Throwback Thursday: Khan’s Lasting Impact on the Star Trek Franchise

Kenny Madison is one of Axanar’s guest blogging crew.


On an excellent episode of “This Week in Trek,” hosted by Michael Gaines and Darrell Skeels, a question was posed… ‘Why was Khan such a darn good villain in Star Trek II?’  Gaines and Skeels discussed Ricardo Montalban’s great performance and how he brought a gravitas to the entire movie.

The discussion turned to a law of diminishing returns within the Trek movies. Every villain since then has been some variation on a Khan archetype (except, strangely, Star Trek V), each not quite reaching Montalban’s status as Khan (agree or disagree? – comment below!).  Kruge wanted revenge against the Federation. Chang was not for revenge, but still quoted Shakespeare. Then you have Soran, the Borg Queen, Ru’afo, Shinzon, Nero, and Khan again. All of them were hell-bent on dealing some perverse justice upon our heroes.

Khan changed Star Trek but was it for the better?

This makes me ask: why was Star Trek II so freaking cool?

Deconstructing Khan: Beyond Performance
Khan worked so well not just because of an outstanding performance from Montalban. Khan was a reflection of the themes in Star Trek II. Khan was a literal embodiment of the deconstruction of the “Captain Kirk” role. While Khan focused on revenge, the function of Khan’s character was based more in theme than plot. TWOK was focused on asking one question:

What are the consequences of being Captain Kirk?

The Wrath of Khan was a deconstruction of Trek. It acknowledged Shatner’s aging and created poignancy through Kirk’s oath to duty in settling for a desk job. It acknowledged Kirk’s womanizing by giving him a son. It acknowledged Star Trek’s “cowboy diplomacy” by having a sin of the past show up and kick the hell out of them. It even acknowledged the episodic structure of Trek by killing Spock, a declaration that, even in Trek, all things end.  All of these things are intertwined with one another to create a rich tapestry, which some people may just remember as stereotypes. Beneath those stereotypes lie more substantive interaction of themes. Let’s deconstruct two of those ‘stereotypes’ real quick.

Khan wanted revenge.

Certainly. However, this revenge is another theme that clashes with some of Kirk’s deeper challenges.  Kirk is dealing with his past and how to storm forward in an uncertain future. He’s given up adventuring for a desk job and has so many regrets. Khan is the embodiment of those enormous regrets. When Kirk encounters Khan, Kirk’s face turns to utter shock. Khan, victorious yet bitter, states, “You still remember, my old friend.”

This is not just Khan slapping Kirk down a few pegs. Kirk does not expect Khan, as Khan is a relic from Kirk’s past. Khan was an “episode” of Kirk’s life. The episode finished with a happy ending and Kirk never bothered to check on Khan’s progress. Kirk was focused on the next adventure. Kirk has won hundreds of battles and flown away from each one of them. However, this is one battle that returned to haunt him.

Khan returning challenged Kirk and the episodic nature of his adventures. It was Kirk’s punishment for having done Star Trek. The filmmakers (intentionally or not) challenged the self contained nature of almost every episode of the series and built that into Kirk’s DNA. Not only were the episodes self-contained, but they were also a statement on Kirk’s character. Because of this “episodic” nature and never following up like a decent human being, Khan punished Kirk.


Star Trek II’s got action!

Have you counted the “action” sequences in TWOK?


In an almost two hour movie, there are two sequences where Enterprise and Reliant spar off against each other. Granted, one of those scenes is roughly 15 minutes long, but it’s still just two. There’s not a single shot fired until 40 minutes into the movie!

Instead, we see Khan use his intellect to maneuver the Enterprise exactly where he needs it. When that first dogfight between Enterprise and Reliant happens, it’s over in two minutes. The rest of the scene is Kirk and Khan playing brain poker with each other.

The success of that scene comes from the characters being intelligent and having smart solutions. Also, the action works in TWOK because the characters change fundamentally after the first attack. It propels the story forward and creates new emotional situations that the characters have to deal with.

From Khan to Kharn
TWOK is the golden standard of Trek. It dared to deconstruct all of Trek and put Kirk on trial because of it. It told a Trek story of a man whose biggest fight wasn’t with Khan but was with his concepts of irrelevance.

Star Trek is best when dealing with very human themes. It’s easy to get mired into what makes Star Trek cool, but how many of us talk about what makes Star Trek relevant today? How can we utilize the format of Star Trek to tell a story that talks about us? When we look at Star Trek, we shouldn’t focus on telling a cool Star Trek story, but how to talk about the human condition and answer questions within our very souls.

Axanar, and Kharn, could very well be a thematic journey about what sours great men. By taking Garth of Izar, a character perverted by hubris, and daring to go back and see how it happened, it lays out a road map rich in themes. By using the history of Star Trek, Axanar could dare to explore villainy and its very human roots.

Director Rob Burnett was recently quoted in Alec Peters’ Captains Log as saying:

…while we’re making a film about the cost of war, AXANAR will absolutely stand up with the very best of STAR TREK as a story about the nature of what it means to be human amidst the crashing tides of galactic change.

So we’ve seen Khan impact Trek for decades to come and we can’t help but wonder if we’ll see some of his legacy spill into parts of Axanar.  But if there were one point about Khan’s legacy I’d like to drive home it’s that it is crucial to realize that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan wasn’t cool because of Khan.   It was cool because it was a great story with Khan in it.

One Comment

  • KellyJ says:

    TWOK was a trek film that tied up one of the many loose ends left over from the TV series. Kirk giving Khan the challenge of Botany Bay…they went on to tame a Continent. Can you tame a world. In TWOK we get to see the fate of Khan and the madness of a person created/born to rule being relegated to mere survival; his world to conquer being lost a second time (or a third) by the hand of fate. It leaves the Trek Fan satisfied in closing the loop, then devastated at the price paid (Spock).
    Axanar is likely to be of this same caliber. We see Garth as he is and the series leaves us with the satisfaction of his recovery/redemption…but it leaves us empty on the other end. Star Fleets greatest Captain. Kirks hero. With no details given as to the WHY??!!!. Axanar closes the front end of that loop. It should leave Fans with the happy glow (fulfillment!) of the circle completed. Depending on how the ending is done, it may leave new viewers who may not have seen the series that same feeling of loose ends…that then get satisfied when they watch ‘Whom Gods Destroy.”
    The best thing? Their are plenty of other loose ends in the original series that can be looked at for the potential of closing also (though several were done in the other Trek series).