Star Trek villainry runs the gamut from snippy and sorta-pathetic rivals to despicable, homicidal maniacs, and that’s one of the reasons we love Star Trek. We truly see the colorful tapestry of intergalactic life on display in Star Trek, even in those with less-than-honorable intentions.
What makes a good villain? In my humble opinion (and without looking at any corny instructional writing websites that lecture you on ‘best practices’ in character development), a good villain has most or (rarely) all of the following qualities: depth/complexity, sinisterness, hateability, ingenuity, an interesting story, contradiction/duality, and sympathy/likeability/humour (I know, I know, this last one seems weird, but see: “contradiction/duality”).
With these criteria in mind, I wanted to make a top 10 list of my favorite Trek villains (individuals, not entire races), because I just really wanted to stoop down to the level of writing a listicle. And I want to start some arguments 🙂
Oh yeah- obligatory spoiler alert. Especially if you haven’t yet watched Discovery (if this is the case what are you waiting for??)
As a villain, I think Control, Discovery’s nefarious and corrupt Federation/Starfleet AI, speaks to a lot of our collective fears about just how bad a turn technology might take in the future. When our imagination reaches into the farthest possibility of ‘tech run amok’, it usually conjures images of artificial intelligence bringing about the enslavement of humanity. As much of a trope this may have become, Control still embodies the darker and more sinister imaginings of this archetype, having the ability to corrupt and destroy from within the ‘universal good’ we (mostly) envision the Federation and Starfleet to be.
Control was originally written into the Star Trek books as a technology that originated from a program named Uraei, which was created for the purpose of expanding Federation security, and later permeated into every facet of technology on Earth and on other planets, making strategic decisions on its own, such as establishing the Section 31 organization, and creating the “Control” network as a way to free itself from its morally-restrictive code.
In Discovery, Control became synonymous with Section 31. Control was Section 31. What started as a threat assessment system created for the protection of the Federation became an intelligence that would manipulate both machine and flesh (Leland) to achieve its goals of destroying life as we know it.
But, when you think about it, the task of “saving the universe” seems to come up a lot, doesn’t it? And like, wow, you mean the threat assessment system became a threat itself?
Despite touching on some of these tropes, I think Control is very effective as an existential and seemingly insurmountable threat that would take an exceptional level of ingenuity to overcome. When the world around you is brimming with technologies of some sort, knowing that any of it can start glowing red and try to chomp you into bits really is the stuff of nightmares.
#9: Female Changeling
If you asked me what I thought the worst moment of DS9 would be, I’d probably say “that horrible scene where Odo was sitting on his bed with the Female Changeling, looking a bit dour, and the Female Changeling says — flatly and matter-of-factly — “So… that is how the solids experience intimacy.”
The Female Changeling can go from sweetly manipulative to Odo, explaining to and instructing him in the platitudinal nuances of being a changeling (the drop becomes the ocean… mixing thought and form, idea and sensation… to become a thing is to know a thing… etc etc etc), to being outwardly and bluntly genocidal, giving sweeping orders to Dominion armies to murder millions of people. Talk about range!!
If you’ll remember TNG’s sixth season episode “The Chase,” where Humans, Romulans, Klingons, and Cardassians solve an archeological puzzle that leads them to an apparition of an ancient humanoid being that explains that her species was the origin of all humanoid life and congratulates them all on coming together in peace (funny that!). This ancient humanoid was played by Salome Jens, and probably formed the basis for her role as the Female Changeling and for the concept of the changeling race.
Far from being this benign ancient race, the changelings are so afraid of being harmed by ‘solids’ in any way that they turn to genocide. Wouldn’t you? Yeah, they’re pretty sinister, but I think they lack a certain depth, instead spouting those platitudes about what it means to be a changeling. They don’t have a philosophical or emotional complexity that I think the race as a concept could really benefit from in their origin story. Regardless of this, the Female Changeling is effective at being loathsome and sinister, ordering the deaths of millions with the stoicism of a monk.
#8: Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd
The creators of Star Trek did a good deed to the world by reintroducing the role of Harry Mudd to Discovery from his original TOS debut. And Rainn Wilson absolutely does justice to the role. The pesky, beguiling, woman-loving criminal vexes the crew of the Discovery just as he did the TOS cast, all the while singing his songs of devotion to his beloved albeit vexing lover Stella.
Harry Mudd is a fun addition to both TOS and Discovery — he’s wacky, aloof, and would definitely be the type of guy to use the word “females.” I think, in popular culture presently, there’s a certain fascination with grifters, and his role in Discovery conveniently taps into that grifter energy.
