This post is about the classic scifi archetype of the female villain, the strong-willed determined cunning woman, who ends up turning good. Warning, this will include spoilers.
Perhaps the first example i saw was Princess Ardala of the 80’s Buck Rogers, though i’m not sure if in my childhood i ever caught the finale of season 1 where we finally see the Princess joining forces with Buck against a common enemy.
In many ways she was the main romantic character in the show. While intially there was plenty of romantic tension between Buck and Wilma as the show went on that tended to become less of a focus while it remained a significant sub-plot to the episodes Ardala was in. Though we cannot forget the importance of Wilma as a strong competant woman character through the many versions of Buck Rogers… until season 2 of the 80s alas where she stoped being a strong ray-gun weilding fighter-pilot officer in command of others and became pretty much just bridge crew in a skirt. Ardala didn’t return for season 2 either and the show became more of a buddy-piece with the new character Hawk, but crucially this also followed the villain-turned-hero model, though Hawk wasn’t part of a tyrannical state who learned the value of ethics, rather he was a victim of racist (or speciesist) genocide exacting vengeance on members of the species that killed his people who through Bucks actions learned that there were good people amongst the humans too.. so for it’s flaws season 2 of Buck Rogers does have it’s value.
One thing i liked was the frequency that Princess Ardala changes outfits, often in several different outfits accross the one episode and different outfits each episode she was in which is a fairly significant investment in wardrobe budget for a tv show, but hey, if you are Princess of an all-conquering empire in command of a gigantic battlecruiser filled with the latest in fightercraft wouldn’t you splurge on clothes too? Here’s another of the many outfits.
Another of the 80’s versions of the Evil-Princess-who-turns-good was of course Princess Aura from the 80’s film version of Falsh Gordon
But of course the character of Princess Aura is far from new, so here’s the original 30’s version
This seems heroic, but she’s just trying to get what she wants..
Though eventually she does end up amongst the friends of the heros.. and it’s not because of loving Flash Gordon, rather it’s Prince Barin she ends up with. Again it’s also not just the villainess who turns from villain to hero, the planet Mongo is filled with people at each others throats and out for their own survival and gain but many of them, because of the actions of the Earthlings, learn the value of friendship and do the evil-to-good switch.
And here’s the first film version, note her steely resolve while the man beside her is far less composed.
Also of note in this show is Dale Arden who sure is usualy saved by Flash and co but gets her moments such as in the second film serial Flash Gordons Trip To Mars where not only does she insist on joining the adventure but also at one point she lauches and flies a rocket shooting the enemy on the ground to save Flash and co.
Of course it’s not always Princesses. Rocky Jones faced Queen Cleolanthe, a tyrant who kept her people in controlled ignorance of the wide interstellar world beyond their own planet.
In her last story we get to see her attitude softening in the face of others compassion helping her people escape from total destruction and giving hope that the now homeless people still will have a future.
While none of the few episodes i’ve watched of the 50’s Flash Gordon show so far have this archetype the episode Deadline At Noon tells us much of the way that science fiction was playing a part in the rising equality of women. Halfway through the episode our heros of the far future travel back in time to the time period the show was made in.. and they make a point of discussing the lot of women in that time, really the present day the show was made and broadcast in, as the final punchline in a discussion of the primitive state of the era. Those who’d like to see that scene can skip 13 minutes in on youtube and it can be watched and downloaded here
But my favourite is perhaps back to Princess Aura, but the 70s Animated version. So much so i bought one of the animation cels that the cartoon was made with (actually i bought several from the show but i paid the most for Aura).
Yes this archetype is usualy quite sensual but they aren’t a shrew to be tamed and conquered by the hero the way many strong women have been portrayed as. They are not conquered by the hero, Aura doesn’t end up with Flash, she turns her attention to Prince Barin when he shows how much he cares for her. Ardala remains in command of a battlecruiser, she simply has worked with Buck Rogers and the forces of Earth. Cleolanthe may have lost her planet but not her throne or her people. These women retain their strength and their power.
These days most stories give us villains that are never redeemed, sometimes the heros give them a chance but they refuse and fall to their deaths or otherwise die by their own devices, other times they are portrayed like mad dogs who can only be put down and the hero kills them. It’s rare that instead we get stories that show the possibility of redemption, but truly what victory is more complete, the total destruction of your enemy or having your enemy change their heart and become your friend? As far as i’m concerned that is a much more impressive achievement.