I’ve been obsessed with space since I was young. My dad and I would look at the stars outside together on the nights when we both couldn’t sleep (insomnia seems to run in the family), and we had the SETI satellite set up on our computer. I remember listening to how noisy the feedback from space was; there was something distinctly unsettling and incredibly enthralling about that satellite. SETI is an anachronym standing for “the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,” a.k.a. SETI is a division started by NASA that studies space, seeking alien life. To this day, the fandoms I participate in most wholeheartedly seem to be space-related. I think each “space” themed piece of media takes a different aspect of human nature and expands upon it, making the genre of science-fiction, often referred to as “space opera,” one of the genres I spend the most time within.
Real World Fandom
I absolutely consider NASA a type of media when it comes to fandoms. To be so interested in the scientific study and advancement of exploration and knowledge is the heart of NASA and those of us fascinated by the stars. It’s clear NASA is comprised of people we might think of as geeky or nerdy, too. Some of my favorite fun facts come from the naming conventions of different divisions within NASA. For example, a subdivision of the SETI project is called the “GNU Radio.” It is made up of volunteer programmers working to enhance our ability to send and receive radio transmissions.
Sir Terry Pratchett, the late English satirist and fantasy author, created an entire realm inside his Discworld series. The best thing about this series is how expansive it is. There are 41 novels in the series, but you can read them in more or less any order. They’re separate books that take place inside an incredibly detailed world rather than a series that focuses on one character or a linear timeline plot. Here’s where SETI comes in:
The connection between this fantasy world, with all its different, if similar, technologies finding a place within our world is a beautiful piece of symmetry between literature and reality.
As a lifelong Star Wars fan, the resurgence of popularity thanks to the shows on Disney+ has made my heart very happy. There’s something for everybody in the world of Star Wars. You can start with the feature films, of which there are 11, chunked up into three trilogies, with two additional stand-alone films for further context. You have the Original Trilogy of A New Hope (initially named Star Wars), The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. These films set the stage for the world of Star Wars, introducing the overarching themes of Hope, Duty, Fate and doing the right thing. When the prequel trilogy came out decades later, I was of an age to enjoy Star Wars in the theater for the first time. Those three, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and The Revenge of the Sith, opened up the lore, giving background and context to Anakin Skywalker. They show how love can be a powerful force in both the positive and the negative. The Sequel Trilogy, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker further expand those themes. They return the Jedi to a balance of emotions rather than the refusal of feeling.
Then there are the myriad TV shows in the Star Wars canon. Before Disney’s takeover of Lucas Arts came some cartoon renditions of the Clone Wars era. Led by Dave Filoni (who now controls much of Star Wars content creation), The Clone Wars delved into the years between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, creating additional characters and giving dimension to characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Padme Amidala. Geared towards children in its early seasons, The Clone Wars gets progressively darker as Anakin slides to the Dark Side. Aimed towards a slightly older audience, the show Rebels picks up after the end of Revenge of the Sith and The Clone Wars, giving fans insight into one of the early Rebel groups fighting against the Empire’s early days. This show is also animated but intense in an entirely different way. The Bad Batch also overlaps the timeline, focusing on a specific group of Clone soldiers during the Republic’s downfall and the Empire’s rise.
New live-action shows include:
- The Mandalorian: set after The Return of the Jedi, but well before the timeline of the sequel trilogies begins.
- The Book of Boba Fett: follows Boba Fett’s attempt to build a new life for himself after the dissolution of the Empire.
- Obi-Wan Kenobi: set a decade after the twins Luke and Leia are born and isolated for their safety.
- Andor: the currently airing dark and gritty exposé on Cassian Andor, from the film Rogue One, as he fights against the Empire’s growing injustices.
Forthcoming shows include Ahsoka, focusing on long-time fan favorite Ahsoka Tahno, who was created for The Clone Wars show and never left. Other characters appearing in the series will come from Rebels (Sabine Wren and Ezra Bridger have been cast).
And then there are the books—the extended universe. Before the Disney takeover, these books were considered EU, sometimes canon, sometimes not. All the books before the merger are considered Legends, while the newer EU novels are canon. There are books about nearly any character, planet, species or plot point you could imagine.
At its core, Star Wars is about the hero’s journey, often using medieval writing tropes like The Fair Unknown: an unknown character raised without knowledge of their true bloodline/identity or abilities who eventually becomes the best (Knight/Jedi). After a successful quest, it is usually revealed that they were Noble all along, coming from a royal or otherwise important bloodline. Anakin and Luke Skywalker are both Fair Unknowns, but so is Rey (eventually Skywalker). And yes, Star Wars is ostensibly about the Skywalker family, but that’s why the Extended Universe books and shows are so great. We get so much more while still building from the general story form.
