Khan’s Story: The Villain-Savior of The Star Trek Franchise and A Warning For Our Own Fragile Future

Randy Smith
8 min readJul 2, 2023

“Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnn!” Captain Kirk screams in an epic and oft-repeated scene from the 1982 science fiction classic, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” And there is a reason why the name of a villain is one of the most memorable scenes from one of the most iconic of franchises. It’s because Khan Noonian Singh, a genetically-enhanced Sikh from the 20th Century who wrecks havoc in the 23rd Century, has and continues to have a profound impact on movie villains and the Star Trek franchise ever since. With the exception of Darth Vader and maybe Dracula, Khan may be the most impactful movie villain of all time as explained further below.

If you are a casual fan of Khan, you may not know how to enjoy his full story. This article will explain one way to more fully enjoy Khan, though it will take effort to complete (albeit, a non-canonical version) of Khan’s full story.

A brief synopsis of who Khan is and how the world was introduced to him starts with The Original Series (TOS) episode “Space Seed” (more details on it are below), when a spaceship, Botany Bay, S.S., is found floating in space with hybernating genetically-enhanced humans from the 20th century led by Khan. When the world sees him next, in the 1982 film, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, he has become a vengeful pirate laser-focused on punishing Captain Kirk. So, what happened to Khan in those fifteen years between the episode and that the movie does not address? How did the Botany Bay even get constructed in the 20th Century and survive for hundreds of years in space? How did Chekhov remember the Botany Bay when he wasn’t on the Space Seed episode? Also, how did Khan and his people survive on a dying planet that Kirk had sent him to for so long? What kind of superhuman powers does Khan have, and how did he even get them in the 20th Century?

These and many other questions were always on my mind the many times I watched the Wrath of Khan, and so I tried to figure out if there were any answers. And thankfully there were, both in novelizations of Khan’s backstory as well as tie-ins with other The Original Series episodes. This article lays out one chronological path for fellow Khan enthusiasts to learn the who, what, how and why of arguably one of the greatest villains to ever grace our screens.

As an aside, the only Khan I acknowledge is the one played by the great Mexican actor, Ricardo Montalbán. I mostly ignore Benedict Cumberbatch’s rendition of Khan in Into Darkness, though, as I explain further below, there is one benefit to his protrayal. Otherwise, I have erased it from my memory, and, frankly, so should you. So, when you think of or read about Khan, these are two faces you should see in your mind: a younger version from Space Seed and an older version from the Wrath of Khan.

  1. Watch “Assignment Earth”.

This may seem like an odd place to start on Khan, but it will make sense soon. This episode, the 26th and final of Season Two of TOS, introduces the Star Trek universe to Gary Seven and his partner, Roberta Lincoln (played by the great Teri Gar (i.e., the mom from the ’80s classic Mr. Mom). While Assignment Earth is later in the TOS chronology than Space Seed, being introduced to Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln is important because they play very important roles in the non-cannon novelizations of Khan’s backstory discussed below. Also, while the details of the episode are not important, it is interesting in that it primarily takes place in then present-day 1968. The USS Enterprise travels back through time to 1968 Earth, where they encounter Gary Seven, and Kirk and Spock are uncertain of his motives.

One interesting side note is that Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln’s stories were supposed to be in their own television series, but that never occurred. They are still important characters in the Star Trek universe, if they only live in novelizations and comic book renditions.

2. Read “The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh: Volume I.”

Greg Cox’s novelization details Khan’s origins as a genetically-enhanced human as a part of the Chrysalis Project. They are written mostly in the perspective of Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln, hence this is why watching “Assignment Earth” as you commence your Khan journey is so important. And, I must admit, having a whole book where Khan was a hero working alongside Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln, was a real joy even though I know where his story goes.

3. Read “The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh: Volume II.”

This novel primarily takes place during the critical early 1990s, marked (like our real world) by the post-Cold War era, also with wars in the Balkans and elsewhere, the rise of the “militia” movement in the United States, and all the other events until Khan leaves the Earth in the SS Botany Bay later found by the Enterprise. And, this novel answers the question of how the Botany Bay even came into existence in the 20th Century by making a critical tie in to the blockbuster Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which, if you have seen it, primarily takes place during 1986 in San Francisco.

WARNING: There are times when this book clashes with Khan’s history as laid out in Space Seed. Specifically, the Eugenics Wars is depicted as being a more “covert” war than how it is described in Space Seed. Then again, the fact that the events in Space Seed occurred three hundred years later, perhaps hindsight views are even more nostalgic than otherwise.

