Robbing the galaxy

Contains spoilers for season two of Dark Matter and Killjoys

Two very similar shows launched into their second series this year. Dark Matter features the outlaw crew with memory loss as they try to break out of prison and stay ahead of the Galactic Authority. Killjoys shows the bounty hunters struggling to retain their impartiality whilst trying to work out what the hell the RAC’s real game is. Both shows rely heavily on science fiction clichés: badass fighters, evil corporations and flawed heroes. Women hold some of the most powerful positions in both universes, so what does this tell us about the feminism of the future?

First, Dark Matter. I find myself in a strange relationship with this series. Its main premise is tried and tested: misfit anti-heroes careening around the galaxy carrying out heists and assorted mischief. I’ll forgive fantasy fiction writers for almost any kind of unoriginality, as long as they have some interesting scenarios for their characters, and Dark Matter, for all its rigid script and sets resembling a school play, pulls through once again. The acting is way better in this series, as the actors have settled into their characters and Five (Jodelle Ferland) uses a range of facial expressions other than ‘wide eyed surprise’. The characters have also been fleshed out a lot more, particularly Four/Ryo (Alex Mallari Jr), who has gone from being a flat character defined by his talent for swordplay to the main antagonist in the last three episodes of the series. In episode 12, we see him recover his memories and take back the throne of Zairon with the help of his brother, who he promptly murders along with his wicked step-mother and a dozen Seers.

The fact that the crew is forced to constantly deal with morally ambiguous characters and scenarios keeps Dark Matter entertaining. The crew of the Raza knows the difference between right and wrong, but rarely has the luxury of choice. They’ve got to keep up with the plotting Commander Truffault and the monomaniac Inspector Kierken, not to mention a creep of an ex-fixer, Calcheck. The murder of One (Marc Bendavid) is a relief, as it leaves the rest of the gang with more liberty to do crime without being nagged by a whiny billionaire. It’s interesting that the only nice guy from the first series was also the greatest restraint on the liberty of the female characters. Three (Anthony Lemke), Four and Six (Roger Cross) never question the judgement of Two (Melissa O’Neil), when she actually spent a good part of the last season trying to justify herself to One. It looks for a while like Six might try to step into these shoes; he’s been Five’s best friend and protector for a while, but as soon as he is outed as a traitor, any influence he has over her evaporates.

Street kid, Five, might be the youngest of the crew, but she’s no pushover when it comes to adult threats. She demonstrates this when revealing Arax Nero as a corporate mole in episode four. She is then kidnapped in episode 11 and threatened with sex slavery, which seems like a rather exploitative way to write what is essentially a bonding episode with Three, who saves her. Worryingly, the scene with a gang of clueless kidnappers is one of the rare times we see Five beaten. Her tech genius is nothing against a gang of space hillbillies. In the explosive season finale, we see her comforting and reassuring both Three and Six, when she goes solo on a mission and both of them finally accept that she is perfectly capable of looking after herself. It’s a coming of age moment; while the audience has seen Five’s confidence and capability grow, her crew mates have been a lot slower to accept her as anything other than a little girl, no matter how many times she saves the day.

The writers have included some new characters to make up for the loss of One. Most notably, we have Nyx (Melanie Liburd), who can even take on Two and her nanites, and appears to be the most feared prisoner in the galaxy’s high security jail. Melanie Liburd is clearly having a lot of fun here. Nyx may or may not be trustworthy, but she’s certainly more than a match for the crew of the Raza and her fighting skills are welcome to the team. As soon as she appears, she expresses disdain for the male members of the crew, and makes a beeline for Two, whom she identifies as the main decision-maker. There is a risk that Nyx and Two would be constantly in conflict with each other. This is the first time I’ve seen such blatantly similar female characters put on the same team, but their relationship remains complimentary; they obviously respect each other, even if they aren’t friends (strictly speaking). It’s a pity that Nyx is offered a fairy tale way out by becoming Four’s empress (emphasis on the possessive). It’s even more of a pity to see such a character cut down as mere collateral in Misaki’s jealousy (episode 13). Along with events such as Three’s ‘alien moment’ in episode nine (he gets infected by a bug parasite, which is never mentioned again), this makes me begin to wonder why the writers of Dark Matter can’t focus on one sub-plot for more than a whole episode.

