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The top 10 geek media franchises of all time

Only the most rare and hallowed geek properties qualify as true foundational franchises, and the 10 best yet to appear are ranked herein.

A long time ago, in a Geekend far, far away -- 2006 -- we polled our (then quite small) audience about their favorite science fiction and fantasy media franchises. It's time to settle this debate once and for...uh...now.

First, some ground rules. To be a true franchise, you have to A) merit a spinoff and B) have an acknowledged interrelated continuity. I like Blake's 7, Fringe, Spider-Man, and James Bond as much as the next guy, but all of those properties are either alone in their singular incarnation, or are so diverse in their reincarnations there's nothing remotely approaching a central, acknowledged canon. Harry Potter, True Blood, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Twilight (shudder), and The Hunger Games may get there, but they aren't iconic franchises yet.

And now, the list...

10. Babylon 5 Its spinoff series, Crusade, may have been smothered in the crib and its made-for-TV spinoff movies may be largely forgotten, but B5 still hangs around with a loyal group of adherents who demand respect for one of the few "serious" takes on television space opera. While it occupies a contentious place amongst sci-fi purists, Babylon 5's contributions to the genre and perseverance despite relative obscurity sneak it into the top 10 geek media franchises. 9. Stargate

Perhaps the best example of a movie that successfully reinvented itself on television and found a whole new, loyal, and broad audience, Stargate is also arguably the most fun geek media franchise of the last 20 years. (Well, at least until Stargate: Universe showed up.) Geeky mythology references, upbeat adventure stories, and no shortage of action made for an enjoyable formula that ran uninterrupted across four TV shows (don't forget the dreadful 2002 Stargate: Infinity animated series) for 14 years. That'll make you stand up and say kree!

8. The Lord of the Rings

Yes, they're stretching The Hobbit into three movies for no good reason, but that still counts as a spinoff of the epic fantasy film trilogy that won a Best Picture Oscar. One does not simply walk into an Academy Award, and that distinction alone -- to say nothing of attracting legions of fans almost instantly -- makes LOTR the one fantasy franchise to rule them all.

7. Marvel Cinematic Universe

The new kid on the block is also arguably the most ambitious: Marvel spent the better part of a decade building up a stable of film properties that subtly interconnected to culminate in The Avengers, the biggest blockbuster of all time not directed by James Cameron and arguably the first truly successful comic book-style crossover movie. That the continuity will continue into Thor 2, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3, Avengers 2, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series -- as produced and written by Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon -- proves this isn't a flash in the pan. Marvel changed the geek franchise game in the biggest way possible, and it isn't done yet. Hulk smash!

6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Two TV series, counting the spinoff Angel (and three if you count the animated series that almost was). An in-canon comic book sequel series. A revival of serious sci-fi-oriented feminism. A genre-redefining upgrade of characterization and dialogue. Proof that you could do comic book genre melodrama on television and still draw in casual viewers. And if all of that wasn't enough, Buffy gave us Joss Whedon, whose name is literally all over the list. Win.

5. Battlestar Galactica

The new one, not the old one. BSG had two spinoff series, though only one of them made it to television. It ended poorly, by most accounts. Its mythology is confusing and its continuity haphazard. None of that matters, because Battlestar Galactica was hands down the darkest, smartest, most engagingly grown-up take on sci-fi TV we've ever seen. Frak you if you don't agree. So say we all!

4. Serenity / Firefly

With all due respect to Buffy and The Avengers, this is Joss Whedon's magnum opus; the light that burned so bright it lasted but a moment (half a season) yet could not be extinguished (hello, cinematic Serenity). Forget that speaking Mandarin and appreciating westerns was suddenly cool again, or that wearing knit orange Laplander caps and being morally gray were suddenly congruous. Firefly and its successor film became a harbinger of all that is transcendent, possible, and tragically non-commercial in science fiction. That it lived briefly and died young is simply a further testament of these attributes. Firefly broke our hearts and made us love it all the more. Shiny!

