I always enjoyed science fiction more when the creators used fantastical settings and unorthodox concepts to make poignant commentary on present-day issues. When the writers and producers play with a literally infinite selection of worlds, technologies, cultures, and so on, audiences are exposed to, and in many cases are more receptive of, ideas and people outside of their immediate surroundings.
After seeing Uhura on the bridge of a starship, or rooting for Will Smith to save the world against aliens (or zombies, or rogue androids), or grieving with Zoë over the loss of Wash (sorry, spoilers?), it becomes easier for fans of the social status quo to relate to Black characters, which in turn makes it easier for those fans to relate to actual Black people.
Whether because of race, sexuality, age, ethnicity, disability, or any other factor, being outside the status quo can be challenging (I know, I know, that’s the understatement of the millennium). Representation in genre-fiction television and movies is one such challenge and one that has, in recent years, finally begun to receive acknowledgment.
There are now dozens of shows and films featuring non-white, LGBTQIA+, and other non–status quo characters and actors on nearly every network, and the latest annual Hollywood Diversity Report shows a direct correlation between diverse projects and increased profits. Black Panther recently received huge accolades, winning trophies at the recent SAG Awards, receiving three Golden Globes nominations, and winning three Oscars. While all the recent attention is well deserved, much needed, and highly desired by audiences, it’s important to remember that Black characters have been part of sci-fi shows and movies for decades.
Before we get into the list, please keep in mind that this is an editorial. I’m not suggesting, nor do I want to give the impression, that this is a comprehensive catalog of every Black character in science fiction media. It’s not. And while that might make for a groovy book someday (note to self), it’s not the purpose of this article. This piece will be a trip down nostalgia avenue for some, and for others it’ll be the first time hearing of these characters, but in any case, my intent to is foster a sense of collective awareness around these amazing, compelling, and entertaining Black characters who were holding it down for Black characters in genre works long before audiences got hip.
So with that in mind, here are just a few unsung, forgotten, or otherwise overlooked characters of Black science-fiction television shows and movies.
Mr. X (The X-Files)
After Mulder’s informant, Deep Throat, was killed, the man known only as “X” took over as the primary source for leaking information. Whenever Scully’s partner put an “X” in the window, Mr. X would deliver poignant clues or critical nuggets of info to help Fox find the truth. Though he was a lot more pragmatic, enigmatic, and stern than his predecessor, Steve Williams‘s portrayal of Mr. X did seem to genuinely care about Mulder’s cause, risking his own life often, and even rescuing Mulder from the Red-Haired Man, carrying the unconscious agent away from an exploding train.
Best episode: “731”
Dr. Richard Daystrom (Star Trek)
According to no less a person than Captain James T. Kirk himself, Dr. Richard Daystrom was a genius, comparable to Sitar (of Vulcan) and Albert Einstein (of Earth). Played by the incomparable William Marshall, he was so skilled in the field of artificial intelligence that his computer system, M-5, was sophisticated enough that it could control an entire starship without the need for a crew. Granted, M-5 wasn’t a perfect piece of software, but it was self-aware (which makes sense considering Daystrom programmed his own personality engrams into the system) to the point that it felt so much guilt over the deaths it unintentionally caused that it took itself offline. Even with all that, the Federation named its most prominent research center after the doctor (the Daystrom Institute) and a prestigious award (the Daystrom Award). Not bad for a Black TV character in 1968.
Best Episode: “The Ultimate Computer”
Glyn Williams (Doctor Who)
In the seminal Doctor Who episode “The Tenth Planet,” Whovians were introduced not only to the concept of regeneration but also to a dashing astronaut named Glyn Williams. The earliest Black actor with a speaking role in the Doctor Who franchise (of which we still have footage), Earl Cameron was already notable for being the first Black actor ever to star in a British film. While his on-screen persona was fairly typical for non-main, non-featured characters at the time, it was more that the character was on screen at all that made his appearance so inspiring.
Best Episode: “The Tenth Planet”
Dayna Mellanby (Blake’s 7)
With one hell of a body count, Dayna proved she was one rebel you didn’t want to eff with. Though she claimed to prefer ancient weapons, she definitely wasn’t opposed to using bombs, grenades, or other modern instruments of death to shut down any threats. From the moment Josette Simon joined the cast in the third season—introducing Dayna by rescuing Avon from the Sarrans—sporting a close-cropped natural hairstyle, a white, off-the-shoulder tunic, and 800 gallons of charismatic bad-assery, Dayna was a breath of fresh air, coming at just the right time in the series.
