Click to viewIn a few centuries, everybody will be a rube. Centuries of in-breeding in deep space will remove everyone's street smarts and turn people seriously gullible. That's the only explanation for why anybody would ever get taken in by some of the grifters you run into in science fiction, who practically have a sign around their neck that says "CON ARTIST!!!" With the three exclamation marks and everything. Here's our round-up of some of the most obvious and least crafty con-men and women in SF.
Harry Mudd from Star Trek is exhibit A for unconvincing future con men. Who exactly is supposed to be fooled by this guy? He practically winks at the camera every time he tells a lie, and with that mustache he's either a villain or a Burning Man hippie — and you really wouldn't want to get mixed up with him either way. He talks like a circus ringmaster, and almost manages to out-ham William Shatner, especially in the episode where he's the slave of a hundred android supermodels. And his scams are way, way too complicated: like he's got a stash of pills that make women irresistibly beautiful, for a while... but he doesn't just sell the pills. Instead, he gives them to not-quite-beautiful women and then sells them as wives. Or he's got a love pill so strong, it even gives Kirk and Spock a tender moment, but he doesn't just sell the formula to it to someone who can mass-produce it.
Ardra tries to con a whole planet into becoming her vassals in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, but Picard totally pwns her. She's basically the classic con artist, using bells and whistles like forcefields and holograms to try and convince the inhabitants of a planet that she's a mythic god/devil figure, who gave the planet a thousand years of peace and prosperity in exchange for total slavery afterwards. But at least she has the best hair of any of these con artists. Love is a battlefield, man.
Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, who's such a weak flim-flam artist that Odo the mopey shapeshifter can see through him. (Odo described Quark in a report as "a self-important con artist who's nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is.") In almost every episode of DS9, Quark has some wacky scam involving fake Betazoid viagra that stops making you empathically sexy after ten minutes. The only person he ever manages to fool is Harry Kim from Voyager — and Harry's got "rube" stamped on his forehead.
Mitch Courtenay in The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. It's a future dystopia where corporations run everything, and the government represents them instead of the citizens. Our hero, Mitch Courtenay, is the highest form of life — an ad executive, whose job it is to hoodwink the citizens into buying vat-grown meat laced with addictive chemicals. Or a one-way trip to the horrendous colony on Venus. Unfortunately, Mitch is sort of a bad con artist because he suffers a crisis of conscience after he gets a taste of how the other half live and falls in with the Consies, aka Conservationists.
Captain Jack Harkness starts out on Doctor Who as a conman, which lasts all of an hour before he starts getting soft and remorseful. He has some way-too-complicated plan to send a space ambulance back in time to World War II, and pretend it's a war ship. And then sell it to the Doctor, but explode it before he realizes it's actually just an ambulance. Between the incredibly overcomplicated plan and getting side-tracked by trying to seduce his marks, Jack dances himself all the way out of his hustle. He should probably just stay out of sales altogether: I can picture him trying to sell you a time share, but sending it back in time to the middle ages and pretending it's actually a hot-air balloon. And then staring at your pants for an hour.
Sabalom Glitz showed up a few times on Doctor Who, and started out as a psychopathic mass-murderer who was willing to wipe out an entire human settlement just to get his hands on some secret treasure that he only dimly understood. And then over his next couple of appearances on the show, he went through the kind of wimpification that usually takes years, even on television. The last time we see him, he's just sort of a cuddly teddy bear who'll try to con you out of your last dime, but means well, really. The Doctor is willing to let his companion, Mel, go off with Glitz without so much as a backward glance. (Although that could be a reflection on Mel, rather than Glitz.) Also, according to the original scripts for some Doctor Who episodes, and some of the novels, the Doctor's other companion Ace lost her virginity to Glitz. So actually maybe he's a pretty good con artist after all.
The Stainless Steel Rat starred in a whole series of novels by Harry Harrison, which I totally ate up when I was a kid. He's a weak con man for a different reason — he's always getting out-conned, mostly by the government's Special Corps, which is always tricking him into doing its dirty work. But apart from that, he's actually quite a slick con-artist, and even manages to connive his way into becoming president of a planetary banana republic in The Stainless Steel Rat For President.
Vala Mal Doran from Stargate SG-1, was originally conceived as a "a former Goa'uld host who now is a scheming, unscrupulous, thieving con artist." When we first meet Vala, she tries to seduce Daniel Jackson and steal the Earth ship Prometheus. The second time we meet her, she slaps alien security bracelets on Daniel and herself, so that they can't get more than about 100 feet apart without dying — maybe not the most elegant hustle you've ever seen. Plus she succumbs to the ultimate con-artist cliche: she falls in love with her mark. Also, it turns out her dad is also a con artist, of whom one reviewer wrote: "Every time the camera hits his face, his expression reveals the snake-oil salesman at the heart of the character. That makes it impossible to accept that anyone would be fooled by him."
Saffron aka Bridget aka Yolanda from Firefly. She's actually one of the better con artists in this round-up, but her schemes are usually way too complicated. She wants to sell Serenity to some bad guys, so she goes to all the trouble of getting herself stuck in a village in the boonies and pretending to be a simple peasant girl, who then gets married off to Mal. And the second time we see her, a crucial flaw of her modus operandi becomes apparent: she marries too many guys, and they're bound to run into each other eventually.
Con-artists from science fiction who aren't actually from the future: Funky Flashman from Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" comics for DC, Sawyer from Lost, and probably a few others I've forgotten. Also, Star Wars takes place in the distant past, not the distant future, so I'll leave out Lando (who I don't remember actually conning anybody, except when he sells out Han and Leia to the Imperials under duress) and Vilmarh Grahrk
Compiling this list has made me realize a couple things about con artists in science fiction: they have totally insane pimp outfits. You usually can't see their feet, which is probably because they're wearing platforms with aquariums in them. And also, if they last more than a little while, they always get afflicted with "heart of gold" syndrome and start getting rolled over by everybody. I blame antidepressants in the future-water.