The Worf Effect
Clearly, I have nothing better to do than to write about ancient Star Trek: The Next Generation references. You’re welcome, Nerddom circa 1990!
What is it?
The Worf Effect is the name given for a plot device deployed by writers to demonstrate to an audience the superior strength of an opponent. It’s a quick way to show how dangerous an unknown threat or enemy is by having an established tough-guy character fall or lose to them.
Ever notice that the mortal hero of your favorite fandom starts to appear immortal? Bullets never land. Poisons are cured miraculously, if at the last minute. They get knocked out and tied to some nefarious device, but manage to escape unscathed. Put simply, nothing seems to work. And audiences start to get bored. But before the network pulls the act with a comical, elongated hook, the writers introduce a villain that has the chops to take on your hero and raise the stakes. The only barrier is your hero’s seemingly infallible track record. They can’t topple it without outcry from fans everywhere pointing out the hypocrisy. And that’s why they’ve been quietly cultivating that hardened exterior, but lovable side character’s machismo.
It became common during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation to send Worf into combat situations and have him summarily trounce enemies by the dozen. And he was good at it. But it wasn’t just for funsies, they were establishing a pattern. A pattern of badassery. And that pattern would become the standard by which all enemies on the show were judged. So, when a new, hither-to unknown threat was introduced and he/she quickly disperses with Worf, we go, “Whoa! That dude’s tough!” And achievement unlocked.
Did These Shenanigans Die with TNG?
Au contrare mon frere. It’s ubiquitous. Lots of shows still use this tried-and-true TV trope. For instance, in the show Chuck (NBC), it was John Casey who became the foil against whose mettle enemies were tested. In Revolution(NBC), it’s Miles Matheson’s swordplay and military prowess. In Supernatural (CW), it’s the angel Castiel. If you can knock him out of the equation, it not only makes you look badass, but it also puts a wrench in the Winchester’s “get-out-of-jail free card”. And the list goes on.
So, the next time you’re watching your favorite show and the nerd next to you gripes that their favorite side-hero seems to be kicking a lot of bad guy bootay, just chuckle and say, “Totally. Here comes the Worf Effect.” And watch your nerd cred rise, as they beg you to explain yourself.