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July 14 2024


An archive of Star Trek News

Space Seed

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at October 21, 2005 - 3:21 PM GMT

See Also: 'Space Seed' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise discovers an ancient Earth vessel floating in space, containing 72 humans in suspended animation. A landing party's arrival triggers the ship to revive their leader - a man who calls himself Khan - who requests information about 23rd century technology so that he can catch up on the 200 years of history he missed. While Kirk and Spock are discovering that Khan is one of a group of genetically engineered men and women exiled into space after becoming tyrants on Earth during a struggle known as the Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, Khan seduces a historian, Lieutenant Marla McGivers, and awakens the rest of his crew. They seize the Enterprise but McGivers will not allow Kirk to be killed; she enables the captain and Spock to retake the ship. Rather than put all of the insurgents into a rehab colony, Kirk offers them the uninhabited planet Ceti Alpha V to tame. Agreeing that it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, Khan accepts.

Analysis: As the inspiration and backstory for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, "Space Seed" is legendary even among non-Trekkers. It presents one of the series' most unforgettable villains, a man with hubris of Shakespearean proportions and charisma to match. On any other show, Ricardo Montalban's Khan might have seemed hopelessly over the top: a few displays of brute strength, a demonstration of his domineering machismo, and an educated female officer is inspired to commit mutiny? Oh, please! Yet he's a perfect foil for Shatner's Kirk, Nimoy's Spock and Kelley's McCoy. The latter is perhaps the most effective in standing up to him, telling Khan precisely where to cut the carotid artery if he wishes to kill him; Spock's logic fails to predict that a man who tried to take over Earth will of course try to take over a starship, and the blustering Kirk ends up owing his life to the lieutenant for whom he's not quite macho enough.

The trademark wit and friendship of the three principals is in evidence from the episode's first minutes, before the conflict is established, as Spock wonders why Kirk always gets pleasure from seeing the Vulcan proven wrong. McCoy blames the excesses of genetic engineering on "scientists, devoted to logic, completely unemotional", a type with which he is certain Spock is familiar. But McCoy has barbs for Kirk as well when he is asked to join the team boarding the Botany Bay, offering his familiar complaint about having his atoms scattered. Along with Scotty giving the engineering analysis, we are shown how comfortable this crew is together, professionally and personally, just before an outsider swoops in and takes over.

It's all contingent on Khan's seduction of McGivers. All the Enterprise officers underestimate her...or perhaps overestimate her, since they assume that her professionalism will overcome her obsession. Of course, they also don't know that her quarters are filled with paintings of Napoleon, Richard the Lionheart, Leif Erickson, et al. McCoy tells Kirk that he'd make a fair psychologist when the captain guesses that McGivers finds men from the past more compelling than the present models, but neither of them catch on to the compulsive nature of her interest in Khan, though it's obvious to viewers and enough to get her lectured for distraction on duty. I must admit that it's hard for me as a 20th century female viewer not to be embarrassed by McGivers and to feel a touch of satisfaction at the knowledge that she won't last long on Ceti Alpha V - her little romantic fantasy of Eden with a he-man, for which she is willing to sacrifice her independence and the autonomy if not the lives of her crewmates, doesn't quite work out as she imagines. The he-man can't save her from a creature that burrows into her ear.

Uhura at least has some strong moments in the episode, standing up to one of Khan's strongmen after he strikes her. (Sulu is mentioned by name but does not appear in the episode, nor does Chekov - hardly noteworthy, since this is the first season and he had not yet arrived on the series, except that Khan claims to recognize him in The Wrath of Khan.) Most of the crewmembers seem to be scripted somewhat weakly to show off Khan's strengths, which include not only being able to break a phaser by twisting it in his palms but being able to memorize the ship's specs from the library computer and being able to out-think Spock in his takeover plan. The episode does a nice job of showing as well as telling his genetic gifts, and at the same time demonstrating in a tight time frame how they lead to tyranny and the pride that precedes a fall. His mind and body may be stronger than the average human but all the worst traits of humanity have been strengthened in him as well, selfishness and greed and aggression. Is this built into his nature, or were these bred dictators raised in an environment of such permissiveness and indulgence that they became as they are from how they were nurtured?

That possibility is never up for discussion. This is a cautionary tale about attempting to breed supermen which will be echoed on Enterprise when Arik Soong attempts to raise embryos left over from the Eugenics Wars, though Deep Space Nine's Julian Bashir stands as a testament to the fact that not all genetic manipulation ends badly. Khan keeps ridiculing the fact that humans have advanced their technology but not their genome, yet one wonders how true this is: there appears to be little disease in humans of Star Trek's future, leading to a much longer life expectancy, something evolution would not accomplish unaided in a few centuries. Of course, at the time this episode was filmed, there was no in vitro fertilization, none of the birth technologies that are taken for granted now in much of the world, where the polar body containing the cystic fibrosis gene can be isolated in a human egg cell. And obviously, despite the claims of The Eugenics Wars novels, the struggle over genetics and the terror that followed never actually occurred in the 1990s.

So in practical terms this episode seems rather dated compared to other Star Trek installments, yet the broader concerns about tampering with nature have only become more pronounced in the years since it aired. Humans continue to manipulate their bodies with steroids, diet supplements and surgery, to overprescribe drugs to children in an effort to make them more classroom-compliant; more importantly, the might-makes-right ideology and imperialistic behavior of the genetically altered followers of Khan continue to be glorified in a world already past Star Trek's predicted date for the outbreak of another global war.

It's Khan whom McCoy should compliment on his amateur psychology skills, for he reads the crew superbly. He catches Kirk allowing Spock to debate for him while he observes a potential adversary; he debates with Spock about the accomplishments of Rome under Caesar, also someone who could be labeled a tyrant; he allows McCoy's relatively trusting nature to assume, as McCoy generally does, that he will not perform acts of unnatural violence or cruelty even though he is unnaturally equipped to do so. And he guesses at McGivers' desire to be dominated, not given petty orders by a captain. The two of them accomplish the extraordinary feat of keeping Khan's escape a secret long enough for him to take over all the key positions on the Enterprise because Kirk assumes that the situation is normal on his ship until he is warned otherwise. One guard on the door of a superman? Kirk almost deserves what happens to him with that kind of hubris, and one gets the impression that Khan foresees it, that he knows his path will be clear because Kirk isn't really afraid of him.

In the end Kirk appoints himself judge and jury, a rather Khan-like apprehension of power that even McCoy questions. There's a touch of playing God in his decision to strand Khan and his followers in a wild Eden, perhaps more pronounced watching as a viewer now that we know how it all turns out - six months later, Ceti Alpha VI will explode, turning that Eden into a wasteland where Khan will lose McGivers and many others of his people, while Kirk will go about his merry way without checking on the exiles. Khan will be ruling in hell more literally.

There are a number of moments in "Space Seed" that I had never seen before the DVD in many years of TV reruns, like the first glimpse of McGivers in her quarters preparing to paint a historical stud and the very beginning of the dinner party where Kirk asks McCoy how serious her fascination is. In the remastered print Montalban's hair looks outrageously dark and it's all too easy to see the faces of stunt doubles for him and Shatner during the climactic Inevitable Engineering Fight Sequence, yet the drama of the throwback superman and the starship captain remains just as intense, perhaps all the more so because we know what the cost will be for both of them a couple of decades later. There's nothing I can think of in the three-episode Augments arc from Enterprise that isn't touched upon in this single story, from how people react when seeing their colleagues tortured to the importance of personal charisma in commanding the loyalty of others. Like nearly all of the first season, this episode has echoes down through the Treks and across several other science fiction dramas as well.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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