Women of the Orignal BSG Series

bsg_tos_dangrgalsWith all the attention garnered by Ronald Moore’s re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica, it’s easy to forget what was good about the original series — and if you’re willing to filter out the 1970s cheese factor there is a lot of good to be found. One of these is the female characters. This week’s Danger Gal Friday profile is on the women of the original Battlestar Galactica series: Sheba, Athena, and Casseopeia. We’ll even talk a little bit about Serina too.

The original series reflected the changing gender roles of the 1970s as well as portrayed the beginnings of a more feminist future. This latter point is evidenced by Sheba’s command of Pegasus’ Silver Spar Squadron. A big deal is made of Galactica pulling its pilots and Viper pilots from civilian — and female — volunteers when a sickness decimates pilot ranks. However, clearly women have not only been serving as Viper pilots, but also as commanders such as Sheba, on Pegasus without the impetus of male pilots’ absence. While this development on the Galactica has more in common with the situation during World War II when women worked in factories simply because most men were away fighting in the war, it did open up the show to portray the friction between women and men in the 1970s as women willingly joined the workforce.

Serina enjoyed a career as a journalist on Caprica prior to the holocaust, but Apollo is definitely not comfortable with Serina putting her life in danger by becoming a Viper pilot and the two have several arguments over it. With Serina’s character we get to see a woman balancing a career and family since she is one of the few mothers portrayed in the series. Incidentally, Jane Seymor was originally offered the role of Lyra, a member of the Quorum of Twelve. Lyra was intended to be an ongoing character, but Seymor wanted to be free to do films so the character was changed.

serinaWhile Sheba, and less so Serina, show women already in nontraditional roles, with Casseopeia, on the other hand, we get to see the “bad girl made good” and a female character move from a stereotypical role as a “socialator” (which we all know is a fancy word for courtesan or prostitute) to that of medtech and head nurse.

Despite sounding good on paper with her rank as commander, Sheba’s character always seemed to be written uneven to me. In one of her first appearances, Sheba runs off in a girlish huff when her father, commander of the Pegasus in a mirror of the Adama-Apollo situation, shows up with Casseopeia on his arm. Later, Sheba falls under the psychological sway of Count Iblis. Neither of these behaviors sound like what would be expected from a Viper squadron commander. Would we ever expect Apollo to behave this way? I chalk this uneven portrayal up to writers then and even now not understanding how to write a three-dimensional female character. The re-imagined series handles its female characters usually with aplomb, but as Torie Atkinsin points out on Tor.com’s “Sometimes a Great Notion” Roundtable discussion:

That’s been one of my big problems with the show since the beginning—the women seem to appear only if and when the men need some kind of emotional catalyst. Dualla’s death was an excuse to set off both Apollo and the (bizarre, in my book) scene between the old man and Tigh. Cally’s death was a great chance to send the Chief off the deep end. Six spent the first few seasons as fodder for Baltar doing stupid things in public, and then entirely disappeared from this episode except to appear with Tigh and remind us of their cylon baby.

While I agree to some extent, I think it’s important to note that using Dualla’s and Cally’s characters in this way may have more to do with them being secondary characters than being female since I don’t think the same case can be made for characters like Starbuck or Roslin, for instance. If anything, Lee and Anders have served as emotional mirrors for Starbuck and the same can be said for Adama and Roslin. As for headSix, she’s either a figment of Baltar’s imagination or some other entity manipulating him, so I’m not sure this criticism quite applies to her. Overall I think the female characters in the re-imagined series are predominantly proactive and not reactive. Still, Atkinson points out a useful criteria for evaluating the function and purpose of female characters.

The show had a penchant for what seems to be nepotism: Apollo is not only head of a Viper squadron, but the commander’s son, Sheba is the Pegasus commander’s daughter, and Athena is also Commander Adama’s daughter. According to Wikipedia, the original plans for the Athena character changed:

The role of Athena was originally intended to be central to the series, but Maren Jensen was not an experienced actress, and despite considerable improvement over time, her screen time was gradually reduced. First, the role of Cassiopeia began to expand to fill the role Athena has been designed to play, and then the character of Lieutenant Sheba was introduced midway through the season.

While that seems like quite a slam on Maren Jensen, it is interesting to know that two other female characters were created to fill the role originally intended for Athena. Airing in the same time frame as the classic Battlestar Galactica series were other TV shows such as The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman who also betrayed strong female characters moving into what had once been male-dominated roles. To my preteen mind, the portrayal of these female characters, while not perfect, collectively opened up all sorts of possibilities for the future.