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"...in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself... [I]n all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions."
—The Iron Law of Bureaucracy, as formulated by Jerry Pournelle
This guy is the ultimate pencil pusher from a government agency, and he creates the red tape that normal citizens hate. He's an unlikeable Punch Clock Villain with a bad temper and a sizable streak of callousness. Works for any and all bureaucracies, including Department of Child Disservices, banks and possibly even your own afterlife. His job, storywise, is to get in the way of whatever the heroes need to do, sometimes because what the heroes are doing is against some form of regulations, but other times because the character is a Jerkass who just doesn't like the heroes and is using "regulations" to make their lives difficult. In disaster movies and other works that lack a real villain, expect this guy to be the work's resident Hate Sink.
Sometimes he can be restored to humanity by uncovering the secret dream buried deep beneath his efficient exterior. Failing that, you may be able to use his respect for Exact Wordsagainst him.
On the other hand, sometimes he is obstructing a Matter of Life and Death. Threat of force, or actual force, may be needed to get by him. A common cause of Divided We Fall. Many a surreptitious entry into, or exit from, a location, or requisition of supplies, is needed because it would take too long to get by him. Almost all this form-filling out serves no useful purpose; for the hero to put in a list that will allow him access to a facility, for instance, is a very rare subversion. Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy (see above) is always in effect.
Rarely, in a Matter of Life and Death, a benevolent Obstructive Bureaucrat will go and obstruct the villain. He may actively devise regulations to impede and hinder him, and then, with the same mindless fervor as any other bureaucrat, insist on their being followed to the letter.
The tropes: Beleaguered Bureaucrat, Department of Child Disservices, and Social Services Does Not Exist; overlap since they all involve the same problems. The employees are often overworked, underpaid, lack resources, and suffer the public’s wrath. They then turn into the Obstructive Bureaucrat and use Bothering by the Book to slow down the workload or get revenge on the people who make unreasonable demands.
This trope also has a darker version, where the character is still a government employee concerned with the bottom line, but what he does in daily work probably violates the Geneva Convention. He is likely to be a murderer and/or a torturer who defends himself by saying "I'm just doing my job". In short, he is a Well-Intentioned Extremist whose overriding motivation is being Employee of the Month.
Note that this is not the same as the Knight Templar, another type of Well-Intentioned Extremist. The Knight Templar does horrible things for some greater good, whereas the Obstructive Bureaucrat has no concept of "greater good", and cares only about following procedure, or rather believes that procedure is equivalent to the "greater good". He's not just prone to Just Following Orders: as long as the orders match the rules he thinks it's his job to enforce and follow, Just Following Orders is what he is all about. In another sense, where the Knight Templar is the extreme leader, the Obstructive Bureaucrat is the extreme follower.
If he has no idea that the job he's doing is evil, he may be a Clueless Deputy. This sort of Obstructive Bureaucrat can be drawn into a Heel-Face Turn or Freak Out more readily than one who does know and just feels it's none of his business (a fella's gotta eat)...
For a character who isn't so much obstructive as much as overworked, see Beleaguered Bureaucrat. For a bureaucrat who can actually get things done, see Badass Bureaucrat. For a civil servant who's outright crooked, see Corrupt Bureaucrat.
In the US, this character can also be a member of Congress (usually a senator) who is investigating the heroes.
This type of character is also known as a "jobsworth" in British slang, named for their tendency to deny a perfectly reasonable request with "That's more than my job's worth."
This species might easily proliferate around a Vestigial Empire.
See also The Barnum
These characters tend towards Lawful Neutral, usually Lawful Stupid and sometimes Lawful Evil. Usually tends to be a subtrope of Villainy-Free Villain.
Examples of the humorous version
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The bureaucrat from the Disney comic "Cosmic Confrontation" originally sneaked up aboard Gyro's rocket to check how many laws it violated, but when the rocket came face-to-face with a squad of giant alien constructor workers out to destroy Earth to make room for a space highway, he proceeds to use his bureaucracy to drive them away and save Earth.
In Judge Dredd, Mega-City One has the Bureau of Creative Bureaucracy. Its motto is "Saving Money For The City By Making Things Difficult For You!"
In Ghostbusters, minor EPA official Walter Peck (played to perfection by William Atherton) had the unmitigated gall to arrest the Ghostbusters for causing an explosion that he himself was responsible for when he ordered, in front of multiple witnesses, that the ghost-containment grid be shut down, despite repeated warnings that would be disastrous.
In a deleted scene, as Gozer the Gozerian was wreaking havoc, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was smashing up the city and the End Of The World was quite seriously nigh, Peck's response was to grab a fleeing police officer and order him to go up to arrest the Ghostbusters for "going too far". Said officer's response, not unreasonably, was "You go and arrest them!"
Atherton played the part to such perfection that he had a serious problem with being typecast for a while afterward; not that no one thought he could play anything other than an Obstructive Bureaucrat, but that no one liked him, period. He does, fittingly, reprise the role in Ghostbusters: The Videogame, which suggests that Peck is actually a subversion, a Gozer cultist who knows full-well how absurd his behavior is, and is doing it intentionally to stop the Ghostbusters from opposing Gozer. Though by the end, this is revealed to be a Red Herring, as he's just an Unwitting Pawn.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Albert Nimziki in Independence Day. He knowingly concealed the fact that the aliens had visited Earth before, even after they became hostile and any information would have been immensely helpful. He only admits it after the first failed attack and David's father draws attention to the supposed "myth" of the Roswell crash. He wants to continue nuking the aliens even after the first attempt proves that their shields can resist the bombs. Then he has the gall to insist that David's plan, which he had demonstrated could actually work, is a bad idea and tries to talk the President out of it. At this point, the President gets tired of his crap and fires him.
Gilbert Huph, Insuricare Middle Manager from The Incredibles. His job is explicitly to see that Every. Single. Claim., no matter how valid or dire that is made against Insuricare is denied. He sees his clients as his stockholders, openly chafes at laws that protect policyholders, and mocks a man Bob sees getting mugged and beaten. He's such a loathsome character that it's a minor Crowning Moment of Awesome when Bob hurls him through several walls.
Played for Laughs in Spider-Man 2, where Bruce Campbell, as a live-theater usher, prevents Peter Parker from attending Mary-Jane's show because he's late... and then prevents him from questioning the decision because there's no talking during the performance.
Disney's Mulan had Chi Fu, a government official appointed to oversee the training of the batch of recruits Mulan ended up with, who seemed to positively delight in documenting Shang's failures and the general ragtag nature of the unit in training, would have gotten Mulan killed had Shang not owed her his life, and proved to be an incredible ninny when not on duty. Though to his credit, he also seemed quite pleased when Shang or the unit actually met his unfairly high standards, and possessed enough intellectual integrity to recognize when following the rules simply wasn't possible or when The Book didn't really have anything to say about the situation.
It's also worth noting that Chi Fu was apparently suspicious that Shang received his position out of family connections, rather than any actual ability (Shang was a brilliant student in military training, but had no field experience). That'd explain his overly rigorous training standards for Shang's squad, at least.
Galloway from Transformers insults and looks down on the Autobots, and even on Lennox, Epps and the other troops who support the Autobots. Threatens the Autobots with banishment from Earth, though it's never mentioned that he could only legally banish them from the US.
In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the Zissou expedition is forced by their creditors to take on a "bond company stooge", and Steve immediately assumes he's going to be this. It's subverted when he turns out to be an decent, inoffensive guy, and Steve ends up mounting a rescue when he gets kidnapped by Ruthless Modern Pirates.
In The Brother From Another Planet, such a bureaucrat bothers the title fugitive alien, than later on has a heroic moment when she thwarts the two bounty hunters who are after him.
Arthur Brooks in Big Daddy appears to be this; however, his "victim" is a Jerkass who deserves to be taught a lesson by the government, so Brooks is instead an example of Good Is Not Nice.
District 9 features a rare Obstructive Bureaucrat protagonist in the (initially) cowardly and weak-willed Wikus van de Merwe, who is put in charge of the relocation of several thousand fugitive aliens from one slum to another, even worse. He's something of a deconstruction, as he's a very realistic and complex character who shows that behind even the most obstructive of bureaucrats, there's still a human being — most likely an unhappy one in search of validation.
The Vogons from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are a Planet of Hats of Obstructive Bureaucrats. The Guide describes them by saying "A Vogon would not lift a finger to save his own grandmother from the Ravenous Bug-blatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, lost, found, queried, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighter."
The movie plays it up when the Heart of Gold makes a Hyperspeed Escape from the Vogon armada. Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz turns to a subordinate and asks if the criminals they're pursuing filled out the proper paperwork to do this. The subordinate is shocked to find out that they did not. Later on, Arthur, Ford, and Zaphod fill out a release form for Trillian, who is about to be executed, only to be told that, since Zaphod is the President of the Galaxy, he has to submit a Presidential Release Form. Jeltz, who is all too eager to execute Trillian is instantly pacified when he receives the release form and orders her freed.
