Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Star Trek Week: "Space Seed"

Stardate 3141.9

The U.S.S. Enterprise encounters a derelict vessel adrift in space: the S.S. Botany Bay. 

This primitive Earth ship -- launched in a time of global turmoil, the 1990s – is a sleeper ship carrying 72 men and women from that time period.

The leader of the group -- Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) -- is awakened from suspended animation, and almost immediately plots to take over the Enterprise. 

He does this with the help of ship’s historian Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue), who possesses a fascination -- even obsession -- with men of the past.

Even as Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) identifies Khan as a brutal tyrant from the Eugenic Wars, Khan makes his power play, awakening his fellow genetically-engineered superman, and proceeding to hijack the Enterprise.

Now Captain Kirk (William Shatner) must regain command of his ship, and find a suitable punishment for the insurrectionists and their leader, a man who does not belong in the 23rd century. 

He settles on banishment, sending Khan and his people to the harsh but tamable world, Ceti Alpha V.

In response to his sentence, Khan quotes Paradise Lost.

There are no two ways about it. “Space Seed” is a virtually perfect episode of Star Trek (1966-1969). 

“Space Seed” moves with purpose, energy, and suspense, and is grounded by the charismatic central performance by Ricardo Montalban as Khan. The episode even ends with a note of foreboding or anticipation, which is perfect considering the franchise’s return to this story-line in 1982.  The last moments of the episode find Spock wondering what Khan’s planet, Ceti Alpha V, will give rise to in 100 years.

The franchise would wait just fifteen years, series time, to reveal the answer.  But the final episode of the moment is chilling, and raises questions about Kirk’s decision.  Will Khan build an Empire? A new kind of human race? A city on a Hill, or will he “reign in Hell?”

Given the prominent placement that Khan has been assigned in the modern Star Trek mythos, it might be worthwhile to note here that before the Wrath of Khan, “Space Seed” wasn’t judged by most Star Trek fans to be one of the best or most memorable episodes of the series.  

Many modern fans and writers insist that Khan is to Captain Kirk as Joker is to Batman, and that’s not quite true.  Khan rose to real prominence in the franchise in 1982, after Wrath of Khan proved such a dramatic success at the box office.

Remember, the original Star Trek is structured as a traditional TV series, meaning that there are, essentially, 79 dramatic (or standalone) threats to Kirk and Company, none necessarily graver than the others. Had Harve Bennett decided to sequelize “Charlie X” or “Who Mourns for Adonais” or 
“The Omega Glory,” we would have had the Wrath of Charlie, The Wrath of Apollo or The Wrath of Ron Tracey and those villains would have risen to “Joker’ status in the franchise instead.

But delightfully, Khan is a perfect selection to become the go-to “mythic” villain in the Star Trek universe. This is so because Star Trek in shape and form is a celebration of diversity, of the Vulcan concept of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations).  The crew succeeds in its space missions based on the qualities of the team, which includes people of different backgrounds and experiences. We’ve got Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu, Chapel and even Kyle.  

They don’t all look the same or act the same, and they boast different experiences and different expertise too. 

And yet this coalition of diverse personalities works together as a flawless team to confront mysteries and crises.

That team is faced, in “Space Seed,” with a genetically-engineered superman, an autocratic “trait” leader.  Khan, a tyrant, leads because of his artificially-augmented traits. He has been engineered to possess the physical strength of ten men, and the intellect of a genius.  He does not command via consensus or team-building.  He does not value the rights or freedoms of the individual, or different experiences.

And yet, in the end, the superman -- “a prince…with power over millions…” -- is defeated by “regular” people working together in that diverse team.

Thus “Space Seed” is a statement that affirms humanity’s capabilities and potential. Man need not be a superhero to explore the stars, or improve the species.  Instead, he must incorporate all colors, cultures and beliefs, and shepherd those diverse experiences to achieve meaningful goals. 

Khan represents a threat to that approach. He represents the idea -- as Spock suggests – of tyranny; of the individual subjugated under the ‘whip’ of one charismatic strongman.  

Just as the Borg represent a significant attack on Star Trek values (the idea of drones, not individuals tending to a society), Khan does so too.  He symbolizes both out-of-control science (creating avaricious supermen) and the idea of those scientific monstrosities lording it over the masses, eliminating the diversity exemplified by McCoy, Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty and Chekov in favor of a fascist leader who sees only followers, and worlds to conquer.  All the little people are under his thrall, under that proverbial whip.  Their experiences don’t matter. They’re, well, merely cannon fodder.

