British TV Shows Set in Space – From Space Soap Opera to Cult Classics10th Nov 2022
British television productions have historically not had the same sort of budgets as US shows. There were times when setting something in space was hugely ambitious.
In spite of technological and often financial constraints, we have seen some absolutely classic television shows to come out of the UK, along with others that may be best forgotten about.
In this list, we’re exploring British TV shows set in space, with some that have managed to reach a global audience and some with a smaller, cult following. From comedies to hard-hitting dramas, there are some impressive shows on the list, with some very influential actors and directors involved.
The Quatermass Experiment (1953)
Plenty of people won’t have ever heard of this particular show, in spite of it having sequels and even a 2005 reboot on British television. However, it deserves a mention on the list due to being the first show to feature space on British television.
It features Bernard Quatermass and his crewed flight with the “British Experimental Rocket Group” which returns to earth, but with two of its three astronauts missing, and the one survivor acting strangely. It quickly becomes clear that there are alien goings-on within the ship, and Quatermass takes on the role of saving the world from the alien force.
The Quatermass Experiment is still an underground show, not least because of the fact that some of its original episodes didn’t even survive. Later adaptations and sequels are still available to watch, and The Quatermass Experiment is even said to have been a heavy influence on Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Target Luna (1960)
Another show from the real early days of British television, and of course, to watch it today the infancy of production studios and techniques really does show.
Target Luna was a success though, and as with many of the pre-moon launch shows on television it was focused on a lunar mission which launches a rocket from Buchan Island, Scotland. The pilot of the craft is taken ill, and the Professor behind the rocket group asks his son to step in. He begins the mission, but after harrowing experiences returns to earth in a matter of hours.
The plot may not sound like the most thrilling, but it did merit sequels, Pathfinders in Space (1960), Pathfinders to Mars (1960 – 1961) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). Fortunately, the missions do get further into space in these sequel shows.
Space: 1999 (1975 to 1977)
You can see how the narratives of science fiction changed slightly after the moon landings, and Space: 1999 is a good example. At the time it aired, this was actually the most expensive television show in the history of British TV.
It ran for two series, with 48 episodes, and was set in (you’ve guessed it) 1999. The premise of the show is that nuclear waste is being stored on the far side of the Moon, where there is also a moon base. The nuclear waste eventually explodes, knocks the Moon out of its orbit and sends the base flying through space.
While the critical response was mixed, the show brought new technologies and effects to British shores, and was groundbreaking at the time, leading us into a new era of television, at a time when Hollywood was releasing some science fiction classics that television would look to emulate.
Blake’s 7 (1978 to 1981)
Blake’s 7 is the highest profile name on our list so far, and with certain generations of Brits it is extremely well known.
The show was the brainchild of Terry Nation who is a key name in British sci-fi, and was also involved in Doctor Who, among other shows and productions.
The stories centre around a group of rebels and misfits, taking on the “Terran Federation” who rule Earth as well as other planets in the galaxy. The Terran Federation have all the hallmarks of science fiction bad guys, with a totalitarian regime using 1984-level surveillance and brainwashing to control people. Our group of anti-heroes are onboard the Liberator, a spacecraft they have commandeered to take on the dangerous Federation.
Blake’s 7 ran for 52 episodes across four seasons. While the reviews were up and down, and the show doesn’t really hold up very well by modern standards, it is much-beloved by a lot of the British public and has its deserved place in the history of television.
Star Cops (1987)
It sounds like a parody title, but Star Cops was a serious TV drama set in space. Chris Boucher was involved, a writer who had worked on Blake’s 7 as well as BBC crime dramas.
Star Cops is set in 2027 in an age where there are thousands of people living and working in space, and a Police Force is now required for these fledgling colonies. The Star Cops get into all sorts of fixes, solving the numerous crimes of the Universe.
The show has certainly had some acclaim and influence on other science fiction writers, directors and producers. When magazine SFX put together an expert panel to create a list of the best sci-fi shows ever made, Star Cops came thirteenth, with a quote from SFX describing it as “the sci-fi TV show sci-fi writers love. It wasn’t perfect but it’s as close as TV will ever get to producing proper written SF”.
Since 2017, Star Cops has had something of a reboot as audio plays, available from “Big Finish” a publishing company that has given new life to many sci-fi classics.
Jupiter Moon (1990 to 1996)
This simply had to make the list of British TV shows set in space for its totally unique take. As far as we know, it is the one and only space soap opera out there.
150 largely-forgettable episodes aired in the six-year stint. It followed spacecraft Ilea in its semi-permanent space orbit of one of Jupiter’s moons, Callisto. The Ilea ship functions as a university (we don’t know why) and follows the students navigating early adulthood.
