Saturday, December 10, 2011

Study in Evil, part two

Well, perhaps "Evil" is being a bit dramatic, but it makes for a good title.

In part one I discussed T'Pring, one of Star Trek's most interesting and compelling bad guys.  T'Pring's motives were understandable, the execution of her plans brilliant, her manipulations masterful.  The fact that she won made for great drama.  Now I turn my eyes to...
Yes, that's right. Khan.  Played by Ricardo Montalban, Khan Noonian Singh was the product of late twentieth century genetic engineering, a principle player in the Eugenic Wars of the late twentieth century.  Losing the wars, he and his followers were launched into space on the Botany Bay in cryogenic suspension, accepting exile over the imprisonment/deaths of himself and his people.  Captain Kirk and The USS Enterprise discovered the ship and thawed Khan out, not realizing who or what he was, a man with super human strength and advanced intellect, and whose seductive powers rivaled Kirk's own as he suborned lieutenant McGivers and ultimately awoke his people.  He took over the Enterprise and it was only McGivers deciding she could not stand by and see her captain die at Khan's hands that saved the day.  Khan was exiled on Ceti Alpha V with his people and McGivers.

Now, what makes Khan such a great villain in this episode?  Let's break it down.

Khan is an awesome character: Khan was a dictator who honestly believed he was doing good.  When confronted by Kirk and Spock at dinner, when they are seeking to confirm that he is indeed Khan Noonian Sighn, his facade cracks and he says "We gave them order!" as he pounds the table.  Montalban is able to give us a complex, fascinating, fully fleshed out character in less than an hour, a man who honestly believes he is not evil, that it is his destiny to rule.  There is a reason why Khan was chosen to make the leap to the big screen, because Ricardo, writer Carey Wilber (and damn, I wish this guy had written more than just this single episode), producer Gene Coon and director Mark Daniels (who gave us a couple turkeys, but who also provided us with classics like The Doomsday Machine and Mirror/Mirror) did such a wonderful job providing us with a multi-layered personality.

Khan is the complete package.  Montalban oozes charisma.  He is handsome, looks physically powerful, possesses a strong voice that conveys a barely contained passion.  His Khan dominates every scene he is in.  Ricardo makes you believe this man once ruled a good chunk of the Earth and while I know we are watching a show made in the sixties and there is a degree of sexism involved in the way lieutenant McGivers is written, it does not take all that much suspension of disbelief for me to buy him seducing the impressionable lieutenant who is quite taken with romantic notions of the eugenics warlord.  Khan is highly intelligent, able to absorb twenty third century technical manuals and master their content to gain an understanding of the Enterprise's systems and to use them to take over the ship.  Khan is also far stronger than a normal human being and does an awesome job tossing Kirk around like a rag doll before he is taken down through James T.'s equalizer, a length of pipe.

Khan has grand goals/motivations. Khan was one of Earth's rulers, he is an ambitious leader who bows to no one.  He seeks to take over Enterprise and convince members of the crew to follow his banner.  It might seem silly to think that this man could form an empire from such meager origins, but his story reminds me of Romulus and Remus, the twin survivors of Troy who ultimately found Rome.  From the humblest beginnings can an empire grow.  Khan taking over the Enterprise is just the first step on his road to Empire.

Now up to now I had discussed Khan's appearance in the television episode Space Seed.  This was the first time he was featured.  There is, of course, his tremendously memorable appearance in Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan.
I spoke before in the T'Pring article about the importance of a villain being used sparingly, that every time they appear the odds are increased that their impact would be lessened, their legacy tarnished if they are badly handled.  Just look at those Voyager episodes starring John DeLancy as Q.  Instead of the character going out in style in All Good Things we got The Q and The Gray.  When a villain makes another appearance it should be different, should be bigger, grander. It should feel like an event.

And damn it, Wrath of Khan delivers. How is Khan different this time around?  Let's look.

He is leaner and meaner. In Space seed Khan is a charismatic, highly intelligent leader with physical presence and a seductive charm.  Now fifteen years of exile and hardship, seeing many of his people die (including his beloved wife, McGivers), has made him embittered, angry.  Khan's charm now has a biting sarcasm to it, an irony as he confronts Captain Terrell and Commander Chekov, and later Admiral Kirk.  Fifteen years of suffering have changed him, made him in many ways a different person.

Khan is Ahab, Kirk the White Whale.  So Khan's motivation has undergone a significant change.  Before he was interested in building an empire and doing what was best for his people.  Now his motivation is vengeance against Kirk regardless of the cost or common sense.  His subordinate, Joachim, points out that he has a ship to go where he will.  But Khan is not having it.  He wants to track down Kirk regardless of the cost.  This is where that character development really shows.  The Khan from Space Seed would not have been all that interested in revenge, not if it meant risking his personal freedom and the lives of his followers.  That Khan was a pragmatic man willing to do anything to survive.  He elected to take a risky exile into space rather than make some sort of futile last stand.  Now?  Now nothing else matters but killing Kirk, or hurting him.  Khan has been cost much, there must be reparation, payment in flesh and blood.

This is tremendous character development.  People can and usually do change over time, especially when faced with privation.  What we see in Khan is a man who has seemingly stripped away all unnecessary emotion to focus upon the sole task of survival of himself and his people.  There is no room for weak emotions like love or selfish ones like desire.  All that matters is dominance of his environment.  And when the possibility of revenge presents itself all that well honed, ruthless pragmatism developed over fifteen years is tossed aside in a second for a chance at revenge.

The stakes are higher. In Space Seed the stakes involve Khan taking over Kirk's ship and killing his crew in an initial bid to create an empire.  In the second film the stakes are similar, only they are larger.  Khan's chances of creating an empire were slim the first time around, but in the film Khan now has a doomsday weapon that can obliterate an entire planetary population!  In the episode the scale is smaller, man versus man.  In the second it is ship versus ship.  In the episode Kirk loses McGivers to Khan a good crew member.  In the film Kirk loses Spock, his best friend as well as numerous crew (among them young cadets).  In every way the film takes the stakes and raises them, Khan's second appearance bigger and better.

So what have we learned from how the 'Trek creators used Khan and what lessons can you as a GM take from it?  First of all, if you wish to defeat a villain you do not necessarily have to kill him.  Perhaps like Khan you exile him, imprison him, or make his death a very ambiguous one so his return can be teased.  This is especially true if the villain is one you really like (But please do not fall in love with your villains; you run the risk of putting him before the players) or one the players really enjoyed dealing with.  Second, if you do use a major villain (and when I mean "major" I mean the sort of person who is out to take on the world, change it, or destroy it) again it should be bigger and better than the time before.  Finally, do not be afraid to change the character's personality and motivations provided they make sense.

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