Science fiction and animation are a natural combination. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper to draw an alien landscape covered in space ships than it is to create one in a studio. Too often forgotten as just “kid’s stuff”, there have been some truly excellent cartoons that combine science fiction and animation in absolutely awesome ways. Sorry to all you Japanophiles, we’re sticking with western shows for this one. I know, I know, GitS and Cowboy Bebop are amazing, maybe next time, okay?
Exosquad was an absolutely amazing cartoon, if you could look past the really, really dodgy moral basis for the series. In its favor, the characters were multidimensional, there were long term plots and continuity, everyone had kickass powered armor, no one was painted as pure good or evil, and it had space pirates! Fuck yeah, space pirates! And who can forget the alternately amazing and terrible 90s era futuristic fashion. A future so bright, everyone has fades. Then you realise the series’ bad guys were a horribly abused slave race, who rose up and overthrew their masters and abusers. Which really makes you question who you should be rooting for in this show.
15. Men in Black: The Series
The MIB cartoon had some trouble with viewership, as it was stylistically very, very far from the movie that spawned it. Obviously, the creators had been watching Aeon Flux, as the harsh shadows, skinny anatomy, and crazy fight scenes all screamed “Peter Chung.” MIB lasted an impressive 4 seasons, which is an eternity in the cartoon world. It managed its share of comedy and serious episodes, even lampooning the difference between the movie and cartoon, claiming that a Hollywood writer had heard about the MIBs, and made the movie, but got certain things wrong. The big bad of the series, Alpha, was absolutely magnificent. Every time he popped up, he absorbed more alien body parts, becoming increasingly mutated and terrifying.
14. Invasion America
To my knowledge, Invasion America was the only time Spielberg got involved in a cartoon mini-series, and due to his pull, and its excellent plot, it was the only cartoon mini to be shown during a prime time slot. How many other cartoons star the bastard son of an alien race intent on conquering the Earth, who has to try and stop the invasion, while avoiding the authorities? Invasion America was extremely well written, and actually bothered to try and make the invading forces interesting, with their own morals and views, rather than just a monolithic evil race, intent on killing everyone. The entire season ran for around 6 hours, and ended on something of a cliffhanger, merely saying “End of Book One”. The story was never completed, and we never got to see more of the badass alien politics, violence, or that creepy eye greeting that they did.
13. The Head
Long ago, in a mythical period known as the mid-90s, MTV not only showed mostly music, but also put a number of very, very good and experimental cartoons on the airwaves. One such oddball entry was The Head, the story of an alien invasion, and earth’s only hope was a guy called Jim, with a good alien residing in his absolutely huge head. Together with a band of misfits, they had to stop the evil head inhabiting aliens from destroying the world. On his side were a whole bunch of other human oddities: Ray, a landscaper who has a lawnmower blade lodged in his skull; Mona, a beautiful young woman with a short tail; Ivan, a Russian who has a mouth in his chest; Raquel, who has an enormous nose and buckteeth; Earl, who has a fishbowl in his mouth; Chin, a long-limbed former freak show performer from China, as well as a couple of normal humans. The episodes only lasted 11 minutes, and were wonderfully off the wall.
12. Shadow Raiders
War Planets: Shadow Raiders did one thing that I never expected to see from a children’s cartoon: convey a sense of complete and utter hopelessness. The evil Beast Planet in this series is completely unstoppable until the very final episode. Throughout the show’s two seasons, the protagonists barely managed a single victory. Every turn was littered by defeat, and difficulty in gathering allies. The constant shadow of an infinitely stronger, nigh-on unstoppable enemy dogged their heels, as the heroes attempted to form an alliance to try and stop the Beast Planet. And failed. Again and again, they failed, leading to death and destruction. Only at the very, very end of the second season did they manage to defeat the Beast Planet, but even then they couldn’t stop it, just send it elsewhere. I never though a cartoon would be so damned dark.
11. Batman Beyond
What can you say about Batman Beyond. It was Batman! In the future! Well, a different Batman, a kid under the tutorship of Bruce Wayne, trying to be Batman with the help of a kickass suit. At the same time trying to do the Spider-man thing of balancing school, a girlfriend, family, and friends with the responsibility of defeating villains and protecting Neo-Gotham City. The great thing about Beyond was that the writers weren’t stuck with Batman’s traditional villains, which meant that they could actually kill off characters that got introduced. A large number of the despicable bad guys that were added were written out in horrific ways. One turned intangible and fell to the core of the Earth, to die of starvation. They weren’t hampered by the demands of keeping characters for traditional continuity. It was dark, sometimes scary, and occasionally even a little sexy (for a kid’s show, anyway). For reasons I could never fathom, in some markets it was shows under the title “Batman of the Future”, which is a shit name for a show, if ever there was one.
10. Transformers G1 and Beast Wars
I’m calling this a two-way tie. G1 is actually pretty horrible to watch if you’re not 8-years old and hopped up on sugar and breakfast cereal, and Beast Wars has a great story but has aged abysmally. G1 holds a special place in many of our hearts, introducing us to the magical world of the Transformers for the first time, a world where mass magically disappears, and Optimus Prime’s trailer vanishes when not needed. Yeah, it was a 22 minute long toy ad, but we didn’t care, it was cool! And some of them turned into dinosaurs! Beast Wars was the first attempt at a CG Transformers cartoon, and also one that attempted to have, you know, a coherent plot, and characterization. Sure, the animation looks dated now, but it was bleeding edge back in the day, and the plot was fantastic for a kid’s show.
9. Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles
It’s probably best to think of Starship Troopers the book, the movies, and the show as three unrelated universes. Different reflections of the same base. The CG show didn’t have the overt political satire of the film, nor the heavy sci-fi edge of the original story, but it was good in its own right, though it never performed very well. The creators tried to add some elements from the novel that the movie ignored, like powered armor, drop ships, and another alien race — the Skinnies. Unfortunately, by attempting to bring serious plots and deep characters to a Saturday morning cartoon, but having to keep out violence, mature themes, or anything controversial, the show ended up stranded — stuck between two markets, with neither watching it. So it flopped between multiple channels, never finding a real home, until it disappeared forever.
8. The Phantom 2040
An instant recipe for an amazing sci-fi cartoon that gets ignored by just about everyone, just get Peter Chung aboard. Phantom 2040 is the only good modern take on the Phantom (sorry Billy Zane), and was such an amazing cartoon that gets almost no respect. It was a great cyberpunk spin on the classic tale, set in a futuristic dystopia ruled over by megacorporations. The voice actor cast was beyond compare: Scott Valentine, Margot Kidder, Ron Perlman, Jeff Bennett, Mark Hamill and much more. The show even managed to garner critical acclaim for dealing with issues of individualism and freedom in a subtle and understated manner — not something you expect from a cartoon. Too bad it’s almost impossible to get hold of now, as no definitive collection of the 35 episodes was ever released, and almost none of them are available on DVD.
7. Sym-bionic Titan
This show isn’t even out yet, and I’m pegging to for one of the best. Why? Two words: Genndy Tartakovsky. The man is a legend, and this is him doing a mecha show. It’s the story of three teenage aliens who crashed to Earth to escape the evil general who took over their planet. They have to blend in with High School, while protecting the planet from invasion in their body armor, and occasionally joining all three together to form Sym-bionic Titan. It’s obviously a love letter to the whole world of teenage robot pilots that Japan gifted us with, but under the helm of one of the finest storytellers in cartooning. No-one out there handles a wider variety of story types and emotions then Tartakovsky. I’m incredibly hyped to see this debut in September.
6. Star Wars: Clone Wars
Watch that video. That’s six minutes of Mace Windu single-handedly kicking droid ass, often without even using a lightsaber. There’s what, three lines of dialogue in the entire thing? Now imagine three seasons of this, the first two with 3 minute episodes, the third were 11 minutes long. To hell with the CG monstrosity that took this name in 2008, there was only one real Clone Wars show, and this was it. Constant, non-stop, ass kicking at its best. Apparently Lucas hated the series because originally he put no constraints on Tartakovsky, who naturally turned all the dials up to 11. It’s completely over the top and awesome, and we’ll probably never see anything like it again.
You know ReBoot was awesome. You always wondered if there was a tiny city living inside your computer, and after catching a few episodes, you even started feeling bad while playing video games, worried that you were hurting the programs. ReBoot managed to keep an excellent amount of humor throughout the series, even while covering some remarkably serious plotlines. It poked fun at movies, video-games, and snuck bits and pieces past the censors to get the older kids hooked. In the later seasons, the stories became increasingly long form, most noticeably when Mainframe is overrun by viruses, and Enzo escapes into the web, returning aged to an adult. The show finally ended with two TV movies and a musical episode, and a cliffhanger. At that point the writing was so tight, and the characterization so good that it was heart rending to realise we would never see the story completed.
4. Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find an embeddable version of the absolutely amazing theme song to this cartoon, but take heart, because the entire show is available to watch on both Hulu and YouTube. Anyway, Big Guy and Rusty. Great show, sadly ignored, and only lasted two seasons. The story of a young, state of the art robot, and his giant robot mentor — who is secretly piloted by a human. Snarky, funny, more than a little heartwarming, every episode was filled to the brim with emotion and action. Rusty the Boy Robot is obviously a tribute to Astro Boy, and the magical innocence that he’s always embodied, but at the same time having plenty in the way of explosions, monsters, and evil. It was always slightly tragic that the amazing hero/sidekick dynamic between Big Guy and Rusty was based on a lie.
Futurama deserves a medal for being just about the only show to come back from being cancelled, and still be just as awesome as when it left. When Family Guy came back, it had obviously really, really jumped the shark, but the new season of Futurama? Sold fucking gold. It’s also one of the best shows on the planet for the occasional emotional episode. I’m sorry, if you don’t cry your eyes out at “Luck of the Fryish”, “Jurassic Bark” or “The Late Philip J. Fry”, then you have absolutely no heart. No other cartoon can do tragedy like Futurama, and they’re no slouches on the comedy front either.
2. Aeon Flux
This is the second occurrence on this list of both Peter Chung and MTV being good. How weird is that? Oh, the 90s, how we miss you! When a rebellious young music station gave funding to drug fueled animators, and actually showed the badass creations that arose. Aeon Flux was a one in a million show, so balls to the wall crazy that it would never make a major cable channel in today’s world. There was a 1991 serial, 1992 five short episodes, then in 1995 ten half-hour episodes. None of them made a lick of sense. Perspective changed dramatically, the physically impossible became normal, characters died constantly but were fine the next episode, allegiances changed, scenes shifted. It was completely and utterly nonsensical and brilliant. And the entire thing is available in a single box set. Buy it, forget the Charlize Theron abomination, get high, and watch the show.
1. Samurai Jack
Oh god, what can I even say about this show? Genndy Tartakovsky understand pacing and layout better than any other living animator. No one else can do so much with so little. The episode with the bounty hunters, each telling their story waiting for Jack? Or Jump Good? The Scotsman? The druglike Alice in Wonderland episode? Jack dressed as a candy raver? There was literally not a single bad episode in all four seasons of this show. Even though we never got to see Jack make it back to the past, take heart, because JJ Abrams is producing an animated film, meant to finally give us a real end to Jack’s story.