TV REVIEW: Vagrant Queen (SYFY, 2020)

The tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons has come a long way (currently on its seventh version called 5th Edition), and has influenced may ways our interactive entertainment is structured. Fantasy football, first-person shooters, and even science fiction has cribbed quite a but from the 50-year old pen-and-paper adventure simulator. Science fiction has benefitted from this greatly, and many properties have tabletop versions of their worlds. Some tabletop RPGs make their own science fiction worlds, like WARS, Numeneria, Traveller, Warhammer 40K, d20 Future, Esper Genesis, Starfinder, and Stars Without Number. Since many of these interactive games usually tell a story, it stands to reason that they might be used to construct a record that could be optioned to make a book or movie…or a TV show on SYFY.

From left to right: Elida (Adriya Rae), Isaac (Tom Rozon), and Amae (Alex McGregor) contemplate an alien sac used a marker in planning a heist.

The premise: Elida (played by Adriya Rae) is a cynical space scavenger, always out for a new score. She hides a great secret: she is actually the queen Eldaya XII al-Feyr of planet Arriopa, deposed 5 years earlier in a coup. Elida is wanted by the brutal Republic of Arriopa, the organization that overthrew her government. They have troopers searching for her across the alien galaxy where the story takes place (it’s “Another Galaxy, Not Yours” as the show likes to remind us). While trying to hide from the Republic, she crosses the galaxy in a junker spaceship with her allies: cute tech expert Amae (Alex McGregor) and trans-galactic Canadian castaway Isaac Sterling (Tom Rozon). The trio lead a life to keep Elida safe as the “Vagrant Queen” tries her best to turn a buck into a billion, without the crown that makes her a target for the Republic.

Amae ❤ Elida: it’s the Kirk/Uhura kiss for a new generation…

The show: Someone has been listening to my prayers. A science-fiction property so off-the-wall and meta (see “ Make Arriopa Great Again hat”) that it watches like a cosplay of someone’s sci-fi tabletop RPG session? Vagrant Queen is IT. I give it up to the showrunner Jem Garrard, as she has created a world that’s lived-in like the Star Wars universe but is as bright as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
Based on the 2018 comic of the same name written by Magdalene Visaggio and drawn by Jason Smith, the show has a lot of fun trying to make the Canadian-South African production do the most with the least amount of funds. Elida’s constant attempts at 80’s action-movie one-liners is prominent throughout, along with the subversions of what’s expected to happen. There’s also a significant amount of grime and alien gore, similar to what could be seen in an episode of LEXX (slimy/weird aliens, disused prison cells, abandoned settlements, etc.), and the work put in to make it both tactile and approachable from a cosplay standpoint is appreciated — except when the gore is all CG or presented in a wandering time-freeze battle scene.
More important than anything else in Vagrant Queen is the representation: a Black female lead in a science-fiction show that’s barely a Magical Negro™. Actress Adriya Rae is great for the role of Elida/Eldaya, as she looks incredibly idealized as a human being — almost alien — and she has a wonderful line delivery and physicality. Alex McGregor is a bright, emotional light in the series as Amae, playing the love interest to Elida. That’s right folks: homosexual relationships that aren’t used for laughs, male titillations or a character’s death sentence are normalized in this science fiction universe. Elida couldn’t be blamed: Amae is cute in the face and has a nice butt. Pretty much every female character in Vagrant Queen is fleshed out to some degree, and runs the gamut from good to selfish (note I did not say evil). And then there’s the male characters.

Above: Lazaro (Paul du Toit) of the Republic of Arriopa, bearing the most punchable face in the galaxy. He made my skin crawl when he was on screen.

The bearded human Isaac seems to have two settings: betray the team and be a screw-up. His story fell most in-line with the SYFY Original Farscape, about an astronaut shot through a wormhole trying to get back home. In Isaac’s case, he’s a lawyer trying to return to his family on Earth on top of being an astronaut. There’s no point where Isaac’s being a lawyer came in handy, only his obsession with duct tape. I really wanted more with Isaac, but he got shafted. Men of color also got shafted, as they were often hidden under makeup and latex appliances; I guess the casting director went out of their way to cast racially ambiguous men. In contrast to all this is the antagonist Lazaro (the amazing Paul du Toit). He was so wildly cartoonish as a villain and chewed the scenery as he found new and interestingly sadistic ways to kill or maim his enemies. If Amae was the light, Lazaro was certainly the dark by which all antagonists in the show are measured…making him special enough to be so fleshed out that his backstory is deeply intertwined with the protagonist Elida in ways that are not immediately evident.

The verdict: If anyone wants good TV shows to stay on, you have to watch them at their broadcast time and date. I learned that with Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: I watched that show EVERY night until it moved to the Disney+ streaming service. Unfortunately, I sacrificed Vagrant Queen to watch the CW’s Black Lightning. That’s something I have to live with, and I am sorry for my mistake. Please keep in mind watching every episode to keep ratings up doesn’t always work: I watched Space: Above and Beyond and Firefly every episode so that FOX could keep it on, but they decided to continue making Woops! and Temptation Island while canceling those sci-fi shows. The same happened to Vagrant Queen: it was axed with one season during the COVID-19 pandemic (which SHOULD have been to its benefit), while SYFY keeps repeats of WWE Smackdown going. Perhaps viewers did not like the representation of a science fiction world where the protagonist is not like all the others protagonists they’ve seen before; there’s also the “Rey Skywalker” effect to take into consideration about the reception of Vagrant Queen.
That said, I haven’t been this satisfied with a sci-fi show since LEXX, Space: Above and Beyond, Farscape, or Firefly. The cliffhanger was a good one, and I wished it got a 2nd season. I know I am part of the reason why this show did not get a 2nd season: I didn’t watch it during those original broadcast hours. But like all good sci-fi shows, including Star Trek: the Original Series, they’re gone too soon.

Originally published at https://www.facebook.com.

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Shaun Watson

Shaun Watson

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Writing from a need to get my notes from Facebook to a place where someone can see them, I hope you like my stuff.