He’s a total simp for Stella, regardless of how agitated he is to actually be in her presence, always being in some kind of ‘honeymoon phase’ in his mind with her while she’s not actually present. And to be honest, when he finally reunites with Stella in Discovery, she definitely has some kind of intense domme energy with him. We wish him well.
Speaking of characters that would probably use the word “females,” Brunt actually DOES use the word “females.” And speaking of our current collective fascination with grifters… need I say more? The Ferengi play a great role in DS9, bringing comedic relief, capitalistic hyperbole, and the occasional infusion of sentimentality.
Liquidator Brunt plays a great foil to our beloved Quark, flipping from financial oppressor to bootlicker faster than light when everyone thought Quark was going to become the next Grand Nagus. Although Brunt is a near-constant thorn in the sides of all the Ferengi characters in the show we love so much, he occasionally is a good sport, like when he joined the team to rescue Ishka from the Dominion.
Jeffrey Combs is always on point, and that’s that on that.
Can I also take this opportunity to say that it’s amazing just how much the writers redeemed the Ferengi in DS9 from their original appearance as a not-so-sinister villain race in TNG? They’re so goddamn funny in DS9, and all the actors who play Ferengi are just superb. They make rent-seeking behaviors look a lot more fun and a lot less exploitative and damaging than they are in real life. If Ferengi existed today they would DEFINITELY be big into crypto.
#6: Luther Sloan
Sloan is definitely a Macchiavellian “ends justify the means” type. He somehow comes off as a “loyal civil servant” type while carrying out these insidious Section 31 schemes in DS9, doing the wrong things for the “right” reasons. He has this air about him that… well, I’m not sure how to explain it. If I woke up with him sitting in an armchair next to my bed giving me a cold stare, and started giving me some strange orders to engage in some kind of complicated act of subterfuge, honestly I’d probably just go along with it.
There’s just something about Sloan’s attitude and general demeanor that I love so much. This comes out most prominently in the DS9 episode “Extreme Measures” where our boys Julian and Miles are on a mission inside his mind as he’s dying. During the scene where his loved ones are at his funeral (for which he’s in attendance), seemingly happy that their lives are finally being rid of him (especially his wife, who describes being married to him as a “living hell”), he makes this confusing little monologue to Doctor Bashir that’s just a somewhat meaningless string of words and platitudes:
“Doctor, you’ve been a beacon of light to me. You’re living proof that ideology is a poor substitute for kindness and decency, and at the end of the day, it’s our actions, not our beliefs, that define who we are — what we are.”Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 7 Episode 23, “Extreme Measures”
Julian just gives him a confused “uh… yes. I mean, thank you, I guess…,” as anyone would, because what does that even mean? And when Sloan is initially willing to give Odo’s cure to Miles and Bashir, it almost signals to me that there was some part of him that thought that committing genocide against the Founders was wrong. But maybe not a huge part of him, since another Sloan bursts through the door to shoot him. I guess we’ll never know.
#5: Mirror Universe Philippa Georgiou
If you asked me who I thought was the most badass bitch in all of Trek, I’d definitely say Terran Philippa Georgiou from Discovery. I mean, Michelle Yeoh is just a huge badass, and she’s perfect for this role. She does turn less and less of a baddie (but still a BADDIE if you know what I mean) as the show progresses, but she still serves as a foil to Michael, even though inside she loves her. She’s a complex character, informed by her backstory as the Emperor of the Terran Empire, yet tempered and softened by her experiences in the prime universe.
She definitely has mirror universe Kira Nerys vibes, bisexual and kind of always a little horny (though maybe not as horny as mirror universe Kira), but has the sometimes-odd taste in interspecies romantic partners that Dax has (I’m thinking of when she was hitting on Linus the Saurian Lieutenant by asking what the visual acuity of his giant eyes was, getting apparently kind of turned on by it, and taking his arm). And speaking of DS9 characters, she kind of plays the same role on the USS Discovery that Garak plays on Deep Space 9: not a member of Starfleet, and occasionally willing to step a little over the line and take extralegal measures to help the crew.
Needless to say, I can’t wait for the Section 31 Discovery spinoff.
Loyal servants to the Founders, the Vorta are the perfect shitty middle-manager bureaucrats. And Jeffrey Combs, in his dynamic acting ability, gives such great energy and life to Weyoun, the Female Changeling’s right-hand man.
