Number 17 (Dragonball)

When one thinks “character development” one rarely thinks of Dragonball.  Actually, that’s probably the last thing we think about.  Dragonball is to characterization what High School Musical is to entertainment.  Yeah I went there.

But there are exceptions.  I’d wager…four or five.  Three of them are all villains from the Androids arc: Number 16, Number 17, and Number 18.  Though I will refer to it as the Android saga, I refuse to use the dubbed names because even through GT, the dub perpetuates a big misunderstanding of the androids, more on that later.

Number 16 is often overlooked at just how fast his programming evolves despite the fact that unlike his two surrogate siblings, he is a purely mechanical creation.  For a machine to enter the world with the singular purpose of destroying Goku, and within a matter of only a few days of observing life and nature and relationships deciding that it all has intrinsic worth, is quite remarkable and engages our sympathies.  However Number 16 has his glory moment, and is eventually the spark that triggers Gohan’s ascension and is lost forever.

Number 18 is quite the opposite and the odd man….girl…out in this equation.  Because of her definitive status as a rogue personality (card game references for the win!) she receives a great deal of development, and was one of the few things that the Buu arcs did correctly, was focusing on this fascinating woman.  She doesn’t care about the big picture, she only wants what is here and now.  This changes in GT during the Super 17 arc, but that’s a later post.  Suffice it to say, Number 18 continues the Dragonball tradition of making its rogues, bad guys turned good guys, being the only really engaging characters (the exception to this rule being Mirai Trunks, and probably Mirai Gohan if that counts).

But often lost in the shuffle of androids is Number 17. Of the three “true” androids (though he and Number 18 are technically refitted human beings) he is the weakest, but has the most bold and powerful personality.  Though weaker than Number 18 to a degree he is inferred to possibly be a better fighter technically speaking when it comes to tactics and form.

“Well yes, Anna, minor characters are brought up in shows all the time as MacGuffin, why are we talking about this one?”  Well, for one, this is the first time I ever found my insights and opinions to be different than others (as laid out in my very first, mission statement post) so mostly? We’re here because I want to be.  But beyond that this is a case where I think we have unfairly labeled a character as being in the wrong camp entirely.  Number 17 is often referred to as a villain and I find that to be a gross mis-characterization.

Okay first we have to talk a little bit about why this happened.  The first is the very natural inclination for a good vs. evil fight.  If the Z-Fighters aren’t fighting evil, and they aren’t fighting a tournament, who are they fighting?  A rogue gang of androids who just happen to be designed to fight Goku?  That’s a little too complex for some people, especially fans of Dragonball.  Okay that’s not fair, Dragonball was my first anime and it holds the most sacred place in my heart, yes, DESPITE the awful Vancouver nerf dub, DESPITE the horrible acting of the early Freeza arc, DESPITE the nervous twitching filler, and DESPITE the hundreds of dollars I dumped into my complete box art VHS.

Wait I think I had a point here…oh yes! It is that we feel that anyone against our hero must be a villain.  But in truth the Androids have expressed no real emotion that’s any worse than Vegeta’s constant declarations of “No bitch, I’m killing Kakarot”.  What, does Vegeta get a pass because we know he’s too weak to pull it off, or because Bulma spread for him and created the sexy boy candy that is Trunks with his Saiyan seed?  Well that IS a pretty compelling reason…but I still think it’s unfair to Number 17 who would probably have hot kids too since he seems smarter than hooking with Krillin.  Just…wrong Number 18, so wrong.

A second reason the villain label hits the androids is the dub.  Many subtleties of the original script are lost in translation. Most notably, the labeling difference from artificial human to android.  This doesn’t SOUND important, but it really, really is.  Dr Gero did not create Number 17 and Number 18 out of toasters and stopwatches.  He actually kidnapped two teenagers off the streets to start his organic experimentation, experiments which would later culminate in himself, and later Cell.  However with the way the dub words the characters, all of them, Number 16, Number 17, and Number 18 come off as purely mechanical, when in truth it’s just Number 16 who was created this way.  There are other language barriers that can lead to misunderstandings as English is, for once, more expressive than a foreign language (Japanese) depending on how it’s translated.  Text to text often doesn’t do translation jobs justice because Japanese is much more dependent on context and cultural factors (such as emotional restraint) that ever so slightly alter the meanings of what are, on paper, identical phrases.  Again, this isn’t a lot, but it IS enough to take the grey androids and make them a seemingly darker shade than they should be.

