As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…
Star Trek and God have an interesting relationship. For a show revolving around scientific discovery and set in the cosmos, the franchise frequently returns to Biblical allegory and religious mystery. The Wrath of Khan is no exception, even for an ostensibly secular film.
How else can the Genesis Project be defined than the product of a God complex? The scientists of space station Regula 1, as directed by Dr. Carol Marcus, are well aware of how powerful the Genesis device is. “We are dealing with something that could be perverted into a dreadful weapon” agonises her son and fellow scientist, David, in the wake of being contacted by the U.S.S. Reliant as they scout out test sites for the project. These are scientists tethered to the Federation but not driven by Starfleet’s rhetoric who appreciate they have the power to create or destroy life, and David seems positively terrified that Starfleet itself could be inviolate, could corrupt their science. “Every time we have dealings with Starfleet, I get nervous…”. It would be hard to imagine Gene Roddenberry’s pure vision of humanity’s future space navy containing any suggestions they could warp the power of God.
Nicholas Meyer, in his humanistic and flawed version of the 23rd century, is far less convinced of Starfleet’s purity. He has lived through the horror of Vietnam just a decade before his take on Star Trek’s future, having witnessed progressive democracies almost destroyed by ideological fear, not to mention raised in the shadow of Hiroshima and the work of Robert Oppenheimer, a scientist whose noble actions led to a century-defining blight on American history. The Regula scientists react in horror at Reliant’s Captain Terrell openly wondering if the life signs detected on Ceti Alpha VI (or what they *think* to be Ceti Alpha VI) can be transplanted. ”It might only be a particle of preanimate matter”. The Federation already have powers over matter and space that would have been considered God-like to earlier humanity and Carol Marcus chafes at his casual lack of humility in the face of such power.
Little do any of them realise that on the surface of the planet lies an expression of corrupted humanity, a sundered ‘God’ resting in his own personal Dante’s inferno.
Terrell’s assertion, based on the scans of ‘on loan’ Enterprise security officer Pavel Chekov, about the preanimate matter is a casual assumption of control that comes back fatally to bite him and his crew.
Chekov, when the Reliant crew beam onto the sandstorm covered arid horror of Ceti Alpha VI, describes the area as “the garden spot” of the planet, confused about his surroundings. It’s become a classic joke in Star Trek lore that Chekov wasn’t actually around for the events of Space Seed, the Season 1 episode of the 1960’s Original Series that first introduced cryogenically-frozen exiled prince Khan Noonien Singh, but Chekov here suggests Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew left Khan and his people at the end of that episode in an Edenic paradise, even if he does not seem to immediately recall the proximity or significance of Khan (which would make sense as he wasn’t in Space Seed). If 60’s optimism left the Eugenic abominations of the Botany Bay crew in Heaven, 80’s cynicism returns to them forgotten in the depths of Hell. Yet Terrell believes Starfleet’s own technological power of their surroundings can remove what they erroneously believe to be “caught in the matrix” with a light arrogance they are immediately punished for upon reaching the surface.
The introduction of Khan is suitably iconic, once we experience the dread of Chekov’s realisation about the significance of the Botany Bay, and operates on a metatextual level of audience recognition. One wonders how audiences at the time reacted to the aged, grey, nomadic visage of Khan, with Ricardo Montalban looking so different from the black haired, dashing Asian noble who fenced with Captain Kirk like he’d just walked off the set of a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. movie. Did they gasp? Did they half remember a character who was last seen 15 years before? Did some need to be reminded just who Khan was, and how unusual a threat to the crew of the Enterprise he posed?
This was no malevolent alien being, war-like race, or corrupt God-entity. Khan was a man. Human. Genetically advanced but human nevertheless, though fuelled by belief in his own eugenic superiority. “On Earth …two hundred years ago …I was a prince… with power over millions.” Khan believes his own hype and his introductory scene quite brilliantly outlines his psychology, his aspirations and his backstory. The remainder of the film simply accentuates and builds on the foundations Meyer lays here.
It’s a scene that does open lots of questions, some of which remain canonically unanswered. Khan confuses his dates. He claims to be from the year 1996 yet later suggests two centuries ago—which would be circa 2085, around the time Trek lore tells us humanity was recovering from the catastrophic Post-Atomic Horror of World War 3. While this is easy to write off as a script issue, it could also be a sign of Khan’s psychological degradation over the last decade, in which he and his people were decimated by ecological devastation and Khan himself lost the Enterprise crewmember he fell in love with during Space Seed, Lt Marla McGivers, who elected to stay with Khan on Ceti Alpha V in exile.
“Ceti Alpha Six exploded six months after we were left here. The shock shifted the orbit of this planet and everything was laid waste.” Khan believes Kirk marooned him on Ceti Alpha V, conveniently ignoring the fact the Enterprise left him on a planet he could easily have started his own people on, a eugenically advanced human colony who lived in peace. Khan blames Kirk for their suffering rather than the hand of an unseen Creator, or even the random chance of cosmic fate with events that Kirk could not possibly have foreseen or prevented. Khan, by the end of his introduction, feels Luciferian; a fallen symbol of an advanced version of humanity.
A slight sidebar but for an excellent non-canon exploration of both Khan’s history on 20th century Earth and what happened between Space Seed and The Wrath of Khan, do give Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh and To Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh novels a read. They’re tremendous and superbly sketch in elements previously left as major questions.
Ultimately, as Khan captures Terrell and Chekov, both are punished for their hubris in believing they could manipulate the natural order for the Genesis Project. Khan uses the only indigenous remaining life form, a parasitic creature which the Reliant believed they could, in essence, transplant. “Their young enter through the ears and wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex. This has the effect of rendering the victim extremely susceptible to suggestion. Later thew… grow… then follows madness… and death.”
Khan unleashes the unnatural order of Ceti Alpha V upon the Starfleet crewman, who mistakenly believed their dominance of space, conquering of technology allowing them to not just explore the stars but bring life to barren worlds. Khan’s “pets” are a warning to humanity, a warning against their God complex. Khan managed to survive and conquer the hellish inhospitality of his paradise lost, becoming the Devil in a destroyed garden, and now uses his own snakes to infiltrate, corrupt and control the lives of mere men.
The Wrath of Khan wants us to understand. Genesis might well be a project about creating life but paradise is far easier to destroy than to create.
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series here:
III – ‘Something We Can Transplant’
V – ‘First Best Destiny’
VI – ”Round Perdition’s Flames’
VII – ‘The Word is Given’
VIII – ‘By the Book’
IX – ‘Sauce for the Goose’
X – ‘Live Long and Prosper’