Who is Captain Kirk’s greatest enemy? Sure, you can go with the Klingons, but there’s no single Klingon who stands out among the rest. The same is true for the Romulans. Arguably, Kirk’s most memorable foe is Khan Noonien Singh, played so memorably by Ricardo Montalban.
And yet, Khan only appeared in one episode of the original series.
Let’s be fair here: Montalban gives a very charismatic performance as a twentieth century superman. And as magnetic as he is in “Space Seed,” he was also the antagonist of what most fans consider to be the best Star Trek movie ever made. Heck, Khan’s name is in the title: The Wrath of Khan. In that movie, he’s angry over a perceived murder attempt on himself and his people. Here, he just wants to pick up where he left off.
It seems back around 1992…
…man, I love it when old sci-fi suggests stuff from my past is in its future…
…back around 1992, World War III broke out. It wasn’t a nuclear war. It was a eugenics wars. Various genetically modified men and women rose up to conquer the world, taking over vast patches of land until finally forced out of power by everyone else. The most successful of these people was Khan. He ruled most of Asia.
Given when Star Trek is set, how did Khan end up on the Enterprise? Shouldn’t he be long dead? Well, not quite. The victorious regular people blasted Khan and the survivors of his kind into space in suspended animation. They called the ship the Botany Bay after an Australian prison colony. And then the Enterprise found it adrift in space. Minimal life signs, the ship could be in trouble, Spock can’t find the record for it right away, why not go take a look?
As such, Kirk goes over with McCoy, Scotty, and the ship’s historian, specializing in the 20th century, Lt. Marla McGivers.
Why does the Enterprise need a historian on an exploration mission? I get that the ship continually runs into planets that are exactly like some long forgotten Earth culture (Nazi planet is coming!), but it sure does seem like an odd thing to have on board.
As it is, Kirk and co. find Khan, and McGivers is besotted with him. She says it’s because he comes from her time period of choice. Kirk thinks it’s because he’s handsome because only men can go a little soft for members of the opposite sex on his ship! Man, I hate double-standards. Then again, I think Star Trek made up and changed rules as it went along.
Of course, Kirk isn’t wrong because McGivers does fall for Khan and even helps him thaw his crew and take over the ship. Sure, she tries to keep things from getting too violent. And I do have to wonder if the effect of Khan’s white male associate slapping Uhura to try to get her to comply has the same meaning now as it did in 1967. Then again, I love the steely look of defiance Uhura gives the guy. She hasn’t had much to do on the show so far, but when she gets something, Nichelle Nichols gives it all she’s got.
But here’s the thing: McGivers may have figured out Khan’s identity first, but she wasn’t the last or his only admirer. When Spock briefs the other officers on who Khan is, Scotty expresses some admiration for the man. And Scotty isn’t alone. Kirk and some of the others found Khan impressive. Sure, they never expected to meet the guy, but the episode takes some time to show how sometimes people admire history’s monsters. Not for their evil. Kirk clarifies that much to a somewhat surprised Spock. No, there is something to admire about the drive and determination that these people had to do what they did.
Let’s face it: history’s monsters can be fascinating. All Star Trek does here is give the characters a chance to meet one. And they opted for a completely fictional one so, in the event the character does come across as charismatically as Khan does, well, it won’t be so bad for the audience. That way no one at home is thinking the crew are admiring Hitler.
And I say that knowing Khan has some very Hitler-like traits. He believes in his genetic and intellectual superiority. He tells Kirk as much more than once. His take-over strategy for the Enterprise involves cutting people’s air off, first from the bridge to render everyone there unconscious, and later he tries to blackmail the crew into submission by locking various people into a decompression chamber. Then again, Kirk also uses a gas attack to knock out most of Khan’s people. That seemed to be the way to go this time around.
Plus, it sure is satisfying when Kirk finally beats Khan up in the surprisingly roomy engineering room. And he does it just after Khan brags about how he’s five times stronger than Kirk.
Still, this is Star Trek. How much should Kirk punish Khan or even McGivers? McGivers did have a change of heart to help Kirk get free from the decompression chamber. She still helped Khan take over the ship, but there are extenuating circumstances. Plus, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of capital punishment in the future. What’s Kirk to do? Put Khan and his people back to sleep and leave the Botany Bay to drift?
Well, no. Instead, he drops them (plus McGivers) off on an uninhabited world to colonize for themselves. It fits in with the name of Khan’s ship. Why not? Did Gene Roddenberry, who helped put the script together, intend to bring Khan back? I don’t know. But he did come back in the biggest way possible. There’s a reason we remember Khan.
By the by, biggest badass in this episode? Dr. McCoy. He gets a scalpel to the throat, Khan’s hand around his neck, and he doesn’t bat an eyelash. Heck, he even makes a recommendation for where Khan can cut him. Either he knows when he’s in real danger, or he doesn’t care. Plus, it won over Khan ever so momentarily. That’s something awesome in an already awesome episode.
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