TREK-A-DAY: Space Seed
EPISODE TWENTY-TWO: Space Seed
What a boring looking name. This episode is probably going to be kinda dull. Maybe involve some kind of space oddity that amounts to a glowing, floating thing. Maybe it supercharges the engines or something and they have to destroy it/realize it’s a living thing defending its turf and find a way to communicate and let it be.
Yeah, that’s probably what this episode is about.
Wait a minute…
That’s right ladies and gentlemen, the only character that could get me more excited than the Gorn Captain, Mr. Ricardo Maltiban himself, Khan Noonien Singh. While the Gorn Captain is certainly the most visually distinct villain in the Original Series canon, he pales in comparison to the name value of Khan. This episode is an utter joy for a number of reasons, but above all because it gives Kirk his nemesis and breaks the mold for Trek villains. He’s Moriarty, Magneto, The Joker, Darth Vader, and a healthy dose of Serpentor all wrapped into one and his epic history begins here.
So, the story: Kirk and Co. find an Earth vessel from the mid-1990s, a time of war and destruction, floating in deep space. On board are a number of humans in suspended animation, the leader of which wakes up when they arrive. His name is Khan and ship’s historian the doe-eyed Lt. Macguilliver is immediately taken with his raw 20th centuriness (note to us, can’t score in our time? Get yourself frozen and become irresistable!* …*Must be a genetically engineered super Ricardo Maltiban to apply). The crew quickly discovers, however, that Khan and his frozen friends are the last of a race of genetically superior dictators who launched a massive take-over of Earth in the mid-1990s leading to World War III. Khan ruled continental Asia until he finally was forced to escape into space aboard a ship named for the prison colony that became Australia (Botany Bay). Khan bullies and intimidates the love-struck Macguilliver into helping him awaken his troops and take over the Enterprise, deciding to take over the universe and shape it in his own image. Through a series of slick maneuvers (and a brief defection by Macguilliver) Kirk (and his trusty stuntman) finally confront Khan mano-a-mano in an epic throwdown. Kirk comes out on top, but has mercy on his opponent, who he cannot help but admire, by sending him and his people to a desolate planet to found their own empire. As Spock sums up, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to visit the planet again in one hundred years time and see what has grown from the seed you planted today Captain?” To which Kirk replies, “It would indeed.” End of story, right?
There’s a beautiful, haunting sense of lurking tragedy contained in that final moment, knowing that Kirk, Spock, and Khan will again cross paths in a cataclysmic way; whether or not this was the intended outcome of the episode (ie. the revisiting of Khan was planned already) I don’t know, but regardless, knowing what I do (despite never having seen the whole film, though quite looking forward to reaching it on the blog) the whole thing feels a bit like a Greek tragedy. This act of mercy turns out to be one of Kirk’s greatest mistakes and yet such acts constitute his moral character. The quoting of Milton by Kirk and Khan caps this nicely, with Khan comparing himself to Lucifer cast down into the pit saying, “Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” He’s openly acknowledging his role as Kirk’s nemesis, by comparing Kirk to God and himself to Lucifer; it’s a killer final exchange and sets the stage for the film to come much later.
Khan himself is a fascinating villain as he is drawn from a fascinating time. Roddenberry insisted on a united humanity in Trek, a far-cry from the turbulent political climate of the 1960s: there could be a cold war with the Romulans and racial intolerance toward aliens, but all human races and nations were working together (we haven’t quite gotten to Ensign Chekov, but we know he’s coming). Despite this optimism, the episode describes how The Eugenics Wars broke out on Earth in the mid-1990s, with a dedicated team of scientists working to create supermen accidentally creating “superior beings with superior ambition.” As Spock describes them, a race of Napoleons and Caesars, all of whom launch a take-over of Earth (this reminded me a lot of the GI JOE Movie villain Serpentor, who was cloned from tonnes of military leaders…and Sgt. Slaughter. While this was long after Trek, I distinctly remember it as my first encounter with the idea of combining the genetics of great leaders to create a superman). Humanity bands together to dethrone them, with Khan (the greatest and, oddly, most merciful of the bunch) escaping into space. The crew admits admiration of him despite their dislike of dictators (he was generally as benevolent a dictator as one could find) much to the confusion of Spock (who raises the valid point that admiring one’s enemies is illogical). What I find so interesting about this is that despite his optimism for the far future, Roddenberry’s team placed World War III only 30 years from the time of filming (perhaps in deference to the general sense in the 60s that the big one was just around the corner). The 90’s came and went without a Eugenics War (yay!) but did see us successfully clone a sheep in 1996 and then proceed into the uncertain climate of the post 9/11 so-called “Age of Terror” (a tremendous over-exaggeration, but one that led to all kinds of strange paranoia and behavior…not unlike the tone of the 60’s). Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how the Trek-verse viewed our recent past (the writers’ future and characters’ long past). According to this episode, rapid space flight was achieved in 2018, we’ll see how that holds up later on.
Now, with the introduction of one of the most iconic science fiction villains of all time (and one Next Generation ironically found right away with Q, but still somehow seemed to insist on trying to ape in their later films with people like Shinzon) it’s easy to exclude other fine elements of this episode, which would be a shame because it features some of the best writing and ensemble work of the series so far. All of the character relationships are in fine form as are the characters themselves, from Kirk’s easy humour and rapport with Spock, to Bones’ epically unflinching response to Khan repeatedly threatening him with a scalpel and choking him: (While giving him a steely, unimpressed glare) “Either choke me or slit my throat; doing both seems redundant.” Khan threatens him again, McCoy responds, “The jugular would be best, right below my left ear.” Khan grins and gives him the knife: Bones just stared down death itself like he was Clint Eastwood. Awesome. We also get a jarring, upsetting, but powerful Uhura moment as one of the supermen smacks her around trying to force her to operate a viewscreen. After roughing her up a bit, the superman finally backhands her, sending her sprawling over the controls, but she gets back up and gives him the same defiant glare; it’s powerful stuff, but also scary-there’s a creepy undertone of domestic abuse and women who refuse to be broken, which is both empowering and terrifying as we realize she would continue to give him that glare if he beat her to death. Obviously the show wasn’t going to go that far with it, but it’s implied and one of the first times Uhura gets to really shine as a character with true grit, rather than just a harp-playing communications officer extraordinare. There are great moments throughout, fantastic interactions, and great character work. Mr. Sulu is oddly absent, but otherwise all the major characters get a chance to shine (except Yeoman Rand…we miss you.)
So, here we have it. Yet again, an iconic episode sneaks up and double punches me in the face with awesome. There’s something particularly magical about an iconic episode that not only introduces an important character or concept, but that is also just a tightly written, wonderfully acted hour of television. It would have been a shame never to have revisited our conqueror-in-exile Khan Noonien Singh and I’m truly grateful the series decided to revisit him; but if this was our only encounter, it would have been a great one nevertheless. Instead, we get a prologue to tragedy, with the hubris of Captain Kirk being his ability to recognize an equal and treat him with respect and dignity.
I can’t wait for round two.