Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan towers over the history of movie space opera. But where did Star Trek's greatest villain come from, and how did the movie resurrect him? Sociology professors John and Maria Jose Tenuto have spent months researching the real-life history of Khan, and they shared tons of inside information with us. Plus never-before-seen behind-the-scenes photos!
Khan Noonien Singh, of course, is the tyrannical genetically enhanced warlord who dominated half the globe during Star Trek's version of the 1990s. He first appeared in an episode of the TV show, "Space Seed," and then rocked the 1982 movie Wrath of Khan, played both times by Ricardo Montalban.
The Tenutos, who are professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, IL, are long-time Star Trek fans. But they were visiting University of Iowa for another reason, and discovered that Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer had donated his papers, including script drafts, memos and photographs, to the University's library. The Tenutos became obsessed with discovering the details of Wrath of Khan's genesis, including stuff they hadn't found in the official "making of" book. And then, they decided to visit Los Angeles and look at Gene Roddenberry's papers at UCLA, and the CBS/Paramount archives for similar info about the episode "Space Seed," Khan's debut.
In looking at both Khan stories, the Tenutos were motivated by Meyer's dictum that creativity thrives with limitations — and they wanted to see how the limitations that both productions faced made them more creative. They're giving a talk tomorrow at 7 PM at the Vernon Hills Library in Vernon Hills, IL.
We spent about an hour on the phone with John Tenuto, and here's what we found out about both stories.
The photographs below were taken on the Wrath of Khan set, mostly by set photographer Bruce Birmelin, and are courtesy of The Papers of Nicholas Meyer Collection in the Special Collections Department at the University of Iowa Library.
The thing you have to realize about "Space Seed," says Tenuto, is it was being created very early in the run of Star Trek. When writer Carey Wilber pitched the story in September 1966, Star Trek had only been on the air for three weeks. Wilber only had a few episodes to go on, and the show's production team was still working out a lot of stuff as well.
For example, Spock is really really different in Wilber's original outline — he has much stronger psychic powers, and at one point when the rest of the Enterprise crew thinks Kirk is dead, Spock can sense telepathically that Kirk is alive. Spock also tries to use his mental powers to do a "Jedi mind meld" (so to speak) on Lt. Marla McGivers, the traitor on board the Enterprise. Also, the episode begins with Kirk and Spock playing chess, and Spock cheats at chess using the computer. And wins. Later, Spock confesses to McCoy that he feels ashamed for cheating.
Meanwhile, in Wilber's script draft, Kirk speaks in a very formal, militaristic fashion, and producers Gene Coon, Robert Justman and Roddenberry himself spend a lot of time in memos explaining to Wilber that Kirk speaks plainly, in a comfortable fashion. Also, Wilber includes Yeoman Janice Rand as a major character in his 18-page proposal.
The other thing that comes across in the memos that Coon, Justman and Roddenberry were writing was a concern about how Star Trek's future was going to be presented. For example, in Wilber's original script, we know that Marla McGivers is obsessed with the past because she knows about music. She starts singing a melody, and Lt. Uhura asks, "What are you doing?" Uhura doesn't know what music is, because there's no music in the future. Of course, the show already had scripts in the pipeline where Uhura herself sings. But on a larger note, the producers didn't want to depict a future that had no art or music, or culture, or awareness of history.
Yes, Khan was a Viking
You've probably heard before that Khan was originally a Viking-type character, with blond hair. But the original villain of "Space Seed" wasn't genetically enhanced, nor had he ruled any part of the Earth.
In Wilber's original proposal, the Botany Bay contains a criminal named Harold Erickson, who's a blond, Aryan character. "He wasn't even a criminal with an empire, just a criminal," says Tenuto. He wasn't stronger than Kirk or particularly intelligent, and his power came purely from raw brutality and anger. Erickson's plan is to defrost his gang, take over the Enterprise, and become space pirates.
In Wilber's scenario, the overpopulated Earth decided to get rid of some of its criminals by putting them into suspended animation and shooting them into space for a 1,500-year round trip. But it's 500 years later, and the Botany Bay has broken down. (At this point, nobody had nailed down how far in the future Star Trek takes place, and 500 years seemed a reasonable figure.)
Of course, there's a logical flaw in this plan: Why waste the immense resources needed to freeze criminals cryogenically and shoot them into space? It makes no sense — in fact, in the final episode script, Kirk asks if the people on the Botany Bay might be criminals, and Spock carefully points out this logical flaw in that idea.
In keeping with the "space pirate" idea, Erickson actually keelhauls Kirk in Erickson's script draft — he puts Kirk in a spacesuit and tosses him out of the ship with a tiny air supply. (This is when Spock realizes Kirk's alive using his psychic powers.) Marla McGivers gives Kirk a thruster, which lets him return to the Enterprise. But the producers carefully explained to Wilber that you can't have people in space, for cost reasons. (Roddenberry wrote to Wilber: "You may ask yourself how we do a science fiction show with no special effects. We do it with a lot of trickery.")
How Khan became Khan
Gene Coon, the guy who gave us the Klingons, started writing a lot of memos, 6 or 7 pages long, pushing the idea that Erickson could be Kirk's equal, not just a thug. This episode could have someone who actually challenges Kirk in a significant way. And because he comes from the past, he could be allowed to violate the norms of Starfleet. "They seem to recognize that Khan could be Kirk's Joker or Lex Luthor," says Tenuto.
Instead of just a criminal, why not make Harold Erickson a criminal who controlled much of the world in the 1990s? Like a super underworld boss? Coon wrote his own script draft in December — but it's Roddenberry's last-minute midnight script polish that fixes a lot of the problems and creates the "Space Seed" we know and love.
"As very late as early December , you're still having drafts where he's this Viking-like guy," says Tenuto. In Coon's script, the character goes by John Erickson, but then reveals his true name to be Ragnar Thorwald. Coon's rewrites start to introduce the idea that this villain is genetically enhanced, and was the leader of the "first world tyranny."
So how did the character's name change? From his interviews and the paperwork, Tenuto learned that the casting of Ricardo Montalban caused the name change. "Montalban's casting really altered the character in terms of who he became," says Tenuto. Also, "once they knew that Montalban was taking the role, you can see a shift in the dialogue [in the scripts] to become more romantic."
Casting director Joseph D'Agosta cast the best actor for the role, instead of just finding someone who fit the blond Aryan image — and the character improved as a result, says Tenuto.
Once Montalban was lined up, they decided the character would be named Sabahl Khan Noonien, which is the name he still has in James Blish's book adaptation. Why the name Noonien? Gene Roddenberry had a Chinese friend in the 1940s, named Noonien Wang, whom he'd lost touch with. He hoped that one day this episode would air in China, and Wang would see "Noonien" and Roddenberry's name, and get in touch. Roddenberry was still trying to reach his friend in the late 1980s, which is why Data's creator is Noonien Soong.
NBC's research company suggested changing the character name to Govin Bahadur Singh, because the name "Khan" had implications about the character's Sikh ethnicity. But Roddenberry wanted both Khan and Noonien in the name.
The final script draft is covered with scribbles, in Roddenberry's handwriting, as he makes last-minute changes. Here and there, the name "Erickson" is crossed out, and the name "Khan" is written in pencil — because they forgot to change it in some places.
You might already know that Wrath of Khan was planned as a TV movie, produced by Paramount's television department. When William Shatner signed up to star, that's what he was signing up for. But when the studio started to look at what they had, and the good ideas that were in the mix, they started to think maybe this could be another big-screen movie, says Tenuto.
So here are the versions that the story went through on its way to Meyer's final rewrite:
- Star Trek II: The War of the Generations, proposal by Harve Bennett
Kirk learns that there's a rebellion on a Federation colony, and goes to rescue Carol Marcus and their son David — except that David is the leader of the rebellion. And then they discover the rebellion is actually fomented by Khan, who's manipulating everything behind the scenes. This version has no Spock, because Nimoy wasn't on board.
- Star Trek II: The Omega System, script by Jack B. Sowards
The "Omega System" is a Federation weapon of mass destruction, which Khan gets control over. In this version, Marla McGivers is alive. Carol Marcus is replaced by Janet Wallace, from the episode "The Deadly Years." Saavik is a man, and basically replaces Spock. Khan has mental powers. The Reliant is a Constitution-class ship, meaning the Enterprise is facing an identical-looking starship. Art director Michael Minor was the one who read this script and said the Federation should not be developing a WMD. That's where the idea of the Genesis Device, which has a benign aim, comes from.
- Untitled Script by Samuel A. Peeples (writer of "Where No Man Has Gone Before")
Khan isn't in this script. Saavik is a woman. Instead of Chekov going down to the Ceti Alpha with Terrell, it's Chekov and Sulu. Instead of finding Khan, they find two superpowered aliens, a man and a woman, who act very much like villains from a Star Trek: TOS episode.
Meyer took all of these drafts and ideas and combined them into a script which he called Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country — but Paramount execs rejected that name because they didn't get it, says Tenuto. So they went with Vengeance of Khan — except that Lucasfilm requested they change that title because it was too similar to their upcoming Star Wars: Revenge of the Jedi. Hence the "Wrath" title, which Meyer thought sounded weird.
One thing that shows through in Meyer's notes and memos is his willingness to turn around script rewrites quickly. If an actor wasn't happy with the script, Meyer would offer to turn around a new draft for them before they had to leave town — in a few days, in other words. That way, the actor could read the revised script on the plane.
Unfortunately, nobody had asked Montalban if he was willing to be in this film, even though they'd been writing Khan into their scripts for a year or two. Tenuto says when they finally approached Montalban, he wasn't sure if he could return to the role of Khan after so many years — especially after he'd been playing Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island for so long.
Meyer's earlier drafts have some pretty interesting differences from the final version. Like, in Meyer's draft, Khan and Kirk meet in person, and have a swordfight. Khan wins, and leaves Kirk wounded and bloody, which is when Khan gives the "I shall leave you as you left her" speech. The swordfight sequence was dropped for cost and time reasons, which means Kirk and Khan never meet in the final movie.
There's also the famous mystery of the Khan Baby — fans have seen set photos showing a baby in Khan's outfit, crawling around near the Genesis device. In a nutshell, Meyer and the producers reasoned that Khan's group would have been procreating during their time on Ceti Alpha — so in the early draft, when Chekov and Terrell find the Botany Bay, the first thing they find is a baby, unattended, in a crib. Later, that same baby is crawling around as Khan prepares to launch the Genesis Device, killing it along with everyone else.
Sowards' script includes the death of Spock — but he dies very early in the movie, sort of like Janet Leigh in Psycho. And in fact, the fans got wind that Spock was going to be killed off, which is why Meyer "kills" him in the first five minutes of the movie, as a fake-out. Nimoy was unsure about returning to the role, but decided to come back to give Spock a dignified send-off.
These set photos are a treasure trove, and they show stuff like sand being brought into an empty soundstage to create Ceti Alpha (see photo above), and the immense detail that went into Kirk's fireplace, which you only see for a few seconds on screen.
All photos courtesy of The Papers of Nicholas Meyer Collection in the Special Collections Department at the University of Iowa Library
Ricardo Montalban and Nicholas Meyer.