I have just finished watching the Star Trek Original Series episode “Space Seed“, probably one of the better episodes of the series, not least because it introduced the character of Khan Noonian Singh, one of the greatest villains of the entire Star Trek franchise and the antagonist of the best of the Star Trek movies, “The Wrath of Khan“. Ricardo Montalban‘s performance as Khan is truly wonderful, maybe the best of his career, as he portrays the villain just sympathetically enough for the viewers to admire and understand Khan while not forgetting that he is the bad guy.
Khan is presented as a compelling figure. The result of scientific efforts to improve the human race through selective breeding, and probably genetic engineering, though that technology was scarcely imagined in the 1960’s, Khan and his followers are physically and intellectually superior to normal humans. Because of this superiority, the supermen decided that they had a natural right to rule over lesser humans and their attempt to conquer the world caused a series of wars called the Eugenics Wars. Upon being revived by the crew of the Enterprise, Khan perceives that the crew is made up of unmodified, inferior humans and naturally repays Kirk’s hospitality by attempting to seize the Enterprise and embark on a new career of conquest throughout the galaxy. Khan may be a megalomaniac, but his megalomania is justified because he really is superior to everyone around him.
Towards the end of the episode, when Kirk offers to drop all charges against Khan, if Khan and his followers agree to settle the barren but habitable planet Ceti Alpha V, Khan replies by asking Kirk if he is familiar with Milton. Khan is referring to the famous line in Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Lucifer declares that it is better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. It is an appropriate sentiment for Khan since he and Milton’s Lucifer are much alike. Both are proud, strong-willed beings who are charismatic enough leaders to inspire their subjects to follow them even to Hell, or the hellish Ceti Alpha V. Khan is superficially charming and gracious, yet like Lucifer, the arrogance, lust for power and cruelty in his nature is never far below the surface. Khan has no compunctions about suffocating the bridge crew of the Enterprise in order to capture the ship. Khan’s fate is not unlike Lucifer’s. In the course of Paradise Lost, Lucifer becomes increasingly consumed by his pride and hatred until he descends into nihilism and madness as the demonic Satan. If he cannot rule, than he will spoil and ruin Paradise and its inhabitants, Adam and Eve. By the time of the events of the Wrath of Khan, Khan has been driven mad by the wrongs that he believes that Kirk has done him. Khan no longer wants his empire but only to destroy.
It is true that Kirk and Scotty note that there were no great massacres in the territories under his control. Apparently Khan did rule with some degree of justice, yet I imagine that it was expedience rather than any moral reservations that inspired Khan. He must have been shrewd enough to realize that mass murders are counter productive in establishing an empire and since he was guided by no ideology like Communism or Nazism, but only interested in his rightful place as ruler, he had little reason to commit the horrible acts of genocide of a Hitler or Stalin. The wise farmer does not wantonly slaughter his cattle, but takes care to keep them healthy. Khan probably felt the same way about his human cattle. As Spock retorts, there was also little freedom under his rule.
I wonder whether Kirk or Khan were really as familiar with Milton as they believed. It is a commonly held view that Lucifer became the ruler of Hell in Paradise Lost, but Milton was more clever than that. In fact, Milton makes it clear in the end that Satan does not rule in Hell. Because God’s sovereignty extends to every part of the universe, including Hell, Satan was as much God’s servant in Hell as he was in Heaven. Satan was lying to himself and to his demons when he said that famous line.
If Kirk really knew his Milton, he would have known the folly of letting Khan go under any circumstances. Even if Lucifer had really been the ruler of Hell, he would not have long been content. Almost as soon as Satan recovers from the fall into Hell, he escapes and makes his way to Earth and Paradise. Satan could not be satisfied with only a part of the universe, he wanted to rule it all, and if he could not have it, he wanted to destroy it. Khan’s lust for domination and power could never have been satisfied with homesteading on a barren, deserted planet. It wouldn’t take long before Khan would want more. Kirk had no way of anticipating the destruction of the planet and the events that led to the Wrath of Khan, but he surely ought to have realized that Khan would attempt to seize any star ship that stopped by Ceti Alpha V.
That might be part of the reason that The Wrath of Khan is a good movie. In the original series, Kirk and crew travel from planet to planet solving problems and making decisions and we never get to see the consequences of their actions. None of the writers anticipated Star Trek movies or any other series being made and there wasn’t much interest in writing an episode revisiting old planets when there seemed to be a whole galaxy to explore. In those days, television series had self-contained episodes and no one thought of extending a plot arc over several episodes, or an entire season. In the Wrath of Khan, and its sequels, we finally do see Kirk face the consequences of his decision, and it isn’t pleasant for him. It makes me wonder how some of Kirk’s actions in other episodes turned out, and how many other children he has running around the galaxy.