If you’re going to watch the shows, I recommend an in-universe chronological watch-through. It’s hard to choose the best way to introduce someone new to Star Wars, but I think the story comes through most fully when watching everything in order rather than sticking to a format or jumping around. Here’s my preferred watch order:
- Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
- Star Wars: Attack of the Clones
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars (the animated movie)
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars (the animated series)
- Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
- Star Wars: The Bad Batch
- Solo: A Star Wars Story
- Obi-Wan Kenobi
- Star Wars Rebels animated series
- Andor season 1
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
- Star Wars: A New Hope
- Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
- Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
- The Mandalorian season 1
- The Mandalorian season 2
- The Book of Boba Fett
- Star Wars Resistance season 1
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi
- Star Wars Resistance season 2
- Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a late-comer to the Trek fandom. I grew up in the 90s when there was this crazy rivalry between fans of Wars and Trek, but as an adult, I’m just baffled by the feud. Sure, both franchises are in space, but Star Wars was always about the power of destiny and controlling your fate, which is not how I read the core tenets of Trek. Much like Star Wars, however, the world of Trek has spanned over half a century, appearing on the Big screen, the silver screen, and in book form, to name just a few instances. And while the core values of Star Trek return again and again to the interpersonal connections human beings must develop as well as the human drive for knowledge, each series offers its unique interpretation of that vision.
You’ve got The Original Series (TOS), introducing us to Captain Kirk and his first officer Spock. Campy and full of ridiculous 1960s-era effects and plots, TOS doesn’t hold up perfectly well 50 years later, but there are some fantastic episodes worth watching. The show was something entirely new and strange for general audiences, and presenting new characters to America came with its challenges. Well after the cancellation of TOS, creator Gene Roddenberry pushed hard for feature films, resulting in the first of six movies to tackle TOS crew a decade after the final episode of TOS aired. The movies are still full of the same camp largely associated with William Shatner and his unique acting style, but they also develop the world of Trek in a much larger way, proving the intense loyalty of the fan base.
There was also an animated series (TAS) set directly after the ending events of TOS and considered canon in the Trek timeline. I haven’t found these episodes, so I can’t comment too much on them, but I know they’re considered part of the lore of Kirk, Spock and the other crew.
Next comes Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), following, you guessed it, a new generation of Starfleet. Set 78 years after TOS, TNG follows the new Enterprise Captain, Jean-Luc Picard, on a mission of exploration and discovery. Picard is a very different Captain from Kirk. Picard is less impulsive and rash and a man of deeply held convictions and morals. This show got more seasons than TOS, clocking in at 178 episodes over seven years. The crew of the Enterprise also appeared on the Silver Screen 4 times, overlapping with members of the Enterprise Crew of Kirk’s era (including Kirk himself) in the first movie Star Trek: Generations. The following two TNG films, First Contact and Insurrection, were directed by TNG actor Jonathan Frakes (First Officer Commander William Riker). The fourth and final TNG film, Nemesis, while largely regarded as the weakest of the era, if not all Trek films to date, still plays a vital role in the timeline of TNG, as the events of Nemesis pave the way for one of the newest Trek shows, Picard. Following Jean-Luc Picard years after his time in TNG, Picard is a beautiful and haunting show that attempts to handle the trauma of TNG, returning Picard to humanity, and to love. The first two seasons have aired already, each with an unrelated plot to the other, and the third season is set to release at the end of February 2023, with most of the original cast of TNG appearing.
After TNG comes Deep Space Nine (DS9), which is my favorite of the Trek shows. DS9 is the first Trek series to operate along linear time, meaning you had to see the episode last week to understand the current week’s episode. TOS and TNG were episodic in nature, like most television of the time, where each episode was self-contained, resetting the ship and crew back to a kind of normalcy at the end of each week. Not so with DS9, whose central plot revolved around Bajor, a planet newly freed from subjugation, along with their enemies, the Cardassian Union. DS9 and TNG aired concurrently for about one season. Also running at the same time as DS9 was Voyager (VOY), a seven-season run about a Starship flung into the Gamma quadrant, a distance that would take the crew 75 years to travel in order to return home.
The next Trek show to air in real time was Enterprise (ENT), chronicling the early days of the Federation. After ENT ended, there was a lull in the Trek world, until the 2009 “reboot” (now considered part of an alternate timeline) Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Star Trek: Beyond and Star Trek: 4 (forthcoming). While these films follow Kirk and Spock and the crew of TOS, they are not the same Kirk and Spock. Instead, this is considered one of the many parallel universes that crop up in Trek from time to time. Fun fact, the Mirror Universe is featured in more episodes across all series than any other parallel universe.
The newest Trek offerings, sometimes called “NuTrek” by people online, started with 2017’s Discovery television show, following the rise of Spock’s adopted human sister, Michael Burnham. Discovery is set about 10 years prior to TOS and returns to the importance of building relationships. Discovery is about finding yourself and each other and clinging to any shelter in the storm you can find. After the second season, the ship and her crew end up 950+ years in the future, leaving Captain Pike and Lt. Spock to return to the Enterprise. Strange New Worlds (a spin-off series from Discovery) picks up with Pike and Spock from there. Perhaps my favorite of the NuTrek shows is the animated series Lower Decks, which is basically a ridiculous love letter to Star Trek in every episode.
So, where do you start if you want to get into Trek? Well, it depends. If you’re in it for the camp and drama, go TOS. Like gritty and poignant? DS9. Intense but with an emphasis on found-family? Discovery. Classic science-fiction fan with very little interest in long-running plots? TNG. Or you could be like me and buckle up for a very, very long chronological run-through. (It takes months, y’all.)
