Khan Noonien Singh is, arguably, Star Trek’s greatest villain. He is a complex character whose intelligence, experience and strength made him a formidable and dangerous adversary for James T. Kirk. Khan’s mythos has proved enduring for Trek fans, who’ve seen this character arise across their screens in different decades and even timelines. This character is compelling not only because his engineered intellect and strength make him a threat to Trek’s protagonists, but because his failing is one that’s easily reflected in our own character and choices. While Khan was compelled by his drive to conquer and gain superiority over others in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, “Space Seed,” it was his need for vengeance in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that cemented his place in Trek lore.
On the surface, it could be argued that Khan’s complaint is not entirely without merit. He agreed to be left on a planet that, while difficult, could provide a way of life for him and his crew that would allow them to flourish, but would prevent them from exercising their militaristic and colonial ambition. As Khan recounts the story to first officer Chekov and Captain Terrell, a cosmological explosion caused planetary desolation six months after their arrival, which led to the deaths of several crew members -- including his wife. Neither Kirk nor Starfleet returned to confirm Khan’s viability or whether his planetary conditions had been altered. There is reason for this, given Starfleet’s reticence regarding genetic engineering, but it seems odd that a humanitarian organization such as the Federation would not have registered the potential harm to these people once Ceti Alpha VI had exploded. This began the process of Khan’s 15-year meditation on revenge and an obsession with seeking vengeance upon Kirk for what he’d lost.
In an essay originally published in 1625, Francis Bacon wrote that “revenge is a kind of wild justice.” If an initial wrong is an offense against law, Bacon argues that the need for revenge puts law aside altogether. This is especially the case with what he calls private revenge, which acts out of vindictive desire. Public revenge is an account of justice where a wrong committed is repaid in like manner/measure. However, Bacon prefaces both public and private by noting the harmful psychology of revenge in each instance. He writes that people meditate upon revenge in order to keep their wounds fresh, to prevent them from healing, to maintain the desire and need for retribution.
This can be easily seen in Khan’s desire for vengeance. He’d kept his wounds fresh and made retaliation his singular object of desire. What’s more, on two separate occasions his first officer warns him of this and attempts to persuade him to leave that path. When Khan first captured the Reliant and later when he successfully stole the Genesis device, Khan’s second-in-command highlights that he’s now free. He has in fact beaten Kirk and proven his superiority over the Starfleet captain. Khan responds, “He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him.” The issue is that while Khan had a starship, he was not free. He was not free from his obsession and longing for revenge. He’d meditated for so long on his wounds that he couldn’t leave them behind or live without them. Ultimately, this obsession leads to his undoing. The thirst for vengeance is never satiated and so it begins to consume itself.
It’s easy to see Khan’s desire for revenge be his own undoing; it’s often a villain’s fate. However, in the Kelvin timeline we are introduced to a troubling reversal. Here, Khan is not the only one bent on revenge. Kirk and Starfleet as a whole are at risk of succumbing to a need for vengeance and public protection. Admiral Marcus is obsessed with external threats to the Federation and is willing to sacrifice the Federation’s principles to preserve its structure. In doing so, he resuscitates Khan and holds his crew hostage to manipulate him into doing the admiral’s bidding. In response, Khan attacks Section 31 and later the command council, killing Captain Pike in the process. Khan is once more seeking revenge for his crew and attempting to gain power for his own ends. However, the loss of his mentor lures Kirk to seek revenge. It clouds his judgment and allows him to also be manipulated by Marcus. Kirk’s obsession with avenging Pike’s death and the war declared on Starfleet by Khan brings him close to sacrificing his principles and his friendships.
Here, the potential fallout of what Bacon called public revenge is also explored. A public wrong has been done, but both on a personal and institutional level, the desire for vengeance causes the implosion of the individuals obsessed with it. Kirk nearly gives up his Federation and Starfleet values, along with his friendship with Scotty, and as Spock points out, his moral foundation. Marcus gives up what the Federation stands for in his need to violently respond to the Klingons he considered aggressors. Khan’s desire for vengeance against all Federation principles and persons results in the loss of those he held most dear. Once more, revenge consumed itself.
In a diary entry written in September 1947, Gandhi wrote, “Anger breeds revenge and the spirit of revenge is today responsible for all the horrible happenings here and elsewhere… Let not future generations say that we lost the sweet bread of freedom because we could not digest it.” In the Prime Universe, Khan had gained his freedom (albeit through violent means), but his obsession with revenge prevented him from digesting that bread. In the end, for Khan, and for Marcus in the Kelvin timeline, revenge was not wild justice, but the abrogation of laws, principles and sanity. The stories of the two Khans show that it’s not just our enemies that can be consumed with a desire for revenge. We, too, must guard against its corrupting tendencies.
Timothy Harvie is Associate Professor of philosophy and ethics at St. Mary's University in Calgary, Canada. His interests lie primarily in philosophical theology, political philosophy, environmental and animal philosophies, and ideas of the role of hope in society. He is a lifelong Star Trek fan. http://www.stmu.ca/dr-timothy-harvie/