Friday, April 1, 2022

Green Phoenix - 8 Fantastic Sci-Fi Villains

A few weeks back, I did a list of some of the most iconic villains from a variety of media sources, with the only determining factor being that they must come from a fantasy setting or from an iconic piece of the fantasy genre.
Of course, having such a list would inherently require that we also include a science fiction genre compilation of villains as well. And as you can see by the title of this blog, that is indeed what the focus of this last two weeks of work has been for me. The next couple of weeks will be a pretty comprehensive compilation of recent new releases and TV shows that I have finished so I felt it best to get my countdown out as soon as I could.
So without any further ado, let's get right into my analysis of 8 fantastic science fiction villains.

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COUNTDOWN RULES 

  1. Only a single villain from any IP, so as to ensure that we present a wide variety of villains from both film, television, games, etc.
  2. Only villains for science fiction properties will be considered for this list. I understand that there is quite a bit of crossover in terms of fantasy and science fiction, so fantasy villains will be those which are tied to worlds with a heavy focus on fantasy. While fantasy elements may be present, the daily lives of the villains must lean towards more grounded or scientific-leanings.
  3. Films, video games, television shows, books, and tabletop games will all be considered.

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COUNTDOWN

1. Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars)
Emperor Palpatine, Dark Lord of the Sith
My fantasy list started with the Dark Lord of Middle-Earth, Sauron. So I think it is only fair that we start this list off with the Dark Lord of Sith and Galactic Emperor from Star Wars, Sheev Palpatine, otherwise known as Darth Sidious.
 
Now there is an argument to be made that Star Wars isn't really a science fiction-based universe, but a space fantasy, and I won't lie and say that that consideration wasn't thought of when making this list. However, given the general space opera feel of Star Wars, I was willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt and treat Palpatine as a mystical presence in an otherwise more grounded science fiction world. Especially given the larger canon of Star Wars going out of its way to explain and explore the "science" behind the mystical elements of the Force.
With that point now brought up and explained, lets get into the mad Emperor of the Galaxy. In terms of villainy, Palpatine is far and away one of the most effective and brutally intelligent villains in any medium. This is a man who was able to instigate a political crisis which devolved into a galaxy-spanning civil war, playing both sides off each other, all in an effort to militarily weaken his opposition, provide himself justifications to expand his political and executive powers as Supreme Chancellor (all through legal channels) and manipulate several prominent members of his enemies into joining his side willingly. All throughout the prequel trilogy, we see the Machivellian actions of Palpatine at play, all the until its culmination in Order 66 and the formation of the Galactic Empire.

I do however believe that much of Palpatine's strengths were inhibited by his inclusion within the sequel trilogy as it also messed Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader's sacrifice and legacy within the larger Star Wars canon. It also kind of cheapened this fantastic chess player into what essentially amounted to a bad surprise video game boss. But even that wasn't able to completely destroy the sheer degrees of pathos that Palpatine exudes whenever he is on screen.
And I think that is truly a sign of a powerfully effective villain.

2. Gul Dukat (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) 
 
Gul Dukat, Former Prefect of Bajor
Moving from the relative fantasy and mystical science fiction elements which characterizes Palpatine, to the very grounded historically derived evil of Gul Dukat from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. DS9 is far and away my favorite series within the larger Star Trek franchise and Dukat and the politics and plot lines surrounding him very much play into that enjoyment.

DS9 on the whole, was a show that relished in discussions of morality, often leaning far more into areas of grey and the necessity of certain actions during war or when answering for atrocity, a fact which is even more notable given the relative utopian nature of Gene Roddenberry's universe. And Gul Dukat is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the dark side of those thematic discussions.

Gul Dukat is, in many ways, the quintessential Cardassian, an authoritarian fascist alien race that values subterfuge, brutality towards their enemies, and obsessive loyalty to the state. They are, in my honest opinion, probably the most openly villainous alien race that Star Trek ever presented, as even the Borg's threat exists less in their moral quandaries than in their capabilities and concept as an bio-mechanical hive mind. In contrast, the Cardassian Union seems intended to create a race of aliens that relish in the cruelties they commit against their enemies, and as the government finds even their own citizens to potentially be enemies, it makes for a deeply oppressive and uncomfortable culture to bear witness too. And this is put on full display through Dukat, especially in his role as the Prefect (essentially the governor of an occupied planet) of Bajor.

