Whether you know him as being played by Ricardo Montalban on the original series or Benedict Cumberbatch in the feature film Star Trek Into Darkness, the most memorable adversary in Star Trek’s 50-plus year history is genetic superman Khan Noonien Singh. And not only is the character celebrating his half-century anniversary since his introduction in the episode “Space Seed,” but he is reportedly the subject of a new TV mini-series in development as well.
With Star Trek: Discovery debuting September 24th on CBS All Access, according to Geek Exchange, Nicholas Meyer, writer/director of the 1982 feature Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (a sequel to “Space Seed”) and a producer on Discovery, is currently developing a mini-series that chronicles what happens to Khan between the TV episode and the feature film. Meyer for his part only offers, “I Khannot comment,” but this has reportedly been in the works for a while.
In “Space Seed,” Captain Kirk’s starship Enterprise comes across a derelict “sleeper ship” named the Botany Bay, which contains a crew of about 70 men and women in suspended animation. Led by Khan, these people are revealed to be a race of genetically altered supermen with strength and intelligence nearly 10 times that of an average person. They had attempted to take over Earth in the past and triggered World War III — the Eugenics War — but in the end they managed to flee in the Botany Bay and are now revived in the 23rd Century. Seizing the moment, and using the Enterprise’s historian Marla McGivers, Khan nearly takes over the Enterprise. Kirk and Spock manage to gain the upper hand (barely) and give Khan, his people and McGivers the choice of court martial or starting life anew on the harsh but habitable Ceti Alpha V. Khan chooses the latter, relishing the opportunity to “tame a world,” and McGivers elects to join him.
What should have been the end of the story turned out to be only the beginning.
Space Seed (1967)
Carey Wilbur (Co-writer, “Space Seed”): “On the old Captain Video TV show I wrote this crazy story where we did the legend of men being turned into beasts, and our villainess had been transported from the days of Greek mythology to the future. So in doing ‘Space Seed,’ we took away the mythological powers and replaced them with a genetically altered human being.”
Marc Daniels (Director, “Space Seed”): “The biggest problem in the episode was trying to visualize Khan’s tremendous power, where he could turn out a finger and turn somebody upside down. That we difficult, but we got away with it thanks to stunt people and judicious editing.”
Ricardo Montalban (Actor, “Khan”): “Khan was not the run of the mill sort of portrayal. It had to have a different dimension. That attracted me very much. Khan was a character that was bigger than life. He had to be played that way. He was extremely powerful both mentally and physically, with an enormous amount of pride. But he was not totally villainous. He had some good qualities. I saw a nobility in the man that, unfortunately, was overriden by ambition and a thirst for power. I saw that in the character and played it accordingly. It was very well received at the time, and I was delighted. Then I forgot about it and went on to the next thing.”
Greg Cox (Author, Khan Novel Trilogy): “He’s like the Doctor Doom of the Star Trek universe, both appealing and evil at the same time. And, of course, you have the fact that ‘Space Seed’ is one of the episodes that cried out for a sequel. There’s a scene in that episode where Kirk and Scotty try to explain to a bemused Spock that it’s possible to condemn somebody and admire them at the same time. You can actually kind of like Khan and oppose everything he stands for at the same time. That's the key to the character, which Spock doesn’t get. On the one hand you want to root for him — he’s interesting and fascinating — and at the same time he’s very dangerous.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982)
There is an interesting moment at the end of “Space Seed” where Spock says to Kirk, “It would be interesting, Captain, to return to that world in a hundred years and learn what crop has sprung from the seed you planted today,” to which Kirk responds, "Yes, Mr. Spock, it would indeed.” Even more interesting was an earlier draft of the script in which Kirk’s response was, “Let’s just hope that seed doesn’t come after us.” That’s exactly what happens in The Wrath Of Khan, which sees Khan and his people commandeering a starship and seeking vengeance against Kirk for having stranded them on that planet.
