"I'll chase him 'round the Outer Nebula and 'round Antares Maelstrom and 'round perdition's flames before I give him up!"
--Ricardo Montalban as Khan in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."
While most eulogies will likely lead with references to Mr. Rourke, Montalban (who died today) should properly be remembered for his star turn as the eponymous villain of that Star Trek sequel. Yes, "Fantasy Island" had a longer run than the original "Trek." And yes, Ricardo Montalban was the star of the former and appeared in only one episode of the latter. And yes, one would hardly argue that his performance in either the show or the movie was red-carpet-worthy. But the fact remains, Ricardo Montalban was Khan. And Khan was important.
Think back to the original "Star Trek" series. Remember? Now, imagine yourself a screenwriter in, say, 1980. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" had hit theaters the previous year. And it was bad. Most Trekkers have probably tried to erase the memory of that ponderous, two-plus-hour aircraft carrier of a movie. Now you, our screenwriter, are tasked with producing a more satisfying Trek feature: something with, say, a plot, some humor, and, above all, a villain! You think back some 12 years to your experiences watching the show. Who can you use as a villain? For the simple fact is, the original "Star Trek" really didn't have any! Klingons? Well, they were a warlike race and they were at war with the Federation. Same holds basically true for the Romulans. The Gorn? He was just fighting for his own survival. Harry Mudd? Comic relief.
But wait! What's this episode? "Space Seed"? Who's this handsome, swaggering, menacing fellow with the Crow Indian hair, Latin accent, and South Asian name? Khan Noonien Singh. He's so cool he makes Kirk look like McCoy. And his background--a genetic Superman exiled to space along with his followers after a failed insurrection on earth--was positively Hitlerian. Sure, in the end he and Kirk seemed to achieve an amicable parting, but that was easily dealt with in the first ten minutes of "The Wrath of Khan." And in his heart, Khan never abandoned his dreams of conquest. And when he returned in 1982, his was not the only surprise resurrection: It also marked the resurrection of "Star Trek." Now, twenty-seven years, four series, and ten movies (and counting) later, can anyone argue otherwise?
And herein lies Khan's relevance. He was the first, true VILLAIN in the Star Trek franchise. Aside from him, the villains in the original series were largely sociological symbols. But by showing us true villainy, Khan allowed the series to expand its boundaries. Of course, the show never completely abandoned its multiculti ideals. But in terms of the overall aethetic, you can easily divide the franchise into before (BK) and after (AK) Khan AK, in the movies and the subsequent Trek series, you got villains with an edge, even when they had sufficiently PC back stories. BK, you had the Squire of Gothos, a petulant manchild with omnipotent powers; after Khan, you got Q. BK, you had Klingons, as mentioned above, a warlike race without much back story; AK, you had Kardassians (not to be confused with Kardashians, who are a whole 'nother kind of evil), a warlike race with flair, malevolence, and Gul Dukat, possibly the single greatest badguy in the whole franchise.
BK, you had tribbles; AK, you had the Borg.
So rest in peace, Mr. Montalban. And rest assured, your place in culture is secure.