Best Episode: “Animals”
Storm (X-Men: The Animated Series)
Think back to sometime between 1992 and 1997. You’ve just gotten home from school. You grab a bottle of Fruitopia and a pouch of Gushers, kick off your Chucks, plop down on the couch, and wait for that super-groovy guitar lick . . . dunna dunna dun dun-dun, dunna dunna dun dun-dun! That meant it was time for X-Men! More importantly, it also meant that it was time for Storm. Many fans may not realize that it was actually two Black women who loaned their voice talents to the white-hair-don’t-care goddess of climate—Iona Morris for the first season, followed by Alison Sealy-Smith for the duration of the series—but Storm was a singularly regal presence among the afternoon cartoon lineup. She wasn’t a sassy sidekick or a distressed damsel; she was on equal footing with the rest of her mutant colleagues, and never hesitated to smack a villainous fool with a lightning bolt or hurricane when the need arose.
Best Episode: “Captive Hearts”
Jefferson Reed/Meteor Man (Meteor Man)
The year was 1993, so we’re talking pre-Hancock, pre-Steel, pre-Blade, and a full quarter century before Black Panther proved that a cast predominantly consisting of people of color could carry a superhero picture. Robert Townsend wrote, directed, starred in, and produced the film that—aside from Frank Gorshin and Wallace Shawn—boasted a cast composed entirely of Black talent. Meteor Man was (somewhat unfairly) panned by critics at the time, primarily for its blend of humor and superhero action, but watching it again, it’s basically the same formula that Marvel movies have been using since Iron Man kicked off the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Plus, his powers were amazing! In addition to some, er . . . Kryptonian-inspired talents like flight, increased speed, super strength, and laser eyes, he could also absorb the contents of a book through touch and, occasionally, breathe fire! Not for nothing, but how groovy would it be if he showed up in Avengers: Endgame? It might be more than a little inexplicable, but tell me Meteor Man versus Thanos wouldn’t be memorable!
Aunty Entity (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome)
While the Thunderdome is largely known now for being the punchline to lazy jokes about the current state of the city of Detroit, Aunty Entity was the undisputed queen of the post-apocalyptic wasteland known as Bartertown. Sure, Master and Blaster were a pain in her chainmail-clad tuchus, but make no mistake: there’s only one boss in Bartertown, and you definitely don’t want to “bust a deal” on her turf. Tina Turner proved that Black women can be just as much a force to be reckoned with in the future as the present, and Aunty Entity was just as phenomenal as the legendary woman portraying her.
Bertha (Robocop 3)
Bertha was arguably the only good element of the disappointing final chapter of the original Robocop trilogy. She was the leader of the Cadillac Heights resistance fighters who tried to hold off the murderous takeover of their homes and ended up working side by side with Robocop. It’s not a great film by any means, but nobody gave that message to CCH Pounder. She filled the role with an incendiary passion that almost elevates the tepid script and questionable directorial choices. Had the story had more of her and less of . . . well, everything else that was in it, it might have been a much better movie. But unfortunately, it was what it was, which thankfully made Pounder’s scenes stand out even more.
Mace Mason (Strange Days)
Mace Mason was the most intriguing character in an already intriguing film. Angela Bassett won a Saturn Award for her portrayal of Mason, the limo-driving best friend slash guardian angel to Ralph Fiennes’s Lenny. While the central focus of the film is on Lenny and his quest to find his ex-girlfriend’s killer, Mace is the true hero throughout, saving Lenny numerous times, deciphering muddled clues, and making hard decisions. Even at the climax (mild spoiler for a 24-year-old film), she’s the one who subdues the crooked cops chasing them. If this film had been released in 2004 or even 2014, it would’ve been hailed as a breathtaking, female-fronted, sci-fi, neo-noir thriller. But since it was 1995, and the movie wasn’t the best . . .
Director Miles Dyson (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
Yep, Olivia Pope’s father (Joe Morton) is responsible for the rise of the machines. As head of the special projects for Cyberdyne, it’s his research that leads to the formation of Skynet. Seeing a Black man as not only a brilliant scientist but also a well-rounded, fully developed character (with an on-screen family!) that also happened to be the catalyst for the events of an entire franchise was astoundingly groundbreaking.
These are just a handful out of many, many Black sci-fi characters who have graced our television and cinema screens over the decades. If we get down to it, there are enough overlooked Black sci-fi characters for a monthly version of this article. I mean, do you remember Childs (The Thing) played by Keith David, Dr. Jenson (Blade) played by N’Bushe Wright, Niobe (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) played by Jada Pinkett-Smith, Dr. Fred Walters (The Fantastic Journey) played by Carl Franklin, J-Bone (Johnny Mnemonic) played by Ice-T, Ty Earl (Manimal) played by Michael D. Roberts . . . ?
With Black History Month just having wrapped up, my hope is that this list can kick off conversations that spark deeper exploration into past and contemporary science-fiction films and programs. In our celebration of the changes to come, let’s not forget to look back and remember those who came before.