The most difficult thing about watching this episode is forgetting its movie sequel. The question is whether this episode would be as powerful if there had been no "Wrath of Khan" -- arguably the best episode of Trek ever made. In truth, I think there is so much to recommend this episode, that it may itself be one of the best episodes of Trek ever made, despite its obvious stumbles.
Everyone is on their game, a game elevated by the presence of a very fine actor. Montalban is well cast -- despite his advanced years (age 47, which would have put Khan's actual birth sometime around 1950, when, as far as we know, no genetic engineering was taking place). His command of the character, as well as his very commanding screen presence, appears to have been a factor with everyone from the weak Lieutenant, to writer Coon, to Shatner and Nimoy, even to director Marc Daniels. Confidence oozes out of every corner of this episode, just as it does out of Khan's every pore. And despite temptation, Montalban never takes it over the top. He never plays it like "this is just science fiction." He plays it like this is a complete character, worthy of as much effort as he might put in for a stage play. This is to his great credit.
A perfect example of this is the moment when McGivers says, "I know exactly who you are." Montalban's reaction is the perfectly caught-off-guard moment of weakness. His face reads, "Does she know?" while simultaneously saying, "I must not let her know that it would surprise me if she really did know." It is the slight flaw which makes the whole character -- bravado and all -- believable. Interestingly, no stage direction is given to indicate this reaction in the script. Any number of responses, including indignant or steely or laughing, would have been possible. But Montalban, perhaps coached by Daniels, picks the reaction which gives the character the most depth.
Not that Khan is the only character with depth here. Another amazing sequence takes place in full dress uniform, as Spock quizzes Khan on who he is and how he got there. The script lays out the dialogue, but gives no mention of the intercutting which Daniels (aided by editor Ballas) uses between Spock, Khan, McGivers, and Kirk. The cast, with the director, has worked this out for maximum effect at bolstering Kirk's character by showing him intentionally silent. Shatner wears that poker face until confronted, then drops it with a thud. During the exchange, Nimoy restrains Spock so as not to spook the guest who they have begun to wonder about. Montalban's Khan plays the game very well, appealing to Kirk with his eyes, and reflecting the lack of compassion he sees there. Then his eyes betray that the wheels are turning inside and decisions on what to say and do are being carfeully made. These are marvelous performances, deeply rooted in who these characters have become.
McGivers is a potential problem, as we have seen with random crewmembers before ("Dagger of the Mind"). Two things take the edge off. First, Kirk takes her to task for her sloppy performance with the landing party. This scene, rare for Trek, serves to reinforce that there are expectations of starship crewmembers, and Kirk will not tolerate his crew performing below those standards (another fine example is the post-brawl dressing down of Scotty in "The Trouble With Tribbles"). This sets the stage for raised expectations, but it also brings to the fore the mesmerizing effect that the situation -- not Khan -- has had on her. This is the second mitigating factor: Her character is in love with history, and history is literally coming to life for her. She realizes that few in her field will ever have the opportunity she now has. That's probably a tingly feeling which not only explains her distracted performance, but sets her up to be even that much more mesmerized by Khan himself. Rhue's performance captures a young specialist overcome by a unique opportunity at the same time she is overcome by a charismatic manipulator. Her weakness, despite being unbecoming of an Enterprise crewmember, works well within its context.
The script's lone weak point is in its conclusion. After the battle of wits which occupies the bulk of this episode, it devolves quickly into a routine "explosion imminent" scenario with the obligatory accompanying fist fight. The biggest problem is that Khan has been well established as the stronger man, and should win this one with no difficulty. But surprise, Kirk knows a little something Khan does not: that those little doohickeys come off and make a good (if extremely lightweight) club. It's a disappointment to see the conflict resolved on such a base level, and then watch as Kirk saves the ship with a couple of button presses. (The sequence is further hampered by very poor use of stunt doubles, filmed clumsily such that it is always obvious when Shatner and Montalban are not present.)
