The TV miniseries adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy mostly suffers from terrible special effects, except for the sequences where we see the guide itself. All these shots were actually hand drawn replicas of typical computer graphics of the time, and even today you'd swear they were actually done on a computer.
This is one of the main selling points of Madan Senki Ryukendo: the CG team just get better and better as the series progresses, and the final battle is a thing of jaw-dropping beauty.
Watch the battle of the Resurrection Ship from Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica. Watch Galacticaand Pegasus circle the Cylon ships, slowly pounding them to space dust, and avoid dropping your jaw in awe.
All of Babylon 5 was notable for being trailblazing in CGI space effects.
Another moment, from the season two finale, The Reveal of what everyone sees when they look at Kosh, was particularly notable as well. JMS said about it, "when you go for something this substantial: either you're going to do something truly amazing, or you're going to massively fall on your face". Watching the episode with someone who was seeing it for the first time, she blurted out "My God, he's beautiful." The effects were ten years old at this point. Yeah, they nailed it.
The Stargate's iconic "kawoosh". It's done by filming underwater as a jet engine is fired from just above the surface - and filmed from a gazillion angles so they wouldn't have to go to the expense of doing it again. That is also awesome, because you wouldn't ever know that all the many gate scenes were from the same use of the trick - even when every Gate in the known universe was activated at once, leading to a great many kawoosh scenes being shown back to back. It should really have shown then, but it didn't.
The Wraith assault on Atlantis in "The Siege" looks incredible. Wraith darts against human missiles and railguns... it's amazing.
The shot of the Goa'uld bombarding Washington D.C. in Stargate Continuum is equal parts horrifying and stunning.
Stargate Universe has the scene in "Darkness" where Destiny skims the atmosphere of a gas giant. As Chloe put it, "it's beautiful".
Followed by Destiny emerging from the sun in "Light".
The launch of the Horizon weapon system in the Atlantis episode First Strike. A minute-long CGI oner that shows the naquadah-tipped MIRV-bomb being dropped from the Apollo, entering the atmosphere, separating and hitting home from start to finish, with mushroom clouds reaching low orbit. Awesome.
The final episode of Fawlty Towers, featuring Manuel's rat running around the hotel. There are a couple spots (espeically the ending) where the rat is clearly mechanical, but for the most part it looks for all the world exactly like a real rat.
The first season finale of Life shows main character Charlie Crews driving down a street in LA, when he's suddenly rammed from the side, making his car flip over. The scene is shot in a "you are there" style which is amazingly visceral.
The episode of House involving a video game developer took a different direction than their usualtelevision depiction by showing a game that's at least ten years ahead of what's possible today.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. With the Dominion War arc, we got the most impressive special effects from Star Trek until the new movie came out.
Watch the Deep Space Nine episode "Trials and Tribble-ations". Now carefully pick your jaw back up from the floor...
Two space battles spring to mind in Deep Space Nine- "The Way of the Warrior", which was the last big Trek space battle done with models (and in which Deep Space 9 itself takes a level in badass) and "Sacrifice of Angels", where CGI finally allows an epic battle between six hundred Federation ships and double that number of Dominion and Cardassian ones. Particular mention should go to the moment where we finally see more than one Galaxy-class starship (as in the Enterprise-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation) go into battle side by side and letting rip with their full complement of weaponry.
Hell, they pulled this off as early as the first episode. Where in TNG you would be lucky to see the Enterprise D perform so much as much as a bank, suddenly we are shown just how vicious Wolf 359 was, with several Federation ships zipping around at high speeds desperately trying to avoid the Borg Cube's fire.
Similarly the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "In a Mirror, Darkly" (though the Deep Space Nine one did go one step beyond by seamlessly integrating original footage with new characters).
The Voyager episode "Scorpion." The First Contact movie had one Borg cube, this episode had 40 cubes nearly running over the insignificant Voyager on their way to face an even greater threat, and were all destroyed.
Voyager crashing into the ice planet in "Timeless" is some goddamn epic CGI, especially for a TV show in 1998. Watch it here, and check out some badass behind the scenes art for it here.
Voyager in the final episode Endgame gets future technology that gives it armor that makes it immune to Borg weapons, and a new type of torpedo that can One-Hit Kill Borg cubes. There were some pretty impressive visual effects (especially so since they were at a transwarp hub seen in all its glory), and seeing Voyager swat Borg cubes like they were flies was pretty awesome.
The Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Twilight". Nothing really daring by Trek standards, except... the complete destruction of the Earth. Notable for two reasons; 1) while blowing up worlds is fairly common in post-Star Wars sci-fi, the effects team showed the Xindi superweapon literally boiling the planet from the inside out, complete with fault lines cracking and tearing apart. 2) It wasn't even in the script! The effects team came in on their weekends off and did the sequence just for the hell of it. Just...damn!
Best part? Those fault lines were absolutely correct! From the Mid-Atlantic Ridge erupting, to the border between the African and European plates, this is probably what would happen if the Earth really did blow up from the inside.
The Andorians in general. The makeup team gave them animatronic antennae that reflected their emotional state during dialogue and put blue dye in the actors' mouths to avert the old problem when you've got gray/green/blue-skinned aliens that still have pink mouths even if they're supposed to not have iron-based blood.
The Next Generation's opening sequence too, with all the planets. The "Space: The Final Frontier" bit only enhances it more.
The opening shot of the Voyager episode "Dragon's Teeth," featuring an alien city under bombardment. An amazing amount of work for a shot that only lasts a few seconds.
And it was good enough to be put into the altered credit sequence of "In a Mirror, Darkly."
The final shot of "Author, Author," with a whole cave full of Robert Picardos.
Into The Universe With Stephen Hawking's 2-hour episode has some pretty cool special effects: The super nova "storm clouds", crunching of the earth into a black hole, making a star in Wembly Field, and a super-massive black hole with a ship going around it. Even a bunch of ball-bearings on the floor (they're in a perfect grid, but if you take a few of them out they start swirling together) is facinating.
Primeval may not be about to keep up with its big-budget theatrical peers, but for a TV series to feature a new time-displaced creature every episode, and actually set things up to make it look like it interacts with the enviroment, is nothing short of amazing for a TV series.
Dinosaurs! from 1985 featured various sequences of stop-motion dinosaurs created by Tippett Studios. Sure, they don't look so good compared to the CG dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (which Tippett went on to do), but for the time is was the greatest thing. Also helps that the documentary was hosted by Christopher Reeve.
The BBC Walking With... documentary series (consisting of Walking with Dinosaurs, Walking with Beasts, and others) were all about prehistoric animals. The shows used both CGI and animatronics to represent the animals. The CGI was good, but the animatronics were amazing. You'd swear that the filmmakers brought an andrewsarchus back to life!
In that vein, the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs, which for the most part featured jaw-droppingly realistic prehistoric beasts on a TV-budget, and was made in 1999. While never quite consistent, the quality kept improving throughout its sequels, and by the '05 Walking With Monsters, the CGI stood the test of closeups.
Super Sentai (and therefore, Power Rangers) is getting there. They kept the slightly dated looking People in Rubber Suits from 70's era Godzilla movies long into the mid-90's. However, as of late they're getting better and better. Though there were some pretty damn convincing rubber suits. And stuntwork in some of the old ranger fights looks more convincing.
Close your eyes and point, and you'll likely hit something gorgeous in Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger. Henshins, roll calls, the Gokai Change into previous teams, everything.
For those who prefer the dialogue to be in a language they understand, search YouTube for the 10th-anniversary episode "Forever Red." Excellent choreographed and wire work, a Bullet Time shot, speed-up-slow-down cinematography years before 300 made it popular... It was a Very Special Episode and presumably had a larger-than-normal budget, but being able to produce that on a TV show's budget at all is still jaw-dropping.
Ultraman and Ultraseven. Allow us to explain. In 1966, most of the special effects in a typical episode would have only been seen in the best Japanese sci-fi movies. These were half-hour kids' shows, filmed in color when most Japanese TVs were in black-and-white. It's true that not everything stands up after 50+ years, but Eiji Tsuburaya's crew could've fudged things for the sake of it. They didn't, and their effort still shows. While quality declined in the 70s, resulting in the Ultra Series now being behind movies instead of equal, their work still remains impressive, as seen in such shows as Ultraman X and Ultraman Orb.
Indeed, the franchise is celebrated by many for producing some of the best-designed rubber suits and miniatures in all of Toku. While not every suit is a winner, they managed to pull of hundreds of kaiju designs using the man-in-suit build, including limbless monsters, multi-headed monsters, multi-limbed monsters, and others non-humanoid appearances. Special shout-out goes to the fact that they have mastered the four-legged suit design by Return of Ultraman in 1971. Whereas most quadruped monsters simply had the suit actor crawling on his knees like a baby (as seen with Angurius from the Godzilla movies), the Ultra Series was pulling off monsters who walked like actual quadrupeds.
