Surely I can get an ‘amen’ from my geek sisters when I point out that we watch sci-fi too? So, why are there so few good female characters in science fiction television?
Certainly, things have improved slightly in recent years, but for every Kara Thrace there are a slew of disappointing female characters in her wake. At best, most female characters on sci-fi shows are annoyingly stereotypical and, at worst, are introduced as pointless eye candy.
These are my votes for the top ten disappointing female characters in science fiction television. Feel free to debate all these in the comments at the end…!
SPOILERS: Please note, that inevitably we discuss plot points for the shows involved. If there’s a show you haven’t seen, it might be an idea to skip to the next entry on the list.
Anastasia “Dee” Dualla – Battlestar Galactica
The occasion of a regular character on a favourite TV show blowing their own brains out would normally be met with emotions of shock and regret. Dee Dualla from Battlestar Galactica was such a disappointment, though, that, in her case, it felt more like a long overdue mercy killing.
Dualla had the potential to be such a rich and empowering character. On a show that otherwise boiled over with strong female images, from Starbuck to President Roslin, there would have been more than enough room to bring to the foreground the strong black female character that is so clearly lacking from sci-fi television. It would be refreshing to watch the development of a black female character that could be given more to do on a show than merely repeat out loud what she has heard in earphones.
An opportunity lost, because right from the get-go Dualla appears to only be on the show to act as bait for one romantic sub-plot or another. At least her initial romance with Roslin’s chief of staff Billy felt natural. In any case, there aren’t enough romances on TV that involve the geeky guy getting the hot girl and it was to be encouraged.
There are even fewer examples of the geeky girl getting the hot guy – but that is a topic for another rant! Obviously, it wasn’t sexy enough, though, because Billy’s body isn’t even cold before she is making doe eyes at Lee Adama.
The least interesting aspect of Battlestar was the soap opera elements anyway, and the sudden marriage between Dualla and Adama ranks right at the bottom. It smacked of desperation from the writers trying to find anything at all that would make the character worth maintaining.
Really, they should have let her take that terrorist’s bullet instead of Billy.
Shannon Rutherford – Lost
Modelling a sci-fi character after Paris Hilton was always going to be a risky business. Even with expectations that low, it is still difficult not to shake my head and wonder if there was an actual point to the Shannon Rutherford character. Perhaps it is just another one to be tacked onto the long list of questions left unanswered by Lost.
Such was the utter pointlessness of the character that, even as Lost was coming to an end (and save your bitching, I think it ended just fine), I was actively hoping the writers had decided to forget about Shannon and not bring her back. It was looking so positive until, just as the finish line was in sight, the woman with no purpose was back.
Both Shannon and her step-brother Boone Carlyle brought so little to the group that it’s surprising the rest of the castaways didn’t find a way to off them much earlier. Boone at least had some apparent lifeguarding skills, and did eventually attempt to get involved with the story of the island by becoming John Locke’s understudy. Shannon, on the other hand, brought nothing at all to the table other than a smattering of French and the ability to look good in a bikini. If I am honest with myself about how things work, that probably was the real point of her character anyway.
Boone and Shannon were clearly added to the initial cast of Lost in hopes of hooking in teenage audiences. Not even a Cruel Intensions-esque incest storyline could save them from being excess baggage, though.
Thankfully, Lost soon decided it wanted to be a sci-fi show and not 90210 at sea, and the writing was on the wall for both characters. Not before they could sneak in a wholly unbelievable romance between Shannon and Sayid, though, just to remind us how much we wouldn’t be missing her character.
Isabelle Tyler – The 4400
Creepy babies with super powers are far more interesting than hormonal teenage girls. That is the lesson all television writers should learn from The 4400‘s Isabelle Tyler.
The 4400 started off with such promise. A group of 4400 people from across time being suddenly placed on a beach in the American Northwest had scope to be compelling television.
Following the stories of the individual returnees, and trying to unravel the mystery of why they were not just taken, but then returned, held my attention for quite some time. Each of the early episodes skilfully unveiled the variety of paranormal abilities each of the returnees had acquired since their return.
