It’s easy to feel small and unimportant in the world – but if popular culture has taught us anything, it’s that literally anyone can make a difference. Even in movie and TV worlds of Time Lords, dinosaurs and superheroes it’s often the little guy who saves the day, kicks off the action or causes catastrophe.
So with that in mind, we’re speaking up for these silent heroes – here just a few of our favourite “unimportant” characters, who turned out to be extremely important after all.
1. Star Wars’ cautious Imperial Gunner
“Hold your fire – there’s no life forms. It must have short circuited.”
Has any laser-saving decision ever had such far-reaching consequences? The moment in the original Star Wars film when an Imperial officer (named Bolvan according to the Expanded Universe) orders one of his workers not to fire on an escape pod carrying droids C-3PO and R2-D2 ends up kicking off the entire space saga, as well as the eventual end of the Empire.
The droids’ survival means they basically introduce al the main players, kickstart Luke into his life as a Jedi and even directly help the Death Star get blown up. Maybe it would’ve been worth one measly laser bolt, eh?
2. The Winter Soldier’s Helicarrier Hero
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, an evil plot by Hydra sees international spy agency SHIELD’s helicarriers hacked to kill millions of people. Luckily, through a superhuman (in every sense of the word) effort, Captain America (Chris Evans) manages to battle off his brainwashed sidekick Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and shut down the carriers.
However, fans have been quick to point out that Cap’s victory was only possible through the heroism of one ordinary man – a SHIELD technician (played by Aaron Himelstein) who was ordered by Hydra to launch the Helicarriers. Clearly terrified and with a gun to his head, the man refused and a gunfight broke out, delaying Hydra before they could put in an override and launch the helicarriers themselves.
The significance of this becomes clear when you realize that Cap only managed to recover from his fight with Bucky seconds before the helicarriers were about to launch, so if they’d been fired up a few minutes earlier all would have been lost. In other words, that one technician gave Captain America the time he needed to stop the villains.
So like the weedy but eager-to-serve Steve Rogers before he became the star-spangled Avenger, ordinary bravery won the day. And the technician (whose name has since been named as Cameron Klein) was rewarded by an appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron (above), as one of the team picked by Nick Fury to fly an old helicarrier to the heroes’ rescue.
3. Doctor Who’s doomed distress caller
The Time War was a huge deal for Doctor Who, basically reinventing the series for its 2005 revival and becoming a major plot point throughout its modern run, especially in 2013 anniversary special The Day of the Doctor.
But if it wasn’t for a simple pilot who appeared for six minutes in an online-only episode of the series, mostly after her death, the Doctor might not have got involved in the war at all.
We’re of course referring to Cass, a young woman who appears alongside Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor in 2013 mini-episode The Night of the Doctor (below).
Sending a distress signal, Cass is about to be rescued by her crashing spaceship by the Doctor – but upon learning he is a Time Lord, she expresses disgust at the Time War raged between his people and the Daleks, even though the Doctor isn’t involved.
Rather than accept the help of a Time Lord Cass opts for crashing her ship and dying, and her horror at the excesses of the Time War (and some persuasion from the Sisterhood of Karn) inspires the Doctor to regenerate into a more warlike incarnation and try to help his people defeat the Daleks.
And considering the Doctor is largely credited with the war’s end – by sending the Time Lords into a pocket dimension and killing most of the Daleks, as seen in The Day of the Doctor – we’ve probably got Cass to thank that the epic conflict finally ended. Or that the status quo of the modern series existed at all, now we think about it…
4. Jurassic Park’s corporate rival
Cameron Thor’s Lewis Dodgson only appears for a few minutes in the original Jurassic Park film, but it’s his corporate espionage that eventually causes the movie’s chaos and carnage.
Bribing Park employee Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) to steal dinosaur embryos, Dodgson’s scheme results in Nedry disabling nearly all of the park’s security fences to make his escape, which in turn allows the dinosaurs to break out of containment.
All the death and misery traces back to Dodgson – though in fairness, he wasn’t the one who thought a dinosaur zoo would be a good idea.
5. Saving Private Ryan’s letter-opener
This acclaimed war drama from Steven Spielberg saw Tom Hanks set out to bring home Matt Damon’s soldier after his three brothers died – but if it wasn’t for the actions of one typist, Hanks probably would never have set off on his mission.
Typing up condolence letters, the woman – who has no audio lines in the film – notices that she’s written three times to one woman, quickly notifying her superior about the tragic coincidence and inspiring the government to the last son home to his mother. Who said office work didn’t have its rewards?
6. Downton’s Disastrous Duo
Patrick and James Crawley are a couple of characters who we don’t even see (ignoring one possibly-Canadian claimant to one of their identities) in Downton Abbey, but their deaths kicked off the plot of the ITV smash-hit.
If the pair hadn’t gone down with the Titanic in episode 1, distant cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens) would never have been roped in to become the new heir to Downton, and the majority of the series’ action – arguably including his death – would never have happened.
No Matthew-Mary romance, no trouble with the entail, and no baby George. And considering it was Matthew’s inheritance of Lavinia’s money that saved the estate in series three, there might have been no Downton at all…
7. Back to the Future’s Clock Tower Lady
If it wasn’t for one tireless campaigner the original Back to the Future would have seen Michael J Fox’s Marty McFly trapped in 1955 for ever, unable to power his time-travelling DeLorean and return to 1985 and meaning the subsequent sequels would never have happened.
But thanks to the woman in question, who was trying to protect Hill Valley’s iconic broken clock from being repaired by handing out leaflets, Marty knew exactly when and where a bolt of lightning would strike the tower in 1955, providing him with the 1.21 gigawatts necessary to send his time machine shooting back home.
Sometimes it pays to take a leaflet.