These days, every science-fiction hero needs to have an origin story — as if they're all superheroes. But some heroes are actually way better off without cookie-cutter origins. Here are 10 classic scifi heroes whose origins should remain mysterious.
There's nothing wrong with a good origin story — especially if it's actually the first thing we learn about a character. Comic book characters get origin stories to set up who they are in an easily identifiable way — not just what their superpowers are, but also why they choose to spend their time dressing up and fighting maniacs. Michael Chabon's Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay does a great job of encapsulating the importance of the origin story to superheroes, the way in which it propels everything that happens after. But here's the thing — and I know this is kind of a mind-blowing concept — but not all heroes are superheroes. And not all heroes need the canned "ordinary guy, had a trauma, fell into vat of radioactive Cream of Wheat" explanation. For some heroes, the standard origin-story is actually diminishing rather than enhancing.
Remember when we didn't know every detail of Captain Kirk's backstory? He was so much cooler back then. Even though we loved J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movie, our main complaint was the way it diminished James Tiberius.
Want to know Captain Kirk's origin, according to original Star Trek? Here it goes: Kirk joined Starfleet, which is a meritocracy, and worked his way up through the ranks until he became the youngest Captain in the service. That's it. And that's really all we need to know, although the tantalizing hints about his childhood on Tarsus IV, his service on the Farragut as a lieutenant, and other details help to flesh him out. By contrast, the movie Kirk is diminished by receiving the classic hero origin. Now we're stuck with a Kirk who was a Rebel Without A Cause who got himself expelled from the Academy, until a father figure talked to him, and gave him a shot, and then he miraculously became Captain overnight. The more we learned about how special he was, the less special he seemed — because he was just like every other movie hero of the past decade. Call him James T. Witwicky.
Actually, Maureen Ryan with the Chicago Tribune put it perfectly the other day, during her Q&A with Lost producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof: "I did not need to know more about Boba Fett. He has a jet pack. He a ship named Slave 1. I don't need to know more than that." (It's amusing that she was speaking those words to Lindelof, one of the architects of the "overexplaining Kirk" movie.)
So here are ten science-fiction heroes that don't have an origin story, and don't freaking need one.
Deckard (Blade Runner):. Let's just sidestep the whole question of whether Deckard is a Replicant, shall we? I'm serious. Because whether you believe Ridley Scott (who insists Deckard is a replicant, and reworked the Director's Cut to bolster that viewpoint) or Harrison Ford (who's pretty sure Deckard's a human) neither answer is an Origin Story. Deckard can be a Replicant, or a human, without us knowing how he became a blade runner, and why he quit doing it, and why he has such an ambivalent relationship with his job and his colleagues. In the movie version — let's leave Dick's vastly different novel out of this — Deckard is sort of the archetypal noir detective, and part of what makes him an archetype is that we don't get told that he is the way he is because his diapers weren't changed enough when he was a baby, or his fifth-grade sweetheart trashed his locker, or what have you. I live in dread that any day now, some movie studio is going to announce a Blade Runner prequel movie, in which we get to see Shia or Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the young Deckard, busting heads and learning about Replicants. The stuff. Of. Nightmares.
Beowulf Schaeffer (Larry Niven's Known Space stories) My memory's quite hazy, but as far as I can recall, when we first meet Schaeffer, he's an out-of-work pilot, who's deeply in debt and easily bamboozled, and then the alien Puppeteers convince him to make a flyby of a dangerous neutron star. We know that he's a Crashlander, hence the albino skin and red eyes, but we never learn that much about how he came to be a washed-up pilot in the first place. And that's totally fine.
Flash Gordon (Flash Gordon): First off, let's all just agree to ignore the recent Syfy series — I suspect even Syfy is happy to pretend it never existed. The original 1930s comic strips don't really give us much background on Steven "Flash" Gordon at all — he's just described as a polo-playing Yale graduate, who's sort of a man of action and winds up going into space. And most versions of the character have followed this template, although the 1980 film turns him into a football quarterback and the 1950s serials made him part of a futuristic bureau of galactic investigation. The main thing is, he's an action hero whose name is "Flash." Danger is his dinner, peril is his pastry, mayhem is his meat and drink, etc. Like the Operative in Dashiell Hammett's classic stories, Flash is just Flash, and his adventures are the most remarkable things about him. That, and the aplomb with which he greets them. Just check out the first ever Flash Gordon strip, via Wikipedia, above.
