The Wrath of Khan, starring William Shatner and the late, great Ricardo Montalban, is often held to be one of the greatest “hero versus villain” stories ever told in the world of Star Trek. It is a gripping tale of revenge, set against the backdrop of our villain’s quest for power, belief in self-importance, and inability to see beyond himself.
The story introduces our villain (Khan), nursing his deeply wounded pride, decades after having been bested by our hero (Kirk). Khan believes that he is superior to all others, surrounding himself with sycophants to support this notion. He’s unwilling/unable to let go of the perceived insult to his self-image, which resulted from having been bested by one he deemed “inferior”. Khan believes in his right to rule over others, demanding fealty at all costs. His rage is compounded by the additional personal loss of his wife, which he blames upon Kirk because it serves his narrative to do so.
Meanwhile, our hero, Kirk, is introduced to us as an admiral in charge of the USS Enterprise. He is becoming aware of his diminishing physical capacities and power, a natural progression of age. As with our villain, this experience pushes against his self-image, but unlike our villain, Kirk chooses to grapple with this uncomfortable reality, working to come to terms with it.
As the story progresses, we witness Khan as being so self-focused that he sacrifices all others to the cause of his ego’s revenge. His pride is easily wounded, which makes him easy to goad and manipulate. His ego is so blinding that he is unwilling to listen to reason from his subordinates even to the point of his own death. Despite his belief in his superiority, he actually demonstrates repeatedly a below average level of self-mastery… which ultimately results in his demise.
Kirk on the other hand, is constantly aware of his responsibility to ship and crew, putting their safety before his personal pride, and at some points, before his very life. “If it’s me you want, take me and spare my crew” he says to Khan in a moment that our villain seems to have bested them. Kirk is willing to admit where he has been wrong in his choices and reasonings. Having been ‘caught with [his] britches down’, for example, he tells a lower ranking officer to go right on ahead quoting regulations to him should he be about to violate one. He demonstrates uncertainty and vulnerability at varying points in the story… and these are signs of strength, not weakness.It takes strength to be willing to not assume a rightness in all things, and to do so publicly reveals a level of self-mastery to be admired!
In the greatest stories, both the heroes AND the villains are you. This is because we are all capable of the nobility of selflessness, as well as the fragility of ego. Ultimately, who you end up as in your personal story is the result of moment by moment choices you make between these two things (selflessness or ego). In this moment, will you be Kirk or will you be Khan?
It is important to recognize that both the hero and the villain experience the arising of their egos, and the suffering that comes with it. What separates them is that the hero does the hard work to deal with his/her ego, working towards the greater good that comes with selflessness, while the villain gives into his/her own selfish ego-based drives. The hero demonstrates the struggle for and eventual attaining of self-mastery, while the villain chooses to remain mastered by the ‘self’ (ego).
While my series of Star Trek paintings have so far focused upon the heroes, I believe it’s important to delve into the villains as well. After all, my paintings are self-explorations (my own, and the viewer’s), and no self-exploration is complete without looking at your own villainous experiences. We all have them, those moments where you chose your ego over selfless nobility, your moments of Khan, not Kirk. If we are unable/unwilling to look at those moments, we cannot overcome them. And to that end, without acknowledging and getting to know our villainy, we cannot truly become more heroic.