Boldly going nowhere: @burgewords on the inequality of Sci-Fi

Michael Burge

Michael Burge

Arts writer at No Fibs
Michael is a writer, editor and journalist who lives on the beautiful island of Coochiemudlo. He is passionate about LGBT equality and how the evolution of the social media impacts on the work of journalists and artists. He works for Fairfax.
Michael Burge


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Michael Burge
Michael writes about writers, performers, artists, creative rebels and the writing process at burgewords and on remote and rural living at WoopWoop
Phoenix Five, exploring the galaxies in 2500 AD (clipping courtesy of Patsy Trench).

Phoenix Five, exploring the galaxies in 2500 AD (clipping courtesy of Patsy Trench).


“When I was nine years old Star Trek came on,” Whoopi Goldberg told Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, at a casting session for the show’s reboot in the early 1990s, “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house: ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be, and I want to be on Star Trek.”

That ‘black lady’ was African-American actor Nichelle Nichols, in the role of Lieutenant Uhura, a character who inspired even Dr. Martin Luther King to follow the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

Goldberg’s moment of validation and inspiration is now half a century behind us. In fifty years from now, will stories emerge about children today who saw themselves in the current crop of mainstream science fiction titles, or has Sci-Fi lost its edge within today’s asteroid belt of conservatism?

A bit of time travel might unearth some answers.

When George Lucas relaunched the Star Wars franchise in the late 1990s, he created a character whose name still draws ire across the geek chat rooms: Jar Jar Binks.

Designed to appeal to younger audiences in a similar manner to the Ewoks of Return of the Jedi, Jar Jar, a Gungan from the planet Naboo, with his exaggerated mannerisms and flamboyant voice, seemed to have the opposite effect, and he was subsequently toned down and written into the sidelines of two further prequels.

The fear of flamboyant space travellers and aliens was not always so keen. Doctor Zachary Smith in Lost in Space (played by Jonathan Harris) camped and shrieked his way through the series, defying any notion of being sidelined.

Dr. Zachary Smith in Lost in Space.

Dr. Zachary Smith.

That he was a comically selfish villain, opportunistic in his attempts to get back to Earth, leaving the Robinson family behind, didn’t seem to matter. Flamboyant was fine, as long as you were the bad guy.

More recently the Doctor Who franchise (and its spin-off, Torchwood) experimented with alternate sexuality in the form of the bisexual Captain Jack Harkness (played by John Barrowman), but his intergalactic promiscuity, and the untimely death of his longest love, ensured audiences never had to countenance this high-profile non-heterosexual character in a relationship as progressive as a commonplace same-sex marriage.

Sci-Fi lesbianism is even more marginal, offering only a handful of onscreen same-sex kisses and a whole universe of subtext in everything from Alien: Resurrection to Xena Warrior Princess.

Here in Australia, TV producers were quick to jump on the bandwagon of popular TV series set in the future, with a crop of titles on our small screens by the end of the 1960s.

One of these was Phoenix Five produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from 1968-69.

Amongst the show’s stars was Patsy Trench, in the role of Cadet Tina Culbrick, the only female in crew of three on the galactic space patrol ship of the show’s title, tasked with protecting the known universe from an evil humanoid and a rebel scientist in the year 2500.

Trench spoke with No Fibs this week from her home in London.

“It was certainly not a progressive series, not in any sense,” she said. “It made no social statements, it was just a series of adventures featuring three humans versus a number of weird aliens”.

“As for gender equality, the characters were all pretty well asexual. We wore identical clothing – a yellow tunic-type top (very cliché Sci-Fi) and very unflattering black ski pant-type trousers. There was absolutely no sense of sexual tension between the three of us and no sense of gender – equality or otherwise. Tina may have objected from time to time to being patronised by her male crew members, but that’s about as far as it went.

“Every single episode I had to say ‘space phenomenon ahead’, whatever that was supposed to mean. It became a running joke. I remember pressing a series of buttons without having a clue what they were or what I was supposed to be doing. Nowadays a director and actor might pay a bit of attention to that kind of detail, but not then.”

I asked Trench whether she believes Australia was capable in the 1960s of imagining a future that had racial/sexual equality?

Cadet Tina Culbrick (left) and a 'space phenomenon'.

Cadet Tina Culbrick (left) and a ‘space phenomenon’.

