How Modern Star Trek Gets Khan Wrong

The legacy of Khan looms large over Star Trek, including in Picard and Strange New Worlds. But they keep missing the target.

Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Photo: Paramount

Star Trek Picard is, unsurprisingly, an absolutely treasure trove of continuity and easter eggs. Sometimes that’s fun, like when Seven of Nine silences the same bus punk that Spock did in Star Trek IV, and sometimes it’s baffling, such as when Guinan mysteriously de-ages and forgets Picard existed some time between the 19th and 21st centuries, or Picard’s Hallucination Dad adding a bunch of unnecessary backstory while gloating he kept his hair (despite the fact we already know he didn’t).

One of the subtler and longer-running threads of this series has been the plot around geneticist Adam Soong, ancestor of Data’s creator and excuse to keep casting Brent Spiner after Data has been killed off.

But Soong’s plotline is more than just “A 400 year-long male line of eerily identical mad scientists” and it ties into a piece of plot arc and worldbuilding that traces back to one of Star Trek’s earliest and best-loved episodes. It’s also a story that has had its original meaning and message shifted and changed over decades of references and efforts to make it relevant to modern concerns and technology.

Lineage of a Space Seed

Adam Soong’s plot in Picard season 2 revolves around his efforts to cure his daughter’s genetic disease (said daughter is played by Isa Briones, who played Data’s “daughter” Soji Asha in Picard season one, because Data’s family takes family resemblances seriously). We know that this fascination with genetics is going to stick, because his descendant, Arik Soong (played by Brent Spiner) will be responsible for stealing and rearing to maturity a band of “augmented” embryos leftover from the Eugenics Wars, which are first mentioned in the original series episode and undisputed classic, “Space Seed.”

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For those who haven’t seen the episode, which is likely a small number if you have got this far into the article, “Space Seed” concerns the Enterprise discovering an ancient spaceship from the year 1996 floating dead in deep space. On board that ship is an army of cryogenically frozen soldiers from the “Eugenics Wars,” the “last of your world wars” according to Spock (a matter of some continuity confusion by itself, even if you ignore that these wars supposedly took place during the Clinton administration). Their leader, Khan Noonien Singh, is woken up, then he proceeds to wake up the rest of his people who go on to take over the Enterprise until Kirk stops him.

It is the kind of high concept, one-off science fiction morality tale that Star Trek excels at, and that would have been that, if Harve Bennett hadn’t seen it and realized Khan was the perfect villain for his sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan became an instant classic, and the benchmark all future Star Trek movies were measured by, and so the Eugenics Wars became a cemented piece of Trek lore, even as the actual ‘90s came and went.

Khan would next be mentioned quite a while later, in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, “Dr Bashir, I Presume?” In that episode, Rear Admiral Bennett (named after Harve?) says, “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 provides a firewall against such men. And it’s my job to keep that firewall intact.”

The plot is continued through “Statistical Possibilities” and “Chrysalis” where we learn what happens to other genetically augmented humans in the 24th century.

The next time Khan would come up was in Star Trek: Enterprise’s trilogy of episodes, “Borderland,” “Cold Station 12,” and “Augments” where Brent Spiner returns to play Data’s creator’s ancestor, Arik Soong who has stolen frozen embryos that survived the Eugenics Wars and allowed them to grow to term. A later two-parter story reveals that Soong’s research was stolen by the Klingons, leading to a viral epidemic that gives them all flat foreheads in time for The Original Series to start.

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And finally, back in the movies Star Trek Into Darkness brings Khan back, played by Benedict Cumberbatch with magic blood that can raise the dead. We won’t dwell on that more than necessary.

From Eugenics to Genetic Engineering

But across all these stories there is a subtle change. The words “Eugenics Wars” keep getting namechecked, but nobody really mentions eugenics itself anymore. It was always “genetic augmentation” or “gene resequencing.”

These are different things. Eugenics is an act of selective breeding – in the same way we breed fatter cows and faster race horses, eugenics argues we can breed stronger, smarter, healthier humans. Soong’s daughter in Picard would not be helped by eugenics- rather than seeking to cure her, it would argue she should be sterilized (at best) to prevent her disorder being passed on.

Now, you could argue that this is simply a result of our understanding of technology increasing and the stories reflecting that. After all, in one original Star Trek episode, Spock refers to a “black star,” an entity that for all its description sounds identical to a black hole, but we are happy to use the updated terminology in Star Trek today.

