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Star Trek – Space Seed (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

Following the commercial success (and lack of critical success) of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount made a conscious decision to side-line Gene Roddenberry. Given that his plans for the sequel involved Spock travelling through time to assassinate Kennedy, we can likely all agree that was probably a good thing. Harve Bennett was tasked with producing the sequel, and took to the task of researching what would become the second Star Trek film. Demonstrating considerable respect for the source material, Bennett locked himself away and screened all three seasons of the show, looking for inspiration.

Apparently he only needed to reach the tail end of the first season, because he had found the basis of his film by the closing credits of Space Seed.

You Khan do it...

You Khan do it…

There was no hesitation or procrastination. According to Bennett, he knew what he was going to do almost as soon as Space Seed finished:

Somewhere along the way I ran the episode Space Seed, and it was like God had sent a present down to me. “Space Seed” ends having deposited Khan (Ricardo Montalban) on some desolate planetoid and Kirk, I think it was, saying “If we came back in 25 years, I wonder what he’d be like.” And Spock says, “Hmm.” I jumped up out of my seat and said, “Thank you, God! Thank you. That’s it. That’s my story.”

That was the genesis of one of the most influential science-fiction movies produced during the eighties.

Kirk is feeling the pressure...

Kirk is feeling the pressure…

Watching Space Seed now, it is hard to divorce the episode from the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. William Shatner’s anguished “Khaaaaaaaan!”, the death of Spock and Ricardo Montalban’s chest are all so firmly engrained on the popular consciousness that there’s no escaping them. However, as you watch the episode itself, it’s easy to see why Bennett was drawn to Khan as a character, and why the concept immediately jumped out at him.

Part of it is the idea of giving Kirk an opponent to face off against. Shatner had already developed his taste for scenery, but he really benefited from the presence of an actor who would make him compete for the screen. Many of Kirk’s finer moments and stories come from stories that pit him against a strong supporting actor. John Colicos worked well as Kor in Errand of Mercy. William Campbell managed to hold his own remarkably well in both The Squire of Gothos and The Trouble With Tribbles.

No Khan do...

No Khan do…

However, Ricardo Montalban is in an entirely different league. Montalban and Shatner play well off one another, because there’s a sense that both actors are competing for the audience’s attention. Shatner tends to overstate his performance, to amp up the emotion in his words. Montalban demands to be the centre of every scene of the story, comporting himself with a dignity that isn’t really quiet. Montalban realises that he is playing a man who would be king, and so gives him a sense of poise and arrogance.

It works because Kirk and Khan really are two of the most “alpha” alpha males to appear on Star Trek. Kirk exudes so much macho charm that the decision to try to frame Jonathan Archer as “Kirk’s childhood hero” seemed fatally misjudged. Shatner plays Kirk with such a practised confidence that you’d get the sense that Kirk might stroll around the Enterprise shirtless, if he thought Spock wouldn’t pull him up on a dress code violation.

Adrift, without purpose...

Adrift, without purpose…

More than any other Star Trek lead, Kirk embodies the irresistible machismo of a rugged cowboy, the kind of character described as “a man’s man.” He doesn’t look completely comfortable unless his shirt is torn in exactly the right place, or his face is reflective with the sheen of carefully-distributed sweat, or his hair is ruffled in just the right way. Although, at this point, it was still a little hazy exactly how far in the future Star Trek was set, Kirk was a man who would probably feel more at home in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries than the twenty-first.

That’s probably why, despite the fact that watching Shatner interact with Campbell was a joy, the dynamic between Kirk and Trelane in The Squire of Gothos wasn’t quite as effective as the interplay between Q and Picard. While Trelane and Q were spoilt children prone to assume humanity was still trapped in a military mindset, Picard seemed like the true face of a more evolved human. You couldn’t help but get a sense that – on some small level – Trelane’s fascination with machismo resonated with Kirk just a little bit.

Alpha (quadrant) male...

Alpha (quadrant) male…

That’s why Khan works so well. Khan is a relic from the past. Although Space Seed dates his origins at the end of the twentieth century, Khan feels like a throwback to something older. The episode makes comparisons to Caesar. When he arrives in McGivers’ quarters, he strolls among classical paintings and sculpted busts. He feels right at home. He seems old-fashioned now, and he probably seemed just as old-fashioned when the show aired.

The script even plays up the exoticism of his ethnic roots, at a time in the future when you’d think humanity would be past such things. “From the northern India area, I’d guess,” McGivers remarks. “Probably a Sikh. They were the most fantastic warriors.” He seems to have wandered out of some colonial fantasy. However, the script and Montalban’s performance prevent Khan from seeming like a simple stereotype, taking the character well beyond his roots (in an earlier draft of the script) as an Aryan gangster to give him an almost regal bearing.