3. Doctor Who

The antecedent of nearly all others on this list, and the very definition of a franchise. In fact, "regeneration" of its lead actor, creative tone, and attendant cast is built directly into the concept. The Doctor isn't famous just for the trappings of his multi-decade romp through time, space, and British culture -- though the TARDIS, sonic screwdriver, and various scarf- bowtie-related fashion oddities are all geek-famous for a reason. Doctor Who is beloved and iconic for solving problems, as Craig Ferguson musically pronounced, with intellect and romance rather than violence and cynicism. The genre can always use more of that. Geronimo!

2. Star Wars

The definitive science fiction movie franchise for 30 years running, and patient zero for spinoffs into merchandising, television, games, and every other conceivable media -- for better and for worse. The fact that even Jar Jar Binks, Hayden Christensen's acting, and a blatant shark jump couldn't kill it proves that Star Wars is irretrievably embedded into our collective consciousness. It goes beyond geek appeal -- though the existence of the 501st Legion demonstrates we geeks take it pretty seriously -- as pretty much every human being on the planet knows "May the Force be with you." It has its own pun-ful holiday, for crying out loud. The lightsaber is the weapon every kid wants to wield. The X-Wing is the starfighter everyone wants to fly -- and the reason most of us learned the word "starfighter" in the first place. We want to be Luke Skywalker when we're young, Han Solo or Leia when we're grown up, and quote Yoda for our entire lives. The Force will be with us, always.

1. Star Trek For a large swath of muggles, Trekkie and geek are synonymous, interchangeable terms. Trekkies defined fandom for decades and are still among its leading lights. Star Trek, in turn, defined television science fiction and set the standard by which all other franchises are measured. The future that Gene Roddenberry predicted had devices we wanted to build (and did), a culture we aspired to create (it's coming), and characters that went beyond icon to archetype. "Beam me up" has a thousand slang connotations. Spock is the prototype for anti-emotional protagonists. Kobayashi Maru isn't just a reference, it's a verb. James T. Kirk is the starship captain that all others are designed to repudiate or emulate, even within Star Trek. And if you think Trek is over, all I can say to you is this. Live long and prosper.

Disagree with the order, or think another franchise is more worthy of a place in this list? The debate awaits in the comments section.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

51 comments
bobc4012
bobc4012

I won't quibble with Star Trek and Star Wars being one and two. However, Star Gate and Babylon 5 should be in the top 5. Babylon 5, even though Crusade was short-lived, was one of the highest quality sci-fi shows and nowhere as hokey as BSG-2 (which was much higher quality than BSG-1 - but one must also consider the era in which BSG-1 was shown). I would not put BuffyTVS in the top 10. While I really enjoyed Firefly, I feel it wasn't on long enough to merit a top 10 (but willing to concede and I thought FOX should not have canceled it - at least they gave Fringe time to conclude the story arc). Likewise the Marvel comics - read them as a kid along with the DC comics (back when they cost a nickel - find a few 2 cent deposit pop bottles and you had enough for a comic book). Speaking of DC comics, how could the Superman/Smallville TV series been left off the list? And remember Batman - POW!, BAM!, HOLY CRAP SHOOT, BATMAN!??? Also, interesting that X-Files was left off as it had a movie too! I would also agree on Dr. Who - even though I am not from the UK nor its Commonwealth. Unfortunately, I don't get to see it anymore since it is carried on BBC America, which comes with the next tier of cable TV and a costly sum. There was also a Canadian series that should deserve consideration, even though there were no spin-offs nor movies - it was called Starlost, produced back in the 70s and involved Harlan Ellison in the production. It was another quality Sci-fi show, even for today's TV. At one time, you could watch episodes on Hulu for free, not sure if one still can. There was a book and comic book spin-offs later. Check out the wiki - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Starlost .

nikthiemann
nikthiemann

I liked Babylon very much so I downloaded all the episodes with torrent I did not mind so much "pirating" since it does not come on any more. Very true to human values & treason & sarcasm in all the characters & also good values. Good actors in all of them since I am a sci-fi fan I have not seen any better as TV programmation.

josmyth
josmyth

BSG had the spin-off Caprica that I thought had some potential, blurring the line between reality and cyberspace. That series ended even more poorly than BSG. Guess the writers had no heart to write a meaningful finale. On Firefly, I bought the series and Serenity movie, which I tend to watch almost every year. I too wonder why it was canceled. The casting was perfect and the story lines were rich and varied.

