Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Study in Evil, part one

In a majority of campaigns the driving force is The Bad Guy.  The Bad Guy is the dude who killed the hero's parents, or is ruling the kingdom with an iron fist, or has some other nefarious plot the heroes must thwart.  The Bad Guy is often the lynchpin your campaign relies upon.  He could be a faceless force like Sauron, acting through intermediaries, or he is up close and personal like Darth Vader.  So what makes a good stupendous Bad Guy?  To answer this question I thought I would take a look at a series of fictional villains and analyzed them, see where writers got it right and where they got it wrong.  And I wanted to start off with one of my favorite Bad Guys of all time.


Who?  You might ask.  T'Pring appeared in the Original Star Trek series episode Amok Time, one of my two favorite Star Trek episodes.  If you have not seen it, here it is in four parts.  Watch it.  Watch it now.

I could write an entire article about how utterly awesome this episode is (among the high points: Kirk makes a rare but huge blunder, McCoy is written as awesomely clever, and T'Pau might be one of the greatest 'Trek guest stars of all time.  I love how she just knows what McCoy is doing but lets him do it anyway because she gets what is going on and can't stop it, but at the same time isn't going to get in the way of someone else trying to stop it.  In fact, she becomes McCoy's willing accomplice!), but I will focus on one part: The Bad Guy, T'Pring, one of the most awesome Star Trek villains of all time.  Yes, I easily stack her up against Khan any day and here are the reasons why:

She only appears once.  Wait!  You may say.  If she is so awesome shouldn't we get more T'Pring?  Nope.  Part of what makes T'Pring so amazing is her one and only appearance (I am not counting her appearance in Diane Duane's book Spock's World, which while it was a good read I feel it did not do T'Pring justice.  Really it just felt like Duane needed a Vulcan bad guy and used T'Pring because there were no others available.) because there is no opportunity to screw her up.  She shows up, kicks ass all over the place, then rides off into the sunset, leaving devastation in her wake.  Look at characters like Marvel's Doctor Doom-

Your repeated use of Doom grows wearisome, fool!
or Deep Space Nine's Gul Dukat.  Repeatedly using these characters means writers run the risk of diluting their potential awesomeness.  Worse, it provides more and more opportunities to get the characters wrong.  Even worse than that, characters like Doctor Doom have to fail; if he won Reed Richards would be dead and he would rule the Earth (although there was a neat graphic novel where Doom did in fact conquer the Earth and discovered becoming the world's biggest bureaucrat kinda sucked, so he let the Avengers defeat him.).  So Doom has to lose.  Repeatedly.  He spends months coming up with an awesome plot to defeat Reed Richards and Mister Fantastic makes him look like a chump in ten minutes.  Just once I would love to see a comic book character confront Doom on his win/loss record and point out for such a smart guy he sure am dumb.

Look at another awesome Star Trek villain: Khan Noonian Singh.  He only appeared twice and both times were terrific.  Had he appeared a third time I am certain someone would have botched it.  It was  rare instance where lightning struck twice, and that is due in large part to the fact that Khan really in many ways is two different characters (I will touch on the awesomeness that is Khan next time) in his two different appearances.  So yeah, while recurring villains sound great, the one shot bad guy, especially one who wins, can be very refreshing.

She is highly intelligent.  We all know Vulcans are supposed to be smart, right?  Look at Spock; he is the smartest guy in the room regardless of whatever room he is in.  Yet that fact does not strike home until Amok Time and you meet other Vulcans and you realize that Jesus Christ, if Vulcans decided to go to war against the Federation, the Federation would be doomed.  Because T'Pring is a helluva amateur strategist.  Consider:

Spock is suffering from Pon Farr, the Vulcan biological urge to mate which hits every seven years.  If he and T'Pring do not have sex, Spock will die.  T'Pring wants this arranged marriage to be over so she brings her lover(!) to the ceremony, intent on challenging the marriage, having her lover kill Spock in the duel and to living logically ever after with her man.  (Now you may ask, if she wants out of the marriage couldn't she just not have sex with Spock and let him die?  Then she would be guilty of murder.  It is important to consider she must work within the boundaries of the law because she wishes to still live in Vulcan society.)

