Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – The Tough Sci-Fi Female Security Officer is Getting Some Much Needed Depth
The science fiction and comicbook genres are all known for creating strong female characters. Wonder Woman. Michonne. Captain Janeway. Ellen Ripley. The list goes on and on. But, unfortunately, many of today’s writers don’t seem to grasp what made these ladies likable, much less iconic. While many of today’s movies and TV shows, like Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, have filled their casts with 50% or more female characters, many of them aren’t standing out, even in their own productions. Too many of them are like Rey from the Star Wars sequels — a strong woman, but little more than that. No flaws. No depth. No defining character. Nothing that’s even remotely interesting or memorable. Just constant reminders of her being strong.
One specific trope that is growing more cliched in science-fiction is the tough-as-nails female security officer. Star Trek: Discovery had two. The Orville had two. And Star Trek: Strange New Worlds currently has one in La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong). And each one of them was more boring than the next.
What Makes a Strong Female Character Strong?
Too often, it seems the audience is supposed to accept they are strong women through two overplayed notes — they are either angry at something or beating up someone. Most of them lack the depth of character and range of emotion that made so many of sci-fi’s leading ladies pop culture icons. Yes, Ripley in Aliens was tough, but you very clearly saw how terrified she was and how much she was driven by her compassion for Newt. Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t just beat up monsters. She got to show more than just two emotions through her relationships with Angel and other characters. That’s part of what made people love her — that they could also feel the things she felt.
The physical strength of these female characters isn’t what makes them great characters. It’s always been their relatability and humanity and that’s something writers are failing to give many new female characters. The focus is only on showing them as strong women and little else. That’s not enough to earn them a spot in history among the best female characters in science fiction.
The Strong Women of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
While generally a solid show, this is a problem Strange New Worlds is having with many of their characters. Five of the eight main ensemble players are “strong female characters,” with Carol Kane joining season 3 as number 6. But, aside from the quirky and inimitable Kane, they have done very little to earn much of the spotlight from Anson Mount’s Captain Pike or Ethan Peck’s Spock, or to differentiate their strength or character from one another. Even Celia Rose Gooding’s Uhura has only had limited screen time in a short 10-episode season 1 to work with.
It’s not enough for these characters to keep telling the audience in conversations with each other how great and accomplished they are. None of that matters if the audience doesn’t like them or care about them because they come off as interchangeable strong women. They put so much effort into making them look strong, but forget to make them feel real.
Strange New Worlds Taking a Step in the Right Direction
Strange New Worlds Season 2, Episode 3, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” finally started to change that with La’an Noonien-Singh. Prior to this episode, her character was the tough security officer, who always seemed to be mad about something from her past. But it was super easy to not pay any attention to the details of whatever chip was on her shoulder, because it felt like the only reason she was there was to remind the audience yet again of what the other 4 ladies in the cast were already reminding them of — that the future has only strong women who, collectively, aren’t as interesting as a single Vulcan.
The episode started with the cliched “strong woman training against a man while suppressing her emotions” sequence that fit the stereotype almost perfectly. Then the story worked it’s way into a time-travel/alternate-universe story. At this point, it was easy to think that Star Trek was going where every Star Trek had gone before. Some fans may have even expected the plot to revolve around saving whales. Where it began to differentiate itself was in the interactions between La’an and James T. Kirk (Paul Wesley). Instead of continuing to play her as an emotionless ice queen bottling everything up inside, they let her loosen up, have a few light moments with Kirk, and then the story built up to a confrontation with truths from her past.
The events of the episode were personally devastating and it would have been a huge character mistake for Star Trek to do what they too often do and end the episode with La’an biting her upper lip and holding back her emotions in order to stay in line with the emotionless strong female trope. Instead, they opted to let her have a normal, relatable, human reaction. That reaction didn’t make her seem less strong. It gave this character some much needed depth.
Why Being Real is More Important Than Being Strong
This is the kind of writing (and acting by Christina Chong and Paul Wesley) that makes characters grow on an audience and begin to carve themselves a place among the icons of science fiction. Time will tell if Wesley can bring his Kirk out from under the large shadow of William Shatner’s Kirk. Or if Chong’s La’an will earn her place beside memorable Star Trek TV-ensemble characters, like Data or Seven of Nine. It’s impossible to say if they will be able to get there. But it is possible say that memorable episodes like this are a good place to start.
The sci-fi audience already accepts that female characters can be strong. They don’t need every female character to be portrayed as a stone-faced, angry, gender-bent Rambo in order to make that point. As much as Hollywood would like to believe otherwise, there are not only differences between men and women, but there are also differences between women and other women.
One place those differences intersect is through relatable experience and emotion. People … even strong people … get hurt and it sometimes makes them crack. To rob your characters of normal human emotion doesn’t make them strong. It makes them unrealistic. But when they react to situations the same way a real person would, it makes you care about what happens to them next. In one episode, Strange New Worlds took a boring stereotype of the bland strong female character and made her extremely likable by showing that strength has its limits with everyone and sometimes even strong people get hit harder than they can bear.
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