But watching “Space Seed” again it is clear the language the characters are using is precise and deliberate. Khan and his crew are the result of efforts to “improve the species through selective breeding,” resulting in “an improved breed of human.” Khan himself is described as “a product of selected breeding.”

Now, there are logical problems here, such as the fact that selective breeding takes many generations to work, and assuming Khan is the same age as Ricardo Montalbán when he played him, he must have been born no later than 1950 — 17 years before “Space Seed” aired, but that’s not an insurmountable problem.

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More important than continuity tangles is what “Space Seed” was actually about, because like most of the best Star Trek stories, it is a story with very real moral and political issues at its core.

A Better Kind of Nazi

To understand “Space Seed” you need to understand when it was written. For the episode’s first audiences, World War II was as recent a memory as 9/11 is today. The Nazis had been rightfully vilified, but that certainly hadn’t (and still hasn’t) meant an end to racism or other ideas that the Nazis stood for.

The thought experiment at the heart of “Space Seed” is “Okay, the Nazis were bad, racism is evil, but what about the ideas underlying Naziism? If you can breed better horses, why can’t you breed better people?”

So, with Khan and his crew, Star Trek gives us Nazis with the “bad” bits taken out. Khan’s crew is ethnically diverse (even if that’s not exactly shown on the screen). Scotty describes them as “mixed types. Western, mid-European, Latin, Oriental.” Khan himself is from North India, and a Sikh, although this raises questions as Ricardo Montalbán is a Mexican actor descended from Spanish immigrants, and is completely clean-shaven.

Khan’s band are driven by science, not nationalism, and they have dropped any ideas of white supremacy. They seize power in 40 nations, uniting people “like a team of animals under one whip,” but even Kirk and his human colleagues express admiration for Khan as the “best of dictators” to tease Spock, because even in the 23rd century being an edgelord is a still a thing.

But ultimately the episode shows Khan remains a villain, that if you strip out all the “problematic” elements of Naziism its underlying ideas are still toxic, resulting in a strata of people who think they’re better than other people and entitled to rule over them. The problem with the Nazis was not that they did it wrong, it’s their fundamental premises.

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By the time of the actual ‘90s and the early ‘00s, Nazis seemed far more like something from the history books, and our concerns were far more technological. Enterprise tried so hard to reconcile and namecheck its own continuity, it never really stopped to think about what the Khan story was actually about. This leads to weird situations like Archer being told the research that led to the augments could have cured his dad’s “Clarke’s Syndrome” while Soong’s plans to “liberate” a lab full of frozen embryos seems weirdly anti-abortion rather than anything to do with science. The whole plot ends up echoing movies like Deep Blue Sea or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where the moral, intentionally or not, is “trying to cure Alzheimer’s is wrong.”

Star Trek is going back to its roots with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a show following Captain Pike and the Enterprise on more planet of the week type morality plays. One of the new crewmembers of this version of the Enterprise is Chief Security Officer La’an Noonien Singh, who appears to be related to Khan despite not appearing to be of Mexican or North Indian descent. So “Space Seed” is not a story Trek is planning to leave alone any time soon. One does wonder why Spock, Uhura, and Nurse Chapel never mentioned working alongside one of Khan’s relations when they met, but that is a problem for another day.

But at the same time, eugenics hasn’t gone away either.

In February 2020 once-respected scientist Richard Dawkins tweeted a lengthy thread defending the scientific efficacy of eugenics as a British political advisor was fired over espousing eugenic ideas. The response to the firing, across the press, was various right-wing commentators saying, “Well, yes, obviously Nazis are bad but…”

Not long after the world was overrun by a pandemic which multiple countries responded to with policies that led disproportionately to deaths among disabled people.

Maybe “Space Seed”’s message doesn’t need updating. Maybe we just need reminding of it.

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Perhaps the best episode Star Trek has done about eugenics or genetic engineering, other than “Space Seed,” didn’t reference Khan at all. In Star Trek: the Next Generations “The Masterpiece Society,” the Enterprise encounters a human colony where everyone has been bred and engineered for their role in society, and all illness and disability has been genetically removed.

When the colony faces destruction at the hands of stellar core fragment, the solution is found in the engineer, Geordi La Forge’s visor. The world is saved thanks to a tool that was designed to help a blind person see. La Forge himself points out that in this world, he never would have been born. Star Trek’s vision, sometimes called “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” where we provide visual aids and wheelchairs rather than trying to make disabled people not exist, means that it can come up with solutions less diverse societies can’t.