As a medium given to formulaic plot lines, mainstream television can be slow to embrace new narratives and cultural change, but the science fiction genre can take some strides, given its “futuristic” format. Star Trek justifiably comes to mind as the series legendary for the first interracial kiss on the small screen and for its multicultural casting. Even so, the series took gradual steps to reflect many of the realities of modern parenting.
The roles widow and widower were used as windows to single parenting in Star Trek: The Next Generation. That series’ version of the Enterprise is unique in the television cosmos as having two widowed parent characters. Doctor Beverly Crusher, played by Gates McFadden, joined the crew as a widow with a teenage son, Wesley, who in true television fashion was a boy genius ready and willing to help on the bridge. The child genius trope was problematic in itself to watch, as Wesley seemed to exhibit no sign of adolescent awkwardness, and internal conflicts were conveniently solved without hindering the overall narrative or even changing his mother’s overtime work schedule.
Security Officer Worf came more suddenly to single parenting. A former partner surprised him with a young son, Alexander, and then was killed by an adversary, repeating the overused “mom must die” trope. This time, however, Worf found himself overwhelmed with his new responsibilities and turned his son over to his adoptive parents. In a twist more reflective of reality, Worf’s adoptive mother, herself advanced in age, returned Alexander to Worf because she was not equipped to provide for her grandson’s needs. In contrast to the traditional interpretation of the trope, Worf’s experience was much more fraught because he and Alexander had to face loss and learn new ways of coping with issues of trust, grief, and adjustment to changed circumstances. Here’s one of many links to all things Trek.
In the Dr. Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures, the titular character, played by Elisabeth Sladen, became an adoptive single mother when aliens created a human teenage boy using human DNA. Though Sarah remained earthbound in the series, the character was visited weekly by aliens, including the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors in crossover appearances.
The relaunch of Dr. Who generally portrayed mothers of companions as antagonists to the doctor. Sarah Jane was once again unique among the companions, portrayed as a mother who assisted in operating the Tardis in one episode and whose child was saved by the doctor in another. To date, Amy and Rory have been the only companions who conceived a child, River Song, while traveling on the Tardis. However, because the child was stolen (a rare use by the show of a trope frequently used elsewhere) and River Song regenerated rapidly into adulthood in the series, Amy and Rory lacked classic parenting moments except for giving the bride away.
Though the Sarah Jane character currently marks the definitive image of mothering on the show, Dr. Who was also ahead of its time in its portrayal of grandparenting. The First Doctor, portrayed by William Hartnell, traveled with his granddaughter Susan Foreman, portrayed by Carol Ann Ford. In “The Doctor’s Daughter,” the Tenth Doctor became a parent again for one episode.
Leading the way into a brave new parenting era, Star Trek parody/homage The Orville blithely jumps in where other series seem reluctant to tread. In one brave leap forward into modern parenting norms, the ship’s Doctor Claire Finn, played by Penny Johnson Jerald, became a single mother by choice when she used reproductive technology methods to conceive two boys with the intent of raising them on their own.
The Orville broke new ground again by portraying a couple from a male-only species who raise their child together on board ship. Upon discovering that their child is in fact a daughter, they were forced by court decree to change the child’s sex to male. The story line was a bold step forward, bringing gay parenting and gender identity issues before its audience, as well as leaving new issues open for the future of the series. The show has been renewed for a second season. For more information, here’s a link.
The portrayal of parenting by space-faring science fiction series has evolved radically over the past six decades, and the genre continues to offer ways to expand the roles and options depicted. Over time, science fiction TV families have evolved to show a wider spectrum of careers, partners and custody roles, more accurately reflecting the world the audience inhabits. Fans can expect more of this variety in the future, offering a broader variety of story lines, conflicts and adventure in the process. Viva la difference!