Monday, 13 April 2009

Cinemaniacal: Return of the Recurring Villain!

I belong to a social networking site for writers, specifically crime-writers, called Crimespace. And in one of the forums another member mentioned if a recurring villain in a book series would be a good thing.

The answer he got was "yes" and "no."

Some recurring villains have been great, but they can also be a trap. And I call the trap the "Big Daddy Syndrome." It comes from the Simpsons episode where Chief Wiggum gets his own spin-off show as a New Orleans private eye. In the delightful parody of bad detective shows, Wiggum corners the gangster Big Daddy in his lair, Big Daddy then leaps out the window and slowly swims away. Wiggum takes this escape with some aplomb saying: "We'll see him again, each and every week."

Do you see what I'm getting at?

Maybe I should explain more. Look at all the great recurring villains of the past, Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the James Bond novels and films, Professor Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes, and even Wo Fat from Hawaii Five-O, and think about what they have in common. If you answer that they were most famously played by British actors, that's one thing, but go a little bit deeper.

In the James Bond novels Blofeld only appears in three books, and in the first novel Thunderball, he's strictly a supporting character, controlling the sinister plot from a safe distance. The next two appearances, where he plays a more direct role, the rivalry between him and Bond grows increasingly personal and destructive, not only physically, but mentally as well. It ends in You Only Live Twice, with Bond literally strangling Blofeld to death with his bare hands, ending up an emotional, physical, and mental wreck.

He's more active in the movies, but before their extremely loose adaptation of You Only Live Twice, he's a mysterious puppet master, operating in the shadows. But he's best presented in the novels, which is sparingly.

Professor Moriarty, the "Napoleon of Crime," and arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, is only in two stories, and both times he is never seen by narrator Watson, and only mentioned in passing in some of the others. Yet, his vendetta against Holmes and their battle atop the Reichenbach Falls are some of the defining moments of the series.

Which then brings us to Wo Fat, played by Khigh Dhiegh, (real name Kenneth Dickerson) the Red Chinese spy-master who made things complicated for Steve McGarret and his 5-O squad on Hawaii Five-O. He was so popular as a villain that when they decided to retire they made his capture the centre of the finale episode. Now one of the reasons for his popularity was the jovial performance of Khigh Dhiegh, who always played happy villains, but despite his popularity, he hadn't appeared on the show for 4 years before the finale.

So do you see what I'm getting at?

The best reccuring villains are used sparingly. They don't have to appear in each and every instalment. And when they are used, they should have a story arc, not unlike the protagonist, with their own trials, tribulations, and triumphs. Having them appear, cause trouble, and then escape in the end so they can show up in the sequel, not only cheapens the character*, but is lazy writing and insulting to the audience.

It used to bug me even when I was a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons when they only had one villain for the whole series. One of the things that clue me in that a show will not be any good is when the villain is in the opening credits as a regular. That's a certain sign that it there will no growth, no arc to any characters, just an evil scheme of the week.**

So I guess the lesson here is that while you can have a recurring villain, they better be damn good, and even then, only sparingly to spice up the series with some extra dimensions.

*(Blofeld and SPECTRE were often inserted in Bond movies as a substitute for the Soviet KGB to avoid offending the Russians which led to some oversaturation, and a bus load of continuity troubles, like how he doesn't recognize Bond the second time they meet face to face.)

**(Don't mention Smallville, because Lex Luthor wasn't the villain in the series, it was about him becoming a villain.)

Don't forget...


  1. Kit here

    In Star Trek, he Borg only appeared six times in TNG (not counting their overuse in VOY).

    Khan, probably one of the most famous of villains only appears TWICE (Trek geeks, correct me if I am wrong).

  2. Exactly.

    Recurring villains are best used sparingly.