A-ko (Project A-ko) I watched this anime over a decade ago, but Wikipedia confirms my recollection that we only get weird hints about who A-ko really is, and where her superpowers come from. There are little cheeky clues that her dad is Superman and her mom is Wonder Woman, hence her bracelets and her unstoppable strength, but those are only hints and may just be in-jokes thrown in for the hell of it. Since the whole series is just a collection of in-jokes, including the title which references a Jackie Chan film, the lack of a drawn-out explanation is in keeping with the spirit of the series.
Captain Harlock (Captain Harlock): The rough-and-ready anime space pirate is willing to do whatever it takes to save Earth from decline, alien gods, or interplanetary invaders. Where does Captain Harlock's badassery come from? What's his backstory? We never find out, as far as I know. He's just an awesome space pirate — and isn't that enough?
Molly Millions aka Sally Shears (The Sprawl Trilogy): I forget which of my Twitter friends suggested Molly, but she's a great example. It's been years since I read Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, but Molly stands out as a great mystery and an unholy dispenser of death. Her eyes are vision-improving mirrors, and she has razor-sharp retractable claws under her fingernails. She's the razor, killing without mercy and sparing no compassion for most of the sad souls she encounters. We only encounter random speculation about her origins, although she does mention she worked as a "meat puppet" to pay for her cybernetic upgrades. (Image of Molly by DeadInsane on Deviant Art.)
The Tick (The Tick): Spoooooon! I mean, why would you want to explain the Tick? He's the Tick, the ultimate goofy superhero parody, and somewhat ineffectual do-gooder. Like another Ben Edlund creation, Bad Horse, the Tick is archetypal and stands alone, without any need to fill out his early life. There are hints in the comic that he escaped from a mental institution, but it's best just to think the Tick appeared, fully formed, when we needed him most. Maybe as a manifestation of his Drama Powers, bringing him into existence when the situation demanded — cried out for — it.
Kei and Yuri (Dirty Pair): The Dirty Pair are another set of anime heroes who don't get any huge explanation — and don't need one. They're the trouble-shooters who shoot first and seldom ask questions. Their propensity for leaving a trail of destruction in their wake leads to the "Dirty Pair" moniker. Kei likes to shoot her way into and out of every situation, while Yuri prefers energy whips and deadly playing cards. I think the Adam Warren comics may have explained a bit more of where Kei and Yuri came from, and how their shared telepathy led to their recruitment in the first place, but I tend to ignore those.
The Doctor (Doctor Who): You could argue the Doctor has an origin story. In his very first episode, he describes himself and his grand-daughter Susan as "wanderers in the fourth dimension" and exiles, cut off from their own people. Over time, we learn that the Doctor is a Time Lord, who rejected his mega-powerful race's policy of non-interference in favor of trying to make a difference. So he stole a time machine, a TARDIS, and went on the run. Okay, sure. But the Doctor doesn't have an origin that explains who he was before he ran away, or what his childhood was like. (I'm ignoring the novel Lungbarrow by Marc Platt, which I'm pretty sure isn't canon, and which I have severely mixed feelings about.) The Doctor is one character whom I'm nervous about — we already got a totally ridiculous origin story for the Master (the Roger Delgado version was hearing warlike drums in his head the whole time? The whole time, really?) and now we've apparently met the Doctor's mother in the most recent episode. I'm not opposed to discovering new facets of the Doctor, or even more about where he came from — but we do not need to know who he was before he became The Doctor.
Han Solo (Star Wars): Maybe the Expanded Universe comics or novels have explained to us who Han Solo was before he started flying the Millennium Falcon. I'm not sure. Maybe there's a video game where you play as Baby Han, crawling around in black diapers and a little vest, and fighting baby Stormtroopers. But as far as I know, we've never had an official Han Prequel. And thank goodness. Can you imagine if George had somehow shoe-horned Han into the prequels? If Han Solo's dad had been the pilot on Anakin's star-fighter during the Clone Wars? Maybe someone once told the two-year-old Han Solo not to get cocky, and that's why he tells Luke the same thing in the original Star Wars? Or, I know — what if the baby Han Solo had a stuffed Wookiee toy that he loved a whole lot, and it was taken away from him, and that's why he hangs out with Chewbacca all the time! Just thinking about it is making me break out in hives. Let's just be glad there are a few nooks in the original trilogy that Lucas hasn't tweaked and explained into oblivion... yet.
Thanks to Deric Hughes, Annalee Newitz, Barclay Sylvester, Lun'Esex, Scott Edelman, Espana Sherrif, Joe Gross, Kiala Kazebee, Charles A. Tan, Jason Von Evil, Graeme McMillan, zbohannon, Rus McLaughlin, Patricia White, and anyone else I missed for suggesting some heroes without origin stories.