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Star Trek: To Reign in Hell – The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh by Greg Cox

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the movies with tie-ins around (and related to) the films. We’ll be doing one of these every week day. This is one such article.

I feel like I’m in the minority because I didn’t much care for Greg Cox’s The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, Vol. 1 & 2. The books had an absolutely great premise, and Cox had a very clever way of explaining how the Star Trek universe could have had a major conflict between genetically-engineered supermen in the 1990s, despite the fact that their version of the 1990s looked a lot like ours. However, Cox became bogged down in shout-outs and continuity references and character cameos. Despite the seemingly epic scope of the story, it seemed like 20th century Earth was inhabited by twenty people who all knew one another.

In contrast, To Reign in Hell has a much less ambitious and exciting premise, but the novel also reigns in some of Cox’s excesses. While the author’s taste for continuity sometimes overwhelms the narrative, he is somewhat restrained in how heavily he cane lean on what came before. While Cox’s prose is still a little prosiac, and his narration a little ham-fisted, he at least has a bit more room here to develop Khan as a character. Without the crutch of feeling the need to reference every 20th century character ever to appear in Star Trek, Cox can focus on his leading man.

Well, mostly.

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To be fair, To Reign in Hell is saddled with quite a few of the same problems that plagued The Eugenics Wars. There’s another infernal framing story which sees Kirk and some of his crew reflecting back on the events of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It doesn’t feel quite as unnecessary as the Koloth cameo in The Eugenics Wars, it still feels a little superfluous. To be fair to Cox, he does try to give the story some sense of stakes, but – by the nature of the framing sequence – Kirk and his colleagues deal with their problem in a remarkably straight-forward manner.

There is a story worth telling here. Kirk’s sense of guilt and responsibility for the events of The Wrath of Khan offer huge storytelling potential. This is, after all, a decision he made twenty years ago which ultimately cost him him the life of his best friend and a whole bunch of innocent cadets. It also indirectly led to the death of his son and the destruction of the Enterprise. Kirk should carry around a lot of guilt, but there simply wasn’t enough room in the later Star Trek films to properly explore that.

So maybe the framing sequence could have been reworked as its own stand-alone novel. I can see what Cox is trying to do here. He’s trying to offer Kirk something resembling a happy ending. I am not entirely convinced that this makes for a good story, or that it enhances The Wrath of Khan – but I can see what Cox is attempting and I respect that. Unfortunately, it’s all dealt with far too quickly and then seems far too inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

The framing story also offers the biggest problem with Cox’s approach to the story. In The Eugenics Wars, he felt the need to tie together ever piece of Star Trek continuity involving the 20th century into a single two-volume novel. Here, he sets out to “fix” the perceived problems with The Wrath of Khan, devoting considerable time and effort to help paper over some of the various plot and scientific inconsistencies in that classic piece of science-fiction.

Greg Cox is pretty much the king of tie-in writers. He has adapted films, written tie-ins for television shows and even translated comics into prose. He knows this area of writing quite well. As such, it seems strange that he should devote so much time and effort to plugging some of the plot holes in The Wrath of Khan. I love the film as much as most, but I’ll readily concede that there are some… logical leaps that need to be made in order to enjoy it.

However, Cox seems to feel the need to account for these, to sketch in between the perceived gaps in the screenplay. It’s a very weird balance that has to be struck. You don’t want to draw too much attention to the plot hole in the first place, and you don’t want to get bogged down in semantics. Cox does a decent job avoiding those problems, but the biggest difficulty he faces is finding a way to raise these issues so that he can address it.

In a move that feels a little clumsy, Cox has McCoy stand-in for the audience. I realise this is a nod to McCoy’s original function on the show, but it seems weird to see him address the events of the past few movies as if he’s auditioning for Red Letter Media:

“You know, I never did understand how the Reliant managed to mistake Ceti Alpha V for Ceti Alpha VI in the first place. Mind you, I’m a doctor, not an astronavigator, but how do you misplace an entire planet?”

