Sci-Fi & Fantasy Puppet Masters

“Pull ze strings! Pull ze strings!”

Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood’s Glen Or Glenda

Puppet masters. They're the shadowy men who pull the strings from behind the scenes – we may think we've got free will, but these guys have bought it all up wholesale. They control what we see, hear and do: in some cases, they even control what we think. And they usually wear sharply-cut dark suits as well. With Men In Black 3 about to hit cinemas, Jayne Nelson investigates other sci-fi string-pullers who operate without our knowledge...

The Observers


Who are they? We know them mainly through a nice chap named September, who seems a little more willing to interact with our world than the rest of his kind. But mostly they're a mass of mysterious, multi-dimensional beings who travel through time to observe important events as they happen, which we must admit we'd do as well if we had the technology (Woodstock! JFK's assassination! The room in which Firefly was cancelled!). However, sometimes the temptation to meddle in those events is a little too strong for them to resist. On the show, one Observer saved Peter's life. If it was us, Firefly would be on season ten by now.

What do they look like? They're completely bald, right down to the eyebrows, and wear suits with perky little hats. They kind of blend into society, but only just – their lack of emotions (even a sense of taste!) is a giveaway that they're a bit different.

Are they working for us or against us? As their names suggest, they're merely observing us. However, recent episodes would imply that they may be planning more sinister things for humanity...

Read our Fringe Season 4 reviews

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau

Who are they? An organisation working on the fringes of society which doesn't like the idea of humanity having “free will”, because they keep using it to do silly things like starting wars and killing each other. So, helpfully, they came up with a special Plan to keep things on the straight and narrow, and make sure that they manipulate events so their Plan shapes up. This is annoying when you're Matt Damon, because you've just fallen in love with Emily Blunt (and she him). You want to stay together, yet the Plan says that's a no-no. It's hard to fight back when the Bureau have special powers to help them, such as the ability to go through a door and travel to another door halfway across Manhattan. Beats catching the bus.

What do they look like? Your average “men in suits”, although rather fond of hats.

Are they working for us or against us? They seem to want the human race to hit certain marks in order to keep society ticking over, but the fact they overlook such simple human responses as “love” marks them out as baddies.

Read our review of The Adjustment Bureau

The Strangers

Dark City

Who are they? They're in charge of reality itself in a city filled with people who have absolutely no clue they exist. They can reshape anything at will and fiddle with humans by meddling with their brains to make them do things they wouldn't normally do (thankfully our hero John Murdoch, played by Rufus Sewell, wakes up before they rewrite him to be a serial killer). The Strangers exist as a form of collective consciousness, which is a bit boring really, so they want to learn from humans how to be individuals ( ).

What do they look like? Creepy, trench-coated Nosferatu-crossed-with-mad-scientist-types. And yes, they also wear hats. What is it with shadowy organisations and their love of hats?

Are they working for us or against us? They're evil space parasites messing with us for a wicked purpose. Boo! Hiss!

The Men In Black

Men In Black

Who are they? An organisation dedicated to keeping knowledge of aliens out of sight of the general public, and to keep said aliens under control at the same time. This usually involves lots of battles, explosions and fabulous gadgets (their brilliant Neuralyser pen ensures humans don't remember seeing little green men even if little green men have almost eaten them). Most of all, it involves Will Smith throwing out quips with all the force of Thor chucking his hammer.

What do they look like? They look cool. Maybe it's the suits. Maybe it's the sunglasses. Maybe it's just the fact that they have cool jobs. But anyway... cool .

Are they working for us or against us? As their slogan says, they protect the Earth against the scum of the universe. We're lucky to have them, even if we don't remember when we bumped into them fighting a Kylothian in Sainsbury's the other day. Er... wait, what were we talking about again?

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The Agents

The Matrix

Who are they? They're AI characters populating the world of the Matrix, usually appearing as pseudo-FBI types with names like Agent Smith or Jones. They have mad skillz which include being able to punch through concrete, fly and – most handily – replicate themselves. They're humourless, all-powerful and absolutely 100% dedicated to eradicating the mainframe of any pesky humans who've woken up in the real world and realised that humanity has been enslaved. Can't be having that, now, can we?

