‘Star Trek’ and Captain Kirk’s Nemesis – The Khan Breakdown
Star Trek has many races which the Federation conflicts with. But only one man stands as the truest villain: Khan Noonien Singh.
Khan Noonien Singh is almost as synonymous with Star Trek as Kirk and Spock. But just because you know Khan doesn’t mean you know him, you know? Everybody knows Khan and Kirk are enemies, but not everybody knows why they’re beefing. Everybody knows who Khan is in the 23rd century, but not everyone knows who he was in the 20th. And everybody knows Khan is bad but not everyone knows why he is so bad.
So, let’s dig into the minutia of Khan. Who is he really? Is there anything redeemable about the man whose actions lead to the death of Spock? And what is his workout routine? Like, for real, more people should be that beefy.
To talk about Khan, we first have to talk about genetic manipulation, augments, and the Eugenics Wars.
From Soong to Singh
Thanks to Star Trek: Picard, we have some insight into the originals of the genetic augmentation which leads to the existence of Khan. It all starts in the early 21st century with geneticist Adam Soong (an ancestor of Data’s creator Dr. Noonien Soong). Adam Soong attempts to genetically alter the human genome and create a more “perfect” human. Unfortunately for Soong, what he creates are a number of clones with terminal genetic conditions.
Eventually, with a little help from Q, Soong’s final clone Kore manages to survive. However, Kore’s anger over her “father’s” experimentation causes her to destroy all his research. The only remaining piece of Soong’s findings exists in a single, manila folder that reads “Project Khan“. To the best of our knowledge, this is the moment that leads to the eventual creation of Khan and his era of Augmented people.
One note about the timeline: Khan’s origins are somewhat fluid. According to Star Trek: The Original Series Khan is born in 1959 and comes to power in the 1990s. Pragmatically speaking: no one expected Star Trek to continue existing as a franchise for thirty years, let alone sixty. The timelines are changing because the show has to change in order to continue being relevant.
If you want an in-universe explanation, Picard showrunner Terry Matalas points out that historical data from that time may be inaccurate due to the catastrophic third world war that happens in the 21st century. And there’s also the Temporal Cold War from Star Trek: Enterprise which may have altered the timeline.
Khan and the Eugenics Wars
There are a few nebulous events that occur in Star Trek’s official timeline. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds establishes that the January 6, 2021 insurrectionist riots lead to a second Civil War in the United States of America. And, eventually, we land ourselves in a third World War which wipes out 30% of the human race. But between those two events, in the midst of all the conflict, “superman” rise to power.
These “supermen” who, better said, genetically augmented humans use their scientifically enhanced abilities to take over more than 40 countries across the globe. One leader ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s population – a Sikh from Norther India named Kahn Noonien Singh.
Khan ruled over Asia, the Middle East, and other parts of the world. And while Khan did not attack other nations, he did hold fascistic rule over his citizens. A people cannot fight when they are powerless and that’s how Khan kept them. But skirmishes among Augment leaders eventually leads to a larger conflict: the Eugenics Wars.
Eventually, Khan sees that the tide is turning against Augments and decides to run. Khan boards 84 of his fellow augments and followers on an interplanetary sleep ship he dubs the SS Botany Bay. And, after launching into space they sleep – until the 23rd century.
In 2267, the Enterprise under Captain James T. Kirk discovers the Botany Bay and its sleeping crew. In short order, Khan is revived and learns that his people have been asleep for far longer than intended. Kirk and company know the history of the Eugenics Wars but not Khan’s true identity until it is too late. The Enterprise historian Lieutenant Marla McGivers falls in love with Khan and helps him take over the ship.
Khan awakens his sleeping comrades. His plan is to use the Enterprise to conquer a colony planet and kickstart his absolute rule once more. McGivers, perhaps unsurprisingly, begins to realize that perhaps she’s backed the wrong horse. She helps Kirk and, eventually, the captain is able to wrest the Enterprise back from Khan’s control.
In the end, rather than sending Khan to Starfleet for trial, Kirk offers him an alternate choice. Kirk tells Khan he and his people can settle on the empty world of Seti Alpha V where they can start over. Kirk also tells McGivers she can go with Khan or face court martial – she chooses the former. Khan sees Seti Alpha V as a “better to rule in hell than serve in heaven” situation. Kirk promises he will check in on Khan and his people. Spoiler Alert: Kirk does not check in.
