Is “Vagrant Queen” good? God no. Will I watch more of it? Yep. Is this inconsistent? Not really. Sometimes you’re just full up on the good, heart-wrenching stuff that breaks you. Sometimes you need schlock, and we all prefer a different kind.
“Vagrant Queen” is based on a comic series written by Magdalene Visaggio and illustrated by Jason Smith. It follows a deposed princess named Elida. Her space empire was overthrown and she now enjoys life as a scavenger. She finds things on contract and brings them back, only to get paid a fraction of what was agreed to. So she’s a gig economy worker.
What we see of the revolution that overthrew her queendom is militaristic and sadistic. It communicates as autocratic, although we haven’t seen that much of it yet. An out-of-control commander named Lazaro is hunting Elida throughout the galaxy. This is because Elida is still a symbol of hope for many, even though she has no interest in being a queen and doesn’t mind that her empire was overthrown.
The first episode is “A Royal Ass-Kicking”, and it mostly takes place on a seedy space station that’s equal parts “Blade Runner”, “The Fifth Element”, and “Spaceballs”.
What Works for Me
It’s Joyfully Creative. Why do I like it? First off, sci-fi has become obsessed with apocalypses. I’m tired of them. Yes, you have lovely sand and desperate, burnt sienna sunsets communicating the folly of man – but at some point it’s become an abused aesthetic instead of a thematic warning. We’ve become fans of apocalypses, and on many levels, I wonder how that shapes our comprehension of the mass extinction, climate disaster, and social system failures around us.
“Vagrant Queen” isn’t an apocalypse. It has color. It has hope. People are going about their shady business. Aliens are kooky and often nonsensical. The show clearly idolizes the colorful vision of interstellar sci-fi communicated by space operas like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Fifth Element”. There’s a joy to the show in terms of simply being able to create something different. Even if some of what’s created doesn’t work, the joy in the creation is still palpable.
Adriyan Rae: The series is well cast in terms of charm. Adriyan Rae plays Elida, the vagrant queen in question. To see a Black woman play the sort of interstellar cowboy role that’s still usually reserved for white men is refreshing.
You can argue that diversity doesn’t make a show better, but you know what? It does. Diversity means you’re pulling from 100% of your talent pool instead of a fraction of it. Diversity means that many people don’t have to do as much work to connect with a character who’s usually reserved for only a portion of a society. When more people can identify with a genre and the types of characters in it, the genre is stronger, healthier, and more accessible. When more perspectives, performers, and storytellers are contributing to the genre, the genre itself is more enduring and can tell a broader range of stories. That any of this is still “debated” is regressive and disappointing.
Tim Rozon: The big name here is Tim Rozon, known for playing Doc Holliday on “Wynonna Earp”. His role as Isaac on “Vagrant Queen” is similar, although a bit more dopey and less wise. A human stranded in another galaxy, he and Elida both lay claim to the rickety pile of junk they each call their spaceship.
One thing I appreciate is that his story is centered on getting back to Earth so he can see his wife. It would be easy to have someone like Rozon play a space lothario, or to build a will-they/won’t-they relationship between him and Elida. We’ve seen that a million times before. Having a very different goal, and posing Rozon as married, immediately changes how we see him.
Alex McGregor: The spaceship mechanic Amae gets wrapped up in Elida’s adventures. Her writing and Alex McGregor’s performance threaten a bit of manic pixie dream girl in space, but she knows tech, she beats fools up, and she picks up a rifle to start shooting people all over the place, so I can live with it. SyFy’s mentioned in a few places that this is a show that features queer characters.
Queerness in Sci-Fi: It’s pretty clear that the central romantic relationship the show’s seeking to build at the start is between Elida and Amae.
You don’t get a lot of shows in sci-fi where the central lead is queer and the will-they/won’t-they relationship is same-sex. It’s exceedingly rare. Sure, “Wynonna Earp” has a relationship between two women, but the titular protagonist is still involved in heterosexual relationships with men. I want to see a show that features what “Vagrant Queen” is promising to feature.
Science-fiction should have led on this long ago. While many writers and artists have done that leading, the genre as a whole has held back from embracing and featuring queer characters in leading roles.
It’s a Successful Riff: To sum it up, the overall chemistry between the three leads is what you’re looking for from a series like this. They make up for a lot of other shortcomings, they each know what they’re riffing on, and they each know how the material should be played.
A lot of the design also works so long as you’re reading “Vagrant Queen” as a comedic riff on space operas. It doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, and the creativity in the design is more successful than its realization. I can enjoy that.
Beyond this, the broad situational writing works, and is good at creating comedic situations that satirize space operas. Unfortunately…
What Doesn’t Work for Me
The Dialogue is Bad: The dialogue itself isn’t great. In particular, the quickfire conversation that blends exposition and one-liners together (the bread and butter of “Guardians of the Galaxy”) is atrocious. A lot of the jokes don’t land. A lot of the zingers fall completely flat.
“Vagrant Queen” is clearly looking to capitalize on the Tim Rozon connection and the show’s focus on women leads. Watching it On Demand, nearly all the commercials were for “Wynonna Earp”. That’s great, and Rozon is reliable as hell…but I came away thinking the best parts of the show were those commercials for “Wynonna Earp”. (Disclosure: “Wynonna Earp” is my jam.)
The premier of “Vagrant Queen” ultimately doesn’t hold up to other options in the same field. The budget, compromised design here or there – you can forgive that. What you can’t forgive is the writing on something so different and potentially satirical resting on so much cliché.