“Probably not,” she said. “When I was living there in the late Sixties I did not get the impression the Aboriginal people featured much in people’s consciences, certainly not as they do now. I’m not sure when they were given full voting rights, but I think it was around that time, and I had no idea it had taken so long – the issue was never discussed.”

Does Trench think Sci-Fi has a role to play in imagining a more equal future?

“Of course, because the limits are as huge as our imaginations,” she said.

Territory upon which only the boldest equality explorers tread is one which has long been a source of some of Science Fiction’s most renowned characters: disability.

Few children of the Seventies will have missed the blind, wheelchair-bound Davros who first appeared in the 1975 Doctor Who ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ episodes, probably the most prominent example of a physically disabled humanoid character ever to feature on television screens in our living rooms at prime time.

In her enlightening feature ‘Disability in an alternative universe’ for the ABC’s Ramp Up disability discussion forum, Leah Hobson gets right to the point: “As a fan of science fiction and fantasy – genres which most often ask ‘what if?’ in more playful and profound ways – I notice the dearth of ‘good’ stories about disability”.

“If a character is portrayed with any sort of disability,” Hobson wrote, “a realistic depiction means you’re typically male, and you’re typically either bound to a bitter and/or evil existence with a good dose of sexual openness thrown in just to really show you’re evil.”

Exploring whether there is any positive purpose to depictions of Transhumanism (the human condition enhanced by technology) in Sci-Fi, Hobson found more questions than answers.

Is it fair to say that there will be no disability once consciousness or creating bodies is done by machines? I’m not sure it is, and I feel like the science fiction writing community is, by and large, taking the easy way out by not exploring it further.

I started to enjoy Doctor Who when River Song (played by Alex Kingston) became a regular character, and, in geeky conversations at work about the future of the show, I threw in my view that the show’s producers might be grooming River Song to be the series’ first female Doctor.

And why not? She was riveting, charismatic, intelligent and kept taunting viewers on her backstory with her cheeky warning: “Spoilers, sweetie”.

During 11th Doctor Matt Smith’s unsuccessful regeneration in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ episode, I hoped to see River’s signature curls emerge from the amniotic glow to be reborn as his replacement. Sure, she was standing right there watching, but this is Sci-Fi, anything could happen, right?

The Doctor was killed (to tell you more would be a spoiler), along with all my hopes for River Song, who joined Amy, Rose, Martha, Tegan and Sarah Jane, playing second fiddle through time and space.

Dr King made a resounding point when he learnt that Nichelle Nichols wanted to leave the cast of Star Trek. As she recalled, he said: “Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed, because, you see, your role is not a black role, and it’s not a female role, he can fill it with anything, including an alien.”

Until mainstream science fiction producers start opening a few more doors, and opening them wider than Roddenberry ever did, equality in Sci-Fi will remain far, far away.


  1. Great article – I have occassionally suggested on twitter and eslewhere that the next Dr Who should be female (I have many options in mind) but Dr Who fans seem to think it is a bridge too far. A testament to how far we have yet to go.

    • Thanks Jan, we can live in hope! BTW who are your casting options for a female Doctor?

      • You have certainly generated lots of comment – well, I am a Dr Who fan of sorts and agree, the character is not a man, and no reason it could not appear as female… here goes with a few for a start:
        Miranda Richardson (Blackadder, The Crying Game)
        Rosario Dawson (Trance)
        Gillian Anderson (The Fall, Bleak House, Great Expectations)
        Maxine Peake (Silk)
        Olivia Colman (Broadchurch)

  2. Opening doors, breaking down walls and fences…is a very important ability of creative writing and the new creative mediums, to expand the possibilities and challenge limits. While Star Trek was not fully the kind of Utopia I had in mind, it did push the limits from very early on and make an attempt at envisioning a possible moral future which we could reflect upon. Some of the best science fiction does this.

    Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea fantasy series featured a lead character who was brown skinned and provided an important role model in children’s fantasy – there are not many wise black or brown wizards in children’s fantasy – but when it came time for a telemovie to be made HBO cast a white actor in the lead role. The producers took substantial meaning away from the story. Le Guin, although listed as a consultant, was never properly brought in to the decision making and wrote a scathing attack on the Earthsea telemovie.

    I know I get criticised for saying it, but Le Guin’s Earthsea is far more imaginative and thoughtful than JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. These are some thoughts I put together on Le Guin more than ten years ago – some of the writing dates even farther back to the late 70’s – oops, now I’m showing my age….

    I share your hope in that one day we will see a female Doctor Who. It would certainly provide different tangents for character development.

