Sci-Fi-Di: Science Fiction Diversity

In my first post I wrote about the way that Castle exhibited a type of “post-racial” verse, where the time is the present but problems with race and gender had been alleviated to allow for a funner, more subtly optimistic show.

In this post I want to go a little into the concept of Diverse Universes: in which science fiction entertainment media has a diverse ensemble that presents their reality as one where science reigns to the point of crossing racial lines. This concept has been around for a long time. I admit I have only seen the first couple episodes of Star Trek (more on that in later posts, I promise), but the cast was extremely varied for that time, and it’s one of the reasons it is so well known and loved.

I personally am already in love with it because (a) I loved the re-boot movie so much, and (b) I kind of look like Sharmila Tagore who kind of looks like Lieutenant Uhura. Also she works in communications, which is my major! And she’s short and curvy like me (maybe not exactly like me, but…)! And I totally have a red dress like that…

Ahem. I’m sorry. I did not mean to descend into fandom. That’s for another post. But suffice to say that Uhura is awesome. In fact she was so awesome that when Nichelle Nichols (the wonderful actress who played Uhura) met Martin Luther King, Jr., he expressly told her how much he loved her on the show—and when she mentioned that she was planning to leave that first season, he convinced her to stay. He believed that her presence on the show as a black woman was a special type of inspiration for people of color.

She represented something special to them by existing in a space that was usually so white washed, in a show that was breaking boundaries in storytelling as well as characterization, and was critically acclaimed and loved across the board. She was a smart, interesting character—a kind of character that was absent for most people of color.

I can attest to this. When there are no characters in media that look like you, it feels like you don’t exist. As if you aren’t important enough to exist in a world, a world constructed to be loved and cherished by people around the country. People talk about media, they like certain aspects of it: it can be inspirational or cathartic or meaningful in all types of ways. But when here’s no one there you can relate to, it doesn’t just feel like there’s a disconnect between you and the medium (whether it be a television show, movie, or radio broadcast). Because so many people see it and love it and enjoy it, it feels like a disconnect between you and the world.

Plus, a successful show like Star Trek suggested diversity and characters of color weren’t only for niche audiences, but could work for everyone. It represented characters that people had never seen before, and normalizes them. With big casts, it allows more importance to each character, and with science fiction, it means anything can happen–including a woman of color being an important part of the action.

Shows like Star Trek, and those inspired by this, like Lost and Heroes and FlashForward are sci-fi shows with large diverse casts, whose individual experiences contribute to the story in important ways.

In Lost, the stories are like origin tales, illustrating the history of the plane crash in the pilot: Why did they get on the plane? And the real mystery of Lost is: Why did they get on the plane? I don’t want to say much more, because to be honest that show is incredibly confusing to me, and I only watch it sporadically when I want my mind to turn mushy.

Heroes—at least in its wonderful first season—introduced characters that were ordinary people with personal problems but new powers that made them special—just like any good X-Men ripoff. It declined quickly and was highly problematic anyway, but it represented a vision of what could be as well as how things could go wrong. Some links about the show’s problems are here, here, and, most frustratingly, here.

Finally: FlashForward: another tale about supernatural events and the secretive nature behind them. This time, everyone in the world is involved. They all see visions of the future, all of which are important. I was very excited about this one, until it started making me uncomfortable by introducing warlords in Somalia. Just a personal preference against warlords.

I love ensemble casts and I love sci-fi, and these shows delivered on both. They were also dramas, which is somewhat disappointing—but both shows delivered, for a time, a nice combination of emotional temerity, the connections between us, and deliberations on humanity.

I think these sci-fi shows also push the solution to one of the main problems of diverse television. Often shows with diverse casts ignore racial subjectivities: no one talks about race or gender or sexuality, etc., or how it affects their lives and their selves. That has definitely changed since the new millennium, especially in the last few years, which I think is partly because of the decline of old show formats like the four camera sitcom and family dramas and partly because of the globalization of the entertainment industry and the rising importance of minorities in the American landscape. Not that we weren’t important before, but people started paying attention to the fact.

However, one glaring similarity within the shows? The main characters, the ones that the audience follow the most closely and which are the most powerful and important: all of them are white. And nearly all of them are male—and cis-gender and able-bodied and usually straight (at least with only straight relationships explicitly depicted).

