Heroes and Villains
Since time immemorial, there have been heroes and villains. Protagonists versus antagonists. The Rebel Alliance versus the Empire. The Doctor versus the Daleks. The Fellowship of the Ring and the free people of Middle Earth versus Sauron and the might of Mordor. Rama versus Ravana. The list is, almost literally, endless.
And, as we study the mediums, we find ourselves cheering for the heroes. Why? Because we know, or we believe, that they are fighting the good fight. We relate to them. We understand where they’re coming from and why they do what they do.
But what if we don’t?
What about when the situation isn’t as black and white as it appears to be?
There are several instances of this happening that I could think of off the top of my head. But there is one specific one to mention here – or rather, one specific film and one specific character.
The Film: Star Trek Into Darkness
The Character: Khan Noonien Singh.
Now, right off the bat, I am not going to call myself a massive Star Trek fan. I would be lying if I did. If you asked me who, say, the Cardassians were or why the Eugenics Wars took place, chances are you wouldn’t get anything close to a correct answer from me. I have seen all the films and a few episodes of the TV series (mostly TNG, actually), but I’m not exactly a massive fan.
By the same token, I will openly admit that, in Into Darkness (I’m not going to go into Wrath of Khan, because I’ll be here all night) is anything but a saint. He has done some pretty awful things, from the little that I understand of his history (although it is worth noting that he was the only Augment king who didn’t commit genocide or massacres). However, when I saw Into Darkness, I couldn’t help but find myself on his side for most of the film.
Why? Because, strangely, I found myself relating to him and understanding his feelings and his reasons.
Like I said, he is no saint. But let’s have a look at some of the emotions behind what he does in the film and why they might help us to see his character in a new light.
· Grief. It has long been said that grief is a very powerful motivator and, in my opinion, it is an enormous one for Khan. He believes, and he has every reason to, that Admiral Marcus has killed his crew. As far as he knows, he has lost everyone he loves and cares for – everyone who, if you like, he sold his soul for by working for Marcus. For anyone at all, this would be a massive loss. But Khan has to endure this not once, but twice. Firstly when he escapes from Marcus in the first place and then when Spock fires the torpedoes on his ship. On the first occasion, upon realising his crew are safe, he immediately surrenders. Had he known this the second time, and had absolute proof of it as well (after being stunned by Kirk, I doubt he’d take his word and nothing else), I would bet that he would have done the same.
· Anger. This might sound like an obvious one. Of course Khan would be angry – after how Marcus had lied to him, blackmailed him and goodness knows what else, who could be surprised that he would be angry? However, I do not believe that his anger is directed solely towards Marcus, or towards Starfleet. I think there’s also a certain amount of anger directed at himself for escaping while his people were left behind at the mercy of an unscrupulous man.
Which, actually, leads quite nicely onto another emotion.
· Guilt. If there’s one thing we cannot deny about Khan, it’s that he loves his people. Look at what he did in the hopes that it would guarantee their safety. And then for it to have all been for nothing. For him, it would feel as though he has let down his loved ones in the worst possible way – doing all that, ultimately for nothing. He would also probably be thinking that, as a superior being, he should have seen it coming. He didn’t and now his people are stuck in their cryotubes because their leader believed the words of, frankly, a manipulative man seeking a war.
On a similar note, I think Khan would also feel immense survivor’s guilt. Here he is, alive and (relatively) well, leaving his people at the “mercy” of Marcus, so to speak – a man who we know had no qualms about using them to blackmail Khan into helping him – while he escapes alone. You could, in a way, even almost call his attack on Starfleet an act of self-flagellation. He’s not exactly hiding himself from their view – hell, right before he teleports (for the want of a better word), he gives a watching Kirk a full-on look at his face. Whether or not he actually knew who Kirk was, I don’t know, but he knew damn well that Kirk would have had the perfect opportunity to commit his face to memory and come after him. And I think a part of him wanted that. He wanted to be held accountable for the abandonment of his crew, whether it makes logical sense or not. Even when he was on Qo’nos and he found out that his people were actually alive, I think there was still an element of that, because he had left them behind in the first place. He may not have had much of a choice, but he wouldn’t have seen it that way. In his mind, he failed as a leader because he deserted his people. They were all he had to live for and he abandoned them.
· Fear. Yes, I do think there is an element of fear in Khan’s actions. Think about it; his crew, his reason for living, having been left in the hands of a powerful, yet unscrupulous, man like Marcus, who Khan knows damn well has no reason to allow them to live, or, even if he did, would not have treated them properly. We don’t know exactly what Marcus did to Khan, but I would bet he didn’t exactly wake him up and then go hey, you’re going to help me or else. But the difference is that, while Khan, in his mind, is obligated to do what he does for the sake of his crew, they are not. As a leader he has to take one for the team. But the thought of someone he loves being forced to do the same thing would horrify him and terrify him.
As well as all these emotions causing turmoil inside him, I can see some very real motives for why Khan does what he does.
· Justice. At the point when he attacks Starfleet, Khan is, I think, doing to them what they did to him. Remember, he has absolutely no reason to believe that Starfleet is anything other than a corrupt organisation. In his mind, everyone in that room would have betrayed him as well, given half the chance. But, even more than that, his crew are on his mind. His crew, who he believes – and, as I said, with good reason – have been murdered in, as far as Khan is concerned, cold blood. He wants justice for them, not merely for what they did to him. Whether it’s logical or not (and there is actually one moment in the Into Darkness novelisation where he admits to Kirk that his actions may not have been logical), he wants the people who murdered the crew he loved to pay for what they did.