Hogfather : A traditional Obstructive Bureaucrat appears when Susan is searching for the Tooth Fairy. Although he doesn't actually obstruct Susan by demanding forms and procedure, he does obstruct her by incessantly Wangsting about his rather boring life instead of answering her questions. Susan describes him as a very small, very weak bully, who couldn't find anyone smaller or weaker than him to bully and so took to making people's lives just that little bit more difficult.
Soul Music: Mr. Clete of the Musicians' Guild, is a nastier version, taking genuine pleasure in the suffering of those ensnared in red tape.
Thief of Time and Hogfather both feature a group of entities known as "The Auditors." The Auditors are in charge of ensuring that rocks fall in accordance with the laws of gravity, and that light does not travel any faster than it is supposed to. They love neat, predictable objects. They despise life because it is inherently unpredictable and disorderly, and they especially despise sentient life. Thus, Thief and Hogfather both focus on plots by the Auditors to destroy humanity to keep the paperwork neat.
Frank Herbert's ConSentiency universe has the "Bureau of Sabotage", whose job is to create or destroy red tape. However, BuSab obstructs the government to protect individual rights (when governments become too efficient, bad stuff occurs). Instead of paper work, the Bureau employs some rather humorous sabotage to get the job done. Jorj X. McKie, saboteur extraordinary and protagonist, subverts the trope by speeding up a meeting in one story, as well as being sensitive to the alien cultures he works with.
In Larry Niven's Inferno, the protagonist, Carpenter, finds himself in (a very Dante-like) Hell and in need to some togas to escape. Finally getting to the administrative center of Hell, he puts in a requisition for the garments and is handed a two foot tall stack of forms to complete and a single pencil. When he points out that a single pencil will never last to complete all the forms, he is told to improvise and his attention is directed to another guy nearby who is working on his own stack of forms. His pencil has been worn down to a nub and he is using a ripped out fingernail and his own blood to complete the forms.
In his youth, the only expression of strength and personal vengeance the mouse-like narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground could hope for was by playing this trope.
Catch-22 has a number of obstructive bureaucrats. Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen is a notable one — he's just a mail clerk, but has become one of the most powerful men in the military because he can simply throw away any orders he doesn't like.
There's also a deadlier version in the air units commander. Although never made clear why he seems to have a personal grudge against all his men and refuses to allow any pilots, or bomber crew, to return home. He specifically mentions that the U.S. Army Air Corps requires a pilot to be given some time off after 25 missions but uses an oddly worded rule, which is meant to be used in extreme circumstances, to extend the limit to first 50, 60 then 70 missions. For those unaware, a bomber crew member was likely to get injured or killed within 30 missions. He was essentially trying to kill everyone who joined his command.
The original rule of 25 missions was set to give the average crew about a 50/50 chance of surviving to completion. As survival odds went up, so did the required missions. The commander is just more enthuiastic about it.
In Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, the Senses Taker insists that Milo, Tock, and the Humbug fill out stacks of forms. Then he takes their senses, trapping them in illusions. Alas for him, the gift of laughter Milo received means he can not take their senses of humor, and they can escape.
In Lois McMaster Bujold's The Warrior's Apprentice the Barrayaran embassy on Beta Colony maintains a bureaucratic black hole into which Betans who have grievances against Barrayaran citizens will be "swallowed up in an endless möbius loop of files, forms, and reports, kept especially for such occasions by the extremely competent staff. The forms included some particularly creative ones that had to be round-tripped on the six-week journey back to Barrayar itself, and were guaranteed to be sent back several times for minor errors in execution. ... 'It works great with Betans — they're perfectly happy, because all the time they think they're doing something to you.'"
In Ellis Parker Butler's short story "Pigs is Pigs", red tape in the railroad business combined with a clerk's poor grasp of taxonomy (on the grounds that "pigs is pigs", he insists on charging a customer the larger shipment rate for livestock, rather than the cheaper rate for domestic pets, for a pair of guinea pigs) leads to the clerk's railway station being overrun by thousands of guinea pigs by the time the debate is sorted out... and by that time, the customer had moved away without leaving a forwarding address.
Little Dorritt by Charles Dickens has the Circumlocution Office, which is entirely made up of obstructive bureaucrats. A fair number of said bureaucrats are from the same family, the Barnacles.
The Bible: In the Book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon complains of the suffering caused by corrupt magistrates. Ecclesiastes is Older Than Feudalism.
The Leaky Establishment by David Langford: This is how the Nuclear Utilisation Technology Centre operates. While it's supposedly their job to create and maintain Britain's Independent Deterrent, that's a long term goal, whereas the Public Relations Committee meet every Tuesday, and therefore the minutes of the last meeting have to be done now. Scientists are frequently disturbed by Security men wishing to check that "valuable equipment" (cheap pocket calculators and ancient slide-rules) are still in the office and haven't been taken home, and the security measures at the front gate seem to be there purely to inconvenience people because that makes things look secure. However, since many of the scientists are rather sceptical about the nuclear deterrent they tend to the view that, while these things are hugely inconvenient for them personally, at least it stops them from actually making weapons, which is probably a good thing. (This situation is, of course, nothing like the real-world Atomic Weapons Establishment, where Langford worked for five years.)
Parodied in one of the M.Y.T.H. Inc novels. The perspective characters are trying to sabotage an army. They end up in charge of a supply depot, which they hope to use for this purpose by deliberately screwing up 10% of all supply requests. They are thwarted by Obstructive Bureaucrats in an unusual way: First, they categorically refuse to use the horrifically convoluted official record-keeping procedures, inventing their own, just because they don't want to deal with the paperwork, making the processing once requisitions get to them much faster. Second, because of the long delays caused by the bureaucrats in getting the requisitions to the supply depots, the 'accidental' mistakes often improved things (Like sending summer-weight uniforms to a unit that requested winter-weight uniforms and vice versa, not realizing that the units in question had since been redeployed to areas with warmer or colder climates). As a result, their sabotage made their depot the most efficient facility in the army.
In Derek Robinson's novels of the British military air forces in both world wars, the military bureaucracy gets a well-deserved Take That!
In War Story, the adjutant (Executive Officer), charged with keeping the squadron in essential stores, is a corrupt gambling addict at the end of a chain of corruption. As a result the airmen are on basic rations with no coal for heating as the officer charged with providing food and warmth has gambled it away. The situation is only resolved with a change of personnel and a barter system, based on food parcels containing sought-after luxury items sent by rich relatives of affluent officers. The old Adjutant is demoted and sent to a penal regiment, whose ex-con soldiers kill him when they discover he's gambled away their rum ration.
In Goshawk Squadron, an officious senior officer is humbled by Wooley and forced to provide the sort of luxuries only issued to General Staff officers far behind the front lines.
In A Piece of Cake, half the squadron's aircraft are grounded for want of essential spare parts. An unhelpful stres depot will not issue them unless the correct paperwork is filled in properly. The squadron does not have the official forms to requisition spare parts. The Air Ministry maintain these have been sent out and you're not getting any more. A new CO mounts an armed raid on the deopt and takes what he needs at gunpoint. The enraged bureaucrat catches up with the squadron in France and threatens court-martials. A killer pilot is sent to strafe his car to destruction, which is later blamed on the Luftwaffe.
And of course there is the vexing issue of the pilots' pay... (See under Derek Robinson)
In The Pale King, The Author's Foreword includes a lengthy description of all the legal issues that went along with the creation of the book. Pretty much everything involving David Foster Wallace's entry into the IRS, with the sole exception of Leonard Stecyk.
The horrendously complex and ultimately bungled wrongful death lawsuit after Chris Fogle's father dies.
After his experience in Advanced Tax class, Chris tries to make up for his mistakes by going to the dean and begging for a chance to salvage his college career. The dean laughs in his face.
In the Star Trek novel Death Count, the Enterprise is plagued with efficiency experts who don't quite get the distinction between rules and practice, and particularly have it in for Chekov. This is summarily resolved when two of them are murdered by an on-board saboteur, and the third is so grateful to Chekov for saving his life that he gives him a glowing report.
In David Brin's Uplift universe, there is an entire race of these beings. In the Uplift Storm trilogy, we find that some of them escaped to avoid being molded into them. By the end, one of those ones returned to the main civilization, to introduce them to Hawaiian shirts, boats, and rowing songs. The effect is marvelous.
In Isaac Asimov's short story "Blind Alley", a seemingly fussy bureaucrat, Loodun Antyok, manages to free an alien species kept under observation, all the while making sure he comes up smelling like roses.
In the Paladin of Shadows series, obstructive bureaucrats (particularly US government ones) are occasional roadblocks to the Keldara doing their jobs. However, since their boss is personal friends with the President of the United States, the bureaucrats don't remain obstructive for very long.
