Looking back throughout film and television, one of the most interesting aspects of science fiction is that it allows for the possibility of redemption. In fact, some of our favorite heroes have been bad guys who gave up their evil-doing ways to fight for the cause of justice. Who would have ever thought that such previously soul-less individuals as Darth Vader, the Terminator, Alpha, Sylar, Lionel Luther, and Gaius Balter would one day be characters you would be rooting for?
Yet that is exactly what happened. Anakin Skywalker, formerly Darth Vader, ultimately rejected his dark nature to repent his wrong-doings; the Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, came back as a good terminator for T2 and T3; Gauis Balter on “Battlestar Galactica” who originally handed over the humans to the Cylons, repented and sought to be a savior of mankind; Lionel Luther who had relentlessly tracked Clark Kent on “Smallville” became his protector; and astoundingly both Alpha on “Dollhouse” and Sylar on “Heroes” went from being egomaniacal psychotic killers to being allies for the good guys.
What is wrong with this picture? These were the villains of the story! They were the ones we all mentally threw rocks at and spit upon. These were not people that we wanted to cheer for – we wanted to burn them at the stake and dance on their graves. So what happened? Why were they given a second chance? And were they truly worthy of redemption in the end?
Whether it is the “Star Wars” or “Terminator” sagas, or the multi-arcing stories through the seasons of “Heroes,” “Smallville,” “Dollhouse or “Battlestar Galactica,” nothing is more fascinating than watching a villain transform into a hero. Like a moth’s metamorphosis into a butterfly, these former villains shed their cloaks of villainy and blossomed into remarkable beings that chose to dazzle us with a display of humanity that they had not possessed before.
So what motivates them to do it? Why do they suddenly choose a path so diametrically opposite to their life’s ambitions of terror?
In the case of Anakin Skywalker, it was the love for his son. The need to be redeemed in his son’s eyes and not be remembered for all the horrific deeds of his past. In the case of the Terminator, it was a matter of simply re-programming him. He was a machine programmed to kill in one film, and to protect in another.
As for Lionel Luther in “Smallville,” his obsession with Clark Kent was revealed to be not as villainous as believed, but the nosy and overprotective maneuvering of one charged with protecting him.
Then Gaius Balter was more a fool of fate than a predetermined tyrant. He simply made bad choices with whom to make his allegiance and once he saw the folly of his ways, he chose to pursue a better path – to enlighten rather than enslave.
As for Alpha, he was a by-product of overloading too many personalities into one tiny human brain and then expecting he would not then think he was a god. But after learning the error of his ways and thinking, Alpha became a soldier in the war against the maniacal Rossum Corporation.
And Sylar, wow – he went through a complete reversal of personality. He was a blood-thirsty killer consumed with the need to acquire more and more abilities. He only stopped once he realized he was losing his humanity and was going to end up living his life alone. Then he too chose to embrace a life of goodness and to help others.
As interesting as it is that these demonic beings decided to shed their inhumanity and become champions of human rights and doing the right thing, it is always startling to one day realize that the guy you are cheering for on screen is the same one that you had previously loathed with every fiber in your being.
Other prime examples of such polar opposite change are Ben and Sawyer on “Lost”; Angel, Spike and Faith on “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” and Jayne in “Firefly”. Who would have thought they would become such fan-favored favorites as well? Ben was the one who had an entire village wiped out to suit his ill-conceived visions of grandeur and his purpose in the grand scheme of things. Sawyer was initially the arrogant jerk who would not return an inhaler to a dying girl.
Angel, Spike and Faith all lost their souls and embarked on journeys of decadent and wanton displays of violence all to feed the dark beasts dwelling within them. And poor hapless Jayne was simply too greedy for his own good and sold River and Simon out to the Alliance the first chance he got. These are perfect examples of people who simply got on the wrong path and had to correct their course along the way.
But what about those bone-chilling villains that never quite wanted redemption? Some of those who were ultimately unredeemable were: Lex Luthor, Cavil on “Battlestar Galactica,” the Black Smoke Monster from “Lost”; the Cigarette Smoking Man from the “The X-Files,” Helen Cutter on “Primeval,” and Anna on “V.” In some cases, we were allowed to watch a reverse transformation, from good to evil. It was sickening as we saw them willingly choose time and time again to do all the awful things they did.
But should those stories have continued, who is to say whether they would have altered their course as well? But when their stories ended, we saw that they chose to be the villains and that they relished that role with determination. It is almost a relief to know in the end that the villain stayed the villain. For, as Lex Luthor once infamously said, “You were right about me all along, Mr. Kent. I am the villain of the story.” A story is so much clearer when the villain deserves to be hated and reviled and that he or she will get their comeuppance in the end.
So do villains really deserve redemption? Is it against everything we believe in to allow them a second chance after all the evil they have done? Is there a line that must not be crossed and once crossed we must say to the villain: “you are unworthy of redemption”? One of the more unique aspects of humanity is our capacity for forgiveness. No matter how despicable the crime, we are still willing to extend the olive branch to those who ask for it. Besides providing a remarkable story-telling tool to play upon our very core beliefs of forgiveness and redemption, we truly want to believe that people have the capacity to change.
We want to believe that as humans we are not pre-programmed to be evil from birth and that at some point, a person can decide of their own free-will whether to pursue good or evil, and if they make the wrong choice, we still want to allow them that freedom to correct their actions.
In no other science fiction realm has this been tested more often than in the two British television series “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” In “Doctor Who,” it has offered up a large array of devious villains, but no more so than The Master. In the most recent encounter with this notorious villain, we saw a crack in the façade. There was a moment when The Master could have easily struck down The Doctor and ruled with impunity. Yet he hesitated. It was that momentary hesitation that fuels The Doctor’s belief that there is a sliver of humanity still deeply buried in The Master. But for loyal fans of the series which has spanned over 35 years, should The Master be given a chance at redemption for all that he has done? For many, the answer is a resounding, “no!” But for others, they see what The Doctor sees, a man with the capacity to change – who can still chose to embrace the good still inside him. With the struggle for The Master’s
soul still at stake, it remains to be seen which will win out.
Another character who should be reviled, but that the fans forgive time and time again, is Captain Jack. For those who watched last year’s powerful “Torchwood: Children of Earth” special, a few of Jack’s unforgiveable sins were laid bare. He willingly gave up 12 children to buy off the aliens threatening to destroy the Earth. Jack then later sacrificed his own grandson to do the same thing again. For fans, it was a shock. These were not the actions of a hero; they were the actions of a villain. Yet how could we ultimately condemn him for what he did when he did it with the best intentions – to save the human race? Does that mean that for some villains, we simply forgive them for their bad deeds simply because we think they are doing what they do for the greater good? This is a bit of a Catch-22 situation as most villains truly believe what they do is for the greater good.
So how do we determine whether a villain is eligible for redemption? Whose sins are more forgivable? Is it the reason for their actions? Did they do it for the greater good? Did they immediately see the error of their ways and pursue a better path?
Redemption is a tricky thing. In most science fiction, we always allow of the possibility of redemption. For what would be the fun in condemning a person from the first moment we meet them? One of the most intriguing things about villainy is whether we can see past the villain’s mask and see what the true intent of their heart is and if we can see a glimmer of a soul yearning to be free from their evil acts. So perhaps the rule is: so long as the journey continues, redemption is always a possibility. It is only once the story ends that we finally see whether or not they deserved it or not.