The scene in Heroes in which Claire has just taken enough radiation to kill a platoon of Marines. She steps outside and horrifies her family and neighbors as she looks like burnt meat. And then, as she walks towards her family....her skin, eyes, and hair all restore themselves to their pristine condition. This TV show went toe-to-toe with the Visual Effects of the movies, and WON.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles features some very good effects, particularly the effects makeup used on the Terminators themselves. The big shootouts, explosions and fight sequences do look like they came right out of a feature film. Looking at a battle-damaged Cameron with half her flace blown off, you could swear up and down that Summer Glau really is a robot underneath that flesh and blood. Not forgetting the title sequence which shows Terminator components coming together in mid-air, and then the eyes light up.
John Adams, the HBO miniseries, isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of truly incredible special effects. Then you watch this.
Early on, Sanctuary didn't have much of a budget. What they did have was a pretty good CGI team that made almost every set used in the first season. After a few seasons, they got the budget to build some real sets, and it's still pretty awesome that finding where they built stuff and where they used computers can be pretty hard.
Ernie Kovacs was most likely the first who took the medium of television and really experimented with it as much as he could. Not just comically, but also visually. Just look at parts one and two of this sketch known as Eugene.
From the final episode of Robin Hood, the explosion that destroys Nottingham Castle.
Smallville: Not too surprising, being the newest Superman show. For a show suffering from a critical lack of budget in its final seasons, it managed to pull off some very impressive visual effects in its Grand Finale with the planet Apokolips moving through space towards Earth and almost crushing Metropolis.
Twin Peaks doesn't usually come to mind when you think of amazing special effects and yet the atomic explosion from Episode8 of the revival series is one of the best CGI renderings of its type of event ever, if not the very best. Not one of the best renderings for a TV show, but the best period.
Outcasts had some amazing special effects for a mostly un-remembered TV series. Shots of Carpathia from space, with the colony ship hanging over it, looked stunning, as did the white-out and the disease's visible effects.
The Goodies has some pretty damn good FX for a 70s BBC show (in fact, Doctor Who might have learned a thing or two from them). Just watch the climax of the episode "The Movies" for some truly awesome examples. People run in and out of movie screens, a back-projected truck turns into a real one, and there's so much creative use of doubles that even the cast got confused.
A documentary about BBC effects revealed that most of The Goodies' fx were achieved using silent-era techniques, which was all they could afford. But the execution is just superb.
Space1999 may have had terrible scripts and lousy acting, but there's no denying that its spaceship effects were pretty damn good for the mid-70s. Effects Director Brian Johnson achieved most of them in-camera by shooting each element against a black background and rewinding the film inbetween. The only drawback is that spaceships are usually only seen moving in front of black space.
Farscape relied more on puppets than CGI, but those puppets are so impressive that it's very, very easy to forget that charcters like Pilot and Rygel weren't real, living creatures. The CGI they did use, mostly for external shots of Moya and the other spacecraft, still holds up very well too - especially Moya's starburst FTL, which is simply jaw-dropping as the Tron Lines flare up before the portal opens.
The CG/makeup blends in Grimm are just so beautifully fluid and well-done. Compare to Once Upon a Time, which looks more expensive but doesn't even try to hide its CG.
In particular, the manticore vs. manticore fight scene in Season 3 episode "The Good Soldier" is an excellent, nearly seamless blend of live-action and CG. It had fans crying for more wesen vs. wesen fights.
The 100 doesn't rely too much on special effects, but there are a couple of examples that stick out: First, there's The Ark, a massive space station. The external shots are truly breathtaking to look at. Second, there's the acid fog from "Earth Kills": Not only does the fog itself look terrifying, but the visible damage it did to the poor soul unlucky enough to get caught in it really hammered home the whole Death World vibe. The makeup crew earned their paychecks on that one.
In the Season 1 finale, the dragon form of Maleficent is outstanding for a television production.
Marshmallow looks spectacular visually for the show, looking like something straight out of the movie. The only times it falls apart is when you realize it's intentionally avoiding the cars so that they don't need SFX to make them look crushed.
Chernabog manages to look exactly like a classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion creature, all done with CGI.
Some of the castles and locations created for the Enchanted Forest flashbacks look incredibly realistic. The interiors of King George's, Rumple's and Snow White's could be mistaken for actual sets.
Unlike its sister series Arrow, which aims for a more grounded, "no superpowers" tone, The Flash (2014) dives full-force into the metahuman side of DC Comics, and does a damn good job of it. In the pilot alone, Barry Allen fights with the Weather Wizard, and the climax of the episode involves him turning himself into a very impressive tornado. In general, the depictions of superpowers (particularly Barry's super-speed) to reach almost cinematic quality. Fire is notoriously tricky to get right in CGI, but Firestorm's powers always look great.