Almost all of the staff of the Laundry except field agents are obstructive bureaucrats that are more concerned with matrix management, powerpoint presentations and paperclip audits than with the things the Laundry is supposed to do, like saving the world from Eldritch Abominations. The only aversion is Angleton, who stands at a weird position between Affably Evil and Reasonable Authority Figureand that is because he secretly is an extremely powerful demon. It seems nothing short of being the Eater of Souls can prevent the Laundry bureaucracy from turning you into a mindless cubicle drone.
Live Action TV
The Pertwee era of Doctor Who is littered with these guys. They often show up, briefcase in hand, to slow down UNIT proceedings and the Doctor has to verbally bitchslap them down before he can get anything done.
Horatio Chinn, in "The Claws of Axos" episode, is one of these.
However the Fourth Doctor eventually works out how to handle them by pointing out that the latest alien invasion would, if successful, "mean the end of everything, even your pension!" The civil servant looks suitably aghast.
In "Paradise Towers," the police organization is hilarious, insisting on using their long designations every single time they needed to address anyone, and quoting the rule book every single time they did anything.
Even once he becomes a good guy Woolsey, uniquely, remains a bureaucrat. In fact he gets a few CMOA out of his skills as a lawyer and underhanded politician.
Senator Kinsey also counts. In his first appearance he tries to get the Stargate Program shut down, under the guise that it's a money pit and exposes the Earth to unnecessary dangers. While he's right, the fact that he's trying to take on a more advanced race with regular weapons and believes God wouldn't let them lose is what cements him as this trope. Later on, he's shown to be working with a Government Conspiracy that wants to handle interplanetary relations their way, accusing the SGC of being "too soft". This includes them slaughtering millions of Jaffa, not caring whether the planets they attack are home to Free Jaffa or Jaffa that serve the Goa'uld, thus tacking on "hypocrite" to the above (which he also justifies by citing the Bible).
Kinsey's actions, even as part of a conspiracy, are absolutely ungodly stupid. They seem to believe that they could defeat the Goa'uld by stealing certain pieces of alien technology from the Tolan, Tok'ra, and even Asgard and Ancient tech. They never seem to consider that without the help of these guys, especially the Asgard, Earth would have been conquered, glassed and/or shattered by at least a dozen different bad guys.
There's also the fact that his initial objection about exposing Earth to alien threats ignores the fact that you can't put the genie back in the bottle. Earth had already been exposed to the Goa'uld, and shutting down the Stargate program wouldn't make them go away or ignore Earth. It would just require them to take (very slightly) longer to attack using spaceships (a point made by Col. O'Neill in the pilot and during the episode in question). Which they do. The very next episode. Understandably, after the shit had barely missed the fan, the rest of the government told Kinsey to put a sock in it and overruled him.
Camile Wray of Stargate Universe, given her status as a member of the IOA. Of course, she is also trying to take over the ship, so she's the darker variant. She gets better after things have settled down.
The entire IOA counts as this. After watching enough of Stargate Atlantis, you would think the only decisions they make is to put the blame on whoever else they can.
The Stargate Verse sort of has a revolving door of them. Either like Woolsey, they see what's going on and become more reasonable over the years, or like Kinsey, they get worse and get into a much more antagonistic role than just being the guy whose turn it is to say "the SGC is costing too much money" this year. Either way, this means it's time to bring in the next and start the cycle again.
In the American version of The Office, Michael Scott definitely thinks Toby Flenderson qualifies as one of these. Toby is actually a much more sympathetic character than Michael gives him credit for, even to the point of Woobiefication to some viewers.
The central premise of the Amy Poehler comedy Parks and Recreation is the Inversion of this trope. Poehler's character, Leslie Knope, is a naively optimistic bureaucrat who cares for the people of her small town and is seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one else does.
Ron Swanson picked up the Obstructive Bureaucrat ball and ran with it. Namely because he's a Straw Capitalist / Libertarian who thinks government programs like parks should be abolished in favor of children spending their time at private, for-profit entertainment outfits like Chuck E. Cheese.
April is technically just a secretary to bureaucrats, but in matters concerning her job, she makes it her mission to do as close to nothing as humanly possible.
Quatermass II: During The Infiltration these oppose the scientist hero's attempts to uncover the truth about the Alien Invasion. Some oppose the hero out of petty authoritarianism, others because they're possessed by aliens, and others interestingly enough help the hero because as experienced members of the system they realise something 'odd' is happening. One of the latter even lampshades this trope.
Fowler: "Quatermass, we've had dealings for a number of years. You as a driving force of an enterprise of the future; I as one of the obstructive civil servants you have to contend with."
Otto Palindrome from Quark, who often sends Quark on various garbage picking missions.
This trope occurs enough times in Gavin and Stacey that one has to wonder whether the creators have been on the receiving end of this trope in Real Life once too often.
In Spaced, Daisy Steiner does not have a good time in the Job Centre: "No, this is the A-b form, you need the A-B form, capital B." The clerk responds to any question with a simpering smile and an inane, "I'm sorry, I don't understand." — although this is partly because Daisy's making a transparent attempt to claim benefits for the period she spent on holiday in Asia and the clerk, whilst definitely an example of this trope, has clocked exactly what she's up to. Tim Bisley, on the other hand, has a rather different experience, being fast-tracked through the system thanks to a shared difference of opinion regarding The Phantom Menace.
In Nickelodeon's TV show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, the younger Pete befriends Clothing Inspector #27, who proceeds to make the entire neighborhood rule mongers equal to himself. Finally defeated when Pete challenges him to an eating contest of barbeque chicken. Inspector 27 finishes every bit of meat on his chicken without getting a bit of sauce on his hands or clothes. Only to be reminded by Dad "You're supposed to get dirty eating chicken." Causing Clothing Inspector 27 to realize the error of his ways, and not be such a perfectionist.
Dean and Sam from Supernatural meet quite a few of these in their Monster of the Week scenarios, but are very, very good at getting round them. Mostly because they have a seemingly limitless supply of fake identification.
As a matter of fact, pretty much the entire British civil service is portrayed as such in those series.
On the other hand, you do see their perspective on things—though the writer clearly disagrees, the Civil Service seems to genuinely believe that it knows what's best for the country, and Humphrey himself is hardly a one-dimensional character. He actually gets a fair number of sympathetic moments in. In the end, you see that they're still Obstructive Bureaucrats, but also see that there's a kind of twisted method to their obstructiveness. And the (very) few times when the goals of the politicians matched theirs, their efficiency is deadly.
There are also times when Minister Hacker successfully adopted Humphrey's methods with devastating effect, such as the time he arranged for a 'good will' visit of British troops...to a country that had just had a surprise invasion.
24always had one in there to get in the way of stopping a terrorist attack. The most memorable of which being Ryan Chappelle in the first three seasons, who essentially was an insufferable pain in the ass that got in Jack's way everywhere he went, yet had arguably the most emotionally-jarring death of the series.
Briefly subverted on Day 5 by Lynn McGill. When Jack (who had been in hiding for two years) uses an out-of-date distress code, McGill is the only one anal and methodical enough to recognize and research it, thereby saving the day. Of course, after that brief moment, he reverts to playing this trope completely straight, eventually crossing into Tyrant Takes the Helm territory.
This trope is the premise of the Austrian show MA 2412, with the Obstructive Bureaucrats as protagonists.
One episode of Andromeda involved a world with extremely strict bureaucratic procedures. Interacting with them gave Tyr a lovely line (which the audience likely agrees with) after listening to a message summed up as "You don't have an appointment, please hold" for the umpteenth time:
Tyr: (deadpan) ... Now can we blow them up?
Followed by this exchange:
Beka Valentine: What if I told you we have 40 missile tubes locked on your capital city, ready to fire if I don't get some straight answers?
Clerk: (calmly) You'd still need an appointment.
JAG: In the season eight episode "Need To Know", the CIA Director and his attorney tries to block the Navy's attempt to declassify material relating to a secret joint Navy-CIA submarine mission in 1968 in which the sub sank near the Soviet coastlline.
A frequent visitor on Barney Miller. Often it's the higher-ups in the department, or the gleefully malicious Scanlan of Internal Affairs, but there are many officials from the state and federal government who get drawn into whatever crazy case is going on.
The 'song' "LAMC" by Tool, chronicling one man's lone and futile struggle against the automatic telephone response system of the Los Angeles Municipal Court.
In Paranoia, red tape is one of the many perils of life in Alpha Complex: for example, Troubleshooters might be forced to fill out Personal Authorized Handmounted Firearm Requisition Application Forms (in triplicate) to get laser guns so they can defend themselves from a horde of rampaging mutants.
While being shot at by said mutants, no less.
Source materials encourage this, even suggesting a GM may send forms other than what players requested and then execute them for treason if they fail to fill them out correctly or protest that they got the wrong ones.