    And you raise interesting thoughts on seldom seeing stories with people with disabilities, or challenging gender stereotypes. And the same goes for the poor, or working class: it mostly doesn’t exist or get written about in Science fiction. More is the pity.

  3. I am an outspoken anti-sexist and often receive searing condemnation from misogynists and hateful remarks from sexists when I point out the underlying sexism of society all around us. Dr Who was certainly formed at a time when sexism was more prevalent and less remarked upon and were it to be written now, I would hope more thought about the female role would go into it.

    Nevertheless, he is a beloved character just as he is and to change his gender would alter him utterly. Those of us who are enlightened enough to notice the systemic sexism all around us love the show because we grew up with it, and DESPITE its flaws.

    By all means, let’s introduce many more sci fi shows, or shows in general, with women as leads and not just props or sidekicks. But if you try to alter the Doctor so fundamentally you will destroy the character and the show. And if you don’t see that, you are just not a Dr Who fan. We just love him. It is a deep, ridiculous and unquestioning love. You tamper with that at your peril.

    We absolutely need adequate female representation in all areas of media – we’re not even close to that goal – and I would love to see the Bechdel rating become standard on movies everywhere. There is a long way to go and much to be done. But tampering with the gender of the Doctor would anger millions. It will give those who love to shriek “it’s political correctness gone mad I tell you!” something to whinge about, and it won’t change a bloody thing.

    The Doctor is a man. Let’s move on from that and focus on getting more women out there in their own roles, written for them, rather than trying to shoehorn one into a spot already taken and alter out of all recognition a beloved childhood icon. It would be an enormous mistake and do equality no favours, no matter how well intentioned the motives may be.

    • Brilliant argument Alison. You’re quite right, I am not really a Doctor Who Fan, although I’d tune into a River Song spin-off over Doctor Who any day of the week.

      I have seen enough of the show over the years, however, to know that the Doctor is not actually a man – he’s not human, he’s a Time Lord, a time-travelling humanoid alien. There is nothing about that description which means the character must be played by a male actor.

      • You are kind. Without wishing to appear rude I have to say that I think just from this short paragraph I would safely already have known you weren’t a fan, even if you didn’t state that. The Doctor IS a man, just an alien man. He’s not played by a man. He IS a man. To us, he is real. (How I wish he was real! I am still waiting for the TARDIS to arrive.) Yes, of course we KNOW he’s not real. But he still is. A real, alien male Time Lord.

        Let’s keep pushing for more new Sci Fi shows and shows in general, which promote equality that you (and we) can love as much as true fans already love Doctor Who. We already know that fairly represented female role models do very well with audiences, both male and female – I am thinking of Olivia from Fringe and Katniss in particular when I say that. We need a LOT more women like those – women who do not play embarrassing 2 dimensional shadow characters – in all genres of TV before we will even come close to fair representation for women.

        But, with respect, please leave our beloved Doctor alone.

        • I support your call for new shows if existing examples cannot countenance moving towards more equality, Alison.

          Your beloved Doctor Who need not fear me – he has far more high profile naysayers to contend with!

          My favourite episode of the reboot era was “Blink”, the first appearance of the weeping angels, I think?

          Interestingly, the Doctor is only a minor character in it. The protagonist was played by Carey Mulligan. You could take that episode in isolation and show it to an audience without them having to know anything at all about Doctor Who, Time Lords, or the usual power structures of the show’s heritage.

          I waited for more episodes of that quality, but they never came, in my opinion. I suspect “Blink” was an experiment.

          Some of the Catherine Tate episodes explored similar themes, and I enjoyed those too, but I got more and more disappointed tuning in with the hope that the storylines would be of interest to me, making me wonder who the producers were aiming to entertain?

          They can’t please everyone, of course, and they are certainly pleasing the majority, but that is no reason to not critique a show of this magnitude.

          • Blink was marvellous, Donna was my favourite traveller actually, I loved that she had zero sexual interest in the Doctor and was quite happy to tell ensure he wasn’t getting too conceited, their relationship was somewhat unique for one of his “companions”. Just don’t get me started on talking about my favourite things about Dr Who, or I will be here all day. I am fine with critiquing the show, but despite its rather glaring flaws (and I do not count the Doctor’s gender as one of them) I’ve loved the Doctor at 4, and now at 44, and if I am still around I hope to still love him when I’m 64, to misquote a rather famous song.

