The real world is rarely able to be divided into “good guys” and “bad guys,” thus, it is hardly surprising that the most interesting and engaging science fiction stories reflect this, and include characters that defy ethical categorization. Compared to a lot of other nerdy entertainment, sci-fi in particular features a wealth of such individuals, and they are often some of the most popular and fascinating characters in their respective fictional universes. Some are popular for their complexity, and having motivations beyond simply being good or evil; others we actually grudgingly admire for their amorality and their ability to flout the conventions of civilized society and play by their own rules.
Such characters run the gamut from likeable villains, to questionable heroes, to unpredictable rogues. They may be truly decent and honorable deep down, or they may just as easily be irredeemably malicious, yet find themselves acting heroic in situations that surprise even them. Rather than try to scope the masses of fantastically amoral characters from all of sci-fi; we’ve limited ourselves just to sci-fi TV (rather than complain about who we didn’t include, feel free to suggest your favorites in the comments). The characters featured on this list may seem to have little or nothing in common, but that’s exactly the point — people (or beings) such as these do not fit into any established moral category; they are atypical by definition.
7) Nerus, Stargate: SG-1
By the last two seasons of Stargate: SG-1, the Go’auld System Lords — the parasitic alien menace that had so thoroughly terrorized humanity for thousands of years — had been essentially defeated. The Ori had emerged as a newer and far more dangerous foe, making the remaining “snake-heads” little more than an irritation, and giving rise to the first funny Go’auld, Nerus (played by the magnificent Maury Chaykin, a character actor you may remember as the Union officer who pissed his pants in Dances with Wolves). Based on the Greek god Nereus, Nerus was not so much evil as purely hedonistic; the corpulent bastard would sell his mother for a bucket of KFC. When we first meet him, he’s apparently attempting to defect to Earth for the purpose of selling out Stargate Command to the Ori. When this doesn’t work, he’s put in prison, and later agrees to spy on his old boss, the System Lord Baal, in return for some decent grub.
6) Tyr Anasazi, Andromeda
Tyr Anasazi of Kodiak Pride, out of Victoria by Barbarossa (Keith Hamilton Cobb) is basically Khan’s genetic superman from Star Trek plus the philosophical ideals of Friedrich Nietzsche. After his Pride was wiped out,he worked for years as a mercenary before ending up a crewmember on the Andromeda Ascendant, the last remaining High Guard starship. While a main character and ostensibly one of the “good guys” on Andromeda, Tyr always had his own agenda. Nietscheans are pragmatic and not prone to sentiment, so Tyr basically saw Captain Hunt and his “crew” as a means to an end. Not that he didn’t consider many on the ship worthy of respect, but their idealistic goal of restoring the long-dead Systems Commonwealth didn’t interest him nearly as much as exacting revenge on his blood enemies, the Drago-Kazov Pride.
5) Elim Garak, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Probably the most honestly likeable character on this list, Garak (Andrew Robinson) was the only Cardassian to remain aboard DS9 after it was handed over to the Bajoran government and the Federation. He opened up a tailor’s shop on the station’s promenade and basically did his best to live in peace and quiet, emerging from his shop usually only to have lunch with DS9’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Julian Bashir, whom he developed a friendship with. So what’s he doing here? Well, back in the day, Garak was a top operative in the Obsidian Order, an elite Cardassian intelligence bureau that made the Gestapo look like the Cub Scouts. The details of his career in the order are kept mostly vague, but it’s abundantly clear that the mild-mannered tailor did some bad, bad things way back when. By the end of the series, he’d spent several years working for the Federation during the Dominion War, and eventually went home to assist in the rebuilding of Cardassia.
4) Saffron, Firefly
Before Mad Men made Christina Hendricks a household name, she was leading Browncoats to the Special Hell in droves as Firefly‘s fabulous redheaded seductress/con artist Saffron (or “Bridget”, or “Yolanda”, depending on who she was fleecing at the time). In her first appearance, she fools a drunken Mal Reynolds into marrying her, lays him out with a narcotic kiss, attempts to seduce both Wash and Inara, then tries to send Serenity on a one way trip to a floating chop-shop. Later, she appears again and convinces Mal and company to team up with her on a heist. It would have been interesting — if Firefly had continued — to develop her character a bit more, perhaps we could then get a better notion of her motivations. As it is, we learn that hoodwinking folk seems to be almost an art form to Saffron, and the financial rewards are secondary; and Inara says that Saffron had Companion training, hinting at her unusual past. But even in her few appearances it’s obvious that Saffron has her own moral code somewhere. She’s practically Catwoman in space.
