We know representation in entertainment matters. It matters in entertainment that feel like they are more reserved for a majority of white casts. This happens–ironically enough–in popular genres that explore new worlds and mythos, particularly sci-fi.
The last few years granted us with shows where protagonists and supporting leads have not been the typical white male or female. When it comes to women of color, we have seen some complex characters taking the spotlight on the TV screen. From Michael Burnham and Captain Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek Discovery to Rebecca/Two in Dark Matter, it’s not a surprise that more representation is impacting trends in sci-fi, a genre that we will focus on for this article.
That’s not to say we can continue to improve on how characters are handled within these storylines and how the audience responds to them. Nevertheless, here are a few of my recent favorite sci-fi shows with top WOC leads moving the story in powerful and sometimes inconspicuous ways:
Favorite WOC leads from The Expanse
Season 4 dropped in December 2019 after almost a year-and-a-half of waiting. This riveting series has delivered quite a breadth of diverse cast members and influences from different cultures. Now if you haven’t watched The Expanse, or read the books by James S. A. Corey, you have a lot of catching up to do. There is an array of prominent WOC characters you will meet throughout the seasons. Here are a few female forces to look out for:
Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper)
In a universe where humans have colonized the solar system and political tensions are split between Earth, Mars, and an area by the outer planets known as The Belt, Naomi plays a mixed-Black Belter, and one of the crewmembers of the Mars fighter-ship, Rocinante.
After a shocking conspiracy that sends her and her three teammates into the pits of several political powers and conflicts, Naomi shows off her prowess in engineering and data hacking, which saves her and her crew countless times. She is also the voice of reason in several instances, especially for the main protagonist, James Holden. Being the only woman among a trio of guys isn’t easy, and Season 4 had much in store for her. Thankfully, Dominique Tipper plays her beautifully on screen, encapsulating her cheeky confidence as well as her humanly low moments.
Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo)
You all know I’ll be the first to toot a horn for any Desi (South Asian) character in a sci-fi. Chrisjen Avasarala easily became one of my all-time favorites the moment I laid my eyes on her (and got to know her in the books). While Shohreh Aghdashloo is not South Asian herself, she delivers her no-nonsense witty self clad in graceful saris and South Asian-influenced accessories.
Chrisjen plays a huge part in commandeering from the central government on Earth, the future version of the United Nations. As the UN Deputy Undersecretary of Executive Administration, she is a strategist that ultimately moves the main plot and the central figures in the series, especially the Rocinante crew. Chrisjen may be old, but she is everything that the fans of this show loves. She is shrewd, badass, and curses like a sailor whenever she feels like it. She also has a soft spot for her grandkids and her husband, which helps to show her various layers. With Season 4 out, it’s important to catch up to all her iconic scenes before new shit hits the cosmic fan.
Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams)
It’s not common to see a female Polynesian lead in a sci-fi. But Roberta “Bobbie” Draper comes with the brawn and the Islander strength to prove it. Ironically enough, she is not from Earth – instead hailing as a Gunnery Sergeant within the Martian Marine Corps. Her story is among a few others that come together amid a mass conspiracy.
After an attack from a mysterious creature that wipes out her entire platoon on Ganymede, Bobbie is first used as a tool by the Martian forces to claim their innocence against the enemy Earthers. That is, until she breaks allegiance and instead plunges into uncovering the heart of the conspiracy. Without giving away too many spoilers, let’s just say Bobbie’s growth and understanding of the universe helps her to rise above the ranks and overcome several conflicts over the seasons. Frankie Adams does a phenomenal job with showing Bobbie’s vigor, loyalty, and heart.
Favorite WOC leads from Altered Carbon
With Season 2 out, it’s worth noting the WOC power pulling the reins on this intriguing sci-fi show. The plot involves a future earth, where human consciousness can be stored in capsules called cortical stacks and thus change human vessels, called ‘sleeves.’ It’s a concept that invokes great worldbuilding. It goes into matters of class, morality, crime and justice, and of course, conspiracies. Takeshi Kovacs is the protagonist. However, he wouldn’t be anything without the ladies that have moved his story in Season 1. And a few also appeared in the new season that released end of February:
Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda)https://tenor.com/embed.js
If you watched Season 1 of Altered Carbon, you definitely came across Chief officer Kristin Ortega. She pairs up with Kovacs to solve the “previous murder” case of a wealthy bureaucrat. Ortega may look small, but she’s tough, persistent, and does her job very well. It’s with her help that Kovacs is able to overcome several – many gruesome – trials and tribulations.
There may be something else that connects Ortega to Kovacs too… But let’s leave that for the viewers to catch up on. We can praise Martha Higareda for bringing to life the character’s Mexican heritage and also a futuristic version of Catholicism that influences her views on changing sleeves. Ortega goes through hell and back in the first season – too bad she has a small role to play in the next one.
