Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Best and Worst Moms in Cult-TV History

Cult-television has a thing or two to say about moms, and as Mother’s Day approaches this weekend, it seems a good time to recall the best and the worst of the pantheon. 

In terms of figuring out which is which, we can define a good mother as one who brings up her children with care and attention, who loves unconditionally, and who places highly in her life the needs and desires of her sons or daughters. She does so with a careful eye that the child grow up neither selfish nor indulged, but rather healthy, and a productive, a contributing member of society.

The Worst:

6. Lwaxana Troi (Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987 – 1994]).  The late Majel Barrett Roddenberry often called the ebullient Lwaxana “Auntie Mame” in space, and unlike many other moms on this list, the Betazoid Ambassador to the Federation isn’t actually evil.  But man, she sure is difficult to deal with. 

Every time Lwaxana boards the Enterprise, she flirts openly, aggressively, and embarrassingly with Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart)…her daughter Deanna’s boss, essentially.  Worse, Mrs. Troi is personally hurtful to Deanna (Marina Sirtis), diminishing her adult daughter as “Little One” and constantly blaming her for not having a husband, or for ruining things with Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes).   

Lwaxana Troi is also egotistical and elitist, constantly referring to her noble heritage as “Holder of the Scared Chalice of Rixx,” and “heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed"   In Star Trek's enlightened future, she is also cavalierly thoughtless to her put-upon servant, Mr. Homm.  Troi even thinks that speaking (rather than communicating telepathically…) is for lower life forms, including humans.

Sure, Lwaxana isn’t evil, but she absolutely makes her daughter’s life miserable every time she sets foot aboard ship, either arranging an unwanted marriage (“Haven”) for Troi or demanding adherence to (annoying…) Betazoid customs.   Lwaxana is a domineering and annoying mother.   You may love her, but being around her is hell.  Certainly, Counselor Troi turned out well, but seeing her mother, you wonder how, precisely, that happened...

5. Endora (Bewitched [1964 – 1972]). Endora (Agnes Moorehead) is a mother-in-law who is, literally, a witch.  Furious that her beloved daughter Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) has married a mere mortal, Darrin (Dick  York/Dick Sergeant), Endora constantly second-guesses and criticizes her adult daughter’s choices.  Like Lwaxana Troi, she can't quite see her child as an adult.

Endora always refuses to acknowledge Darrin by name, and mocks him with cruel nick-names all the time, such as “Durwood.”  Endora also casts cruel spells on her son-and-law, and hates all mortals, reveling in their humiliation at her hands.  

Again, the mighty witch Endora might not, technically, be evil, but she clearly doesn’t respect or support her daughter’s ability to make her own choices, or find her own way to happiness.  For Endora, it's her way or the highway.

4. Henrietta Walker (The Twilight Zone [1959 – 1964). In the memorable episode “Young Man’s Fancy,” a mama’s boy named Alex Walker (Alex Nicol) has just married a beautiful long-suffering woman, Virginia (Phyllis Thaxter) after twelve years of making her wait for him. On their honeymoon, he takes her to…his dead mother’s house to reminiscence about the good old days with dear old mum, Henriettea (Helen Brown).  Virginia wants to sell the house and get started on a new life…not to mention get busy with her new husband, but Alex just can’t stop thinking about how great his Mother was.  

In no time, Henrietta – from beyond the grave – stakes a claim on her adult son's life.  Instead of allowing him to move on and have a life and family of his own, Henrietta tightens her maniacal grip and actively competes with Virginia for the man’s affections.  By episode’s end, Alex has physically reverted to his twelve year-old self, and his new wife abandons the house at a run, never to return.  Momma Henrietta is victorious, and her son is now permanently infantilized.  As a mother, she cares more about control and dominating her child then ensuring that he is happy.  How selfish.

3. Eleanor Dupres (V [1983]).  Mike Donovan’s (Marc Singer) mom, Eleanor (Neva Patterson) is a real barracuda.  In both V and V: The Final Battle (1984), she proves her infinite flexibility by always switching to the top dog at the right moment, whether that top dog is wealthy industrial Arthur Dupres, or Steven, a fascist lizard from outer space.  

A happy collaborator, Eleanor is concerned primarily with her status among the 1 percent.  She is rich and powerful and wishes to stay rich and powerful.  To achieve that goal, Eleanor would turn in her grandson, Sean, to the Visitors and even attempt to shoot her own son, Mike. 

Eleanor gets her comeuppance when her shift in loyalties comes too fast, and the Visitor Steven witnesses her selling him out to the resistance.  He kills this evil, collaborating, lizard-loving Mom, and it's a fair bet that her son won't miss her one bit.

