In the days of episodic television, there were always villains of the week, showing up just in time for the next episode and being dispatched within the hour. Usually, they had little explanation and even less characterization, and that was okay because no one really cared about the background of this one episode bad guy. Once in a while, though, a villain would appear on the scene who warranted more. He was skilled, not just another in an endless line of mooks. He had a code of honor. He had things he believed in and fought for, and just as often, died for. And for once, we in the audience were forced to stop and rethink the position of our heroes. These 4 bad guys below were doing their jobs, exactly as the heroes do, and from another perspective, they might even be a hero.
4. “Chiggy von Richthofen”–Space: Above & Beyond
That’s right, we’re touching on Space: Above & Beyond for the second time this week. In the two parter “Never No More/Angriest Angel,” an unusual enemy appears on the front lines. An ace pilot, the only Chig ship to ever have any kind of unique identifying markings, has been absolutely destroying the Earth forces. Having painted a human skull along with the (English!) phrase “Abandon All Hope” on his ship, the crew starts referring to him as Chiggy von Richthofen, after the Red Baron of World War 1 fame. They concoct an elaborate plan, but it fails when it comes to light that Chiggy’s ship is actually a prototype stealth ship. While they do, of course, eventually take him out, one has to realize over the course of the episode that the pilot is just as skilled and committed to his fight as the protagonists, and that only becomes more significant when it’s revealed that the Chigs weren’t the true aggressors of this war. It’s not hard to imagine Chigs back on their homeworld looking up to Chiggy in the same way that the protagonists looked up to the “Angry Angels” in the pilot episode. The realities of war: one man’s hero is another man’s villain.
3. Commander Harken–Firefly
Firefly is a show where everything kind of sucks, as far as the world they live in goes. The Alliance isn’t particularly benevolent, and Mal and his crew have plenty of reason to dislike them (doubly so for Mal, having fought against them). Commander Harken, as a representative of the Alliance, is a bad guy by default, and when he shows up in “Bushwhacked,” he’s barely in half the episode. But it’s quickly apparent, once he’s arrested Mal for supposedly having massacred a colony ship, that he’s not really that bad at all. Inexperienced, sure, and he clings to the rules the way the inexperienced tend to do. But when the evidence points away from Mal, he backs off, and as the Reaver threat (introduced for the first time here) manifests itself, they have to work together to protect both ships. After the temporary truce comes to an end, Harken lets Serenity go, even though he could still choose to bring them in. He does keep the Alliance goods they’d scavenged, but given that he could just as easily have hauled them all in, unknowingly sealing the horrific fates of River and Simon, that’s a small price. Throughout his scenes, his main goal is to follow his orders, find justice, and protect his crew–not so different from a number of other sci-fi heroes.
2. Yvonne Hartman, Torchwood 1–Doctor Who
While Torchwood would go on to have its own spinoff, led by a friend of the Doctor, Captain Jack Harkness, the organization wasn’t so friendly in its first appearances. Indeed, Torchwood was originally founded to protect against alien threats, the first of which was the interference of the Doctor himself. And when it was led by Yvonne Hartman in “Army of Ghosts/Doomsday” two-parter, it was still more on the bad guy side, starting off by taking the Doctor hostage and disregarding his experience and advice in favor of the alien technology they’d acquired and repurposed for their own. Her arrogance ends up costing her dearly, as she’s eventually assimilated by the Cybermen, but it’s only in this form that her honorable nature shines through at last: like only a handful of characters, she manages to pull through, via sheer force of will, to continue to “do her duty for Queen and country,” fighting off the other Cybermen and giving the Doctor the time he needed to save the day.
Like many of the entries on this list, she didn’t last long, but her demise makes it clear that she truly and honestly did the seemingly evil things she did because she believed it was the right thing to do. And when it went wrong, she did the impossible to correct it.
1. The Romulan Commander–Star Trek
This is a classic, the original instance of this trope in TV sci-fi. In Star Trek TOS episode “Balance of Terror,” Kirk finds himself in a heated battle against a Romulan starship, the first time they’ve been encountered in nearly a century. The Romulan’s cloak hides them and gives them the tactical advantage, but they can’t attack while cloaked. The Romulan Commander quickly recognizes Kirk’s skill and prowess as they counter each other’s plans, until finally the Enterprise gets the drop on them and the Romulan ship is defeated. As a sign of respect for his adversary, the Romulan Commander hails Kirk and tells him these final words:
“I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”
The Romulan Commander is clever, brave, and respected by his men. It’s not hard to imagine that somewhere, out there in the myriad parallel universes of Star Trek, there’s one where the Romulans were the good guys and the Vulcans were the bad guys. Where it was this Romulan Commander who was Kirk’s lifelong friend, and Spock on the other side of the view screen performing his duties to the best of his abilities. That’s what makes it so tragic, after all. And this episode was so influential that this tragic nature went on to become an almost inherent property of the Romulans; in TNG, DS9, and Voyager, you can rest assured that when a Romulan shows up, a tragedy’s going to befall them. They reach out, make gestures that prove their better nature, but they never quite make it. Heck, that even managed to make the jump into the new movies via Nero, to a certain extent. Just wonder each time you see them, that if only things were even the least bit different, it wouldn’t have to end this way…
So that’s 4 one shot villains that I found surprisingly respectable. I imagine some of these will prove controversial, but it’s all from my perspective. Are there any other one appearance characters that you feel were more deserving of being on the list? Any you disagree with? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter @RetroPhaseShift. Next week, the Agents of SHIELD reviews return!