4. Watch “Space Seed”.

“Space Seed” is Khan’s first appearance and it was Season 1, Episode 22 of TOS, and aired on February 16, 1967. In the 23rd Century, Captain Kirk and the Enterprise find the Botany Bay adrift in space. Kirk, Doctor Leonard McCoy, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, and historian Lieutenant Marla McGivers beams to the Botany Bay to search it. They find dozens of humans still alive in suspended animation, and McGivers identifies the group’s leader, Khan Noonian Singh, who begins to revive and is taken back to Enterprise for medical examination.

During the episode, Khan and the Botany Bay’s backstory is revealed. Khan and his other genetic superhumans had become tyrants and conquered more than a third of the planet during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. And, not surprisingly, once Khan escapes and revives his compatriots, they take over the Enterprise and nearly kill Kirk. Thankfully, Marla comes to her senses and helps save Kirk. There is an epic fight scene between the superhuman Khan and Kirk, and, of course, Kirk manages to win.

In the end, Kirk allows Khan and his people to colonize an empty planet, Ceti Alpha V as their punishment. Khan seems pleased and Marla even joins him. This is the last that the Star Trek world ever hears of Khan until Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is released in theaters 15 years later.

5. Read “The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh: Volume III: To Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh.”

This novel is both fun and depressing because it fills in the gaps between Space Seed and The Wrath of Khan. Greg Cox manages to make Khan to be a sympathetic victim as you read and ponder the literal hell he and his people endure starting just six months after landing on Ceti Alpha V.

The novel also answers many questions fans have pondered for years. Such as why were most of Khan’s people so young in Wrath of Khan and how could they have survived for so many years in the cramped cargo pods. Even little things like why did Khan wear a glove, the backstory of the creatures used in the Wrath of Khan to control Chekhov and the Captain of the Reliant and how was it that Khan knew Chekov.

The novel features Kirk, Spock and McCoy visiting Ceti Alpha V sometime after the events of “Stark Trek IV: The Voyage Home” to determine what happened there, and they discover an account of Khan’s exile on Ceti Alpha V.

6. Watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

To finish Khan’s tale and epic impact on the Star Trek universe, watch one of the greatest movie sequels of all time. This film likely saved the entire Star Trek franchise as the original Star Trek film, The Motion Picture, was not well understood upon its release in 1979. Itwas Khan that brought Star Trek back into relevance, and every fan owes his story and Ricardo’s performance a debt of gratitude.

After the success of Star Trek II (having earned almost $100 million at the box office), the following Star Trek films were also successful so much so that Star Trek: The Next Generation was launched in 1985, truly solidifying the Star Trek franchise and opening it up to new tales, television series, films, novelizations and otherwise to this day.

So why do I think Khan is the greatest villain of all time? A big factor is Ricardo’s performance as Khan. Yes, Benedict is a terrific actor, but he was a terrible Khan. I am thankful to have seen his performance once because it solidified for me that what an actor brings to life in a character is crucial.

I remember watching Space Seed with my wife for the first time, and she remarked how much she could feel Khan’s magnetism even 50 years later. That made Lieutenant Marla McGivers becoming immediately spellbound upon seeing Khan that much more real for me. Khan is even admired as a character by Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy when they speak of his history. Spock’s confusion also makes sense if you are being purely objective. But, with Khan, you can’t be. There is a relatability in that, quite frankly, there is a part of every human that would want the confidence Khan has. Yes, he becomes a murderous psychopath, but with Ricardo’s performance in The Wrath of Khan and by actually knowing a backstory, you can finally sympathize with where he is coming from.

Put another way, Khan didn’t ask to be superhuman, he was born that way. He was an unwilling participant in Project Chrysalis. His human-tinkered DNA is superior. His conflated ego and megalomania is in his blood. It’s the founders of Project Chrysalis that are to blame for the unintended(?) consequences of their actions no matter how noble they may have been. And maybe in today’s world with Chatbot and other Ai tools expanding, genetic tinkering and our own future uncertain, we should be particularly weary of unintended consequences from implementing the beginnings of nonhuman/altered human dominance in all aspects of our lives.

In The Raffle Novel, Noah, the ultra-religious humanoid who becomes a villain because of his own beliefs of superiority, was influenced by Kahn. And I believe if the wrong people create and program Ai and robots, and genetically alter embryos then robots and enhanced humans themselves can be or became racists or supremacists. Once the wrong humans tinker with creation and consciousness and introduce their own biases, I fear that negativity will leak into their super creations and become a terrible part of their DNA, much like Khan did.

--

--

Randy Smith

This is my pen name. I write random musings about our semi-dystopian world, pop culture and nerdy things like transportation, film noir and music.