The Portrayal of Women and Parenting Roles in Sci-Fi TV

From the beginning, women have traveled alongside men in the exploration of our planet. So too in space. Women have served in space since Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova orbited the globe on June 16, 1963. At the same time, men and women sought to balance the demands of career and family. As roles changed, science fiction reflected those changes. Since the 1960s, the roles women and parents in televised science fiction have evolved, occasionally with mixed results. Here follows a sampler of some notable TV moms and dads in space.

Welcome Aboard, Mrs. Sarek! The arrival on Star Trek of Spock’s mother, Amanda Grayson, played by Jane Wyatt in “Journey to Babel,” marked an event. The mother of a main character appeared in the seminal series, which was known for demographic and cultural venues. She returned for a cameo in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The role of Amanda Grayson recurs in this century’s continuation of the TV series. Mia Kirshner now plays the role of Sarek’s wife on Star Trek: Discovery.

That’s a great dinner, Mrs. Robinson. Basically, the first TV Mom in Space, Dr. Maureen Robinson on Lost in Space was a biochemist, played by June Lockhart. However, though she played a key role in the series, much of the character’s time still focused on traditional tasks such as meal planning, laundry, and supervision of the younger children. Regardless, the portrayal of Maureen Robinson as a professional in a lead role on the mission was a leap forward. To reminisce about all aspects of the show, go here.

And now a moment of parenting on our great quest for a new home… Where the Battlestar Galactica series teetered between progressive and problematic portrayals of female characters, they frequently fell back on TV clichés when addressing parenting roles. Boxey on the original Battlestar Galactica fell under the “dying mother” cliché twice. The first time came when the boy was an orphan rescued by Serina, the journalist-turned-pilot-trainee played by Jane Seymour who married pilot Apollo. More problematic from a feminist perspective was the event in which Boxey was orphaned a second time. Apollo’s wife died during a mission, leaving Apollo a single stepfather. Thus, the show turned to a disturbing trope used in many entertainment genres: mothers die, leaving fathers open to new adventures as children magically raise themselves free from maternal influences.

Redux, reuse, recycle. The portrayal of parenting on the “re-envisioned” BSG was shakier. When Starbuck faced the prospect of a possible half-Cylon daughter created through reproductive technology, many fans winced as the character faced the prospect of motherhood. Casey turned out to be a traditionally-conceived human child kidnapped from her mother. In typical space opera fashion, Casey’s mother reaching out to Starbuck to continue contact with Casey was met with ambivalence from the relationship-challenged fighter pilot. This trope so interested BSG writers that it was used again with two other crew members.

That’s not his half-Cylon baby, either. The not-my-baby trope resurfaced when Tyrol, upon discovering that he was a Cylon, found out that his son was not half-Cylon, but had been conceived by his wife in an extramarital affair with a pilot. This time, the guys cooperated in a shared custody arrangement. Where was the mom? She was dead.

Is that a trope addiction? Oh no! Our messiah hybrid baby was switched at birth! Much of the BSG redux hinged on the origins of a child conceived by a human pilot, Helo, and a cylon, Boomer/Athena. Their daughter emerged as the first Cylon-Human conception. Several ancient television soap opera writing tropes resurfaced in the process when the child was touted as a messiah, switched at birth, stolen by evil Cylons intent on having the baby save their people instead, proclaimed the “magic baby cure” for a virus affecting her mother and other Cylons, kidnapped (again?) by a Cylon clone/evil twin, etc., etc.

In the process of such meanderings, the series may have inadvertently set back portrayals of parenting in TV science fiction by a few decades. Luckily, the genre has a fluidity and a staying power strong enough that multiple images of parenting have surfaced in recent years.