Tuesday, 31 January 2012

50 Greatest Fictional Heroes: Number Six

Appears in: The Prisoner (1960s)
Setting: The ever-mysterious Village (actually in Wales), The Cold War
Hero type: Steely-eyed man of principle, dashing secret agent.

It’s a brilliant irony that the famously buttoned-up Patrick McGoohan was responsible for the creation of the anti-Bond Number Six, an icon of Sixties cool that stands proudly as an alternate masculine ideal to Bond’s boorish hyper-sexualised hedonism. Instead, Number Six becomes an icon not through being some smirking fantasy figure (though his iron willpower, intellect and fighting skills are pretty enviable), but by being simply and defiantly himself, striding amidst the bland collectivism of the Village and remaining proudly untainted by it.

Of course, he loses. He loses a lot. But whenever his bold stratagems are blunted by the Village’s seemingly limitless resources and totalitarian oversight, whenever the status quo is restored by the time those awesome, awesome closing credits roll around, Number Six is unbowed, his hard, furiously squinting eyes undimmed. His essential nature hasn’t been damaged by his failure to escape this time around; even in defeat, this way he gets a small victory. And, depending on which interpretation of the correct episode order you’re following (the original viewing order was infamously muddled), he learns from every setback.

After his early attempts to dramatically break out of the Village come up against the sinister institution’s almost supernatural influence (naturally the details of exactly why he’s being held captive there are only ever hinted at), he starts to play along with the mind games, undermining the Village from within, proving to the smug and amiably tyrannical authorities that he can thrive in their demented little universe without becoming a cowed and dependent eunuch. And of course, he doesn’t shy away from punching henchmen in the face when the situation calls for it, which is fortunately often.

What would James Bond do in the Village? His tools are brute force and seduction. Violence might keep the resident thugs off his back, but wouldn’t help him get past all the funky ultra-tech. Number Six keeps a wary eye on the women who conveniently stray into his path every other episode, knowing they are like as not agents or pawns of the authorities; Bond would follow his libidinous instincts without a second thought, and would soon find the Village running rings round him, the various Number Twos (regents to the unseen Number One) playing upon his blatantly obvious drives with bored ease. He would soon snap in the quaint, unglamorous, martini-free surroundings, and end up dribbling state secrets to a blonde in a stripy jumper. Number Six is not a dribbler.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: The Operative

Appears in: Serenity (2005).
Setting: Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe, a high-tech yet scruffy frontier future.
Villain type: Steely fanatic, honourable duellist.

Idealism and Cynicism are fascinating concepts to use in story-telling. A creator’s prejudices are particularly obvious in how they treat the age-old struggle between Na├»ve Kittens and Jaded Miseryguts. There are two basic patterns to Idealism versus Cynicism stories. Tradition dictates that plucky heroes, fuelled by righteousness, must struggle against and ultimately overthrow villains whose power is vast but brittle, undermined by their own selfish vice; most of the classic tropes, in other words. This narrative’s grubbier modern cousin is the anti-hero story, with hard-bitten types doing all the messy work that more squeamish characters can’t. The more cynical the story, the more frightful the protagonist’s methods, and the more frequently are said methods justified by the horrible setting and the horrible villains. Examples include the work of Joe Abercrombie, aspects of 24 and every single Punisher comic ever.

What this preoccupation with Cynicism often misses is that Idealism is just as ripe with potential for nightmare, perhaps even more so. Historical totalitarianisms have numbered countless idealists in their ranks. An “evil” Idealist is motivated, stubbornly inflexible and maddeningly sincere. Devotion to an idea, be it an abstract concept like Truth or Honour, some pious or patriotic organisation, or a vision of a better race of man, can be a convenient motive to disregard moral scruples when dealing with Actually Existing Humans. Self-interested crooks are frequently unpleasant, but at least Hans Gruber types are driven by honest, earthy human vices like Greed and Pride.

The nameless Operative in Joss Whedon’s Big Fat Firefly Movie is a prime example of how to do an idealistic villain, a man driven not by a craving for sin but a dangerous passion for virtue. Soft-spoken, calmly competent, dignified, reasonable and even emphatic, the Operative is a far cry from the more demonic villains of Firefly’s aborted TV run, and is a far more effective foil for the mighty Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Acting as the face of the authoritarian Alliance government, he hunts wayward psychic River Tam for unseen politicians who need him to cover up a little social engineering gaffe, and crosses paths with the good Captain as a result. Malcolm’s free-spirited libertarianism finds its counterpart in the single-minded loyalist fervour of a character who has surrendered his very identity to the needs of his government. It’s a lot more interesting watching a dashing space outlaw try to sink his fists into a man who tuts at him as though he were a wayward teenager, rather than cackling like a goblin. A man who commits atrocities and then deflects outrage by admitting that he’s a monster, whose necessary evil is supposedly a building block for a utopia he will never see. It takes a special kind of perversity to style murderousness as an act of self-sacrifice.

Of course, were the Operative real he would be shrill and hatefully self-righteous (see The Baader-Meinhof Complex for a good example) not a charismatic, thoughtful warrior-monk who pulls off some ace hand-to-hand combat scenes. Either way, the idea of “nobly” setting aside your humanity to become a sort of living instrument is still a rich, if controversial vein of characterisation to be mined.