Another favorite: the equipment they need is available at their clearance level for once, but the requisition form for said equipment isn't. Or, for experimental equipment, the instructions aren't.
In the Dungeons & DragonsPlanescape setting, modrons are a race of Lawful Stupid semi-mechanical beings. They are very close to Hive Mind when working with other modrons but tend to turn into obstructive bureaucrats whenever they interact with other species. Like Vogons, they can easily push it to the lethal extreme.
There are two uses for the Bureaucracy skill and its related Charms in Exalted. One is to evade these characters. The other is to become one. With the Charms, you can magically aid your obstructions to be nearly insurmountable.
The Vilani Imperium in Traveller is a Vestigial Empire composed of these. They were completely incapable of running the war against the Terrans because of this. Interestingly, they were deliberately designed this way to ensure that the Imperium ran on autopilot and had as little disorder as possible. As there hadn't been a real enemy for thousands of years, it made sense in its day.
Dominion. In this early-Renaissance-themed deck-building card game, the Bureaucrat is an Attack card that forces everyone else to move some useless-in-game cards (which are sort of like deeds to lands) to the top of their decks. These cards therefore take up space in one's hand for two turns in a row, and the Bureaucrat player gets a shiny coin for his trouble.
In the Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game Dark Heresy, one of the locations described is the "Scrivener's System" of Prol, an entire solar system filled almost completely with Obstructive Bureaucrats. There is literally a civil war brewing in the Prol system because they're running out of places to store all the paperwork.
Not that they are always competent. Entire planets are lost because of misplaced paper work or rounding errors. The Tau, on the other, hand, avert this with the Water Caste. Their job is to make everything run better, not worse, and they tend to be good at that job.
In The Spoils CCG, a number of cards from the Banker trade are bureaucrats created from the reanimated corpses of those who died in debt. They must pay back their debts to their lenders (a process one card implies takes roughly 500 years), and are mostly used a pencil-pushers to deal with the poor and undesirables the bank has no interest in lending money to, drowning them under mountains of paperwork. Mechanically, their function is to tie up the opponent's resources (for example, depleting their Character cards to no effect). One card's flavor text sums up the experience rather aptly: "Could I please speak to a living person?"
William Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. The jailor wonders whether he should let Paula bring the newborn princess out of jail.
Gaol.: Madam, if't please the queen to send the babe, I know not what I shall incur to pass it, Having no warrant. Paula: You need not fear it, sir: The child was prisoner to the womb, and is By law and process of great nature thence Freed and enfranchis'd; not a party to The anger of the king, nor guilty of, If, any be, the trespass of the queen.
The Stellar Patrol in the Infocom games Planetfall and Stationfall administers an enormous galaxy-wide bureaucracy. Your mission at the start of Stationfall is to pick up a supply of Request for Stellar Patrol Issue Regulation Black Form Binders Request Form Forms.
In Magical Starsign, the Space Police have an absurdly obstructive bureaucracy, as your party discovers when they ask them for help finding their missing teacher, and are redirected through dozens of different departments before finally getting a meeting with the local lieutenant, only to find out that the Space Police have a policy of obstructing people asking for their help in order to keep their officers safe.
The text adventure game Bureaucracy is all about this. In the course of trying to sort out a snafu caused by a change of address, the main character must confront not only obstructive bureaucrats, but a tribe of cannibals, an antisocial hacker, and an angry llama, all while trying to avoid getting so stressed out they have a fatal aneurysm.
Though the bureaucrats themselves are never actually seen, the Peacekeeper faction in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri has such extensive bureaucracy that it gives them an automatic penalty to efficiency.
Go through anyone's mind in Psychonauts and you will find hundreds of these guys running around Censoring thoughts that should not be there. Normally, this is vital to the mental health of whoever owns the brain. But consider, technically you're not supposed to be in there either.
In Freefall, Mr. Kornada and the Mayor both qualify as these.
Protocol Officer Quine of Starslip is a humorous examination of the default characterization of these characters: when he's introduced, he sounds like a typical regulations lawyer who is unceremoniously killed in his first away mission. Then we are introduced to his personal resurrection machine (that creates a clone of him and transfers his consciousness to it whenever he dies) and he gradually starts morphing into a Butt Monkey who is just trying to do his job surrounded by people who openly insult him for no reason other than the fact that he's the only guy willing to apply regulations on what is ostensibly a military vessel and often getting killed in the process. The pinnacle of this was a recent storyline where he used his machine to "single handedly" (in other words, going through a lot of dead clones) to take back the Paradigm from hijackers and saving the lives of the rest of the crew...only for Vanderbeam to berate him for taking too long and giving all the credit to his dead clones. Poor guy.
He ultimately turns out to be a good guy when he is confronted with just how corrupt the government really is. Even then, he is slightly conflicted about breaking laws. Then his wife points out that the government's leadership is betraying the founding principles of the government, so Quine's "insubordination" is actually nothing of the sort.
Hermes Conrad, and various other agents of the Central Bureaucracy, from Futurama. They even have a neat pseudo-Villain Song about it in "How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back".
Hermes: (singing) When push comes to shove, you gotta do what you love, even if it's not a good idea!
"What he loves" is being an Obstructive Bureaucrat and dealing with his Obstructive Bureaucracy.
Nicely summed up by the leader of the Central Bureaucracy in this line:
Number 1.0: Don't quote me regulations! I co-chaired the committee that reviewed the recommendation to revise the color of the book that regulation's in. We kept it grey!
Number 1.0: Guards! Bring me the forms I need to fill out to have her taken away!
Vice-Principal Bone from Doug was one of these characters. He had a seemingly never-ending list of rules for student behavior that made it almost impossible to do anything that wasn't against the rules somehow. In one episode, Doug daydreams of himself as his superhero alter-ego Quailman, who battles "The Rulemeister", a Control Freak that looks and sounds exactly like Mr. Bone, and who is eventually defeated by being trapped in his own rules. Mr. Bone catches him and grabs his comic away, causing Doug to point out that "No grabbing other people's comic books" is one of his rules, and manages to convince Mr. Bone to let him and the other kids out of detention. In another episode, Quailman battles the "Robo-Bones", robot versions of Mr. Bone. Rather than trapping Bone with his own rules as in the previous example, Doug uses the "Secret Dream" version of escape by convincing the Robo-Bones to become a professional yodeling troupe.
In the Astérix film The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, the eighth task is to find Permit A-38 in "The House That Drives You Mad", an office full of Roman bureaucrats. After getting the runaround for a bit, Asterix turns the tables on the bureaucrats by tricking them into looking for a bogus form, and after the place is in total disarray, they give him permit A-38 just to get rid of him.
Darkwing Duck sometimes works with an Interpol-like spy organization called SHUSH. One SHUSH bureaucrat, a Russian bear named Vladimir Goodenov Grizzlikov, loathes Darkwing and his unpredictable methods; Grizzlikov treats his agency's manual as if it were his Bible. (By contrast, Darkwing's immediate supervisor is too impressed by Darkwing's excellent track record to object to his unorthodox techniques.) Subverted in "The Darkwing Squad", in which SHUSH retrains a team of agents to fight crime in Darkwing's anarchic style ... and the squad eventually triumphs by following the book.
Joo Dee from Avatar: The Last Airbender plays this part when she makes the Gaang wait through weeks-long processes to post "Lost Bison" posters or talk to the Earth King about the invasion. She's really under Long Feng's order to prevent them from doing anything. Also, there was a bureaucrat literally obstructing the Gaang and others at the ferry in Full Moon Bay. The Earth Kingdom in general and Ba Sing Se in particular is depicted as symptomatically bureaucratic, much like the ancient China that pretty much codified the concept of bureaucracy in Real Life.
Alien X obstructs itself. The most powerful being in the universe, capable of altering reality... and its two halves are still in a meeting deciding whether or not they should save the dinosaurs.
The first appearance of the Pixies on The Fairly Oddparents had them taking over Fairy World. They immediately implemented a long paperwork system for granting wishes that it was nearly impossible to get any wish approved.
Disney's Recess has Menlo, who's en route to becoming one of these guys and has already, through unfailing adherence to the rules, attained a highly trusted position within the school. He's usually the one who plays this role toward the other kids, e.g., administering the quiz on lice. The gang in general reacts quite negatively toward his legalism, although in one episode they are shocked to discover that Menlo and T.J. used to be inseparable best friends, but grew apart, some time before the gang got started - and both still have fond feelings for each other, despite the rivalry. It gives a bit of humanity to the kid.
An example of how strict he is: Gus and Mikey were standing in line with their permission slips for an excursion, but when they finally got to the front of the line, Menlo pointed out it was a few seconds past the due time. He seemed to find the fact that there was a line irrelevant.