To be fair, it’s a decent question, and one of the more logical flaws in the movie’s plot. The problem is that Cox’s answer is less than convincing. (Apparently, they counted from the outside in.) The amount of contrivance necessary to make the answer work feels a little forced.

Then again, Cox also succumbs to the temptation to neatly resolve issues that don’t need to be resolved:

“But that just raises another question. How in blazes did Starfleet manage to forget where we put Khan? Didn’t they realize that maniac was, at best, only one planet away?”

I never had a problem with the fact the Reliant wasn’t too concerned about Khan. For one thing, I found it fairly easy to believe that Kirk never told his superiors about Khan. After all, how the hell does somebody hold on to a starship when they write “I gave future!Hitler a planet” in their latest report?

The suggestion the Kirk told Starfleet raises more questions than it answers. After all, given how proactively the Federation seems to disapprove of genetic engineering, and the fact that Khan is a genocidal dictator, you’d assume that the Federation would want to (a.) lock him up and throw away the key or (at the very least) (b.) check up on him regularly. Given stories like The Menagerie and The Omega Directive, we know that Starfleet can lock stuff down when they feel a need to.

However, the decision to have Starfleet know about Khan undermines some of the themes of The Wrath of Khan. There’s a recurring theme in To Reign in Hell where Cox tries to do some “damage control” on the way that the film shaded Kirk’s character. The whole point of the film was that Kirk was a reckless and arrogant commander who never really considered the consequences of his actions. However, a large portion of To Reign in Hell seeks to redeem Kirk.

The novel even allows Kirk to “save” something from the whole situation. It undermines the dramatic impact of his spectacular failure to allow Kirk to salvage something from Ceti Alpha V. Indeed, Cox even tries to take a bit of the rough edge off some of Kirk’s earlier characterisation in the television show. Remembering McGivers, we’re told, “He had not known her well, but she had been one of his crew, before he left her behind with Khan and the others.” This doesn’t seem at all in keeping Kirk’s attitude to McGivers in Space Seed. (“Here’s a chance for that historian to do something for a change.”)

It feels a little too simplistic, a little too easy. One of the great things about the movies featuring the original cast was the way that these films admitted that Kirk had some major character flaws. He wasn’t perfect, and wasn’t incapable of making mistakes. Kirk’s emotional arc in Star Trek: Into Darkness is lifted from those middle Star Trek films. I’d argue that it ultimately suffers because it makes the same mistake that Cox does. It refuses to follow through on the premise, afraid to fully implicate the leading character. The Wrath of Khan worked so well because it did.

That said, some of Cox’s foreshadowing is quite clever. It’s clear that he knows The Wrath of Khan inside and out. We get an explanation for what Khan could have been doing outside when Chekov and Terrell arrived, for example. Cox comes up for a really clever explanation for Khan’s gloved hand. Unfortunately, Cox lacks any measure of subtlety, feeling the need to draw the reader’s attention to his work. As soon as Khan disfigures himself, he thinks, “I shall have to wear a glove.” It would have worked much better if a later sequence mentioned the glove in passing, trusting the reader to make the association.

Some of the best acknowledgements that Cox makes of the continuity differences between The Wrath of Khan and Space Seed are offered as somewhat cynical commentary, as if to concede that there’s no plausible in-universe explanation for the change, it’s just a result of behind-the-scenes factor related to the fact that the two productions came from several very different minds.

I especially like Cox’s “I’m not even gonna try” concession that the (relatively) racially diverse super humans from Space Seed had some very Aryan children. “Curiously,” we’re told, “as an unforeseen side effect of the genetic tinkering that had performed on their parents, all of the colony’s children had been born blond and Caucasian, regardless of their parents’ ancestry.” It doesn’t make too big a deal of the fact that the blonde-haired and blue-eyed chippendales who make up Khan’s crew in The Wrath of Khan are markedly different from his army as glimpsed in Space Seed. It acknowledges it and moves on.