It’s immediately something you have to watch with the same mentality you would a cult classic, or a B-grade sci-fi where half the sets are falling down. The thing is, that shouldn’t be the case here. The sets are solid, nothing’s falling down, the design is creative, the cast is charming. It’s just not served well enough by the script itself.
Commander Lazaro: “Vagrant Queen” is fun when it’s making fun of space opera cliches, but the problem is that characters are acting them out and speaking in them even when they’re not in a satirical moment. And certainly the entire episode as a whole isn’t communicating satire, it wants to ride the line of having its cake and eating it, too. Again, this is something that “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Fifth Element” can do, but those are films that really act as the exception. “Vagrant Queen” is an example of why.
The best example of this is Commander Lazaro, who commands a ship that’s hunting Elida down. Paul du Toit isn’t doing anything in the role that fails to fit the show. He’s fine. It’s his writing that fails him. He’s trying to bring it alive with a sort of misunderstood-Crispin Glover vibe, but there’s not enough there to bring alive yet. What’s communicated through his character is a lot of lazy, cliché threats that we’ve seen a thousand times before – and a great amount of time is spent on his character making these threats.
Misplaced Gore: This also wraps back to the show’s momentary displays of gore. They just don’t fit. In the opening scene, Elida severs someone’s arm in a fight. It doesn’t help that the entire scene’s dialogue is excruciating. It’s not satirical; it’s just bad. There’s a gush of blood, the arm coming off looks decidedly fake, and it’s supposed to – but it doesn’t work. The comedy elements fail.
A later moment sees a character either killed or maimed. We get a shot of him twitching in a pool of blood. OK. How does that fit your fun, bopping satire? How does that fit a show that’s up to this point communicated that you shouldn’t be taking it very seriously?
It’s difficult to know if we’re expected to view this moment as tragic (in which case the episode hasn’t laid the groundwork for this) or if it’s trying to be exploitative and edgy (which doesn’t exactly fit the nature of the show so far). I hope it wasn’t supposed to be funny, because it showed no signs of communicating this. If it’s supposed to be a moment of horror-schlock, it doesn’t hit that way and most of the rest of the show doesn’t veer into that style of humor. The context isn’t there to understand it that way.
The gore’s not terrible or repulsive. There’s not an overwhelming amount of it at all. You’ll see worse watching five minutes of “Criminal Minds”. It’s just strikingly out-of-place. Perhaps the show will veer more toward a campy “Ash vs Evil Dead” style of gore (like the arm), which I’m not against and often worked in that show. Despite these two moments, I’m still at a loss as to how “Vagrant Queen” intends to use this element.
Failed Details: The CG isn’t great, but that’s pretty ordinary for most non-“Star Trek” sci-fi shows. I really don’t mind, but some will.
The martial arts choreography is also pretty bad. This I mind. Editing can sometimes save untrained actors in TV choreography, and it can sometimes make trained actors look like they aren’t. The editing here isn’t up to par, and the fights are nearly completely lost in too many cuts.
The gunfights are a little too stylized for my taste, but they’re more about enjoying these characters shooting lasers. These are three characters I want to see shoot pretty-colored lasers at bad guys, so I’m ultimately fine with it. Others will think the fights are mediocre and they won’t be wrong.
Like I said, it’s pretty bad and I’m looking forward to watching more. On a level, I am remembering the “Wynonna Earp” premier being not-so-good. Ultimately, that became a much better show with resonance that’s hard to pin down – like a “Supernatural” with more than one plot arc that’s repeated every two seasons.
At the same time, I’ve seen plenty of bad-but-enjoyable premiers turn into bad-and-unenjoyable shows. If “Vagrant Queen” is a show where they put their all into the premier and pieces are going to falter out of the rest of it in subsequent episodes, then I have a hard time seeing it hang on.
In an era where you get season orders at a time (“Vagrant Queen” got a full order of 10), you tend to see more shows building up from iffy premiers, and fewer shows deteriorating. The knowledge that you have a season to introduce your show instead of a single, make-or-break premier helps showrunners (in this case Jem Garrard) do a better job of building.
As I watched it, I was reminded of the kind of shows I helped make in high school and college. A lot was out-of-place. We experimented. Things we thought were funny maybe didn’t communicate as well as we’d assume. Our ambition and creativity often far outweighed our ability to accomplish our ideas. “Vagrant Queen” is reminiscent of that around the edges, albeit more from the script and contradictory tones than the actual production design.
I don’t know if it’s going to be watched that way by most. For those who enjoy cult movies, consciously B-grade sci-fi, cheese-fests, YouTube or community production sci-fi, it’s a messy refuge that’s at times bad, but that also celebrates and enjoys a lot of what we love.
For those who are looking for something to scratch their “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “The Fifth Element”, or perhaps even their “Jupiter Ascending” itch, it gets the job done – but perhaps not satisfactorily.
For others, I just don’t know. Part of watching something like this is the glee you get from it existing in the first place. That makes up for a lot of shortcomings. If you don’t have that starting interest and investment, the show might just be really, really bad.
Having that investment and wanting to love something like this is legitimate. Not being able to access it and just thinking it’s bad is legitimate. This is going to speak very differently to very different viewers. I don’t imagine that “Vagrant Queen” is good. I also know that it makes me happy and I want to see more of it. We need masterpieces of art in our lives to overwhelm us and challenge us. We also need entertainment that’s more our thing, that serves as a refuge for our idiosyncrasies. Our masterpieces are different. Our kooky refuges are different. There’s room enough for each, and we can’t endure on one without the other. I, for one, am happy to have one more kooky refuge.
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