Forget Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Here's the secret to all successful science fiction franchises: Behind every strong man is an even stronger woman.
Take Star Trek. Captain Kirk's space flavor of the week may have occasionally stolen the spotlight, but communications officer Lt. Uhura broke ground as one of the few African-American women featured as series regulars in 1960s television. She continued to shatter barriers by sharing television's first interracial kiss with Captain Kirk. When actress Nichelle Nichols thought about leaving Star Trek, Martin Luther King Jr. himself called and asked her to reconsider.
A parade of strong women followed—Star Wars' Princess Leia, Terminator's Sarah Connor and Alien 's Lt. Ripley, to name a few. Blockbusters on screen, science fiction has become just as popular, if not more, on television. Show creators have taken fantasies from space and brought unexplained phenomena back down to Earth. In The X-Files, Agent Dana Scully investigated alien abductions, ominous monsters and all other things that went bump in the night in what could have very well been our own backyards.
Which brings us to what's filling our TiVos today. ABC's V and Fox's Fringe are two of the most recent breakout hits on television, and women warriors are at the heart of both science fiction series.
V star Elizabeth Mitchell plays FBI-agent-turned-alien-resistance-leader Erica Evans. When she's not fighting off evil Visitors (V's) in hand-to-hand combat, Erica's secretly poking around an alien compound in New York City for clues to reveal their sinister plans for Earth.
"I'm a big fan of sci-fi and a big fan of action. I love how strong the women can be," Mitchell says. "I've got a lot of sisters, so I really enjoy having strong women out there."
And Mitchell isn't alone. V's November 2009 premiere attracted nearly 14 million viewers, making it the second-most-watched series premiere of the season. "There is so much that's scary about our world right now. I think that it is really fun to kind of let your mind take off, go on a little fantasy flight," she says. "That's what I loved about [science fiction] when I was a kid, and that's what I love about it now."
Mitchell credits early science fiction series for making characters like hers possible. "I always think back to Star Trek and the fact that sci-fi has really elevated," she says. "Sci-fi is where a lot of us get to do our classics, where we get to do a lot of our massive archetypes, where we get to do a lot of our tragedy. And I kind of enjoy that about it."
When she's not battling foes from a parallel universe, actress Anna Torv is taking on other unexplained phenomena as FBI agent Olivia Dunham in Fox's Fringe. "It's a relief not to be playing the blond love interest," she says. "There's never been an excuse made for the fact that she's a woman or anything. It's always been sort of who she is, no big deal. There's not any big deal either way, which I think is quite liberating and lovely."
Still, the character's greatest strength may lie in her vulnerability. "When we met her, she was totally fresh-faced and happy and life was good. Then, she just got banged up against this horrific new understanding of what's going on in the world, and I think she's really lost her innocence," Torv says. "I hope that there is a big 'she has arrived' moment or she's sort of transformed into this warrior that people keep telling her she's supposed to be. I'm looking forward to that kind of unraveling, where at the moment I think she's buttoned her jacket ever so tightly and she's just doing what she can, gritting her teeth and bearing it until she accepts the call."
Though one of her favorite books as a child was William Gibson's Neuromancer, Torv says she never considered herself a science fiction fan. In fact, her first introduction to Star Trek was on the bridge of the new movie's Enterprise. Freshly cast as Olivia, Torv says she was flown to the Los Angeles set to meet Fringe creator and Star Trek director J.J. Abrams. "I was literally sitting in the chair in the control room and he came in and went, 'Hi! Lovely to meet you,'" she says. "It was so surreal."
With a fanatic following and some of the highest DVR numbers around, Torv credits Fringe's success to the fact that it has a little bit of science fiction, Cold Case and family drama all rolled into one. "Science fiction is becoming more of a diverse kind of genre. ... [Fringe] doesn't really fit in any particular genre," she says. "I think it shifts, and that's what that appeal is."
Still—aliens or monsters, land or sky—science fiction's appeal seems to be universal. "I sort of thought, 'Oh, Fringe probably really is for the younger people,' and then I was shooting a scene with [co-star] Kirk Acevedo a little while ago. We were running down the street, and we nearly ran into an old couple," she says. "We sort of stopped and apologized profusely and went back to doing it. They looked up and went, 'Oh, you're from the Fringe.' [I thought]: 'Really? You watch the show?' It sort of defied everything."