Anything You Khan Do, I Khan Do Better

As "Star Trek" changes, so do its villains.

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Benedict Cumberbatch in "Star Trek Into Darkness" and Ricardo Montalban in the "Star Trek" episode, "Space Seed."
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Benedict Cumberbatch in "Star Trek Into Darkness" and Ricardo Montalban in the "Star Trek" episode, "Space Seed."

So, the cat's finally out of the bag. By which, we mean it was leaked in February after months of speculation and it’s even listed on IMDB: Benedict Cumberbatch plays Khan in the new "Star Trek." Khan, the man who made the second "Star Trek" movie the "Star Trek" movie you show to non-"Trek" fans. Khan, the guy who wins Best "Trek" Villain against the Romulans, the Klingons, and the Borg. When your competition is entire species, you know you're doing something right.

And he did it all with a tan that looked as if it had been drawn on with a Magic Marker.

That's serious street cre- — sorry, that's serious space cred.

Khan was supposed to have all the qualities that made Kirk great: aggressiveness, ambition, womanizing (this was still the '60s — a hair's breadth away from Don Draper — so womanizing was still considered an admirable quality) but amped up to 11. In the original script, he was an Aryan superman, though that eventually became, inexplicably, a Sikh superman and then, less explicably (because Ricardo Montalban's accent could make a lamppost purr like a kitten), a Latino/Sikh superman with more chest exposed than three completely naked men would have.

[Related: Benedict Cumberbatch's Biggest Roles Before 'Star Trek Into Darkness']

Khan is a guy who, if you strand him on a desert planet for 20 years with the sun beating down on him, will somehow get lighter. Or maybe, the spray tan just washed off.

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Ricardo Montalban in "Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn" (1982)

Either way, space cred.

How does the newcomer match up against this titan, this legend of sci-fi film?

The original-series Khan is descended from a long line of charismatic villains stretching back as least as far as Milton's Satan in "Paradise Lost" or, more recently, Magneto. He's powerful and arresting and is at his seductive best in front of a crowd of people.

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The new Khan is just as charismatic, but he's a loner, imprisoned and lashing out at his jailers.

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Remind you of anyone?

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That's the guy. Our modern villains tend to be less rabble-rousing Mussolinis and more quiet-neighbor-type serial killers. The Cumberbatch Khan (the ... Khanberbatch?) is a colder, more distant version than Montalban's — a version that, frankly, is more terrifying.

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The emphasis on his intellectual side contrasts with Kirk's policy of "Can I kiss it? Punch it? Run a starship into it? No? Then I'm not interested."

Which is not to say that Khanberbatch doesn't get a few licks in. In fact, if the two Khans* went toe-to-toe, Montalkhan's '60s-style TV fighting (punch! block! pause! shove! pause! lunge! miss! deep breaths! repeat!) would lose in a bloodbath.

Like the franchise, our modern Khan is sleeker, is smarter, and has a little less soul than the original. He definitely has much less chest.

* A sitcom idea that is easily better than half of the pilots this year. It's just like "Two and a Half Men," only instead of Angus T. Jones, they're raising one of those Tau Ceti sandworms.

Watch the "Star Trek Into the Darkness" trailer:

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