1. Seven of Nine, Star Trek: Voyager
Voyager is ambitious in many ways. It features a ship completely cut off from the Federation, with a crew divided between Starfleet officers and Maqui insurgents. Unfortunately, Voyager is deeply afraid of its own premise. It does everything it can to minimize the importance of being stuck in the Delta Quadrant with a crew that should hate each other’s guts. A heavy reliance on technobabble, poorly realized characters, and a host of mediocre aliens seals the show’s fate as below average at best.
Seven of Nine proves a remarkable exception. She is a former Borg drone, taken from the Collective after Voyager briefly allies with it against Species 8472.* It’s not hard to see why audiences immediately fell in love with Seven. She has a deadpan snarkiness she employs whenever another character says or does something stupid, which is often. Seven is highly competent, which is a welcome break after three years of a crew that couldn’t find its photon torpedo launchers with both hands.
But Seven’s character goes deeper. She is a counterpoint to Captain Janeway, a pragmatic check on Janeway’s idealism. She provides a unique perspective on the many issues Voyager encounters, separate and distinct from Starfleet’s point of view.* Despite her late entry onto the show, Seven has a compelling emotional arc as she rediscovers what it means to be an individual. She comes to terms with the loss of many Borg abilities and forges an adorable friendship with the young Naomi Wildman.
That’s not to say everything about Seven is perfect. Her outfit, for one, makes no sense and is clearly pandering to the male gaze. This is even creepier because it’s established that the Doctor, who is strongly attracted to Seven, designed the outfit himself. Worse, Seven’s interactions often consist of little more than the other characters bullying her into being more human. The only character who makes a point of affirming Seven’s agency and supporting her choices is Tuvok, so naturally they spend almost no time together.*
Despite these problems, Seven remains a standout character. If the other characters had been on her level, Voyager wouldn’t be included on this list at all.
2. The Android, Dark Matter
In its first season, Dark Matter is little more than a bad copy of Firefly.* The cast of characters include Imitation Jayne, Imitation Simon, Imitation Zoe, and a character who begins as Imitation River but quickly becomes Imitation Kaylee. None of these characters have what made the originals work. Then there’s Asian-Stereotype Man who, as the only Asian character, is stoic and obsessed with martial arts. The characters aren’t great, and the writing isn’t good either, with plots that ignore obvious solutions to problems and depend on the characters making wildly irrational decisions.
Fortunately, we have the Android. First, she scores points for not being an obvious clone of a Firefly character. Neither does she try to copy Data or other androids that have come before her. Her struggle is not with emotions – she can simulate those just fine – but with forming attachments to her crew. As an android, she is supposed to make pragmatic decisions, always prioritizing the greater good. Instead, she finds herself taking bigger and bigger risks to help her friends. She worries that this is a flaw in her programming. In another show, her concerns would have become a tired joke about how she’s becoming more human. In Dark Matter, they are the start of a soul-searching character arc.
The Android is a very subtle character, and a lot of credit goes to actress Zoie Palmer. Her ability to communicate changes in the character’s mood through tiny facial tics is impressive. The Android does not rage or cry, she always wears the same pleasant smile, and yet the audience can tell what’s going on in her mind. At one point, the Android creates a copy of her personality using only the factory defaults, and Palmer’s acting makes it obvious which is which, even though their faces are nearly identical.*
Another advantage the Android has over the rest of the cast is that she’s actually likable. Most of the other characters are either annoying, dull, or such jerks that it’s hard to care about them. Meanwhile, the Android’s earnest desire to help and her understated delight at praise make it impossible not to root for her. And, like Seven, the Android is always the one charged with telling another character how stupid their plan is.
The Android shows us that Dark Matter’s writers do know how to craft a three-dimensional protagonist, which makes the other characters’ lack of depth even more puzzling. I can only assume she is the product of a writer who dared to defy the doctrine of copying Firefly.
3. Varrick, Legend of Korra
Avatar: The Legend of Korra was a show that didn’t find its feet until season four. Before that, the writers tried to cram huge storylines into too few episodes, so they had little time for character development. Avatar Korra solved all her problems by punching them and never once faced any serious repercussions. Her bending friends were a one-note romance interest and a brainless comic relief. Asami, the only non-bender in Team Avatar, was mostly relegated to being Korra’s romantic competition or being sad about her father going evil.
Season two was the shows lowest point, with a bizarrely evil villain and an entire episode wasted on Korra having amnesia, but it did give us Varrick. Varrick is, to put it mildly, an eccentric fellow. He’s a wealthy inventor who assumes everything he does will succeed, and on the off chance it doesn’t, he spins it so failure was his plan all along. He’s abrasive and hard to get along with, but since he’s a foil to the protagonists, those traits work in his favor.