Finally there is a mistake many, many fans make.  This one we cannot blame on studios or licensing or big wigs, but the blame lies solely on ourselves.  That is, we don’t always keep the rules of Dragonball in mind, especially regarding time travel.

Fun fact: Dragonball’s mechanics regarding time travel are actually the most accurate in any media regarding the actual mechanics of time travel as quantum mechanics defines them (as scientists at this point best understand them).  If you think of time as a string, and every action creating a new timeline when different actions are chosen when all actions occur, branching off like a tree’s branches, then time travel would be leaping between the parallel strings, but leaping back on your own time would be impossible, or at the least insanely difficult, because you would theoretically only be able to occupy one space per string.

Okay tangent over.  The point is, we are told outright that Mirai Trunks’ timeline is very different from our Prime timeline.  This is important for two reasons. One, Trunks is the one who gives us most of the exposition regarding the Androids, about how they are monsters and were created by Dr. Gero to destroy.  He describes them as cold and unfeeling, when in the Prime timeline that is clearly NOT true.

Two, many people use the androids presented in History of Trunks as a baseline for the androids in the Prime time.  This is flat out, categorically wrong.  The androids are exactly the same.

Rather than give you dogma to take on faith, I am instead going to just lay out the entirety of the changes Trunks made when he went back in time.  Every reason because, they are inter-related, and the excess data is so miniscule it won’t take up any time at all! Okay go.

First, Trunks battled Freeza, causing the first shift.  This mostly occurred when Goku sat by and watched instead of killing Freeza himself, probably much faster than Trunks did.  Not sure how he still arrived three hours later from Trunks’ historical records…..but that’s not important right now =P  The important point is that, when does the heart virus attack Goku?  During his battle with Number 19, and ONLY once he transforms into a Super Saiyan.  Vegeta even says (in the dub) that Goku should have known better and that transforming would accelerate it.  So we see our first shift, why the heart virus attacks six months early in Trunks’ timeline.  This would imply Goku has the virus beforehand, perhaps he caught it from Yandrar or Namek or even before any of the events transpired and it rested in his system like syphilis for several years (oh god Goku, you whore!).  This actually seems more likely as if he caught it during his space journey, it seems unlikely the doctors from Trunks’ time would have developed a medicine for it, so my money’s on an Earth-bound pathogen of some kind.

Second, are Number 19 and Number 20.  This one is foggy, we’re unsure what went down here.  We see clearly from the exposition in History of Trunks that Vegeta did indeed achieve his Super Saiyan status before the attack, and he is killed, poetically, by Number 18.  But judging from the vast power differences between even Piccolo and Number 20 (which, without the Namek calculations, he might have even been stronger just from his fusion with Nail) Vegeta was clearly far more powerful than Number 19 and Number 20.  It’s possible that the events of the first battle went mostly as depicted in the Prime timeline, just without Goku.  I tend to think this is the accurate one as in both timelines, despite different motivation, the androids attack at near exactly the same time. Almost, not quite. It’s just as likely that Number 19 and Number 20 were products of the timeline changes due to our next reason.

That is the discrepancy in the androids’ power levels, and the existence of Number 16. This is all mostly related to our first difference, that of Goku’s death.  At the end of History of Trunks, Number 17 smiles and tells Trunks “Dr. Gero created us for world domination, but that doesn’t interest us.”  Wait, we know for a fact that isn’t true in the Prime timeline.  Gero created all five of the DragonballZ androids to kill Goku, and in fact Number 17 and Number 18 seem to be the two who acknowledge it’s in their memory, but choose to ignore it.  So Dr. Gero has the same programming skills in both timelines, good to know.  I have a feeling they both run on Apple.

With this single statement we see into Dr. Gero’s mind and motivation.  In Trunks’ future, Dr. Gero was probably well on his way with Number 17 and Number 18, when suddenly he hears that Goku is dead.  Now Dr. Gero has three androids designed to kill a dead man.  Well, with that obstacle out of the way he goes back to his Red Ribbon roots and gets on the world domination thing (insert obligatory “of course” line here).