As the Chief Officer of Rules and Regulations, Shika of Maryoku Yummy lives to enforce the rules, and nothing makes him happier than filling out forms.
Dilbert's Bob Bastard, the test engineer who NEVER aproves anything, and enjoys destroying people's dreams and emotionally and financially abusing women.
Examples of life-and-death matters:
In Archie Comics' Sonic The Hedghog, Hamlin becomes this once he's elected to the Council of Acorn, mostly out of spite toward the Freedom Fighters for having made him a member of the rarely-used backup unit. He uses his position to attempt to make it hard for the Freedom Fighters to act, and is the only one to vote to punish Sally for leading an urgent mission against orders not to (though, granted, he likely wouldn't have been the only one if Sally hadn't threatened to become an Obstructive Bureaucrat herself).
Alien. Ellen Ripley quotes "24 hours for decontamination" regulations rather than allow Kane to enter the Nostromo for treatment. Of course, she turns out to be right, but by making her appear unsympathetic the movie conceals her eventual role as the hero.
A more straight-up application of the trope is the board of inquiry in Aliens. Again this is used to mislead the audience, as the only member who expresses sympathy towards Ripley is Carter Burke, hiding his role as the villain.
Mr. Andrews in Alien³. When Ripley tells him about the Alien he won't help her and confines her to sickbay, because he finds her story very implausible and he has a much simpler explanation for the recent deaths.
Dirty Harry had one per film. Not as evident in the first film, where he is mostly just chewed out for his methods, Lt. Briggs in Magnum Force is the Big Bad, Captain McKay in The Enforcer is portrayed as completely incompetent (leading to an ending where he pleads with the terrorists to release the mayor after Harry has dealt with them) and in later films, they want him to ouright retire.
Oblivion2013: Victoria is a much more obedient to mission control than Jack. She refuses to go down to the planet with him, and believes everything mission control says - even ratting him out by saying they are no longer a good team.
In Pacific Rim the world council shelves the Jaeger project after the Kaiju start adapting, instead choosing to focus on the coastal wall project. When a Kaiju effortlessly destroys one such wall, riots ensue.
Live Action TV
On C.H.A.O.S Director Higgins is this to the ODS team and his goal is to have the ODS team disbanded. His obstruction can result in someone dying or a dangerous criminal or terrorist getting away. However, his actions are often justified by the fact that acting on unconfirmed intelligence from dubious sources can result in the deaths of innocents and a PR nightmare for the CIA. Once he approves a mission he will give it his full support and do everything he can to keep his agents safe.
Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev is presented this way in most of her appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation and DS9. Her involvement in the Cardassian DMZ crisis, if not actually outright caused by her, certainly aggravated the situation.
In Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Necropolis, an official tries to stop Soric and his fellow refugees from seeking shelter and medical attention when they are actually being shelled. When one of his guards shoots one of the refugees, they charge and kill them to get through.
"Do you understand what a State of Emergency is, old man?" said Bownome. "Understand? I'm gakking living it!" Soric blurted.
In Sabbat Martyr, an official objects to Criid's opening an abandoned building to shelter children in the cold. She refuses to evict them.
In the same novel, the Ghosts were barred from using their flamers by the planetary government. This was partly because most of the city was built out of wood, but mostly because the use of flamers was reserved for their own elite forces.
It's The Guns of Tanith that takes this Up to Eleven as the book opens to a pair of Ghost sergeants trying to requisition the proper ammo, since the lagsun packs they were issued were the wrong size, but the munitorum adept's only response is "Size 5 is the standard pattern". The exchange ends with one of the Ghosts threatening to kill the adept if he says "standard pattern" one more time.
In Terry Pratchett's Nightwatch, Vimes refused to hand over people to the Unmentionables without a receipt. And proof of ID from the man who signed it. He insists that it is regulations — though regulations that had not been enforced before due to watchmen being scared. This stops them for a while, as no member of the Unmentionables wants to have his name connected to what they do to people. And asking for proof of ID made sense since the Unmentionable who initially signed for the prisoners did so with the name "Henry the Hamster" and Vimes, quite reasonably, pointed out that he'd look a bit silly if he went back to his captain with that on a receipt.
In Men at Arms, Mayonnaise Quirke of the Day Watch has completely screwed things up, leading to a riot. When a Day Watch officer arrives at the Watch House for help, Carrot first points out they've been relieved of duty, and then asks him a series of questions. Based on the answers he announces that, according to the Laws and Ordinances of Ankh-Morpork, the "Citizen's Militia" is now in control of everything. The Citizen's Militia consists of the Night Watch and whoever else they felt like recruiting.
The Small Back Room the novel (later film) by Nigel Balchin details the internal struggles of a team of World War II scientists/public servants who are the embodiment of this trope. The team spends its time working on an anti-tank weapon that is theoretically efficient but has little practical field value. The protagonist is a decent yet weak man who fails to take the tough steps needed to improve matters, while his Manipulative Bastard friend delights in deposing those whom he's deemed incompetent, but ends up putting an even more incompetent man in charge of the team.
Vice-Chancellor Nesselrode is portrayed as this in The Death of the Vazir Mukhtar; he seems more funny at first, but his decisions, based on the high political considerations of avoiding all and any possible turbulence, could easily be fatal for some of his subordinates ( and end up being fatal for the Russian mission in Persia).
Cornelius Fudge of Harry Potter proves to be this. He primarily acts as headpiece for the Ministry with recommendations from Malfoy and other respected individuals deciding his actions rather than his own opinions. However, unlike his Undersecretary who is decidedly evil, Fudge simply wants to stay in control, and he seems to know that any disturbance in the peace would see him quickly ousted. As such, he refused to review the case of Sirius Black or accept Voldemort's return in order to maintain the status quo.
In Star Trek: Gemworld, there's Tangre Bertoran, and indeed most of the Jeptah (as the government elite maintaining Gemworld's environment are called). In contrast to most of the “normal” folk encountered on Gemworld (who tend to be pleasant and welcoming enough), the Jeptah - and Bertoran in particular - resent the presence of anyone trying to actually help rather than blindly follow the rules, and complicate plans to save the planet considerably.
As with in the humorous section, the New Testament of the Bible frequently painted the Pharisees as antagonists in this vein. It seems that one of Jesus's main purposes in coming back, aside from His sacrifice, was to clarify some very literal and twisted interpretations of Old Testament commandments. The Pharisees tried several times to catch Him in a logical contradiction using Hebraic code.
I, Robot: In "The Evitable Conflict", Stephen Byerley, Co ordinator of the Earth, suspects someone is sabotaging the Machines, powerful robots that advice the best decision to humanity, endangering the peace and stability of the entire planet. He asks for help investigating this from the four Vice Co ordinators of the four regions in that Earth is divided. All dismiss the idea and none helps Byerley, insisting they are doing their jobs well. Justified, because The Machines already control humanity and they will never let anyone capable of initiating an investigation have the job.
"They all minimize the state of affairs." [Byerley's] voice was low. "Is it not easy to imagine that they all laugh at me?"
Near the end of The X-Files novel Ground Zero by Kevin J. Anderson, Mulder, Scully and four civilians are stranded on a boat far out in the Pacific Ocean. Mulder tries to call for help on his cell phone, finally reaching a tracking station whose operator tells him to get off the line because this is a restricted number. Even when Mulder says that he's making an emergency distress call, the operator tells him that he shouldn't be on this frequency and to "try the appropriate contact numbers." Mulder then suggests that they send someone out to arrest him for misusing the number. The tracking station does eventually send help, but still...
In Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Triumph, when McCandless is handed a warrant for Sharpe's arrest, he asks how he spells his name — with or without a "e" — tampers with the warrant so that it says "Sharp" and refuses to hand over the wrong man. When Hakeswill says the ink ran, he loftily declares that obviously it was corrected.
The British Navy in the Horatio Hornblower books is sometimes worse than Napoleon. In Lieutenant Hornblower, they rescind his uncomfirmed promotion due to the Peace of Amiens and then put him under complete pay stoppage until he's "repaid" the commander's salary he drew during that time—while he's furloughed in London in the middle of winter. He has to pawn most of his possessions and become a professional whist player to survive. In Hotspur, the supplies office gets on his case for using what they deem is too much shot, powder, and cordage while at serious blockade work for months, but Cornwallis fortunately has his back there.
In StarCraft, Aldaris sends a fleet to Char, the planet that Tassadar was stranded on. To arrest him for, in short; disobeying orders and not purifying the infected Terran planets, not returning to Auir to be punished, demoted, and maybe executed; attempting to help his race and home world by allying with the Nerazim; whom the Conclave had exiled for "heretical powers born of darkness", and not returning to Auir after his ship was destroyed and he was marooned. The entire Conclave likely fits this trope, although Aldaris is the only Judicator you meet. Also, the Confederacy when they arrested James Raynor for "destruction of Confederate property". The destroyed property? Infested Terran bases that were making more infested Terrans.
