In a month during which the Oscars have been rightly lambasted for their frequent exclusion and diminishing of minorities and DC/Warner Brothers trumpeted their upcoming Wonder Woman movie’s feminism by showing off Gal Gadot’s ass and talking about how her true power is her loving, nurturing personality, it’s especially refreshing to retire from the eye-rolling and concentrate on the places science fiction is getting diversity correct. That’s almost entirely on television, which in the past decade or so has emerged as far nimbler, responsive, and better than cinema when it comes to showcasing more diverse casts and stories. There may still be a lot of white guys in cargo pants involved, but these days they’re not the defining face of science fiction on television in the same way they are in the movies. The place that seems most adept at imagining a future that includes diverse races, religions, and relationships? Syfy.
Syfy takes a lot of crap for its lazy, pandering giant animal attack movies. For many, things like Sharknado still define the channel. Criticism of their fascination with those films isn’t unjustified, but in the stampede to dismiss everything on Syfy as similarly shoddy and bottom of the barrel, a lot of people have missed the shift away from cheap CGI snakes and pro wrestling and back toward the genre that gave the channel its obnoxiously spelled name. Currently, three shows have led Syfy’s way back into outer space and toward a more multi-colored future. Two of them — Dark Matter and Killjoys — are between seasons, having both wrapped up their debuts last year. The third and newest, currently about halfway through its first season, is The Expanse, based on a series of books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (who write under the shared pen name James S.A. Corey). A case could be made for a fourth Syfy series, Defiance, but it looks like that show won’t be back for another season, though at least it sent itself off in grand fashion.
All three (or four; yeah, let’s let Defiance join in) shows rely on an ensemble cast made up of a mix of races and genders. And it turns out that, despite the chicken little histrionics of a small portion of science fiction fandom, the genre is better for the diversity rather than having been destroyed by it. Killjoys breaks little new ground in terms of its plot, which is about a trio of bounty hunters who become involved in an increasingly complex and dangerous conspiracy involving both the military and planetary corporations. But while two of its leads are white guys (Aaron Ashmore as the wisecracking John Jaqobis and Luke Macfarlane as his tough, stoic brother D’Avin), the show’s anchor is Dutch, played by English actress Hannah John-Kamen, the daughter of a Nigerian forensic psychologist and a Norwegian fashion model. One of it’s main supporting characters (and my personal favorite) is a gay man and bartender.
Dark Matter has a much larger central cast for its tale of a group of people who wake up on a spaceship with no memory of how they got there or who they were before they awoke. The cast includes Filipino actor Alex Mallari Jr., Roger R. Cross (best known perhaps for playing Curtis on 24), and at the center of it all, Melissa O’Neil. Of the show’s seven main characters, three are women. Three are people of color. And while it’s not perfect (Alex Mallari still skulks around with a katana as part of a Japanese martial arts family), the show proves again that featuring a relatable, diverse cast is a hell of a lot easier than some studio execs make it out to be. Though many of the characters in Defiance were under make-up, it was a similarly diverse cast, with the bulk of its strongest, most interesting characters being women (Julie Benz, Stephanie Leonidas, Jaime Murray, Trenna Keating, and Anna Hopkins — to say nothing of Linda Hamilton’s occasional appearances as a batshit insane survivalist).
The Expanse continues Syfy’s apparent commitment not just to returning at least a portion of the channel’s airtime to actual quality science fiction, but also to creating futures that are more reflective of humanity as a whole. I read Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series on which the show is based, just last October and loved it so much that I’ve finished all the others in the series (the fifth in the series, Nemesis Games, was published last summer), as well as the associated novellas. Without giving too much away, both the books and the Syfy series are set a couple hundred years in the future, when travel through the solar system has become commonplace (if not exactly quick and easy). Humanity now occupies three places: Earth, Mars (where people live in domes, still awaiting the rewards of the generations-long terraforming process) and the asteroids and moons around Saturn and Jupiter. The three pockets do not get along. Earth and Mars maintain an uneasy peace even years after a war fought to establish Martian independence. The occupants of the asteroid belt — Belters — fall officially under the control of Earth but are chafing under the thumb of the inner planets (as far as they’re concerned, Earth and Mars are basically the same). A Sinn Fein/PLO like terrorist group called the OPA is stirring up trouble and trying to emerge as a legitimate government rather than just a bunch of troublemakers and violent hotheads.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, an unimportant ice hauler ship investigates a mysterious distress beacon and is promptly nuked. The survivors — de facto captain James Holden, engineer Naomi Nagata, pilot Alex Kamal, and mechanic/muscle Amos Burton — who were away from the ship when it exploded, are picked up by one of the meanest ships in the Martian Navy — and it too is blown up. Events a bit too complex to recount here lead to war between Mars and the Belters, with Earth an uneasy neutral, while a down on his luck cop named Miller in a Belter space station works a case that starts with a missing rich girl and leads to a conspiracy involving mad science, terrorists, and a strange infection that could wipe out humanity. Things get worse from there.
