Khan is one of the most known and most beloved – or is it reviled? – villains from Star Trek, or really from most of fiction in general in recent history. What is it about Khan that intrigues us so?
Much of it is Ricardo Montalban’s acting, of course. Although, his acting in Space Seed was only decent… or maybe I’m just showing my lack of Original Series knowledge? But regardless, was he strong enough to merit the movie? The answer is undoubtedly yes, and Wrath of Khan was amazing.
I had not seen either Space Seed or Wrath of Khan until recently. So Khan is new to me, and I have some thoughts on Khan. So in the spirit of our character studies, here is a character study of the man himself – Khan! Star Trek spoilers to follow!
We are introduced to Khan in an episode of the Original Series, named Space Seed as I’ve mentioned. In it, Khan, and his crew of 72 others, are found by Kirk and his crew. We discover, mainly through a history officer, that Khan Noonien Singh was leader of a group of genetically enhanced humans – last vestiges of Earth’s Eugenics War.
So, whoops, there was a Eugenics War, so that’s not good.
And Khan? Khan was the best. The most advanced, the smartest, the greatest warlord.
That makes him the sort of guest to always treat cautiously. However, these elements are revealed more slowly to the crew – and faster to us, as the audience, as we watch the history officer slowly become enticed by Khan. Become turned by Khan. To what purpose? Well, obviously, to take the ship. Which they proceed to do.
Because sure, Khan is smarter, and yeah, stronger – although Kirk seems to hold his own pretty well in this episode fighting Khan – but his greatest asset, the thing that gets him the Enterprise is his Charisma. His manipulation. His words. And his reputation.
The very idea of Khan, combined then with his person, turns the officer to his side. And of course, his own crew follows him unquestioningly. And this is all shown to the audience, so then we are in on it too.
So for us, too, it is about him as a person – it is the very idea of Khan that is most powerful, most intimidating. The very idea that he is smarter, that he is stronger, that he is better. They plant this idea in our minds far better than they actually show it to us in the episode, I feel. We believe it.
The Wrath of Khan
Maybe it was always the plan – maybe it was just a solid thread they knew they left hanging. Khan and his crew were left to stew on an uninhabited planet. Certainly just waiting to come back and seek revenge. Which happens.
I honestly don’t have a lot to say here about Khan’s character – because here is where he is known for, here is where he shines. Here is where Ricardo Montalban’s acting really steals the show. Here he matches the charisma of his character, the plans are cunning, the stakes are high.
Heck, Spock dies, so you know the stakes are high. What, I said spoilers… more to come!
The point is still that the idea of Khan is what is so powerful here. The idea of him being smarter, stronger, better. And given time to stew.
But that’s the other piece – we very clearly understand his motivations. As long as he was there, and the awful creatures that were on the planet, and his crew dying… Abandoned, and by the will of one man. Kirk. We understand his need for revenge, we know what made him into a villain. A villain we sympathize with – if not perhaps empathize with – is a dangerous one indeed. And is a lot of why this villain is so memorable – we understand him so well.
My Name… is Khan
I did warn of spoilers. I wanted to write this post months ago, when I first watched Space Seed, and Wrath of Khan. When I watched them… after watching Star Trek Into Darkness. When, in the most annoying reveal of the year, John Harrison turned out to indeed by Khan. But I waited until people had time to see the movie, and until it was out on DVD.
How It Should Have Ended did a better job than I could of exploring this movie, so I’ll let them do some talking:
And here is an interesting point they raise. If the characters don’t know who Khan is, what is the point of him trying to intimidate them with his name? My name is Khan – okay, so anyway…
But really, who was this for? Not the characters in the movie. They never really got told that his full name was Khan Noonien Singh, never found out about the Eugenics War. Apparently only history officers know anything about history, or someone who sounds almost like the Eugenics War’s Hitler or Stalin. Someone they maybe should have heard of. But no; no recognition.
So we learn one thing, at least: schools in the future are not very good. They have to turn to Old Spock to find out who he was…
But really, the reveal, his name, is all for the audience. It banks heavily on our knowledge and investment in the character from the previous incarnations. On the idea of him as the intimidating man. A reputation I knew of but had not seen.
So I had some fresh eyes watching Star Trek Into Darkness, I suppose. And I have to say, they did more than rely on reputation. They showed us Khan’s characteristics better than in the original series, I’d argue.
They showed him being an unbreakable man – Kirk tries to beat him up and gets nowhere. Apparently he should have just waited to be older because he did just fine then! But so strong, genetically, that he heals, as well.
They showed him smart, too, with plans that only a screenwriter could really make work… or perhaps Khan. But I’ll leave the plot to CinemaSins…
And they have him Charismatic, too, and have an actor to pull that off, to boot. He turns the Star Fleet Intelligence Officer (Mickey from Doctor Who) at the beginning, in particular, much like the history officer in Space Seed. He appeals to what the man wants most, and gives it to him. Heck, he probably even told him he should send the message to the Admiral. It served his purposes.
And they also accomplished the goal of making us understand his motivations again. Now, instead of revenge, it’s saving his crew. 72 lives. We understand this motive. It gives him some humanity. It makes it so he’s not even necessarily the villain in the film, not completely; this ends up being the admiral, even more than it’s Khan. Khan is just living out his vengeance – on someone other than Kirk.
So in some ways, this movie actually did a lot for the character of Khan – took him from the idea of the perfect villain, and fulfilled on a lot of the idea. Gave him the incredible plan, the unbreakable body, the undeniable charisma. And a reason we again sympathize with him, and make him memorable and personable.
Because what would we do when faced with Khan? The man who can single-handedly take on a Klingon patrol? Probably give in and do what he asked of us, as well. And that is what is frightening about this character – and is what makes him a truly spectacular villain.
A closing thought: