In “Space Seed,” Khan, seeing an opportunity to begin his old nation-conquering habits again, tried to take over the Enterprise. Kirk and Spock outwit him, knock out his genetically enhanced retinue, and wrest back control of the ship. Rather than punish Khan for his malfeasance, however, Kirk gives the villain an ultimatum: can he create the ideal society he’s always dreamed of on an uninhabited planet somewhere? Khan accepts the challenge, and he is left on a planet called Ceti Alpha V to build his masterpiece society. Khan was out of sight and out of mind.
Until the release of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” in 1982. In the film, it was revealed that shortly after Khan arrived, Ceti Alpha V experienced a massive natural cataclysm that transformed it into an inhospitable desert world. For decades, Khan and his retinue lived huddled in a ship, barely surviving, growing increasingly preoccupied with getting revenge on Kirk. Over the course of “Star Trek II,” Khan commandeers a Starfleet vessel called the U.S.S. Reliant and goes hunting for Kirk, now an admiral. Kirk, meanwhile, is going through a midlife crisis wherein he finally faces the consequences of several forgotten transgressions. Khan is the personification of Kirk’s absent-mindedness; he never bothered to check in on Khan.
Popular opinion typically dictates that “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is the best of the 13 extant “Star Trek” movies. Montalbán brings a glorious, melodramatic oomph to his performance that thrills audiences and handily balances Shatner’s occasional tendency to play Kirk as larger-than-life. He is a great “Star Trek” villain.
But then, that’s a problem. Since when was “Star Trek” about “heroes” and “villains”? Since 1982, it seems. Ordinarily, Trek is more morally nuanced than that.