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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Zack and I were trading Nero (from 2009’s Star Trek) quotes back and forth earlier today when he asked me what was up with the Star Trek villains and why are they so over-the-top. It was a completely valid question. When you look at the cinematic Trek bad guys, they all have that crazy-quotient that potentially could throw the film into camp territory.
Just take a look at many of the baddies. In the rebooted series, we have Nero and Harrison/Khan. Eric Bana and Benedict Cumberbatch are both fine in their respective roles, but you cannot help that there is a lot of over-the-top scene chewing going on there. For example, Zack and I both agree that Bana has a fantastic line read of “I want Spock dead now!” It is so nutty and bat-shit insane that it become comically awesome, but it became dangerously close to cringe-worthy. Cumberbatch also has a strange quirk with his character with enunciating everything very clearly with his lips. I realize that is probably part of his acting approach, but as Harrison/Khan, he cranks it up to 11.
The Next Generation films had some oddness to their villains as well. Soran in Generations tries to get the audience to sympathize with him given that he lost his entire family, but the story built around the movie is so lackluster that it is hard to make us care about the guy. Doubling that problem is that this is the villain that kills Kirk (sorta) – he should be a threat. He never feels like one.
We veer into campy territory with Ru’afo in Insurrection which is unfortunate since F. Murray Abraham is behind the make-up. Maybe the actor just didn’t care and wanted to do something over the top. Even Shinzon in Nemesis, while trying to keep things simple, yet threatening, turns into a goofy character especially when he becomes sick during the latter half of the movie and the make-up makes him look more like a zombie.
The Borg Queen in First Contact is the winner of the TNG films (not that this is a competition) as her character never goes over -the-top nor veers into camp (robot-zombies aside). She also has that personal connection to the characters which gives her that more-threatening menace needed for a villain. Many of the Trek films tried to do this too as it makes the films feel more “important”. An audience can potentially be more invested if the story is personal for the hero as opposed to the hero fighting some random bad guy. Shinzon tried to make this connection, but the connection is somewhat tenuous at best.
The original series films did this too. We had our somewhat camp villains – Chang with him constantly spouting Shakespeare and Kruge with him creating the “crazed Klingon”. We also had our more personal, quieter villains in Sybok – a great role with a solid performance, but in a completely disappointing movie, so of course we’d never get a bad guy like that again.
So, what is the pattern? These bad guys tend to have a connection to our heroes and can have somewhat over-the-top, theatrical performances. Those are the two big reoccurring traits. Why is this? Well, the answer is simple: Khan.
Star Trek II’s Khan became the prototypical Trek bad guy. With the arguable exception of Kruge, every Trek villain has been created with him in mind. It seems like, during the TNG movies, Rick Berman or another producer/writer would come out saying their newest villain is the greatest villain since Khan. Or the villain would be heavily patterned after Khan. Or, in Star Trek Into Darkness’s case, it was Khan.
So, why keep going back to Ricardo Montalban? Because he did too good of a job. His character was very theatrical. He veered towards campiness, but it works in the movie because he was a character that was on the verge of madness. However, Montalban balanced this by being charming and charismatic. In addition, the “personal connection” to Kirk felt more natural than some of the later villains because their relationship established in an episode of the original series. Everything clicked with Khan, so he became the blueprint with the later Trek baddies (though none being as successful).
I get why the producers went that route (it’s safe), but it is a shame that they didn’t try to craft something more original (especially since televised Star Trek had such an array of unique bad guys that fell outside this mold). I guess when they did – Sybok – it flopped. Once producer Harve Bennett left the franchise (and more so when the TNG movies got underway), the Khan model took hold.
Usually the heavy Khan bad guys were at least a movie a part. Now, we have had three Star Trek movies in a row with the nearly exact same style of villain. Not that any of these performances have been terrible or anything like that. I just like variety. Hopefully, the next film will change things up a bit in the villain department (or, perhaps, go the V’ger/Probe route and not have a specific bad guy – that would be cool).