A few nights ago, we watched part five of the Doctor Who story “The Invasion,” and saw the Brigadier tell Zoe, Jamie, and most especially guest character Isobel Watkins not to go down in the sewers and take pictures of alien monsters. In that Doctor Who way that lets you know that Terrance Dicks, in his well-meaning but old-fashioned style, was involved with the writing, the Brig completely bungles the command.
It would have been perfectly sensible to say “we’ll organize a company and get some trained, armed, military men with photographic equipment,” but instead he says something about “menfolk will do this, not you girls in miniskirts,” and the guest character gets to draw back and say “you chauvinist pig,” because this was 1968 and shows needed to reflect contemporary issues. But instead of being pragmatic about the situation or at the very least giving the ladies some boots and trousers to wear, it all says “this is too dangerous for girlies.”
Compare to this episode of Jason of Star Command, which is a million times stupider in every possible way than “The Invasion,” and includes a, ahem, “space pirate” who’s about nineteen years old with a white boy disco ‘fro, but which handles the “this is too dangerous for the lead female character” scene a billion times better. They don’t mention gender, or race, at all.
We’ve had this scene in sixty gajillion drama programs. The hero has got to do a rescue, and the chief says it’s dangerous but good luck, and the female lead says let me go, and the chief says no. But here, it’s beautifully progressive and realistic. The commander won’t let Samantha go because he can’t afford to risk two pilots. That’s all. Thank heaven.
I’d like to think that’s fifty percent Filmation being an incredibly inclusive and progressive company to start with. Sure, they had almost no money, incredibly earnest scriptwriting, a tone and storylines that were lockstep firmly in Star Trek‘s shadow and visuals that owed everything to Star Wars. This time, they even added a “space age game” that follows in the footsteps of both that chessboard with hologram pieces in Wars and Tri-Dimensional Chess from Trek! Yet this was a show whose producers’ hearts were in the right place. They had to take baby steps, because, you know, kiddie TV, but casting Tamara Dobson was unbelievably great for the day. Certainly, there’s a “please, hero, explain this to me so the audience can understand” nature about Samantha that is unavoidable with any co-starring part, but Samantha is more physically powerful than Jason, very resourceful, and is not at all a damsel in distress.
It was very uncommon to see any black actress in a regular lead role in an action show before Dobson. Nichelle Nichols may have been the first, but she didn’t beam down to very many planets and blast many Klingons or Gorns. Gail Fisher on Mannix also comes to mind, but she was the secretary. If there are any American television actresses that I’m missing, please leave a comment, but there clearly weren’t very many before 1979. In the UK, Elizabeth Adare had joined the cast of The Tomorrow People in 1974; I’m not sure when Nickelodeon started showing that in this country.
The other fifty percent is Dobson herself. She’s got such screen presence, power, and magnetism that honestly, if the script had called for John Russell to tell her – to tell Cleopatra Jones – something like “This is too dangerous for a woman,” it would have stopped looking like Star Wars and looked more like Police Squad. You don’t cast Tamara Dobson in 1979 and ask her to wait patiently because being a hero is menfolk’s work. While the character did have limitations because of the format and because they couldn’t do much of anything too violent on the series, I’m glad that she was in Jason and I hope that she was a great hero to many young viewers.