In a future where almost every female character we encounter is either a mercenary, CEO, lawyer or police chief, you might be forgiven for thinking that women’s empowerment is complete in this universe

A recent geek-out binge of this show has made me realise how much more fleshed out the women are in relation to their male counterparts. The surviving men on the Raza have given us the rough-around-the-edges guy, the warrior and the father figure. They aren’t the ones making the hard decisions. Three and Six, no matter how great for the banter, could be quite easily disposed of without putting the team in jeopardy. Nyx and Two, however, have a much more challenging time trying to walk the line between compassion and pragmatism, while being chased by some corporate scientist intent on reminding them of their dark, enslaved pasts. I applaud the writers, who have managed to maintain the values of compassion and pragmatism in the characters without resorting to presenting them as ‘feisty ice queens’ out of laziness.

In a future where almost every female character we encounter is either a mercenary, CEO, lawyer or police chief (seriously, check out the power dressing on Truffault and Reynaud), you might be forgiven for thinking that women’s empowerment is complete in this universe. We should be so lucky. Clearly there are a lot of exceptional women here, but exceptional might just be the key. For me, the biggest issue in Dark Matter is the length the writers go to explain the superiority of the women; Two has her nanites, Nyx has a psychic ability that means she can guess her opponent’s next move in advance and The Android is… well, an android. This is why Five is the only relatable female character in the whole show. She knows she’s not the strongest, but has other, often more effective, ways of making herself useful. Despite this, she is constantly having to prove herself to adults and authority figures. Women might be able to gain a power to make them equal with men, but men still don’t seem to get this. On the other hand, no one seems to have any trouble accepting transfer transit as a form of transport.

If you love misfit anti-heroes carrying out heists and careening around the galaxy then Killjoys is definitely the funniest thing I’ve seen on television this year, as it has filled up the hole in my heart created when Firefly was cancelled. It’s equally susceptible to cliché as Dark Matter, but takes itself less seriously. This somehow makes it more believable, even with the green plasma that turns mere mortals into super human fighters now turning up everywhere.

As with Dark Matter, the lead women of the Killjoys universe are anything but typical. She might not have enhanced ability, but Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen) is an unstoppable force. Sometimes, the only way her companions have of getting a grip on her obsession with Khlyen (Rob Stewart) is to remind her that they need her to keep them alive too. Even though her relationship with Johnny (Aaron Ashmore) is strictly just as friends, she has a hard time concealing her possessiveness when it comes to sharing him with Pawter (Sarah Power). Delle Seyah Kendry (Mayko Nguyen) and Pawter, once she takes on her role as Seyah Simms, have vast resources and contacts, but Pawter doesn’t really need any of that to look after herself, even negotiating her own freedom from bandits by arm wrestling. Still, she never really shakes the sentiment of an upper-class, aristocratic saviour and her inexperience of control and power leads to a pile of bodies (episode nine) (on which see more, below).

The writers have two of their strong female leads agree the most important peace negotiations and documentation of their era in a nod towards us ever-vigilant feminist reviewers

Despite Killjoys use of women as major political players, the interplanetary caste system means that emancipation is merely a daydream nurtured by Scarbacks in large areas of the Quad. Even the political fate of Westerley is played out as the conclusion to a long-term rivalry between Delle Seyah Kendry and Seyah Simms. The inhabitants of Old Town are stripped of free will, first to make them docile workers by The Company and then tricked into eating poisoned rations. Next, Pawter/Seyah Simms induces them to be enraged enough that they sacrifice themselves by throwing their bodies against the wall until it breaks down, allowing the mob to climb over their comrades to storm Spring Hill. With very little discussion of the moral implications of such an act, the Qreshi aristocrats (Seyah Simms and Delle Seyah Kendry) then broker Westerley’s independence, in the Royale, natch. As a scene, this is evocative of modern discussions about women in politics. The writers have two of their strong female leads agree the most important peace negotiations and documentation of their era in a nod towards us ever-vigilant feminist reviewers. Of course, it’s an important step, but we shouldn’t forget that these women’s power (particularly Delle Seyah Kendry’s) is as much due to their class privilege as any real merit.