3) Q, Star Trek: The Next Generation
If you look at the matter from his perspective, then you can kinda forgive Q (John de Lancie) for his basic amorality. I mean, the dude is, for all intents and purposes, a god. He’s immortal, omnipotent, and nearly omniscient. Of what use are such petty mortal constructs as “good” or “evil” to such a being? Of course, Q isn’t content to simply stay out of mortal affairs, and has no problem violating what could be termed the “ethical” standards of his own species, as well as humanity’s. His meddlings sometimes appear to be purely recreational, other times he takes it upon himself to test certain mortals (mortals aboard a certain Federation starship being his favorite subjects). Not that he’s incapable of benevolent, even noble gestures; when the rest of the Q punished him by making him mortal, he tried to sacrifice himself to the Calamarain, ionized gas beings that were going to destroy the Enterprise to get to him. He did the Federation a favor (in a sense) by introducing them to the Borg — sure, they barely survived the Borg’s attempted invasion, but at least they had some warning. And he helped Picard realize that the reckless, even stupid decisions he made as a youth helped make him the leader he eventually became. But don’t be fooled: Q did these things because it suited him at the time, and it helped alleviate the crushing boredom of immortality and omnipotence — not because of any kind of moral obligation.
2) Todd the Wraith, Stargate: Atlantis
Todd (Christopher Heyerdahl, a.k.a. “Alistair” from Supernatural) is such a refreshing take on a ubiquitous sci-fi trope. Nearly every sci-fi series like this has the one “good” evil alien, the lobe member of his species who helps the heroes instead of trying to kill them. Todd is different, and this is largely due to the nature of the Wraith. See, the Wraith don’t want to conquer us — they don’t want to destroy us because we’re a threat, they don’t have political or philosophical objections to human civilization — no, the Wraith want to eat us. They drain our life energy to survive, as it’s their only source of nourishment. We are livestock to them, nothing more, and this fact is what makes the Wraith, in my opinion, one of the most terrifying sci-fi villains ever.
But back to Todd. Given his name by Col. Sheppard (no Wraith has ever revealed his or her actual name to a human on the show), Todd and Sheppard once worked together to break out of a Genii prison, and since then Todd has occasionally showed up as friend, foe, or something in-between to Atlantis. Todd isn’t the “good” Wraith, he’s just found ways to use an occasional working relationship with humans to his own benefit. He eventually developed a grudging respect for Sheppard, which I believe is due not so much to any assistance Todd has received from him, but rather to the fact that he realizes Sheppard would have no qualms about killing him if it proved necessary. Their past history wouldn’t make Sheppard hesitate for a second. This kind of unaffected, sentiment-free honesty is the sort of thing I could see a Wraith appreciating.
1) Dr. Gaius Baltar, Battlestar Galactica
If you’ve never seen BSG, or have only seen the original show from the ’70s, and want to know what sets the 2004 Sci-Fi Channel reboot apart from its predecessor, look no further than the character of Baltar. The first Baltar, while an entertaining and well-acted character in his own right, was really not much more than a two-dimensional, moustache-twirling baddie, the kind of dude you’d expect to find tying girls to train tracks and cackling evilly on his off hours. the original Baltar knew exactly what he was doing when he betrayed humanity to the Cylons, and was perfectly happy to hand his fellow humans over to almost certain annihilation if he thought it could get him power.
The 2004 reboot’s Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis) was something else altogether. Sure, he was a cad, and an egotist, and an arrogant, self-aggrandizing prick at the start of the series,but he was no monster — just a pompous fool who thought he was merely assisting his smoking-hot girlfriend in a little corporate espionage. This makes him a bit more relatable than his 1970s namesake, as many, many guys have done something stupid to impress a beautiful woman (of course, “something stupid” usually results in Ferrari payments they can’t afford, not the near extinction of one’s species). If Baltar had known she was a Cylon spy plotting the termination of the human race, there’s no way he would have cooperated…if only because he’s not stupid enough to think he could get away with it, and would fear the consequences — not for humanity as much as himself. Indeed, the first thought he had when Six told him about the Cylon’s plans was what would happen to him. Baltar became one of the most popular characters on the show, largely because of his moral complexity. Over time, he reveals himself to be a decent at heart, but weak and a deeply flawed individual. Ironically, it was his quintessentially “human” qualities that led him to become humankind’s greatest traitor. By the end of the series, he redeems himself by proving instrumental in securing a lasting peace between the Cylons and the Colonials.