· Sending a Message. I know I just said that Khan has no reason to believe that Starfleet is not corrupt, but I also wondered – what if he had even an inkling that there were some who had no knowledge of what Marcus was doing? This could have been a way of saying, hey, look at what your organisation that you revere so deeply is capable of, as well as asking the question of how well do they really know the people they are working with?
· Loyalty and Love. I’ve said, repeatedly, that Khan loves his crew very much – heck, look at what he forces himself to do for them! Ultimately, in Into Darkness, Khan’s modus operandi (if you’ll pardon the use of a Latin term) was to get his family back, once he realised they were alive. His plan after that is anyone’s guess – hell, I’m not even entirely sure he had one. Once he found out his family were safe, they instantly became his priority. He wanted his family safe and with him. This, for me, is why he surrenders so fast when Kirk catches up to him on Qo’nos – now that he knows his people are safe, nothing else matters.
It’s also worth noting that, when Kirk starts punching him, he doesn’t even begin to fight back. Considering what he is, he could easily have beaten Kirk in a straight fight.
But he doesn’t try. Why? Well, probably for a few reasons. One being that he did surrender to Kirk after all and he knows that if he tries to retaliate, he could throw his plans for getting his family back into even more jeopardy.
But also, at that point, I think he knew damn well how much trouble he was in, but he didn’t care. For one thing, his crew had been found alive and relatively safe (safer than they were with Marcus, anyway). For another thing, as I said before, he probably feels immensely guilty for leaving them behind so, in a way, Kirk’s reaction is his penance for that, regardless of whether or not it actually does any damage to him.
In light of how deeply Khan cares for his crew, there are two major incidents in the latter half of the film that honestly do not sit well with me when it comes to the crew of the Enterprise and/or Starfleet.
· Spock arming and firing the torpedoes. I realise that Spock was very probably intending to kill Khan right there, so he’d only have had a second of thinking his crew were dead. The problem, though, is that he didn’t manage it. So, in doing what he did, Spock basically made the guy in charge of the Vengeance think he had lost everything he was living and fighting for, despite the fact that he (Spock) knew how far Khan had been prepared to go for them.
It’s also worth remembering that, before he found out what had really happened, even Kirk was shocked by this. He thought Spock had killed those people and, considering that they were the last of that kind, had essentially committed genocide.
The sad part is that things could have been worked out easily. Had they spoken to Khan first and told him they had his people on board their ship, the destruction of San Francisco could have been easily avoided.
· Cryo-freezing Khan – presumably without telling him that, actually, his crew were safe. Whether it actually did happen like this or not, I don’t know, but I have a very bad feeling that Khan never found out the truth before he was returned to his tube. This bothers me deeply; regardless of what Khan did, letting him think everyone he loved was dead is simply cruel and malicious, in my opinion. If they had to re-freeze him, the decent thing to have done would have been to make sure he at least knew his people were safe. They were, after all, his family and that is something I think Kirk, at least, would have understood.
Speaking of Kirk…
One major question that Into Darkness raised for me was the question of how far you would go to save your family and friends, and how fair it is for Khan to be vilified for protecting the people he loves. Of course, his reactions were somewhat extreme, but his cause was certainly a valid one. Besides, if it had been us in that position, what would we have done?
Let’s take the ending of the pivotal scene where a captured Khan reveals himself to Kirk. When Khan has finished explaining what Marcus did, we pan back to Kirk and Spock, both of whom look shocked at what they have just heard. The fact that Spock, a half-Vulcan, cannot stop his reaction from showing on his face, however faintly, should immediately alert us to the fact that the man who initially appeared to be a cold-blooded murderer is not, in fact, all he seems, something that is emphasised by his earlier rescue of Kirk and the others from the Klingons.
But then, Khan says this:
“My crew is my family, Kirk. Is there anything you would not do for your family?”
At this point, Kirk becomes more than simply shocked. He becomes deeply rattled, to the point that it takes him a few seconds to shake it off and respond when he is contacted by Sulu.
But why does he react this way?
The comment about doing anything for family has struck a chord with him. In a way, I think it reminds him of how he violated strict orders to save Spock from that volcano. But more than that, not only has Kirk realised, to his horror, that he actually feels some sympathy for the man who murdered Christopher Pike, but also that were he in Khan’s position, he would have done exactly the same thing – and he knows it. And he knows Khan knows it too.
Why? Because, for Kirk, just like for Khan, his crew are his family. Heck, Kirk almost did do exactly the same thing in response to Khan killing Pike, the man he thought of as a father. The difference is that Kirk had someone – Spock – to stop him and make him see reason. Khan was just as grief-stricken, desperate and angry about his crew, but, unlike Kirk, he was alone.
The problem is that, even if Kirk had done the same thing, the response from the audience would almost certainly have been very different. We might have been shocked, but we would have understood his actions because we would have said he did it out of love for his family and justified it in that way – because we know that Kirk is the hero. So, why can’t the same be said of Khan?
Simple. Khan is Kirk’s enemy. He is the obstacle in the hero’s path. He is threatening him. This means that, regardless of how valid his reasons for his actions are, and regardless of what he has been through, he cannot be seen in the same sympathetic light as Kirk, which I find rather sad.
Like I said, Khan Noonien Singh is definitely no saint. Equally, he is not our hero. But a villain? Despite everything, I think Khan is closer to being a victim than a villain. Yes, he does terrible things. But he definitely has just cause to feel wronged and, ultimately, he does what he does out of love for his people.
Could any of us say that we would do anything differently?