Why did TV’s “Space Seed” inspire The Wrath of Khan?
Taking a look at Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) is easy, but what isn’t easy is answering why they decided to ruin the ending to “Space Seed” and use that as a foundation for the movie. That’s a risky thing because the ending to “Space Seed” is just so perfect and works so well thematically. The movie ultimately contradicts it and takes a new stance on the themes brought up in “Space Seed”, developing everything in a new direction. If you thought you read some Star Trek analysis before, I really dug this one out of my closet for this post.
“Space Seed” was a great 60s Star Trek episode. It stars Ricardo Montalban as Khan, trying to take over Captain Kirk’s ship, while Lt Marla McGivers goes on being infatuated with him. If I didn’t know better, her views paint Khan as a romantic character straight out of literature. It is strange how all the crew can sense something wrong with Khan, as if they already know that he is a major badass who is going to cause them some trouble. As an audience, we certainly know it. He does cause some trouble, but loses out to the crew’s ingenuity and Captain Kirk’s fistacuffs.
Captain Kirk might well be justified in his actions. Khan Noonien Singh is a throwback superhuman, bent on using physical force and supreme virility to conquer every challenge. It is no accident that Kirk strands Khan on his own planet at the end of the episode, because he will be right at home there, taming the wilds of nature and molding the planet as he sees fit. In some ways, Khan is sympathetic, as he was never supposed to be in the same time period as Captain Kirk and his disciplined crew. He was born in a time when things were harsher and his leadership was needed. As it stands, he is out of place and out of touch.
Therefore, what it comes down to is that Khan can’t exist in a new age. As a scholar and a thinker, I think Khan realizes it is better to rule in Hell, than serve in Heaven, so he goes willingly to his new world. He wants to rule over an Empire, but he’ll settle for a paradise he can shape to his own liking. McGivers joins him as his Eve.
With this in mind, Khan is sent out of the Garden of Eden into the harsh reality of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He’s no longer able to rule and his Paradise has become a wasteland. Khan seems to embody what his planet has now become, quite the opposite of the vicious philosopher in “Space Seed”. He is wild, crazy, and impulsive. It’s not coincidence that Khan wants something called the “Genesis Device”, which is both a weapon and an allusion to Paradise Lost.
Khan’s original motivation to conquer and lead is gone, now replaced only by revenge. He wants to kill Kirk, smash his jailor for condemning him to live out a literal Paradise Lost scenario, except much worse. Khan definitely feels guilt in losing his wife, but whether he feels shame in being lost in Kirk’s time or being unable to reclaim his birthright, is unknown. What is known is that he was put through a whole lot because of a freak natural occurrence that was no fault of his own. His planet shifted its orbit as if by an act of God, thus releasing a monster in Star Trek II. It’s not his fault, unlike Adam and Eve, although the result is the same. Khan is cast out.
The idea of genetics and genetic manipulation is not heavily touched on in “Space Seed” or at all in Star Trek II, but both are cautionary tales about this kind of tampering. Both Star Trek II and “Space Seed” seem to decry this type of science, as if Khan was inherently bad from the start. I do not believe this argument. Khan is a leader, a military man, and a dictator. However, if you were to create 100 scientists with genetics instead of soldiers or generals, would they all become supervillains? I wouldn’t think so. As it is, a “superman” like Khan becomes a death bringer in Star Trek II because he is unable to fulfill his original purpose or rule in his paradise. You can see how he would be really pissed off.
While Khan was growing into a stronger, tougher, death bringing badass on his planet wasteland, Admiral Kirk was retiring. The two men go in opposite directions and Star Trek II shows that brilliantly. Kirk reveals Khan’s tragic flaw, that he is really smart, but not knowledgeable, especially about starships. This is perhaps the best plot point in the movie.
Although Star Trek II does ruin the ending of “Space Seed”, I think that’s alright. The development of Khan in Star Trek II is well-explained and justified. Khan shouldn’t complain about man’s lack of development though, as he does in “Space Seed”, because Kirk is more than a match for him and Kirk certainly has the tools to beat him. It’s a bit of a let down if you look at it that way, but Khan is so unrelenting that his character still works anyway.
Khan argues that man should develop himself and can do much more with that development. In “Space Seed”, Khan favors the development of man over machine, but Star Trek II proves that argument to be a really bad one, leading to his tragic flaw and ultimate undoing. Develop all you want, Captain Kirk is still going to have better weapons and better tools than you. In this way, Star Trek II is the celebration of technology over man.
The themes of man versus technology, personal experience versus genetics, and others, are what Star Trek: Into Darkness lacks. Without getting into a debate over how good that movie is, suffice it to say Star Trek II and “Space Seed” succeed in a much more satisfying way. They are great viewing even today.
Harve Bennett was the one who chose “Space Seed” as the subject for Star Trek II. It was he who wrote the first outline for the story, based on the episode, and worked on the script. He had never seen the episodes before coming onto the project and was ultimately a newcomer to the mythos of Star Trek upon first working on the story. As for why Bennett liked “Space Seed”, he told StarTrek.com in an interview that he really thought he could do a lot considering the ending to the episode. He felt it was the perfect jumping off point for the movie.
Somewhere along the way I ran the episode “Space Seed,” and it was like God had sent a present down to me. “Space Seed” ends having deposited Khan (Ricardo Montalban) on some desolate planetoid and Kirk, I think it was, saying “If we came back in 25 years, I wonder what he’d be like.” And Spock says, “Hmm.” I jumped up out of my seat and said, “Thank you, God! Thank you. That’s it. That’s my story.” -StarTrek.com
I think Harve Bennett did a lot of work on the Star Trek movies, and he’s credited for Star Trek II, III, IV, and V. Although Star Trek II does “ruin” the ending to “Space Seed”, it does so in such a good way that I’d have to say that Star Trek II is even better, almost the perfectly logical progression from the episode. The descent of Khan into madness over the death of his wife is an especially good motivation and his battle with an older Kirk proves to be entertaining, if not some of the best Star Trek ever. Best of all, the meddling studio executive Harve Bennett helped make it all possible and showed that Star Trek II is more than just philosophy and glory shots.
“Space Seed” and Star Trek II are great Star Trek. I enjoy them even today. Thematically, both of them succeed. Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber wrote “Space Seed” and laid the foundation for a great character in Khan, but it is really Ricardo Montalban’s performance we remember. I’ve heard the comparison of every other Star Trek movie villain to Ricardo Mantalban’s Khan. “Is he as good as Khan?” is the most common Star Trek question ever. It should be a comparison to Montalban’s performance, because that is what makes the character memorable. Using “Space Seed” in the way they did, they set the stage for a great adventure, a feat which I don’t think will ever be done again in Star Trek. However, we can enjoy it for what it is, and celebrate it as an influence for the future of Star Trek, which will hopefully bring us more memorable moments and great performances.