Last time, we investigated the lesser half of Star Trek’s movie big bads, and oh boy were they bad. From incomprehensible motivations to forgettable performances, it wasn’t a fun time. But this next set of Trek villains is top shelf, right? They’d better be, cause I’ve got them arranged in a countdown until we arrive at the very best. Just no more clones or alternate timelines, that’s all I ask!
6. Dr. Soran: Generations
Most of the villains on this list are way better than what we looked at last week; this guy just doesn’t happen to be one of them. He starts out with a seemingly simple motivation: he wants to get into this thing called the Nexus, which is basically a holodeck turned up to 11. Anyone inside the Nexus lives their ultimate fantasy life, and it seems completely real. A lot of people would be into that, but Soran recently lost his planet to a Borg attack, so he has a more compelling reason than most.
Good so far, but the Nexus flies around the galaxy on a predictable course, so why can’t Soran just warp on over and end the movie early? The writers thought of that; the Nexus also blows up most ships that get too close. Enter the evil plan: Soran will blow up stars until the loss of their gravity changes the Nexus’s course enough so it passes through a planetary atmosphere, where he’ll be waiting on top of a mountain.
Soran, I have to ask: Did you think this through at all? If the Nexus destroys any ship that gets close, what do you think it’ll do to a person standing in the open air without protection? And am I really supposed to believe it was easier to develop anti-star weapons than to build a ship tough enough to survive the Nexus? We know that can work, as we even see a few people get into the Nexus before their ship is destroyed.
Okay, so Soran’s plan is nonsense, but is he at least threatening? Again, the answer is no. Soran’s only real muscle comes in the form of his Klingon allies, Lursa and B’Etor. These are C-list villains from The Next Generation who Picard and his crew have already defeated several times. They have one scout ship that is established to be years out of date. Not exactly the kind of baddies to leave you quaking in your boots. Even when the Enterprise’s shields are disabled, it seems like the good guys should still prevail due to their overwhelming advantage in firepower.
Like Sybok before him, Soran avoids falling lower due to his actor’s performance. I wouldn’t rate this as one of Malcolm McDowell’s great roles, but at least he’s not being hampered by bad makeup or prosthetics. Soran’s poetic ramblings about time might not make sense for the character,* but McDowell gives them a measure of gravitas anyway. Plus, you can tell he’s really excited to kill Kirk, even if that version of the film never made it to theaters.
5. The Borg Queen: First Contact
Before we can talk about the villain herself, we have to talk about the rest of her species. The Borg are Star Trek’s best evil species by a long shot, but they do have one major problem: they get less threatening each time they appear. That effect was already being felt in 1996 when this movie came out, so the writers did something clever. They switched the Borg from enemies in a big scary ship to enemies who board the Enterprise and slowly infest it.
This is a new context for these cyborg baddies, and it restores a lot of their lost threat. The Borg have always been implacable foes, quickly adapting to any weapon used against them. But before First Contact, they were primarily involved in small skirmishes or encountered aboard their own ship. Now we see unstoppable Borg drones inexorably advancing through the Enterprise, with Starfleet weapons barely slowing them down.
These scenes are so good that they almost make you forget how silly the Borg’s plan is. It starts with time travel, which just seems like overkill. The Borg could crush the Federation by sending two ships instead of just one; they don’t need to break the laws of causality. Once the Borg are in the past, it’s unclear what they’re trying to do. Sometimes they want to assimilate Earth when it doesn’t have the advanced tech to fight back, and sometimes they want to stop first contact between humans and Vulcans. I’m not even sure how that second goal would serve the Borg’s interests, but there you have it. Maybe their weakness has been the Vulcan Salute this whole time.
Despite time travel silliness, the Borg are doing fairly well as villains. Then we introduce the Borg Queen, who contradicts everything her species stands for. Rather than a collective, the Borg are now a dictatorship ruled by a single individual. The writers seemed to know this would be a controversial decision, but in later interviews, they justified it by saying there needed to be a bad guy that the heroes could talk to.
That’s understandable, so what does this talking cyborg monarch do? Mostly, she tries to seduce Data over to her side. Sigh. The one woman to serve as a Trek film’s main bad guy, and they make her a seductress. Sexism aside, why is she even doing this? You might assume that “seduce” means she’s altering Data’s programming somehow, but no, it’s much more literal than that.* Surprising no one, this doesn’t work, and it’s difficult to see why the Queen would even bother trying.
The Queen’s only other dialogue comes when she exchanges some banter with Picard. The film tries to tie her into Picard’s recovery arc from when he was assimilated in The Best of Both Worlds, but that falls flat. The Queen didn’t exist when that episode was filmed, and any connection is flimsy at best. Even combined, the banter and seduction attempts don’t give her much screen time. It hardly seems worth changing the Borg’s entire nature just for a handful of scenes.