See:

In Lost, we follow Jack’s point of view first and foremost in the crash, and in significant story shifts thereafter. Other characters are definitely important, but he is first: when the show went into an alternate reality, we looked through his eyes.

In Heroes, Peter Petrelli (and Gabriel Gray aka Sylar) have the same power of being able to absorb all other powers, and figure most directly into the story. There is also an interesting parallel between the two, which is a post for another day. Claire is important too, but she is also the main damsel in distress and, despite being invulnerable, always needs to be protected. Even the creators noted that these two characters’ families were the main focus of the show after season one, promising a nice cleansing of the show of the now needless minorities and happily delivering it.

In FlashForward, Mark’s problems are followed the most closely, his vision is about solving the mystery, and he is the one of the highest ranked. This is despite the fact that John Cho is on the show, and is planning on marrying Gabrielle Union. I saw them pass over that fact, but at least they were on my television (er, or rather, my computer screen).

Even Star Trek had Captain James T. Kirk as its main character. This is alleviated by the fact that he is awesome. (Okay, so I’ve only seen the new movie and the first two episodes, but he seems to know what he’s doing.)

Interestingly, all these shows are dead or dying: Lost’s last episode is next week! Meanwhile, Heroes is cancelled but may be revived for a two hour wrap up session (Zachary Quinto will be on my teevee!). And FlashForward has two more last episodes before the end.

There are other colorful ensembles on television (like the Office, Community, Glee…oh Glee) but none quite as science fiction-y as I would like. And there are other science fiction shows (Fringe, Chuck, Human Target, etc. etc. there are a lot these days) but they aren’t as colorful or as big as I would like.

But there is a whole new host of shows coming out next fall (which will be covered later this week) and I am totally excited to see them.

Note: I know I did not cover any cable shows, but I can only watch so much TV, and I have no idea where to start with Battlestar Galactica.

Second Note: I also may have left my analyses of these shows open-ended and based mainly in my experience with the shows (and I did not watch every episode of each show). I would love to know the thoughts of more devoted watchers and casual viewers alike on the subject.

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2 Responses to “Sci-Fi-Di: Science Fiction Diversity”

  1. Racial diversity in sci-fi television has been one of its major selling points since the original Star Trek, and in a way it makes sense because when the storylines introduce viewers to intelligent and sentient beings from other species/planets, it forces us to reconceptualize the way we define race. As in race: human, not white/black/asian/etc.

    While all of this is good and interesting and can be progressive, we should be careful before we give these shows more credit than they are due. They are still created and exist within our racially-flawed society and often reflect the prejudices of the time, all while presenting themselves as beyond them. We can cheer that Star Trek showed to first interracial kiss on television, but we can’t forget that Kirk and Uhara were forced to kiss by some big mean aliens. Neither of them wanted to do it. It was the first interracial kiss on television, but it was under duress.

    Also, interesting that you mention Doctor Who. It wasn’t until the new series reboot in 2005 that a person of color joined the Doctor on the TARDIS (Mickey was the first, then Martha). The show went from being completely white to self-consciously diverse (I say self-consciously because there are many interracial couples, more so than we typically see in one series.) New Who also offers the first non-heterosexual character in Captain Jack, and he is most certainly not your effeminate stereotype.

    But in that attempt to be inclusive, I worry that the series may whitewash some real racial issues. Such as the Daleks in Manhattan two-parters (that Hooverville sure was integrated and free of racial discord) or the one where the Doctor and Martha go to Elizabethan England. Martha poses a legitimate question as to whether or not she is safe, considering the the fact they just arrived in the early days of the Atlantic slave trade. The Doctors non-plussed answer? He motions to two black women walking down the street and says “You’ll find its not so different from your time.” Um…..no. Teachable moment, you missed it.

    Sci-fi series have the ability to reconceptualize the meaning of race in a futuristic setting, but until we live in the sort of world where such an idea is possible, they will continue to reflect the prejudices of our time.

    [Author Edit: I posted a link of this on Jezebel, where I mentioned that I liked Doctor Who for its focus on characters and relative uncluttered nature. I will do a post on THAT soon enough]

  2. I agree, but note you left out Battlestar: Galactica. The reimagining, that is. It has some of the same issues– diverse cast, white main characters– but the case is less egregious & also it is AMAZING television.

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