Ironically enough, one of the most beautiful special effects shots involving the Flash is his appearance on Arrow in "The Brave and the Bold" when he snatches the two boomerangs that would have impaled Oliver out of midair. The effect is simply breathtakingly gorgeous.
Grodd looks a lot better when he shows up again in Episode Seven of season 2, with more detailed hair, more realistic movements, and more facial expressions other than just scowling in fury, not to mention The Stinger when he arrives on Earth-2, appearing in broad daylight after sticking to the shadows last season, and sees Gorilla City.
Debbie being burned alive in "Girl in the Flower Dress". It's horrifying and beautifully animated.
Season Two really ups the ante, starting with Carl Creel's absorbing abilities, especially when he becomes wood. The detail looks good enough that it brings a certain talking tree to mind. Better yet, Creel is one of the first characters on the show (and one of the few in the MCU) to look nearly exactly like his comic book self, complete with a slightly misshapen head and his right side being darker than his left. And, of course, there's the ball and chain Mythology Gag.
The cloaking effects for the Quinjet that the team steals at the end of "Shadows", then for the Bus after they get it functional at the end of "Heavy is the Head"; they look just as good as the Helicarrier's cloak in The Avengers.
The freezing effects of Blizzard's powers in "Making Friends and Influencing People", which largely look like they pulled a leaf from Iceman's book.
"Face My Enemy" features Orphan Black worthy effects for a fight between two Ming-Na Wens.
"The Things We Bury" features a de-aging effect on Skye's father in the closing flashback, as well as old age makeup on Werner Reinhardt/Daniel Whitehall in an earlier flashback, and both look very natural.
The makeup for Agent 33 after May's face gets stuck on her. You'd swear Ming-Na Wen actually has another face under there.
In "What They Become," the opening dogfight between the Bus and two HYDRA Quinjets, then the ending where Skye and Raina break free of their stone cocoons and become the Marvel Cinematic Universe's very first Inhumans.''
Starting from "Aftershocks", the visual effects and makeup for Raina, like Agent 33 above, are disturbingly good. Meanwhile, Gordon's teleportation effects are almost exactly like Nightcrawler.
At the end of "One Door Closes", Skye finally has occasion to unleash her powers in a relatively controlled manner, and proceeds to deflect a bullet fired at her, knock out two pursuers, and level part of a forest all in one go — and it looks as good as anything in the movies.
"Afterlife" has the return of Mike Peterson aka Deathlok, now in a much better costume and with a couple of new tricks, particularly two EMP missiles he uses to down an enemy Quinjet.
Hive's true face in the Season 3 finale doesn't disappoint.
Ghost Rider's appearance in Season 4 very neatly shows a supernatural character instead of just a quasi-realistic skull with some CGI flames. Robbie's transformations into Ghost Rider are also beautiful, flames completely consume his head and melt away his face when he first powers up. Jeph Loeb latter admitted that Ghost Rider and his story arc used up a huge chunk of the budget, resulting in the rest of season 4 cutting corners and a lot of Bottle Episodes. The consensus with the fans what that the money was well spent.
Season 5 went through a highly publicized budget cut, which makes in more impressive that the scenes in space (the alien "roaches", the beautiful shots of the space trawler in flight, and the exploded Earth outside the windows) are visually on par with something like Guardians of the Galaxy. Also of note is the makeup for the Kree, with Kasius and Sinara having distinct facial markings which some say look better than the Kree makeup done for Captain Marvel (2019).
Luke Cage (2016): For the first four episodes of season 2, the CGI work done to digitally erase Simone Missick's right arm is entirely convincing, and the crew clearly knew it as before Misty gets the robot arm, they seem to be constantly looking for ways to show it off.
Iron Fist (2017): The actual Iron Fist itself. It truly looks like a light coming from inside Danny's hand, throwing all the blood vessels into relief.
Inhumans is widely considered to be a complete failure, but the only accomplishment that the series achieved were the effects creating Lockjaw (the Inhumans' giant pet bulldog). Lockjaw is entirely CGI and he looks adorable and very realistic. Even if it's completely obvious most of the special effects budget went to that effect, the fact they were able to create it on a TV budget is impressive.
Runaways (2017): Old Lace, Gert's pet dinosaur, combines CGI and practical effects to look extremely realistic, especially considering the budget.
The effects used for the spaceships and battles in The Expanse are just amazing to look at. However, special note should go to the opening sequence of the first episode, which shows the progress of humanity through the solar system over the next 100-300 years. And is simply gorgeous.