Khan Noonien Singh, commonly shortened to Khan, is a fictional villain in the American Star Trek science fiction franchise, portrayed by the Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán. The character first appeared in "Space Seed" (1967), a first season episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, and reappeared as the antagonist in the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
According to the backstory provided in "Space Seed", Khan is a genetically engineered superhuman from the Indian subcontinent who once controlled more than a quarter of the Earth during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. After being revived from suspended animation in 2267 by the crew of the USS Enterprise, Khan attempts to capture the starship, but is thwarted by James T. Kirk and exiled on Ceti Alpha V to create a new society with his people. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, set fifteen years after "Space Seed," Khan escapes his exile and sets out to seek revenge upon Kirk.
The character was originally conceived of as a Nordic superman by scriptwriter Carey Wilber before his ancestry was changed in script revisions. Harve Bennett, executive producer for Star Trek II, chose Khan as the villain for the film. To reflect the time spent marooned on an inhospitable world, Khan was given a costume that looked as though it had been scavenged from different items and showed off Montalbán's physique. The character has been positively received by critics and fans; Khan was voted as one of the top ten greatest film villains of all time by the Online Film Critics Society.
Khan makes his introductory appearance in Star Trek's twenty-second episode, "Space Seed," first broadcast on February 16, 1967. According to the backstory revealed in the episode, Khan is one of a group of genetically engineered supermen, bred to be free of the usual human mental and physical limitations, who were removed from power after the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. Khan had been both the most successful conqueror and the most benign ruler of the group, ruling more than a fourth of the world's area across Asia to the Middle East from 1992 to 1996 with a firm but generally peaceful hand until he was deposed. While most of the supermen were killed or sentenced to death, Khan and 84 others escaped Earth by way of the sleeper ship SS Botany Bay. Cryogenically frozen in suspended animation, the crew of the Botany Bay are discovered by the crew of the Enterprise in 2267.
When Khan's sleep chamber malfunctions, he is transported to Enterprise, where he reawakens and learns he is in the 23rd century. Given spacious quarters while the Botany Bay is towed to a starbase, Khan fascinates and charms the ship's historian, Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue), while using his access to the ship's technical manuals to learn how to take over and operate the Enterprise. McGivers agrees to help Khan revive the other supermen, allowing him to organize a mutiny. To coerce the Enterprise crew to cooperate with him, Khan places Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) in the ship's decompression chamber and threatens to kill Kirk unless the crew submits. McGivers cannot stand by as her Captain dies and frees Kirk, who neutralizes Khan's men by using a "neural gas." Khan heads to engineering and sets the ship's engines to self-destruct, whereupon he is incapacitated by Kirk. Captain Kirk conducts a hearing, sentencing Khan and his followers to exile on an uncolonized world, Ceti Alpha V. Khan accepts Kirk's challenge, invoking the fall of Lucifer in Milton's Paradise Lost, and McGivers joins Khan rather than face court-martial. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) wonders what the "seed" Kirk has planted will bear in a hundred years.
Khan returns in the 1982 feature film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and serves as the main antagonist. Clark Terrell and Pavel Chekov (Paul Winfield and Walter Koenig), officers of the USS Reliant, beam down to what they believe is Ceti Alpha VI, looking for an uninhabited world to test the Genesis device, a powerful terraforming tool. Khan's followers capture Terrell and Chekov, and Khan explains that the barren wasteland they now inhabit is Ceti Alpha V; the sixth planet of the system exploded shortly after Khan and his followers were marooned, causing massive climate disturbances. The planet was turned into a desert, and many of the survivors—including McGivers, who had become Khan's wife—were killed by the only surviving species of animal, the Ceti eel. By the time the Reliant arrives at Ceti Alpha, only twenty of Khan's followers are alive. Swearing vengeance on Kirk, Khan takes control of Chekov and Terrell using Ceti eels implanted in the officers' brains, rendering them vulnerable to suggestion. Khan then seizes control of the Reliant, intent on capturing the Genesis device and attaining revenge on Kirk for his exile.
Author Greg Cox penned three Star Trek novels featuring Khan. The novels were published by licensee Pocket Books, though the subject matter falls outside of canon. In the two-volume The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, Khan and his followers are placed aboard the Botany Bay by Gary Seven as part of a deal to stop Khan's machinations on Earth. The 2005 follow-up, To Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh, relates what happened to Khan and his fellow exiles between the events of "Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan.
In "Space Seed" writer Carey Wilber's original plot treatment, the character of Khan was a Nordic superman named Harold Erricsen. The first draft of the script introduced the character as John Ericssen— who is revealed to be a man involved in "the First World Tyranny", named Ragnar Thorwald. The character of Thorwald was more brutal than Khan in the final version, killing guards using a phaser. By the final draft, Khan is described as being of North Indian ancestry, and "probably a Sikh". The character's Latino accent and superhuman appearance strongly differentiate him from most Star Trek characters. In "Space Seed", Khan is presented as having several positive characteristics: he is gracious, smiling, fearless, and generous. He is not threatened by the success of others, and encourages their self-esteem. He is also ambitious, desiring a challenge commensurate with his abilities. This ambition, however, is not tempered by any consideration of the rights of others. Author Paul Cantor asserts that Khan is a mirror image of Kirk, sharing his aggressiveness, ambition, and even his womanizing tendencies, but possessing them in far greater degree. During the episode, several of the characters express their admiration for the man, while opposing his plans and what he stands for at the same time.
