Comebacks are funny. Most of the time, in order for a comeback to make sense, everyone has to be aware of the thing or person that had left and is now returning. After all, the Empire can’t strike back if you’re not aware of how it was doing beforehand.
This may seem obvious, but it’s worth noting because every once in a while, in big sci-fi narratives, the opposite occurs: a comeback is a huge deal, but knowledge of anything pre-comeback is optional, or perhaps, irrelevant. It sounds nuts, but this specific kind of comeback perfectly describes Khan Noonien Singh in 1982’s The Wrath of Khan. 40 summers after Kirk screamed “Khaaaaan!!!” the true brilliance of this film is how it tricked everyone into “remembering” Khan in the first place.
In Star Trek: The Original Series, Khan is a one-off villain. Appearing just once in 1967’s “Space Seed,” Khan left a big impression primarily because of an amazing performance from Ricardo Montalban. But TOS does not set up Khan as Kirk’s greatest nemesis, by any measure. If you’re looking for a villain who reoccurs multiple times in the ’60s and ’70s Trek, conman Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel) will take that trophy. Across TOS (1966-1969) and The Animated Series (1973-1979), Mudd appears in three episodes. And if you expand Mudd’s influence to the modern era, Rainn Wilson’s version of the character appears in three more episodes: two in Discovery season 1 (2017) and one Mudd-centric Short Treks (2019). Khan — even the Cumberbatch version from 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness — has basically a third of overall screen time as Harry Mudd, and yet, The Wrath of Khan convinced audiences that, retroactively, Khan was the most important villain in all of Star Trek.
Now, comparing Harry Mudd to Khan is a bit scurrilous, perhaps, since there’s no way Carmel’s Mudd is actually more hardcore than Khan. The only reason the Mudd comparison is interesting is that the likelihood a casual fan in 1982 would remember Mudd over Khan is three to one. In 1982, when The Wrath of Khan hit theaters, VHS tapes of The Original Series weren’t super common, meaning, if you remembered Khan, it’s because you had seen “Space Seed” either when it aired originally or in syndication. If you missed “Space Seed,” you simply missed it. In 1982, it’s possible that all kinds of Star Trek fans just hadn’t seen “Space Seed,” or if they had, they might have remembered Khan hazily.
But Wrath of Khan producer Harve Bennett intuited that Khan had made a big impression on audiences despite only having one episode. Bennett was 100 percent correct. Director Nicholas Meyer — who had never seriously watched The Original Series prior to tackling the film — heartily agreed that Khan was the perfect kind of classic character to bring back for the film. We all acknowledge that this worked now because it just works. But it’s a bit of a magic trick. Khan’s story in The Wrath doesn’t actually need the audience to know jack-shit about “Space Seed.”
Viewed only as a sequel to “Space Seed,” The Wrath of Khan has several points of divergent continuity. Much has been written about how Khan couldn’t have met Chekov because in TOS Walter Koenig wasn’t even on the show in season 1. This kind of thing can easily be fixed by head-canon that suggests Chekov was simply working on the lower decks that year and knew about Khan anyway. But this small hand wave is actually kind of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much The Wrath lets audiences off the hook for not having seen “Space Seed.” Why does Khan have a broken Starfleet necklace based on the 2280s belt-buckle, even though he got dropped off in 2266? How come all of Khan’s followers look like they’re in their 20s, even though there should be a ton of people roughly his age?
And what the hell happened to Khan’s wife? Midway through the movie, Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) tells Kirk that Khan “blames you for the death of his wife.” Kirk roars, “I know what he blames me for.” But why? Why does Kirk know this? The hardcore “Space Seed” fan has to assume this dead, off-screen wife is Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue), but the rest of the audience doesn’t know or care.
Khan’s backstory is delivered pretty efficiently when Chekov and Terrell accidentally find him on Ceti Alpha V, and from there, you don’t need to know anything other than what Khan tells Kirk in the movie. “Surely I have made my meaning plain,” Khan says in the movie. “I mean to avenge myself upon you, Admiral.” That’s the Khan of this film, and that’s all we really need to know. Had Meyer been slightly more obsessed with “Space Seed,” you can imagine some version of the script where Khan references all sorts of stuff he and Kirk discussed in the original episode. But they don’t. And the movie is better for it.
Nitpicking about the differences between the “Space Seed” canon and Wrath of Khan canon doesn’t prove there’s anything wrong or bad about the film. In fact, from the Chekov thing to Khan’s super-young minions, to the incredible mistake the Reliant makes by confusing two planets, none of the wonky continuity hurts The Wrath. Instead, it’s the opposite! These differences are what make the movie work.
The Wrath of Khan was a dark-and-gritty Star Trek reboot that dared to glaze over some canon details. And in doing so, allowed Khan’s literal wrath to exist as a self-contained story within the film. We retroactively feel like we get Khan even though we might have been hazy on his origin. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) kind of lampshades this trick when she says “who is Khan!?” Kirk’s reply is “it’s a long story,” but at that point, the audience is fine not knowing about the details. We know who Khan is. He’s the guy with the Wrath. In this way, Khan is exactly like Sherlock Holmes to Moriarty. In the short story “The Final Problem,” Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Moriarty for the first time, and then, had Holmes convince Watson that this major big bad has always been around, even though he totally wasn’t.
While The Wrath of Khan is the best example of a movie sequel pulling this kind of emotional retcon on an audience, the legacy of The Wrath in geek cinema is probably most evident in the ascension of Thanos within the MCU. In 2012’s The Avengers, Thanos was a random easter egg, pulling the strings behind the scenes, but somebody a casual fan needed to really care about. But by 2018’s Infinity War, you may feel like Thanos was in a lot more MCU movies than he really was.
Palpatine’s ascension in the classic Star Wars trilogy is similar; he’s an offscreen character in 1977 and appears as a random hologram in The Empire Strikes Back, but then, in Return of the Jedi, you’re meant to think you’ve known about Palps the whole time. Hell, even knowing his name was “Palpatine,” was touch-and-go for casual fans until the Prequels. There’s no way to prove Lucas was influenced by The Wrath, but Kevin Feige has mentioned his love of Star Trek several times, making it seem at least plausible that shaping the character of Thanos was at least partly influenced by how The Wrath of Khan handled its villain.
Still, ignoring for a second how The Wrath influenced other big movies, the fact that on its own, it’s a sequel that doesn’t require a casual fan to know anything that’s come before is a shocking achievement. In fact, older Star Trek fans often recommend newcomers start with The Wrath of Khan. By the time of the film’s release, the Trek franchise had at least 100 hours of canon, but in 1982, by simplifying Khan’s origin, The Wrath allowed the entire final frontier to start over.