From Battlestar Galactica to Perry Mason: an exploration of gender and race recasting in TV reboots and the storytelling opportunities they bring
The most successful TV reboots are those that have something new and exciting to say about the original. They are more than carbon copies; they put a fresh spin on the concept. Whether it's realising the potential of the original through the realisation of modern budgets and effects or taking a story line in a new, accessible direction that reflects on modern audiences, reboots strive when they have something interesting to portray.
One of the most decisive aspects of any TV reboot is the recasting of classic characters. Changing the gender or race of a character certainly opens up new and exciting ways to tell a story, and are often the most controversial too. Is it the same character because they are now a woman rather than a man? Does a character still resonate in the same way when they come from a different racial background? There is no getting around the changes that gender or racial change brings, but reboots are all about change. If you're going to tell the exact same story all over again, what is the point of revisiting an old concept?
Battlestar Galactica is one of the most prominent examples of TV reboots that have changed gender of classic characters. There was huge uproar when Katee Sackhoff took on the role of pilot Starbuck, a role played in the 1970s original by Dirk Benedict. (interestingly, there was less uproar over Grace Park playing the character of Boomer, a role played by Herbert Jefferson Jr). Sackhoff's portrayal of Starbuck soon won audiences over, delivering one of the most striking, beloved female characters of the twenty first century so far. She was tough, but she didn't compromise her gender. She brought an equality to the military-dominated cast, proving herself as skilled, intelligent, intuitive and compelling as any of her male counterparts.
Does making an originally male character female require the character to be tough and aggressive? It's an interesting debate; unless the character and the narrative around them is significantly altered, they are still going to share similar characteristics with their male predecessors. Starbuck is still a fighter pilot, living the military life, in an increasingly stressful, war-torn situation. Boomer, too, begins the series as a military officer; like their male counterparts, the story line requires them to be tough to survive. But where they succeed is in how they move beyond that foundation. Starbuck is one of the most daring, courageous characters of the early twenty first century. Boomer goes through radical change - both in her identity (spoilers of course) - and her role as a mother later in the show.
Sometimes, applying more masculine attributes to a gender-swapped female character can offer interesting storytelling opportunities. Take Carrie-Anne Moss's portrayal of lawyer Jeri Hogarth in Jessica Jones, a character that was male in the comics. The character almost plays against her gender; she is ruthless, she treats her lovers like commodities, cannot commit to her relationship with her wife; she is willing to engage in violent, nefarious means to achieve her goals and she lusts for power. These are traditionally male attributes, but Moss brings such a fire and passion to the role; she is undeniable female, but knows how to survive in a man's world. It makes her a far more interesting character to watch.
In Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck - and Boomer - bring gender equality to an impressive cast that is predominantly military and therefore would traditionally be male-dominated (even Star Trek leans towards a predominately higher male to female ratio among its core cast for each series). Along with Mary McDonnel's commanding performance as President Laura Roslin (and Tricia Helfer's Six), there is a greater balance; the recasting of two key roles certainly helps achieve that.
Perhaps one of the most successful female reboots of classic characters in recent years is Lucy Liu's Jane Watson from Elementary. As an Asian-American and female interpretation of Sherlock Holmes' side kick, she certainly brings diversity and equality to the show and Arthur Conan Doyle's stories from which this TV remake draws inspiration. Liu brings gravitas and wisdom to the character, engaging in the same close connection with Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock. Perhaps most interestingly, Elementary doesn't go with the obvious route of transforming that connection into a romantic one; the relationship between Liu's Jane Watson and Miller's Sherlock Holmes remains platonic over the seven years of the show, while still remaining deeply close. It's quite a refreshing stance, bringing something new to the classic story and while the bulk of Elementary serves more as a police police procedural than an adaptation of Doyle's stories like the BBC's Sherlock, the tale of the famous detective and his loyal sidekick remains relatively intact - with a somewhat modern, diverse perspective.
While TV reboots tend to change characters gender from female to male, there are instances where the reversal happens - and succeeds. In it's glossy modern remake of US soap Dynasty, the new version took the decision to recast the character of Sammy Jo played originally by Heather Locklear as a man, now played by Rafael de la Fuente. The remake largely followed the beats of the original - Crystal was still 'Sam Jones' aunt and he still fell in love with and married Steve Carrington. But as a gay man, Sam (and Steven) was a central character able to better represent the diverse audience without the need to create new characters to fill that void. His storyline is simply reflective of the more open, accepting world in which we live in.
While changing the gender of TV characters in reboots allows for greater diversity and representation, race can also play a huge role in challenging greater and more diverse storytelling. Both Liu's Joan Watson and Rafael de la Fuente's Sam Jones offer Asian and Hispanic portrayals of classically white characters, though both characters - while reflective of the wider, more diverse audience - don't necessarily go to much into the racial identities surrounding their characters. However, sometimes race can play a significant role in character reboots.
The current reboot / prequel to the Perry Mason TV series and movies is another show that has taken a classic character and transformed him, this time in making Paul Drake black. The detective ally of Mason is here presented as a young black police officer in 1930s LA, facing racism and prejudice with his department and the wider world. Showing Paul as a young, inexperienced officer would have worked fine within the prequel setting, but by making him black, the series is able to tackle some interesting new angles.
Despite being a police officer, he has no jurisdiction to arrest white people committing crimes. He is forced to bow to the questionable whims of his superiors. In one scene that is particularly disturbing, an off-duty Paul, his wife and friends and forced off a beach by a white police officer purely for the colour of their skin. While we would like to think that instances like this wouldn't happen today, the current Black Lives Matter movement has shown that is far from the case and shows like Perry Mason have sought to educate as well as allow for a more diverse cast reflective of its audience. Paul's story is one of the many rich and fascinating aspects in the show.
Lucifer has touched upon the experience of racism briefly, having recast both Mazikeen & Amenadiel as black, compared to their white comic-based counterparts. In light of the events in America, there is even talk of a Black Lives Matter-focused episode to come in the sixth season, There are plans for a Wonder Years reboots with a black family in the works. If it works well, it can capture the magic of the original while offering a new and diverse cast and storylines for a wider audience. This degree of representation is a good thing.
And representation is fundamentally the driving force behind changing gender or race in a TV reboot. What might have been acceptable - or certainly tolerated - is often very different to what is presentative in today's modern, Twenty-First century television. When that gender or race change allows for challenging, thought-provoking television, all the better. The likes of Starbuck or Joan Watson or Sam Jones or Paul Rand work because they are more than just an attempt to diversify a cast. They bring something new to the show; after all, if a reboot is a carbon copy of the original, what is the point?