By Wrath of Khan, Khan represents a slight variation on this theme. There, he is a leader consumed with revenge, who refuses to listen to his crew.  Kirk, by contrast, does listen to his crew, and gleans the way to defeat Khan from his friendship with and trust in a friend, Spock, who notes the villain’s “two-dimensional thinking.” Kirk’s friendship is reciprocated to the degree that Spock sacrifices himself to preserve his friends, the team.  Khan may be genetically superior, but he leads by dictate and fear. He bullies his team members (like Judson Scott’s Joaquim) into submission. He sees no real value in anything save his own perceived superiority

In terms of Star Trek continuity, “Space Seed,” fills in some crucial gaps.  We learn from this episode that mankind fought a third World War in the 1990s, one in which whole populations were bombed out of existence. It was out of the rubble of this war that the “united” future began to come about.  In our history, of course, none of this occurred in the 1990s, and later editions of Star Trek, like Voyager (“Future’s End”) have backtracked some on the 1990s being a time of devastating war and destruction.

“Space Seed” also cements a rather unfortunate and now dated aspect to the classic series: a female crew-member seduced by a charismatic man to take mutinous action against her own crew. Here, Marla McGivers acquiesces to Khan, who -- let’s face it -- treats her abusively, at least at first, and aids his efforts to take over the ship. 

This idea recurs in “Who Mourns for Adonais,” when Lt. Carolyn Palamis (Leslie Parrish) becomes consort to Apollo, who wishes to subjugate the crew and crush the Enterprise hull like an egg shell. To a lesser degree, we also saw this paradigm with Dr. Dehner (Sally Kellerman) and Mitchell in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” 

But the bottom line is that we rarely, if ever, in Star Trek history (original series) meet a male crew-member who gets seduced by a woman and takes adopts her agenda, ignoring his duties, oath, and training for “love” (or lust, anyway).  Instead, it is only female Starfleet officers, apparently, who do so.

I suspect “Space Seed” gets away with this plot line to the degree it does for a few reasons. 

First, Madlyn Rhue goes a long way towards suggesting that McGivers marches to the beat of her own drummer. 

The character is depicted as an artist, and as a sensitive individual who is genuinely overcome by her passion for history, for the storied past. When she is taken with Khan, we can see her interest in him is a result of her character, not merely a (stereotypical) weakness of the gender. 

Similarly, Montalban is extremely charismatic as Khan, not to mention forceful. Since McGivers’ recovers her center in due time, and Khan comes to profess his love for her, one can write off McGiver’s bad behavior as a temporary lapse.  How often, after all, do we meet a man from “the 20th century coming alive?”  That could catch anyone off-guard, right?

Similarly, the scenes in which Scotty and Kirk admit a “grudging” respect for Khan help us realize that this genetically-engineered superman is quite magnetic, and casts a spell on those around him. 

Actually, this aspect of the episode speaks to another human truth, about our species’ worship for strong-men, figures who lead -- not always fairly -- but by din of personality, charisma, and promises of greatness, or returning to a time when things were better. 

Those who offer the world “order” and link themselves to that order, represent, in some way, a retreat to non-thinking safety and comfort.  We trust in them, instead of facing the hard questions ourselves.

But still, we rarely see men in Star Trek experience such temporary lapses over their proximity to a woman.  Kirk, for example, stays focused on his duties when encountering Mudd’s Women, Odona, an even Elaan of Troyius.  Their charms are not enough to make him forget his responsibilities.

“Space Seed” moves with such momentum and grace that it is easy to overlook these and other little bumps in the road.  For instance, Kirk seems foolish to have let this “guest” have full access to the ship’s library of technical manuals. But this reckoning only comes after watching the episode multiple times.

In terms of the genre, one might note how the premise of a person from the past being revived from suspended animation in the future, became a trope after “Space Seed.”  

We have seen it in episodes of The Starlost (“Lazarus from the Mist”), Logan’s Run (“Crypt”), Ark II (“The Cryogenic Man,”) and even Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Neutral Zone.”)  Yet, no man (or woman) from the past has quite impacted the direction of a franchise the way Khan ultimately has in Star Trek.

Sometimes I lament the character’s influence. Since Wrath of Khan we have met too many villains who are bent on revenge, or who get their hands on the latest weapon of mass destruction (like Genesis).  I don’t blame Khan or Montablan. 

Rather, it’s a testament to the actor’s (and character’s) success that every filmmaker wants to recreate the danger and charisma this villain offers.  

But for “Space Seed,” Khan gives Star Trek one of its most exciting and thought-provoking hours.

It asks: does humanity increase the species' influence in the universe by bringing everyone along as part of the team?  Or by selecting a strong man to lead the way?

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