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Sci-fi women more than hot babes

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Battlestar Galactica" aired from 2004 to 2009 on Syfy (then called the Sci-Fi Channel)
  • That series and others are examples of how science fiction gave women strong roles
  • The theme of strong female women appears in several of the panels at Comic-Con 2011
  • Comic-Con takes place in San Diego July 21-24
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(CNN) -- "Women and men of the fleet: This is your president. We have come to a crossroads in our long and painful journey," Laura Roslin tells the survivors of humanity's near-destruction while a mutiny rages on.

That women get addressed first, and that a woman has authority over the last human population, isn't considered odd in the universe of the hit TV show "Battlestar Galactica."

The show aired from 2004 to 2009 on Syfy (then called the Sci-Fi Channel), and was a "reimagined" version of a 1978-to-1979 series of the same name.

With this week's San Diego Comic-Con drawing thousands of science fiction enthusiasts to learn about the latest and greatest in the genre, it's worth looking back at how "Battlestar" represents a new era of gender equality in science fiction, where women are just as likely as men to delegate, control, fight, innovate and generally influence events in the universe.

And those characters inspire women in our universe, too: Just ask the fans who flock to Comic-Con and similar conventions. The theme of strong female women appears in several of the panels at Comic-Con 2011, such as Thursday's "Her Universe: What Women Want in Their Female Sci-Fi Heroes" and "No Damsels in Distress Here," and Friday's "Girl's Gone Genre."

" 'Battlestar' turned the corner by allowing so many women to be in charge in the same story, and I think that's what made it completely unique," says Mary McDonnell, who played President Roslin on the show and now appears on TNT's "The Closer."

"There were so many powerful women in 'Battlestar.' Every woman had a feeling -- somewhat, at least -- of equality," she said.

New frontiers

Sci-fi has always been a space where characters could do things that violate social mores. The first multiracial kiss on television took place on "Star Trek" between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura. And its influence extended far beyond the living room.

iReporters share memories, photos of favorite sci-fi characters

Mary McDonnell, who played President Roslin on 'Battlestar,' will appear at Dragon*Con in September.
Mary McDonnell, who played President Roslin on 'Battlestar,' will appear at Dragon*Con in September.

Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, had relatively few lines and had thought about quitting "Star Trek." But the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. persuaded her to stay, since she could promote racial equality through her role as a black woman on the show.

And Nichols' character did have influence. "Whoopi Goldberg has said that seeing a black woman sitting on the bridge of a starship, and not working as a maid, made her believe as a young girl that she could be an actress with a real role," writes Dwayne Day in the essay "Star Trek as a Cultural Phenomenon."

When it comes to strong female characters, other genre works of note include "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Farscape," "Firefly" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

iReport: Cherry - Science fiction women

"Science fiction affords us the opportunity to envision a world without racial borders," says actress Anne Lockhart, who starred in the original 1978 "Battlestar Galactica" series. "You can envision the best of humanity."

Behind the scenes

In the original "Battlestar Galactica" from the 1970s, humans must fight metallic robots called Cylons that were created by a reptilian race long ago.

But the newer version adds a few twists. The first words that appear on the title screen of the first season explain it all: "The Cylons Were Created by Man. They Rebelled. They Evolved. They Look and Feel Human. Some are programmed to think they are Human. There are many copies. And they have a Plan."

Tricia Helfer, 37, played numerous copies of the Cylon prototype dubbed Number Six. These particular man-made machines appear to be beautiful, seductive women.

Before that, she began her career in perhaps one of the most eye-candy professions possible: modeling. But after a while, striking poses wasn't stimulating enough for her, especially as she got into her late 20s.

Her role on "Battlestar Galactica" also made use of her good looks, but the characters of Number Six and her clones were integral to the basic plot. When we first encounter Number Six, she seduces Dr Gaius Baltar so that, through him, she is able to gain access to the humans' military computer network. Her tampering with it facilitates the demise of most of humanity.

Tricia Helfer had a modeling career before joining the cast of 'Battlestar.'
Tricia Helfer had a modeling career before joining the cast of 'Battlestar.'

"It did develop into a well-rounded role," Helfer says.

A copy of this Cylon, called Natalie, acquires a nuclear weapon to blow up a key ship. There's also a version of Number Six that only the dashing British-sounding scientist Baltar can see; she appears to manipulate him throughout the series.