Well, how bad could the consequences be?
The Wrath of Khan
In 2285 the USS Reliant visits a planet they think is Seti Alpha VI. Their mission is to confirm there is no life on the planet. Dr. Carol Marcus, her son David, and their team of scientists are searching for a place to test their Genesis Device. Genesis turns lifeless worlds into lush planetoids. The catch is that, if used on a living world, Genesis would destroy all existing life and replace it with its new matrix.
Captain Terrell and Pavel Chekov do not find a dead world in Seti Alpha VI. In fact, they do not find Seti Alpha VI at all because that world is destroyed. All that remains is a now-barren Seti Alpha V. Except it isn’t entirely barren because Khan and his followers still live there — and they’re pissed off. Trapped on a world that is now desolate, Khan lost much of his crew including his wife, McGivers.
Long story short: Khan finds out about Genesis and takes Reliant to Regula I (where Doctor Marcus is). His plan is to steal the Genesis device and lure Kirk to Regula in order to enact some good, old-fashioned revenge.
The Consequences are Really Bad
It turns out that nearly 20 years of isolation is not good for Khan’s emotional well-being. He doesn’t really care about anything other than revenge. So the plans for interplanetary conquest are not really on his radar anymore on account of his all-consuming need to torment and kill James T. Kirk. Which, spoiler alert: he fails to do.
However, Khan does do a lot of other things. For example, he uses the Reliant to nearly destroy the Enterprise, killing Montgomery Scott’s nephew Peter Preston in the process. He also controls the minds of Captain Terrell and Chekov with space slugs, resulting in Terrel’s eventual death. And Khan also steals the Genesis device while briefly stranding Kirk in the insides of a dead planetoid called Regula.
But all of that is peanuts. Eventually, after Kirk makes his way back to the Enterprise, he and Khan face off in a submarine-like space battle. And while Khan and Reliant are crippled in the process, Khan is still able to activate Genesis. Khan dies in the process, but, in order to restore warp power and escape, Spock also sacrifices himself and dies.
And I would say that’s the end of Khan Noonien Singh except for two bits of the relevant business.
Star Trek Into Darkness
There is also Bad Robot’s alternate Star Trek reality – the Kelvin Universe. And in the second of three film outings (so far) the Kelvin Universe introduces a different, though somewhat similar, Khan Noonien Singh. In this case, Admiral Marcus awakes a sleeping Khan and tasks him with forcing the Federation into a war with the Klingons.
However, as you might expect, Khan rebels and escapes to the Klingon home world. He is eventually captured by the Enterprise captained by a much younger James T. Kirk. Khan reveals that Admiral Marcus is holding Khan’s people hostage. Kirk and Khan develop an uneasy alliance to defeat Marcus. You’ll never guess how that turns out!
Surprise, Khan betrays Kirk. However, in this topsy turvy world, it’s Kirk who sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise and Spock who chases after and captures Khan. Apparently, Khan’s blood is super-powered and brings Kirk back to life? Anyway, in the end, Khan gets placed into cryostasis along with the rest of his people.
La-an Noonien Singh and Una Chin-Riley
We are probably not going to see any new versions of Khan Noonien-Singh any time soon, however, he is currently looming large over Star Trek: Strange New Worlds for two reasons. On the one hand, we have Khan’s descendent La’an Noonien Singh. And on the other hand, we have another genetically altered race, the Illyrians, as represented through Enterprise first officer Una Chin-Riley.
La’an does not, to the best of our knowledge, have any super strength – but who knows what might be hiding in her genetic code! We know augments remain hated in the 23rd century. And, moreover, no races who alter their genetic code are welcome in the Federation because of the consequences of the Augment Wars.
Una Chin-Riley is an Illyrian, though which means her genes are altered. What’s more, Una keeps her Illyrian heritage a secret until the truth is forced to light. The first season of Strange New Worlds closes with Una getting dragged off to jail for concealing her true origins.
In other words, the consequences of Khan and his existence still loom large in the world of Star Trek.