The Problem with Khan: Trek‘s Shortage of Suitable Villainy
I don’t care if it’s Benicio Del Toro or Edgar Ramirez who ends up playing the mysterious villain in the long-awaited second JJ Abrams Star Trek movie, I swear. The only thing that I’m worried about is that, no matter who gets the role, it’s beginning to look a lot like they’ll be playing Khan Noonien Singh and… Well, do we really have to do this again? Isn’t there anyone else who can take over the Big Bad role for the next Trek?
Admittedly, the answer to that question might be “no”; the seemingly unquenchable desire to see Khan make a comeback in the second Trek movie from this new series underscores a strange fact about Trek in all its various forms: It didn’t really get into the arch-nemesis idea. Sure, there were a lot of recurring characters, and certainly all manner of alien races that were considered threats, but in terms of individual recurring villains…? Not so much. Surprisingly, there really is no Trek version of the Joker, or the Green Goblin or whoever.
When Trek was a television series, this was a plus; it meant that each episode potentially had the same weight as any other, and that you wouldn’t think that a Tribble episode or Harry Mudd or whatever would just be killing time until the next reappearance of the Big Bad – A problem, I think, that some of the revival series fell into, especially the arc-based Deep Space Nine, which (for me, at least) had episodes that really just felt like filler when I wanted to get to the next development with the Dominion. But movies are different; they almost demand the kind of sense of scale and “Things are going to get bad” that automatically comes with an arch-nemesis, and also the brevity in exposition that comes with one characters, rather than, say, an entire race like the Klingons or the Borg. There’s less time for worldbuilding in a movie, compared with a series, and more need for the bad guy to have a particular face.
(Consider Nero from the last Trek movie; an attempt to fill this gap, but not necessarily an entirely successful one; he lacked the name recognition that Khan or, let’s be honest, any other character from the original series could have brought, and I think that ultimately hurt both him and the movie, a little. Plus, let’s be honest: No-one really cares about the Romulans that much, even if you do destroy their entire race. They’ve always been the grumpy Vulcans to most people.)
So, it pretty much is Khan or nothing, right now, isn’t it? There aren’t any other singular villains in Trek that share his elevated status (Even if that status only, ironically, comes from his being plucked from relative obscurity and built up in a movie not unlike this one will likely be, twenty-odd years ago. While I’m at it, please someone tell me that I’m not the only person amused that said movie is called The Wrath of Khan considering that’s the character’s first name? Admittedly, The Wrath of Singh doesn’t sound as good, but still; it’s like calling the movie The Wrath of David or The Wrath of Jim or something). That feels like it could be a problem for Trek movies going forward, which is why I’m hope that the denials that whatever actor ends up as the big bad is going to get his Ricardo Montelban on aren’t just swerves/lies because everyone has already guessed what’s going on. I’d rather see an attempt to build up other familiar ideas and/or faces in the second movie, so that we won’t be left with the idea that Khan is the one major bad guy in the entire franchise.
Of course, not using Khan in the second movie also has the added benefit of keeping him available for a shock appearance in the third, just in case the second movie leaves audiences extremely disappointed. Trying new ideas and not giving the audience what they think they want only works for so long if the audience isn’t receptive, after all…