Battles between the two big sci-fi fandoms, Star Wars and Star Trek, are nothing new. The contest of best space series has been warring for decades. But rather than debate the best of the two overall, why not look at which has the best villains? Obvious spoil warning, although if you haven’t seen either you’re a few decades late. But just in case.
Star Wars has some of the most iconic characters in all of cinema. Darth Vader, Luke and Leia, R2D2, Yoda; these characters defined a generation and was one of the gateways for nerd culture to hit the mainstream. Ever since Disney bought the rights to Star Wars and started a new series of movies, a new generation is being introduced to the legendary franchise.
While he doesn’t have the same powerful presence as the other villains, Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious is probably the most evil of all the Star Wars villains. With his cunning, patience, and high intelligence, he personifies the perfect combination of psychopath and politician. Through subtle manipulation, this Sith eventually becomes the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic. Echoing Julius Caesar, his hunger for power continues until he crowns himself Emperor and replaces the Republic with the Galactic Empire.
Palpatine is also why we have Darth Maul and Darth Vader, arguably the franchise’s top villains. He was able to corrupt Anakin to the dark side and nearly wiped the Jedi Order out of existence through Order 66. Darth Sidious might not have the same overt power as Vader and Maul, but no other villain achieved the sheer feats Emperor Palpatine was able to do. He reminds us that subtlety can be far more powerful than might.
Darth Maul looks like a personification of Saran himself. With those horns, red skin, and fiery dual-sided lightsaber, Maul exudes pure demon.
Emperor Palpatine trained Maul in martial arts and the Force for years. Maul was a powerful weapon of the Sith, acting as an assassin. Prior to his entrance in the films, he has a long body count of both the powerful and the innocent. Despite this impressive resume, he doesn’t do so well in the movies. He loses more than he wins, although his fight scenes are well choreographed and great to watch.
Darth Vader defines Star Wars in the minds of many. Back in the 70s, he was something completely unique and struck fear in everyone around him. His apathetic choking of underlings cemented his cruelty and doing the same to his enemies made him powerful. The disregard for humanity, along with his distinct mask and iconic breathing, all make Vader infamous and memorable.
One simple line etched Vader into history: “No. I am your father.” The shock reveal of Vader’s identity was one of the biggest twists ever. Four decades later, just about everyone can quote that line whether they’ve seen Star Wars or not (granted, most of them say “Luke” instead of “No”).
Vader’s legacy lives on. While he died in the movies, Kylo Ren holds his mask in The Force Awakens. There was also the scene at the end of Rouge One. Darth Vader effectively defines Star Wars. As such, Disney couldn’t afford not to have him in the new movies. He brings nostalgia in the old fans and keeps the new fans excited about the rest of the series.
Kylo Ren is the newest Big Bad. The son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, he was trained in the ways of the Jedi by Luke Skywalker. At some point, he was turned to the dark side like Anakin was and soon takes charge of the First Order similar to Vader taking charge of the Empire. His lightsaber is really cool. Blood red with a guard made from the same plasma the blade is made of, almost a Sith Excalibur.
Kylo is set up to be this generation’s Vader, but he doesn’t have that dictator ferociousness Vader had. We see Kylo still in the making as opposed to Vader at his full development. Kylo’s uncertainty and angst take away from the bad guy image he’s meant to have. But the potential is there. Though not properly trained yet, his saber crackles with raw power. Once Kylo hones his power, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Murdering his father, Han Solo, is a step toward more villainy in the next films. It’ll be exciting to see how far his potential goes.
Khan is arguably the most recognizable Star Trek villain. Genetically modified with extreme intelligence and strength, he managed to manipulate his way into taking over the Enterprise and imprisoning Captain Kirk. Kirk manages to escape and exiles Khan and his crew to a far-off planet. Although handled for now, Khan returns with a vengeance in Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan.
Khan comes back consumed by revenge. Most of his crew, his wife included, died on the barren planet of Ceti Alpha V, through exposure or by the planet’s predatory eels. By planting these eels into the brains of two crew members, Khan uses them as spies on the Enterprise. When events don’t end up as Khan would like, he prefers suicide to surrender, almost succeeding in destroying the Enterprise in addition to his own ship.