Another marked departure from the original "Battlestar" was that the character of pilot Starbuck, a man, was a woman in the newer series. Fans remember Starbuck, played by Katee Sackhoff, for her no-nonsense determination and willingness to breach authority to do whatever she thought was right. (This didn't always work out in her favor.)

Even in the original "Battlestar," certain women were able to stand out.

Lockhart, 57, played Lieutenant Sheba, whom she describes as "an absolute no-nonsense warrior pilot who was completely equal to the men." Sheba, a military leader, routinely went into military combat, blowing metallic robot-like Cylons out of the sky with laser beams.

And at the level of the writers, there was also a sense of equality and empowerment, says Jane Espenson, who wrote for the reimagined "Battlestar Galactica" series and is appearing at Comic-Con to talk about her work on "Torchwood."

In fact, Espenson felt like she had more freedom on "Battlestar" than any other show she's worked on, with room to make plot changes and improvise. And Executive Producer Ron Moore emphasized strong female characters from the beginning, she said. Beyond the excellent casting and writing of these women, their world was one that did not have a history of discrimination based on gender, she said.

"These were women who had grown up in a world where their expectations were equal to men," she said. "That right there, that's a big innovation. That's kind of magical and startling and huge."

To be, or not to be, in sci-fi

Compare that with the experience of Erin Gray, who played Colonel Wilma Deering in the series "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," which aired from 1979 to 1981.

She actually didn't want to join the cast; at that time, she felt sci-fi was frowned upon in Hollywood. And by the second season, she felt disheartened at the progression of her character toward a more inferior status.

"I felt like I was designated to being the nursemaid, stewardess role as opposed to the original character, which was of leading the Earth's defenses, and flying my starfighter, and being an equal if not better fighter than Buck Rogers," she said.

She made less money than Gil Gerard, the actor playing Buck, and had a trailer she described as a "rusted-down old tin can in the back lot." She had also recently become a mother, but the producers wouldn't let her adjust her schedule to spend more time with her baby. It wasn't until the '80s that female actresses fought for these kinds of needs. (In her own rebooted career, Gray now runs a company called Heroes for Hire, which represents celebrities such as Helfer and McDonnell at conventions.)

"Actors always saw science fiction as this 'B' genre and this career killer," said Kavita Philip, associate professor of women's studies at the University of California, Irvine.

By contrast, McDonnell, who is going to be in a "Closer" spin-off show called "Major Crimes," had no reservations about taking the role of Laura Roslin who, in an instant, goes from being 43rd in line for the presidency to president of all of the surviving humans. Type-casting, she says, is happening less and less; actors and actresses are not restricted to particular genres the way they once were.

Helfer said she and some other cast members did feel concerned about being pigeonholed into science fiction in the future, but Helfer was new to acting, and she loved the script from the beginning, so she went for it.

And both McDonnell and Helfer had only positive things to say about working on the show.

Helfer found that the writers and producers were open to discussion about the characters. She remembers one big moment of decision-making: The Cylon resurrection process was originally going to be a peaceful emergence from some unidentified goo, but Helfer had a different vision.

"I didn't see it like that, I saw it as a birth, which is messy and painful," she said. And that's what we saw on the show.

Conventions for the unconventional

Conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con and Dragon*Con allow fans direct access to their sci-fi heroes and heroines. It's at these venues that the women of sci-fi appreciate how they've, however unintentionally, served as role models.

Even after three decades, fans still go up to Lockhart and Gray at conventions and tell them how they inspired career choices -- for instance, as pilots.

"I didn't really realize the impact that my character would play to all these young girls who were watching the show," Gray said.

One woman told Lockhart she was bullied as a child, and when she would play with neighborhood pals, she'd always want to pretend to be Sheba, "because Sheba is brave and strong and doesn't take anything from anyone."

Gray is at conventions almost every weekend, including Comic-Con. Helfer loves having one-on-one time with the fans at conventions. McDonnell loves the conventions too; she'll be at Dragon*Con in Atlanta in September.

"I think with new media, sci-fi has become more of an integrated idea everywhere, in all of our ideas," she said. "It's no longer something that's that -- no pun in tended -- alien to either the artist or the viewer. It's become more about having a broader perspective of thinking than it is about a strange genre of entertainment," McDonnell said.

 
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