We’ve all had bad bosses, counterproductive tasks assigned to us, and moments that challenge or even defeat our faith in people and institutions. But what if they weren’t just wrong or misguided, what if they seem outright insane? An inexhaustible supply of moral dilemmas, psychological thrills, and plot twists can emerge from the powerhouse of a trope that is Mission Control Is Off Its Meds. As TVTropes.org puts it:
“Mission Control has been acting strangely. It's acting like it can't make up its mind whether it loves you or hates you. It gives you orders which, if followed, get you brutally killed. It taunts, belittles, and lies to you. What's going on? You've just encountered Mission Control Is Off Its Meds. . .
This trope covers any subject that could be Mission Control, but is clearly insane, clearly evil, or otherwise not nearly as good at aiding the character as it should be. Compare Treacherous Quest Giver, where the person giving you directions does not have your best interests at heart; Stop Helping Me!, which is annoying or unhelpful, but not intentionally so. When used in video games, Mission Control Is Off Its Meds can be considered a variant of Unreliable Narrator or Lemony Narrator. More extreme and surreal variants (such as the page quote) can dip into Word Salad Horror.”
As with many tropes on TVTropes.org, I take a bit more of an expansive view. I think this trope can have great utility to a writer and provide suspense in a bunch of different flavors. To that end, I have three different potential variants of this wonderfully tangled Mission Control Is Off Its Meds trope.
1. Captive Audience. The most obvious type is when a character or group of characters finds themselves captured by and/or under the control of a clearly malevolent force or institution. Usually one that can kill them or worse (sometimes a loved one is threatened as well) if they disobey. The intent or plan of this puppeteer is unveiled slowly over time, with the characters always looking for a way out as they become further entangled in whatever plot is unfolding. Building tension and suspense, this can be milked for a lot. It can especially become thrilling as the endgame approaches. While posing interesting questions of morality about how far someone is willing to go along with evil in order to spare themselves or their loved ones, this form of the trope often robs the characters of agency by necessity and can stunt their development. That’s interesting in its own way, promoting Sartre’s idea of “monstrous freedom,” but can feel claustrophobic and limiting if not done well.
2. Questionable Choices. Another can be a fakeout version of this trope, where a leader or authority figure that the characters obey displays hints of insanity or, at the very least, proposes questionable courses of action that leave the characters wondering whether he/she/it might be a few croissants shy of a continental breakfast. In these sorts of stories, the characters mostly follow the authority figure hoping it will all work out while harboring doubts about the gathering darkness around them. Most importantly, they follow willingly. Building suspense and a mystery over whether a fearless leader might be something more sinister, it can also pose questions of loyalty to the characters and gives them a little more agency than the Captive Audience scenario as they choose whether to remain loyal or not. Often, these choices say a lot about the types of people they are. Ideally, the authority figure will continue to do things that both extinguish and inflame the doubts of the other characters, keeping them and the audience off-balance. The questions these stories raise can easily relate to religious faith, groupthink, politics, and more, which can give the writer and the reader excellent jumping off points to think about broader social and moral issues.
3. Betrayal. This, to me, remains the most powerful version of the trope. The most thrilling can be one where the protagonist, often a loyal servant or subject, is following masters that it slowly realizes are corrupt and/or insane. This can have the effect of turning a plot inside out and producing an array of fun plot twists and paranoia as the protagonist wonders who they can trust and if they’ve been doing evil the whole time while dutifully carrying out their orders. The protagonist then must decide what to do. Often, if they decide to do the right thing, they’ll be turned against others who haven’t seen what they’ve seen and may still believe. It’s easy to see how this can morph into both 1. and 2., but it often gives the main character or group of characters the greatest agency of all as they must decide whether to continue their loyalty or turn their backs on an authority or leader that’s no longer legitimate. Aside from the obvious benefits of providing fodder for plot twists, this form of the trope can lead to a lot of pathos and character development as people begin to question their beliefs and react to being betrayed by something they revered.
My Top Five Mission Controls Who Forgot to Take Their Meds
1. Kinpatsu Sakamochi, Battle Royale. Pretty much as captive as a captive audience gets. A bunch of middle schoolers hijacked and forced to murder each other on an island, all at the hands of Kinpatsu Sakamochi, a psychotic authority figure who embodies all the merciless tendencies of the totalitarian government he serves. The children have no choice but to go along with his insane game, which has a grander scale and a thinner, more perverse justification behind it than even The Hunger Games do (though President Snow and his minions are great examples of this too). Particularly disturbing are his constant efforts to up the violence and bloodshed. Thankfully a handful of plucky children figure out a way to disrupt his scheme in the end.
2. Wilford, Snowpiercer. To the survivors of Snowpiercer’s world, all is controlled by the hidden Mr. Wilford and his glorious engine. In addition, they’re stuck forever in his mammoth train’s rigid caste system. The only alternative is to die in the lifeless ice wastes the earth has become. When those on the bottom of the rung start to rebel against the passengers in first class, they begin a surreal and allegorical journey through this post-apocalyptic train. They immediately begin to realize two things. Wilford, a living god in their world who seems to control everything, may be pulling their strings even more powerfully and deviously than they thought; also, Wilford and his vision for the future is seriously cracked.
3. Mr. House in Fallout: New Vegas. The game Fallout: New Vegas has plenty of crazy people you can follow, empower, kill, or supplant based on your proclivities. Of all of these, I found Mr. House the most compelling. A man who kept Vegas alive after a nuclear apocalypse, House has no shortage of plans, ideas, and ingenuity. Based off Howard Hughes (except more obsessed with armed robots and computers than aviation) he imagines an independent Vegas not subject to the whim of the incompetent New California Republic and the brutal Caesar’s Legion. If you agree to serve him, he sends you on increasingly ruthless errands. He, of course, would be Vegas’ new master. It’s a shame he’s a complete megalomaniac and wants you to kill off everyone who would stand in his way or pose any kind of threat. Some of these people House wants you to eliminate and alienate are the most sympathetic and interesting characters in the game. Mr. House’s insanity is in his paranoia and narcissism, even if his vision is far from the worst endgame available. As you proceed to carry out his agenda, knowing there are far worse ways things could play out, moral dilemma after moral dilemma surfaces and some of the rot underneath begins to expose itself.
4. Bishopry Militant, The God Engines. The God Engines is a weird novella, as any novella about people traveling around in a starship powered by a deity would be. It combines a parade of fantasy and science fiction elements together. It also has a fantastic plot twist to it that I do not want to spoil. Captain Tephe, the protagonist, begins the story as a faithful servant of the Bishopry Militant, the guiding force in this universe. He’s captain of a ship powered by one of these God Engines, and he’s sent as an emissary to an alien world in order to spread the Bishopry Militant’s word and convert its people. The one directive he’s given: don’t listen to the treacherous God Engine of his ship. Ultimately, Tephe has trouble avoiding the temptation, and what he sees and learns turns his entire world inside out and leaves him with a series of dire choices.
5. HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” A moment where hard sci-fi turned to sci-fi horror. Amid this parable about humanity and its tools, HAL 9000’s murderous turn is often what people think of most when they imagine AI turning on humans. Without HAL 9000, there would’ve been no Skynet. Considering HAL’s near-absolute control over all of the spaceship’s systems, including life support, things immediately got deadly for Dave and his fellow astronauts. Seeing HAL so carefully tend to Dave and his fellow astronauts as a member of the crew and then his reversal is a chilling reminder of how easy it is for one objective: to protect the mission, can become the ultimate override.