Weyoun always has the polite demeanor of an HR representative in his dealings with others, even when he’s bickering with Damar or Dukat. He’s constantly pushing this “we’re all friends here!!” narrative, even though he’ll be the bureaucrat carrying out the murderous war orders of the Founders (just like an HR representative). And there’s something sinister about the instances where he’s being so nice and conciliatory while having huge bulky Jem’Hadar soldiers behind him — no matter how polite he seems, he’s always backed up by big bad dudes. It’s just always untrustworthy and disingenuous, but masked behind a soft voice and cheerful smile.
Even though he’s perpetually trying to convince all involved parties that “we’re all friends,” everyone’s open disdain for him is comical. Damar jokes about killing him off so that maybe his next clone can do better — and when (spoiler spoiler!) Damar leads the Cardassian resistance against the Dominion in the end of DS9, his first bombing target is the cloning facilities where Weyouns are made, which is just the biggest and funniest ‘fuck you’ to him. And whenever he’s around Odo, he shows him reverence, but Odo is always pissed off by it.
Adding to the bureaucrat/HR vibe, it’s clear that he doesn’t do any of the hard work aside from the middle-management-type tasks. When one of the Weyouns tried to defect to the Federation (and was thus deemed defective…) and Odo picks him up in a runabout, a fire starts inside the ship when they’re attacked; and when Odo asks him to grab a fire extinguisher to put it out, he seems absolutely shocked to be asked to do a menial task that I suppose would usually be taken care of by a Jem’Hadar.
Jeffrey Combs truly shows his range in this show, and his work as Weyoun is no exception.
Q is an agent of chaos, despite Voyager’s confusing introduction into Q canon that the purpose of the Q race is to “maintain order in the universe” (???) in episode “Q2”. Q keeps his intentions a bit of a mystery, in keeping with his chaotic nature; at some times, he appears to help, yet at others… What is there to say about introducing the Borg to the humans centuries before they were set to encounter them? In DS9’s pilot, Sisko is pissy with Picard because of the whole Locutus mess, but perhaps he should’ve directed that anger at Q.
Q is a lovable miscreant. He does things because they’re fun (pretty relatable). He appears dick-out on the Enterprise (also pretty relatable). He shows up dressed in a Starfleet uniform because in his “true form” (a glittery, glowing orb with three cobras protruding) appears to Q to blind the humans with its magnificence. Q is omnipotent (although not completely omniscient) and immortal, and he’s bent the universe to his will so often and to such a degree that he’s bored and sick of it.
John de Lancie is great as Q, and his personality totally fits the role. A story I love is that they were looking for the right costume for him as the judge in the 1st episode “Encounter at Farpoint,” and de Lancie was just like “oh, I think I’ve got something at home” and brought in the robes he ended up wearing. I think, beyond the pilot episode, Q gets a lot less serious and a lot more silly, and John de Lancie really comes into the role and brings out a really fun energy for Q.
The Q evolved over 4 billion years into their current form and considered themselves to be the ultimate form of life, existing in a state of “ultimate purity,” despite the fact that Q just travels around the universe being a dick. But, well, that’s kind of what I love about him.
#2: Kai Winn Adami
Kai Winn is so insidious, power-hungry, so willing to step on others to rise up. She’s so saccharine in her interactions, and sanctimonious, and it goes totally against all of her actions (not the least of which being an attempted assassination of Vedek Bareil to become Kai) — which truly speaks to the duality of her nature. She takes this weird moral high ground of lecturing Kira and others about the Prophets and the suffering of the Bajoran people at the hands of the Cardassians — all the while carrying out actions that are completely contradictory to this facade. Her ~vibes~ are just evil. She’s so utterly hateable, but you love to hate her.
Louise Fletcher is perfect for this role, as many of her previous acting work portrays these saccharinely-evil characters. Not the least of which is her role as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
Towards the end of DS9, Kai Winn truly goes mask-off in (spoiler spoiler!) her dealings with the pah-wraiths and her efforts to summon them. The pinnacle of this, I think, is when she responds to Dukat’s admission that her hands would be stained with blood after summoning the Pah-wraiths in the same vein that his were during the occupation. Her response to this?
“The Pah-wraiths will spare whom they find worthy. The rest are of no consequence.”Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Season 7 Episode 21, “When It Rains…”
This is basically an admission that she’s permissive of the mass murder of her own people — likely more people than the Cardassians even killed.
She’s truly evil, truly loathsome, and truly a great Star Trek villain.
To see who I’ve chosen as the #1 Star Trek villain, you’ll have to wait until my next article for the big reveal! 🙂 Sorry not sorry! Stay tuned!
Images courtesy of CBS Paramount Television and Paramount Pictures.