[This review contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker]
Imagine, if you will, that the ‘Scavenger Rey has royal lineage’ twist had been the plan from the beginning of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and not just The Rise of Skywalker’s tacked-on cynical move to appease sexist fanboys? If you want to know how to do that plot properly, look no further than Vagrant Queen, Syfy’s latest swashbuckling series set in a galaxy far, far away.
Co-produced with Blue Ice Pictures, Vagrant Queen is that rarest of gems: an under-the-radar show that truly deserves the spotlight. Created by Jem Garrard and based on the Vault comic book series of the same name by Magdalene Visaggio and Jason Smith, the series stars Adriyan Rae as Elida, a scavenger on a desert planet who has long been running from her secret past. Elida, aka Eldaya El-Fayer, was once the child-queen of Arriopa, a sprawling celestial empire in another galaxy (not ours), until she was deposed by a band of revolutionaries led by Commander Lazaro (Paul du Toit) who shot Elida’s mother (Bonnie Mbuli) in front of her. Over a decade after she went into hiding, news that her mother may be alive after all leads Elida to team up with the roguish Isaac (Tim Rozon) and the effervescent Amae (Alex McGregor) on a hazardous quest to learn the truth and overthrow the corrupt government that stole everything from her.
Space train! Karaoke death battle! Spaceship murder mystery! What more could you possibly want from a show? In its DNA is the antipodean oddness of Farscape, Mad Max, and Thor: Ragnarok, coupled with a Mystery Men-style wackiness that ticked every one of my boxes. Colourful, campy and cool, it’s a delightfully zany mishmash of all your sci-fi faves – Star Wars, Killjoys, Firefly, Guardians of the Galaxy – but with a tone and style that’s completely its own. Whilst a lot of low budget sci-fi restricts its setting to a single spaceship and a handful of samey locales, Vagrant Queen is filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, and takes its audience to a smorgasbord of smorgasbord of distinct, memorable and diverse locations, making it a genuine delight to see where the characters will go next. The series isn’t afraid to end a fight scene with a cheesy pun or a pop culture reference, but it’s all done with a winking self-awareness that is so refreshing in our recent glut of grimdark genre fiction. In a landscape of po-faced programming, Vagrant Queen was bright, breezy breath of fresh air that didn’t take itself too seriously. My kingdom for a bit of light entertainment!
Showrunner Jem Garrard has assembled a multi-talented team of brilliant women both in front of and behind the camera – not only is every episode written and directed by women, Vagrant Queen’s lead character Elida is a Black queer woman who is wonderfully complex and multi-faceted: impulsive, kind, cynical, loyal, occasionally cavalier, and delightfully unafraid of punctuating a punch with a dorky pun, Elida is reluctantly heroic and compulsively likable. Adriyan Rae is utterly magnetic in the role, moving effortlessly between comedy, drama and action – by the end of the show you’ll want to go for a drink with her and take down a totalitarian government with her! Rae, a multi-talented Renaissance woman (she was a scientist before becoming an actor, singer and model) with recent credits in Atlanta and Burning Sands, is definitely one to watch.
Although Elida starts out as something of a lone wolf, she quickly assembles a motley crew in her quest comprising of Isaac Stelling (Tim Rozon) and Amae Rali (Alex McGregor). Isaac is more Jack Sparrow than Han Solo, haplessly selfish and frustratingly self-centred, but Rozon (of Wynonna Earp and Schitt’s Creek fame) manages to make the character relentlessly endearing in spite of his many transgressions. Amae is a whip-smart, endlessly kind and joyously optimistic engineer who is probably the only reason Elida and Isaac haven’t killed each other yet. I wish we’d seen more of Amae’s bartender brother Chaz (Steven John Ward), but their bond was excellently sketched even in the brief time they shared the screen. McGregor is utterly charming in the role, and it’s easy to see why she and Elida fall for each other.
To see a healthy, loving and well-written queer romance in any show is something to celebrate, especially in an era in which showrunners are more than happy to bury its gays (*cough* The 100 *cough*) or string its audience along with the promise of an LGBTQ+ love story while never intending to make it canon (looking at you, Teen Wolf). Representation in Vagrant Queen is straightforward and unfettered right out of the gate: we first meet Amae in bed with another woman, and often see her flirting with other women throughout the show. The sweet, sparkling chemistry between Rae and McGregor is right there in their first interaction, and the bond they strike up through various (mis)adventures makes for both a breathlessly swoony and emotionally healthy romance – they support each other, trust each other, listen to each other, protect each other, and truly care about each other as friends first and (potential) lovers second. Not only is this a particularly brilliant queer romance, it’s just a gorgeously written romance full stop, one which doesn’t function solely on angst for angst’s sake (*ahem* Vampire Diaries).