Early on, the character of Lily Moore was one of the more endearing characters, and her mystery came to the forefront when it was revealed she was pregnant when she was returned to modern times.
From that revelation forward, most of the first season of The 4400 focused on the pregnancy and the potential of the resulting child. Even from within the womb, the baby clearly had some sort of super power, and it wasn’t exactly set on using them for good.
When returnee guru Jordan Collier merely touches Lilly’s pregnant belly he is left crippled with pain. There was just something not right about that baby and we wanted to know why.
After the birth of the baby, Isabelle Tyler, things continued to move in a promising direction. Who could fail to be impressed with a baby that can somehow mind meld with two bad guys and make them turn their guns on themselves and commit suicide? What is not creepy and bad ass about that?
Baby Isabelle can also see into the future, and, as such, Collier became compelled, despite past experiences, to invite both her and her parents to come and live in the protection of the 4400 Center.
Being unconvinced that Collier had made the offer for the most virtuous of reasons only served to make the storyline increasingly interesting for the audience.
Then, some TV executive somewhere must have decided there wasn’t enough teenage interest in the show, and Isabelle had the ability to rapidly age. In the space of just one episode, she goes from creepy baby to naked teenager, throwing herself at Shawn Farrell, the male teenage prodigy of the show. Game over as far as the character of Isabelle Tyler is concerned.
When her powers of seduction cease to work on Shawn, she becomes the biggest advertisement for PMT medications ever to air on television.
A character with no motivation for trying to wreak havoc and destruction on the world other than her boyfriend not wanting to shag her anymore is simply boring.
There was briefly some hope that that the writers had figured this out too when they introduced a plot device to return her to the age of a toddler. No dice, though, because, before too long, she is back to being an adult and just as boring as ever.
Jenny – Doctor Who
Honestly, do I even have to expand on this one or will “she sucks” sum it up well enough?
Yes, we get that Georgina Moffat is cute, and likely to make geek boys all over squirm in their seats, but then why not find a better role for her?
Certainly the notion that the Doctor could have children could be an interesting area to explore, but this was just so badly done that it is an episode best forgotten.
Plus, does anybody really believe that Moffat was auditioned for a smaller role on Doctor Who, and they were so impressed with her they randomly chose to have the daughter of Peter Davison play the daughter of the Doctor?
If so, then you probably also believe, as Phil Collinson claimed, that the character of Jenny was created to push and stretch David Tennant’s Doctor. I’m just not sure that I buy it myself.
Dawn Summers – Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Buffy fans, put down your pitch forks and just listen! Did Buffy really need a younger sister, and if she did, couldn’t she at least be a bit more interesting?
Yes, I know Dawn was the Key and all that, but even that wasn’t that special a story line. If we are honest with ourselves, wasn’t Dawn Summers just introduced to the cast of Buffy The Vampire Slayer because, by the end of season five, the original Scooby gang just wasn’t very teenagery anymore?
If we close our eyes, can’t we all just imagine the network executives telling Joss Whedon to find some way of bringing the show back to the high school in hopes of preventing the ratings from dipping any further?
Buffy had been one of the few television shows on TV, never mind just sci-fi shows, aimed at teenagers that provided the audience youthful examples of female liberation. Okay, they were witches and vampire slayers, but Willow and Buffy could kick ass and look after themselves without having to make excuses for their gender.
Even the sideline female characters such as Cordelia and Anya had storylines that saw them become strong independent, if somewhat insane, women.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer also took a refreshingly brave approach to young female sexuality. Willow and Tara’s lesbian relationship managed to be groundbreaking, and yet not feel forced into the show.
Perhaps the introduction of Dawn in such a clumsy manner could have been forgiven if she had been given storylines that lived up to those of the female characters that came before her. Instead, she whined her way through most episodes and is given an ever-so-enthralling kleptomania plot.
Her only purpose on the show is to be the damsel in distress, whose teenage antics force Buffy into perilous situations.
So, after we have had this little talk can we all agree that we didn’t really need Dawn? Even the Buffy comics only make her ‘interesting’ by turning her first into a giant and then a centaur!