            I haven’t commented on the paucity of non-Caucasian earth folk (Martha being an obvious exception) or minority groups in general solely because I don’t feel particularly qualified to do so as a white, able bodied heterosexual – not from lack of interest. I certainly would be on board with more disabled people, gay people or any other excluded group being introduced with a more realistic frequency though. The stories told, and the people who meet and interact with the Doctor, are only constrained by the writers’ imagination.

          • Ugh. Typos.

  4. Dan Rowden says:

    Hi Michael,

    Following our brief exchange on Twitter, here’s some observations about your references to Dr Who. Actually, they’re not mine, precisely. My partner is a much greater (and passionate) fan of the modern Doctor than I am, so this is really her reply:

    Okay, firstly Captain Jack is not bisexual (you really can’t trust Wiki), he is omnisexual, being sexually attracted to everything that breathes regardless of gender or species. He has lived back and forth for millenia so his ‘promiscuity’ is more a result of his vast travels throughout so many different times. He is certainly an incorrigible flirt but also capable of great and enduring love as his tragic relationship with Ianto proved.

    You say that in Doctor Who “audiences never had to countenance a place or time where something like same-sex marriage was commonplace.” Not commonplace? I believe the commonplaceness is well taken care of. Not unusual, not overwhelming, simply commonplace: In the Gridlock episode The Doctor meets an elderly married lesbian couple while car hopping. The recurring characters Madam Vastra and Jenny are not only in a same-sex marriage in Victorian times but it is also an inter-species marriage. Canton Everett Delaware iii, in the Impossible Astronaut episodes is a former FBI agent who helps the Doctor save the day from the evil Silence. He was sacked from the Bureau because he wanted to, in Nixon’s 1969, marry his black boyfriend. In The Power of Three episode Amy agrees to be bridesmaid at her lesbian friends’ wedding without batting an eye. (Because the time and place for same-sex marriages being commonplace is modern day Britain don’t you know…)

    You started to enjoy the show more when River Song became a regular character, you record, and wanted the tenth doctor to regenerate into her. Let’s leave alone for now the fact the Doctor can’t actually regenerate into an existing other person(!) and look at the facts. Professor Song became a regular character well after David Tennant had already regenerated into Matt Smith. Before that she had been in precisely one adventure -the two-parter Silence in the Library – and all her riveting charisma and taunting was yet to occur. So, you are remembering what you wanted in the wrong order. Over time we learn that she has Time Lord DNA, has regenerated a few times, could pilot the Tardis better than the Doctor, her sonic was way more sophisticated than his, she could handle Vortex Manipulator time travel with ease (it gives The Doctor stomach cramps) became the Doctor’s actual legal wife and was second fiddle to nobody!

    Okay, I see now you’ve admitted you’re not a huge Doctor fan, and that’s fine. Right up to the point you try to make a case about sci fi television and its lack of serious gay content and include Doctor Who in your article. Not being a huge Doctor fan, it seems to me the reasonable person test would make it imperative that you research the show before making your claims. And had you Googled the words Doctor/Who/Gay, you would have found endless accounts of homosexual characters, married and otherwise, and also the interesting fact that there are many fans and reviewers who have suggested the new generation of the Doctor has an overtly ‘gay agenda’ which offends and appalls certain sections of the community. There’s a story for you.

    In closing, Time Lords have specific genders. They marry and have children along traditional lines. Unless they are all thoroughly bisexual it would be bizarre for them to be able to regenerate into their opposite gender. What about pregnant Gallifreyan women? If traumatised to a mortal extent they could regenerate into a bloke? What would happen to the foetus? It’d get stuck in some guy’s kidney. Come on, the blokes are blokes and the chicks are chicks. The Doctor is not a non-gender-specific employment category! It is surely silly to suggest their chromosomes could alter that much on regeneration. If they could we could fiddle with 21 and have a Down Doctor some day. Perfectly reasonable and inclusive you say? Nah. My sweet special dude with Down Syndrome would love the sonic screwdriver and the noise the Tardis makes, but deadset, when it came time to ‘Run!’ he’d be pretty much screwed.


    • I stand corrected on some of my Doctor Who ‘facts’ (insofar as fiction can be factual), thanks Dan and partner.

      But, thinking of the vast scope of galaxies, worlds and time zones imagined in Doctor Who, yes, I still call for “more please” on equality in 2013 Sci-Fi writing, and Doctor Who is not exempt.

