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WTF Moments: The Ceti eel scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn
In 1982, E.T. found himself stranded on Earth, Flynn was transported to the world of Tron, and Dekkard discovered he, too, was a Replicant. But, nothing that happened in this pivotal year for genre movies was as wild as a moment from the highly anticipated second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Kahn.
The movie, which famously marked the return of Ricardo Montalban as Captain Kirk's nemesis, Khan Noonien Singh, eventually cemented itself as one of the standout installments to the franchise. It's also one of the most frightening Trek stories, thanks to Kahn's menace and a terrifying, squirm-worthy scene involving a brain-hungry ear bug, better known as a Ceti eel. WTF, indeed.
Before the eel crawls into Pavel Checkov's head to turn him into a pod person, the Enterprise's navigator joins Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) on a mission to Ceti Alpha V, a planet they believe to be completely deserted. Of course, it doesn't take long for them to realize the land they are traversing is actually the current home of Khan, who was exiled 15 years prior.
He's been plotting his revenge against Kirk in this barren wasteland, and Chekhov's arrival fits into his diabolical plan quite nicely. Kahn has Chekhov and Terrell taken captive. In their bindings, surrounded by henchmen, the pair look on as Khan introduces them to the most gruesome version of a domesticated pet we've ever seen.
"Let me introduce you to Ceti Alpha V's only remaining indigenous life form," Khan says, referencing the slithering, slimy, bony species — a formidable creature which was responsible for killing some of his own pals. "What do you think? They've killed 20 of my people, including my beloved wife."
In his own sort of twisted logic, it becomes clear that Khan blames Kirk, not these eels, for this loss. Because, if it weren't for the Captain of the USS Enterprise, he wouldn't even be on this planet in the first place. And so, realizing he's found his ticket off this dusty hellscape, we watch as Khan takes a pair of tongs and pokes at something slithering underneath a layer of sand. We gasp as this Satanic-looking Armadillo clings onto the tongs with its lethal-looking pincers. And after the brief introduction to this thing, Khan uses a secondary pair of tongs — because even in exile, kitchen utensils are quite prevalent — and plucks two eel babies from under the layers of scales on the mama eel's back.
Placing the two tiny slugs into a petri dish of sorts, Khan focuses his attention back onto Chekhov and Terrell, delivering a Bond villain-esque monologue explaining what is about to happen to them. "You see, their young enter through the ears and wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex," Khan tells the men. "This has the effect of rendering the victim extremely susceptible to suggestion."
Like we said, pod person. Yet, while this moment feels inspired by the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers — and even CBS' short-lived comedic alien-invasion series Brain Dead, a show where alien insects possess their human victims by entering their ear canals — this still is very much a Star Trek movie. A rather grim one, at that.
"Later, as they grow," Khan continues, "follows madness … and death."
With the tiniest of signals to his henchmen, his two prisoners are forced to their knees. And while Chekhov tries to talk some sense into the man, his words fall on deaf ears. Unfazed, Khan takes the greasy slug babies and drops them into each of the men's space helmets. Initially, it feels like an odd choice. Why wouldn't he just hold his victims down and drop the bugs straight into their ears? Simple: this cinematic choice builds the terror and tension in a quick and effective manner.
There's something quite horrifying about watching the facial expressions of both officers as their helmets drop back onto their heads, as they see and feel the eels slithering on their cheeks. And with the help of the movie's score, once the bugs find their way to the men's ears, and claw a path into the tight confines of the ear canals, the outcome is shocking, cringeworthy, and gross enough to spark a whole variety of inner ear phobias.
Visual effects have come a long way in the past 37 years, but there's something quite tactile in the terror presented here. In just moments, the Ceti eel burrowed its way into the annals of sci-fi history. And while we've not really seen them return to the franchise, Roberto Orci and Robert Kurtzman did give the tiny creature a creative nod when they introduced the Centaurian slug to the mix in 2009's retconned Star Trek reboot, leaving fans everywhere covering their ears — maybe just for a second — knowing full well that the most horrific things, at any moment, could crawl right in.