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 complete our length countdown of best Trek movie villains with the top spot. Who else could be number 1, but Khan Noonien Singh from The Wrath of Khan?
("Ahh, the magic of the Montalban")
As with the John Harrison Khan of the reboot movies, the original Khan is a genetically engineered human who was developed to help run the world countries in the 20th Century. However, in this timeline his re-appearance happens in deep space as Kirk's Enterprise finds the sleeper ship SS Botany Bay in the Mutara sector with all 84 occupants aboard in stasis.
Kirk's boarding of Khan's ship triggers his stasis unit to revive him. After Dr. McCoy saves Khan's life, Khan temporarily takes over the ship in an attempt to go take over a local colony, but Kirk is able to fight Khan and subdue him. The Enterprise leaves the human augments on Ceti Alpha V, a habitable world, to start a new life and colony apart from society.
Unfortunately, that planet became a desert wasteland a few years later when Ceti Alpha VI has a cataclysm and alters the orbit of Ceti Alpha V. Indeed, this planet is mistaken for Ceti Alpha VI when the USS Reliant and Pavel Chekov come back to scout an apparent unhabitable planet to test the Genesis Device. Khan uses some local eels to make Captain Terrell and Chekov vulnerable to following all suggestions by Khan. Khan and his crew thus highjack the Reliant and try to track down the Genesis Device while also luring Captain Kirk in a plot to gain revenge for his exile on a wasteland planet.
Indeed, Khan quotes from Moby Dick quite often, a nice allegory by the writers to the crazed obsessive nature and psychology of Khan and his revenge plots.
Quote: "He tasks me! He tasks me, and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares maelstrom and 'round Perdition's FLAMES before I give him up." – Khan
Khan then ambushes the Enterprise by faking communications trouble before firing phasers on the Enterprise to knock out many ship systems including propulsion. Kirk knows more about starship battle though, as he uses codes to override the Reliant's tactical system from outside to fire a few weak shots at the Reliant to take out photon torpedos and the warp power, then he goes into the Mutara nebula to force the battle into a sensor-less three-dimensional battle.
Khan does not appreciate the 3-dimensional submarine-like nature of this battle, which allows the Enterprise to flank the Reliant and attack from behind to win the battle. Khan tries to activate the Genesis device as a bomb to sacrifice himself and kill the Enterprise, but Spock repairs the warp core damage just in time, at the cost of his life, to enable the Enterprise to escape for another day.
Quote: "From hell's heart, I stab at thee...For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee..." - Khan
Khan is one of only two villains to successfully kill off a main character, the other being Dr. Soran in Generations. Khan is also only one of two villains to appear multiple times in live action against Kirk's Enterprise, the other being Harry Mudd, who also got a shoutout in the reboot Into Darkness. Khan has a descendant Noonian Singh who redirects his efforts away from human augments to perfecting artificial intelligence, leading to the creation of Data. So the line of augments does eventually provide some serious good in the Star Trek universe.
This villain has it all: a salty history with Kirk, deep and interesting motivations for his crazy revenge obsession, infinitely quotable, an outstanding acting performance, a suspenseful and tension-filled battle with the Enterprise, and true impact on the crew of the Enterprise. He also brings Star Trek another ethical/moral dilemma of the times, this time the risks of genetic engineering, and it makes you think. That's when Star Trek is at it's best, when it faces the biggest and toughest questions of humanity.
For more on this great character and his back story, check out the trilogy of novels by Greg Cox including The Eugenics Wars Volumes I and II, and To Reign in Hell, The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh.
Ricardo Montalban played Khan in these appearances. He passed away in 2009, but in his 88-year life, he has many memorable film and TV appearances including Fantasy Island and The Naked Gun.
Until next time, live long and prosper...