Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan’s director and writer, Nicholas Meyer, proffers a thesis that art thrives on limitations: that time, budgetary and technological issues, and even censorship may spur a kind of creativity in artists to find ways around these problems and yet still tell their stories or create their designs. Perhaps there is no better example of this in popular culture than Star Trek itself. Filming for “Space Seed” was set to begin on December 15, 1966, based on the 59 7/8 page script written by Gene Coon and Gene Roddenberry and from the inventive premise by Carey Wilber. Before the cameras could roll on the planned 120 scenes, however, several key factors needed to be in place. One of these was the design and creation of the costumes. Interestingly, the character of Khan would have more wardrobe changes than any other male guest star on the original Star Trek, yet the last-minute casting of the superb Ricardo Montalban meant that the costume designers had even more time limitations than normal to make more costumes than usual!
The costumes of the original Star Trek were largely the result of the talents of William Ware Theiss. Like Roddenberry, Coon, and art director/set designer Walter Matt Jefferies, Theiss was himself a veteran. He had served for four years in the United States Navy before turning his attention to costume design. Theiss worked on many famous productions, including The Pink Panther film and the television show My Favorite Martian. It was through an introduction by Dorothy “DC” Fontana that Theiss met Gene Roddenberry. Theiss deserves a great deal of credit for the look of Star Trek because of his groundbreaking costume designs for both the original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, for which he won an Emmy.
Like all artists on Star Trek, Theiss had to regularly deal with many limitations, including budget, time and network rules, and “Space Seed” was a unique challenge. The costumes had to demonstrate the regality of Khan that was familiar to the audience, yet also be futuristic in their design. In 1968, Theiss was interviewed by Fontana for the fanzine Inside Star Trek, an important document because the show was still in production. (For scans of this issue, check out the fan website Star Trek Prop, Costume, and Auction Authority http://www.startrekpropauthority.com/2010/10/inside-star-trek-1968-tos-costume.html).
The topic of limitations came up during the interview and Theiss identified his three biggest challenges: “1) I am limited by fabrics and materials. 2) I must try to find design devices which spell out the future for us here and now and 3) I have the same problems of expediency – time and money – that everyone else in the Star Trek company has.” He goes on to discuss another limitation: the self-imposed limitations of an artist to prefer certain styles and designs: “Like any of us, I am the result of influences in my life and have my preferences…”
Despite these limitations, Theiss’ output on “Space Seed” is remarkable for its iconic nature and its interesting symbolism. Even with limited time, the costumes of “Space Seed” say something symbolic. Khan, for example, changes his outfit five times. Two are reuses of previously designed costumes (Gary Mitchell’s blue medical costume and an engineering costume). As an interesting aside, Khan does seem to like wearing Starfleet regalia: he does so in “Space Seed,” in The Wrath of Khan (wearing both the broken Starfleet insignia and Starfleet jacket) and in Star Trek Into Darkness (as John Harrison in the black Starfleet shirt).
Theiss’ three original designs all have a common element: ovals. Khan’s cryogenic outfit is entirely constructed of these ovals, interlocking together symbolically to mimic perhaps DNA helix strands, a reference to Khan’s genetic design, and/or the connections Khan has with people. The interconnecting ovals again appear on Khan’s dress dinner jacket, a design that showcases Montalban’s physique and Khan’s superiority. Near the end of “Space Seed,” Khan wears the same outfit as his followers, again symbolizing his affinity with his “family.” There are broken ovals on the neckline of this costume, again representing the helix design.
That Theiss was able to marry function, character and symbolism so creatively despite limitations speaks volumes about his talent. While interviewing casting director Joseph D’Agosta for our research, the man responsible for thinking of Montalban for the role, he relayed a fascinating and fun story. While D’Agosta was speaking to Montalban on the phone to offer him the role (he did not have to read for the part because Montalban’s talent and reliability were already known), he asked for the actor’s chest and pants measurements so the costume designers could get started as soon as possible making his outfits. D’Agosta relayed that the measurements were so impressive because of Montalban’s famed athleticism and physique that people almost didn’t believe the numbers were real!
NEXT TIME: We look at the filming of “Space Seed” and some of its deleted moments!
Follow us for more news at StarTrek.com
and via our social media sites.