Like Orphan Black (see No. 3), Continuum is a Canadian import that explores the real-life impact of a sci-fi concept: time travel here, instead of cloning. Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) is a police officer from 2077, who's unwillingly transported back to 2012 when members of terrorist group Liber8 escape execution by fleeing to the past. She conceals her true origin (and her nifty high-tech suit with built-in sensors, forcefields, invisibility cloak, etc.) and bluffs her way into joining forces with the Vancouver Police Department. She also meets teenage computer whiz Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen), who in the future is the Smoking Man from The X-Files (OK, not really, but he is played by William B. Davis).
The reality of time travel here is neatly balanced by Kiera's uncertainty about how it actually works, and, although Kiera isn't really enjoying herself, that's a fun puzzle for viewers to work out. If she manages to get back home, will it be the same 2077 she left behind? Or has her presence in the past already irrevocably altered the future? In Kiera's time, Alec is a hugely powerful figure whose tech corporation dominates business, government and everyday life - and is the symbol of forced compliance that Liber8 is fighting against. In Season 2, we learn that old Alec came to regret his role in making this world, and hopes to change things by manipulating both Kiera and Liber8. But can any individual hope to take on history - or the future - and alter the entire architecture of existence? I dunno, but thinking about that stuff always gets my synapses firing.
4. Sleepy Hollow
I've heard more than one person say this show is better than it has any right to be, which is both accurate and damning with faint praise. Truth is, Fox's "modern retelling" of Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is really good, and among the few new shows of 2013 that grabbed me right out of the box.
Sleepy Hollow's secret weapon is the pairing of Tom Mison's Ichabod Crane, an 18th-century Rip Van Winkle who finds himself resurrected after dying in battle with a Hessian horseman, with Nicole Beharie's 21st-century police Lieutenant Abbie Mills, who grudgingly takes Crane under her wing and comes to be his friend ... and his fellow witness to the coming Apocalypse. Crane's banter with Mills, and his general irritation with and grudging adjustments to the modern world, provide reliable moments of levity. But Mison also makes us feel his character's anguish at being ripped away from his world, and his confusion about his place in this new one.
Another fun thing is how the show twists Biblical mythology to emphasize the supernatural, weaving a tangled tale back and forth across time. It's also got that I-like-to-be-scared element, including creepy encounters with a demon named Moloch and the truly frightening Headless Horseman. I'm not sure why he's so scary, but there's something deeply unsettling about a huge guy with no head toting an automatic weapon on horseback ... and what could be more of a kick than that?
3. Orphan Black
As is too often the case with shows I end up loving, I was late to the Orphan Black party, which is why my list of TV panels to catch at 2013 Comic-Con didn't include this show. For shame! This Canadian series aired on BBC America and stars Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning - and Beth Childs and Alison Hendrix and Cosima Niehaus and Helena and ... .
Maslany is terrific as con artist Sarah, who witnesses the suicide-by-train of lookalike stranger Beth, a police detective. She then appropriates Beth's life, much to the disapproval of Sarah's rent-boy/artist foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), and quickly learns that she is one of many clones. They look the same but have very different styles and temperaments, and come from widely divergent places (and Maslany handles every incarnation with flair). Also, some of them are dead ... at the hands of insane assassin Helena. Sarah reluctantly joins forces with "soccer mom" Alison and grad student Cosima to find out how they came to exist and why the people closest to them are "monitors" who secretly report on them to the company who created them. Not to mention why Sarah's the only one they know of who has a biological child of her own.
Part of the fun of Orphan Black is seeing Maslany in her different guises, but the show brings up deeper questions about the ethics of cloning, along with I guess you'd say the logistics of it, of keeping the experiment a secret and attempting to monitor these women and maintain a measure of control despite the crazy amount of variables inherent in letting them loose in the world. Because each woman is such a strong character, the season-ending revelation that they are property, at least in the eyes of the company and perhaps the law, really reverberated as a shock - and left me eager to see what happens next.
2. Game of Thrones
Red Wedding! Red Wedding! Red Wedding! Season 3 of HBO's hit adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series had a lot more going for it, but there's no denying that the penultimate episode, "The Rains of Castamere," was a heart-stopper that completely dominated the pop-culture conversation after it aired. From anguished tweets to hilariously OTT reaction videos, it seemed for a minute there like everyone in the world was losing their entire minds over the brutality as sour-minded old coot Walder Frey (David Bradley) gave the Young Wolf, Robb Stark (Richard Madden, above), his blood-soaked comeuppance for going back on his word to marry one of Frey's daughters.
As intense as it was, the TV version of the Red Wedding was a much different beast than the novel version. Throughout this year's 10 episodes, Game of Thrones showrunner/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss again proved that they have a firm grip on their source material yet aren't afraid to meddle with it to suit the show's needs. As someone who's read all the books, that is part of the fun of watching: Sometimes I still don't know what the hell is going to happen.
1. Doctor Who
Predictable, I know, but c'mon: 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of Britain's most durable sci-fi export - even if that number is fudged a bit, since Doctor Who hasn't actually been on the air for an entire half-century. Whatever.
The year began with Part 2 of Series 7, in which the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) re-meets new companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) and spends the rest of the season trying to figure out why she is the "Impossible Girl," whom he keeps encountering in different times and places, though she has no memory of him. These eight episodes had their highs and lows, but what made them fun was the chemistry between Coleman and Smith. Their camaraderie transcended even the worst stories, and harked back to the days of the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), when a Doctor could be close to his companion but not nudge-nudge wink-wink close.
Clara's role was key in the 50th-anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor," a delightful tribute to everyone's favorite Time Lord that featured three incarnations of the Doctor and even had me ready to forgive showrunner Steven Moffat for his various irritating tendencies. (A lovely, er, companion piece was the BBC-produced docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, a surprisingly enjoyable look at the show's beginnings.)
Too bad that happy high came crashing down with the Christmas special, "The Time of the Doctor," which was sadly not very fun. Though there was some hilarity in the Doctor's pairing up with a disembodied Cyberman head he nicknamed "Handles," mostly Moffat did Matt Smith's much-anticipated swan song a huge disservice. I wouldn't call the story confusing, but it was definitely convoluted, and there was too much boring rehash of past elements Moffat introduced to Doctor Who (human Daleks, the Silence, Weeping Angels, Trenzalore, etc.), which simply felt like self-congratulation. Not to mention a totally unfunny, juvenile bit about how the Doctor and Clara were naked under their holographic clothes. We were also subjected to the "truth" that Clara did fancy the Doctor, despite her protestations to the contrary, and that just pissed me off.
All of this made the actual revelations, like about who blew up the TARDIS and how the Doctor would be able to continue regenerating past the end of his lifecycle, fall flat. Smith's final moments before turning into new Doctor Peter Capaldi still managed to be poignant, but part of that was my regret that this episode wasn't also Moffat's swan song.
Previously by Natalie Nichols: