The Real Meaning of Khan's Wrath in Star Trek

This year marks an important anniversary as Trekkies celebrate the 45th anniversary of the broadcast of the original series episode "Space Seed" which first brought us Khan Noonien Singh...

This year marks an important anniversary in the Star Trek universe as Trekkies celebrate the 45th anniversary of the broadcast of the original series (TOS) episode "Space Seed" which first brought us Khan Noonien Singh. It also marks the 30th anniversary of the Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan motion picture, which many believe saved the Star Trek franchise. Following the rather slow Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which, according to Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, failed across the board in terms of art direction, music, and writing, Khan offered a powerful and charismatic bad guy for Kirk and his crew. For those who may not know, Khan, played by Ricardo Montalban, was a super-human from the late 20th century who possessed superior strength and intelligence as a result of genetic engineering. Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew encountered Khan and a few other super-humans when they come across the ship SS Botany Bay in the mid-23rd century. As the episode unfolds we learn that Khan was a leader of something called the Eugenic Wars of the 1990s who, after the uprising failed, fled in the Botany Bay where he and his followers remained in stasis until awakened by Kirk. Khan then attempts to seize control of the Enterprise, but Kirk foils his plans and banishes him and his followers to a desolate planet. Genetic engineering has been a popular theme in the Star Trek universe. Yet, more often than not it is portrayed rather negatively. Simply put, the message in "Space Seed" was that genetic engineering might sound appealing, but messing with nature can also produce bad results. In this case, Khan may have had superior strength and intelligence, but his breeding left him with excessive ambition. The Wrath of Khan picked up where "Space Seed" left off where we learn that Khan and his clan had survived on the planet to which Kirk had exiled him. Khan eventually gets control of a ship and is consumed by his desire to revenge Kirk's treatment of him. Again, despite his superiority, Kirk frustrates Khan€™s effort by blowing up his ship. When "Space Seed" premiered in 1967, the ability to directly manipulate the genes of plants and animals was still a nearly a decade away. By the early 1980s, genetic researchers faced significant resistance from other scientists and religious leaders who equated it with the danger posed by nuclear weapons. Despite the opposition, genetic engineering research had rapidly advanced by the time The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DS9), and Voyager (VOY ) took to the airwaves in the late 80s and early 90s. The creation of the Human Genome Project and the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in the 1990s both captivated and frightened Americans. In the midst of fierce public debate about genetic engineering, each Star Trek series confronted this issue. In TNG's "Unnatural Selection" Captain Picard discovers that residents at the Darwin Genetic Research Station have engineered the station's children to become super-human, yet somehow this effort kills the adults. Dr. Pulaski of the Enterprise concludes that: €œJust as changes in evolution are known to be caused by changes in the environment we now know the process also works in reverse. An attempt to control human evolution has resulted in a new species that's lethal to its predecessors.€ A few years later TNG again examined the dangers of genetic engineering in "The Masterpiece Society" where the Enterprise crew encounter a genetically-engineered settlement whose ancestors came from Earth to create a perfect society. When a space fragment threatens to destroy their planet, the residents explain that they can't leave because it would undermine the genetic purity of their society. Again, Star Trek writers reflected the larger societal debate when Picard stated: "They€™ve given away their Humanity with this genetic manipulation. Many of the qualities that they breed out €“ the uncertainty, self-discovery, the unknown €“ these are many of the qualities that make life worth living. I wouldn€™t want to live my life knowing that my future was written, that my boundaries had been already set." DS9 made the issue of genetic manipulation more personal by revealing that one of the show's main characters, Dr. Julian Bashir, was a product of genetic engineering. We learn that when Julian was young, he had some form of learning disability or possible mental disability which stunted his intellectual growth. His parents break Federation law when they take Bashir to a place that manipulates his DNA so that he would be able to keep up with his peers. Bashir ends up not only brighter but fitter, stronger and faster than his classmates. In a reference to Khan, Rear Admiral Bennett explains the ban to Bashir's parents: "Two hundred years ago, we tried to improve the species through DNA resequencing. And what did we get for our troubles? The Eugenics Wars. For every Julian Bashir that can be created, there's a Khan Singh waiting in the wings €” a superhuman. Whose ambition and thirst for power have been enhanced along with his intellect. The law against genetic engineering provided a firewall against such men." VOY continued the critique of the unquestioned faith many Americans had in the possibilities of genetic engineering. In €œLineage,€ when the Klingon engineer Lieutenant Torres learns that her baby will have the pronounced forehead ridges of the Klingon race, she attempts to force the Doctor to eliminate the ridges by manipulating the fetus€™ DNA. In the end her human husband, Lt. Paris, convinces Torres to embrace nature and let their baby develop without interference. In many ways this episode reflected the raging debate on designer babies in the mid-90s. Finally, Enterprise examined genetic engineering in a special three-part story arc (€œBorderland,€ €œCold Station 12€ and €œThe Augments€) starring Brent Spiner who played the android Data in TNG. Spiner plays geneticist Arik Soong who believes it was wrong for humanity to denounce the attempts at genetic "improvement" of humanity simply because of the Eugenics Wars. With the help of several super-humans called the Augments, Soong attempts to "awaken" thousands of genetically-altered embryos (Augments) that he had fathered. If successful, these Augments, with their remarkable strength, agility and intelligence, threaten the future of mankind. Like Khan, one of the Augment leaders suffers from excessive ambition and aggressiveness and in the end Captain Archer thwarts their plans. Despite his failure, Soong, in the last scene declares: €œI've been thinking - perfecting humanity...may not be possible. Cybernetics...artificial life forms...I doubt I'll finish the work myself...might take a generation or two..." This work would be perfected by his descendant, Noonian Soong, who would create Data. From Khan to Soong, Star Trek, a show that celebrated technological advancement, challenged the promises of the rapidly developing science of genetic engineering. As the debate over cloning, designer babies, and genetic manipulation continued into twenty-first century, Star Trek offered viewers a way to see the debate from a different and unique perspective. While the genetically-engineered Khan may have saved the franchise, Star Trek€™s writers and producers suggested that the cost of genetic engineering to humanity was too much to bear.
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A Trekkie since the days he watched reruns of the original Star Trek series from his own "captain's chair" in his livingroom, I am now a History professor at San Diego State University where I teach a class called "Star Trek, Culture, and History."