BirnsITBoss
BirnsITBoss

The Hobbit is a *spin-off*??? Ummm...this may be news to y'all, but it is actually a prequel, part, essentially, of a continuing series of stories, and on that basis the Harry Potter movies ought to qualify. LOTR is an excellent set of movies, but it fails to qualify on the criteria set down for the list. Personally I would have included Terry Pratchett's 'Discworld' series, given it has had TV, stage play, musical, animated and graphic novel adaptations, not to mention a veritable raft of spin-offs.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Star trek was good, but Stargate was really interesting, fun, and had good stories. And none of that shaky camera combat that movies like to do now. Instead everyone wore spark producing armor that never got any holes.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

for confirming I'm not a geek. I always wondered.... Surpised you missed out intellectual Master pieces like He-man. Film, animation, toys, board games a whole mythos..

m@rcel
m@rcel

Thunderbirds are gone?

vgh
vgh

It's a British sitcom with typically only 6 episodes per season. If you like British humor, this is a great IT comedy show. I believe it's on Netflix.

Alelanza
Alelanza

Someone needs to make a franchise out of it. It's hard to believe all we ever got after the books was Sting on tights

Billb114
Billb114

I disagree. Dr Who has them all beat by a mile. And for my money The Doctor is and always will be Tom Baker.

nick
nick

Space 1999 belongs in there some where. Not exactly sure. Perhaps at 5.5

blanchoid
blanchoid

Maybe a stretch as The Lone Gunmen only went one season, but iconic nonetheless and the others didn't really have anyone desirable as the libidinous Scully.

clapp
clapp

Don't know why you wouldn't include the first Battlestar Galactica. The 2nd series follows along with the timeline of Fred Saberhagen's "Beserker" series of short stories upon which the whole series is premised.

Ndiaz.fuentes
Ndiaz.fuentes

Just watched the half-season a couple of days ago on Netflix... That was a mistake. I've spent the better part of the last three days wondering why any TV network would ever cancel the show, and wondering (in futility, I'm sure) if there is any force in the universe that could convince Mr. Whedon, the cast, and a respectable network to muster at least the few final episodes of that first season. Oh well, at least I'll always have Dr. Horrible.

homesjc
homesjc

Blake's 7 - bit difficult to find now and was never properly continued, but good Space Opera with more than enough Brit type humor.

jonrosen
jonrosen

While I might disagree with the order of some of those due to personal preferences (or a few I wasn't a fan of), I definitely have to agree with all what I see on there as being largest/iconically-geek/etc. One of the better '10 best' I've seen

pmarcantonio
pmarcantonio

One very important series you missed was Jericho which is currently the most watched series on netflix, much like Firefly it only lasted one season and was cancelled but unlike Firefly a fan campaign was able to convince the network to bring the show back for a seven-episode second season. It has such a huge cult following that even now season three and four are being done as graphic novels and there is talk about a movie and or a resurrection of the series by netflix.

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

I grew up with Star Trek and still like it, but I do like Stargate (SG-1 and Atlantis) much better. Can't put my finger on why, but I just do. SGU should have been stillborn.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The Disney channel was showing a new live-action Thunderbirds movie a couple of years ago, and I've tripped over it at least once since. It looked like it was intended as a pilot but not picked up, because they didn't skimp on the sets or tech. It was chock full of inside jokes for long term fans. If you can find it, watch for the shot with a close-up of a hand turning off a light switch. In the original series, this would have been done with the close-up of a live human hand; the marionette techniques weren't refined enough to do it with a puppet. In the recent movie, it IS done with a marionette hand!

spdragoo
spdragoo

And despite not only being a non-techie, but also having a big dislike of British-style humor, my wife loved the show. The funny thing was, 2 of those guys have apparently been able to cross over somewhat. Don't remember their names, but the Irish guy was in Bridesmaids (the cop that she keeps running into & falls in love with), & the other guy is in Neighborhood Watch with Ben Stiller.

