In terms of the lore of Star Trek, Space Seed may be the single most important episode of the original 79. We are introduced to Khan. While I’m guessing that most visitors of the Junkyard will know, I won’t go jumping through time to talk about why he is important, but he’s a guy we want to keep an eye on. Ricardo Montalban does an outstanding job bringing the would-be dictator to life and his powerhouse performance is remembered years after this episode was created. Mind you, years after the episode was created, the writers Gene Coon and Carey Wilber predicted some major events in our planet’s history. The 1990’s were “the future” and we were due to have some major advances including in the field of eugenics. But that wasn’t all we were worried about. A “final” world war was anticipated and with the tensions of the late 60’s, that might not have been that surprising. Thankfully we had neither a final world war, nor an Eugenics War. At least they anticipated that by the far future, 2018, things would have improved. (Surely, they meant scientifically. No one was talking politics at the time…)
So Kirk’s mission is to investigate this mysterious ship that’s floating through space. He boards it with a small landing party, when they spot a malfunction that almost kills the crew of 72. With a little help from Scotty, they save the sleepers who had been on a long range deep space ship reminiscent of Buck Rogers but unlike Buck, these guys aren’t the good guys. They were conquerors of the past. Kirk then has to find a way to beat a superior foe and save the day.
OK, first things first. What was up with Kirk at the start of this episode? Did he have some bad Romulan Ale the night before? He snaps at Uhura when she’s picking up the transmission from the Botany Bay with a “We’re reading it it!” as if he just wanted to shut her up. Then when he asks for McGivers to meet in the transporter room, he mentions that it’ll give her “something to do”. Hey, man, you’re the captain; if you know she’s sitting around doing nothing all day, maybe you should write her review and have the talk with her about her future on the ship. More likely, he’s still pissed that he lost that other psychologist, Helen Noel, in Dagger of the Mind and he’s not happy with the latest replacement. (She was certainly a dagger in my mind, too, Jim… don’t feel bad!) But he wasn’t the only one in a mood. McCoy comes to the transporter room to vent his dislike about transporters before using one to get to the Botany Bay. And even Scotty seems a bit punchy. When he gets loose from captivity later in the episode, as everyone runs for the door, he stops to punch someone in the face before escaping.
On top of that, I do wonder how Spock deals with his fellow crewmen as logic is seriously lacking from most of them. I mean, Kirk has this guy on board who he knows nothing about but he does know his ship was named after a penal colony. So where’s the logic in giving him access to the ship’s technical specs? Furthermore, McCoy has people in sick bay all the time. Why have a display on the wall complete with all forms of dangerous surgical equipment, and not even have it behind a glass case? It’s asking for trouble! Spock probably envies Khan for his taste. I mean, of the 72 of Khan’s crew to survive, 30 are woman and I can’t be alone in noticing how Khan only handed out clothing to the men. All the women have to wear these net garments that were really quite seductive. (Kirk, get with the program, man! Update the dress code!) And while I’m talking about clothing, I discovered that Red Shirts don’t just die. Sometimes, even worse things befall them. When Khan belts one in the face, so hard that he flies through the air, his pants split right in the front when he lands! Yes, I am completely serious. Whether he died or not, this guy deserved a commendation!!
There are some really interesting ideas brought to light in this story too. While I have a lot of fun watching these episodes and poking fun at a good deal of what happens in them, the truth is, there are often some really great ideas bubbling under the surface. “Superior ability breeds superior ambition,” says Khan, effectively telling Kirk that he’s not content to sit back and watch the universe when he could, in fact, tame it. The whole idea of selective breeding was truly the work of fiction during 1966, but today it’s very real. Should we perhaps see this as a cautionary tale of what might be? These “supermen” do have a streak of barbarism but the real question is: isn’t that likely? If we created real life superheroes, would they see us as relevant? The Boys on Amazon Prime, The Watchmen graphic novel, The X-men in both comic and movie iterations, and dozens of other works have all speculated about what happens when we tamper with our basic genetic information and create beings of enhanced ability. Do they not become like gods, and the rest of us mere bugs? Is that not the true danger of selective breeding? “If I could have honesty, it makes it easier to overlook mistakes!” You said it, Khan. And I think we have to be honest with ourselves and consider it, before we do have to contend with it in real life. (And that obviously means having large spanners built into various parts of the home, in case we need a good bludgeon to get rid of these megalomaniacs!)
With a quick lesson about Milton, Kirk somehow re-obtains the Botany Bay (which was cut adrift earlier in the episode) to use as a prison transport for Khan and his crew. They are cast down to the planet Ceti Alpha V like Milton’s fallen angels. McGivers “givers” herself over to Khan to see what it will be like to conquer a planet. So it seems the crew has just lost one more member. Like last week’s Return of the Archons, it’s by choice; no visible deaths on screen unless pants-splitter died from the embarrassment. Well, that’s one way to offload staff members who don’t do anything all day. Saves Jim writing that review after all… ML
The view from across the pond:
I clearly wasn’t paying attention in the 1990s. I was still at school for most of the decade so I wasn’t particularly interested in politics at the time, but you would have thought I might have remembered something as significant as the Eugenics Wars. I also somehow missed the development of suspended animation, a dictator ruling over a quarter of the globe, and the prevalent fashion of women wearing netting over the top of their underwear. I’m surprised I didn’t remember that last one in particular.
Dipping into the Star Trek universe in my topsy turvy way, I’m actually very familiar with the idea of the Eugenics Wars, thanks to the excellent Doctor Bashir storyline in DS9. Here we actually get to see somebody from that time, world leader Khan, played with great gusto and self-assurance by Ricardo Montalbán, a man who has had reviewers searching through their word processor’s special character menu for decades. Falling for his charms is traitor McGivers. From the word go, she doesn’t seem Enterprise material, summoned to beam across to the mystery vessel and clearly annoyed that her artwork is being disturbed by having to do some actual work. For a moment I entertained the hope that Trek was going to give us an interesting female character, with some kind of characterisation beyond fancying Kirk, but her edginess was smoothed off the moment she saw Khan and became the latest in a line of soft-focus, simpering, love-sick puppies. It really is sickening how the camera blurs at the sight of any woman in close-up in Trek, just to shout out the point the directors are always making to the viewers: here is an ornament, not a person.
The dialogue ameliorates what happens to McGivers to some extent, with the point made that Khan has some kind of genetically-engineered magnetism that is hard to resist, but what happens to her is still brutal. He starts off bossy, telling her to “sit and entertain me”, and then he starts controlling her, criticising her hairstyle and taking it upon himself to change it. When she starts talking about history he is rude and arrogant, interrupting her, and later he manipulates her, making her ask him to stay and then kneel in front of him. At that point he has a slave, not a lover.
“I’ll do anything you ask.”
At best she is brainwashed, and at worst she is the victim of an abusive, controlling man, which sours Kirk’s apparent compassion towards her at the end. Superficially, he seems to be very fair, offering her the chance to leave with Khan, but what kind of a life awaits her, and was she ever capable of making informed decisions while under his insidious influence? At least it is an ending that attempts to show resolution rather than retribution. Trek continues to impress me with the amount of episodes that don’t actually end with Kirk destroying his enemies. The series is steering clear of simplistic good vs evil stories much more than the average sci-fi series, especially for the 60s. Less impressive is how every storyline seems to rely on Kirk making at least one very foolish error of judgement. This week he sees nothing wrong with Khan’s request to study the “technical manuals” of the Enterprise. The Kirk fight of the week is also becoming tiresomely predictable, and this week the stunt doubles were all too obvious.
Kirk seems to veer back and forth between gullible and canny, depending on the needs of the script. Khan sums him up very well:
“You are an excellent tactician Captain. You let your second in command attack while you sit and watch for weakness.”
“You have a tendency to express ideas in military terms, Mr Khan. This is a social occasion.”
“It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed.”
Wise words, and perhaps a good reason to avoid too many social occasions. I would rather watch battles play out in Star Trek than fight wars of words over tea and biscuits. You never know, the person I’m talking too might just be a product of those Eugenics Wars I can’t remember. I didn’t realise how lucky I was to survive the 1990s. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: A Taste of Armageddon