We boast a long history of worshipping warriors in our culture, and this tradition carries over, in a big way, to cult television. Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stargate, Farscape, and Andromeda are just a few of the major sci-fi franchises of the past few decades that have featured warriors amongst the primary dramatis personae.
For purposes of easy definition, a warrior is someone who has dedicated his or her life to warfare, and lives by a very specific code of conduct. Such conduct includes loyalty, honor, courage, and in some cases, chivalry. I suspect we love warriors so deeply because they are brave, often fight in hopeless causes, and offer us a distinctive philosophy that – love it or hate it – offers a guidepost to navigating life’s challenges.
Although warriors live for honor and combat, the philosophy underlying their love of combat is surely what makes them so compelling. Warriors respect the responsibilities of duty. They are loyal to those with whom they serve. They do not shrink from difficult challenges and impossible odds, and they don’t run away when confronted. Human beings rightly see all of these qualities as virtues.
Our cultures worship strength, physical might and power, it’s fair to state, and so the warrior caste or warrior race is an example of strength, power and discipline in action. The Klingons in Star Trek did not begin on the Original Series as a warrior race, but through years of refinement, that’s how the franchise has come to consider them. Beginning approximately with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock(1984), Klingons became “honorable” instead of dishonorable villains, and that trend continued in the Star Trek TV series of the 1990s.
I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite amongst cult-tv’s memorable warriors, but Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) of Star Trek: The Next Generation – a man from a race of warriors – certainly stands tall. The great quality about Worf is the inherent tension and conflict in his nature. He is of a warrior race – the Klingons— and yet was raised by humans and so must integrate his love of battle and need for honor into his duties as a Starfleet officer. We see this conflict played out compellingly in episodes such as “Heart of Glory” and “Sins of the Father.” Worf sees everything through the lens of the warrior, and we can respect his straight-forward world view. We see this world view reflected in his manner of speech (terse; concise) and his preference in proverbs, such as “Today is a good day to die,” or “There is no honor in attacking the weak…“
On some occasions, such as Worf’s admission of love of prune juice (“a warrior’s drink…”) we can also get a good chuckle. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s writers very quickly understood that the key to making Worf an interesting character was to test his warrior’s code in ways that were unexpected or surprising. In the decision to save or not save a Romulan’s life (“The Enemy”) for instance, whether or not to commit suicide after a spinal injury (“Ethics”), and even in the role of parent (“Fistful of Datas,” etc.)
If you’ll forgive me for saying so, D’Argo on Farscape and Tyr Anasazi (Keith Hamilton Cobb) on Andromeda both seem to me to represent variations on the Worf calculus These individuals too originate from warrior races. And they are also are vexed by life-forms who don’t share their beliefs, philosophies or warrior code. That’s not to say these characters are cheap knock-offs, only that they extend Worf’s “way of the warrior” dilemma into different frontiers and franchises. In the greatest tradition of the warrior in cult sci-fi tv, they sublimate their nature to work within a team settings. Most of the time, anyway…
The Sontarans on Doctor Who are a highly militaristic race of warriors, and they seem more an overt critique of the warrior trope than Worf, Anasazi or D’Argo. For one thing, the Sontarans are clones, meaning that they appear to lack the full spectrum of human individuality, and they have been at war with their enemy, the Rutans, for close to a 100,000 years.
You’d think, after so long a span, they’d choose to make peace. Especially if they subscribe to Sun Tzu’s axiom (also discussed in TNG’s “The Last Outpost”): “He will triumph who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”
Another unique interpretation of the warrior aesthetic is seen in The Outer Limits episode “Soldier” by Harlan Ellison. Here, a soldier from the future’s training and single-mindedness becomes impossible to overcome. Although he combats his “enemy,” he cannot think in what we might consider human terms. The Fantastic Journey presented a negative depiction of a warrior in an episode “A Dream of Conquest.” There a usurper played by John Saxon wanted to lead an army across the time zones of the Bermuda Triangle, conquering everyone in his path…even though none of the denizens were his enemy. He loved the glory of battle too much…
In the original Battlestar Galactica, the Colonial Warriors were the steadfast heroes. They protected the Twelve Colonies of Man from the Cylon scourge and were finally undone only by a deluded pacifist leader (President Adar) and a traitor, Baltar.
The warriors on Battlestar Galactica ran the full-spectrum of the human experience, showcasing the qualities of loyalty and love we would hope to see evidenced in our own military. The only times when this equation grew muddy was when interaction with civilian government was required. Again and again on the Glen Larson series, in episodes such as “Saga of a Star World” and “Baltar’s Escape” the military viewpoint was held up as right almost a priori, while civilian government was seen as foolish, selfish and even self-destructive. The people of the rag-tag fleet lived under martial law essentially, and self-government by the people was not held up as a virtue.
The remade Battlestar Galacticaof a few years ago adopted a more Top Gun — “I feel the need for speed” — approach to warriors and their aesthetic, showcasing carousing, sex and dissension in the ranks to a degree that shocked fans of the original series.
Additionally, on series such as The X-Files and Smallville, a frequent goal of evil-doers seemed to be the creation of a perfect warrior, a “super soldier” who embodied all of the physical skills of a great warrior, but not the sense of an individual code or moral standard.
The idea here was that warriors – separated from their moral code – would represent even more dangerous adversaries; berserkers able to threaten all of civilization, and operate under the thumb of a maniac like Lex Luthor. On SeaQuest, man engineered “the Daggers,” a race of genetically engineered warriors, in a similar vein.
Another highly notable warrior in sci-fi/fantasy TV history is Xena (Lucy Lawless) from Xena: Warrior Princess (1995 – 2001), who sought redemption for her past misbehavior by defending those in need of defense or help. Again, she demonstrated the finest qualities of the warrior aesthetic, embodying a sense of loyalty and honor in her interactions with the weak and with the evil.