2. Xhalax Sun (Farscape [1999 – 2004]).  Aeryn Sun’s (Claudia Black) mother, Xhalax Sun (Linda Cropper) once showed her young daughter an inkling of kindness by going to the child by night and confessing to her that she was conceived out of love, not by Peacekeeper edict.  But when Xhalax's act of decency was discovered, the officer was given an unenviable choice: kill her lover, or kill her child. Xhalax killed her lover and soon became an expert assassin.  From that day forward, she grew cruel, bitter and devoid of warmth.

In Farscape, Xhalax tracks her fugitive daughter across the Uncharted Territories as part of a retrieval squad sent to capture Talyn, Moya’s child.  When Xhalax learns that Aeryn named the baby leviathan after her dead father, the officer chides her daughter for displaying sentimentality and weakness.

Throughout her appearances on Farscape, Xhalax shows a complete disregard for Aeryn’s well-being or happiness.  Xhalax views Aeryn as a “traitor” and tells her that she has not “wasted one microt” thinking of her.  A mother who has gotten used to doing what expedient, not what is right, it is clear that Xhalax would kill her own child to perform her given tasks.  Although Xhalax and Aeryn have a sort of final reckoning that clears the air, it happens right as Xhalax is about to die, and therefore she has nothing to lose in showing warmth to her only child.

1. Irina Derevko (Alias [2001 – 2005]). Lena Olin portrayed the deliciously and horribly evil Irina Derevko, mother of spy Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) throughout Alias’s run, starting in the second season.   Irina faked her own death while Sydney was six, so she could return home to the Soviet Union.  Years later, she pretended to be Sydney’s ally, playing on the young woman’s need to emotional “know” something about her mother, formerly known as Laura Bristow.  In truth, however, Irina was manipulating her daughter, and secretly working with Arvin Sloane and Sark to retrieve Rambaldi artifacts around the globe. 

Late in Alias’s run, Irina actually hired a hit man to killer her daughter, and in “Maternal Instinct” told Sydney that she only had a child with Jack Bristow because the KGB ordered her to do so.  In the series finale, Sydney and Irina engaged in brutal fisticuffs over the last Rambaldi artifact.  Irina chose the artifact over her own daughter, and died for that choice when a glass roof collapsed and she fell to her doom.   And yes, any mother who would choose a material thing over her own child is a pretty terrible one indeed.

The Best:

5. Amanda Grayson (Star Trek [1966 – 1969]).  Mr. Spock’s mother, Amanda (Jane Wyatt), was a school teacher on Earth, and faced the unenviable task of raising her half-human son on cold, logical Vulcan.  There, Spock was teased relentlessly for his human heritage, but Amanda, despite Vulcan edict, was able to show her son love, and in the process reveal what it means to be human.  

To be a good mother (or father), in part, is to sacrifice, and Amanda knowingly permitted her son to grow up as a Vulcan, even though he could never tell her he loved her, or otherwise outwardly return her emotional devotion.  Imagine raising a child and never hearing those words, "I love you."  And then remember that it is for your son’s own good as he attempts to determine and cement his own identity in a world that does not accept him.  Amanda puts her son's well-being first, and at considerable cost to herself.

4. Devon Adair (Earth 2 [1994 – 1995]  Devon Adair’s  (Deborah Farentino) son Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman) is dying of a fatal disease called “The Syndrome” as Earth 2 commences.  He is eight years old, and those who suffer from the rare disease don’t live, generally, past nine.  Accordingly, Devon leaves behind her life, Earth itself, and the comforts of civilization and technology to get her son to a planet, G889, some 22 light years away.  There, in a natural environment, Ulysses can thrive and beat the “Syndrome,” but it means living a pioneer life-style on an entirely alien and often inhospitable world.

Again, an important quality evidenced by a good mother is sacrifice.  Devon changes her entire life to assure that her son has a shot to live his.  Devon Adair is a strong leader, a brilliant woman, and a great mother to boot. 

3. Joyce Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997 – 2003]).   Perhaps the hardest thing to do as a mother (or father) is to love your child unconditionally, even if they don’t turn out how you had hoped.  But a good parent can put aside personal hopes and expectations, and accept a child, unconditionally, for who he or she is.  

That is the battle that Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland) fights and eventually wins in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She learns that her daughter is “The Chosen One,” a slayer, and doomed, essentially, to a short life, and one of constant mortal danger.  Joyce is good-intentioned but in denial about her daughter throughout the first two seasons of the program.  She doesn’t want to “see” what Buffy really is, at least until, in “Becoming,” when Buffy tells her to open her eyes.