To be entirely honest, To Reign in Hell could have used more of that approach. Cox has a tendency to lean pretty heavily on the reader, unable to resist any opportunity for a sly wink or nudge. For example, surely Khan’s concession – while confronting sabre-tooth tigers – that he thinks in two dimensions would make him more likely to avoid the mistake he makes at the climax of The Wrath of Khan. After all, Khan is so blind to so many of his flaws, it seems strange that he could recognise a major one and not attempt to rectify it.

There’s a similarly groan-worthy paragraph where McGivers reflects on her lover’s violent temperament. “She never wanted to come between Khan and his wrath.” It’s just a horribly forced line, one which knocks the reader right out of the book. I don’t mind shout-outs and in-jokes, but there’s a point at which they overwhelm the text. To Reign in Hell doesn’t skirt that line quite as much as The Eugenics Wars did, but it still crosses over once or twice too often.

Similarly, Cox’s thought captions tend to be a little… on the nose. For example, Kirk is considering how difficult it was to tell Carol that their son is dead. He then suddenly segues into “bloodthirsty Klingon bastards!”, in case we couldn’t tell that the murder of David Marcus had left some scars. There’s an uncomfortable reliance on dialogue from the films, as if repeating it here grants the book some legitimacy.

At one point, Cox takes a metaphor redeemed on film through Shatner’s sheer force of acting! and works it clumsily into his narrative. “Khan may not have succeeded in killing me,” he thinks, “but, like the bad marksman I accused him of being, he damn well murdered enough people in the process!” It’s a rather clumsy construction which serves no other purpose but to reference that thing that Kirk said one time.

However, once you get past these (significant) flaws, To Reign in Hell works remarkably well. Cox gets to develop Khan as a character in his own right. Khan is one of the most interesting villains in the Star Trek canon, but remains relatively unexplored. Cox scratched the surface in The Eugenics Wars, but his treatment felt a little too shallow and superficial. There was never a sense that Khan was truly the hero of his own deluded narrative, a thug who thought himself a prince.

Part of the problem might have been that it’s hard to indulge in the romanticism a blood-thirsty terrorist. Cox’s prose is a little too mechanical and disengaged to ever get inside Khan’s head. He renders the characters’ thoughts in awkward italics as commentary on the action, but there was never a cohesive world view. With Khan developing biological weapons and threatening to destroy the world, he seemed less like a deluded despot and more like a generic Bond villain.

To Reign in Hell, however, allows Cox to sympathise with Khan a great deal more. Here, Khan isn’t threatening to destroy civilisation. He’s fighting for survival. He’s trying to build a colony. He’s looking out for his people. The presence of Marla McGivers does a lot to humanise him, and it finally feels like we’re granted a glimpse into the world as Khan sees it. He is the man who will tame and inherit this world – and maybe more besides.

There’s a rich pulpy atmosphere to To Reign in Hell, and it suits the story well. After all, The Wrath of Khan was power science-fiction melodrama, “Horatio Hornblower in space.” It feels appropriate, then, that Ceti Alpha V should feel like something out of a trashy turn-of-the-century adventure novel. It’s packed with creatures similar to those long-extinct on Earth. As McGivers speculates, “From the look of things, I’d guess that the biology of Ceti Alpha V is equivalent to Earth’s own Pleistocene Epoch, complete with a tendency toward gigantism in the larger vertebrates.”

This works well and plays into the sense of grand tragedy surrounding Khan. As he wryly observes, “better to conquer a world of giants than a planet of pygmies.” It suits the character well, and I do like the idea that – even after the collapse of live on Ceti Alpha V – the supermen will fight amongst themselves to control the ruins of a dead world. A nice touch that Khan’s adversary is named Harulf Ericsson, a shout out to the fact that the name of the Khan character in the first draft was Harold Erickson. (An allusion also made by Star Trek: Into Darkness.)

To Reign in Hell isn’t anywhere near as strong as it should be. Khan is one of the most iconic bad guys in the Star Trek canon. He deserves some nice expansive back story and development in the tie-in novels. Unfortunately, it looks like this is really all that we are going to get. To Reign in Hell is noticeably stronger than The Eugenics Wars, and offers a lot more character development for Khan, but it’s still a little too clumsy, shallow and awkward.

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:

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