Alelanza
Alelanza

Now i want to read through the books again, it's been like 20 years

vgh
vgh

They did a terrible job in adapting it to the big screen. I think they did a remake not too long ago but the story line could clearly carry a multi-season series and I think it would do better in that format. There was so much to digest - too much to cram into 2.5 hours. Maybe they should hire Peter Jackson, haha.

spdragoo
spdragoo

IIRC, SyFy did their own 2-part miniseries (runs to about 3 or 4 hours). It was much closer to the novel than the Kyle MacLachlan/Sting one. If you think about it, though, the original one had a very star-studded cast. Max von Sydow, Sting, Kyle MacLachlan, Jurgen Procnow, Patrick Stewart (yes, Captain Picard was in it... & what hair he had was actually worn *long*), Jose Ferrer (perhaps not so well known, but, [cue Troy McClure voice] his son is Miguel Ferrer, of such hits as "Crossing Jordan" and "Hot Shots Part Deux"), & Brad Dourif. And although it veered away from the novel, some of those "adjustments" were kind of cool (i.e. turning sound into energy blasts). Which reminds me of a long-standing joke about how one of Palladium Book's supplements for their original-edition Robotech role-playing game, "Lancer's Rockers", essentially would allow the player to take the "instrumecha" & turn Lynn-Minmei into another Paul Atreides ("My name has become a killing word")...

robwarner
robwarner

Available on Netflix as disc only last I checked.

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...as I count Millennium as a spinoff in addition to Lone Gunmen. But, in the ned, it just wasn't worthy of Top 10 status. Went on too long with its cultural impact muted into lesser relevance.

SKDTech
SKDTech

Who can hear it without instantly thinking "X-Files"?

jkaras
jkaras

I grew up with the original and I couldnt wait for each episode. Both versions had horrible endings but the idea and characters were great. On the new series episode "33" was the best by far and I hoped that they would have had the series more like that than what it turned out to be but I enjoyed my hour of scifi. At first I hated Starbuck as a woman then was like this is freaking awesome. Katie did the character justice. Too bad her career hasnt done anything really since.

robwarner
robwarner

Well produced and well written. Especially remember an episode when they abandoned a latecomer to his fate because he wasn't moving fast enough. Captain realized it was a sacrifice necessary to save lives of rest of crew. [Instead of staging an "A-Team" blazing guns shoot-up wherein no one is hurt or shot and everyone miraculously escapes--e.g. ALIAS.]

ffulton
ffulton

It brought Closuer to most

jkaras
jkaras

My buddy begged me to watch this show and I just didnt want to believing it was going to be horrible. It got cancelled then I saw it replayed and was like wow I should have tuned in. I wish River's story was better explained than in the movie. It was believable but I wanted to know how she could do what she could. There is a clamouring for Joss to start it again with his success and fortune but it is past time and another movie would fall short to make fans happy. I could see a lost episode story special about the future of the characters or Zoe finding a way to bring back Wash unable to let him go. it probably wouldnt work but Wash was the best character and without him the show would have been flat. Loved Preacher and wanted his story but sigh..now I am depressed wanting to watch the shows again, hello dvds when I get home.....

anil_g
anil_g

Blake's 7 was great. Despite the "Dr Who kids level rating" it had some edge. Most of these listed top 10 are weak-kneed and not really "real" Sci Fi. Too much alien make up and Hollywood glam. The original Star Trek beats the Star Trek movies for that reason. Or is it just because I was younger then?

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...which, frankly, I count as a mark in Rowling's favor.

robwarner
robwarner

Good premise, but the scripts and story line just devolved into high school he-did she-did relationships and one stupid action after another. greatly disapponted after a relatively good start.

ratkeeper15
ratkeeper15

A few weeks ago, Netflix was in the middle of closing a deal with CBS for JERICHO season 3 when Netflix decided they wanted to make a bigger deal. They wanted the rights to stream other CBS shows added to the Jericho deal. CBS said no. We are now asking Netflix to go back to the bargaining table and finish the deal they started - for new Jericho episodes on Netflix. Post on the Netflix page in support of more Jericho: http://www.facebook.com/netflix?fref=ts&filter=2 Gwen www.savingjericho.com

jkaras
jkaras

It wasnt great but I think this was the building block for Walking Dead's success about morality giving way to survival. I liked it had a conspiracy but the war of two towns is what sold the series to me. It made me ponder if I would have done the right thing or the wrong thing when it came down to providing for 1 town. Either 1 town lives or both could die from a hard winter. It is an example of how societies rose and fell. Also I really liked Hawkings character if he was bad or good. He got a spot on Walking Dead and I was exstatic. I hope is ends up next season. He is a great actor in my book.

