From Supergirl to Doctor Who — Refugees in Sci-Fi TV

Our genre television has a sometimes not-so-explicit legacy of refugee stories and characters. How do they inform larger cultural opinion?

If you’ve been watching Supergirl, then you know the superhero drama’s most interesting characters are alien refugees. Yes, I’m talking about eponymous character Kara Danvers, sent to Earth because her planet was dying, but I am also talking about J’onn J’onzz, a Martian who fled his own home world following the deaths of his family and the extermination of an entire species. 

These sorts of exodus tales are part of a larger tradition of refugee and immigration themes in science fiction canon. As Charlie Jane Anders put it in a 2008 io9 article titled “Science Fiction is The Literature of Refugees”

Possibly the most pervasive narrative in science fiction is actually the story of refugees. They flee from planetary destruction, war, or just from overcrowding and ecological crappitude. The refugee story is the flipside of the gung-ho explorer story, but it might actually be the most uniquely science fictional story of all.

These pop culture representations of refugees (in sci-fi and elsewhere) seem even more important in the midst of the current, massive refugee crisis — one in which, by and large, the global response has been shaped by fear rather than empathy. 

Our values are not completed shaped by pop culture, but it does play a role in informing how we interact with and respond to the world around us. Pop culture characters can give underrepresented demographics visibility and greater cultural worth as human beings. We shouldn’t need stories to explain to us that all people are, in fact, people who are worthy of respect, empathy, and basic human rights, but in what is still a hateful, prejudiced, and generally noisy world, we do need these reminders.

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Now, more than ever, it seems like we need to not only have refugee characters in our pop culture, but reflect on how they are represented and what they tell us about how we see refugees in general — if only so we can start to better recognize the humanity inherent in all of us.

Refugee Characters vs. Immigrant Characters

Before we dive into the world of refugees in TV science fiction, let’s take a second to define what we’re talking about when we talk about refugees. (For all those who feel like they have a basic understanding of this distinction, feel free to skip to the next section.) Refugees are people who are forced to flee their home because of factors like war, natural disaster, or fear of persectution. Immigrants, on the other hand, are people who choose to leave their home for some place else — generally for economic, educational, or familial reasons.

To give a science fiction example, the ragtag band of humans making their way across the vast nothingness of space in Battlestar Galacticaare refugees as their home world(s) were attacked by the Cylon fleet, and they were forced to flee in fear for their lives. They cannot return to their home without risking death. On the other end of the refugee-immigrant spectrum, many of the background characters in Fireflyqualify as science fiction immigrants. They have relocated to new, terraformed worlds to try to make a new life, generally for economic or political reasons.

Refugee and immigrant characters have long been a part of comic book canon and the other pop culture it inspired. Superman, for example, is in many wayscomics a power fantasy for the immigrant experience — one created by the son of two Jewish immigrants to America.

Diversity as the Source of Superpowers

Though refugees might not have much political power in the current geopolitical climate, in many cases, refugee characters within science fiction TV are given considerable power — often, with the posession of actual superpowers — within their new, unfamiliar home. Though this might not echo the real-life situation of most refugees, who are often discriminated against and have fewer opportunities than their native-born neighbors, it is a particularly optimistic and refreshing way to look at diversity. 

On Supergirl, refugee characters like Kara or Kal-El didn’t have superpowers on their home planets. They were like everyone else. It is only once they come to Earth and absorb the energy from our yellow sun that they are able to fly, bend metal, and be all-around badasses. However, those powers — that differentiates them from their communities — makes the general population wary of them.

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On Supergirl,Maxwell Lord speaks publicly about his belief that Supergirl is a threat to humanity. And, in a recent episode, when it became clear that Hank Henshaw was actually an alien in a human disguise, the government he had served for the past decade turned against him, shipping him off to be experimented on.

The Supergirlexamples actually create a relatively complex picture of the identity-related realities of being an “alien” trying to make a home in a new place. Kara occasionally becomes very angry about what happened to her home world. It still affects how she sees herself and the people around her.

Unlike Clark Kent, Kara remembers what Krypton and her Kryptonian family were like. She spent many of her formative years there. She completely understands what she lost and she grieves for it. This is an especially important aspect of Kara’s refugee character: to show that Kara didn’t leave her home because she wanted to, but because, if she didn’t, she would have died. As much as she loves her new home and family, being on Earth is not easy for her — even after all of these years.

The Question of Assimilation

The optimism of Supergirland its relationship to the complexities of assimilationseems somewhat at odds with Doctor Who‘srecent foray into refugee storytelling. As a British colonialist fantasy that is basically about a white British dude going to alien worlds (whether in space or time) to save the locals, the long-running science fiction show has an understandably complicated (and awkward) relationship to the concept of refugees. Most recently, Doctor Whodelved into the question of refugees with its two-parter “The Zygon Invasion” and “The Zygon Inversion.” Though the episodes did an admirable, ambitious job serving as an allegory for the current Syrian refugee crisis, they fell short in their commentary on the question of assimilation.

For those who didn’t catch the episodes, the Zygons are an alien race that has the ability to look like humans. Many of them have relocated on Earth from their home world, which was destroyed potentially as a result of the Time War. The two-parter explores the long-term effects of the Zygon truce The Doctor had previously forged between the Zygons and the humans of Earth. The terms of the truce: as long as the Zygons stay disguised as humans, they can stay.

