With two contrasting versions of him in the original Star Trek TV series and the second Trek motion picture, does Khan Noonien Singh truly qualify as the greatest Star Trek villain ever?
By: Ringo Bones
While the “rebooted Khan” in the second JJ Abrams Star Trek: Into Darkness is not bad either, there is no doubt to all Star Trek fans that Khan Noonien Singh is possibly Captain Kirk’s most infamous foe. While The Wrath of Khan had been more or less unanimously voted as the best of the Star Trek motion pictures that’s been released so far, it would be nice to remind the new generation of Star Trek fans on the reason why the “older” Trekkies and Trekkers became obsessed with the genetically-enhanced late 20th Century tyrant of the Star Trek universe known as Khan Noonien Singh.
Back in the original Star Trek TV series, Khan was introduced in the episode titled Space Seed. He was played by actor Ricardo Montalban (full name Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban y Merino b 1920 – d 2009). Even though his seven decades long career allowed him to play other figures before and after the original Star Trek TV series, it is Montalban’s portrayal of Khan that made him well known around the world to both Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike.
The Khan of “Space Seed” has a royal bearing yet ruthless genetically enhanced übermensch that Captain Kirk first encountered in the year 2267 when the Starship Enterprise stumbled onto the S.S. Botany Bay – a late 20th Century era sleeper spacecraft that had fled planet Earth back in 1996 in the wake of the infamous Eugenic Wars (sometimes referred to as “Gene Roddenberry’s Sino Indian War) tat lasted from 1992 to 1996. A product of “selective breeding” that had made him and his “augments” cohorts mentally and physically superior to ordinary men and women – Khan Noonien Singh once ruled over more than a quarter of the Earth’s population, including much of Asia and the Middle East before in fighting between Khan and his fellow genetic tyrants cost him his empire. A Sikh from the northern part of India little is definitely known about his early years, only that he eventually seized control of several nations in 1992, a period that resulted in the second “Sino Indian War on steroids” that was used as a literary devise by Gene Roddenberry when he created the “reign” of Khan Noonien Singh.
Revived by Doctor McCoy aboard the Starship Enterprise after almost 300 years of cryogenic slumber, Khan wastes no time demonstrating that both his abilities and ambition are not diminished by the time he spent in suspended animation. Khan’s brilliant intellect eventually allowed him to master the Enterprise’s 23rd Century systems in just a matter of days simply by reviewing the starship’s technical manuals while his sheer charisma allowed him to “recruit” Lieutenant Marla McGivers – the Enterprise’s romantically susceptible historian into betraying her captain and crew, allowing Khan and his resurrected genetically enhanced cohorts (oft referred to as augments) to briefly take over the Enterprise in hopes of carving out a new empire across the Milky Way Galaxy. Thankfully, McGivers comes to her senses in time to help Captain Kirk retake his ship and place Khan and his fellow augments into custody.
Captain Kirk and even Scotty (the Starship Enterprise’s First Engineer) didn’t perceive Khan as a clear and present danger to the Enterprise when they first met him because historical records of their time had confirmed that Khan Noonien Singh was the best of the genetic tyrants; although he ruled with an iron fist, there were no documented massacres under his region. Even Scotty admits to having always has a sneaking admiration for Khan – at least until he actually meets him and then tried to take over the Enterprise by force. Still the Khan that Kirk met in 2267 is ultimately gracious in defeat.
Having lost his bid to take control of the Enterprise by force, Khan gratefully accepts Kirk’s offer to colonize the harsh, forbidding wilderness of Ceti Alpha V in lieu of incarceration in a Federation reorientation center. Khan also gladly accepts Lieutenant Marla McGivers as his consort after judging her “a superior woman”. Sadly, this decision for Khan to “reign in Hell” in Ceti Alpha V will later come back to haunt Captain Kirk.
The Khan Noonien Singh we know in The Wrath of Khan was a product of 17 years of hardship on Ceti Alpha V. After the freak explosion of a neighboring planet had reduced Ceti Alpha V from a largely uninhabited idyll to a barren wasteland, along with the heart-breaking death of his beloved wife (presumably Marla since The Wrath of khan movie hasn’t specified it) transformed Khan into a bitter half-crazed Captain Ahab like character obsessed with revenge on Captain James T. Kirk whom Khan comes to blame on his long exile on the dying planet. At least 20 of his 73 followers – including Marla McGivers – were killed by the parasitic Ceti eels, a trilobite shaped parasite that buries into one’s ear to lodge into the brain to feed.
In the year 2285, the USS Reliant stumbles onto Khan, now a weathered ragged version of his former glory living only for vengeance. This Khan is a far more reckless and bloodthirsty version than the one Captain Kirk encountered years before. Khan infected the Reliant’s Captain Terrell and First Officer Pavel Chekov (who served with Kirk years before) with the mind-controlling parasitic Ceti eels that would condemn them to madness and an agonizing death. Fortunately, Chekov was saved and the epic battle and cat-and-mouse chases between Khan and Kirk eventually became the driving force of The Wrath of Khan movie and made it probably the best of the Star Trek motion picture series.
Gene Roddenberry’s use of the Sino Indian War as a literary device eventually led to his Earth: Final Conflict TV series, Roddenberry failed to use it to cast light on the early years of the life of Khan Noonien Singh. Although the best so far of the literature out there that sheds light Khan’s rise to power during the early 1990s in the Star Trek universe is a series of works by Greg Cox – as in the Eugenics Wars volumes 1 and 2 The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh.
As an actor who portrayed Khan, Mexican born Ricardo Montalban spent his early acting career often cast to play Asian characters. His first iconic role was in the Oscar-winning Sayonara in 1957. After portraying Khan in the original Star Trek TV series, he appeared in the original Hawaii Five-O series as a Japanese mafia boss. Troubled by the portrayal of Mexicans in American cinema during the 1960s, in 1970 Montalban became a co-founder of the Nosotros Foundation, an advocacy group for Latinos in the movie and television industry. His starring role as Mr. Roarke in the 1978 – 1984 TV series Fantasy Island renewed his popularity and probably the main reason why Gene Roddenberry reprised his role as Khan Noonien Singh in the second Star Trek motion picture – The Wrath of Khan. Ever after becoming wheelchair-bound in 1993, Montalban continued to work, both on screen and as a voice actor on numerous animated series, including as billionaire-villain Señor Senior, Senior in Disney’s Kim Possible as well as on Dora the Explorer and Family Guy.