On Syfy, the Revolution of Leading Ladies Is Already Being TelevisedPhotos: Ian Watson/Syfy, Stephen Scott/Syfy, Michelle Faye/Syfy TV Features Syfy
In the fifth episode of Wynonna Earp’s first season, Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) and Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon) need to break into the basement of a police station. Doc, not very familiar with any technology invented since the 1880s, suggests dynamite; Wynonna shoots him down. “WHAT,” he demands, perplexed, “is better than dynamite?” With pin-drop timing, Wynonna braces her leather jacket open and, utterly deadpan, gestures down with her chin: “Boobs.”
This scene, in all its goofy, tongue-in-cheek brevity, encapsulates the no-nonsense way in which Syfy has managed to make femininity a central feature of its summer slate. From Wynonna, Waverly and Officer Haught on Wynonna Earp to Dutch, Pawter and Clara on Killjoys to Two, Five, Android, Nyx, Misaki, Sarah and Solara on Dark Matter, Syfy has spent the last several summers demonstrating week after sweltering week that by transforming femininity into narrative power, and then placing that narrative power squarely in the hands of multiple, wildly different leading ladies, a whole metric ton of compelling stories can be told—stories in which boobs (begging zero pardon for this pun, as Wynonna would never forgive me if I did) are just the tips of a complexly feminine iceberg.
The fact of the matter is, Syfy has been running non-exploitative, female-strong programming for a long time. Current regular-season series The Expanse, The Magicians and 12 Monkeys all feature multiple solid, distinctive female leads, as did previous series like Lost Girl, Haven, Continuum, Warehouse 13, Eureka and, of course, Battlestar Galactica. Bo Dennis (Anna Silk) made bisexuality and sex-positivity visible to audiences who may never have spent any time thinking much or well about either; Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) changed how fans and creators alike talk about gender and reboots, both. Absolutely more than one girl was inspired to go into STEM or cryptography or law enforcement by any or all of the above.
There is, however, something special about the trio of summer series tent-poling Syfy’s programming in 2017, each series not merely featuring but fully orbiting around the specifically gendered experiences of its female leads. For a single science fiction show not aimed at teens to do this would be rare enough; for three at once, on the same network? It’s wild.
Form-wise, the most traditional of the three is Killjoys, which features interplanetary bounty hunter Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen) leading a team rounded out by brothers John and D’avin Jacoby (Aaron Ashmore and Luke Macfarlane). As becomes clear almost immediately, though—despite the temptation of brotherly drama the Jacobys present—it’s Dutch’s history and experiences that propel the main narrative, and Dutch’s history and experiences are entirely tied up in a very literal patriarchy: Her benefactor/torturer/surrogate father, Khylen (Rob Stewart), used physical and emotional manipulation from the time she was a child to control her body and her life and turn her into the planetary system’s most skilled assassin. As a result, Dutch turns her body into a weapon—a literal weapon in her career as a bounty hunter not (she thinks) employed by Khylen, and a psychic weapon in the no-strings sex she regularly seeks out to prove to herself that she still exerts control over her own body and pleasure.
This storyline, written from the perspective of either Jacoby brother, would be both dull and lazy, Dutch’s pain serving no greater purpose than to kickstart a man’s heroic journey. From her perspective, though, the Jacobys can still be her helpmeets while the nuances of her pain and complexity of her feelings towards Khylen are allowed to play out across seasons. As a result, she can chart her own heroic journey, the shape of which has repeatedly proved to be entirely unpredictable.
