Writer Mike Johnson tells SFX what Khan was up to before Star Trek Into Darkness ...
How long ago did you start thinking about telling Khan's origin story?
I’d read the script before production so we know obviously who Benedict Cumberbatch was playing, but the idea was to keep it a secret. Mainly because in the movie itself part of the story is that it is a secret who he is, that we meet him as this guy John Harrison, and we as an audience find out he’s Khan when Kirk and Spock do. So, that was the idea behind keeping the character a secret. And then, in terms of the comic, [movie screenwriter] Bob Orci has always talked about the comics being an opportunity to expand the world and show things we didn’t have time to show in the movie. And it sort of became a natural idea that we would eventually do the Khan origin in a comic, so over the last year, we kind of knew it was coming. And we had to wait until the movie came out before we could announce we were doing a Khan comic, because we couldn’t even say there was a Khan in the movie. So we did a prequel comic "Countdown To Darkness", but that couldn’t show Cumberbatch. But we knew we were going to do a bunch of stuff in this series.
What have you used as your sources? Original series? The Wrath Of Khan ? Into Darkness ?
Canon is what you see on film, either on TV or in movies, so we’re taking "Space Seed", the original episode, and The Wrath Of Khan , and mining whatever facts about Khan’s origin that we can. So things like we know millions of peopled died in the Eugenics Wars. We know that in "Space Seed" they talk about Khan being the best of tyrants, that he ruled with… how do I put this? He wasn’t a cruel ruler. There’s this famous line where in the episode they say he didn’t start wars until he was attacked. So it’s that sort of taking little things and extrapolating, "Well, what does that mean?", like someone else attacked him first and then the war started? CBS and Paramount have given us a lot of freedom in terms of how that’s going to work out, and what’s great is that it’s the first time we’re going to see this visually. There have been novels and things that have explored Khan’s back-story but this is the first time we’ll actually see it visualised in the comic, which is pretty cool.
Did you play around with the dates of the original history – weren't the Eugenics Wars originally meant to be in the late ’90s?
I can’t tell you what we’re doing with the dates until the comic comes out, because I don’t want to spoil it – it’s actually a really big part of the story. But we are putting fixed dates on things, like month and day in the opening pages – I can’t tell you how with that, but I can tell you 20th century. It's a great question because it is an ongoing debate about when Star Trek breaks off and becomes a different timeline. Because we’re getting close to World War III, which is different than the Eugenics wars. In the Trek timeline, World War III happens not too long from now.
When you wrote it, did you see Ricardo Montalban or Benedict Cumberbatch?
Both. Yeah, I see them as both. Trying to capture what Montalban brought to the character which is kind of a charm, like he’s very sort of manipulative and charming in the original episode. But then in I nto Darkness especially, he’s so angry, he’s like a bullet firing from a gun in that movie. And you’re gonna see why he is like that, because the scope of the mini-series will be the Eugenics wars, up and through the opening of Into Darkness . We’re going to see him get woken up. We’re going to see Admiral Marcus, and we’re going to see how John Harrison came to be. And a lot of that has to do with, not only why he looks different, but why he’s so angry.
There's an unusual aspect to this in that you know what Khan will eventually become in the other timeline. Did The Wrath Of Khan version of the character inform this take on the character?
Yeah, definitely. I think there’s definitely a tendency with villains now to sort of excuse their behaviour. Like something bad happened to them when they were kids, their puppy died, or they didn’t get the Christmas present they wanted and that’s why they’re evil. I kind of like evil for evil's sake, like some people are just bad dudes. And I think Khan, you know, you can sympathise with the fact that in Into Darkness at least he was woken up and his 72 brothers and sisters were being held hostage. In Wrath Of Khan , you can sympathise because he was left on the planet to die and he felt betrayed by Kirk. So you can sort of sympathise, but at the end of the day, he’s a megalomaniac who wants to take over the world. Or the galaxy. And I love that sort of straight, simple, direct some guys are just bad.
He must be a great character to write because he has strength, he has intelligence and he's a brilliant villain.
Yeah, and I’m not as clever as he is. The challenge for any writer is trying to show how clever he can be, and it’s just keeping that in mind that he’s manipulative, and clever, and for all his strengths as an augment, all his physical strength, he’s mentally tougher too. He’s just mentally more accomplished than anybody he meets.
Did Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal – particularly that amazing line delivery – play into the way you wrote it.
My favourite two words in the movie are "Cold corpses". And the way he enunciates it – that’s Khan. "I’m going to walk over your cold corpses." And you believe him. There's no posturing there. He’s going to enjoy asphyxiating the entire ship and walking over your corpses. So I definitely – and you’ll see in the mini-series even from when he was very young, even when he was a child, that inclination was there. Just a certain mercilessness was there. And that as much as he was made to become what he is, he was born that way too.
You've said that Admiral Marcus will be involved. Will there be any other characters that we know from the movies?
Yeah, there will be. Kirk and Spock show up. There will be an explanation for something that we saw on Qo’noS, that I can’t really explain or reveal. The first half of it is the past before the Botany Bay [Khan's 20th century ship], and the second half is really all the scenes that were happening alongside what we saw in the movie. So, leading up to him going to the hospital and telling the guy that he can save his daughter. So we’re going to show all those things, we’re going to see more of the inner workings of Section 31, we’re going to see the Botany Bay, we’re going to see how they found it, we’re going to see why he was woken up, and why they decided to give him the name John Harrison. It’s gonna fill in some nice… I don’t want to call them holes. It’s just you only have so much you can do in two hours. And just for fans of the movie, it’ll give them more, hopefully. Richard Edwards
Star Trek: Khan kicks off on Wednesday 16 October, from IDW Comics.