It seems you can’t even throw a ray gun without hitting some insidious overlord — the bulbously brain-panned alien, the mad scientist, the sentient robot yearning to enslave — bent upon domination. Sometimes it’s the world, sometimes it’s the universe, but always there is the underpinning desire to clutch a struggling humanity within a ruthless grip. Their motivations are always inscrutable: Who would want the headache of ultimate power? Is it insanity, a god complex, misplaced enthusiasm or mere Freudian overcompensation? Whatever the case, the universe will never be free of those who wish to rule.
Consider Star Wars . Who could better exemplify the archetype of the evil overlord Emperor Palpatine, Darth Sidious himself? The six canonical movies are vague about both his motives (hint: He’s evil) and his past, but essentially, Emperor Palpatine takes advantage of a galactic political situation of his own secret devising to take control of the Galactic Republic and seize ultimate power. Why’d he want such a thing is never stated… it earns him little more than a face melting and an eventual trip down a mine shaft. Never the less, he pursues the goal over the course of the three prequels with dogged resolve.
Not all overlords are evil, of course. Science fiction is filled with benevolent rulers: The hero becoming the ruler of a kingdom, no matter how vast, is a fable archetype. There’s the Dune series, best known by the 1980 adaptation by David Lynch . The messianic Paul Atreides, accepted as savior by the Arrakian Fremen, is able to take control of an Empire… leaving it to his son, the God Emperor Leto Atreides, who — one thing leading to another — eventually rules his kingdom as a gigantic sandworm. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars (soon to be adapted by Pixar into an animated film) is another example: An immortal Confederate soldier somehow transported to Mars to unite its races and serve as king. Both of these characters attain ultimate power for the good of their adopted worlds, as well as to subvert the intentions of those who would rule cruelly. Which is why you don’t see many of them in science fiction — overlords make far better villains than they do heroes.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of that set is The Mule of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of novels. The Mule is a sepulchrally thin, bulbous-nosed mutant of the planet, who is born with the ability to tune the emotions and thoughts of other beings like a radio dial. He quickly establishes a galactic empire through psychic manipulation, for no other reason than to revenge childhood bullying. Though his motives are petty, within the universe, he actually achieves great things and humanitarian works before he is eventually deposed. An utterly fascinating character that Hollywood, all too regrettably, has yet to adapt into celluloid: In 1998, New Line Cinema spent $1.5 million trying to adapt a version of the Foundation series, only to give up and produce the Lord of the Rings trilogy instead… although Warner Bros. has since picked up the slack.
And then there’s Ming. Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless is the totalitarian ruler of the Planet Mongo. In the original comics, Ming was not a particularly ambitious, instead happily ruling the races and tribes of Mongo with a cruel, iron fist. However, in the 1980 movie, Ming (played by Max von Sydow) seems to have bigger plans. Citing “boredom,” he discovers Earth and launches wave after wave of attacks against the planet. In that, then, Ming may be unique amongst evil overlords: The first would-be world conqueror who does it for the same reasons a child might play a video game.
The movies have given us more, of course. In Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space , a race of human-like aliens — led by famous crossdresser Bunny Breckinridge — attempt to take over Earth through the resurrection of the dead. 1984’s The Last Starfighter features the struggle of a lone video gamer against the tyrannical galactic overlord: Xur, leader of the Kodan Armada, who seeks vengeance against the Star League for banishing him. Farscape has its Scorpius, who strives for power and does unfathomable evil out of the belief that, if he doesn’t, the far bloodthirstier Scarran Empire will subjugate humanity. Star Trek has its Khan, a genetically engineered superman from the Star Trek universe’s Eugenics Wars who once ruled most of Western Asia peacefully until he was deposed. When Khan wakes in the 23rd Century, he again tries to seize power, not out of ruthlessness, but because it was what he was cloned to do… at least until being exiled to a harsh world, where he becomes an overlord obsessed with revenge. And Stargate has its Ra, a creature which rules simply because it fancies itself a god.
So perhaps the real question is why we are so fascinated with overlords… be they overlords of a planetary nature or the ones of a more ambitious galactic scale. There’s no sure answer, but the archetype’s essence is that scifi overlords are the extrapolation of enemies and heroes we know — politicians and world leaders — into a galactic setting. Overlords aren’t merely alien monsters: They are political opponents. Those who fight scifi overlords aren’t merely heroes: They are rebels and guerrillas. Overlords make science fiction feel more real, and the conflict for a planet becomes as personally identifiable as a struggle between the left and the right, or capitalism against Communism. After all, there’s a fictional galactic overlord to be inspired by every politician, and a great science-fiction movie in every political conflict.Read More