Next Trek: Don't Start with the Villain
The story for the next Star Trek movie is now being worked out, the writers say. But the questions they seem to get in interviews or Q&As tend to focus on the villain. Will it be Khan-like? Or Khan himself?
The writers' comments I’ve seen tend to deflect the question, so I hope those coming up with the story aren’t going to make this mistake. Just about the worst thing they could do is to start with the villain.
Yes, one of Star Trek’s most successful movies had a single big villain: Khan. And another success with the group villain, the Borg, that was given a face in the Borg Queen. But all three of the least successful Star Trek movies also had big single villains. And arguably the most successful Star Trek movie had no villain at all—Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Particularly doleful is the Khan obsession. Has it been so long since Star Trek Nemesis? After an attempted twisted villain muddied the story of Star Trek: Insurrection (which was really a Picard vs. Starfleet story), there was a publicly announced attempt to revive the franchise by imitating a past success, namely Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Nemesis was going to have a villain as epic as Khan. We saw how well that worked out.
Then we got another villain in Star Trek JJA who was very Khan-like (motivated solely by revenge, for his dead wife, though against Spock and the Federation rather than Kirk and the Federation), and that was in my view the weakest part of that movie.
The big, single villain actually worked only once—in Star Trek II. But I’d argue that it worked not because of the villain but because of the actor, Ricardo Montalban, specifically in opposition to William Shatner as Kirk. Montalban’s epic, edge-of-excessive acting was the only fair match to Shatner’s similar style that ever occurred in Star Trek, or really in any other such movie of recent decades I can think of.
And even at that, it wasn’t the only element that made that movie so satisfying and epic. The theme of aging and mortality, of friendship, the Genesis planet, Kirk discovering a son, and the death of Spock, all worked together. (Whereas in Nemesis, the correlation was not clearly established in Picard to what his genetic evil twin represented.)
It is interesting that the Moby Dick theme—of a destructive obsession—was central to The Wrath of Khan (with a copy of the book in plain view, and Khan freely chanelling Melville) and to the most commercially successful TNG movie, Star Trek: First Contact (where Picard quoted it.) In Star Trek II, it was Khan who was obsessed, and Kirk was defending himself. In First Contact, however, it was Picard, obsessed with the Borg—a faceless group villain—and the movie is resolved when Picard realizes that it is the obsession itself that is his enemy. The moral center of those movies was not in revenge itself, but in how widely destructive and self-destructive the obsession of revenge is.
Trek movies tend to succeed when behind the action is something a main character is learning. The conflict or the question may be within that character (in Star Trek II, it was Kirk’s confronting his aging and mortality that draws all the strands together.) It strengthens and centers the external problem.
In general, Star Trek is not about fighting villains but about solving problems and overcoming obstacles in service to a good cause. Often it is about learning: demonstrating the process of learning as applied to a specific mystery (Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) Sometimes it is about sharing that learning—demonstrating what Starfleet stands for, based on what humanity has learned. That happened more often on TV, but it was also a theme of Insurrection, where the theme (if not the movie) was more sophisticated, having to do with the Federation edging towards decadence, needing to re-learn the reasons for its most important principles.
Personally I don’t need another action movie with narrow CGI escapes and a one-dimensional villain. Please spare me a hero fighting for his family versus a villain avenging his dead wife. As for the previous Khanian theme of genetic superiority leading to hubris, that was done thoroughly in several episodes of Enterprise. Anyway I believe our actual future is threatened less these days by genetic manipulation than by our mysterious inability to confront the real and awfully close to apparent danger of climate catastrophe.
What I’m hoping for in the next Star Trek movie, in addition to more character development, is a subject that speaks to us now, and gives us some inkling of hope for the future.