After the disappointing response to the first Star Trek feature film, The Motion Picture, Paramount executives appointed Harve Bennett, a television producer who had never watched Star Trek, to be executive producer for the sequel. Bennett watched all the original series episodes and chose Khan from "Space Seed" as a possible villain for the film. Early drafts of the script had Khan as a shadowy tyrant leading a planet in revolt; later drafts added the "Genesis device" which Khan would steal.
Costume designer Robert Fletcher wanted to emphasize the effects of their harsh environment on Khan and his followers. "My intention with Khan was to express the fact that they had been marooned on that planet with no technical infrastructure, so they had to cannibalize from the spaceship whatever they used or wore. Therefore, I tried to make it look as if they had dressed themselves out of pieces of upholstery and electrical equipment that composed the ship," he said. Director Nicholas Meyer told Montalbán to keep Khan's right glove on at all times, in order to give viewers a puzzle they could form their own opinions about and add mystery to the character. Meyer has been repeatedly asked if Montalbán wore a prosthetic chest for his scenes, as his uniform was purposefully designed with an open front. Meyer replied in audio commentary for the film that Montalbán (who was 61 during filming) is "one strong cookie", and that no prosthetics were applied to the actor's sizeable frame.
At no point during The Wrath of Khan are Khan and Kirk face to face; they speak to each other only over communication links such as view screens. This was due in part to the fact that the set of the Reliant was a redress of the Enterprise bridge, and the two actors' scenes were filmed four months apart. Montalbán recited his lines with a script girl instead of to William Shatner.
Montalbán said in promotional interviews for the film he realized early on in his career that a good villain does not see himself as villainous. The villain may do villainous things, but he feels that he is doing them for righteous reasons. Montalbán further stated he always tried to find a flaw in the character, as no one is completely good or completely evil; while Khan had a rather distorted view of reality and therefore performed acts of evil, he still felt that his vengeance was a noble cause because of the death of his wife. Khan quotes the character of Ahab from Moby-Dick throughout the film, driving home his lust to make Kirk pay for the wrongs he has inflicted upon him.
Superficially, Khan is believed by some to have similarities with Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the "Übermensch" (superman or overman). Khan is mentally and physically superior to any normal human. In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Borderland", Malik, the leader of a group of "supermen" created from the same genetic engineering project as Khan, actually quotes Nietzsche, telling Archer that "Mankind is something to be surpassed". Professor William J. Devlin and coauthor Shai Biderman examined Khan's character compared to the Übermensch and found that Khan's blind pursuit of revenge is against Nietzsche's ideals of transcendence and self-creation of a meaningful life. Instead, the authors offer Spock's self-sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan as a better example of the Übermensch.
Reception and legacy
Khan was favorably received by critics. Discussing the Star Trek motion pictures, the Associated Press noted that Star Trek films were measured by how menacing their foe was, and that Khan was among the best in the series; a 2002 review of the Star Trek films ranked Khan as the greatest enemy seen in any of the films. Reviewers of The Wrath of Khan, such as Roger Ebert, rated Khan as one of the strongest aspects of the film. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said Montalbán's performance as Khan "was the only validation he has ever had of his power to command the big screen."
Critic Christopher Null notes that "it is nearly gospel now among Trekkies that... Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the undisputed best of the series, and will likely never meet its equal," and calls Khan the "greatest role of [Montalbán's] career". Though he felt that the villain of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, V'ger, was more cerebral and interesting, author James Iaccino notes that most fans and moviegoers preferred the archetypical good-versus-evil fight the struggle between Khan and Kirk represents. Villains in subsequent Star Trek films have been measured by the standard of Khan, with Paramount promising fans that the villain of Star Trek Generations would be equal to the genetic superman. IGN ranked Khan as the best Star Trek villain, noting that he set the pattern for revenge-seeking villains in the series; in the decades since the film's release, "even those with a passing interest [in Trek] know the name". Star Trek producer Rick Berman called the villain "threatening and memorable".
Khan is also recognized as a great villain outside of the Star Trek series. The Associated Press called the character "one of sci-fi's great villains". In 2002, the Online Film Critics Society's 132 members voted Khan as the 10th Greatest Screen Villain of all time, the only Star Trek character to appear in the listing. In 2006, Emmy Magazine voted Khan "TV's Most Out-of-This-World Character", beating out other science-fiction characters such as The Doctor and Commander Adama. Editors wrote that "Khan was so cool we would've bought a Chrysler Cordoba if he'd told us to," referring to an ad campaign Montalbán appeared in for Chrysler. The character also had a cultural impact outside of Star Trek fandom; a clip from The Wrath of Khan featuring Kirk screaming "Khaaan!" was one pop culture appropriation that became a "popular fad" driving the success of the website YTMND.
In 2004, the Star Trek franchise returned to Khan's backstory in a three-episode story arc on Star Trek: Enterprise. In "Borderland", "Cold Station 12" and "The Augments", a 22nd century scientist is portrayed as having revived genetically engineered embryos from Khan's time and raised them as "Augments". Enterprise producer Manny Coto described these characters as "mini Khan Noonien Singhs".
Following the box office success of J. J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot and the announcement that actors Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto had tentatively agreed to appear in two sequels, Internet rumors began circulating about the plot of the second film. Abrams hinted that because of the alternate timeline created in the first film, reintroducing Khan into Star Trek lore remained a possibility. Abrams told MTV, "[Khan and Kirk] exist — and while their history may not be exactly as people are familiar with, I would argue that a person's character is what it is," Abrams said of the notion that his Khan could be just as evil, even if Kirk never stranded him on Ceti Alpha V. "Certain people are destined to cross paths and come together, and Khan is out there... even if he doesn't have the same issues."