Khan was rebooted in the new Star Trek films, but this Cumberbotched version is a weaker character overall. The manipulative intelligence and eloquence are gone, replaced with pure power.
Khan is absolutely a villain, but viewers can understand his motives. Khan is motivated by his loss of wife and crew, blaming Kirk and the Federation. Although we can understand his rationale, that doesn’t mean we excuse his choices. It’s nuance like this that make Khan a more well-rounded character as opposed to just a carbon copy bad guy.
Reminiscent of Khan, Tolian Soran is an often overlooked villain. He is motivated by grief and fights Kirk just like Khan. The difference is that Soran manages to kill Kirk.
The Borg destroy Soran’s planet, killing nearly everyone, and also kill his wife and children. Soran and a handful of survivors ended up in another dimension, the Nexus. Here, Soran is able to live in an illusory world separate from the real world, one in which his family still lives. He is eventually pulled out of the Nexus inadvertently by Scotty. Unable to bear reality once more, Soran sets forth to do anything to get back to his Nexus life.
The evil comes not from his goal, but how he sets out to achieve it. Soran is willing to do anything to get back to the Nexus, including destroying planets and ending tens of millions of lives. The irony is, through his cruel actions, Soran does to these planets exactly what the Borg did to him.
To be fair, he does make it back to the Nexus. Here, he is stopped by both captains Picard and Kirk. The latter sacrifices himself to stop Soran permanently. Soran epitomizes the adage of ends not justifying the means. The happiness of one person, no matter who, isn’t worth another’s life, let alone millions.
One of the most recurring characters in the franchise, Q is less of a villain than a mild adversary. He’s a being with godlike powers who could eradicate humanity if he wanted to. He seems content, however, with challenging humanity every so often. Captain Picard is among his favorites. Most of his tests end up with positive lessons.
There is a lot of nuance to Q’s character. More than once, he actually asks for help from the Starfleet. But despite his almost easygoing ways, there’s still the fact that the only thing stopping Q from destroying humanity is because he really doesn’t want to. But the looming fact that he could makes Q a formidable opponent indeed. That uncertainty should make anyone approach with caution.
Some of the main characters in the various franchise series have been Klingons. Despite that, the Klingon race overall is portrayed as villains in the series. The heroic series characters are treated as exceptions rather than the norm.
The Klingons are a race of strength. Through their might, they conquered a huge chunk of space. Their prowess in combat is enough to be a formidable foe for the Starfleet. Despite the somewhat flat depth the Klingons have—they can basically be summed up a warrior race—they have a huge amount of lore behind them, including a full conlang that plenty of nerds have learned. It’s a fun little talent to show off.
Perhaps because of how similar they all are, no single Klingon acts as a villain. It is more the race as a whole. Star Trek Discovery has put the Klingons as the main antagonists. It would be interesting to see them introduce more depth to the race as a whole. Making a singular villain instead of the whole race would also be a fun, new angle to watch develop.
The Winner: Star Wars
In terms of villains, Star Wars wins almost hands down. Darth Vader, Darth Maul, and now Kylo Ren help define the series. They’re as big as the heroes. Although the series is good vs. evil (literally the light and dark sides of the Force), the series does very well with that dynamic.
Star Trek has more subtle shades of grey in some of their villains and it doesn’t always work. Star Trek has more than once used a whole race as a villain. Star Trek is less about a good vs. evil fight than it is about the spirit of adventure and discovery. So while villains and adversaries are still necessary, it isn’t the sole focus like in Star Wars. It’s a nice touch that many villains have a rationale behind their motives. Resources that develop other aspects of the show leave some of the villains lacking.
Although Star Trek is the OG, Star Wars is the MVP. Both franchises are great, but no Star Trek villain can come close to defining evil like Darth Vader has. That doesn’t make Star Trek bad. Both franchises are doing different things and telling separate stories. Both can be appreciated for what they are, but when it comes to villains, Star Trek undoubtedly bows to the dark side.