In the timeline of DS9, the planet Bajor was able to fight off the Cardassian occupation in spite of mass casualties and open genocide against their people, culture, and religion. Dukat was the central figure in this operation, being the primary force pushing for Bajoran oppression and when the Cardassian space station, Deep Space Nine, is captured and turned over to the Federation as an advisory body for Bajoran restoration, Dukat continues to work to undermine the efforts of the station's crew. To such a capacity, that he becomes something of a thematic nemesis to the station's commanding officer, Benjamin Sisko, almost always coming off as cool and suave and in control of all situations with a smarmy "I couldn't be bothered" attitude.
 
This rivalry grows throughout the series' run, being heightened by consequence of the Cardassian's joining up with the Dominion in their war with the Federation and Sisko's series-long story arc regarding the nature of the Founder's and their relationship to the Bajoran wormhole. At every point, Dukat's presence is felt and his shadow impacts every characters relationship, either with the actions he is taking in the present or those he took in his capacity as the dictator of Bajor.
 
He is so effective primarily because he seems to relish in his villainy, coming off as vicious and cruel even by Cardassian standards, as Elim Garak is oftentimes horrified by Dukat's seeming enjoyment of inflicting pain upon others. With every defeat, Dukat grows more cruel and unstable, with his goals by the end of the series' seemingly to be the complete annihilation of Bajor and the Federation fleet stationed next to the planet, as one final fuck you to his enemies. Even when Cardassia is all but destroyed by the Dominion, Dukat chooses to use his power to hurt others, even when he might have the capacity to rebuild his home.

It really shows the sociopathic tyranny at the heart of this heartless bastard. And we love to hate him for it.
 
3. Arcturus Mengsk (Starcraft)
Arcturus Mengsk, Emperor of the Dominion
Arcturus Mengsk's inclusion on this list really should be self-evident. In terms of sheer misery, destruction, and death, Mengsk might rank up there with Palpatine and Thanos, as his machinations nearly put the entire universe at risk by the end of StarCraft's primary storyline, an event Mengsk doesn't even live to see.
 
When we are first introduced to Arcturus in the first campaign of StarCraft, he is the charismatic leader of the Sons of Korhal, a terrorist organization that opposes the corrupt Terran Confederacy.We as the player make an alliance with him to save ourselves, joining the Sons of Korhal alongside Jim Raynor and Mengsk's second-in-command, Sarah Kerrigan.

Over the course of the campaign, Arcturus' true nature is slowly revealed as he begins to make more and more brutal and terrifying decisions in order to defeat or utterly humiliate his enemies, even using the Zerg as a weapon. However, Arcturus is so charming and charismatic that the true depths of his villainy are not on full display until the Battle of Tarsonis, where Arcturus abandons an entire planet, including Sarah Kerrigan, to be annihilated by a horde of Zerg, simply because he desired the destruction of the Confederate capital and revenge for the nuclear annihilation visited upon his homeworld of Korhal.

What follows from this treachery is a haunting speech given by Arcturus in which he declares himself Emperor of a new Terran government, the Terran Dominion, and promises to unite all of humanity behind himself to destroy their (his) enemies. It is bone-chilling in its declaration ad throughout the rest of the series, Mengsk stays true to his commitment to destroy his enemies "no matter the cost". Even when that cost is in the billions.

And much, if not all of the chaos and death which follows can be laid squarely at Mengsk's feet. It was his betrayal of Kerrigan that led directly to her transformation into the Queen of Blades. From there, the invasion of the Zerg and the fall of Aiur, resulting in the death of the Overmind, came to pass. The death of the Overmind begat the Swarm Wars among the Zerg, and helped push the Dominion towards more desperate and disgusting avenues to defeat Arcturus' enemies, including trusting people like Samir Duran.

Arcturus Mengsk's corrupts absolutely everything he touches. His desire for power and the preservation therein is so great that even his own son, who is nominally a good guy, still possesses much of the same sociopathic tendencies as his sire. And I think it is Mengsk's capacity to corrupt the good intentions of those around him for his own plans that makes him so dangerous and so good as a villain.

As Kerrigan so eloquently put it right before she killed the bastard, "[he] made [them] all into monsters".

4. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Dune)
Vladimir Harkonnen, Baron of Geidi Prime
Frank Herbert's science-fiction classic Dune has become a cornerstone of the genre. It's vast mythos and history, detailed world-building, deep exploration of complex themes and ideologies, and stunningly dark political intrigues have floundered the efforts of many filmmakers in attempting to adapt this fantastic work.

And at the heart of all these elements of fantastic storytelling, lies the central antagonist and villain of the piece. The disgustingly conniving and reprehensible Baron Vladimir Harkonnen of House Harkonnen, Baron of Geidi Prime.

At first glance, Vladimir Harkonnen might not seem like all that great of a villain, owing in large part to the difficulties of adapting Herbert's work, which has left many strange foibles and interpretations behind the corpulent manipulator. Due to the weirdness and the particularly grotesque rendition of the character presented in David Lynch's 1984 version of Dune, Baron Harkonnen comes off as hammy, over the top, and almost monstrously disgusting; which is a very distinct departure from the character portrayed in the books.

Thankfully, we have the most recent adaptation, presented by Denis Villeneuve. Here, Harkonnen is much closer to the thematic representation that he is meant to stand in for within the larger world of Dune. For you see, the universe of Dune is one steeped in mythology, economics, political intrigue, and thematic discussions of religion, environmentalism, and morality. And to pass as an effective villain in such a universe, one must be able to place their feet in every aspect of the wider world.

Harkonnen is thus, upon further analysis, the perfect villain for the universe of Dune, being representative of everything sick and disgusting about the known universe, the Padishah Empire, and the entire economic, political, and religious hierarchy presented in the story. Harkonnen is decadent and consumed by pleasure at the expense and subjugation of others, including the entire environment of entire planets (especially Arrakis) and viciously oppresses all those who might oppose him, including the Fremen. His homeworld of Geidi Prime further pushes this anti-enviornmental symbolism by being a world consumed by pollution.

Beyond the environmentalism theming, Harkonnen is also a man without any scruples or sense of honor, beyond the hollow show of honor to present to the wider world. He plots with the Emperor to destroy House Atreides, whilst simultaneously making moves to supplant the Emperor's house with his own. He joyfully murders his informant after lying to him. He holds no loyalty towards any system of belief, holding the Bene Geserit in contempt and placates them only to avoid more enemies. He shows a complete willingness to destroy his own family members if they get in the way of his wider ambition. And even upon his death and defeat, Vladimir Harkonnen's presence and impact continues to ripple out and slowly destroy everything that Paul Atreides works to protect. Something which he eventually succeeds at doing, even if it takes many years.

Much like his physical appearance, Vladimir Harkonnen represents a gluttonous and all-consuming sickness upon the entire world of Dune. He is a physical manifestation of the horrors of blind consumption and merciless subjugation of persons and the planet itself. He is the ultimate capitalist, holding no allegiance or loyalty to anything but his own advancement and profit. His place in the story of Dune should be one of a painful lesson, a symbolic anti-thesis of everything Paul Atreides works to represent.
 
5. David Xanatos (Gargoyles) 
David Xanatos, CEO of Xanatos Enterprises
Now we go to a character that I'm not entirely sure has gotten the attention he really deserves as far as discussions of villains of media are concerned. Much like Emperor Palpatine, David Xanatos from Disney's 90's TV series, Gargoyles, inhabits a world that blends science fiction and fantasy, though I would argue that it leans much more towards the science fiction side, integrating magic into a studied system bound by the explained laws of reality. And in this system, Xanatos occupies a position where he can really only compare to another fictional character.

In short, David Xanatos is an answer to the question: What if Batman was a supervillain? An exceedingly wealthy and intelligent businessman, who uses his vast fortune to gather more power for himself, whilst still possessing a strong moral code and personal standard of behavior. He is almost a perfect mixture of Lex Luthor and Batman. He demands perfection from himself and from his subordinates, he maintains a perpetual charisma and an unflappable attitude. And perhaps most frustratingly of all, like Batman, Xanatos has a particular penchant for planning and strategy. So much so that TVTropes even has a trope named after him: the Xanatos Gambit.

The Xanatos Gambit is essentially a series of plans for which no matter the outcome, the planner will always emerge victorious in at least some capacity. And there is a reason that it is named after David Xanatos. Throughout the series, Xanatos almost never completely loses or his absolutely defeated. Even when he is sent to prison, Xanatos manages to gain several significant victories over his adversaries. And all while maintaining that same level of unflappable self-confidence that elicits awe in his allies and frustration in his enemies.

