Neale Monks takes a timely look at five sad, bad and just plain mad leaders from the world of science fiction.
The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has come as quite the shock to many people around the world. Some of his critics view him as a blowhard and a bully, while others as the front man to a much more subtle and malevolent conspiracy. But to be fair to Trump, his supporters will counter that he’s a man with real-world experience outside of politics, a man who has created thousands of jobs within his own companies, a man who consistently rewards loyalty, and above all else a man who understands the anxieties of the American working classes and has vocalised their fears more effectively than anyone else across the traditional political spectrum.
Whether he’s an egomaniac, a lunatic or a genius is hard to say just yet. But the idea of brilliant but dangerous people getting elected to the highest office in the land is far from new, and is in fact one of the most popular tropes in science fiction. After all, science fiction likes to stress the importance of the individual in terms of changing the world, and what better way to do this than to have the protagonist act against the entire apparatus of government!
So to commemorate the inauguration of the United States’ first ever ‘reality TV president’, here’s a list of dastardly leaders who stabbed, slithered or scraped their way to the top, all within the constitutions of their respective states. Perhaps you’ll read them as warnings of what can happen when democracies make mistakes. Or perhaps you’ll see them as caricatures of the worst traits of all world leaders, whether they’re liberals, conservatives or none-of-the-above. But I suggest you take them for what they are: reminders that science fiction writers have regularly thought about the tension between the will of the people and the free will of the individual, and that promises about security and wealth creation invariably come with strings attached.
5. Richard Nixon’s head (Futurama)
Of his body, Nixon’s head famously commented that it was “flabby, pasty-skinned, riddled with phlebitis; a good Republican body”. Be that as it may, that body was lost sometime between Nixon’s death in 1994 and his preserved head winning the President of Earth elections in the year 3000. Sometimes using a robot body, and sometimes making do with the headless body of former vice president Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s head managed to steer Earth through numerous challenging interstellar events, not least of which was the war with the planet Omicron Persei 8, which Earth survived despite the incompetent military leadership of the most clueless starship captain ever, Zapp Brannigan.
Heads-in-jars are just one of many science fiction tropes that ‘Futurama’ has managed to turn into something cleverer than a mere visual gag. The idea of a living head kept alive by a mechanical apparatus goes back a long way, H P Lovecraft having described disembodied brains surviving in transportable cans in his 1930 novella ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’. It’s hinted that these cans allow those human intellects inside them to travel off our world to distant Yuggoth, but the unreliable narration of the story doesn’t make it at all clear whether this is true, and if it is, to what degree the subtle surgery performed is carried out willingly.
In ‘Futurama’ the heads-in-jars are more silly than sinister, and the disembodied heads make it possible for the show writers to insert historical or contemporary characters into a show set a thousand years in our future. So we have ‘Futurama’ episodes featuring characters as diverse as Lucy Liu and Antonin Scalia in various episodes, often playing important roles that go well beyond simple cameo appearances.
4. Gaius Baltar (Battlestar Galactica)
While the other presidents on this list have enjoyed relatively smooth journeys to the top, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Gaius Baltar and the rocky road he has had to tread. He is, after all, the man responsible for the downfall of the Colonies, though by no means intentionally. At the start of the miniseries Baltar is more a playboy scientist than politician, and it’s his involvement with a beautiful blonde woman leads him into what he thinks is simply industrial espionage, and only too late does he realise that her real intention was to use him as a way to hack into Colonial defence computer system and shut it down. After the fall of the Colonies he finds himself among the few thousand survivors making their way, rather forlornly, to the lost thirteenth colony, Earth.
Continually manipulated by the a vision of the blonde woman he doesn’t really understand, Baltar hovers on the line between brilliance and insanity, sometimes helping the survivors for sure, but sometimes seeming to help their pursuers, the Cylon fleet. It’s hard to imagine anyone carrying this complex role off as well as James Callis; by rights the character should be totally unlikeable — he’s selfish, duplicitous, probably delusional, and generally lacking approaching either humility or courage. Yet Baltar frequently steals every scene he’s in, and his eventual rise to the presidency of what’s left of the Colonies doesn’t really come as a surprise to anyone, despite the opposition put up by several of the show’s lead characters. Inevitably, his presidency ends in failure and chaos, with the surrender of the settlement at New Caprica to the Cylons and his transformation into no more than a puppet leader.
What the reimagined ‘Battlestar Galactica’ does with Baltar is to take him beyond the one-dimensional Judas character he was in the original series. Yes, he’s a traitor, but not intentionally, and while he makes many choices that seem questionable to the viewer at the time they happen, within the whole story they’re obviously part of what has to happen for the humans and Cylons to be reconciled. He’s a pawn, not a player, and what’s fabulous about the Baltar character is that he forces us to think about the Biblical Judas in the same light. ‘Battlestar Galactica’ is quite open about the fact that everything from the fall of the Colonies onwards is being played out according to the will of God, though He doesn’t like to be called that, we’re cryptically told at the end of the series. If that’s the case, Baltar really had no choice about what he did, and by the same token, perhaps neither did Judas.
3. Coriolanus Snow (The Hunger Games)
Suzanne Collins ‘Hunger Games’ series of books, and their film adaptations, have to be credited with bringing an entirely new generation into the tradition of dystopian fiction and the philosophical debates they prompt. The main antagonist is of course President Snow, leader of the Capitol District, and the arbiter of the lethal Hunger Games that the book documents. In time-honoured literary fashion the cruelty and insecurities of this superficially charismatic man are only revealed little by little, and they certainly add up to as long a list of crimes as anyone else on our survey of presidential tyrants. What perhaps makes him unique though is that ‘Hunger Games’ novels (and films) are focusing on a man losing his grip on power — at once fascinated in, and furious at, the object of his frustration, Katniss Everdeen.