Fortunately, the Queen works better as a villain on Voyager, where she at least isn’t trying to seduce anyone. Incidentally, that show also demonstrates how to give the Borg dialogue: give the heroes a reason to talk to them. In the episode Scorpion, Janeway and co have to ally with the Borg against a common enemy, so they have reason to communicate with the collective. In the episode Unimatrix Zero, the Queen wants Voyager to stop messing with her stuff, so she contacts them to negotiate. The key is to have a better motivation than android seduction.
4. V’Ger: The Motion Picture
It’s a strange time when the first Star Trek film (TMP) is ranked highly by any metric, but here we are. Admittedly, a lot of this is due to V’Ger’s introduction at the start of the film, which I watched several times in preparation for this article. In this opening sequence, we see three Klingon warships destroyed by V’Ger, and it’s perhaps the only time in the movie when TMP’s famously slow pacing actually works in its favor.
First, we can’t even see what V’Ger is in this scene. All we see is a large cloud with something unknown inside it. When the Klingons attack, it’s like something out of cosmic horror. We watch three torpedoes race deeper into the cloud, until they wink out one by one. There’s no way to tell if they did any damage or even hit anything. Then the Klingon ships are methodically taken apart by return fire, all without actually seeing the thing they’re fighting. The slow pacing gives us plenty of time to appreciate how helpless conventional ships are against this unknown enemy.
With its threat firmly established, V’Ger sets a course for Earth. From there, it engages in the trope of ignoring our heroes as long as they don’t do anything to make themselves a threat. Star Trek uses this trope a lot, and it doesn’t always work. For the Borg in particular, it’s hard to believe the collective would keep ignoring Starfleet after the third or fourth time our heroes defeat them. But V’Ger is so powerful that ignoring Kirk and the Enterprise seems justified, as there’s really nothing they can do against it.
As an eldritch horror on an unstoppable course toward Earth, V’Ger seems set to be a great villain. Unfortunately, that’s where it falls short, as the writers can’t seem to decide if V’Ger should be misunderstood and ultimately benign or hostile and actively malicious.
On the one hand, we learn that V’Ger is actually a heavily modified Voyager probe that just wants to return to its creator. It’s questioning its own existence, and in some scenes, it only causes harm in self-defense. But in other scenes, V’Ger murders a bunch of people in cold blood. It has an active disdain for humanoid life, referring to the Enterprise’s crew as an “infestation.” There’s some dialogue about how V’Ger doesn’t know any better, but it certainly seems conscious of what it’s doing.
This comes to a head in the climax, when our heroes decide that the only way to stop V’Ger is to help it expand its consciousness. Presumably it will stop murdering people after that. This just isn’t a satisfying ending after all the horrible things V’Ger has done. I kept expecting V’Ger to bring back all the people it killed, since we’re told that it keeps perfect scans of everything it encounters, but nope. It just teleports out of the movie, presumably to someplace where it doesn’t have to feel guilty about all those murders.
3. Captain Kruge: The Search for Spock
Literally every Trek villain I’ve listed so far has some catastrophic problem with their plan, backstory or motivation, so would you believe that Kruge doesn’t have any of those? There’s no last-minute reveal that he’s secretly his own grandfather or a plotline about how he wants to kill puppies because a puppy killed his family. It’s a Star Trek miracle!
Instead, Kruge’s motivation and plan are refreshingly simple. In the previous movie, the Federation invented something called the Genesis Device, a machine that can either wipe out all life on a planet or create new life where there was none. That has obvious potential as a weapon, and Kruge would like to have it please. The Federation and Klingon Empire are bitter enemies, so this makes sense. To get his hands on Genesis, Kruge flies his ship over to where the device was last used, then starts kidnapping scientists until he finds someone who knows how the thing works.
So… what am I supposed to do with the rest of this section if I can’t complain about Kruge’s villainous foundations? Talk about the things he does right? Okay fine. Kruge’s biggest strength, other than a lack of glaring problems, is that he’s clever. When the Enterprise first appears, Kruge sets an ambush and patiently waits. This scene is beautifully tense, as we wait to see whether Kruge will get his surprise attack or if the good guys will detect him.
We also see him doing what I really wish villains would do more: thinking on his feet. When Kirk spots the ambush, Kruge struggles to keep his ship in the fight. While this requires Kruge to take a minor loss, it actually makes him more threatening in the long run, as it shows that he won’t be taken out by a minor inconvenience. Later, when both ships have been damaged, Kruge sees through Kirk’s bluff and realizes that the Enterprise is hurt worse than his own vessel. He uses his hostages to force Kirk’s surrender, putting our heroes in a desperate situation, exactly like a villain should.
Kruge also benefits from being a Klingon, already well established as Star Trek’s most prominent antagonistic species. If he were an unknown alien like Ru’afo in the previous list, he would have needed more work to establish his threat. Since there wasn’t time for that, using the setting’s existing enemies was a good choice for this film.
Kruge’s only major problem shows up near the end, when he tries to beat the secret of Genesis out of Kirk. He does this on a planet that’s exploding around them, and it’s not clear how he expects Kirk to explain the complicated technology before they both die. But Kruge did kill Kirk’s son earlier in the movie, so the fight feels dramatically appropriate, even if it doesn’t make a lot of logical sense.