The show’s fun, feminist and cheekily badass vibe has shades of Lost Girl and Wynona Earp, but sometimes it goes full-on Saw – and the character responsible for most of the bloodshed is the meticulously unhinged Commander Ori Lazaro (Paul du Toit). If you were to mash together Joaquin Phoenix’s roles as Emperor Commodus and Johnny Cash with a pot of hair gel and a pair of elf ears, you’d get Commander Lazaro. Du Toit may be having the most fun of the entire cast, which is really saying something – and it’s easy to see why. Lazaro is a completely looney tune; a preening sadist with both a raging superiority streak and an inferiority complex (a dangerous combination). This is a galaxy which feels genuinely dangerous, especially for our three ramshackle heroes, and it’s largely down to du Toit’s unnervingly psychotic performance.
My only real point of contention is that I think the show is often too gory for its own good. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of gore – but it has to fit the tone of its story. The campy ultraviolence of Punisher: War Zone matched its hyperbolically brutal tone; the casual carnage in Deadpool is an essential part of its cynical metatextuality. Vagrant Queen’s not afraid to Go There™ – and that’s commendable, but its gore often feels disturbing for the sake of it – there are things that Lazaro compels lackeys and prisoners to do to themselves that will haunt me for a long time, and while it reinforced his credentials as a worthy villain, it often feels gratuitous and unnecessary given the otherwise tongue in cheek tone. At the same time, it’s commendable of the show to have the courage of its convictions and go to some truly dark places…
…Because this is a show which is 100% itself. It’s refreshingly proud of its strangeness, and its scrappy, unpolished charm is a real draw in an age of by-the-numbers blockbusters. This is a show that cares. It cares so deeply – about its characters, its story, its world, and its audience. It knows when to be goofy, when to be cool, and when to be emotional. Everyone on this show is giving it their all, from the hapless loyalists to the Republic guards (essentially Goth Stormtroopers) who all have distinct, quirky personalities. One particular standout is Thembalethu Ntuli who plays Nim, a canine-faced humanoid who steals any scene he’s in and is in too few of them. Ntuli’s performance is so good he makes you forget that the CGI on his face is little more a marginally enhanced Snapchat filter.
There is a genuine warmth and sincerity infused in every frame – and shows with a low budget and a big heart are my kryptonite. It’s clearly having a ball and wants you to join in with the fun. It’s a terrible shame that Syfy thoughtlessly cut the party short when it was only just beginning – and also a huge mistake for a channel with the least inspiring line-up of shows that don’t come close to filling the void left behind by Vagrant Queen. It could have been their new Killjoys – but instead, with Van Helsing ending and Wynonna Earp as their sole remaining draw, most of their remaining content is composed of rookie shows in their first seasons – like Vagrant Queen, which had so much potential that I can only hope another network has the guts to put their faith in.
With very few exceptions, it is unwise to judge a series on its first season alone. They need time to breathe, to experiment, to play, until they’ve settled into a tone. Cancelling a series after one season is like throwing a first draft in the bin – and Vagrant Queen, like many shows cut down before their time, got better and better with every episode. There’s a common misconception that a pilot has to hook you for a show to be worth investing in. I’ve been guilty of switching off a show mid-premiere, only to give it another try and become involved. Killjoys’ first season was shaky but promising. The Expanse’s first episode was almost unwatchable, but a mid-season turn got viewers hooked. Dark Matter had an intriguing pitch but its slow burn approach to character and plot rewarded viewers by the end of its first season. Season one is where you work out your tone; season two is where the story you want to tell truly begins. You need to give a series the time and space to find its footing and build its audience.
For my part, I feel that every series should be automatically locked in for a first and second season when a network green lights them – a single season is just a graveyard of missed opportunities otherwise. There seems to be an increasing aversion to investing in shows which aren’t an immediate worldwide sensation. Networks are giving hope and opportunity to creators without actually giving them a chance to build new worlds with long-lasting mileage. It seems that if a series isn’t an instant hit, it’s binned – and there’s a trend of co-productions not lasting long at Syfy (I’ve never got over them cancelling Dark Matter three seasons into a five-season plan). Haven’t networks learned from Firefly that cutting down a promising show before it’s even hit its stride is a mistake in the long run?
After The Rise of Skywalker crushed my love for Star Wars into a fine pulp, Vagrant Queen was like the fix-it fic I desperately needed. Knowingly campy, pulpy fun with fantastic costumes, striking makeup design, a goofily psychedelic tone and technicolour palette that makes it one of the most distinctive and innovative shows on TV right now, Vagrant Queen is a neon-splashed, gung-ho space adventure that has an enormous amount of fun and wants you to bring you along for the ride.