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Sci-Fi TV's Most Memorable Female Characters

by Maureen Ryan, posted Mar 8th 2011 11:00AM
Laura Roslin, Battlestar GalacticaTV Squad's list of TV's Most Memorable Female TV Characters had quite a few space travelers in the mix, but there are more strong sci-fi ladies we simply had to pay tribute to.

As this essential chart from Overthinking It makes clear, "strong" female characters are not flawless specimens capable of kicking butt at the drop of a hat. They're complicated, flawed, contradictory, unpredictable and -- this is important -- as charismatic, heroic or disappointing as the leading male characters on their shows.

Sci-fi shows aren't always kind to women -- too many have used female characters as inessential eye candy over the years -- but the women below are unforgettable examples of thoughtful writing memorably melding with terrific acting.

Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), 'Battlestar Galactica': If you want to see an acting master class, watch Mary McDonnell take Roslin on one hell of a journey of the course of 'Battlestar's' four seasons. When most of humanity was destroyed, Roslin was somehow left in charge, and no one was more surprised than the former secretary of education. She learned how to command the fleet and how to put fear into her enemies (gaining the nickname Madame Airlock in the process); she could be peremptory, stubborn and also shrewd, generous and disarmingly vulnerable. On a ship full of memorable characters and in a cast full of terrific performers, McDonnell and Roslin always stood out.

aeryn SunAeryn Sun (Claudia Black), 'Farscape': The upright, order-following Officer Sun was an outstanding Peacekeeper soldier -- until she met John Crichton and her rigid existence went kablooey. Make a new life with his band of escaped prisoners? The very idea was insane to her. Yet by sticking with the irreverent Crichton and his merry band of space travelers, she found many new sides to herself and began to see life in a very different way. She was always most comfortable with a gun in her hand, but watching Sun learn how to value friendship and love was a wonderful experience.

Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), 'Battlestar Galactica': A rebel with a fondness for risk-taking and an unwilling prophet with wavering self-esteem, Starbuck always felt most comfortable in the cockpit of her Viper during a heated battle. Everything else -- relationships, responsibility, planning for the future -- was hard for Starbuck, but thanks to Sackhoff's unflinching and compassionate portrayal of the conflicted character, Starbuck's difficulties and personal dramas were often riveting.

Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey), 'Farscape': I didn't watch 'Farscape' at first, because, really? A show with a blue chick? Surely it had to be cheesy, right? How very wrong I was. To be sure, 'Farscape' didn't always take itself seriously, but it developed into an enthralling, emotionally engaging tale about a rag-tag band of outsiders, and the blue lady turned out to be one of the most interesting characters in that ad hoc family. Graceful, commanding, funny and wise, Zhaan was missed after she left the show in the third season.

Zoe, FireflyZoe Washburne (Gina Torres), 'Firefly': Sure, I'm a sucker for Gina Torres in anything -- she could read a grocery list and I'd avidly watch that. Yet no role in her varied career has fit her as beautifully as that of Zoe, a tough, determined fighter and a steadfast friend. It's almost a rule in television that a female character can't be both good at her job and happy in her romantic relationship, but Zoe managed to excel in both arenas. And she got to be funny, too.

Delenn (Mira Furlan), 'Babylon 5': Furlan may best known as Danielle Rousseau on 'Lost,' but that part wasn't much compared to her epic role on 'Babylon 5,' where she played a Minbari priestess and ambassador who became deeply ensnared in a complex tale of love, war and sacrifice. Furlan, who herself fled war in her native country, the former Yugoslavia, never let you forget how much war and bloodshed cost Delenn, yet the character never lost sight of her duty to her people and to posterity.

Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), 'The X-Files': Millions of words have already been written about Scully and the impact she had on fans of quality television, let alone sci-fi television. So I'll be brief and just say that 18 years after the show debuted, it still holds up (at least the early seasons do), and much of the reason for its staying power can be traced back to Anderson's earnest, thoughtful performance as Scully, which kept even the strangest cases grounded in reality.

Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine': All 'Trek' series are pretty bad in their first couple of seasons, and 'DS9' is no exception. But as the series found itself, it also found terrific material for Visitor, who significantly raised her game as an actress over the course of the series. Nerys was a juicy role, there's no doubt about that: As a former resistance fighter who took a leadership role aboard the busy 'DS9' space station, she had to confront not only her former tormentors but her own complicated past, and her love affair with Odo was one for the ages.

Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), 'Stargate SG-1': Here's one thing I never got about 'Stargate SG-1': Why didn't Jack O'Neill run away with Carter and marry her? She was funny, smart, brave, resourceful and willing to put up with his goofball antics. In any case, Tapping always did a terrific job with an occasionally thankless role, and Sam's steady intelligence, humility and leadership qualities are missed in a TV landscape full of lovesick vampires.

Olivia, FringeOlivia Dunham (Anna Torv), 'Fringe': I had my doubts about both Olivia and Torv in the show's first season, but those have all been overcome by the masterful evolution of this guarded yet fiercely protective FBI agent. Torv has more than proven herself by giving us two different Olivias, each one compelling in her own way.

Honorable mentions: Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), 'Torchwood'; Ensign Ro (Michelle Forbes), 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'; Number Six, 'Battlestar Galactica'; B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson), 'Star Trek: Voyager'; Sharon "Boomer" Valerii and Sharon "Athena" Agathon, aka Number Eight (Grace Park), 'Battlestar Galactica'; Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.'

Please note: For the purposes of this list, I did not consider 'Buffy,' 'Angel' or 'Lost' to be in the sci-fi realm. I know, we can argue about whether they belong in that genre all day, but I would put 'Buffy' and 'Angel' and shows like that in the horror realm, and to my mind 'Lost' is a character-driven drama with some sci-fi elements, not truly a sci-fi show, per se.

Another note: I know there were hints that Samantha Carter and Jack O'Neill got together at some point, apparently after O'Neill's retirement, but why not make their bond official earlier? And don't give me that hoo-ha about him being her commanding officer. The show could have found a way to get around that.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Where is Nichelle Nichols' Lieutenant Uhura? She is an icon of strong women and women of color and it is a shame to see her left off this list.

April 06 2011 at 10:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

who kicked more but than the ' sisters ' of CHARMED!!!!!

April 03 2011 at 10:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Jen Maters

I love watching shows via online tv and I saw a lot of sci fi movies and shows and I can conclude that Summer Glau should be part of the top 10!

March 17 2011 at 10:00 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Great article. Thou I also think Summer Glau should be on it.

March 14 2011 at 8:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nick Holloway

Ummm.... what about Summer Glau??? Where is she on this list??

March 10 2011 at 11:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A big YES to your list, but a big NO to your Jack/Sam suggestion. For three seasons Sam was a smart, strong breath of fresh air on TV for having a great mentee-mentor relationship with her CO. See, not every woman exists to be a love interest! Then over the next seven seasons they randomly tossed in shipper moments based on the writer or director de jour, clashing with the more common team-y theme. If either or both parties had disrespected regs enough to follow through, it would have degraded their military service (and unfortunately, Sam, as a woman in the military, would especially have borne the reputational hit). I'm fine with people imagining whatever they want to be going on, but I'm with the many no-romos and fans of other pairings who would rather not see the showrunners of an action sci-fi show go there.

March 10 2011 at 10:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sally Murphy

I totally agree with you, Maureen, on your Sam Carter-Jack O'Neill comment!

I don't want to guess that they ended up together, I want to SEE it. You know, television being a visual medium and all. :p

March 10 2011 at 12:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am in total agreement with the comment in "Another Note" at the end of the article. Or as Teal'c would say: "Indeed"!

March 10 2011 at 12:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What about Marina Sirtis, Deanna Troi and Jeri Ryan, Seven of Nine on Star Trek the next generation.

March 09 2011 at 9:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I would like to add Dollhouse's Adelle DeWitt (as portrayed by Olivia Williams) to the list.

March 09 2011 at 12:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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