The last example actually makes sense later on; the real reason Raynor was arrested was for disrupting the progress of the Zerg on Mar Sara. The Confederacy WANTED to let the Zerg run free as a sort of sick "weapons test".
There's also Rannadril Ghan Swa Fulsoom Karaten Narr Eadi Bel Anoleis, who as the administrator of Port Hanshan on Noveria, sits halfway between this and Corrupt Corporate Executive. Fortunately, you can acquire evidence of his corruption (demanding large kickbacks from corporate interests who want to operate on Noveria to the point that it is damaging profits for Noveria as a whole) and get him arrested or killed.
Shepard can threaten to get Illium's own obstructive bureaucracy involved in Mass Effect 2 when trying to convince a Synthetic Insights representative to buy a contract for an "indentured servant". The representative is extremely quick to take up the contract because they don't want the bureaucracy to get involved.
Halo 4 has Captain Andrew Del Rio. When his ship is dragged into a Forerunner Shield World, his first impulse is to do whatever it takes to flee. Despite the fact that the Master Chief warns him about the danger posed by the Didact, Del Rio focuses on leaving Requiem. While he has some legitimate concerns (regarding Cortana's Rampancy), he is completely dismissive of a soldier whose entire lifie was defined by protecting humanity (going so far as to flippantly respond to the Chief asking for intel about a combat zone he was being sent to), as well as his own officers. His refusal to try and interdict the Didact allows the Forerunner to retrieve the Composer and wipe out an entire city with it, before the Master Chief managed to stop him. Del Rio, meanwhile, ended up thrown in the brig for his treatment of the Chief.
Pink Elephants being no where near as charming in Real Life as in fiction, Theodore Dalrymple tried to wrestle with them because of it:
Indeed, I have known such patients dive through windows of the upper stories of my hospital in order, as they supposed, to escape the monsters, or enemies, who pursued or were attacking them. (Interestingly, it has proved difficult to persuade the hospital administration that such patients should be nursed on the ground floor as a precautionary measure, suggesting a subliminal death wish, though not on the part of the patients.)
This was such a problem in the militaries of ancient China that Sun Tzu addressed it in The Art of War. His favored tactic - which the annotations also ascribe to other great generals - was to ignore the bureaucracy and if the bureaucrat became too obstructive, execute him.
Examples of the dark version:
Anime & Manga
Captain William Sutherland, a member of the Earth Forces' General Staff in Mobile Suit Gundam SEED. During his initial appearances he interrogates the crew of the Archangel about the alleged improprieties in voyage, transfers the crewmembers he views as politically reliable to other assignments, than puts in motion a plan that will get not only the remaining Archangel crew, but also most of the Earth Forces' Eurasian allies killed off. He's later revealed to be The Dragon to Blue Cosmos leader Muruta Azrael, and in his own banal, pencil-pushing way, a major mover and shaker behind the plan to exterminate all of the Coordinators. A truly reprehensible, if dull personality.
Cecilia Irene of The Plot To Assassinate Gihren is a cross between this and Sexy Secretary. An attractive, efficent young woman, Cecelia is Gihren Zabi's keeper of the keys. She takes care of administrative trivia, acts as his liason to the high-command, and arranges assassinations, political crackdowns, arrests, and other black operations that the brass won't touch.
In the Ravnica: City of Guilds set of Magic: The Gathering, the Azorius Senate can be seen as an entire guild of such characters. Just look at the cards Droning Bureaucrats and Minister of Impediments. Naturally, the guild's cards lend themselves well to stalling and control strategies. The Guild Charter of Ravnica explicitly states that the purpose of the Azorius Senate is to make the most complex and confusing laws possible.
"Where much work is done to make sure nothing is accomplished." - flavor text for Prahv, headquarters for the Azorius.
"...and you must also apply for an application license, file documents 136(iv) and 22-C and -D in triplicate, pay all requisite fees, request a ..." - flavor text for Droning Bureaucrats
In 'Ravnica' fluff, Orzhov are shown to be more or less the same - a massive obfusticating bureaucracy, but this being black, partially staffed by the undead - adding a whole new meaning to the idiom ' corporate zombie '.
This is pretty much the modus operandi for a good portion of White's cards. Being the color of light and law, (though notnecessarily good,) White has no trouble using the Long Arm of The Law to strangle you to death. Of course, since the military falls under the technical definition of "law," they're just as likely to strangle you the old-fashioned way as well.
Parodied with Bureaucracy, an Unglued card where the bureaucratese is not only in the flavor text but in the entire text of what the card does.
If there is ever a need for an insufferable jackass with a load of red tape in the Marvel Universe, expect to see another appearance by Henry Peter Gyrich. He spent decades being a massive pain in the ass of superhero teams, particularly the Avengers, before Crisis Crossover events such as Civil War and Secret Invasion pushed him into Knight Templar territory.
He's even beyond that. His actions during Avengers: The Initiative (cloning a teenage soldier and using him to cover up a training death) clearly cross the Moral Event Horizon. He's the only comic book character where "basic human decency" is an Informed Attribute. Everyone goes out of their way to say he's not a villain, while Gyrich's actions would say otherwise.
In a related example, in the climactic issue of Rom Spaceknight, he attempts to use the weapon that just defeated the Dire Wraiths to strip every super-being on Earth of their powers. No country on Marvel Earth has any law forbidding the possession of super-powers (though the US had tried to pass similar legislations - and failed), and Gyrich has no judicial authority at all.
Hilariously enough, at one point, he was almost redeemed. During the Geoff Johns run around '03, Gyrich even managed to have a somewhat friendly relationship with Falcon and the two of them working together discovered that the US Secretary of Defense was the Red Skull in disguise, which was instrumental in trying to fight the Skull's plan to cover the US in a flesh-eating virus and use the attack to start WWIII by blaming Wakanda for it. Aaaaaand then Gyrich promptly dropped off the Moral Event Horizon himself only about three years later with his aforementioned atrocities in the Initiative.
Yamamoto Genryusai Shigekuni is this to Ichigo in A Protector's Pride. It leads to a war with Hell and Ichigo firmly distrusting of the Gotei 13. Something he wanted to avoid.
Implied and subverted by Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. He was said to have been an Internal Affairs agent investigating Lieutenant Gordon's men on corruption charges for political points before he became the District Attorney for Gotham City. However, his suspicions are later found to be true when two men he investigated betrayed him and indirectly led him to becoming Two-Face.
He blames Gordon for what happened to him and for the death of Rachel Dawes.
Director Theodore Galloway, the President's Aide sent to oversee NEST in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen actively believes that the Autobots are to blame for the Decepticons attacking Earth, and attempts to force the Autobots to leave. When the Decepticons finally invade in force, instead of mobilizing NEST, the aide instead forces NEST to stand down and return to base, citing that standard operating procedure would be to try and negotiate a peaceful resolution with the enemy. Fortunately, they manage to get rid of him by shoving him out of a plane and dumping him in the middle of the Egyptian desert.
Unfortunately they gave him a parachute first.
An often overlooked small detail: American soldiers just dumped the President's National Security Advisor in the middle of the desert. Yes, I'm sure the fact that the guy was a douche perfectly justifies leaving him in a position to be easily captured by god knows who and thus endanger the entire country. They couldn't just bind and gag him, if they had to do something that insubordinate?
Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru is all about this trope. In it, a man who has been a city bureaucrat of the mindless drone variety discovers that he is dying of stomach cancer. Confronted with this, and the realization that his son is only concerned about his inheritance, he first tries hedonism to get some meaning out of life. When that fails, he decides to take up the concern of a group of locals- cleaning a polluted pond and creating a park, a process that had been stalled into oblivion by the city bureaucracy giving citizens the workaround. Through sheer determination and blatant disregard for the traditional means of operation of the Japanese bureaucracy, he gets the park built before he dies. At his funeral, his fellow Obstructive Bureaucrats get drunk and promise to take up his example and no longer ignore the cause of their citizens...and the final scene is of everyone doing just that. Well, almost everyone...
In Max Havelaar, the titular character's attempts to do something about the merciless exploitation of the Javanese peasants by their feudal overlords are thwarted at every step by those above, below, and next to him in the Dutch colonial bureaucracy. Some actually don't want him to succeed (it's easier to keep the peasants in check if the local feudal system remains in place, after all), but others are simply Dirty Cowards who don't want to step on any powerful toes - especially not since Havelaar's similarly idealistic predecessor died in a terrible accident. (Note that all of this actually happened in Real Life).
The Discworld universe features the Auditors, mysterious, cosmic beings who balance the books of reality. They would prefer an existence devoid of life, which makes things untidy, and intelligent thought, which is even less tidy and predictable. They have repeatedly attempted to eliminate the Discworld in an attempt to tidy up their books.