Quellcrist Falconer (Reneé Elise Goldsberry)https://tenor.com/embed.js
No one else plays a small but pivotal role on the show better than the woman who is deemed as the creator of the cortical stacks. In Season 1, Quell mainly appeared as a memory within Kovacs’ consciousness, linking him to his first skin and his history surrounding her before her supposed “death.” She is depicted as a leader – which she was, of an entire rebel group known as Envoys – a strategist, a teacher, and most importantly, a creator to the one thing that moves the AC universe.
You may remember Reneé Elise Goldsberryfrom the hit Broadway play Hamilton. It’s quite refreshing to see her take on a sci-fi role, where she proves her badassery through weapons and words. Throughout Season 1, she was painted in flashbacks and a figure in Kovacs’ mind, but she definitely has a more tangible comeback in Season 2. As they say on the streets, “I lived, bitch!”
Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman, season 1)https://tenor.com/embed.js
Reileen has a massively important part to play in the universe that surrounds cortical stacks in Season 1. She is also Takeshi Kovacs’s biological sister from his first body. We don’t meet her as a supporting character until later in the show. But her connection with Kovacs turns the seemingly linear crime and mystery plot into a bigger stew of conspiracies.
When we first meet Reileen, she is clad in a black hooded jacket to hide her face and a katana in hand – saving her brother and Kristin Ortega’s lives from a cage-fight. We then learn about her position: a high-profile operator of many significant institutions and methods that are visited and revisited through each episode. She is also shown to have acquired her wealth over many many years through being a meth, someone who ‘resleeves’, or changes their human vessels, multiple times. There is more to her method of madness as well. But that’s what makes Season 1 so brilliant and keeps you on the edge to the very end. Good thing Dichen Lachman, the Nepali-Australian actress who has appeared in other popular sci-fi series as well, does the character justice.
Favorite WOC leads from Westworld
Westworld brings a world of droids, where a fantastical theme park shaped like the old classic Wild Wild West serves as an escape for rich visitors through artificial consciousness. Here, droids called Hosts are placed to entertain the visitors through enriching, and often explicit, narratives based on the guests’ preferred fantasies. The story follows several Hosts who begin to grow sentience and retaliate against their human creators and staff of the park. The show goes through various different timelines and plots, weaving memories and flashbacks into the present with twists to boot. With Season 3 out, people have a lot to catch up on before the story shifts from the park to the real world. While you’re doing that, here are two significant WOC leads to look out for who have changed the landscape of the game:
Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton)https://tenor.com/embed.js
Host Maeve starts out as one of the main characters in Season 1. She gradually begins to question her reality. Her part in the park starts out as that of a Wild West Brothel Madam of Mariposa Saloon, using her narrative to skilfully and slyly entertain guests in many ways. It’s interesting how her developing conscience allows her not just to affect but take control of the world around her. She uses her manipulative skills after meeting the other Host protagonist Dolores to plot out her escape from the park. Maeve’s cunning ways help her take on forces bigger than her, while still being able to make deep decisions that ultimately affect her planned escape into the real world.
Maeve’s development brings tension with even the other main characters within the plot. We see this progress on to Season 2, and now with Season 3, we know that she will have a new narrative to play. That means more challenges to her hopes and ideals in the real world.
Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson)https://tenor.com/embed.js
There is nothing like an antagonist that can be ambitious, self-centered, yet exceptionally smart as Charlotte Hale. Her role in Season 1 as the Director of the Delos Board brings great tension among the major players within the Westworld park, particularly with the creator of the park itself, Ford. Her scheming and strategizing go to various levels to get him fired for taking bold actions with each Host’s narratives. To her, maintaining the intellectual property of the park is everything.
Tessa Thompson has rocked iconic roles in Marvel and other sci-fi worlds. Her performance as Charlotte does things that we tend to see mainly cold-hearted old men do on a high chair. Of course, that all changes by Season 2, where different timelines play sequentially and makes you question if we are looking at the same Charlotte Hale or a Host. Spoilers aside, the ending to Season 2 answers that question.
That’s a wrap for top WOC leads!
It’s good to see women of color rising and making important decisions in the worlds of sci-fi. There are many others to check out — like in the fantasy genre — and more POC characters to explore. We hope that they keep on coming with more enriching tales and complex lives to move the story. While 2019 and years previous have given us some new content, let’s see what 2020 has in store for now. All I know is that Nichelle Nichols (a.k.a Uhura) would be proud.
Read more of Julisa’s articles.
Read a previous article about strong female protagonists in sci-fi and fantasy.