This is also a franchise I got into later in life. Doctor Who is not exactly a show about space travel. Rather, it’s a show about time travel, that happens to involve an alien man traveling through all of space and time with a few chosen human companions. The main character, known only as The Doctor, is a Time Lord from the distant planet Gallifrey. The most significant part of being a Time Lord? The ability to regenerate after death. Time Lords, like the Doctor, can (and do) die, but then they regenerate as someone else. They retain their memories, but may not experience the same emotions attached to those memories. This is why every few seasons, a new Doctor is cast, with a new look, new personality and usually new companions. There are two distinct eras to Doctor Who: The classic era and the current/modern era.
Classic Who: 1963-1989, 26 seasons, covering the first 7 Doctors:
- William Hartnell: 3 full seasons and 2 episodes in season 4.
- Patrick Troughton: 3 seasons
- John Pertwee: First colorized season, 5 seasons
- Tom Baker: 7 seasons. Widely recognized as The Doctor, maybe the most famous iteration. Has the long scarf
- Peter Davidson: 3 seasons
- Colin Baker: 3 seasons
- Sylvester McCoy: 3 seasons
- Paul McGann: 1 movie appearance in 1996
There’s a lot that happens in the classic episodes, but some of the episodes have been lost to time and are unavailable anywhere.
Current Who: Picking up in 2005 as a revival of the classic show, 2005-current, 13 seasons to date and showing doctors 9-14 so far:
- Christopher Eccleston: 1 season, companion Rose Tyler
- David Tennent: 3 seasons, companions Rose Tyler, Martha Jones and Donna Noble
- Matt Smith: 3 seasons, companions Amy & Rory; Clara Oswald; River Song (kind of)
- Peter Capaldi: 3 seasons, companions Clara Oswald, Nardole and Bill Potts
- Jodie Whittaker: 3 seasons (though shorter owing to the Covid-19 crisis), companions Ryan & Graham; Yaz Khan; Dan Lewis
- Ncuti Gatwa: forthcoming NYD special
Each actor brings their own personality to the Doctor, and the writers and showrunners also change from season to season. My personal favorites are 9 and 12, Eccleston and Capaldi, respectively. Nine is recovering from some terrible trauma, we learn more and more about the war and the War Doctor as the show continues, but it is 9 that has so much PTSD to heal from. Twelve is also recovering from significant losses, trying to find a means to continue and to care, and he keeps losing what he loves regardless of his efforts.
I also love Jodie as the first official female Doctor. I think she’s compassionate and intense, with a lot of the unhinged brilliance David Tennent brought to 10. Her final episode is airing later this month, and it’s going to make me cry everywhere, I just know it. I’m so looking forward to Ncuti Gatwa as 14, though!
OK, so the big three, Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who, are powerhouses of media. But there are tons of other format-spanning sci-fi worlds set in space that shouldn’t be discounted just because they are newer or smaller franchises.
The Expanse book series begins with Leviathan Wakes and ends 9 books later with Leviathan Falls. They are not light reads by any means, but they are brilliantly written and fully developed worlds. The author, James S.A. Corey, is the pen name for two writers, Ty Franck and Danial Abraham. The series also has a companion show of 6 seasons, which is an absolutely incredible adaptation on every level. From the casting to the scenery and the science, The Expanse is an incredible show based on an incredible book series. The series asks us what it means to be human in an ever-expanding world; what is humanity when we stretch beyond our own stars into the great unknown?
Both a show from 1978 as well as a 2004 reboot, BSG is highly concerned with what it means to be a human, to have personhood. When artificial intelligence can reach a level of “passing” that renders them indistinguishable from organic humans, how does the human race adapt?
Beginning as a film of the same name, Stargate has three films and three television series. There is a wormhole of some kind in this world that connects two places of immeasurable distance in an instant, by stepping through the gate. The focus here is not on exploration, however, but on the defense of the human home world, Earth.
Like DS9, Babylon 5 takes place on a stationary spaceport, bridging the gap between a variety of alien species. In an attempt at peacekeeping, the human diplomats stationed on Babylon 5 attempt to find common ground with alien races who are much different from our own.
So much of science fiction seems to me to be asking questions about humanity. What is it about people that makes us people, even after we leave our home world and everything that marks us as human, as Earthlings, behind? In the cold of space, which is infinite but with infinite ways to kill a human being, how can you still strive to find connection and companionship? Where does meaning come from, when the clash of cultures and civilization is not just about race, but about entire civilizations’ worth of evolution to such a markedly different outcome that humanity could never relate fully to them? What does love look like, especially in the future, especially when stationed on a five-year mission, or an alien planet, or so far away from home you might never see it again?
I think all of the series I mentioned here ask these questions, but I think all of them, even the different series from the same franchise, come up with a different answer. This is why I love science fiction and why I love space. The pursuit of knowledge, of new information, cannot be understated in humanity. NuTrek has had a character from every show say of humanity, “we are explorers,” and I think that’s the most important takeaway I could have.
So go out and explore. Learn something new. Boldly go where no one has gone before.