Villains – can’t live with ‘em, can’t enjoy TV without ‘em. Viewership and villainy have a very complicated and co-dependent relationship. A good show uses antagonists to stir up drama and incite violence, putting our main characters in mental and/or physical distress that we can root for them to overcome. A brilliant show uses antagonists to offer metaphors or social commentary and then lets the protagonist triumphantly defeat them. Either way, they are a necessary ingredient in any pop culture recipe.
Villains also happen to be one of the most nostalgic aspects of cult TV. When we think back to our favorite TV shows (and for most of us, that particular memory lane leads straight to the 90s), we revel in recalling that cathartic experience of being afraid of the bad guy. Of watching these monstrous characters come to life and not being able to turn away; fearing if you did, something awful would happen to your hero. But hey, it was all in good fun.
This list looks to the past, seeking to remember all of those antagonists we loved to hate and to remember hating them so fondly. It was a magical time. Science fiction and horror were breaking into the mainstream in a big way and we couldn’t get enough of it. For all the good villains on TV today, we’ll never forget these ones.
15. Glory – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Admittedly, Glory was not a very interesting villain and there isn’t much to her character. The peppy, overly-suburban, inflections in her tone made her a big pill to swallow at times, and she was best in small doses. But as the season’s Big Bad, we actually got a lot of her. Significantly, though, she is one of the very few major female antagonists in TV history. And, as you may recall, she is the only Big Bad that technically defeats Buffy. He entire reason for being is to perform a ritual that will make her infinitely stronger, but she doesn’t need it. Already a God, Glory destroys Buffy in hand to hand combat and Willow’s powerful spells are the only thing that really affects her. Ultimately, the gang strategizes a way to keep her from completing her ritual, rather than killing her. Though Glory doesn’t kill Buffy, it is during this final battle that Buffy is forced to sacrifice herself.
14. Banshee Phoebe – Charmed
Despite the fact that it centered on adults rather than teens, Charmed was always like the little sister of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It followed a similar monster-of-the-week formula, and in the way that monsters on Buffy were always metaphors for issues the characters were facing in their personal life, Charmed always tried to connect monsters to the story. It didn’t do it as well, but it was a lot of fun. The Banshee episode is a stand-out example. In it, Phoebe is consumed by grief and anger over a recent heartbreak, which makes her vulnerable to the cry of a banshee, and eventually turns her into one. She roams the streets, looking for people in grief to become her next victims. With her humanity stripped away, sorrow and anger become her, and the sisters fear they may never get her back. Spoiler alert – they do because that’s what the Charmed ones do; they defeat baddies, one week at a time.
13. Faith – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
As long as we’re on the topic of living in grey areas – Faith; AKA The Bad Slayer. In the same ways that Buffy herself is a subversion of the virginal Final Girl trope, Faith is a subversion of the Sexy Villainess trope. Traditionally, female villains have been set up to fall into one of only two archetypes: the ugly crone, or the sexy vamp. Faith is something of a marvel to watch because she doesn’t use her sexiness as a weapon; rather, her violence makes her feel sexy. She revels in her own power. The thrill of the hunt turns her on, and that turns out to be a skip-the-line ticket to the dark side. In her heyday, she gets quite a bit of blood on her hands. She’s confident, fearless, and captivating. Of course, the nature of the Slayer is not just violent, it’s also the embodiment of good. Eventually, she finds her way back.
12. Callisto – Xena Warrior Princess
Callisto was not just a villain, she was Xena’s arch-nemesis. She wasn’t just trying to get something that Xena was in the way of; she wasn’t just trying to dispose of Xena for some unimportant reason – she was out for bloody, warrior-style revenge. Callisto was a manifestation of Xena’s troubling past coming back to bite her (or slice her with a sword, to be more accurate). Having her entire family slaughtered when she was just a child turned Callisto into a bloodthirsty maniac, and the fact that Xena was responsible for that slaughter only made her a prime target. It’s always more interesting when villains have a sympathetic backstory and a complicated relationship with the hero, and Callisto was no exception.
