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.
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.