Only what happens?  Spock brings Kirk and McCoy along, and T'Pring can tell right away that these two human "outworlders" mean a lot to him.  Ah ha!  T'Pring challenges the validity of the marriage via kali-fi and instead of picking Ston, she chooses Kirk as her champion .  Remember she has no idea Spock is bringing Kirk and McCoy to the ritual, she comes up with this change of plans right then and there.  And it works perfectly in her favor.  Because as she explains it:

1) If Kirk won he would not want T'Pring because he killed Spock (Yes, go ahead, insert Kirk space booty call joke here), so she gets Ston, her man, all legal and proper.

2) If Spock won then he would not want her because he killed Kirk, and she still gets Ston.

3) If Spock won and he did not release her from the marriage she still gets what she wants because Spock would be elsewhere, either with his career or in prison, and she still gets Ston in some way.  The status quo is maintained, she risks nothing.

T'Pring cannot lose!  How utterly awesome is that?  Whereas before there was a risk of her losing her man in the challenge, she sees her chance to completely change the game in her favor and she wins.  Even Spock compliments her on her flawless logic.  You want the model of an evil super genius?  You look at T'Pring.  And speaking of which...

T'Pring does not look like your normal villain.  T'Pring is lovely, but we have seen lovely bad guys before.  The X-Men's White Queen, for example, was a classic case of an ultra-sexy villainess.

And speaking of characters ruined by too many appearances...
But more often than not villains look villainous.  Like The Wicked Witch, for example...
I have flying monkeys!  Monkeys, that fly!
...who through repeated appearances goes from Bad Guy to being just misunderstood hero of the downtrodden.  And hot:
Snide comment aside, I do dig the music to Wicked and would love to see the musical, but it can get annoying when bad guys are sometimes turned into anti heroes (I'm looking at you, Venom and Sabertooth!).

Back to T'Pring.  T'Pring does not look evil or vamped up.  She looks very attractive but she is almost demure in those Vulcan slippers, being overshadowed by all those big, strong men.  No way she is the puppet master, manipulating everyone around her.  No sir...

T'Pring does not look evil.  She looks sober and cold, but evil?  Like a woman willing to force men to kill one another to get what she wants?  She doesn't look that way to me.  And finally...

T'Pring's motivation is wonderfully understandable.  Forget world conquest, or the promotion of some alien ideology, or enslaving the human race, or even a hunt for treasure.  T'Pring is sick of being married to Spock and wants out.  She wants to be with her man Ston, free and legal.  It is motivation based on passion and she uses logic to achieve her aims.  This is in so many ways a wonderful interpretation of Vulcans, as alien in thought processes, yes, but still very relatable (interesting how there is a dictionary entry for that word, and yet my spell checker denies it) in some fundamental ways.  Viewers can understand what motivates T'Pring, especially men and women trapped in loveless marriages, who may feel powerless, their options limited.  In some small way T'Pring may even be a sympathetic character...if you ignore the whole manipulating men into killing one another thing.  But even that is excusable to a degree.  T'Pring is bound by strict laws and to get what she wants she must work within the confines of those laws.  She did not write the part where death matches are a perfectly acceptable means of conflict resolution.  If she had a choice I am certain she would hire a good divorce attorney and hash it out in court.

So there you have it, one of the best villains I have ever had the pleasure to watch.  Intelligent, does not look like a traditional bad guy, possessing understandable motivations that might even in some small way make her a sympathetic character, and above all else, used very, very sparingly.  Theodore Sturgeon wrote the screen play for Amok Time and judging from this and his other Trek contribution Shore Leave, I find it a real pity that he did not have more of an impact on Star Trek as a whole because I think his two efforts are among Trek's best.

Next time I will look at Khan and what makes him work as a villain.  Both of him...

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