Harve Bennett (Producer): “What we started wth was, ‘Who is the heavy? Who is the black hat? We won’t make this picture unless there is a black-hat heavy.’ ‘Space Seed’ kept hauntng me. I thought it was fabulous. The episode and Ricardo Montalban as Khan spoke to me.”
Jack Sowards (Co-writer, The Wrath of Khan): “Richard Montalban just knew how to play Khan. He brings that sort of macho arrogance to it and you believe this is a genetically engineered man who is stronger, smarter and brighter. A hero is nothing without a villain. If you overcome a slug and a snail, you haven’t done anything. If you overcome something like Khan, a hero is defined.”
Ricardo Montalban: “The original character was in total control of the situation. Guided simply by his overriding ambition. The new character, however, was now obsessed. He was a man obsessed with vengeance for the death of his wife, for which he blamed Kirk. If he was bigger than life before, I felt he really had to become bigger than life almost to the point of becoming ludicrous to be effective. If I didn’t play it fully and totally obsessed with this, then I think the character would be little and insignificant and uninteresting. The danger was in going overboard. I had to find a tone of really going right to the razor’s edge before the character became a caricature.”
Nicholas Meyer (Co-writer/Director): “I remember saying apropos to Khan, ‘You know, the thing about a crazy person is that a crazy person doesn’t have to raise their voice, because you just never know what they’re going to do...NEXT!’ And I sort of lashed out with my arm around Ricardo’s neck and then he understood. He got it. And then it was just a question of endless fine-tuning. He would look at me before every take or after every take and go, ‘Too much? Too little?’ It was driving a Maserati: you just didn’t have to do much to get the response.”
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Thanks to the rejiggered timeline of the JJ Abrams-produced Star Trek films, Khan was able to make an appearance in the second entry, Into Darkness, in a completely different way than he originally had, though bringing no less a sense of menace.
Roberto Orci (Co-writer/Producer): “It had to be a story where you didn’t need to know who the hell Khan was. Our movie had to stand on its own just like ‘Space Seed,’ which introduced Khan, did. This time, the story is about Starfleet waking up a cryogenically frozen, genetically engineered super human, and using him for nefarious purposes."
Alex Kurtzman (Co-writer/Producer): “In Wrath Of Khan, despite the fact that Khan was such a bad guy, when he monologues about having been marooned on the planet and having lost his family, it’s a very relatable and understandable motivation, and that’s what made him such a great villain. And that was something we felt we could not change about Khan on any level. He had to be someone who was ultimately dedicated to family and the protection of his family. That was going to perfectly mirror in our minds Kirk’s arc in the film, and the idea that he doesn’t quite understand what it means to be a captain yet.”
The New Mini-Series
Although details are scant, and while it would seem to be more interesting to go back and do a show about Khan’s initial rise to power, the focus is reportedly on the years taking place between Ceti Alpha V and The Wrath Of Khan; territory nearly covered back in the 1980s and, more recently, by the writings of Greg Cox.
Eddie Egan (Unit Publicist, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan): “A spin-off was being pursued and a script was written after Khan. It was called Star Trek: Prison Planet, and it was to deal with what happened after the Botany Bay crashed on Ceti Alpha V and before the events of Wrath Of Khan. It was completely designed as a vehicle for Ricardo Montalban, and it was supervised by [producer] Harve Bennett. But then the decision was made to focus exclusively on Star Trek III instead.”
Greg Cox: “I tried to keep Khan sympathetic, even though over the course of my books I had to arc him from idealistic young man, to somewhat crazed, maniacal Khan of the movie. On film there are two different Khans. There’s the young Khan we see in ‘Space Seed,’ who is kind of ruthless, but not the demented, vengeance-crazed loon he is in Wrath Of Khan. They’re very different characters, but you can connect the dots between the two Khans. That was what was interesting about the books, especially the third one which is the Ceti Alpha V years: taking him from young red jump-suited Khan to crazed, wild-eyed Khan in the movie.”
CBS All Access has yet to comment on the Khan mini-series. Look for Star Trek: Discovery to be available for weekly streaming as of September 24.