Dragon Ball has made it a habit of featuring truly despicable villains. Not always without room for redemption or growth— Tenshinhan, Piccolo, & Vegeta were all villains who turned into some of the franchise’s more endearing heroes— but vile enough where audiences will want to see them taken out before all is said and done.
What makes Cell so notable is that he’s a morbid edge to an already extremely dark arc. The Android arc centers itself around Trunks needing to go back in time because the prime timeline was absolutely destroyed by the Artificial Humans. Cell’s chilling for not only invading the Android arc so suddenly but by literally drinking people to get stronger. It’s a lot, even for Dragon Ball.
- Citizens Of Ginger Town
Cell’s introduction into the plot is so sudden. The Artificial Humans arc had already played hot potato with its villains before, trading Dr. Gero and Android 19 in exchange for Androids 16, 17, & 18. The trio were far more defined than Dr. Gero and his companion, suggesting they’d be the arc’s main villains (especially since they’re the Androids of Trunks’ future.)
This ends up being a red herring, not entirely though. With no warning, an entire town is wiped off the face of the Earth. Having reunited with God in order to stand a chance against the Androids, Piccolo arrives on Ginger Town only to find himself face to face with something right out of the Rapture. Clothes are littered through the streets, but only silence fills the air.
It doesn’t take long for Cell to reveal himself from the shadows. Holding a man hostage, Piccolo can only watch in shock as Cell’s tail pierces through the man’s flesh, drinking him on the spot. Every man, woman, & child in Ginger Town was absorbed by Cell– and this was only the beginning of his terror.
2. Son Goku
Cell’s Perfect form ends up being too powerful even for Goku, but this is something Goku recognizes. In the Room of Spirit and Time, Goku’s game plan was always to make Gohan stronger than him– betting on his son’s potential to save the day. Goku and Cell both die during the Cell Games, but Goku at least is resurrected to life during the Buu arc.
Jumping from Dragon Ball Z to Dragon Ball GT, the Super 17 arc features the denizens of Hell breaking free and wreaking havoc on the Earth. Goku goes into Hell himself to solve the situation where he’s intercepted by Frieza and Cell of all people. Cell even manages to absorb Goku into his tail, but the Saiyan is strong enough at this point to break free without much effort. Cell has seen better days.
3. Android 18
Cell isn’t in his Semi-Perfect form nearly as long as the others, but he’s in quite a rush to absorb Android 18 at this point. Before Cell can wipe out the entire house and finish absorbing the twins, Tenshinhan shows up and locks him into place with a Shin Kikoho. From there, Goku teleports onto the scene and manages to get everyone away safely (16 already having fled with 18.)
This ends up being a temporary setback, as Cell starts hunting down 18 fast. Having trained in the Room of Spirit and Time, Vegeta shows up to finish Cell off once and for all, but… he is not really satisfied. Vegeta trained too much and now Semi-Perfect Cell barely puts up a fight. Disappointed, Vegeta accepts Cell’s offer to absorb 18.
Cell rather shamelessly plays Vegeta, but even Vegeta knows it. His confidence is so sky high, he truly believes he can defeat a Perfect Cell. Putting Trunks in his place, Vegeta creates an opening for Cell to absorb Android 18. The main characters fail, and Cell becomes Perfect.
4. Android 17
Even though Cell spends most of the Androids arc absorbing humans, this isn’t actually his goal. Drinking others does improve his own Battle Power, but Dr. Gero specifically designed him with an intent in mind. That being the absorption of Androids 17 and 18. Once fully absorbed into him, Cell will be able to trigger his perfect form.
In his initial state, Cell is imperfect and is often referred to as such. Interestingly, this does mean he’s considerably weaker than both Piccolo and the Artificial Humans when first introduced into the plot. But this just adds a certain tension to Cell. The heroes can defeat him, but we know that they actually can’t.
Plus, Cell’s absorptions gradually make him stronger. Each time the Dragon Team fails to stop Cell, he only becomes more powerful. This becomes a massive problem when Cell feels the Ki from Piccolo’s fight with Android 17, interrupting the battle midway through to nearly kill Piccolo and absorb Android 17. While 16 manages to fight off Imperfect Cell with gusto, Cell sneaks up on 17 and achieves his Semi-Perfect form.
5. Citizens Of Basil Town
In his attempt to get information out of Cell, Piccolo ends up wasting too much time, allowing the Artificial Human to flee. Unlike Dr. Gero and the numbered Androids, Cell actually gives off Ki (a mix of Goku, Vegeta, Piccolo, Frieza, & King Cold) but he recognizes this only puts a target on his back, choosing instead to carefully stealth his way from town to town.
In the manga, the Dragon Team can’t do much to stop Cell. They pay attention to the news, but the fact he keeps his Ki down does mean he’s virtually impossible to intercept. The anime chooses to play with this, adding in a filler sequence where Krillin tries to stop Cell during his assault on Basil Town.
The Basil Town filler plays up the inherent horror of the Cell arc more than any other moment in the saga. Krillin can’t find Cell naturally, but he’s very much present and looking to absorb the citizens of Basil Town into him. Krillin manages to confront Cell, but he can’t defeat the Artificial Human and Cell flees to drink another day.