Sleeping beauty...

Sleeping beauty…

As noted in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, Khan himself is a combination of attributes and identifiers that are blended together to create a compellingly contradictory character:

Given that the most well-known fusion of ideologies of eugenics and a bid for global power occurred in World War II German fascism, the indirect Trek suggestion is that Khan is a kind of Nazi. Along these lines, the “Indian” Khan also represents both the colonial subject and the coloniser. Perplexingly and fascinatingly, Khan represents both the racial Other and a figure who attempts to destroy racial otherness.

This gives Khan a sense of mystery, which Montalban wisely plays up. Montalban’s Khan seems trapped half-way between a muscle-bound bully and a learned king in exile, a nuanced and intriguing performance that plays well opposite Shatner’s Kirk. Kirk is a man who would happily wrestle a giant lizard-man and hook up with sexy alien chicks, but finds himself confined by the requirements of his command. Both Khan and Kirk seem torn between their macho natures and the roles they are forced to play.

Grabbing life by the throat...

Grabbing life by the throat…

Of course, there’s a lot more to Space Seed beyond the appeal of watching Montalban and Shatner play off one another, even if their performances are probably what convinced Bennett that the two deserved another go-round. Space Seed continues to flesh out the back story of the Star Trek universe, filling in the blanks between the present day and this utopian future. The episode speculates about a series of “Eugenics Wars” which occurred “back in the 1990s.” Remember those?

It’s an off-hand reference made in a television show written nearly half-a-century ago, so I think we can forgive the fact that the series didn’t accurately predict a series of conflicts based around the development of human genetic engineering. Of course, this has become one of the franchise’s core pieces of mythology, which really isn’t too surprising given that The Wrath of Khan remains one of the highpoint of the franchise, and this episode isn’t far behind.

A deep (space) sleep...

A deep (space) sleep…

So this episode prompts hardcore fans to wonder why Voyager didn’t land smack-bang in the middle of the Eugenics Wars when they travelled back to the 1990s in the wonderfully solid Future’s End. As producer Jeri Taylor noted, this off-hand reference made in an episode almost three decades earlier led to a strange situation for the writers involved:

I think that those of us who entered into the Nineties realize the Eugenics Wars simply aren’t happening and we chose not to falsify our present, which is a very weird thing to do to be true to it.

Curiously, fans tend to fixate on the relatively concrete dating given to the conflict, but seem to overlook the fact that Spock identifies the time frame as “the era of your last so-called World War.” Star Trek would later explicitly identify a unique Third World War extending into the middle of the twenty-first century. You could argue that is still part of the same “era”, but a stretch of sixty years would seem to be a little imprecise for the normally obsessively accurate Spock.

Some piece of work...

Some piece of work…

Which brings us to the episode’s biggest problem, the character of McGivers. Apparently the Enterprise has its own historian, which sort of makes sense. However, Space Seed doesn’t really make too much use of her in that capacity. It seems like Spock knows much more about twentieth-century Earth, which makes sense when compared to the regular cast, but seems to make McGivers a little redundant. Even Kirk seems pretty openly resentful of her professional competence before she’s introduced. “Here’s a chance for that historian to do something for a change,” he remarks.

McGivers is defined as a woman first, and a Starfleet officer second. Which, to be fair, makes sense in the context of Space Seed. She obviously can’t be too professional if she has to fall under Khan’s sensuous spell, if only briefly. She has to be a little flighty, a little romantic and a little incompetent in order for that plot to work. And you can almost forgive Space Seed for that characterisation… until you realise that this is exactly what the season’s portrayal of female Starfleet officers has been building towards.

"Don't worry, we'll be meeting space!Lincoln soon enough, to balance this out..."

“Don’t worry, we’ll be meeting space!Lincoln soon enough, to balance this out…”

In Dagger of the Mind, we met an officer so deeply enamoured with Kirk that she was too busy brainwashing him to love her to notice her captain was in grave danger. In The Enemy Within, Spock actually suggested that the evil!rapist!transporter!double!Kirk actually held some sexual appeal to his victim, ending the episode with a comical one-liner directed at the woman he tried to assault. In Shore Leave, Tonia Barrows not only seems to dream of being sexually assaulted by Don Juan, her mind is so poorly disciplined that she almost gets McCoy killed.

The implication is that women are apparently no good at the sort of professional stuff that you need to help run a Starship. They’re always fantasising or being easily misled to actually get to the business of being good Starfleet officers. In the script, McGivers tells Yeomen Baker that she is apparently waiting for “knock down my door and carry me to where he wants me.” It seems that the women of the 23rd century are just waiting for big strong men to sweep them off their feet.