After that -- and to her everlasting credit -- Joyce adapts and attempts to accept Buffy for who she is and what she does.  Joyce doesn’t always succeed, as is the case wherein she creates M.O.O. (Mothers Opposed to the Occult), but she nonetheless boasts a critical capacity of any parent: the ability to adapt as per “conditions on the ground,” so-to-speak.  In short order, Joyce becomes a force of stability in Buffy’s life, until her untimely passing.  She supports Buffy and attempts to give Buffy as normal a life as possible, and that's night easy since the family lives on the Hellmouth.

2. Martha Kent (Smallville [2001 – 2011]). Martha (Annette O’Toole) is the kind, warm and loving mother of Clark Kent (Tom Welling), her adopted son from Krypton.  Early in Smallville Martha bites the bullet keeps the Kent family afloat financially -- when the farm can no longer support it – by working extra jobs.  Later, after Jonathan’s death, Martha continues to protect her son by running for and being elected the junior senator from Kansas.  In the halls of the Senate, Martha helps to quash the fascist VRA (Vigilante Registration Act) and even adopts her own alias, as the mysterious “Red Queen,” to further protect her imperiled son from the powerful forces allied against him.

Martha is the perfect example of a mother who changes her approach as her child’s needs change.  She is a warm and loving care-giver when he is a child, but as he grows into an adult, she assumes different roles in his life to help see that he achieve his destiny as Superman. 

1. Sarah Connor (The Sarah Connor Chronicles [2008 – 2009]). Imagine that, as a mother, you have just a few years – not even two decades – to train and prepare your son for his destined role as the savior of the human race.  This job makes you not only the mother of a child, but the mother of the future human race in a way.

And then, on top of your role as mentor to your son, imagine you must protect his existence every day in the face of time-traveling, indestructible, relentless cyborgs.  Now you, yourself, must become a warrior, to see that your son achieves his fate.  As a single mom, there's no father to share the burden.

If all that’s not enough, consider what it would be like to undertake these critical tasks while grappling with the possibility that you may be dying of cancer, and that you might not live long enough to impart to your child all the knowledge and wisdom he needs to become that savior.

Welcome to Sarah Connor’s (Lena Headey) world.  Sometimes Sarah is as harsh, and as relentless as the terminators she faces so frequently, but there is no better fighter to have at your side than this committed (and heavily-armed…) mom.


  1. To be fair to the creator of M.O.O. (still the best acronym ever), the adults of Sunnydale *were* under the influence of some dastardly magic. Apparently, so was Mrs. Troi.

  2. Hi Randal: You're absolutely right about M.O.O. Great acronym and, yes, poor Joyce was under the influence. I still rank her highly, however, as a good mom. I love the character, and "The Body" still upsets me. Great episode, but extremely sad.

    As for Mrs. Troi -- yeah, you said it. Anytime I saw Lwaxana, I knew I was getting a disposable episode of TNG, something along the lines of The Love Boat in Space." I like Mrs. Roddenberry -- even had the chance to interview her back in 2000 -- but most of the episodes with Mama Troi (with the notable exception of "Half a Life") were pretty terrible...

    Great comment!


  3. Great pair of lists, John. But, as you might recall, I would have ST:TNG's Dr. Beverly Crusher somewhere up on my Best Mom roll. I know she probably doesn't qualify as cult-TV, but believe me, Mags Bennett from the second season of JUSTIFIED would definitely qualify for one of the worst (and is quite memorable).

  4. Anonymous1:10 AM

    The only two times I enjoyed viewing Lwaxana was in the episode involving her being a 'surrogate grandmother' to Alexander. I was impressed with the storyline. The second was of course Half A Life with David Ogden Stiers. Majel Barrett really showed a serious and vulnerable side to Deanna's mother. Especially during the transporter scene where Deanna and Lwaxana are speaking telepathically. The emotions of that scene were very moving and very deep. I was really amazed that Deanna's mother had such a side to her comedic personality.

  5. Hi everyone,

    Le0pard13: I thought about including Beverly Crusher, but had a hard time squaring her departure, and leaving Wesley on the Enterprise for a year. I even toyed with including the "crew of Enterprise D" as one of the best moms, because the command crew all took responsibility for Wesley that year. I have always thought Beverly Crusher is awesome too, but the way. A great character. I wish she had been given more to do in all the TNG movies. I am not yet familiar with Justified, but I want to be...

    Anonymous: I think "Half a Life" is Lwaxana's high point in the series. That's the best episode featuring the character.


  6. Andrew F Moncrieff3:17 PM

    Hi, you put "1969-1964" rather than 1954 for the Twilight Zone airdates (under no. 4 of worst moms)

    Great list, btw. Ms Dupree from V is one I'd forgotten about!