11. The Vidiians – Star Trek Voyager
We’ve all heard that urban legend – the one about how you’ll get your kidneys stolen and sold on the black market if you go to a second location with a stranger. Well, it’s no surprise that urban legends can inspire the creepiest of monsters. That’s definitely the case here. In Start Trek Voyager, the Vidiians are a race that suffers from a degenerative disease called the Phage. Despite having outstanding medical and transportation technologies, the only way for them to survive is to steal organs. One might expect them to simply save themselves using their advanced scientific knowledge, but that would not provide a venue for the nightmare-inducing story of a super-race stealing organs. That they are villains by necessity is especially scary in the same way a man with nothing to lose is dangerous. The Vidiians were all in (though, they were eventually cured).
10. Alfred Bester – Babylon 5
Part of what made Alfred Bester such an intriguing villain was his perfect one-liners. He is one of those villains that we love to hate, and may forever quote. Not only does he have some of the best lines, he has some of the best powers. Any and all low-level villains in their right minds would be atrociously envious of his super strong mind reading and mind controlling abilities. I mean, really, who wouldn’t develop a superiority complex with skills like that. It’s also what made him so terrifying, though. Categorizing all telepaths as valuable and all “mundanes” is worthless leans way into the realm of the supervillain and settles comfortably in Hitler territory. But even with his dangerous prejudices, Bester was a delight to watch trade insults in his very eloquent and strangely polite manner.
9. Aviva (Kali) – Charmed
Portrayed by iconic Final Girl, Danielle Fisher, Aviva was actually just a confused and lonely teenage girl. I know, snore. But then Kali came along; a low-level demon sorceress looking to get her hands on some of that coveted Charmed magic. She posed as a high priestess and convinced Aviva to gain the trust of the Charmed one to infiltrate their sisterly bond. In the end, she would have sisters, and Kali would have access to their magic. Of course, she wasn’t exactly planning on sharing it. Kali is manipulative and looking for a shortcut to get ahead. Rather than paying her dues at the lower ranks, she’s on a mission to power-up and cheating is not beneath her. Eventually, Aviva realizes she’s being used and teams up with the sisters to take Kali down.
8. Luther Sloan – Star Trek Deep Space Nine
The Section 31 operative, Sloan, was one of those grey-area villains. He wasn’t a straight-up monster, and every choice he made he truly believed to be the right one. Breaking the rules was never an issue for Sloan, because he felt he knew what was best for The Federation. What made him a great villain-type was his ability to disrupt order, to bring the dark side of society into the light – and to make Bashir’s life miserable. Characters who function primarily in shades of grey always make us uncomfortable, because it allows the other characters and the viewers to think about things in a way they may prefer not to. But that’s also what we love about them.
7. Bob – Twin Peaks
Possession is always a sure-fire way to give viewers the chills. That’s why we have such major cinematic successes as The Exorcist, right up to Paranormal Activity. But the use of the demon, Bob, in Twin Peaks never felt like a gimmick. Instead, it was a shocking and acceptable plot-twist in one of TV’s strangest shows of all time. And the reveal was just the beginning. This horror masterpiece was made all the stronger by Bob’s overwhelming presence. As if possessing people to commit heinous crimes wasn’t enough – that laugh. That hysterical shriek that became his signature also became the reason why fans of the show couldn’t help but double-check the dark corners of their homes before settling in for the night. Not that we’ve had enough – the Twin Peaks revival is well underway, expected to launch sometime this year.
6. Slappy, The Living Dummy – Goosebumps
Clown puppets, antique dolls, dummies – these are probably the only inanimate objects that people have legitimate nightmares about. And it’s completely understandable. Even those of us who don’t have deep-seeded fears about these things can admit there’s something uneasy about being alone in a dark room with one. Especially if it’s facing you. Goosebumps capitalized on that universality to the fullest when it put out its unforgettable Night of the Living Dummy episodes. Being a kid in the 1990s, I recall reading the book first, and the tale worked even without the visuals. But once it made it to TV, it’s all the kids at school were talking about. Everyone tried to pretend it hadn’t scared them, but we all looked groggy-eyed from the lack of sleep. Slappy ended up being a recurring villain in the series, and the characters try to kill him in a variety of ways. But he just keeps coming back.
