Genre television has always been full of incredible female characters. From teenage vampire slayers to starship officers, and cynical FBI agents to warrior princesses, these stories have not only featured hundreds of badass women but given them real interiority, allowing them to change and grow in ways that are often still denied them in more mainstream properties.
But even in a space where female characters have had a long tradition of defying boundaries and pushing limits, Farscape‘s Aeryn Sun was ahead of her time.
To be fair, you might not know that fact, simply because Farscape is probably the best sci-fi series you’ve never seen. A remarkably rich and layered story about connection, love, and the wonder that exists among the stars, the show premiered in the late 1990s to critical acclaim but consistently low viewership. Farscape follows the story of a lost Earth astronaut named John Crichton, who ends up on a living spaceship full of criminals alongside a political prisoner, an elite warrior, an exiled priestess, and a condemned military fighter.
The show included everything from Jim Henson puppets to Looney Tunes-style animation and embraces the sort of highly serialized storytelling that wouldn’t become a constant of small screen science fiction for several years after its end. Farscape also featured a half-dozen fascinating, flawed female characters over the course of its run and delights in subverting established expectations about gender politics and what female characters are allowed to say and do onscreen.
And there’s no better example of that than Aeryn, a leading lady who is both a love interest and a hero, who has to make hard choices and live with the consequences, and who is allowed to be vulnerable, selfish, and brave all at the same time.
At first glance, Aeryn Sun is basically everything we’ve come to expect from the Strong Female Character archetype. Emotionally closed off, physically imposing, and very fond of heavy weaponry, she appears to be little more than the standard warrior woman that was so prevalent in ’90s sci-fi storytelling. She wears leather pants, doesn’t bother with make-up, and even beats up the series’ male lead in the show’s first episode.
But the beauty of Farscape has always been its ability to subvert expectations and flip tired tropes on their heads. Aeryn’s story deliberately turns all those assumptions inside out, allowing the physically dominant woman to discover and explore her emotional interiority, without sacrificing her assertiveness or independence. (She still beats the crap out of people — including John — regularly throughout the series.) And though the show often references her physical strength, it’s ultimately her heart — and the way she learns to fight with it in the same way she would a pulse rifle — that makes her a true hero.
A member of the Sebacean military sect known as the Peacekeepers, Aeryn is born into a society in which things like empathy, sentiment, and emotional attachment aren’t just forbidden, they’re things that can get you imprisoned or killed. She’s not only been programmed to fight but to cut herself off from others and to avoid those deemed lesser species at all costs. Her close proximity to John in the series’ pilot leaves her “irreversibly contaminated” by alien influences, meaning that she can never return to the Peacekeeper life she knew.
Unlike many of her genre sisters, Aeryn’s journey aboard Moya isn’t about empowerment, in a physical sense. She starts this story from a position of fierce strength — and of utter belief in her own ability. Instead, her evolution as a character goes in the other direction, as she learns to relate to others and tries to understand herself beyond her abilities as a warrior. At the end of the show’s pilot, John tells Aeryn, “You can be more.”
At that moment, he means that she can choose to be more than an imperialistic killing machine, but Farscape takes the idea and runs with it, ultimately giving Aeryn the most complicated interior and emotional journey of any character on the show. But what’s most important is that journey never for a moment asks Aeryn to become less.
She isn’t forced to be someone she isn’t to earn the respect of her fellow outlaws on Moya or to capture John’s heart. (Because of course they fall in love, and it’s as epic and gorgeous as anything else on this show, but that’s a topic for another day, probably.) Allowing others into her life — and heart — makes Aeryn stronger than she otherwise knew she could be, but it doesn’t erase her jagged edges.
Instead, Farscape is careful to show us that Aeryn’s emotional development doesn’t come at the cost of who she is. Nor is that growth immediate. Her decision to care about others — to befriend Zhan, to connect with Tayln, to spare Crais, to love John — are all things that grow organically from her day-to-day experiences and take episodes, if not entire seasons, to develop. And as a result, her feelings enhance her strengths, rather than weaken them. Because they’re a part of her, too.
Aeryn’s reward for her hard-won moments of emotional growth is, unfortunately, often pain and/or loss. She goes through more than her share of trauma, surviving war, separation, and even her own death at one point. She loses the love of her life and finds him again, but not before having to re-learn how to love him along the way. Over the course of the series, Aeryn goes to hell and back but comes out stronger, more sure of herself, and even more capable of kicking ass than ever before. And she winds up with a partner that not only supports her but who is the biggest champion of her continued emotional growth. (And clearly doesn’t mind that she can still take him in a fight, either.)
Looking at the many female characters of genre who came after Aeryn — the Sarah Mannings and Wynonna Earps, the comic book heroines of the Arrowverse and the fierce ladies of Firefly — these are all women who owe her character a debt. Farscape broke a lot of new ground in genre storytelling, adding bold colors, crushing narrative stakes, and daring, serialized storytelling. (Plus, puppets!)
But its true legacy lies in its flawed, fascinating, and thoroughly three-dimensional women, who showed us that female characters could be every inch as strong and complex as their male counterparts, without sacrificing any part of themselves to do so. Aeryn Sun was one of the first in a long line of incredible sci-fi women, and her character deserves to be recognized as one wasn’t just part of a great story, but that pushed the whole genre forward along with her.