What do they look like? Sunglasses-wearing men in black suits. The kind of guys you'd see standing by the US President during a walkabout, poised to shoot the living crud out of anybody who might look at him funny.

Are they working for us or against us? Their creators are emotionless computers sucking energy from our flesh to use as power. They're “Evil” with such a capital “E” we can't make the font big enough without ruining the layout of this page.

The Silence

Doctor Who

Who are they? Sorry, who?

What do they look like? Who do what look like?

Are they working for us or against us? What do all these marks on my arm mean?

The Monoliths

2001: A Space Odyssey

What are they? Alien recording devices of some sort that seems to appear whenever humanity reaches a new level of evolution, such as discovering how to use something as a tool, or being able to travel from the Earth to the Moon. Could they actually be helping nudge humanity at these points? Or they just intergalactic baby monitors, warning their creators when humanity has grown up enough it might start causing trouble? We get to see three Monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey , but learn from the novel series that there are thousands more around the solar system, watching over us, like all the mysterious men-in-black we've been discussing in this feature, except with stonier faces.

What do they look like? Giant slabs of black something or other, like a gravestone with no engravings, or a domino with no numbers or a flatscreen TV turned on its side. And now you're staring at your TV and wondering what it would look like vertical, aren't you? The monoliths come in different sizes, but they are all the same dimensions: 1x4x9 (Ii is suggested in the novel 2001 that this number series does not stop at three dimensions… so the dimensions could be 1x4x9x16 if they exist in four dimensions). They might look silly in hats, though…

Are they working for us or against us? Both, apparently. In the films it's never made clear, but in his sequel novels Arthur C Clarke became increasingly less vague about the Monoliths’ origins. By 3001: The Final Odyssey, we know that the "Firstborn" (as the humans coin the Monoliths’ creators) both use the Monoliths to encourage life to survive in the universe, but aren’t averse to destroying races they don’t feel are worthy of joining their intergalactic party.

The Syndicate

The X-Files

Who are they? A selection of VIPs and government higher-ups who have worked jolly hard for a very long time to hide the existence of extra-terrestrial life (and related weirdness) from the masses. In other words, they Don't Want You To Believe. They're rich, powerful and have no consciences; they're happy to perform top-secret experiments on innocent people to further their goals. This includes FBI Agent Dana Scully, who was kidnapped by them for nefarious purposes, and Agent Fox Mulder's sister.

What do they look like? Politicians. Or the 1%, if you want to be a bit more topical.

Are they working for us or against us? They made a deal with aliens to save themselves while the rest of us could go to Hell. Luckily they all ended up getting roasted (literally), so justice is served.

Section 31

Star Trek

Who are they? More of a secret police force than true puppet masters, Section 31's actions were autonomous and its existence was neither acknowledged nor denied by Starfleet Command or the Federation Council. It claimed to protect the security interests of the Federation, but most of its agents just seemed to get off on doing morally dodgy things the Federation would never normally condone. As Deep Space Nine’s Odo put it, “The Federation claims to abhor Section 31's tactics, but when they need the dirty work done, they look the other way. It's a tidy little arrangement, wouldn't you say?”

What do they look like? The nearest Star Fleet dress code will allow to dark suit and tie. You just know they want the hats as well…

Are they working for us or against us? Ostensibly for “us” – as a society – but individuals are expendable.

The Builders

The Twilight Zone's “A Matter Of Minutes”

Who are they? We're not quite sure how to explain this when the Twilight Zone episode itself does such a great job – we've posted clips below if you'd rather just watch the entire thing yourself (it's only 17 minutes long and great fun). But here it is, in a nutshell: these guys build reality for us. Literally – with bulldozers and everything, constructing each minute from the ground up so that when we arrive at that particular minute, it's all ready for us. One young couple find out what's behind the scenes of reality when they accidentally slip out of time and discover the building crew at work.

What do they look like? Their supervisor is yellow, while the main body of builders are blue. We think they probably inspired the Blue Man Group.

Are they working for us or against us? Definitely for us. After all, without them, we'd all wake up in the morning and discover reality is nothing more than an empty white space with nothing in it! Brrrrrr.

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