If they even think the world "I" or "me" or any other personal pronoun too many times they Vanish In A Puff of Smoke. They don't have names or even designations. They don't have faces. They never have any original thoughts. They have no feelings. Period. Abstract concepts cause them difficulties as the Auditors want to quantify everything that exists, but cannot isolate these concepts; at one point, they even disassembled a portrait to its component atoms in a vain attempt to locate the beauty.
In Thief of Time they were introduced to mortal delights. Unlike the description in the page header where this could free them of their evil, this doesn't. The shock of experiencing chocolate was enough to make them vanish. Their attempts to catalog everything their body experienced made them think so hard they forgot to exist.
The Death of the Discworld is, ironically, a recurring opponent of theirs; his job may be to take it away, but that doesn't stop Death from appreciating life.
One might point out cynically that by defeating the Auditors, Death is protecting his own job, since if there's no life anymore he's literally redundant. In fact the real reason is probably because the Auditors are trying to disrupt the natural order of things, of which Death is a part.
But while he is Bill Door he saves a little girl — even though it's usually his job to take people's lives away. The implication is that while he would prefer to be saving people, he's attached to his job to make sure that no one worse does it.
Death has been shown as being the only remaining thing at the end of the universe, and then waiting for another one to inevitably form. His job is safe.
By the end of Reaper Man, he makes it clear that he cares, first by asking the Ultimate Death, "What can the harvest hope for if not the care of the Reaper Man?", and, later, having installed fields of corn in his deathly estate, proceeds to carefully notice that they are not all alike, but are individuals each worth caring for. Of course, his waiting for a new universe occurs in an earlier book (he started out as an Omnicidal Maniac) and this was his Character Development book.
In Reaper Man, Miss Flitworth helps Death against them because he explains they are like revenuers — which everyone knows are worse than death. (You only have to die once.)
Warhammer 40,000's bureaucrats will tell you you're dead to your face if they have the paperwork, and there are planets of them, running a million-world Imperium as best they can.
In the Ciaphas Cain novel The Caves of Ice, there are two particular Obstructive Bureaucrats, the local heads of the Administratum and Adeptus Mechanicus. Their constant arguing over protocols and procedure affects not only the normal operation of the promethium-mining facility there, but also the efforts of the Valhallan 597th as it works to prepare defenses against an oncoming Ork onslaught. Fortunately, Cain is able to find some lower-level officials in both ranks who not only are on amicable working terms with one another (and the mining population), but also happen to be able to actually get things done despite their superiors' constant bickering. The "dark" element of this trope comes into play when it is learned that the mine is built atop a Necron tomb; as later evidence proves, the site was intentionally chosen by the AdMech to give them easy access to the facility away from prying eyes should a way be found to investigate the tomb and recover its ancient technology.
Fortunately, Cain and his comrades are able to deal with the "obstructive" part of the problem by imposing martial law and threatening to shoot anyone who gets in their way.
The Valhallan 597th also owns some thanks to the Administratum, which still thinks they're two regiments, as such they are given twice as much supplies and recruits than most (also why the men/women ratio is always 50/50)
Subverted by the Administratum bureaucrat Scrivener Quintus from Death or Glory, who single-handedly organizes logistics for Cain's ragtag army with impeccable skill for several months. He's also quite easy to get along with and even has something of a sense of humour.
Also subverted by Bursar Brasker in Cain's Last Stand who is using Obfuscating Stupidity to conform to peoples' expectations of a fussy bureaucrat and is actually quite an amiable (and helpful) fellow once Cain finds out.
It wasn't so much Obfuscating Stupidity as it was Cain never seeing his skills as necessary before, and Brasker never really having anything important to do before. The book is written from Cain's perspective, who would have had little interest in how competent Brasker was at his job until the planet was being invaded and he had to ask for his help.
There's also a subversion in the Gaunt's Ghosts novel Necropolis. When the government begins bickering over whether they should call the Imperial Guard to help, the ranking Administratum official goes over their heads and contacts the Imperium anyways. He justifies this by saying that the planet is crucial for its production of military equipment, so it is therefore the Imperium's problem, not a local one.
It should be also noted that the Administratum, is only Obstructive Bureaucrat because it covers such a large Empire, this is why fluff always shows that the lower-levels are so good at their jobs.
The 5th ed. Imperial Guard codex has a mention of a unit that died to a man in battle. The paperwork wasn't completed properly, and their leader was selected to lead a later attack. When they didn't show up, the entire unit was posthumously sentenced to death for desertion.
There's an example in one of the Eisenhorn books when Aemos tells someone that if all the data generated by the entire Imperium in a single second was put through all of Earth's cogitators, they would explode.
In Catch-22 Doc Daneeka is listed as a crew member of a plane so he can get flight pay, although he hates flying. He's not actually aboard the plane when it crashes. Still, since he is listed as being on it, he is marked down as dead. Even while he is standing right in front of people who have known him for months, they talk about what a shame it is he died in the crash. This does not turn out well for him.
The anthropomorphic fox-like dan'lai in George R. R. Martin's short story "The Stone City". They are constantly telling protagonist Holt that they will find him a berth on a ship and allow him to leave the planet "next week" (they seem to take sadistic pleasure in denying him). Finally he meets one who tells him he can get a berth on the ship he arrived at Grayrest on immediately...provided he can get a signature from his missing and presumed dead captain. This infuriates Holt so much that he strangles the dan'lai to death in a fit of rage and has to go into hiding in the titular Stone City...
Borsk Fey'lya, to an astonishing degree. He was introduced in The Thrawn Trilogy as a Bothan council member of the New Republic, proudly flaunting his species' hat of backbiting political savvy (the other hats being spying, hacking, and great personal courage). He literally cannot imagine his fellow Council members as not out to get him just as much as he is out to get them; everyone who opposes him is his enemy. He will try and bar them at any given opportunity. And he's on the New Republic's side, shows no signs of going over to the enemy, and does not actually engineer events so much as take advantage of them, so he is never the outright enemy, to several characters' frustration, as that would've given them the ability to just shoot him. And unfortunately for everyone, he's very good at recovering from even the most embarrassing political setbacks.
In the New Jedi Order he does, after Coruscant's fall, surrender to the highest-ranked nearby Vong, and then trigger a massive suicide bomb. Books that don't have him as a petty semi-villain portray him as brave in his way, but unable to let go of his paranoia and vindictiveness.
Booster Terrick gets a Crowning Moment of Awesome when Fey'lya, up to his usual Rules Lawyering, tries to take control of Booster's Star Destroyer and pull off an elegant piece of backstabbing that will end up killing Corran Horn. Fey'lya unfortunately doesn't take two things into consideration; although Booster dislikes Horn, Corran is engaged to his daughter and more importantly Booster, being a 'former' smuggler, doesn't give a damn about any rules or laws protect Borsk. What follows is a brutal beatdown of Fey'lya by Terrick that ends with a broken nose and a lot of blood.
Whats even funnier is that Fey'lya knows that if he ever does try and get Terrik arrested he'll become a laughingstock among Bothans due to the fact that he, a fairly young Bothan, got his ass handed to him by a middle-aged human despite the fact Bothans are supposedly much physically stronger than humans.
Another example, during the Black Fleet Crisis, rejected Tenn Graneet's application to join the Republic military because he came from an Imperial planet. The main thing this earned him was a chewing out from Admiral Ackbar.
In one of the James Bond books the author points out that all well-run organizations have at least one Obstructive Bureaucrat for the other workers to hate. He should have a job which isn't vital but affects everyone's day to day life. Something like being in charge of the office supplies. This is to unite them in at least one thing, that is they all agree this guy is a Jerk Ass. M makes sure to have one.
In The Phantom Tollbooth one of the demons lurking in the Mountains of Ignorance is the Senses Taker. He stalls the heroes with reams of pointless paperwork, which he then uses to distract them by creating the ultimate sensory experience for each one. The Taker is defeated when Milo accidentally breaks open a package of laughter, since the only sense he can't take is humor.
Mr. Chesney in Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones is somewhere inbetween humourous and dark. Making an entire world act like a bad fantasy novel might seem like a funny concept, until you take into account the people who are tortured, raped or killed because of it.
The Forgotten Realms novel Azure Bonds shows how Lhaeo does his job, that is, prevents adventurers from bothering Elminster. How the scribe is supposed to intimidate and turn away people who used to take out dragons and worse? Riiight...
Akabar: Does anyone ever make it past this blizzard of parchment?
Lhaeo: Well. There was a delegation from the Forest of Anauroch.
Akabar: Anauroch is a desert, not a forest.
Lhaeo: Well, now it is, yes.
