The Baddest Asses in the Galaxy
Star Trek’s Top Villains
The thing about writing about Star Trek is you can go either way. If you’re thinking positive, there’s lots of shit to talk up: Star Trek II, Leonard Nimoy, Worf — who don’t love Worf? If you’re in a more pessimistic mood, there is virtually no limit to the shitty Star Trek you can bitch about. Let’s cite “Spock’s Brain,” for instance, or every last hateful frame of Star Trek: Voyager ever filmed, or anything with the last name Troi.
But as it happens, with the new movie coming up in just a few more days and the early reviews positively glowing, I’m in a celebratory frame of mind. I want to talk about the good. Anyway, it would be grossly dishonest of me to do nothing but complain, when I do watch this shit, afterall. There must be something I like about it, right? Besides, I’ve already written at length about the worst of Star Trek. Today I want to talk about some of the best — particularly where the villains are concerned.
It used to be that Star Wars had the pop sci-fi bad-guy market cornered. No space opera villain was cooler than Darth Vader. Then George Lucas wrote and directed his prequel trilogy and fixed that once and for all. Now even the goofier Trek villains — your Ferengi, your Ru’afos, your Trelanes — don’t look all that bad. I don’t know where Eric Bana’s Nero will wind up, but below, in ascending order, are my personal top five bad guys from the last forty-three years of Star Trek.
Khan, Star Trek: “Space Seed,” Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
How great of a villain is Khan? He’s the only villain from an episode of the classic Star Trek TV series to graduate to the movies, and both his episode and his movie are considered among the best Star Trek ever produced. What is there to say about Ricardo Montalbán as Khan that hasn’t already been said? The character is a camp masterpiece, one of the most exquisitely ridiculous creations you’ll ever see at the movies. In Star Trek II he struts around baring his chiseled, well-oiled chest, spooling out the strange story of his origins for the benefit of Chekov and his new captain, and anyone else who hasn’t seen “Space Seed.” He commandeers the starship Reliant, coolly issuing his people orders like “let them eat static,” quoting Shakespeare and old Klingon proverbs as he daydreams about his revenge: “Ah, Kirk. My old friend. Do you know the old Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish best served cold? It is very cold . . . in space.”
And who could forget his recitation of the classic “I’ll chase him ‘round the moons of Nibia” speech from Henry IV?
The Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: First Contact
Like Khan, the Borg made the jump from the small screen to the big one, following Captain Picard to the movies with Star Trek: First Contact. They’re supposed to be the same bunch of guys, but there are differences between the Borg of, say, the Next Generation episode “The Best of Both Worlds” and the Borg of First Contact. For my money, the Borg have never been cooler than their first appearance. That was in the Next Generation episode “Q Who,” when the Enterprise is thrown into the far reaches of the galaxy and are lucky to escape their encounter with the Borg alive. They’re established as an unstoppable enemy, unified, relentless, elemental. We’re told at first that they have no gender and no ethnicity, that they have a single hive mind and that every Borg is just a drone serving the collective. When they show up in First Contact they look a little different, which is good, the result of a bigger budget, and they have a leader, the Borg Queen. She’s okay. She’s a good foil for Picard, her scenes with Data work pretty well. And at the end of the movie she dies. It would have been better for the Borg if they’d never shown up again following First Contact, but that was not to be, and they and their Queen were showing up practically every week on Star Trek: Voyager by the end of that heroically inept series.
Still, the shit that came later doesn’t erase the better stuff that came first. And for a little while, the Borg were the baddest bad guys around.
Gul Dukat, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Depending on which week you tuned on, Deep Space Nine was either the smartest, most daring and provocative Star Trek show ever produced, or one of the dumbest things you had ever seen. I can say the same thing about the show’s most important recurring villain, disgruntled Cardassian Gul Dukat. The dynamic between Dukat and Captain Sisko was one of the most interesting aspects of the show. At the start of the series, Sisko is assuming command of a space station that Cardassia had recently been forced to abandon. The previous commander, under the Cardassian authority, was Gul Dukat, who isn’t too thrilled to be giving up what little authority he had. As the show went on, Dukat accumulated more political and military power, but he was at his most compelling in those earlier seasons, when he was essentially a jilted bureaucrat, simultaneously dissatisfied with his lowly position, and bitter about losing that position. He dislikes Sisko for many reasons, but the big one for Dukat is that Sisko is in his chair.
Dukat was played by Marc Alaimo, who — even when the producers started habitually revamping the character, turning him into a galactic dictator, a lone dissident, even an evil religious messiah — never forgot that in his heart, he was a petty, selfish little man. Like just about everyone on Deep Space Nine, Dukat deserved better than the writers gave him at the end of the series, but even with that shitty resolution he remains one of the most fascinating characters in the history of Star Trek.
Q, Star Trek: The Next Generation
The other bad guys on the list are villains because (if I may oversimplify for a second) they want to murder the heroes. They’re intended to be taken relatively seriously. There’s a reason for this: generally, Star Trek is terrible at comedy. Writers and actors, most possessed of only questionable skill, end up hitting the “humor” way too hard, and nothing even remotely funny happens. Thank God we always have the option to laugh at them. And happily, there are exceptions to the rule, John de Lancie’s Q chief among them. Sure, Q has a serious side — at various times it is cheerfully implied that he’s used his godlike powers to wipe entire races out of existence — but mostly he’s just out for a laugh. He fucks with the crew of the Next Generation to see what they’ll do, torments them for his own amusement. He’s a child pulling the legs off of grasshoppers.
Like the Borg, Q was eventually ruined by Voyager, the black hole of the entire goddamn franchise. But also like the Borg, Q’s appearances in Next Generation include some of the best episodes Star Trek ever produced. Some of my favorite Next Generation shows are Q shows, including the series finale “All Good Things,” “Déjà Q,” and “Tapestry,” which de Lancie gets to open with Q’s best line ever: “Welcome to the afterlife, Jean-Luc. You’re dead.”
General Chang, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
He’s a bald-headed, grinning, charming, Shakespeare-quoting Klingon with a patch over one eye and a twinkle in the other. Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn I love General Chang. Surely Khan or Q are more popular choices, but how in the hell could Chang not be my favorite Trek villain? He’s a great foil for Kirk in their scenes together, he’s versatile (a general and a prosecuting attorney!), and he’s played by the brilliant Christopher Plummer, who absolutely acts the shit out of him. Is there anything more fun to watch than a great actor just going for it? Plummer, like Ricardo Montalbán before him, is under no delusion that he’s making great art in Star Trek VI. He’s theatrical, he’s vigorous, and of the scenery, my friends, he eats his fill, oh yes. If we forget about Dr. Soran in Star Trek: Generations (in fact, let’s do that, shall we?), Chang is the final adversary faced by Captain Kirk. There could hardly be a better one — a sadistic, atypically calculating Klingon warrior who wants nothing more than to make hamburger out of Kirk and quote Hamlet while he does it.
As with Khan, Dukat, and Q, Chang gets most of the best lines (wit wasn’t a strength of the Borg). Not only does he recite Shakespeare, he inadvertently quotes Hitler and channels Adlai Stevenson by demanding of Kirk during his trial in a Klingon court, “Don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!” His finest moment.