Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan makes good use of a famous quote - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." If Charles Dickens could have a tale of two cities, we can surely have a tale of two Khans.
Whereas the J.J. Abrams films have kept the characters we know and love pretty true to the look and feel of the originals, Star Trek Into Darkness' version of (SPOILERS AHEAD) Khan Noonien Singh definitely has its own spin. Since this week is the 31st anniversary of the release of The Wrath of Khan, let's do a compare and contrast for five key categories.
Note for the completists: we're sticking pretty much with "Space Seed"/The Wrath of Khan against Star Trek Into Darkness. We'll put aside Greg Cox's marvelous Eugenics War novels (and IDW Publishing's Ruling in Hell comics) for now.
In the original timeline Khan Noonien Singh, a Sikh from northern India, is played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban.
In Star Trek Into Darkness he is played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch.
Well, in terms of sheer proximity, I guess Britain is closer. Plus, the U.K. did once have colonial interest over India. But. . .no. . .Cumberbatch may be a great actor, but the casting here doesn't make sense. (Unless you want to float the idea that Admiral Marcus put Khan through some sort of cosmetic surgery when he gave him the identity of John Harrison. But I'm not buying that.)
In the original, when the crew of the Enterprise learns they have their hands on Khan Noonien Singh, everyone knows who he is. Kirk, Scotty and even Dr. McCoy all admit to having a certain admiration for the 1990s-era tyrant, at least through the gauzy filter of history.
In Star Trek Into Darkness no one has ever heard of the guy. Spock even has to call up Spock Prime to ask who he is. It's so bad that Cumberbatch's line "I am Khan" is pretty much met with crickets. I guess the destruction of the Kelvin demolished all the history books too?
In the original, the eugenically enhanced Khan puts up a good fight. "I have five times your strength," he warns Kirk toward the end of "Space Seed." Still, Kirk is able to conk him on the head into unconsciousness.
In Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan is a killing machine. He swoops down (from where exactly?) with a humongous phaser rifle and blows away Klingons, then takes them all out with efficient hand to hand combat. Later, on the Vengeance, he disposes of security men with fast martial arts moves, hardly breaking a sweat. Kirk's attempts to knock him out are laughable - to the point that even Uhura has to yell at him to quit trying.
In "Space Seed" Khan is something of a poet-warrior with an almost-understandable will to power. Yeah, he goes about it the wrong way, but by the end of the episode when he, his crewmates and Lt. Marla McGivers are cut loose on Ceti Alpha V it's almost like when the two rival kids shake hands on the last day of camp. This changes, of course, by The Wrath of Khan (living on an uninhabitable wasteland with killer ear slugs will do that to ya.) After a few years of whining (waaah, Captain Kirk isn't checking on me. . .) Khan focuses all his might into revenge-seeking rage, and thus the titular wrath is born.
In Star Trek Into Darkness there's a lot that is done to keep you in the dark about this new Khan, so it is a little hard to get inside his head. At the end of the day, though, the implication is that he isn't all bad. He just wants his crew - his "family" back. His main foe, Admiral Marcus, is hardly a good guy, so we don't exactly weep when Khan crushes his skull with his bare hands. His need to destroy San Francisco seems to be a little over the top, though.
In "Space Seed" Khan is quick to jump out of a cryogenic tube, do some deep breathing yoga moves, then find the love of a good woman. Marla McGivers, predisposed to fall for a ruthless leader from an earlier century, sends crazy signals his way and he wastes no time bringing her down to Ceti Alpha V to let her "study the 20th century," if you know what I mean.
In Star Trek Into Darkness Khan stomps on Carol Marcus' leg and breaks it. What's up with that?
Well, it isn't a total blow-out, but clearly we are classicists. Luckily, Cumberbatch's Khan was put on ice at the end of Into Darkness and wasn't exploded into protomatter like at the end of Star Trek II. What that means is that it is possible, although highly unlikely, that nu-Khan will be back in the NEXT Star Trek film!
Surely you have some thoughts on this highly contentious matter. Lemme know how you think the two Khans match up in the comments below.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.