2. General Chang: The Undiscovered Country
Let me ask you something: What would happen if we took Kruge and made him better in every way? We’d get General Chang, Star Trek’s most Shakespearean Klingon. I mean that literally, by the way. This guy can’t get enough of quoting Shakespeare, who is implied to have originally been a Klingon in this movie. Sounds weird at first, but after watching Titus Andronicus, I can believe it.
So why is Chang such a great villain? First, we get to know him quite well during the film, something a lot of movies don’t have time for. This is done by making Chang part of the mystery and political intrigue well before the big final fight. He’s one of the Klingons who attends the disastrous diplomatic dinner on the Enterprise, and then later he serves as prosecutor when Kirk and McCoy are accused of killing the Klingon Chancellor.
This trial sequence is Chang’s biggest moment in the film, and Christopher Plummer’s acting really sells it. He argues so passionately that you don’t even have time to wonder why a general is also serving as a lawyer. This isn’t the only Trek villain to be played by a prestigious actor, but it’s the first time that actor is also given good material to work with. The result is fantastic, and even if the trial itself hadn’t mostly been for show, Chang probably would still have won it.
How about that final battle then? Here, Chang has a Bird of Prey that can fire while cloaked. Unlike Shinzon’s ship in Nemesis, this one actually makes sense. It was created with the full resources of the Klingon Empire, rather than a group of miners at a “secret base,” and it makes sense that Chang could get his hands on it since he’s a high-level government official. It’s even easy to explain why the Klingons don’t have such a ship going forward: as Starfleet sensors advance, new cloaking technologies would be required and Chang’s ship would be rendered obsolete.
What that means for this movie is that Chang can shoot at the Enterprise, but it can’t shoot back at him. That means tension is covered in the final battle, and it’s fun to see how much Chang is enjoying himself, constantly throwing out Shakespeare quotes. Though I am a little confused why his words are broadcast across the Enterprise’s PA system. At first I thought that was just a conceit of the film, something we can hear but the characters can’t. Except McCoy then says, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.” Maybe Uhura was listening in on Chang’s communication and forgot to plug in headphones.
Chang’s only serious flaw is that at one point, the film tries to create a mystery over who’s behind the pro-war conspiracy. That could be fine except it’s obviously Chang, as he’s the most prominent character who’s been consistently against peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Despite that, Chang remains one of scifi’s greatest villains, and the only reason he’s not better remembered is due to being overshadowed by our final entry.
1. Khan: The Wrath of Khan
It’s unlikely any Trek fans are surprised by Original Flavor Khan getting the top spot. While giving a different villain first place might have been good for generating controversy clicks, it wouldn’t have been honest, and that just couldn’t be allowed. Not when I’m writing about something as serious as which fictional scifi villain is the best at being bad.
So why does our genetically engineered bad boy deserve the top slot? A lot of reasons, but the first one you’ll notice is how well he manifests menacing geniality. When Chekov and another officer first meet Khan, the old warlord is all smiles. This is just a casual meetup with old friends, and also Khan will snap the neck of anyone who annoys him. It’s very good.
Second, remember how Into Darkness failed in its efforts to portray a grudge match between Khan and our heroes? That works in this movie for the obvious reason that Khan and our heroes actually have history. The history is fairly simple, which is good because otherwise you’d have to go watch Khan’s first appearance in Space Seed, an episode that’s okay at best. All you need to know is that Kirk stranded Khan on a life-supporting world after Khan tried to take over the Enterprise and kill its crew. Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the new planet turned out to be much less livable than anticipated, and several of Khan’s people died. Khan blames Kirk and wants revenge.
Khan then builds up his threat level by kicking Kirk’s butt in their initial exchange, a fight the good guys only just escape from. This should honestly be standard procedure for any villain. If they win one fight, it raises tension that they might win again! The battles are very good from a technical perspective, with each photon torpedo given a sense of weight, and the history between Kirk and Khan gives their clashes more emotional value. Even the much joked about Khan Scream* feels natural.
This film also gives Khan more emotional depth than any other Trek film. His obsession with revenge is what eventually does him in, first when he’s tricked into an unfavorable battle, and then again when he destroys his own ship in a last-ditch attempt to hurt Kirk. It’s all the thematic power of Moby-Dick without having to read Moby-Dick! By the end, even Khan himself seems aware of this. As he rigs his ship to explode, he quotes the “from hell’s heart” line, and it’s genuinely a little sad to see such a great villain go.
In retrospect, Reboot Khan would probably have been judged less harshly if he hadn’t been trying to fill this particular pair of Ricardo Montalban–shaped shoes. Sometimes a villain is so iconic that there’s no way to reimagine them without seeming like a pale shadow.
We have survived a deep dive into all twelve of Star Trek’s movie villains, and the last few were actually quite good! You probably noticed a sharp jump between the first and second halves of this list, a divide marking when the writers stopped sabotaging their bad guys with unstable foundations. Hopefully future Trek films will learn from those choices, giving us villains more in line with Chang or Khan than whatever the heck they had Idris Elba doing.
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