He probably decommissioned Number 16, who as we saw, was likely a suicide bomber.  Well a suicide android with so much extra brimming technology is counterproductive.  You want your suicide bombs to be simple and mass produced when it’s not for assassination.  Some of those parts were probably refitted to Number 17 and Number 18, and otherwise recycled.  Simialrly, he has no reason to make MORE androids or invent an energy absorbing model like Number 19 or Number 20 (himself) as the energy fighters are no longer a concern.  Like I said, I tend to think he still tried, and still failed miserably with his final two in the red ribbon series, and fell back on Number 17 and Number 18 in desperation.

With the most powerful fighter out of the way in Mirai Trunks’ time, Dr. Gero probably stopped augmenting Number 17 and Number 18.  He probably figured (accurately, it turns out) that they were already way stronger than any opposition they were likely to encounter with Goku dead.  This would be a cause for their massive power increase in the prime timeline.  Constantly insecure about Goku’s power, he probably focused on Number 17 and Number 18, ever upgrading them, right up until the end.  Either that, or he decided to downgrade his two perfect fighters in order to possibly better control them as his private military instead of attack dogs.  Either way it appears it was during this six month period that the androids hatred of humans was added to their personalities, as they clearly don’t feel that way when it comes to the Prime timeline, when they don’t want to fight the Z-fighters and even go out of their way to avoid conflict until Vegeta takes it upon himself to start blowing shit up.  They then display an unusual amount of courtesy by fighting on Vegeta’s terms.  Number 17 doesn’t even hit anyone until Trunks draws his sword and attacks Number 18.  They then suggest that Krillin administer his senzu.  Let’s think about that statement now.  The supposed villains are telling the comic relief hero to save his friends lives before it’s too late.  I mean sure, they aren’t helping, but they warned them, it’s the Z-Fighters’ fault for being fucking stupid (and might I add, dishonorable), and you can’t cure stupid.

The final glitch is Cell, which doesn’t affect much here, but I’ll address it anyway.  Cell comes from a third timeline, as we see Mirai Trunks encounter him for the first time in Free the Future.  It was a timeline where Trunks probably did not go to fight in the grand battle, but instead returned to his time.  It’s also probable he had a few more encounters with the androids before Cell discovered him (though also, the idea that Bulma developed the magic off button is around too).  Similar to how Mirai Gohan was individually far more powerful than either android but beaten by numbers, Trunks could have overpowered the Androids.  Especially if he caught them in a good mood and they decided to “play” with him, not realizing his Saiyan power to grow his power level.  Official numbers currently give us about a 1/3 increase from mortal wounds (such as Vegeta’s leap from 18,000 to 24,000 after his battle on Earth), so Trunks being around 14million at the time of his battle with Freeza and the Androids at around 18million each (Number 18 was at 18.5 I believe, officially), with even one more crippling loss his power would hit just about 18.5mil.  If he survived another, it leaps to almost 24.  At that point, Trunks would have been more than a match for both the androids, as his power was relatively the level he battled Freeza and King Cold (14mil versus 11 and 12mil), and we saw how handily that difference put them to bed.  When Cell arrives he is already that strong and pushes the 40mil mark, so Trunks certainly would not have been a match for him.

Okay, so now that the timeline is out of the way, and we’ve had to reeducate ourselves not to be racist and judgmental (shame on you) I think we pretty much take care of 2/3 of the reasoning behind redeeming Number 17 as a hero, or at the very least a rebel without a cause.  It is important to not hold the Mirai Number 17 against our Prime Number 17.

I’m not taking anything AWAY from History of Trunks.  The androids there are assholes yes, and it is STILL in my top 5 anime movies of all time, even if it is a TV special.  But it’s bad to think of the two sets of androids as synonymous is all I’m saying.


The rest of the evidence is in his personality.  Number 17 is significantly more bold than his siblings, but he is just as compassionate, even if he has trouble expressing it because his memory is mostly empty. Where it shines comes from the way he conducts himself in battle of course.  Number 17 seems to be the series fish out of water, much like Dragonball’s obligatory samurai of the Meiji era.  He treats his opponents with respect and fights them on their terms.  He is obsessed with things being fair, and seems to want to fight, like he is trying to fill a void that he is otherwise unable to fill with combat. He shares a few smiles with Piccolo during their battle, and when Cell does finally kill him (apparently), Number 17 is visibly moved and angered, when Number 16 steps in to save his friend.

I think also in this way Number 17 becomes a tragic character.  He has nothing, as does Number 18, even his programming is a vague, unimportant detail to him.  All he has is fighting, and he watches one by one as the various characters take even that away from him.