The script falters further in its denoument. Trek makes a point of not being overly punitive toward cultural misfits and even criminals. Roddenberry clearly prefers rehabilitation to long prison sentences. But dropping all charges and giving Khan an entire world is a bit extreme. Knowing his aspirations, Kirk would have to realize the danger posed (although he missed it completely with regards to the technical manuals). Any old ship stumbling by that planet might soon find their captain in a decompression chamber. Rehabilitation is fine and good, but the solution here just goes too far. (Of course, it's the only solution which allows the sequel later, so it must be forgiven. But still...)
A far better solution would have been to work this to a stand-off. Khan with hostages, Kirk realizing he may actually have been outmaneuvered. In such a scenario, Khan could demand a planet for himself, and Kirk could respond with a barren world barely capable of supporting life. At least then the final resolution would have been a bit more motivated, if no less unwise.
Speaking of the decompression chamber, it is a wonderful set addition, cleverly designed to require only three moving parts, yet give the complete impression of its purpose. The briefing room also shines in several different configurations, showing the great cleverness in building such a versatile set. The interior of the Botany Bay is also a very successful set, cleverly suggesting rows and rows of cubbies in just a very small area. The set looks just a bit too pristine for having been in space for two centuries. A bit of distressing would have been appropriate (cobwebs might be a bit too much, but rust or even dust would have been sufficient).
The special effects start promising but cannot maintain their high quality. Obviously, much expense went into creating the Botany Bay model, and there are an unusually large number of new exterior shots. And while the movement of the two ships relative to each other is very effective, there are two long shots in which the bases of the two models are clearly visible. Apparently the effects house (credited to Westheimer, though several sources mention Film Effects) had to cut some corners to meet the budget and/or schedule.
Being made so late in the season, the budget for original music had long since been exhausted. It's a shame because this episode would have been a perfect candidate for something new: a theme for the Botany Bay, a variation for Khan, a love theme, and special pieces for suffocation and decompression. It's a shame Fred Steiner was not let loose on this. Without a new score, music editor Henrikson opts to bring back the Talosian's theme to represent Khan and his henchmen. It does works well, since Courage's musical imagery -- and choice of instrumentation -- so effectively convey's menace and imminent danger. But this was an opportunity missed.
The costumes are also notable, running quite a wide gamut. Khan and his cohorts wear a fascinating mesh covering while sleeping, but unfortunate red jump suits the rest of the time. Khan himself sports a most attractive jacket for dinner, but then donns a Starfleet uniform which makes him look like a future red shirt casualty. And the officers wear their dress uniforms, but not anyone else. It seems odd, but was no doubt too expensive to make them for the extras.
Coon must be credited with writing several exceptionally memorable scenes. In the first, McCoy instructs Khan in the best way to kill him. Kelley plays it perfectly, but it's the writing which shines, establishing McCoy as possessing his own unassuming bravado. In the second, Khan manipulates McGivers into submitting to his will through a combination of charisma, intellect, strength and irrationality. He writes Khan as the ultimate bad boy. McGivers never stood a chance. Finally, Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty have a laugh at Spock's expense by running with their own barbaric instincts. The scene works because it has a point (summed up by Kirk: "Mr. Spock, we humans have a streak of barbarism in us. Appalling, but there, nevertheless.") and the humor is genuinely character-driven.
These little things elevate an episode which could have easily devolved into silliness much earlier. The story contains equal amounts pessimism (envisioning a third world war, genetic engineering, rampant barbarism, etc.) and optimism (survival beyond the war, and interstellar space travel within 30 years). Trek always walked this line very carefully, and though the ultimate effect is optimism, Roddenberry clearly knew and acknowledged the darker sides of humanity quite frequently.
It's something of a yin-yang approach which is always interpreted positively by fans, much to the creative team's credit. Khan, as a representative of the 20th century, has some very positive aspects and one negative: cruel ambition. But even that is explained as having had the goal of unifying the world much in the way Trek ultimately saw it unified. In other words, the philosophy is a bit muddy, to say the least. Thankfully, the drama is not. This is a very fine hour of science fiction.
Rating: Top (2)
I realize that it is irrelevant in the context of seriously evaluating the episode, especially in the context of the overall series as is clearly your goal, but I would have thought that Scotty's sucker punch (as the gas was released) would have been mentioned as the all time cheap shot in the series!!
Posted January 13, 2009 2:59 PM by Michael Grossman