Why David Warner is a science fiction legend

ONE of my favourite actors in any genre is the great David Warner.

In his long and distinguised career that includes being the only British actor to play Lear, Falstaff and Hamlet, being decapitated by a sheet of glass in The Omen and acting opposite Bob Dylan , he has built up a massive body of science fiction genre work too.

Did you know for instance that he has played the Doctor in two Big Finish audio plays, appeared as Jor El in Lois and Clark and acted in Avatar (sadly, the 2004 film about cyber identity or something).

Most recently, he was the voice of Lord Azlok in Dreamland, the Doctor Who cartoon.

In celebration of the man who would never be a leading man and who is still – amazingly – to receive any form of recognition such as a MBE or CBE, but who wrote the book on softly-spoken yet chillingly effective villainy, here are my top five David Warner sci-fi roles.

Any guesses?

5. Dr Alfred Necessiter

I love The Man With Two Brains and while it is very much Steve Martin’s show, Warner turns in a typical performance as mad scientist Dr Necessiter, who invents a way of keeping human brains alive in jars.

The high point comes when he offers to transfer the consciousness of Martin’s beloved brain, Anne,  into the body of a gorilla. High brow stuff I know! To buy The Man With Two Brains, click here.

4. Chancellor Gorkon

Warner has a strong link with Star Trek, having appeared in two films and The Next Generation too (more of that later).

You may not remember him as Federation ambassador St John Talbot in the Shatner-directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but it’s ok, no-one else will either in what was a horrible mish mash of bad ideas and even worse ones.

The Undiscovered Country is an altogether classier affair and my second favourite Trek film after Khan. As Klingon chancellor Gorkon, Warner brings real gravitas and dignity to what would have been little more than a cameo in another actor’s hands. To buy Star Trek The Undiscovered Country, click here

3. Jack the Ripper

LIKE Star Trek The Undiscovered Country, Time After Time was directed by Nic Meyer and he encourages another fantastic performance from Warner.

In case you haven’t seen it, Time After Time tells of HG Wells who actually invents a time machine. However his friend John Leslie Stevenson – who is  Jack the Ripper (Warner, natch) – uses it to escape the police and travels to 1970s San Francisco, pursued by Wells.

It is a tremendous film (despite the amazingly low key trailer) and made for Warner to use that patented well spoken psychopath character to portray a charming monster who takes to the modern world like a duck to water. To buy Time After Time, click here.

2. Ed Dillinger / Sark / Master Control Program

With the remake around the corner, Tron is back in the public eye. However my one regret is that David Warner will not be able to appear again in the triple bad guy role owing to his de-ressing and likely arrest in the first film.

Again in a secondary role, he brought menace and cold, calculating evil to every line he uttered in Tron and truly holds the screen – some achievement in a film with such a focus on special effects. To buy Tron, click here.

1. Gul Madred

THERE can be only one and my favourite David Warner role was as the Cardassian interregator Gul Madred in Star Trek The Next Generation double episode, Chain of Command.

In the episode, Picard is captured by the Cardassians on a secret raid and then brutally tortured by Madred, in turns charming and affable then ruthless and vicious.

Rather than asking him for strategic or secret information, he asks Picard to identify the number of lights shining behind him. Although there are four lights, Madred insists that there are five and inflicts pain on Picard when he answers that there are four.

As a final gambit, he tells Picard that the Cardassians have destroyed the Enterprise. He states that Picard will never be released. He offers Picard a choice; either he can continue to be tortured for the duration of his life, or he can live in relative comfort. He must only admit that he sees five lights.

Picard stares at the lights for a few moments. Madred, pressures him to answer, but before Picard can answer his ruse is revealed and Picard turns to him and defiantly yells “There are FOUR lights!”

Considering this must have been a cheap episode to produce – just two men in a room for the most part – it is a wonderful example of what happens when you get two great actors and give them a top class script to go at.

Patrick Stewart and Warner shine and clearly relish the back and fourth between the two characters as they play out their game, with the episode being earily resonant today given all we have heard about waterboarding and the like.

I watched it again a few weeks ago and it took me back to the first time I saw it, 6pm on BBC2 in the late 1980s, more than holding its spellbinding appeal. To buy TNG series six, which includes Chain of Command, click here.

And there we have it – the great David Warner! Do you agree with my choice? And my opinion of Warner’s honoured place in sci-fi history? Comments, as always, are welcome.

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4 thoughts on “Why David Warner is a science fiction legend

  • Nice post! Love the Warner! Heard him on the Film Programme essentially saying that his problem is he has absolutely no quality control and will do anything. Also played a wandering badass in Babylon 5. Didn’t realise he was Gul Madred though!

    If you’ve never heard him in Nebulous (old radio 4 sci fi comedy) you’ll love it. He plays Doctor Klench, the villain to Mark Gatiss’s Professor Nebulous. All series are trouser wettingly funny.

  • Two other top roles: Darkness in Time Bandits, showing a more humourous side; and Eli Levitt in the perennially baffling Wild Palms.

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