The Senators in Codex Alera are bad about this. They tend to focus on irrelevant personal feuds and power plays in the face of such things as an invasion of 60,000 Big, Badass Wolfmen or a Horde of Alien Locusts, and one of them, Arnos, turns out to be an incompetent General Ripper when he's actually put in charge of something. Cheers could be heard from the readers when High Lord Placidus bodily threw Senator Valerius out of a command meeting in the last book.note (He'd been ranting about how Bernard was breaking the law by building the fortifications that were the last defense of the human race, for the curious.)
The bureaucrats of the Solarian League in the Honor Harrington books. Unfortunately, they are the ones with the real decision-making power.
Sisterhood Series by Fern Michaels: A major plotline that develops is how Martine Connor becomes the first female President of the United States, and she is trying to secure pardons to the Vigilantes. It proves to be more difficult than it appears. Here's why: Deadly Deals reveals her chief of staff, Aaron Lowry, who is The Napoleon, had been obstructing the presidential pardons, supposedly because it would be political suicide for the president to even try it. She ends up firing him as well as charging him in Game Over, because he turns out to be in bed with Baron Bell, a lawyer and Villain with Good Publicity who had been selling babies! Game Over also has the president obstructed by her advisors, who are more interested in their own agendas than in being loyal to her. At the urging of Henry "Hank" Jellicoe, head of Global Securities, she ends up throwing out many more people, and he supposedly pulls strings to replace them with people 100% loyal to her. She also has the pardons signed, and she paves the way to make it easy for the Vigilantes to sneak in and snatch the pardons! It's hard to be president!
The true villain of the Doctor Who episode "Ghost Light" is a godlike bureaucrat known only as Light: having made a comprehensive survey of life on Earth many millions of years ago, he retires to stasis - only to awake in the nineteenth century and discover that evolution has made all his work invalid. His proposed solution is to sterilise the planet of all organic life and prevent any further amendments to his catalogue.
Mr. Popplewick in "Trial of a Time Lord" is a Victorian clerk who pops up numerous times to obfuscate, torment and hold up the Doctor whilst he's trying to locate the Valeyard in the Matrix. it's revealed that Popplewick is a disguise used by the Valeyard.
Sanford Harris from Fringe, although his motivations are partly due to a personal vendetta against Olivia Dunham.
Supreme Commander Birdie and, according to Word of God, the rest of the governing body of SPD from Power Rangers. They won't help you if you don't have all your "t"s crossed and "i"s dotted, even if you have concrete proof that evil aliens have landed on your lawn. It's not an uncommon Fanon interpretation to portray them as actively hindering the protagonists.
Many politicians and high-ranking police officers in The Wire. Stan Valchek and Ervin Burrell are probably the most notable.
Special mention goes to people in charge of homicide, all the way to the top, being more obsessed with their crime stats than with actually finding the guilty parties and jaling them, going so far as to being willing to jail someone innocent of the crime on dodgy evidence or refusing to go looking for bodies for fear it will worsen their statistics.
Dis in Earthdawn is a literal god of bureaucracy. His rituals include the creation and filing of needless paperwork, and a specific element of his portfolio is busywork that does nothing for anyone. What makes him dark instead of humorous is that he's the chief god of Thera, and his beliefs and practices are a strong part of why slavery flourishes in that country.
In The Consul, the only visible employee of a foreign consulate in a European Police State is a secretary who gives people trying to obtain exit visas an endless series of forms for them to fill out and sign, if the documents she asks them to provide are all in order. Many are made to wait for months on end. The secretary views them as numbers rather than as people with names, because "otherwise, how can one do any work?"
Holepunch, a Targetmaster from Transformers, is an actively malicious Obstructive Bureaucrat. In fact, making people wait in lines and having them come back later and such is basically all the fun he ever has. The Mirror Universe version of him inverts this as a peppy motivational speaker skilled at keeping morale high.
In Guild Wars: Factions, we have Cantha's Celestial Ministry. The cities and slums around the Kaineng Center are struggling with oppressive Guilds, pirates, and the Infected. There are dozens of homeless Canthan peasants, and the Celestial Ministry couldn't care less about their well being. In one mission, you are tasked with delivering handmirrors to the homeless; with each delivery, you are told, in no uncertain terms, that the Ministry should be sending them food and medicine, instead of increasingly pretty and useless trinkets like the mirrors (or decorative lawn gnomes). Another mission has you running all over the city trying to find the bureaucrat with the authority to hand out the new medical supplies; the highlight of that mission is when a guy tells you to talk to his superior, who is five feet away from him. Thankfully, the Emperor himself is far more in touch with what the people need.
The G-Man in Half-Life is an (evil?) inter-dimensional bureaucrat, walking in the middle of a destroyed facility while wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, orchestrating events threatening the whole of humanity, taking care of selected people, all for his "employers". We just don't know who they are yet.
Jack Noir of Homestuck was originally this, stating that he'd rather gut someone than do paperwork for them that he doesn't feel like. This is dropped when he later goes on to be the Big Bad of the series.
From the Whateley Universe, Amelia Hartford, assistant to the headmistress at Whateley Academy, is the superpowered version of this. She uses her power over computers as well as her malicious nature to be the Obstructive Bureaucrat of your nightmares, except for the chosen few who get special privileges from her.
As the stories go on, it's shown from time to time that she does in fact have a human side as well. She's nonetheless quite possibly the most difficult actual member of the school staff to get along with, and there's not much love lost between her and Team Kimba in particular.
BOFH regularly meets these, so there are plans for such a case.
Risk 1: A lifetime of filling out meaningless paperwork to appease some glory-hogging control freak. Contingency Plan:
ThisNot Always Right entry, combines obstructive bureaucracy with a heaping dose of transphobia. Luckily the manager was not an obstructive bureaucrat and the obstructive bureaucrat in question was subsequently fired.
A number of Nazis at the Nuremberg trials post-World War II defended themselves against charges of war crimes with the excuse that they were "Just Following Orders." The Nuremberg Defense has been ruled invalid in situations involving genocide or crimes against humanity, though it is still a completely valid legal defense in many military situations: the prosecution has to prove that it was unreasonable not to know the order was illegal. Opening a gate to let a convoy through: reasonable. Slaughtering twelve million people: unreasonable.
Early on in his career, Hitler would get around both the law and this trope by making intentionally vague orders to be interpreted in the harshest way possible, mostly as a way of downplaying his involvement in some of the Nazis' more violent doings. You can bet that if he wanted some Social Democrat or Communist "taken care of" he meant that he wanted that person to get the crap beaten out of them, or worse.
In general, though, one of the things leading to the Nazi regime's downfall is how Hitler, fearful of usurpation, tended to set his various departments against each other, in the end, causing a ton of time, manpower, and resources that could have otherwise gone to fighting external enemies to instead be used to obstruct any other department from looking better than one's own.
Ronald Reagan once claimed, "There seems to be an increasing awareness of something we Americans have known for some time: that the ten most dangerous words in the English language are, 'Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
Politicians and bureaucrats don't always see eye-to-eye, as Yes Minister can demonstrate.
Before he became the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin was General Secretary of the Communist Party, which gave him powers of patronage, the resources he needed to build up a power base in the party, and control of the civil service and Politburo. Effectively, he was Russia's chief bureaucrat, and he was good at it, by all accounts. Other members of the party gave him names like "Comrade Card Index" and "the Grey Blur", but he certainly showed that a list of names and a telephone are as useful as a gun when it comes to taking over a country. That said, Tsarist Russia had relied on the bureaucracy (as well as the church and army) as a major part of controlling the country.
This directly led to General Secretary of the Communist Party becoming the de facto highest office in the USSR; Stalin managed to turn a bureaucratic office into the imperial seat. It wasn't until Mikhail Gorbachev that the USSR underwent a political shakeup in the early '90s and the Executive President became the Soviet Union's highest office.
There is a reason why almost all procedural laws relating to the filling out and filing of court documents say "A document is not invalid simply because it doesn't follow a form."
Of course, some don't help by immediately specifying the forms to horrifying detail (Margins, spacing, font, etc.)
A positive example was with Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey of the US FDA. In the early sixties, she was driving a major drug company nuts demanding more extensive scientific testing documentation about a profitable new drug called thalidomide. Despite the corporate pressure, Dr. Kelsey refused to give in and approve the drug for market because her personal alarm bells were going off at the info about the drug. Eventually, the drug's infamous birth defects were revealed to the world and Dr. Kelsey was hailed as a hero for largely sparing the USA the same tragedy.
Indian Agents in The Wild West were notorious for this. They would steal the subsidies meant to keep the reservations from being more miserable than was perceived as necessary. Then they would sell guns to the Indians. They thus provided both the provocation and the means at the same time. Of course the ones who suffered from this were Indians and soldiers, and not Obstructive Bureaucrats. This was alluded to in John Wayne's cavalry trilogy.
Erich Honecker, the longest-ruling and most well known leader of East Germany was quite possibly the most conservative of all East Bloc leaders, and his country was notorious for its all-pervading, soul-crushing bureaucracy. He even looked the part◊.