5. Angelus – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
What made Angelus such a memorable villain was not just his sheer brutality, but the emotional impact it carried on the narrative. Becoming evil is a pretty common trope in sci-fi/horror, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also a drama. Angel had been constructed as one of the good guys, someone who could be trusted. When he turned evil, the character not only broke that trust with the other characters but with the viewers too. Angelus was not just mean, he was vicious. He went to extreme lengths to terrorize Buffy and her friends and even murdered Giles’ girlfriend in cold blood. Oh, and he really, really, enjoyed every cruel second of it. Even when he got his soul back and became Angel again, things were never quite the same. There was always the possibility that he could turn into that terrible thing again.
4. Eugene Victor Tooms – The X-Files
Admit it, you just hummed The X-Files theme song. How could you not? It’s one of the most recognizable scores of the 90s, but it was far from the only thing that made it special. The pilot was heavy on the alien theme, dropping lore about Area 51 and using that obscured UFO (the truth is out there), but Episode 3 widened the show’s scope by introducing its first boogeyman. The creep factor was set to high – Mulder and Scully encountered a man who seemed to be able to murder people without leaving a trace of evidence or forced entry. Scariest of all, he seemed to have been doing it for much longer than a man of his apparent age could have. Hitting all the ‘ick’ notes (did we mention the stretchy-lizardness of him?), the episode was a runaway success that officially established The X-Files monster-of-the-week format.
3. Gul Dukat – Star Trek Voyager
Gul Dukat is an evil dictator, who occupies the planet Bajor and enslaves all of its people. He’s pretty awful. In the way of villains, though, he’s perfect: ruthless, uncaring, and authoritarian. And if orchestrating the taking of a planet hostage wasn’t enough, later on, he aligned himself with the Dominion which was itself hell-bent on the galactic takeover. But while the 90s had its fair share of villains, it was also a time that was pretty big on punishment. Gul Dukat got him; in the end, he was imprisoned in the Bajoran fire caves. His character had a huge impact on viewers. He has even seen a resurgence in popularity recently with his Twitter account, @realRealDukat, whereby Trump tweets are reposted as Dukat himself. Oh, topical humor.
2. The Gentlemen – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The episode “Hush” is one of BTVS’s many standout episodes, and one of its highest rated. This is in no small part due to The Gentlemen. People who watched the series growing up can often be found swapping stories about how terrifying these monsters were to them way back then. But what’s amazing is that The Gentlemen are not at all dated and are just as creepy today as ever. Even for demons, these monsters seem uncomfortably inhuman. As they float through the streets with those malevolently wide smiles, you just know they are going to do bad things to people, and enjoy it.
The floating only makes it scarier, but so does the entire atmosphere of the episode. The perfect cinematography takes you through the empty streets of Sunnydale with them, playing eerie melodies in place of dialogue. To top it all off, there’s a haunting nursery rhyme you won’t soon forget.
1. Cigarette Smoking Man – The X-Files
Sometimes called Cancer Man, sometimes called CSM, The Cigarette Smoker Man is simply notorious. As the very first villain of The X-Files (Episode 1.1), he can be credited with kicking off what would become a decade-long fascination with the unknown. He was the perfect way to introduce a show about paranoia, conspiracies, and knowledge. He was himself the very embodiment of 90s paranoia: a sort of mythical figure playing puppet-master in the shadows. What was instantly interesting, was the concept that in a show that seemed to be about aliens and monsters, the biggest villain of all was the man hiding the truth of those things from us. It was the idea upon which The X-Files was built, and the driving force behind its brilliance. Be afraid of the monster in the closet, but be more afraid of Big Brother, who knows it’s there and isn’t telling you.