Keighlar
Keighlar

It's taking days to get it out of my head and move on to another series. :p For the life of me, I can't figure out why this series was cancelled.

Alelanza
Alelanza

I'll look up the sci-fi ones then someday. And from a Robotech fan that's a very cool bit of info that i didn't know about

SKDTech
SKDTech

Th original David Lynch Director's Cut and the SciFi (they were produced well befor ethis SyFy silliness) productions as well as SciFi' production of DuneMessiah/Children of Dune. I agree SciFi did a better job of staying true to the book, but I preferred Lynch's visual style.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

They turned the Fremen into a bunch of techno-wimps. One of the major themes of the six books was turning humans into tools and weapons that outperformed non-biological tech. In fact it was the theme. Veered away from the novel, they got a few names right. Starship Troopers was more faithful....

Ndiaz.fuentes
Ndiaz.fuentes

I have seen it. But as jkaras mentioned above, so many story threads were left unresolved... Who really was the preacher? What exactly was done to River? Did Jubal survive? Who exactly were the men with the blue gloves? What would've happened when they caught up with Serenity? Etc, etc. I haven't read the comics, though. Maybe that'll help.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'm tired of getting hooked on a niche show and then having it quickly yanked out from under me. The last time it happened was when the writer's strike killed 'Pushing Daisies', and I've sworn I'll do my best to keep it from happening to me again. I'm also tired of series designed to intentionally spread over so many seasons that they lose focus and can never come to a satisfactory conclusion, no matter how long the network lets them run. 'Voyager' was the last time I'll unknowingly make that error.

GSG
GSG

No one really knew about it. I'd never even heard of it until I happened across it on Netflix.

spdragoo
spdragoo

The whole Dune series was to be a sweeping epic. I mean, not only was it telling the story of a group of characters that were the products of generations upon generations of selective breeding & "natural" genetic manipulation, but the series itself spanned millenia. So yeah, the SyFy versions maybe stayed more true to the storyline, but David Lynch's version at least had a more epic feel to it (no matter what turns it took from the novels).

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

is that 'Next Gen' wasn't launched by a network. It was distributed as a syndicated program direct to local broadcasters. No network was involved.

Ndiaz.fuentes
Ndiaz.fuentes

I knew Fillion was in Castle, but I've never really seen it. I'll give it a look. Thanks.

info
info

When it was coming out in theatres, I remember wanting to go see it (I didn't), and I hadn't even heard of Firefly. Watching the first couple of episodes on Netflix, I thought it was clumsily put together, low budget, not well-written... and Nathan Fillion reminded me of Kevin Sorbo in Hercules and Andromeda. Just didn't inspire interest because they were a bit bland. Around episode 4 or 5, however, and by the last episode you could tell things were getting on-track. Serenity kicked ass, and I'm glad I didn't see it until after I'd seen Firefly. Didn't really worry much about the lack of closure for the smaller storylines. As for why it was cancelled, let's just say that if Star Trek: The Next Generation had been relaunched after 2000? It wouldn't have lasted past Season 2, if even Season 1. The networks today don't want to take a chance on anything that isn't EXCELLENCE right out of the gate. Never mind that's almost impossible. And if you want a laugh, look up 'Firefly references in Kastle' on YouTube.

pmarcantonio
pmarcantonio

Just not enough for the ratings, also it was a hard pill to swallow for most Americans being bombed by their own and receiving aid from China.

Keighlar
Keighlar

I'd never heard of it either. They would have had my Neilson count if I'd known. :(

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