In adapting the sprawling space opera for television, Syfy combined books and characters from multiple books, as well as making some changes and additions original to the show. They also engaged Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck as writers and consultants. And they continued the path blazed by Defiance, Killjoys, and Dark Matter in hiring a diverse cast of actors. Steven Strait as James Holden is hardly the square-jawed all-American white guy people expect. Thomas Jane as Detective Miller is twitchy and weird and wracked with more neuroses than Woody Allen — and somehow has worse hair than Woody Allen as well. Wes Chatham’s Amos is the closest thing to the archetypal tough white guy hero, but he’s played as a babyfaced psychotic (albeit a good guy psychotic). Cas Anvar plays pilot Alex Kamal, a Martian of Indian descent with a languid Texas drawl (though his version of the character isn’t as fat as the one in the book). British-Dominican dancer and singer turned actress Dominique Tipper holds everything and everyone together as the Belter Naomi Nagata while Shohreh Aghdashloo stalks the halls of the UN as one of the most powerful people on Earth. Sadly, the propensity for f-bombs she had in the book does not make it onto the Syfy screen. Rounding out the main players is The Wire alumnus Chad Coleman as Fred Johnson, the man trying to transform the OPA into a legitimate political party while also trying to repent for his past, during which he earned the nickname “The Butcher of Anderson Station.”
So far, it’s an exceptional slice of science fiction television, frequently compared to Game of Thrones (with which it has nothing in common beyond some of the same creative people) and Syfy’s first major accomplishment in the realm of quality science fiction, Battlestar Galactica (a much more appropriate comparison). There are missteps. It’s drawing things out a bit too much, perhaps, and the decision to have Holden and his crew much less familiar with and much more hostile toward one another made some dramatic sense, but I’m starting to tire of it (even though in the timeline of the show, very little time has passed so far). But by and large, it’s a welcome return to science fiction and a welcome return to the notion that science fiction can be slower and more thoughtful than the superheroes and “action films in space” that came to define it in the 21st century.
And yes. It proves, as television is proving over and over, that casting non-white, non-male actors isn’t some mysteriously difficult chore. Nor does the presence of a diverse cast mean the show becomes about diversity or political correctness. Nor does it banish white males from the scene or “take away their toys.” The Expanse, Killjoys, Dark Matter, and Defiance all feature white guys in lead roles; it’s just that now they’re not alone in leading. Now, they’re not the sole gender and sole color of the genre. The one thing all of those shows have in common — as well as broadcast network superhero shows like The Flash, Arrow, Agents of SHIELD, and Supergirl; Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones; and even though they are more horror than science fiction, Sleepy Hollow and Grimm — is a balanced and diverse ensemble cast that pays attention to everyone. They are groups. They are teams.
And maybe that’s something that makes it a little unfair to compare television with movies. TV can do ensembles better, because a TV series has more room to breathe, more time to devote to characters. And as such, it’s perceived by execs as perhaps less of a risk to be diverse in your casting. Ensemble casting at its best allows a show to cast a white guy as the nominal main character then subvert it. Few shows have done that as well as Agents of SHIELD, which promised us bland, square-jawed Grant Ward as the main tough guy hero then dropped him in favor of Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson (while, at the same time, turning bland hero Grant into fantastic psycho villain Grant) and Ming-na Wen’s Agent May. On Sleepy Hollow, Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills is definitely not Ichabod Crane’s sidekick. If anything, he’s her sidekick. Marvel still has a problem with relegating black characters to sidekick status, even if they are really interesting sidekicks in really good shows like Jessica Jones (to say nothing of how dangerous the MCU is for old black guys like Daredevil‘s Vondie Curtis-Hall and Jessica Jones‘ Clarke Peters). Daredevil, like Dark Matter, still plays the inscrutable and mystical Asian card a bit too obviously, where as Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD does much better with Agent May, one of the still too few women of color in the Marvel Universe. Reggie Lee as Sgt. Wu on Grimm is another personal favorite — how can a man maintain a perfect “can you believe this shit?” smirk so consistently?
To be fair, movies are learning, or at least being dragged forward by television. Most Marvel movies are still dominated by white guys (and Scarlett Johansson), but The Winter Soldier (a much better ensemble cast movie than The Avengers films) gave us Anthony Mackie as Falcon (a sidekick perhaps, but one who dominates much of the film) and a much better role for Johansson than she gets in The Avengers. Plus we have Black Panther coming up, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens was led by a woman and a black man. There might be problems with The Force Awakens, but Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are not among them.
There’s still much to be accomplished, especially behind the camera, where writers and directors are still overwhelmingly monochromatic. But any step forward is a step in the right direction, so long as we remember it shouldn’t be the final step. Diversity in science fiction isn’t about taking something away. It’s about expanding it to others. The more diverse science fiction becomes, the better it becomes. The smarter it becomes. The more fun and the more inspiring it becomes. And if you liked it the way it was, guess what? That’s still there, too. Minorities and women aren’t showing up to steal something you love. They’re showing up because they love it, too. By way of showcasing more diverse characters, it attracts a more diverse audience and more diverse creators, who bring new voices, new ideas, and new ways of exploring science fiction. If there’s any genre that should be about exploring new frontiers, it’s science fiction.