There has never been a shortage of male heroes commanding battlecruisers on deep space missions or doing battle with aliens intent on eliminating the human race here on Earth. It’s only relatively recently that women have moved to the forefront in the genre television world, often supplanting their male counterparts as a show’s focal point.
Presented in alphabetical order, here’s our list of eleven women from the worlds of science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, and horror that we admire for their bravery, courage, nobility, and achievement.
Sydney Bristow – Alias
Jennifer Garner made a name for herself playing a double agent for the CIA in J.J. Abrams’ ABC spy-fi series that ran for five seasons between 2001-2006. Sydney demonstrates her physical prowess in the pilot when she frees herself from a Chinese torturer, but what really drives the series is her emotional character work as a young woman who, in rapid fire fashion, finds her fiancé dead in her bathtub, discovers her father doesn’t sell airplane parts, but is also a double agent for the CIA, learns that her mother isn’t dead after all having left her KGB ties behind to work for another covert organization, and to top it all off, falls in love with her CIA handler.
Through all of the turmoil, she survives and stays on point to bring down the bad guys of SD-6. In addition to her martial arts skills and weapons proficiency, she speaks at least 30 different languages throughout the course of the show all the while attending college to complete a master’s degree.
Captain Samantha Carter – Stargate SG-1
Beginning the series as an Air Force Captain, Amanda Tapping’s character faces many of the same struggles as The X-Files Dana Scully. Carter too is rooted in science, and with a background in astrophysics, her heart yearns to explore the stars. As the series progresses, it’s reasonable to wonder whether there’s anything Sam Carter can’t do. She can handle advanced weaponry in a firefight with alien races, observes she “logged over 100 flight hours in enemy airspace” during the Gulf War, solves advanced theoretical astrophysics equations, and possesses more knowledge about the stargate than even Daniel Jackson.
Perhaps most important, the writers avoided placing her in romantic entanglements leaving viewers to judge Sam Carter strictly on her accomplishments as a member of SG-1. Given the length of the series and the depth and breadth of her character, Colonel Samantha Carter stands as one of the most important characters in science fiction television regardless of gender.
Sarah Connor – Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Though her hair is black, and she favors a black wardrobe, Lena Headey’s portrayal of the mother of the human race’s savior nonetheless reminds us of the Game of Thrones character for which she has become synonymous. Let’s make this simple. Sarah Connor time travels with her son and a bodyguard cyborg to evade the T-888 terminator bent on killing John, and in the interim does whatever is necessary to protect her son while at the same time attempting to allow him as normal a teenage life as possible.
Like the others on this list, Sarah knows her way around a firefight, and while she may not possess a PhD in one of the sciences, simply calling her street smart constitutes a serious injustice. Her tactical knowledge serves her and her son well, but at the end of the day, she’s a mother willing to kill anyone who means to do her son harm. Sounds a bit like Cersei Lannister.
Clarke Griffin – The 100
Along with Buffy Summers, Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) stands as the only other teenager on this list, and arguably faces the harshest survival circumstance after she and 99 other young people are sent to a radiation ravaged Earth essentially as lab rats. Some argue that Clarke thrives on being in charge and lets power go to her head, but she learns at a very tender age countless cruel lessons about the burdens of leadership. Forced to become a soldier in the war with the Grounders, she often locks away her emotional side, allowing her to decisively act when all the options are bad.
Killing Finn to save him from a worse fate leaves an indelible mark on her, and it remains to be seen whether or not she, or any of the others, will ever enjoy a normal life. At first dubbed “Princess”—owing to her blonde hair, good looks, and well connected mother—that monicker eventually disappears replaced by “Wanheda, Commander of Death.” Perhaps the greatest compliment paid Clarke comes from the adults who, once they land on Earth, grudgingly respect her knowledge and decision making skills, ultimately heeding her diplomatic and tactical advice.
Vice Admiral Kathryn Janeway – Star Trek: Voyager
The USS Voyager’s captain Kathryn Janeway first appeared in 1995, and while she’s not the only female captain to appear in the Star Trek universe, she’s also the only one to have a series developed around her. Initially a science officer, she made the decision to aspire to the captain’s chair and rose quickly through the ranks making a name for herself as a member of away teams often faced with insurmountable odds.
Janeway was at her best facing situations that seemingly offered no good options, and it was her intelligence and willingness to bypass protocol when necessary that enabled her to succeed. Kate Mulgrew played Janeway, who commanded the Voyager from 2371-2378, a period encompassed by the series’ seven seasons which ended in 2001.
Melinda May – Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
That her peers refer to Melinda May as The Cavalry tells us everything we need to know about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s jack-of-all-trades. Trained in the martial arts, it often seems she’d rather take down a Hydra member with her bare hands instead of firing the weapon strapped to her side. Onscreen, Ming-Na Wen’s depiction of a woman weighed down by the strain of past experience engages the audience as much as anyone on the show because she feels forced to bottle up her emotions for the good of the team. May also takes it upon herself to counsel the team’s younger female members, not so much about how to do something, but rather how to emotionally cope with the damage to the psyche that invariably follows. Whether or not she’ll be considered as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s next director remains unclear, but even if offered, she’d likely turn down the job to remain a field agent.