A lot of the episodes focus on some pretty bland subjects in spite of the setting. The blurbs for the episodes vary from the drama of “The Ilea is caught in a sulphur storm” and “Harriet tries to persuade Jean-François to go to Mars” to the mundanity of “Harriet is angry that students are missing lectures” and “Rebecca starts her new job as bursar.”
One piece of trivia from the show is that one of the characters, Philippe Gervais, was named after producer Jane Fallon’s partner. That partner happened to be comedian and actor Ricky Gervais.
Space Precinct (1994 to 1995)
This show was the brainchild of Gerry Anderson, a pioneer of children’s television sci-fi such as Thunderbirds.
Space Precinct is set in 2040 and follows a lieutenant in the Demeter City police, a city on “Altor” in the “Epson Eridani” system. Protagonist Patrick Brogan was formerly a member of the New York Police Department here on Earth, and struggles to adapt to his new solar system, where the crimes are committed by both humans and other alien civilisations.
Gerry Anderson never shied away from pushing the boundaries, and created different aliens by using detailed make-up and even some puppetry techniques to create a unique look and feel to the show. Space Precinct also aired in the US, but was confined to late-night showings and quickly cancelled.
Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets (2004)
Space Odyssey perhaps doesn’t get the recognition it deserves when it comes to special effects and accuracy. The fascinating concept was originally created as part of the “Walking With” series that included “Walking With Dinosaurs,” a show that received much acclaim and a large viewership when it aired. The proposed “Walking With Spacemen” title was canned, but the same effects that people loved when watching the prehistoric documentary are still in place.
The show itself is a fictional documentary format, featuring a crewed voyage to gather information about the planets of our solar system. The storylines may have stopped this show becoming a true classic, and it was only a two-part show, but this didn’t prevent it from making a mark on British television.
Doctor Who (1963 to Present)
One of Britain’s finest television exports. Doctor Who is now approaching its 14th doctor and has well over 800 episodes for superfans to delve back through, including iconic villains such as the Cybermen and the Daleks.
The adventures follow the Doctor, of the Time Lord race, who travels space in his ship, the TARDIS, or “Time And Relative Dimensions In Space”. The TARDIS can change its look to suit the environment, but the Doctor’s has been permanently stuck to appear like a British police box from the 1960s.
The Doctor has had a number of story arcs and missions, plus spin-off shows, television movies, and a huge fan base built up through the decades it has aired. The show is the longest-running science fiction television production in the world, and shows no signs of stopping any time soon.
Red Dwarf (1988 to Present)
Our full list of science fiction comedies set in space shows that creating a show that mixes laughter and space is surprisingly tough. The best to ever do it may well be Red Dwarf, a show that has existed in some form since 1988, and hopefully still has episodes to come.
The series starts with Dave Lister, a technician on the mining ship Red Dwarf, who has been living in suspended animation for three million years. He is the last living human apart from a holographic version of his deceased accomplice “Rimmer”, a cyborg, and Cat, a life form that evolved from the pregnant cat Lister smuggled aboard the ship millions of years ago.
Red Dwarf’s series have slowed over the years and the last was released in 2017, but the door has never been closed on more. In 2020, a documentary series narrated by fan (and former Doctor Who actor) David Tennant aired. Red Dwarf’s fan club are some of the most devoted fans of any sci-fi franchise and there is even a quarterly magazine produced about the show.
Black Mirror: USS Callister (2017)
Black Mirror is one of the most successful science fiction shows of recent years, but in general only offers brief flirtations with space opera.
However, in the 2017 episode/television film USS Callister, space takes a front seat. The plot features programmer Robert Daly (played by American actor Jesse Plemons) who was part of a team who created an online game within his position at a development company. Frustrated at his lack of recognition, he uses his co-workers’ DNA and creates clones of them within the game. Daly is then able to take the captainship of the USS Callister craft and take out his anger on the clone versions of his colleagues. Eventually, the clones revolt…
Black Mirror’s rare foray into space was met with positive reviews in general, though show creator Charlie Brooker was accused of parodying Star Trek to an extent that was disrespectful to the classic sci-fi staple.
With the exception of the new episodes of Doctor Who being produced, British television is going through something of a lull when it comes to shows set in space. Intergalactic was released in 2021 on Sky One, and features a futuristic vision where the world’s cities have been ravaged by climate change, and rebuilt as new structures run by a global government called “Commonworld”.
Harper, played by Savannah Steyn, is charged with a crime she did not commit, and sent into space to a prison in space, where a mutinous group of prisoners take over The Hemlock spacecraft and force her to fly them to safety.
Intergalactic was met with mainly lukewarm reviews. An Empire review described the show as featuring “up-on-the-nose writing, blunt performances and an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.”
Compared to some of the huge productions across the pond, many of the UK contributions look like cottage industry productions. That said, Britain’s shows include some novel and revolutionary ideas, many dating back to the birth of television. Without the British influence, the landscape of sci-fi may be very different.