Ask any fan of Star Trek to tell you which of the 13 films is the best, and the chances are they will say that it is The Wrath of Khan. It seems like that this is the agreed-upomovie consensus of most fans, and there are many lists like this one by writer Scott Wold that come to the same conclusion.
Khan had it all. A great plot, an incredible bad guy, and heroes we could root for, and one who would sacrifice himself … because the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the one.
To top it all off, Khan had a fantastic musical score by the great James Horner, effects by Industrial Light and Magic, and costumes by the late Robert Fletcher. It also featured one of the very first uses of computer generated graphics for a major motion picture. Khan was and is still the gold standard for Star Trek stories and for science fiction films in general.
But there was this one part in the film … this one scene stands out from all the other moments. This part might have fit better into a space-horror film (like Alien or Aliens) rather than a Star Trek story. This, of course, is the Ceti eels.
These tiny creatures were used Khan Noonien Singh (played by the incredible Ricardo Montalbán) to take control of the minds of Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) to get his revenge against James T. Kirk (William Shatner).
The Ceti Eel, it turns out, is not as alien as many thought, as there is a similar parasite right here on Earth that invades the bodies of cats, mice, and other mammals. The Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan that causes those who carry the parasite to lose their sense of fear (among other side effects). This excellent article by Live Science details what might happen to society if enough carry the T. gondii.
Creating the Ceti Eel
“It was great fun bringing the Ceti Eel to life,” Sallin told c|net in the interview. “Up at [Industrial Light and Magic], they engineered a piece of monofilament which moved a little plastic worm covered with slime.”
“You pull one end, and it would stretch the little creature and move across Chekov’s face,” said Sallin. “We also had a huge, oversized model of an ear for the actual insertion. We just tried to make it as gross as possible.”
Inspired by the “Horrifying”
Those points are well taken and hard to argue with. But while audiences in 1982 were “horrified” or reveling in the “gross” factor, some were inspired.
In the recent Star Trek: First Contact Day live stream video, host Mica Burton spoke with some of the creative minds behind the new shows, which air on the Paramount+ network. Burton chatted with James MacKinnon, makeup department head; Neville Page, lead creature designer; Gersha Phillips, costume designer; and Jason Zimmerman, lead visual effects supervisor.
When Burton asked the group to recall their “first contact” with the franchise, Zimmerman went back to that scene from Khan.
“I think my first memory is from watching The Wrath of Khan, and, specifically, the scene where the eel goes into Chekov’s ear,” said Zimmerman. “I don’t think I slept for about a month after that.”
Burton noted that the Ceti Eel scene is “a lot of people’s first memory, specifically because they were scarred for life.”
“I have a whole thing about ears now because of that movie,” he said.
“That’s the best thing about this,” said MacKinnon. “As a young makeup artist, when watching that movie, I was looking at that prosthetic that Michael [Westmore] made and how that hair was punched and how the hair was laid on the sideburns and how that hair was colored.”
“Those moments, as well as for Jason [Zimmerman], those scar me for life in a great way — where I learned from that and learned how to make that kind of stuff for myself,” said MacKinnon.