Captain Elizabeth Lochley – Babylon 5
Why can’t female captains on sci-fi shows simply be strong, career minded women with the same drive for success as their male counterparts?
Surely, even in 1998 when Captain Elizabeth Lochley was introduced to Babylon 5, society had reached a point where we could accept that some women would choose traditionally male career paths without having been pushed there through daddy issues?
Apparently not, since instead we got an ex-junkie whose desire to rebel against her anti-military alcoholic artist father made her see joining EarthForce as her only way to reform her life.
Normally, a show putting a female in charge of the ship would be something to be applauded, but the whole characterisation of Lochley is so clumsy that she smacks of tokenism rather than liberation.
Fine, Susan Ivanova had disappeared from the show and John Sheridan had just been made President of the Interstellar Alliance. Both changes meant that the show needed to quickly fill two voids, and putting a female captain in place makes sense, but that doesn’t excuse the train wreck of a character that resulted.
Part of the problem surely has to be that Lochley was introduced in the final season of Babylon 5, and most of the characters had seen a good deal of fairly impressive character development. Maybe the temptation was to throw a whole lot of back story at Lochley and hope some of it would stick and draw the viewers into her character.
So random and nonsensical were the threads of this back story, though, that it became nothing short of laughable. Why exactly did she need to have been married to Sheridan at some point the past? A past so distant that Sheridan himself had apparently forgotten about it for the whole series up until it is revealed?
The whole thing was an embarrassing mistake of a character for a show that could, and usually did, do better.
Maya Herrera – Heroes
I won’t blame the downfall of Heroes on Maya Herrera and her bleeding eyes, but certainly the decline in the show’s quality began at the same time she and her twin brother Alejandro were introduced.
Did anybody care about why her eyes were bleeding for more than two episodes? Sure, the first time it was a bit creepy, but it became so repetitive.
Pretty-faced bleedy eyes would get upset and the person causing her stress would either die, or her antidote brother would step in and reverse the effect. No, you don’t have to show us again for us to understand.
Once again, the failure of the female character isn’t in the idea, but in the execution. It makes sense that somewhere in the world there would be people with abilities they didn’t understand, and that it would be causing them both emotional and legal problems. The time was even right for American television to introduce a kick-ass Latina heroine.
Instead, though, Maya was riddled with stereotypes. Firstly, she is a young South American woman and therefore she must defer all her decision-making powers to the males around her. Then, when she accidently uses her powers to kill somebody, being a Latina apparently means she has no choice but to run to the nearest convent and become a nun.
Really, in 2007 is the only option for a South American woman to run and hide behind a habit, and wait for her brother to rescue her?
The fugitive nature of the siblings’ story line had potential to be interesting too. Seeing how lesser developed parts of the world dealt with people that showed abilities could have been fascinating, but once again the ball was dropped. Instead of a strong and empowered woman leading her brother on a journey to find the meaning behind their abilities, we have an emotionally crippled mouse lacking basic common sense.
Even when they meet up with Sylar and discover that he killed his mother, Maya isn’t given the brain power to see the danger they are in and reacts as a clichéd soppy woman ready to dish out premature forgiveness.
Evidently, the writers saw Maya and Alejandro as little more than plot devices to get Sylar back into the main action of the series.
Did they really have to stick around for so long into the second season, though?
Kristine Kochanski – Red Dwarf
Red Dwarf would easily make it onto my top ten list of favourite shows of all time, but that doesn’t excuse the truly annoying character that is Kristine Kochanski. Kochanski’s failings come both from the writing of the character and the poor selection of actresses that have played the role.
I honestly don’t care how many young men she titillated in Gregory’s Girl, for me, Clare Grogan is easily one of the more annoying women ever to appear on British television. Running fingernails down a chalkboard may come close to competing with how grating her voice can be, and don’t even get me started on how downright insulting it is to have a stick insect voicing over Weight Watchers adverts.
So, yes, I admit that, even before the character of Kochanski was given time to develop, there was already an immediate strike against her.
