Token Black characters onscreen stand out like a neon sign.
Usually, they serve the purpose of acting as living props, present only to give the appearance of a diverse cast. Token characters are a very tired trope, cardboard-thin characters with no agency or inner emotional life to make them fully realized.
They are the comedic relief, the “sassy” best friend, the first to be killed, and the characters audiences care very little about. Tokens provide the illusion of diversity, so more substantive inclusion can be avoided.
Thank god for the exceptions.
One of the major factors earning Star Trek: The Original Series its place in pop culture history is the casting of a Black woman as a television series regular in a non-stereotypical role in 1966.
The Black woman in question is the magnificent Nichelle Nichols.
The character of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura contradicted onscreen depictions of Black people — especially Black women —prevalent during the era because she is an integral member of the command staff of an advanced spaceship traveling throughout the galaxy.
Lt. Uhura defies tokenism because her depiction is not rooted in bigoted and racist perceptions of Black people. She is not a mammy archetype, a “sassy” anything, or a buffoon.
Because of her trailblazing role as Lt. Uhura, Ms. Nichols continues to inspire millions — especially BIPOC.
One remarkable example of the kind of impact the character of Lt. Uhura has is the career of Dr. Mae Jemison.
Dr. Jemison is a brilliant scientist, physician, and the first Black woman astronaut to go into space. She credits Ms. Nichols and Star Trek for inspiring her to pursue her careers as a scientist and astronaut.
Ms. Nichols blazed a trail in media as Lt. Uhura, and other notable Black genre characters have followed in her footsteps.
The following six characters each represent a quantum leap away from tokenism toward complex, nuanced characterizations of Black people in sci-fi.
Colonel Tigh (Battlestar Galactica, 1978–1979)
In 1978, it was still very unusual to have a Black lead character in a television drama. In the original Battlestar Galactica TV series, Colonel Tigh is the second-highest ranking member of the command staff of the titular starship.
Portrayed by actor Terry Carter, he is a formidable figure.
Col. Tigh exudes dignity, pragmatism, and gravitas in every scene he is in due to Carter’s magnetic onscreen presence.
Though the original Battlestar Galactica lasted only one season, the casting of Mr. Carter in such a high-profile role was monumental in terms of inclusive representation; it remains a significant moment in television history.
Lando Calrissian (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980)
I’ve written before about how seeing Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian blew my mind as a young Black boy in the summer of 1980 when The Empire Strikes Back was first released.
Reflecting on the character of Lando and the implications of Billy Dee Williams’ casting fills me with bittersweet emotions.
Mainly, I am proud such a distinguished Black actor was chosen to portray a character who becomes an integral part of the conclusion of the original trilogy.
With his swagger, mega-watt smile, and style, Lando is the epitome of C-O-O-L.
Still, it’s frustrating knowing his presence as the only Black person in the entire original Star Wars trilogy is indicative of the pervasive erasure and marginalization of BIPOC in oncreen sci-fi.
The subsequent prequel trilogy repeated this failing in representation by casting Samuel L. Jackson as the sole Black presence in those films.
The unspoken “there can be only one!” ethos of casting Black players in Star Wars was finally broken in the recent, polarizing Skywalker sequel trilogy with the casting of John Boyega as the character of Finn, and (much later) Naomi Ackie as Jannah.
While both Finn and Jannah were announced as main characters, in reality both were sidelined in the latest films — as Boyega candidly discusses in an interview with GQ Magazine.
Yes, there are other Black faces in the recent sequel trilogy, but they have blink-and-you’ll-miss-them parts, elevating them not much higher than extras.
Despite its staggering global popularity and incalculable impact on modern cinema, Star Wars would still receive a failing grade for onscreen inclusion - if not for the saving grace of introducing one of the most memorable rogues in sci-fi: Lando Calrissian.
Martha Jones and Bill Potts (Doctor Who, 2005-Present)
Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi show in TV history.
The British show about a space-and-time-traveling alien, known only as “The Doctor,” has been on the air for over 55 years. The series continues to capture the imagination of legions of fans across the world.
Part of the series enormous appeal is audiences participate in the Doctor’s cosmic adventures vicariously through the human companions.
Through the companions’ perspective, viewers experience the wonders, thrills, and horrors inherent in traveling with the Doctor.
Throughout the show’s history, there have been many companions. A few of them are standouts due to their fascinating personalities and unique contributions to the narrative.
Despite the wide variances in characterizations and aptitudes of the Doctor’s human companions, they all had one egregious similarity: they were all white.
This homogeneity continued for decades until — after a several year hiatus — Doctor Who returned to the airwaves in 2005. During the revival’s third season, the character of Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), a Black medical student, is introduced as the companion for the Doctor.
Martha is the first Black character, and more specifically Black woman, to be an official traveling companion of the Doctor.
Martha is a breath of fresh air from the start.
Being a medical student and having an intense interest in science, she is a terrific role model for young girls interested in STEM. Martha is also a very self-assured young woman who travels with the Doctor due to a desire for adventure.
Although she is attracted to the Doctor — unlike her predecessor Rose Tyler — Martha is very secure and does not allow her nascent romantic feelings for her mentor to detract from her career and life goals.
Freema Agyeman’s portrayal of Martha is dynamic and acutely appealing, making her one of the most well-regarded companions of the series.
After the departure of Martha Jones, a Black woman would not serve as a companion to the Doctor until several years later when the character of Bill Potts is introduced.
The effervescent Bill Potts — portrayed by the luminous Pearl Mackie —is not only a Black woman, but an out lesbian as well, making her the first character with an intersectional identity to be prominently featured on the show.
Bill lights up the screen from the very beginning with her boundless curiosity, level-head, and irreverent sense of humor which helps ground the Doctor’s occasional flights of pomposity. Bill is also is a geek, with a burning love for all things sci-fi, so her travels with the Doctor are a dream come true.
Bill was the Doctor’s companion for only one season, but that was more than enough time for the character to leave an indelible mark on the series by expanding its representation of Black members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Doctor Stephen Franklin (Babylon 5, 1993–1998)
Set in the year 2257, Babylon 5 is about the titular space station occupied by humans and visitors from various alien civilizations.
The human military is responsible for the governance, operation, and security of Babylon 5. The station’s chief medical officer is Doctor Stephen Franklin — portrayed by late actor Richard Biggs.
Doctor Franklin is a dedicated physician, responsible for the medical care of both the human and alien populations of the station. His passion for healing makes him single-minded in his pursuit and use of cutting-edge medical procedures.
However, his focus often becomes myopic, sometimes leading him to disregard the cultural and religious beliefs of his patients in regards to their views on acceptable medical care.
Dr. Franklin is a very complicated character. Despite his flaws, he is a caring and committed physician whose expert diagnostic and medical skills are often critical in helping Babylon 5 survive its myriad encounters with both human and alien threats.
Morpheus (The Matrix Trilogy, 1999–2003)
Few characters in sci-fi cut as striking a figure as Morpheus, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne.
When we first meet him in The Matrix, we do not know if he is an ally or menace to the film’s protagonist, Neo.
Morpheus is a living metaphor for the deep abyss of truth which both frightens and seduces us.
Morpheus is a believer, a seeker, a disciple, a warrior, a leader.
And he looks damn good in a leather trench coat.
No matter if they command starships, travel through time and space as explorers, lead humanity in revolution, or defend human and alien allies from existential threats, each of these six iconic Black sci-fi characters broke new ground onscreen by demolishing limiting media tropes and stereotypes.
But by no means is this list complete.
What outstanding, Black sci-fi characters would you add to the list? Who is your favorite and why? Please feel free to add to this list by placing your selections in the comments below.