I’m kind of a sucker for a good romance. Just the thought of Jim and Pam is enough to make me choke up, and I can’t watch the episode of Doctor Who when the Doctor loses Rose without crying real, ugly tears.
But many romantic relationships within the sci-fi genre in particular come up short for me. They often feel as though they were plugged in as part of a formula. The relationship between Uhura and Spock in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot comes to mind as one that is completely superfluous. And even Joss Whedon managed to make the romance between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff in Avengers: Age of Ultron bland at best and offensive at worst, as Gabby pointed out last month.
I think the problem with romance in fantasy and sci-fi is that it’s rarely a central part of the plot. When there are aliens to blow up, bad guys to thwart, and sweet special effects to show off, a romance usually serves as little more than plot padding. A beautiful woman often functions as a reward for the hero or the impetus for conflict. She often seems to exist only to make the hero choose to save either her or a bus full of children.
But many romantic relationships within the sci-fi genre in particular come up short for me. They often feel as though they were plugged in as part of a formula.And if he fails to save her, his rage over losing her fuels his eventual triumph over the bad guy. Whatever relationship exists between them only takes up as much screen time as necessary to set up one of these scenarios.
Not to mention that with all of that other stuff going on, it’s never really that believable that people could actually fall in love. In Guardians of the Galaxy for example, the tension between Peter Quill and Gamora seems entirely sexual. Not that I mind – I like watching attractive people flirt with each other. But that isn’t really romance.
Even in Star Wars, which is one of my favorite things ever, the relationship between Princess Leia and Han Solo doesn’t seem super likely to survive. Once the rebels have blown up the death star and defeated Emperor Palpatine, they’ve lost their reason to see each other. Leia is a princess and Han is a smuggler. It seems unlikely her family could get past his being a “scruffy-looking nerf-herder” as quickly as she did. Also, one of them is going to have to compromise their whole lifestyle to be with the other, and they are both such strong-willed people that I can’t imagine it working out without one of them becoming seriously resentful.
But not all sci-fi relationships fall flat.But not all sci-fi relationships fall flat. In Whedon’s series Firefly and its spinoff film Serenity, the relationship between married couple Zoe and Wash is not only essential to the plot, but so wonderful and sweet that it might be the only thing I refer to unironically as a ‘relationship goal.’ Granted, it’s easier in a series than a film to establish a relationship. But it’s the way that Zoe and Wash interact with each other that makes me aspire to live like them. (I’m aware that they live on a spaceship in the future, but I also aspire to own a light saber someday, so let a girl dream).
To begin with, the fact that Wash is so cool with Zoe’s baddass-ness is really refreshing. She isn’t there to be swept off her feet by him or reward his goodness – it’s clear that between the two of them Zoe is the one you would want on your side in a fight. But he is never threatened by her skills – if anything he is proud of them. He refers to her as “a beautiful woman who can kill [him] with her pinky,” and means it entirely as a compliment. He respects her decision-making ability, and even though he worries about her when she’s on a mission, he never doubts her competence. Zoe doesn’t need to be saved by anyone.
And what makes their relationship not only sweet but believable is the fact that they have disagreements. Not superficial disagreements that serve to heighten the sexual tension or provide a brooding close up of the suffering hero, but the kind of arguments that anyone who has been in an adult relationship will recognize. For example, Zoe and the captain of the ship she and Wash live on, Malcolm Reynolds, have a long history together. They fought side-by-side in a war, and have a trust between them that not even Wash can penetrate. It’s usually not an issue, but after one argument Wash is driven to complain that “what [their] marriage needs is one less husband.” This sounds pretty bad, but Wash’s jealousy isn’t driven by possessiveness or injured masculinity, he’s hurt that she wasn’t open with him. They are able to work through the issue and come out stronger because of it.
Wash’s jealousy isn’t driven by possessiveness or injured masculinity, he’s hurt that she wasn’t open with him.The fact that Zoe and Wash’s relationship isn’t a fairy tale – it’s gritty and difficult and has problems – makes you root for them all the more. And even though they have ups and downs, they are incredibly supportive of each other. They constantly give each other little positive affirmations like “that’s my man” or “I’m right behind you, baby,” so that even when their relationship isn’t the focus of the plot, it’s never forgotten. It makes the show richer and more interesting to watch.
And even though their relationship ends tragically – if anyone uses the words “leaf” and “wind” in the same sentence I will start to sniffle – it’s still one of my favorite romances in sci-fi and really all of fiction. Their relationship could have its own show or movie outside of the Firefly universe, and because it’s given attention and depth, it transcends the predictable path most sci-fi romances follow. Now excuse me while I go drink a bottle of wine and curse Whedon’s name for killing Wash and breaking my heart.
Laura Jewell still isn’t over Serenity. She has a BA in Theatre from Miami University. She currently lives in Chicago and enjoys many fandoms, including her favorites Harry Potter and Doctor Who. Her favorite weekend pastime is curling up with a book and her fifteen-pound orange cat, Orange Cat.