More frustrating are the inconsistencies in the character throughout Red Dwarf. At the start, when she was primarily a fantasy figure for Lister, she was a passable character. Sure, she was annoying in the scenes where she appeared, but she was more or less to Lister what Yvonne McGruder was to Rimmer. I had no problem buying that a guy stuck in space would have emotional and sexual fantasies about the last potential relationship he had previous to being put into status.
Left just there she would have been bearable, but somewhere in the run somebody obviously decided that Red Dwarf had become too much of a sausage fest and the character of Kochanski was reworked to come closer in line to her role in the novels.
Somehow in this transaction she went from being the annoyingly perky, squeaking Scottish Grogran to the nearly as annoying over-enunciating Chloë Annett, an actress who contributes little to the commentaries other than saying how fat (yeah, right) she looks in scenes.
Again, though, as annoying as the actresses may be, the true flaw was the feeling Kochanski needed to be slotted into the everyday life of the ship in the first place.
Part of what made Red Dwarf so entertaining was precisely because of the laddish nature of the group of male characters. A female character to look down on their behaviour simply wasn’t needed. If anything, Kryten was already the mother figure of the show, and did a much better job of it than the actual female character.
Diana Fowley – The X-Files
The bitch is back. Only we never heard of her before so why should we care?
When Diana Fowley was introduced to the The X-Files in season five, it was revealed Fowley had been Fox Mulder’s partner when he was reopening the X-files in the early 1990s. Okay, so that was out of the blue, but The X-Files was all about mystery, so if the character was developed well, then it could have been forgiven.
After all, Dana Scully was such a positive step forward for female science fiction characters, and when Monica Reyes was introduced she wasn’t that bad either. So, The X-Files should have been able to avoid the female character clichés better than most shows.
Could have and should have, but in the case of Fowley they didn’t.
Mimi Rogers may have been too mature an actress to be slotted into the busty bimbo sci-fi stereotype, but apparently there was plenty of room for her under the umbrella of the ball-busting bitch cliché. You see, especially in the 1990s, if any woman had worked her way to an advanced position with an organization, she had to be a total bitch that didn’t mind stepping on others.
That Scully had escaped this cliché was refreshing, but with Fowley it came back in spades. One cliché wasn’t enough, though, and Fowley was also able to tick the box for the one that might possibly annoy me the most.
Just as with Lochley in Babylon 5, if a high ranking female officer is parachuted into an established show,
she has to have had past romantic connections to the male lead.
Apparently, smart women only pick jobs that put them in close contact with their ex-lovers and, sure enough, it isn’t long before we find out that Fowley had been Mulder’s girlfriend.
What is that I smell? A potential love triangle plot in development between Mulder, Scully and Fowely? Say it ain’t so!
If you think I have strong views on the character of Diana Fowley, go on over to YouTube and search for the “Diana Fowley Dies in Sims 2” video and see how far some fans will go to try to purge her from their X-Files memories.
Martha Jones – Doctor Who
File this one under ‘what could have been’. Finally, the Doctor had a companion who was smart enough to do more than just follow behind him in awe. Sure, Rose had street smarts but she still carried the teenage girl feeling with her.
Martha, on the other hand, was a 23-year-old medical student who wasn’t afraid to show off her intelligence. Couple that with the opportunity to make her a positive role model for black British girls and you have what should have been a step forward for women in science fiction.
Nope, instead we have to have her fall in love with the Doctor. Say what you will about Donna Noble, but at least she was written like an adult woman who didn’t instantly fall in love with any man who showed her a bit of attention.
Martha, on the other hand, not only falls in love with him, but also becomes annoying in her longing. Moaning about being the rebound assistant after Rose and complaining that the Doctor fell in love with a human that wasn’t her (Human Nature/The Family Of Blood) smacked more of little girl than medical student.
Then, nearly as quickly as Martha joined the Doctor, she was gone. Almost as if the characterisation had just become too much for the show’s writers to handle. Sure, she popped up now and then in both Doctor Who and Torchwood, and each time we are shown she is rising progressively higher through the ranks.
While that should be a good thing, it feel like a cop-out every time, because she could have been one of the strongest companions to have ever graced the inside of the TARDIS. Instead, she was cast to the side as an afterthought.
Leave your thoughts in the comments below…!