Number 17 does survive the Cell saga, contrary to what the dub tries to sell you.  I guess they were trying to be more dramatic, but blunder when we run into him in the Buu arc, where he promptly forces some poor travelers to help Goku form the spirit bomb.

Finally I have to touch on GT.  This is a series pretty much best left to history, swept under the rug, as if it never happened.  I happen to think that the Super 17 arc, however, is up to the standards of the first two series, even surpassing certain arcs (like Namek or Buu or the Red Ribbon Army, yeah I don’t care for that one!).  Too bad that Super 17 is the shortest arc, at only six episodes start to finish.  But what we get is a great payoff for the classic fans (and a cute giggle moment when elder Trunks says “Who are you?” to one of the androids).

Super 17 was a way to salvage GT.  GT was based on Toriyama’s characters, but he had nothing to do with the series proper.  The Baby arc was basically a retelling of the Androids and Buu arcs meshed into one, and frankly, it was boring.  I admit it was nice to see Pilaf show up and wish Goku into a little kid on accident, it was very reminiscent of the Pilaf arc at the very beginning of the series, and for a brief moment you get the impression it will be that same kind of cartoony, comedy adventure story, which the character of Goku can handle as well as the deep drama that came from DragonballZ.  Sadly it turned into a boring scavenger hunt that took itself too seriously to be entertaining for the light hearted Dragonball fans, and the lack of a persistent villain and dynamic hero personalities made it too fluffy for the DBZ fans.
Super 17 tried to save the series, by giving us two things: A trip down nostalgia lane, and a major character payoff we were not expecting.  If the Dragon arc had been more like this, GT might not be remembered as a disgrace like it is today.  The basic plot is that Dr. Gero and Dr. Myuu have teamed up in Hell and made a replica Number 17 that will resonate with the original and can be used to mind control him, and when they fuse, they will form a perfect android.  So basically the Cell arc, only much much sexier.  So Gero and Myuu open the portal to Hell.

First, tearing through all the enemies they’ve defeated before was simply epic.  It was like an extended Apocalymon fight from Digimon, and it was wonderful. But that’s aside from what we wanna look at.

Seeing Dr. Gero and Dr. Myuu working together was actually pretty badass considering what crappy impressions they made as stand alone villains, but together? It was pretty hardcore.  Of course, Dr. Gero is finally man enough to admit programming personalities is not his strong point, and Dr. Myuu acknowledges Dr. Gero’s mastery of robotics.  However, since Myuu is programming the brain and Gero the body, we see the obvious double cross coming from a mile away.  It IS Dr. Gero after all, the man is robotics’ whipping boy.

We see the same themes present in Super 17 that were in the Androids and Cell sagas: Number 17’s desire to be free and independent, his love for his sister, and his desire to, at heart, be a good person, because he feels it was something Dr. Gero stole from him and believes it is his RIGHT to be a nice person.  We see the same pretense for honor and mutual respect in Super 17 that Number 17 had.

And then of course, there’s our dramatic pay off.  Number 17 attacks the town where Krillin, Number 18, and Maron happen to be, and Krillin steps up to defend the innocent, and talk some sense into Number 17. But, this is Krillin, the good guy equivalent of Dr. Gero, and he promptly gets killed.

We then get the first time we have honestly seen Number 18 (Prime) enraged, not just pissed off, but screaming and ready to take her vengeance on her own brother.  All the while Number 17 sits smiling coldly, as with Dr. Gero’s improvements he is some twice as strong as his sister now.  He departs to join with his other copy.

Sadly, as a personality Super 17 isn’t much different from the run of the mill super soldier.  His dialog is average at best, the run of the mill “you do not understand the depth of my power foolish mortal” crap every other fighting cartoon’s ever done.  We see his last shine of humanity when he voluntarily allows himself to be destroyed, and Goku gives us the impression it might have been the one enemy who was indeed more powerful than he.  What I hated though was how much time he spent flipping his hair.  17 IS ALREADY A WET DREAM, HE DOESN’T NEED TO HAIR FLIPPY!

Overall it’s a let down ending to an otherwise great character.  Why don’t you give him a fair hearing next time you see him?


One Response to “Number 17 (Dragonball)”

  1. I’m sorry for the lack of images people, it keeps giving me caption boxes and errors, I’ll keep trying to fix it.

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