Ro Laren — Template for an SF Heroine

This article was submitted by Hathor reader MC! 😀 YAY MC!

I recently started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD. Right from the start the show tried for gender equality by making some male extras wear mini-dresses and having a female chief of security. But the chief was killed off, replaced by a man, and so the only remaining main female characters were a doctor and a counselor.

Despite liking those two remaining women I was disappointed by the missed opportunity and ready to give up on the show. Then the fifth season came along and introduced a new female character: Ensign Ro Laren. Ro had been forced to watch her father being tortured to death when she was a child. When she grew up she joined Starfleet. But on an away mission she disobeyed orders, resulting in eight deaths. Because of this, she was court-martialed and imprisoned. A few years later she was given a full pardon in exchange for going on a secret mission to help locate a terrorist. Captain Picard recognized Ro’s potential as an officer and requested that she remain on board. Ro joined the crew and was eventually promoted to Lieutenant. In the last season Ro was asked to infiltrate the Maquis (a group of resistance fighters). But during the mission she found her loyalties in conflict with her duties as she became increasingly sympathetic to the plight of the rebels. Despite Picard’s effort to force her to do her duty, she betrayed Starfleet and joined the rebels.

Let’s just say I was really impressed with this character. Ro was created in 1991. Until then there had been a few great science fiction heroines: Ripley, Sarah Connor, The Doctor’s companions… but none of them were like Ro. Ripley and Connor were at least partially motivated by their love for a child, the Doctor’s companions were independent and adventurous but also sweet, bubbly and girly. Ro Laren on the other hand was rude, kept her feelings to herself and just wasn’t a very nice person.

But what’s really great about Ro is that she wasn’t just a tough girl. She had the kind of arc that usually only male characters get: finding out who you really are, what you believe in and then sticking to it even if it means switching sides. Sure, there are a lot of female villains who team up with the hero, but usually it’s because they fall in love with him (the notable exception being Cara from Legend of the Seeker). But Ro Laren didn’t betray Starfleet for love. On the contrary, she did it despite her attachment to the crew. Ro joined the rebels because it felt like the morally right action.

None of the other female characters on TNG ever faced this kind of dilemma. All of them were officers with complete faith in their captain. The original casting call for Tasha Yar, the chief of security, even stated that she “has an almost obsessive devotion to protecting the ship and its crew and treats Capt. Picard and Number One as if they were saints. Beverly Crusher, the chief medical officer, sometimes challenged Picard, but she always respected his authority as he respected her scientific opinion. The other prominent female characters of the show were Deanna Troi, the counselor, and Guinan, the wise bartender. They both offered Picard friendship and advice – a typical supporting role for females. Compare to that Ro Laren openly defying her captain and the Federation he stood for. The show’s producer, Rick Berman, said it best: “We wanted a character with the strength and dignity of a Starfleet officer but with a troubled past, an edge.”

Ro had an edge all right and the fans loved her. So did her creators; they intended Ro to become a member of the spin-off show Deep Space Nine. When the actress, Michelle Forbes, turned down the offer the character was modified and became the basis for Kira Nerys, another beloved science fiction heroine with an edge, whose loyalties were torn between her race (the Bajorans) and Starfleet.

When the next spin-off, Star Trek: Voyager, was created the producers tried again to include Ro Laren in the main cast. When the actress declined again the character B’Elanna Torres was created – another ass-kicking woman with a dark side, who started out as a Maquis rebel who suddenly found herself in a situation where she had to work with Starfleet to survive.

Action Girls have been around as long as people have told each other stories; from the goddess Ishtar to the legendary Princess Fantaghirò to Buffy Summers. But they were all heroes (or villains). I haven’t come across many female supportive characters whose arc is questioning society’s ethics. But that’s what Ro Laren was all about. She might not have been human, but she joined the human-dominated Starfleet and was expected to follow their rules. Yet she disobeyed them, leading Picard – her captain and mentor – to threaten her with a court martial if she doesn’t follow orders. Eventually her betrayal seemed inevitable; but it was remarkable that she stayed a sympathetic character because the audience was shown her struggle and her ultimate decision to be true to her beliefs.

All in all the character of Ro Laren might not have radically changed science fiction forever, but she did introduce a new type of female anti-hero and without her we might never have had Farscape’s Aeryn Sun or Battlestar Galactica’s Kara Thrace.

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  1. The Other Patrick says

    Of course, Michelle Forbes also played Miranda Zero in the pilot for Global Frequency (as well as Helena Cain in BSG and the villain in True Blood). Which makes her pretty cool.

  2. says

    This post really makes me want to go back and rewatch all of TNG. And DS9 for that matter. Thanks for giving me something to think about when developing my characters, as well. Woman characters do usually switch sides for romance, not convictions.

  3. cranscape says

    It is also interesting that her storylines are some of the most rewatchable and modern feeling in a show that wobbled between two eras of tv storytelling. Her character was ahead of her time. I remember as what, a 10 year old (??! oh boy) thinking her relationship with Picard was the most interesting thing. He was the main authority figure on the show and she stuck it to him even more than the best of the guys did and as a response he seemed more real and interesting to me as well in those moments.

    Her acting was, ahem, light years ahead of some on that show too. I have to hand-wave a lot of that stuff rewatching it now but not for her or a few others. If she was of the age to have her break in the late 90s early 00s she might have gotten a bigger name for herself.

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