      Portrayals of same-sex attracted characters and themes is not “endless” in the series, far from it. The groundwork has been laid, that’s all.

      Negative reactions to portrayals of equality (like that Christian group’s, which I had already seen) is not proof that equality has been reached.

      Until we witness another retrospective Whoopi Goldberg-type validation of the Sci-Fi in our era, we simply do not know if equality is being portrayed.

      “Blokes are blokes and chicks are chicks” is not an argument even remotely effective when debating equality.

      It is the drawing of a line (as you do when deciding a Doctor Who with Down’s Syndrome would not work) which limits equality. If Science Fiction writers and producers cannot create the future as a place with more equality, without drawing a line, then their version of the future will never seem futuristic.

      Doctor Who has always been exactly what his writers wanted him to be. I did not invent the call for a female Doctor Who, and that extra info you provide about River Song only makes it even more ridiculous, in my view, that the writers did not simply make her one of the Doctors.

  5. I’m sorry, Michael, are you suggesting that the depiction of a Dr Who with Down’s Syndrome would be a meaningful thing to do?

  6. Well, firstly, it would mean depicting a Down’s person in a way that is utterly divorced from reality. I don’t see how that helps anything. Is your notion of “equality” grounded in reality or not? Or are you suggesting that in a fictional setting, reality doesn’t matter, so that we could have a Down’s person whose intellectual and physical capacity is off the charts even though that’s contrary to reality?

    • I don’t imagine the writers of Doctor Who are concerned about being “utterly divorced from reality”. They have often glossed over reality for dramatic license and for practical casting requirements. That’s how the Doctor’s regeneration began – they needed a new actor to play the role, so they imposed a surreal plot device to manage that.

      Sci-Fi can sew the head back on another body, it can bring the dead back to life, it can make people fly … it can do all that and more, so why should we not expect it to push the boundaries of reality where equality is concerned?

      I suspect people grappled with Lt. Uhura’s place on the deck of the Starship Enterprise in the 1960s, and suggested it was not representative of 1960s realities, and they certainly did grapple with the kiss she and Captain Kirk engaged in, because in reality that would have seen the characters committing a crime in some US states at the time, but they did it anyway. Roddenberry did not draw a line underneath equality, he stepped over it.

      I am only asking if Sci-Fi writers and producers are as courageous today, given the rise in conservatism?

      You suggested a Down’s Syndrome Doctor Who, so you will need to explain your idea. I am only saying I would watch the show with such a character and not have a problem with it by definition.

  7. There are plenty of great female leads in sci-fi. Dollhouse, Dark Angel, Lost Girl to name a few. Even Buffy for the mainstreamers. Plenty of gay-friendly action too. (How devastated were we when Willow lost her girl on Buffy??) How about a dead main character on Lexx. That’s a fair disability to overcome, if not one that exists today. Plus the numerous Dr Who examples as already mentioned, not to forget Time Lady Romana (who was great). Your experience of sci-fi is apparently very limited to be making such sweeping commentary on the genre – I humbly suggest you spend a decade or two becoming acquainted with some real sci-fi first!

  8. Netty, if Whoopi Goldberg had to dig so deep, waaaay out of prime time, to find Lt. Uhura, would she have found her? The only example that could redress the imbalance, for me, is a female Doctor Who, or a gay one, or a black lesbian one, like Helen Mirren suggested when she was talked-up for the role. But it’s got to be on my free-to-air TV screen at dinner time. Equality means something when it’s prime time equality.

  9. #DiversityIsNot found in mainstream #SciFi as much as we think it is #sciencefiction #equality

  10. #DiversityIsNot found in mainstream #SciFi as much as we think it is … via @NoFibs #sciencefiction #equality

  11. Sad to say bigotry in Sci Fi is not limited to the small or large screen. Some of my favourite authors are so guilty of this that I sometimes cringe as I read their otherwise inspiring words. I think the bigger problem is that many people would watch/read such bias and not cringe.

    My daughter (far as I know, straight, but that’s her business) gets quite enraged about the fact that, if a gay couple is permitted a realistic romance in popular fiction, one of them then dies. I was just reprimanded most severely for mentioning (re”omnisexual” amendment) Captain Jack and Ianto. She’s still not over it. I love that about her.

    As usual, a thought-provoking read, Micheal. And I love that about you;-)

    • Love that you’re giving your daughter all the options she needs from a young age. Thanks for the feedback. I sometimes read my childhood favourites and find terrible homophobia and anti-semitism!

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