Perhaps what makes him extra interesting is the fact that Xanatos also never seems to take his enemies' victories very personally. Despite being Goliath and Eliza Maza's foe, Xanatos holds the two with begrudging degree of respect and his always cordial and polite to them, despite it rarely being reciprocated. This personal code of ethics is further pushed through the series as he grows a relationship with one of his underlings, Fox, and must come to terms with actually caring for another person and allowing himself to give himself a "weakness".

The fact that Xanatos is a character that starts off thinking of giving himself an emotional attachment as a "weakness" also speaks volumes of his character. But he is also someone who always learns and advances, never allowing himself to fall into the same trap twice, and always willing to examine the bigger picture, even it means working with his enemies. All of which, eventually leads Xanatos to even becoming a full-on ally of the Gargoyles during the awkward third season of the show.

But by then, I had sort of fallen off the wagon, so the master schemer and plotter Xanatos is the one in my heart and mind. The kind of villain that I would absolutely love to put into a D&D campaign or set up as the antagonist of a story.

6. GLaDOS (Portal)
GLaDOS, Genetic Lifeform & Disc Operating System
Robots and artificial intelligence have long been an integral part of the science fiction genre, ever since Karel ńĆapek first coined the word in his 1921 play R.U.R. The thought of creating artificial life in our own image that can learn and grow as we do has captured the imagination and led to some truly fantastic characters and villains across all of science fiction media. From Skynet and Allied Mastercomputer to HAL 9000 and Sigma, the possibilities for inclusion on this list were vast and I might very well even make a future list just discussing famous robots from media. 

But in picking out just which robot I wanted to include on this list, one choice really stuck out to me. Not every villain needs to have some masterful diabolic plan to take over the world, subjugate their enemies or become all power. Sometimes being a fantastic villain is just working your utter best to make a single person's life absolutely miserable for all eternity. Without further ado, we look at GLaDOS from the Portal series.
 
When we are introduced to GLaDOS, she at first seems helpful and a worthwhile supervisor as our character Chell makes her way through the Apeture Testing Grounds, albeit with a rather dark and morbid sense of humor. However, as the tests continue, our AI overlord becomes more and more passive aggressive and domineering, seemingly toying with us and promising cake.
 
It's only when she is on the verge of throwing us into a pool of lava upon completing the assigned tests that her true nature is revealed. From there, GLaDOS remains a perpetually controlling and psychologically abusive monster. When she is revived in Portal 2, this level of villainy continues right up until you are forced to team up and deal with Wheatley, but even as an ally; she's essentially worthless and spends most of her time berating you throughout the game.
 
What makes GLaDOS so notable is that she really has no real plans, aims, or goals other than to hurt or torture Chell. She freely admits that her entire goal and objective is to make Chell's life an absolutely miserable existence until she can finally succeed in killing her. And there is just something absolutely chilling about a sardonic emotionally empty voice speaking candidly about a single person's suffering with enthusiasm that really strikes me as chilling.
 
GLaDOS has absolute power over the Aperture Labratory facilities and seemingly only uses that immense power and access to incredible technological innovations to perpetual a cycle of suffering and misery upon the poor souls that are implied to be selected for "testing", which is little more than an excuse for GLaDOS to toy with her prey.

She really is a different kind of monster to many of the other villains on this list, but that's why we all love her.