Kirk's initial ingenious plan to get rid of Khan was simply to invite him on the next away mission...

Kirk’s initial ingenious plan to get rid of Khan was simply to invite him on the next away mission…

With this world view, it’s not a surprise that the decided that there apparently weren’t any women starship captains at this point in the future. The way that Star Trek writes female characters, any female captain would probably just get lost, or some other sexist cliché… It’s also not hard to see how the show could produce an episode that manages to be both as sexist and as patronising as The Turnabout Intruder. Especially frustrating is that the producers were probably patting themselves on the back for that one.

It’s only thanks to a last-minute executive decision that we were spared a “female officer falls in love with the bad guy” subplot in The Alternative Factor. In that episode, Lieutenant Masters was originally supposed to fall in love with Lazarus and betray Starfleet. While McGivers’ conduct here is hardly more professional, it is a lot easier to understand the raw sexual attraction to Ricardo Montalban than it is to comprehend a love affair with a dishevelled mad man who can’t even keep his beard a consistent length between takes.

What a squeeze...

What a squeeze…

And that’s the thing. Space Seed isn’t actually that offensive on its own terms. It’s just when you treat McGivers’ affection for Khan as the latest in a long line of dodgy character choices for virtually every female guest star. That said, Nichelle Nichols continues to keep her dignity as Uhura, if only because the show gives her relatively little to do. She gets a nice small moment where she tries to stand up to one of Khan’s followers. It’s not a lot, but the character was never given that much to do.

And McGivers’ affection for Khan is forgivable, if only because it ties into the theme of the episode. McGivers literally romaticises the brutality of the past. Kirk explains, “And men were more adventuresome then. Bolder, more colourful.” McGivers agrees, “Yes, sir, I think they were.” The whole episode is about proving that assumption wrong. Despite Khan’s charming voice and deft skill for manipulation, he is little more than a brutal thug. He almost breaks McGivers’ hand at one point, and is emotionally abusive towards her throughout the episode. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable letting her retire to the planet with him.

She paints a pretty picture...

She paints a pretty picture…

Still, the reason it works, and the reason why we can almost forgive the episode for McGivers’ misplaced affection, is because it’s clear that McGivers is not the only person affected by Khan’s charm. “Well, he has a magnetism,” McCoy explains. “Almost electric. You felt it.” Later on, Spock is perplexed to find himself stuck in a debate where the crew seem to be defending a genocidal tyrant. Spock protests, “Gentlemen, this romanticism about a ruthless dictator is–“

And yet Scott and McCoy rush to the defense of this tyrant who has found his way on board the Enterprise. “There were no massacres under his rule,” Scott offers. McCoy adds, “No wars until he was attacked.” Kirk finally clarifies everything for his perplexed first officer. “We can be against him and admire him all at the same time,” he argues. One suspects that a large part of the episode’s cynicism about human nostalgia and romanticism came from Gene Coon.

Khanned goods...

Khanned goods…

Coon has already – with his work on Arena and A Taste of Armageddon – established himself as one of the more cynical writers to work on the show. He may have introduced the term “the United Federation of Planets”, but he also almost immediately established it as a colonial power. Here, the script suggests that humans retain a hint of barbarism inside themselves, something that responds to authority and brutality in a rather counter-intuitive manner.

It’s worth briefly touching on the whole “eugenics” thing, even though Space Seed doesn’t really dwell on Khan’s genetic enhancements too much. They allow him to beat the stuffing out of Kirk at the climax, but are pushed very much to the background. Khan might as well be a defrosted version of Napoleon or Alexander the Great. The fact that he was grown in a lab or produced through decades of careful breeding is never really probed or explored here.

Singh when you're winning...

Singh when you’re winning…

Not that it really needs to be. The insightful Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant points out Star Trek, as a franchise, has always been wary of transhumanism. The writers’ bible warns potential writers against projecting the evolutionary future of mankind, suggesting that some viewers “might even be repulsed” by the prospect. We’ve already seen that in episodes like Where No Man Has Gone Before or Charlie X, where the show is terrified of the notion that humanity might suddenly “change” into something different and something inhuman.

It seemed that moving beyond humanity meant losing touch with it. The body and mind may evolve, but the spirit devolved. In its fourth season, as it began to more enthusiastically embrace aspects of the original Star Trek television show, Star Trek: Enterprise produced a trilogy of episodes centring around genetically-augmented humans, embryos that had survived the Eugenics Wars. The faction’s leader compared these modified supermen to Nietzsche’s Übermensch. “To quote one of your philosophers, Nietzsche,” he remarks, “mankind is something to be surpassed.”

He came within a hair's breadth of succeeding...

