eight people around the world who were all born at the same moment and discovered in adulthood that they have the ability to connect with one another telepathically. It’s a fascinating power that pushes the boundaries of what a person is capable by allowing them to access the knowledge and skills of seven others.
The Matrix directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski, along with Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, used the concept to advocate for radical empathy, allowing extremely disparate people to find strength and understanding together. The show also explored the boundaries of identity and sexuality with characters feeling each others emotions whether in the midst of running from murderous villains or during orgiastic sex scenes.
Sense8 is streaming on Netflix.
While Upload was in development before the release of the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero,” both imagine a world where technology has allowed the dying to upload their consciousness into a virtual afterlife. In this version, capitalism doesn’t stop ruining things just because you’re dead. Where you spend your eternity becomes the ultimate status symbol.
The show’s future is extrapolated based on current issues like false scarcity, the gig economy, and the high price of healthcare, creating a world where dead rich people spend their afterlives in resorts while the poor languish in institutions trying not to think too hard lest they burn through their limited data. Angels are just beleaguered customer service reps trying to preserve their jobs by keeping their clients happy. Yet as bleak as the idea of being served microtransactions for the rest of time might be, the moral of Upload is that a better, more egalitarian future can exist if people are willing to fight against the deeply entrenched interests that would hold it back.
Upload is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Westworld became a very different show at the end of season 1, when the androids at the titular amusement park began mass murdering guests, creating a tonal shift so jarring that the series has yet to recover the momentum, mystery, or sustained audience interest that its initial run provided. But that season did offer a fascinating look at the future of entertainment, where wealthy vacationers immerse themselves in a replica of the Wild West where androids hosts let them indulge in all manner of fantasy.
Before it was overwhelmed by plots about AI revolutions, Westworld focused on the behind the scenes aspects of running the park. There’s something deeply relatable about engineers trying to cover up glitches to avoid getting chewed out by bosses who are too focused on complicated corporate politics to notice the time bomb they’re sitting on. While ostensibly critiquing the toll of violence, no matter how abstract, Westworld provided even better commentary on what happens when greed and humanity’s insatiable desire for novelty collide with questionable technology.
Westworld is streaming on HBO Max.