In the books, Collins describes Snow as a man who seems intelligent and urbane, but his heavy use of floral scents hints at something darker, the need to hide the smell of his own persistent sickness reflecting on his own moral decay. Donald Sutherland portrays Snow a little more sympathetically, focusing instead on the idea that he’s a tyrant rather than fundamentally evil, someone who uses violence as a means to an end, in this case, maintaining the primacy of the Capitol District and the seventy-five years of peace Panem has ‘enjoyed’ under its dominance. Right up to the bitter end, Snow is trying to get Katniss to see things his way, and while he only reveals a little of the truth at a time, ultimately he honours his promise never to lie to her.
Sometimes Snow seems to be the role Sutherland was born to play, and he carries it off brilliantly. Dry, intelligent and cynical, Sutherland describes the complex relationship between Snow and Katniss in almost grandfatherly tones, but there’s more to it than that. A jaded liberal in his political views, the actor has been up-front in his desire to see the complex malevolence of Snow spur real world viewers into being more critical about their political leaders.
2. President Clark (Babylon 5)
When Luis Santiago was elected president of the Earth Alliance in 2258, nobody guessed that his seemingly unremarkable running mate, vice president Morgan Clark, would take over the entire apparatus of government within a few short months. Orchestrating the assassination of Santiago by blowing up the presidential starship was just the beginning of Clark’s political crimes. He quickly went on to shut down all but the most obedient news broadcasters, put the military into the hands of his sympathisers, and finally declared martial law, ensuring the Earth Alliance was practically run from his office.
Of course what made ‘Babylon 5’ groundbreaking at the time was in its use of arc-driven storylines rather than the single-episode threats that were pretty much standard to science fiction television up till then. So it is that the Clark coup unfolds slowly, the assassination of Santiago only occurring in the final few minutes of season 1, and it takes most of season 2 before the full scale of his Orwellian plan becomes clear enough that the show’s protagonists, led by John Sheridan, are driven into action.
While Clark was competently portrayed a few times on the show by American television actor Gary McGurk, these appearances were almost entirely brief scenes on news broadcasts and the like. What made the Clark character so memorable though, and probably more realistic, was that the main cast only ever interacted with his underlings or dealt with his strategies, never with the President himself. This ensured that Clark remained a remote and much more dangerous threat almost until the end of season 4, when we, as viewers, finally get to see him at bay: exhausted, suicidal, but even in his final moments carrying out one last, spiteful act of destruction on his own planet.
But still… there’s something sympathetic about Clark, even at his bitter end. He leaves a note for his pursuers, partly a necessary clue that allows our heroes to spring to Earth’s defence, but it’s also a manifesto too, containing the phrase, “The Ascension of the Ordinary Man”. It says something about how Clark saw himself, a small, balding, physically unimpressive person so different to the warriors and telepaths arrayed around him. Science fiction heroes have to be extraordinary, otherwise they couldn’t win over impossible odds, and without that, there wouldn’t be the thrilling drama we all know and love. But show creator Straczynski has a warning here as well, that the worst and most dangerous leaders might not be the men and women most different to us, but the ones who are most like us. Straczynski has frequently referred to the idea that ‘faith manages’ but without clarifying whether that is faith is in the good or the bad, we have to remember that ordinary people can be empowered by faith to do terrible things, something recent history has reminded us, again and again.
1. Palpatine (Star Wars)
When it comes to elected leaders going bad its Palpatine, undisputed head of the Galactic Empire, who is the big daddy of them all. Rising seemingly out of nowhere during the prequel films to become the leader of the Galactic Republic, his masterstroke is getting the elected representatives of the people to confer on his office virtually absolute powers for as long as is required to deal with the Separatist crisis. Of course once he has that power he has no intention of handing it back, and before long the Republic becomes an Empire, and Palpatine the Emperor.
Masterfully portrayed by Ian McDiarmid, we didn’t actually see the Emperor until the third of the original films, ‘Return of the Jedi’, was released in 1980. But his behind-the-scenes machinations were subtly woven into the scripts of the first two films, ensuring that his role as chief protagonist was never in doubt. Cast your mind back to the conference room scene in the first film, and even though Tarkin is chairing the meeting, it’s crystal clear that what’s going on here is all part of the Emperor’s larger plan to sweep away the last vestiges of the Republic and take control of the population more firmly through the application of force and terror. Tarkin and Vader are both big, terrifying characters, albeit in different ways, but what’s even more scary is the idea that they’re actually underlings, carrying out the will of the Emperor.
At the time he filmed ‘Return of the Jedi’, McDiarmid was only in his thirties, which meant that he needed a lot of makeup to play the wizened old Emperor! But by the time the prequels rolled around, McDiarmid was the perfect age to play the more middle-aged Senator Palpatine, and in fact he carries almost every scene he’s in, his old school stage acting skills letting him switch between charming politician and the subtly devious Sith lord without any problems at all.
There’s a scene in the prequel films were Amidala describes democracy dying to the sound of thunderous applause. Not subtle, perhaps, but a point is made well here — that democracies don’t always make the right decisions, and that charismatic leaders can suborn the principles on which democracies are based into ways that drive their own, private agendas.
Whether that’s where we are today I shall leave to you to decide, gentle reader!
Neale mostly writes about fish, fossils and old computers, but in his
downtime can often be found feeding Daleks or rehoming unwanted