Monday, August 11, 2014

Character Insight No. 108: John Harrison - Khan

This is the latest installment in a series of "Character Insight" articles regarding the rich history of characters in the Star Trek universe.  An audio version will appear on the This Week in Trek podcast, available for direct download here.


Welcome back to Character Insight!  This week, we profile John Harrison, AKA Khan from Star Trek Into Darkness, who comes in at number 4 on our best Trek movie villains countdown.
("John Harrison doesn't look so tough, but then...")

Although the merits of hiding Khan's identity before the movie released can be debated, it should come as no surprise that Khan came back as a villain in the Abrams reboot movies. After all, this won't be the last time this character shows up on this top villains countdown, and he is the quintessential antagonist for Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew. 

Quote: "Captain, are you going to punch me again, over and over, until your arm weakens? Clearly you want to."

Khan is the most prominent of a group of genetically engineered human augments who were developed to improve the leadership of the human race. When these augments became world leaders and began warring with one another, the eugenics wars were started to depose them from power. A group of these augments led by Khan escaped this war by going on a sleeper ship and taking a 200 year journey away from Earth, leading to the initial encounter in TOS in the episode Space Seed. 

This version of Khan was awoken from cryogenic suspension to help Admiral Marcus build warships and weapons to prepare for war against the Klingons. Marcus blackmails Khan by threatening to kill the other cryogenically suspended crew members. But Khan eventually turns on Marcus and tries to kill him and most of the other Captains and First Officers of Starfleet ships stationed around Earth. 

Quote: "Intellect alone is useless in a fight, Mr. Spock. You, you can't even break a rule; how can you be expected to break bone?"

That leads Kirk to go track down Khan on Kronos and try to kill him, but he captures him instead, which leads to the revelation of Marcus's plans. Kirk and Khan then team up to take down Admiral Marcus and the warship Vengeance before Khan turns on Kirk and the Enterprise crew. Much like the first Khan movie, one crew member (this time Kirk) has to sacrifice himself to save the ship and another (this time Spock) has to go take down the bad guy. Khan's super duper blood saves the day for Captain Kirk though, in an ironic twist of fate different than the original timeline.

Although there's plenty to nitpick about retelling a Khan story, it was refreshing to see another great actor Benedict Cumberbatch play this role. Cumberbatch really sells the motivations of being protective of his family, his crew over all else. His character is nuanced and complex, making you feel OK to cheer him on alongside Kirk during the battle against the Vengeance, full well knowing he would eventually turn on the Enterprise crew too. Just listening to quotes from this movie make you realize what a brilliant casting decision this was, even if it was made simply because Robert Orci couldn't handle having someone of color or middle eastern descent be demonized in a movie. 

Quote: "My crew is my family, Kirk. Is there anything you would not do for your family?"

Let's hope that if this series of movies or a television series continues, Khan somehow gets to play a role once again some day with more creative writing than what was shown in Into Darkness. This is like Thanos or Darth Vader, we just can't get enough of this superhuman antagonist. 

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Khan, and he is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes on the Sherlock series. He also shows up in the Hobbit trilogy and in last year's best picture 12 Years a Slave. 

Until next time, live long and prosper...

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