Five Supporting Science Fiction Characters Who Steal Their Shows

Confession: I like to watch a lot of television. For my money, it doesn’t get any better than marathon sessions of shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Stranger Things (yes, that last one’s technically still television). The compelling mysteries, plot twists, and story arcs in these series are like digital catnip to me, but there’s more to it than just that. If those stories aren’t grounded in solid, interesting characters, they won’t hold my attention for long.

It’s not just the main characters, either. For every Jimmy McNulty, there’s an Omar Little, and every Walter White must have his Jesse Pinkman. Even though these supporting characters don’t get as much screen time as the top-billed cast, their appearances are often worth their weight in melted down Emmys. Most of the time, their shows wouldn’t be the same without them.

Science fiction is no exception when it comes to this. Just as with other genres, in sci-fi, secondary characters are often the ones who shine the most. Here are five supporting science fiction characters who steal their shows.

Hoban Washburne (Firefly/Serenity)

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In all of entertainment land, Joss Whedon’s series Firefly is one of the most often discussed cases of what might have been. Mishandled and neglected by its network, the show ended up being cancelled before all of its episodes could air. Due in a large part to the demands of its loyal fanbase, the show lives on in comics, video games, inside jokes on shows like Castle and Chuck, and a feature film sequel, Serenity.

In the Firefly universe, Hoban “Wash” Washburne is the sarcastic pilot of the spaceship Serenity. In a group of mostly confident risk-takers, Wash is the resident skeptic, always willing to admit he’s a little terrified when danger appears. He’s also practical, the first guy to point to the non-confrontational solution, but he’s still the one you want with you during crunch time. He’s a pilot in every sense of the word, flying the ship but also serving as the moral center of the crew. And as every good flyboy should, Wash likes to play with toy dinosaurs.

Jennifer Goines (12 Monkeys)

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In Terry Gilliam’s trippy time-travel movie Twelve Monkeys, Brad Pitt played the mentally unstable Jeffrey Goines, the son of a shady scientist who may or may not have been responsible for the looming end of the world. When Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett decided to revisit this story in SyFy’s original series 12 Monkeys, they changed Jeffrey’s character to Jennifer and cast Canadian actress Emily Hampshire in the role.

This turned out to be a wise decision, considering Jennifer is not only one of the funniest characters on the show, bringing needed comic relief to serve as yin to the yang of the grueling apocalyptic storyline. Jennifer’s character is what’s called a primary—a person who can see multiple timelines simultaneously—so she has understandable problems dealing with reality. This allows her to serve as something of an antagonist while still being a force for good. Whether it’s reciting the president’s speech from Independence Day, quoting Abraham Lincoln from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, or quoting random music lyrics, Jennifer never disappoints.

Walter Bishop (Fringe)

FRINGE: John Noble returns as Walter Bishop in the FRINGE Season Three premiere episode "The Box" airing Thursday, Sept. 23 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2010 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Andrew Macpherson/FOX

On top of everything else in Fringe—and trust me, there’s a lot of everything—the series is about relationships. There’s the fringe science, which is the reason we all show up to watch. But there’s also scientist Walter Bishop and his relationship with his son Peter, Walter’s friendships with FBI agent Olivia Dunham and his assistant Astrid, and finally, Walter’s long, troubled partnership with his collaborator William Bell. Although Olivia is the ostensible protagonist, if you think about it, Fringe  centers on Walter and his connections with the people around him.

Played by Australian actor John Noble (who non-Fringe fans may know as Boromir’s unstable father King Denethor in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings), Walter is a fascinating man who stands out in a cast full of characters who are interesting in their own rights. Noble portrays him with all the complexity you’d expect of an aging mad scientist. He’s protective of those he loves, while still managing to be funny, angry, damaged, spiteful, and vulnerable. Without Walter Bishop, there is no Fringe, and playing him is one of those roles that should make an actor’s career.

The Cat (Red Dwarf)

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Here’s the premise of the BBC series Red Dwarf: Spaceship crewman Dave Lister is placed into stasis for three-million years and emerges to find his only companions are the ship’s computer, a hologram of a former crewmate, and the descendent of Lister’s cat, a humanoid character known as The Cat. Space-based chaos and hilarity follow.

Every character on Red Dwarf plays a vital role, but in the grand tradition of his ancestors, The Cat is larger than life and demands attention. He preens, he struts, he chases goldfish and other shiny things, and he drags his voluminous wardrobe around with him everywhere he goes, making everyone else’s lives hell. Actor Danny John-Jules inhabits The Cat, playing him like a gleeful mix of James Brown and a narcissistic tabby in constant search of a mirror.

Lionel Fusco (Person of Interest)

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Person of Interest is a series full of unforgettable characters, but NYPD Detective Lionel Fusco holds his own for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that he’s the giver of nicknames, and he has one for everyone, each of them managing to be accurate, affectionate, or ironic, most often all three. Part of the fun of watching Fusco run the streets with his Team Machine cohorts is finding out what new name he’s going to come up with.

On top of this, unlike the rest of his cohorts, Fusco isn’t larger than life. He doesn’t have an alias, he’s not on the run from anyone, and he doesn’t have a mysterious past. He doesn’t seem like a hero in the conventional sense at all, in fact, but that’s sort of the point of his character. Fusco is the everyman in the group, and because of this he’s the one with the most to lose and the most to gain.