The word on the street is that the new Star Trek movie (a sequel to the recent J. J. Abrams film) will be premiering in 2013 featuring the return of a classic villain: Khan Noonien Singh. “Khan,” as he is more frequently known, was first featured in a 1960s Star Trek episode as a genetically enhanced superman who attempted to take over the Enterprise. After being defeated by Captain Kirk, Khan and his people were marooned on a planet.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan picks up this story two decades later and brings the two old foes together once again. Both Ricardo Montalban’s Kahn and Shatner’s Kirk love their overacting…and it is a terrific movie. It is widely considered to be one of the best of the Star Trek films. Plus, it features one of the best Shatner moments of all time:
A lot of Trekkies aren’t too happy with the decision to revisit an old villain for the new movie. They would, quite simply, prefer a new and more creative villain or storyline. Normally I would agree, but the Khan story has such potential for being told in an interesting way that I’m excited to see what they do.
The bigger question, though, is whether Star Trek movies need strong villains at all. Every drama needs its antagonistic force, yes. But we’re not talking about Mission: Impossible or James Bond here. This is Star Trek. Both the movies and the show upon which they were based tended at their best to be about more than simply defeating one particular enemy.
So, then, a look bad at the “bad guys” in Star Trek movie history:
- Bad guy: A giant space probe.
- Method of victory: A human being joins together with it on its journey towards self-understanding.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: Zero
- What it’s really about: the human adventure (even though it is a horrid movie).
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (4 stars)
- Bad guy: Khan
- Method of victory: A space battle that leaves Khan’s ship devastated; he then commits suicide by blowing it up. Ultimate salvation for the crew occurs as Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: Relatively little. A good space battle, but Khan and Kirk never meet.
- What it’s really about: a meditation on hate, love, life, and death.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (3 stars)
- Bad guy: Hard to say. Ostensibly a Klingon captain, but it could also be a disintegrating planet OR the problem of Spock’s death itself.
- Method of victory: Clever thinking, the power of friendship, and a fight between Kirk and a Klingon.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: A big fight between Kirk and a Klingon captain.
- What it’s really about: the good of the one outweighs the good of the many.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (4 stars)
- Bad guy: Another giant space probe.
- Method of victory: Bringing whales from the 1980s back to the future.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: None.
- What it’s really about: environmentalism and a celebration of the characters.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1 star)
- Bad guy: Spock’s hippy half-brother, who is more obsessed with finding God than fighting.
- Method of victory: Both the realization that the quest of Spock’s brother will not succeed and Kirk fighting a malevolent alien claiming to be God.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: See above.
- What it’s really about: No one knows.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (4 stars)
- Bad guys: A conspiracy of hardliners that want to declare war on the Klingons.
- Method of victory: Outsmarting the conspirators and thwarting their efforts to initiate war.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: One prison fight and a space battle, but other than that not much.
- What it’s really about: The Cold War ending, and with it a generation of Cold Warriors (including Kirk and crew).
Star Trek: Generations (2 stars)
- Bad guy: A scientist who wants to blow up a planet to achieve happiness.
- Method of victory: Believe it or not, hand-to-hand combat featuring Kirk and Picard vs. the scientist.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: See above.
- What it’s really about: An attempt to bridge the gap between Star Trek generations.
Star Trek: First Contact (4 stars)
- Bad guy: The Borg, a cybernetic race headed by their evil queen. They’ve traveled into the past to mess up Earth’s history.
- Method of victory: Working to restore the timeline and a confrontation with the Borg queen.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: Moderate fighting with the Borg and Picard’s defeat of the Queen.
- What it’s really about: A classic tale of universe rescuing that highlights the unique features of The Next Generation crew.
Star Trek: Insurrection (0 stars)
- Bad guy: I don’t even remember his name. He wants to steal a planet’s resources and doesn’t care about it’s inhabitants.
- Method of victory: The command staff of the Enterprise defended the planet and Picard fights the bad guy.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: A big space battle and Picard literally fighting the main bad guy all by himself.
- What it’s really about: Anti-imperialism.
- Bad guy: A Romulan clone of Captain Picard.
- Method of victory: Literally ramming the Enterprise into the enemy’s ship.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: Very little, but the movie attempts to pit the bad guy and Picard directly against each other in a Kirk/Khan way.
- What it’s really about: A ham-handed way to recreate The Wrath of Khan.
- Bad guy: A Romulan from the future intent on killing Spock and destroying the Federation.
- Method of victory: Blowing stuff up.
- Amount of hand-to-hand combat: I can’t recall too much, but the protagonist does cast a long shadow. Kirk defeats him handily ship-to-ship.
- What it’s really about: The coalescing of the crew and a cool reboot of Star Trek with some important homages to The Wrath of Khan.
The best Star Trek movies (especially from the 1980s) tend to be about something deeper than the surface action. When a strong villain helped develop the theme upon which the movie reflects, OK. But in a number of important cases, the “villain” was more of a force or power than an individual that had to be fought. Therefore, if Abrams and company are using Khan to say something, terrific. But if they just want to have him and Kirk have a big fight at the end, they are missing what Star Trek is all about.