By the time the events of “The Zygon Invasion” rolls around, 20 million Zygons are living, disguised, on Earth. Though the older generation is relatively fine with the integration/assimilation rules of the truce, the younger generation of Zygons resents having to hide their true selves in order to stay on Earth. A small subsection of these Zygons have become radicalized, and turn to targeted attacks against the human and Zygon populations. 

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Ultimately, the conflict is resolved when The Doctor delivers an impassioned speech to Evil Clara, the leader of the Zygons, about the need to stop the perpetuation of violence and to choose forgiveness and compassion over hate and destruction. It is a much-needed message and was an incredibly powerful, topical TV moment. Unfortunately, it was somewhat undercut by the fact that The Doctor — and the episode — discount the Zygon youth’s desperate and valid desire to be their true selves.

The Zygon two-parter was a classic example of the clash of two very modern anxieties: wanting to be able to visually recognize the “other” and wanting the “other” to assimilate. In the end, Doctor Whochooses to ignore this clash in favor of making a broader statement about the futility and foolishness of war. It is a relevant message, but not one that fully comments on the complex themes raised in the two-parter.

The Complex Accountability of a Refugee Crisis 

Depsite the relative cop-out of the ending, the Zygon two-parter gets a lot of points in my book for drawing a connection between The Doctor’s actions (as represented by the larger Time War) and the Zygon’s current situation. If not for the Time War, the Zygons probably would not have had to flee their home world. The direct connection between the dominant characters’ actions and the refugee characters’ dilemma is a narrative we need to see more of on TV. It is also one of the main, underlying themes of that great refugee drama Battlestar Galactica.

Battlestar Galacticawas created as an allegory to 9/11 and the huge cultural and political shifts that followed. At the time, it felt like one of the only shows that was actually addressing the seismic social change of a country in shock and mourning. It still feels like one of the few TV dramas of the last decade that has even attempted to address contemporary issues like terrorism, war, and imperialist guilt. It’s also that last one that I am particularly interested in because, though Battlestar Galacticais very much a story about a group of refugees in search of a home, it is even more interested in exploring how the humans we follow as central protagonists played a part in their own downfall.

For me, this is not a direct allegory. I don’t think the writers of Battlestar Galacticaare trying to say that real-life refugees often cause their own crisis. Rather, I think Battlestar Galacticais a following-through of our own western anxieties about what could happen if we don’t address global unrest and assume responsibility for our imperialist influence.

After all, the Cylons were created by humanity. They were a slave race, looked upon as less-than human and forced to serve the dominant culture. When the Cylons rebelled, they were eventually forced to leave the Twelve Colonies as part of a truce at the end of the Cylon War. In that way, the Cylons themselves became refugees in search of a home. (Unfortunately for humans, they later decide that the Twelve Colonies is that home and that they will claim it by any means necessary.)

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As in other science fiction stories, the “native born” (in this case: the humans) and the “refugees” (read: Cylons) are basically indistinguishable from one another. Our cultural anxieties lie not only in the fear that our imperialist, militaristic actions will come back to haunt us, but that the threats, the “them,” will be indistinguishable from the rest of “us.” That the threats will look like — or even be — our neighbors and our friends, that they will have seemingly assimilated into our mainstream culture, but still hold violent grudges.

Because the larger narrative of Battlestar Galacticais less a direct allegory for a refugee crises or culture and more an allegory for cycles of imperialism and war, its best explorations of a refugee narrative comes in subplots — most notably, in “The Woman King,” which sees Helo trying to solve a potential murder amongst the 300 displaced Saggitaron civilians living aboard Galactica.

In this representation of refugees, we see the relative lack of control the Saggitarons have over their own lives. They are forced to live in cramped, transient conditions and are treated with discrimination by many of the permanent residents of Galactica. By the end of the episode (spoiler!), Helo discovers that Dr. Robert, the man in charge of treating the sick Saggitarons, has been systemically killing them. His crimes go unnoticed for so long because Dr. Robert, as a Caprican physician, is protected and given power by the fleet’s unequal political system. 

In many ways, Battlestar Galactica is a story of a perpetual refugee camp, a seemingly temporary society that eventually must confront the realities of addressing more permanent concerns. However, within the fleet, there are those who are treated as valuable, permanent citizens (i.e. the military personnel who called Galactica home before the Cylon attack and the upper class Capricans like President Roslin, who also came into this post-attack society with her own ship) and there are those who are forced to live in desperate, transient conditions with little control over their own lives.

You can make this distinction amongst the characters in the fleet between those who were originally stationed on and/or traveling on the ships and those who fled onto them and/or who were rescued in the wake of the Cylon attack. Throughout the course of the entire series, there is a constant tension within the population of the fleet. Resources are limited. Survival is not guaranteed. People often get desperate and, in that desperation, are eager to differentiate between “us” and “them” — between those who “deserve” a spot within the fleet and those who don’t. This distinction does not always fall along human/cylon lines, demonstrating that we can create a hierarchy of human worth amongst any group, no matter how seemingly homogenous.

The current refugee crisis is one of the defining humanitarian dilemmas of our time, and one relatively free of western pop culture representation. Now, more than ever, it seems important to break down how the concept of a refugee is constructed in our cultural consciouness — even in the seemingly removed genre of science fiction. Because, as any one who consumes genre fiction knows, science fiction, horror, and fantasy can be the best places to explore and work through these major cultural anxieties…