It almost feels like the show is punishing women for being so powerful by showing them defeated by goons

For both Dutch and Two, being the undisputed leaders of their crew doesn’t entirely liberate them from the male gaze. One of the first shots of series two of Dark Matter shows Two stripping off. Okay, so the lads are as well, but the camera certainly lingers on her bare legs just a bit longer. Two then has to suppress her usual punch-back attitude and tolerate the leery glances of the guards and other prisoners. The leers are creepier when we see how Two just puts up with it. Similar to Five’s kidnapping, it almost feels like the show is punishing women for being so powerful by showing them defeated by goons. Still, show me a strong woman who hasn’t bitten her tongue and ignored harassment just to get through the day. As for Dutch, whenever there’s an option to go undercover, we are treated to a sweeping shot of her get-up. I can’t help but ask myself where these outfits come from, Lucy’s dressing-up box must be vast.

Dutch and Two are almost always the best fighters on the screen at any time, their main vulnerabilities being their closeness and loyalty to their respective crews rather than an opponents’ physical threat. However, their physical power is also what marks them out as exceptional and this leads both the Raza and Lucy’s crews to find themselves involuntarily embroiled in galactic power plays. Neither team signed up for this. As the end game of both The Company and the Council of Corporations becomes clear, we see how even strong individuals can be crushed. For the Killjoys, saving the galaxy only becomes a priority for Dutch once she’s freed herself of Khlyen. However, the Raza, now in possession of the blink drive, “could be off getting fat and rich…robbing this galaxy” but instead find themselves compelled into trying to be heroes.

It is clear that Killjoys’ Dutch and Dark Matter’s Two (along with the latter’s Nyx) share a need to break free of their pasts, when they were moulded against their will in accordance with plans they didn’t understand, dictated by men. Despite their super speed, strength and agility being (in part, at least) thanks to unasked-for male intervention, Dutch and Two’s real-world success is entirely down to them. They may constantly feel like they have to prove their own humanity to themselves and others, but in the eyes of their crew members they are very much self-made women. This is expressed beautifully in episode three of Killjoys, when Dutch’s self-doubt leads to self-harm. In both cases, we are exposed to the character’s greatest weaknesses: Two in the filthy alley where she escaped her creators (episode three) and Dutch when explaining her past to Romwell (episode six). Yet nowhere are their weaknesses truly detrimental to their missions; it’s their reaction to hard circumstances that make them special.

Watching two incredible women overcome their demons and learn to actually believe in themselves is what brings these shows down to earth

Both of these shows involve a lot of discussion about free will and responsibility. Dutch and Two are trying to work out the extent to which they actually have control over their actions and are also members of teams trying to achieve the same. They both stand out as leaders, as they are always making the good call despite their internal and external turmoil. Even though we as the audience know that they are both perfectly capable, watching two incredible women overcome their demons and learn to actually believe in themselves is what brings these shows down to earth.

For the next series of Killjoys’, I’m hoping the creator, Michelle Lovretta doesn’t decide Dutch needs to be a level six, or any other secret by-product of the green plasma. I want her to be the product of sheer determination and will, along with her excellent training and troubled childhood. This would make the kind of sheer bad-assery of Dutch seem much more achievable. Sci-fi writers need to stop thinking that women have to be artificially altered in order to take on any real leadership roles. Your audience is willing to believe in faster than light travel. Can’t we have female ship captains too?

You can watch series two of Dark Matter and Killjoys on Amazon Video.