7. Gigyas (Mother) 
Now we go to what may very well be the strangest and most horrifying member on this list. A character who has since entered into the pantheons of fantastic video game villains, despite coming from a game that is almost completely unknown to Western audiences, so much so that even I haven't ever played the games that he is from. From Mother and its sequel Earthbound, we have the psychic alien invader Giygas.
Normally I would include a picture of the villain in question but ironically as soon as I tried to add a picture of Giygas to the blog post, the entire coding of it completely bungled and forced me to nearly restart the whole damn thing. Which is, when you think about it, actually quite apt for this horrifying monstrosity of video game code.
Giygas has become a legend within in the annals of video game lore not only for its iconic visual design and combat aesthetic, but also for the horrifying legends and myths at the heart of their creation. According to the series creator, Shigesato Itoi, Giygas was partially inspired by a horrifying murder scene from the Japanese film Kenpei to Barabara Shibijin, which the young Itoi actually mistook for a rape scene which scarred him for many years. As a result, Giygas is in every capacity a horror creation occupying an otherwise bright and somewhat subversively cartoon world.
Throughout most of the game, you aren't even really made aware of Giygas' presence. That is until you are forced to place your minds into robotic bodies to travel back into the past, in order to combat a very young Giygas before he can grow strong enough to destroy the universe, which he is set to do ten years after the setting of the main part of the game. What follows after you travel through a hellscape that can only be described as what would happen if H.R. Giger described the human reproductive system and then let Salvador Dali draw what he heard (which also led to the debunked fan theory of Giygas essentially being an alien baby that the main character Ness is required to "abort")  is a mental battle that is easily one of the most surreal experiences I've ever seen when I tried to watch video of the fight.
For much of the fight, you aren't even really sure what you are looking at or if you are doing any damage. Giygas just seems this overwhelming alien force that doesn't even register for our primitive minds. They are an altogether alien entity, that really is the only way to describe them. Honestly all you need to do is watch the final battle from Earthbound to know why I included this crazy bastard on my list.
8. Thanos (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
Thanos, the Mad Titan
And finally, we have the Mad Titan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a film franchise that is, if I am being perfectly honest, woefully devoid of thematically compelling villains, Thanos comes off as a breath of fresh fucking air.

While he might be missing some of the political complexities and subtext of Eric Killmonger or the sheer charisma of Loki, Thanos has something altogether different that really makes him stand out among his villainous peers. Thanos is written and portrayed throughout most of Avengers: Infinity War as though he were a protagonist. Of course, when you actually examine the plan that he is attempting to go through, it is completely evil and without any basis in reality or sense. But that is honestly where the film is at its finest and helps to elevate Thanos to the upper echelons of supervillains.

The film goes out of its way to make you sympathise with Thanos, to see the outcomes and hauntings in his past that helped to influence his decisions. It shows all the horrible actions he is willing to commit for the goal of saving the universe, as far as his logic goes. And all of this is working to advance Thanos far beyond his comic book origins, since the Thanos of the comics was basically just a "nice guy" commiting mass genocide so his crush, Death, will go out with him. Thanos in the MCU isn't some lovestruck genocidal maniac, but a cold and calculating Malthusian apocalypse cult leader.

All throughout this list, we have seen evil of every kind and caliber. But with Thanos, we are presented with what may very well be the most treacherous and dangerous type of monster. The villain that is utterly convinced of their own righteousness. The villain who is the hero of their own story and cannot be swayed from their mission. The self-righteous evil that corrupts and destroys everything in the name of furthering itself. While there aren't any all-powerful purple aliens in our world, this brand of self-righteous evil masking itself in good-hearted sacrifices is all too present.

I have had discussions with pastors and political leaders whose lines of thinking match those of Thanos, who carry themselves with that same self-righteous tinge that can justify any evil in the name of their "goodness". It leaves a chill down your spine and makes someone like Thanos a particularly dangerous antagonist. Because it becomes real easy for those not taken with logic, or unwilling to debate, to see them as correct and support.

In short, Thanos' brand of evil is the kind that is particularly easy at masking itself as something noble and good. And that makes it all the more terrifying.

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CONCLUSION

Throughout this list, we have seen several different brands of villainy. From the megalomaniacal conquerors and galactic emperors, to mass-murdering robots and corrupt businessmen. The field of science-fiction is a study in the possible by allowing our minds to venture just slightly into what is currently impossible. Therefore the fact that corruption and evil can so easily find their ways into the narrative efforts of the science fiction genre speaks volumes for its capacity to appear in our everyday world.
 
The world of fantasy has powerful sorcerers and evil liches, things are beyond real world capabilities and must therefore rely on theming and subtext to find their real world equivalents. But I think we can all imagine a corrupt businessman like David Xanatos using his immense wealth to build incredible machines to further his ever expanding goals and ambitions at the expense of those around him (*cough* Musk and Bezos *cough*) . History has shown a vast quantity of pencil-pushing bureaucrats like Gul Dukat or political leaders like Mengsk and Palpatine, who justify atrocity to maintain their own positions or power. It all coalesces together into a warning for anyone treading into the deeper contexts of the science fiction genre

If science fiction is all about exploring the realms of the possible, the villains are a warning light for the kinds of evil that we as explorers of the possible must keep a look out for.

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