The shape of the story on Dark Matter is just as unpredictable, and for much the same reason: the women at its core—Two (Melissa O’Neil), Five (Jodelle Ferland), Android (Zoie Palmer), and to a lesser extent Nyx (Melanie Liburd), Sarah (Natalie Brown), Misaki (Ellen Wong) and Solara (Ayisha Issa)—have been destabilized by outside forces both sinister and benign, and the series allows them to fight their way back to equilibrium in uniquely feminine ways. Two (a.k.a. Portia, a.k.a. Rebecca), captain of her ship, victim of men who molded her body to be the perfect weapon, possessor of an evil doppelgänger, has a background eerily similar to Dutch’s. She responds to her trauma in entirely different ways, however—first as Rebecca, exerting control over her pain by massacring her creators to escape and lead a life; then as Portia, terrorizing others; and later, after Five (in a fit of idealistic feminine empathy) wiped memories of those aboard their ship, the Raza, and Portia became Two, attempting to take up a life of peaceful, if defensive, survival.
At the opposite extreme of Dutch and Two, the Android’s autonomy was altered by Portia installing an empathy bug into her system. She has also since stumbled her way onto a personality chip she can use to appear—and feel—human. Specifically, a white woman, able to walk through the world with all the perceived powers and weaknesses any white woman would have, up to and including not being seen as a physical threat, having to force security to arrest and charge her despite committing crimes directly in front of them, and then still getting the next security officer to abandon his terminal to get her, a criminal, a decent cup of coffee. This perceived helplessness on not just the Android’s part, but also on amnesiac Two’s and youthful Five’s—along with the complete faith and authority the men of the Raza give to them—prove time and again to be the key to the Raza’s survival, and to the rest of the galaxy’s (and our) inability to predict their next moves.
Despite Wynonna Earp being a year younger and a world closer than the other two shows, the conversation it seems to be having with Dark Matter and Killjoys—a conversation held simultaneously at a whisper and a shout—is fascinating. Like Dutch and Two before her, Wynonna’s past is deeply bruised by men snatching away her bodily autonomy (shock therapy in psychiatric hospitals), and her present by the weaponization of her body (the Earp family’s demon-killing curse). And, like Dutch, Wynonna uses her body and freedom for pleasure whenever and wherever she can, because she knows what it means to have neither. Where Dutch finds family with the Jacobys and Two with the amnesiac crew of the Raza, though, Wynonna has real family: a younger sister, Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkin), whom Wynonna abandoned the moment she turned eighteen and could finally escape the prairie hometown—where she was always treated like a freak for claiming she had to shoot her daddy to save him and her missing-presumed-dead older sister, Willa, from demons. (True, for the record.)
Girls not being believed; girls being told they’re crazy over and over and over until they believe it; girls being committed for refusing to lie about what they know to be true; girls being blamed for the evils of men—for a show about demon outlaws cursed to be shot to death by Earps over and over until an heir breaks the cycle, this one sure hits closest to home of the three at hand. As do every one of Wynonna’s boob and blowjob jokes, which play not to the fourteen-year-old boys in the audience (although I’m sure they love them), but, just like the fierce protectiveness she shows Waverly once they move back to the old homestead, to Wynonna’s need to control her own narrative. And when you’ve been through shock therapy, and now are cursed to aim the demon-killing gun that killed your own father, gross jokes and sisters are what keep you sane. That, and the hundred-year-young immortal ghost of Doc Holliday, who, along with fire-breathing Deputy Marshall Xavier Dolls (Shamier Anderson), knows well enough to be supportive, but to also step back and let independence bloom.
So, Syfy: a gunslinger, a bounty hunter, and the galaxy’s most wanted mercenary walk into a bar—the joke practically writes itself! Only, it’s not a joke*; it’s a compelling three-way dialogue among some of science fiction’s baddest-ass heroes, lady or otherwise.
Oh, and that scheme of Wynonna’s, the one to use what Heaven or Hell gave her to get past the maintenance workers in the basement of the police station? Didn’t work. The maintenance workers were ladies, and those particular ladies, at least, were unmoved by Wynonna’s charms—but not, it turned out, by Doc Holliday’s.
*Okay, it is also a joke: The punchline, of course, is boobs.
Killjoys, Dark Matter and Wynonna Earp air Fridays at 8 p.m., 9 p.m., and 10 p.m. on Syfy.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.