Varrick is genuinely funny, but there’s more to him than jokes. His comedy arises as a natural extension of his hare-brained schemes, instead of being the central focus of his character. His resources also put him on an even playing field with the bender characters, as he uses his technology to overcome the disadvantage of being a non-bender. Sure, the other characters might be able to shoot fire out of their hands, but he has a ship that launches airplanes. This is something that the writers should have done with Asami since the beginning, but instead she was stuck in a love triangle.
Varrick is sometimes a villain, and sometimes an unreliable ally, but either way his motivations are always complicated. When the Avatar first meets him, Varrick is hard at work to end the Northern Water Tribe’s occupation of the South. It’s soon revealed that Varrick is using underhanded means to enrich himself off this conflict, but even so, his desire to free the South was genuine. He does care about the South, but his way of resisting the North is unacceptable to many, which leads to some delicious conflict with the protagonists.
His complex motivations continue into season four, when he is hired by the main villain to create a doomsday weapon. At first, he is delighted with the project, so excited to be pushing the boundaries of science that he ignores his employer’s flaws. As the villain becomes more overtly evil, Varrick makes excuses for her. Eventually, even he reaches the climax of his character arc and selflessly tries to destroy his creation at the risk of his own life. Of course, Varrick’s arc is less noteworthy by then because the show’s general level of quality is so much higher than season 2, but Varrick got his start early.
4. Walter, Fringe
The first season of Fringe* practices a style of mystery storytelling that consists mostly of throwing a bunch of random crap on the screen and promising to explain it all later. This is the same type of storytelling that worked so well on Lost, so why not try it again? The show’s protagonist, Olivia Dunham, is boring and lacks a compelling motivation. Despite being cast in the role of badass FBI agent, Dunham often ends up in the role of helpless victim.
The other characters are okay but nothing to write home about, except for Walter. From the first episode, it’s obvious that Walter is the breakout character. Part of that no doubt goes to the extreme charisma of actor John Noble, but the entire character is highly compelling. First, the show sets up a contrast between his high intelligence and his unfamiliarity with modern technology. He spent 17 years in an institution before the show starts,* and so he has no experience with smartphones, streaming video, or any of the numerous technological advancements that have rolled out since the mid ’90s.
The contrasts of Walter’s character don’t stop there. He’s naturally kind and understanding, except when he’s attacking a problem and other characters can’t keep up. Then he gets snappish, lashing out when frustrated. This hints at his dark past, when he cared more about the results of an experiment than the lives of his colleagues.
Like Varrick, Walter is a mad-scientist archetype, but he’s a much more subdued version. While Varrick is still fully in the grips of mad science, Walter is played more like someone recovering from a bad phase in their life. His job on the fringe science team is to investigate exactly what he’s trying to leave behind, making his arc more compelling and complex.
Walter has a difficult relationship with his son Peter, who is also part of the team. While Peter isn’t a noteworthy character, he plays a decent foil to Walter. This gives Walter the chance to work through his regret at being a largely absent parent, and it builds tension about a mysterious plot involving Peter’s exact origin. It’s too bad the rest of Fringe’s plot wasn’t so well foreshadowed, but that’s what happens when a show thinks getting Leonard Nimoy to play a major character constitutes a reveal.
5. Betty Broderick-Allen, The OA
The OA isn’t just bad; it’s so bad I don’t know how it ended up on Netflix. Surely someone would have spoken up? But no, we have a supernatural mystery that refuses to answer its own mystery, has the most boring supernatural elements of all time, smells of ableism, and makes its protagonists use interpretive dance to stop a school shooting.*
One of The OA’s many failings* is the storyline of five random people essentially being told a story about the show’s supernatural elements by the protagonist. Of these five characters, three receive almost no development at all. The fourth receives plenty of character development, but it’s tainted by the fact that he’s a homophobic bully, and the show prioritizes his feelings over his victims’ safety.
But the last member of this surrogate audience is a shining exception. She is Betty Broderick-Allen, or BBA as her friends call her, a local high school teacher. First, she stands out immediately just for her looks. The number of heavy, middle-aged women cast in major TV roles is so vanishingly small, that I couldn’t even think of any others.
Beyond the diversity factor, BBA is the only character with a compelling character arc. She begins the story suffering from two serious problems. First, she’s completely burnt out on teaching. Second, her estranged brother has died and left her a lot of money, but she feels guilty taking it because she doesn’t think she was there for him when he needed her. Over the course of the show, she forms a bond with the other characters, who are all high school aged. As she helps these kids, it eases her through the guilt of her brother’s passing. The climax of her dual-arc comes when she uses her brother’s inheritance as a bribe to rescue one of the kids from an abusive reform school.
You might ask what any of this has to do with a supernatural mystery, and the answer is nothing! BBA’s character arc is by far the best part of the show, and it is completely removed from the central premise. That’s just the kind of quality storytelling you get on The OA.
If a character in your story is garnering a much more positive reaction than the story itself, stop and consider why. Are they breaking more conventions? Are they more complex or interesting? More competent? More relatable? Studying your gems could teach you a lot.
(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)