Aeryn Sun (Farscape)
We’re introduced to Aeryn Sun just as the worst possible thing in the universe is happening to her. Well, what she would consider the worst possible thing in the universe at the time, anyway. The hard-ass Peacekeeper warrior and pilot is being held captive aboard a living ship full of escaped prisoners, and to make matters worse, they’ve tossed her into a cell with some doofus who looks like one of her species but who keeps insisting he’s from somewhere called “Earth.” Before you know it, she’s been declared “irreversibly contaminated” by alien influences, meaning she’s been booted out of the Peacekeepers and pretty much everything she’s ever known is now in the toilet. Or whatever the Farscape equivalent of a toilet it.
Like most of the women on this list, Aeryn has a long journey ahead of her, taking her from what she believed to be her lowest point into a future she never could have anticipated. Those escaped prisoners? They’ll become her most trusted friends and comrades. The Peacekeepers? She’ll find herself taking up arms against them time and again. And that doofus from Earth? Well, his name is John Crichton, and he will become not one, but two of the greatest loves of her life. Raised in rigid military fashion by the Peacekeepers, her time aboard Moya shows her the challenges and rewards of questioning authority and charting your own course, even when you’re kicking around the Uncharted Territories.
And while Aeryn is by no means solely or predominately defined by her relationship with Crichton, that relationship is nevertheless one of the best ever explored in the genre, partly in thanks to the white-hot chemistry between Claudia Black and Ben Browder. Part of the fun of that relationship is the way it flips the stereotypical dynamic: Aeryn is by far the more physically capable of the two, and Crichton is often more in touch with his emotions than she is, a legacy of her Peacekeeper upbringing that she never quite shakes off. Her journey through the series is a reminder that the things you take for granted can drop out from under you without warning, but what matters then is how you rise to the challenge. – David
River Tam (Firefly)
Joss Whedon’s Firefly is one of my all-time-favorite shows. I discovered it in 2008, long after it was canceled and long after the feature film Serenity was released. I knew nothing about the TV show, but felt compelled to watch it for some reason. The pilot was OK, but it really didn’t capture my interest until Captain Malcolm Reynolds opened the mysterious box that one of his new passengers, Simon Tam, brought onboard his ship. Inside was River Tam, played by Summer Glau, Simon’s younger sister.
Why did he keep her in the box? Why was the Alliance after her? As the show unfolded and many other storylines were introduced, River’s story was one of my favorites. In fact, my favorite episode of the series is “Objects in Space,” where the bounty hunter Jubal Early captures the ship. River shined in this episode as we began to learn more about her special skills.
It wasn’t until Serenity that we got to see River in action, taking down an entire bar full of people, that we finally got a glimpse of why the Alliance wanted her so badly. We may not have gotten much of the Firefly ‘verse, but we’ll always have River kicking ass against an entire room full of Reavers. – Rudie
Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Battlestar Galactica)
Love her or hate her — and I’ve met plenty of people who feel both ways — there’s no question Starbuck is a compelling character. Dirk Benedict, who played Starbuck on the original Battlestar Galactica series, was beyond angry about what he called the “castration” of the character, but in case you haven’t seen the original BSG lately, Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck has far bigger balls than Benedict’s. She’s not afraid of a fight, whether it’s with a Cylon, her XO, or a boxing match with her lover. After surviving a crash landing, she figures out how to activate and fly a Cylon raider, which she later uses to successfully fly back to Caprica to locate and retrieve the Arrow of Apollo, which was then used to “open” the Tomb of Athena and show the survivors of the Twelve Colonies the way to Kobol.
My favorite Starbuck moment is in the episode in which they’ve teamed up with Battleship Pegasus and its terrifying, insane, civilian-slaughtering Admiral Cain. After it becomes clear that the crews of Pegasus and Galactica can’t live in harmony, Cain’s got an assassin ready to off Adama and Adama’s got Starbuck ready to off Cain, despite the fact that Cain just made Starbuck her CAG and Cain understands Starbuck in a way no one else does. That Starbuck is prepared to shoot Cain in the head on Adama’s orders, despite not being a cold-blooded killer and despite honestly respecting and appreciating Cain, exemplifies all of the dichotomies of the character — single-minded yet torn in different directions, compliant yet subordinate, spiritual yet practical, afraid of disappointing others and afraid of disappointing herself, yet somehow afraid of nothing.
We’ll forget back-from-death Starbuck. I never did buy that whole ending. On io9, Ronald Moore said of resurrected Starbuck:
She is what you want to think of her. It was left deliberately nebulous and vague. And I think she was a representative of an entity that didn’t like to be called God, but everybody else talked about it in godlike terms. If you want to call her an angel, you could say that.
I don’t want to call her an angel. I want to call her an asshole — and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible. – Joelle