Dana Scully – The X-Files
It can be safely argued that Chris Carter’s marriage of government/alien conspiracy and monster-of-the-week stories fired the magic bullet that reawakened the sleeping giant that is science fiction television. Gillian Anderson’s medical doctor turned FBI agent finds herself thrown into a world of alien abductees, genetic mutants, and a vast government cover up of a human/alien hybrid project. Brought onto the X-Files (cases designated as unexplained) to debunk the work of Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), Scully has her eyes opened to a world of possibilities, and despite her scientific background, keeps an open mind as she’s exposed to everything from Flukeman to alien shape-shifters. Not only does Scully chase down the bad guys, but she also gets to carry out their autopsies once they’ve been terminated. Did I mention that she’s immortal?
Buffy Summers – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Speaking of iconic heroines, Joss Whedon’s quintessential teenaged heroine burst onto the scene in 1997, and Sarah Michelle Gellar has since faced a difficult time separating herself from the Sunnydale High student tasked with protecting the Hellmouth residing beneath the school. How many on this list can say they took down a vampire king in the gymnasium during a high school dance?
Okay, so she burned down the school in the process, but we can cut her some slack since she was still learning at that point. One of the most fascinating characters in any literary genre is the reluctant hero, and Buffy embodies those traits as well as anyone. But unlike many others, her insistence that she live as close to a normal life as possible sets her apart. Despite that, the mark of the true is hero is the ability to put others before self, and when she goes toe-to-toe with The Master, the residual effects last far longer than the moment. Having the courage to face her inner demons comes later, but is nonetheless just as impressive.
Aeryn Sun – Farscape
Does anyone wear black leather better than stranded Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun who finds herself alone with criminals she’s duty bound to apprehend? Technically not human, (Sebaceans appear human) she was bred to be a soldier, and consequently learned to abhor perceived weaknesses such as love, family connections, and selfless behavior. Follow orders; nothing more. But once she finds herself with the ragtag crew of the Leviathan transport ship Moya, her attitude begins to change, her emotional shell softens, and she learns what it means to be part of a family.
Isolating herself from the rest of the crew doesn’t work, and she ultimately proves herself to the others as they evade the authorities she once pledged to obey. Capable in battle? Check. Able to pilot a ship? Yep. Willing to put her life on the line for others? You bet. Aeryn Sun is one of the most underappreciated science fiction heroines of the past quarter century.
Daenerys Targaryen – Game of Thrones
How could any list omit the Mother of Dragons? Dany has had to fight for every scrap along the way. While some might call her ruthless, the ability to see beyond present circumstance has led her to her present position, poised to do battle as the heir to the Iron Throne. As Khal Drogo’s widow, she finds herself essentially a prisoner of the Dothraki, doomed to live out her days with women in similar situations.
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Awaiting her fate, she meets the other khals in a tent but tells them none are fit to lead, and that she will take command and control. Amid their laughter, she sets the tent ablaze, and in a scene we’ve witnessed before, walks out naked among the ashes and embers triumphant once again. Classic Daenerys. Does it get any better than that? It’s easy to throw around the word iconic, but Emilia Clarke’s character study gets pretty darned close.
Kara Thrace aka Starbuck – Battlestar Galactica
We meet Lt. Thrace for the first time during a card game aboard Galactica. Drink in one hand, cigar in the other, Starbuck is just one of the guys, and when the card table gets overturned, she punches her XO Colonel Tighe and lands in the brig. Once the Cylon attack commences, however, Galactica springs into action with its best Viper pilot temporarily out of action. Fortunately, Captain Adama recognizes that going into battle without Thrace would be insanity and releases her immediately.
Yes, Starbuck is cocky, short tempered, and quick to throw punches, but there are few crew members as fiercely loyal and willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of her shipmates. She puts herself in harm’s way countless times, and it can even be argued gives her life for her species. Most fans know that Ronald D. Moore’s decision to cast Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck raised the ire of fans of the original 1978 series, but after the watching her in action, there’s no question he made the correct decision.
There are always omissions when compiling a list of this sort, some deemed more egregious than others, but the following received serious consideration before failing to make the final cut. Here is our list of Honorable Mentions.
Kiera Cameron (Continuum) – Rachel Nichols
Peggy Carter (Marvel’s Agent Carter) – Hayley Atwell
Olivia Dunham (Fringe) – Anna Torv
Echo/Caroline Farrell (Dollhouse) – Eliza Dushku
Lagertha (Vikings) – Katheryn Winnick
Dr. Helen Magnus (Sanctuary) – Amanda Tapping
Sarah Manning (Orphan Black) – Tatiana Maslany
Charlie Matheson (Revolution) – Tracy Spiridakos