He came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding…

It’s interesting to consider the influence of Neitzsche upon Star Trek. Nietzsche is one of the most widely-recognised philosophers, even if some of his concepts are commonly misunderstood or misrepresented in popular fiction. A lot of this is probably rooted in the Second World War. As American philosopher Brian Leiter has noted, “Nietzsche’s association with the Nazis didn’t exactly help his reputation.”

As The European Journal of Philosophy noted in its introduction to Nietzsche, a lot of the more critical explorations of the philosopher’s work in American culture didn’t really start until the seventies, long after Star Trek had gone off the air:

The reception of Nietzsche in the Anglo-American philosophical community in the post-war period has been slow, controversial, and multi-faceted. Although his work now plays almost no role in current discussions, the publication in 1950 of Walter Kaufmann’s 1950 book, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ, and its postwar ‘decontamination’ of Nietzsche after his appropriation by the Nazis, was extremely important politically. Arthur Danto’s 1964 book, Nietzsche as Philosopher, was also an important if somewhat isolated event, and there finally began to appear in the seventies less well known but high quality secondary literature, like John Wilcox’s 1974 book, Truth and Value in Nietzsche, and Tracy Strong’s 1975 book on Nietzsche and politics, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration. And when the Routledge ‘Arguments of the Philosophers’ series brought out Richard Schacht’s lengthy 1983 book Nietzsche, the idea that Nietzsche, whatever else he was doing in his books, was making recognizable philosophical claims and devising ways to defend them, was becoming more firmly established. There was and there remains a great deal of resistance to any philosophical attention to Nietzsche.

So it’s easy to understand how the philosopher’s views tend to be reduced down to cliff note versions drawn from the collective horror at what was done in his name. That trend continues today.

Khan's attitude just wasn't going to mesh...

Khan’s attitude just wasn’t going to mesh…

Although Robert Hewitt-Wolfe apparently named the species (at the very least), Gene Roddenberry’s posthumous 2000 television show Andromeda actually featured a race of genetically-enhanced humans called “the Nietzscheans.” These augments were a race of conquerors who deemed themselves far superior to primitive humans, and who were responsible for the destruction of the show’s central political alliance. The portrayal was less than nuanced, with the race apparently developed on the space station “Ayn Rand”, orbitting a planet named “the Fountainhead.”

In that context, you could easily read Khan as a criticism of this interpretation of Nietszhe’s philosophy. He is literally a superman. He asserts his power over the world. He looks down on humanity as we might look at pet animals. “Captain, although your abilities intrigue me, you are quite honestly inferior,” he explains, in a way that makes it clear he’s stating fact rather than intending insult. “Mentally, physically.” When he tries to recruit the Enterprise crew to run the ship for him, he benignly offers, “Join me. I’ll treat you well.” He’ll feed them and provide them with shelter, as long as they leave the reasoning to him.

Khan's early morning workout regime was brutal...

Khan’s early morning workout regime was brutal…

However, this is a relatively shallow reading of Nietszche. Even Archer challenges the augment who made the comparison in Borderland. (“You think he was talking about you?” he demands.) As Star Trek and Philosophy notes, Nietszche’s Übermensch is not necessarily a genetic superior to mankind:

Nietzsche’s call for humanity to be “surpassed” isn’t necessarily a call for a new, genetically perfected or enhanced, species to replace us. Rether, Nietzsche exhorts humanity to transform itself culturally and philosophically: “I love him who lives to know and who wants to know so that the overman may live some day.” In other words, we’re to “engineer”, or cultivate, our evolution in humanistic and not just scientific ways. The “Superman/Overman” isn’t an outsider who will enslave or eradicate humanity: he will be the human who transcends his own current nature.

This sounds quite familiar. Indeed, it seems to describe the main cast of Star Trek quite well.

"The props department really has to consider sturdier models..."

“The props department really has to consider sturdier models…”

It has been argued that Kirk is actually the perfect Nietzschean Übermensch:

Consider Kirk. He does not hesitate to interfere with the cultures he finds, to make and enforce moral judgements. He is unswervingly confident in the superiority of his values and culture, even though those values and culture include tolerance and diversity. He (and the TV series as a whole) defines all cultures in relation to his own; recall the ‘nazi planet’ and the ‘gangster planet’ and the ‘greek mythology’ planet, none of which seem to have any distinctive features outside of their resemblance to past Earths.

As such, the conflict between Kirk and Khan could be seen as the conflict between two interpretations of Frederich Nietzsche’s philosophy. (Khan provides a mirror to Kirk, serving as a charming and decisive authority figure. His strategic seduction of McGivers arguably even reflects Kirk’s seduction of Andrea in What Are Little Girls Made Of?)

"See, Bones, I told you that court martial bell was an expense that we could justify... And you said we'd be lucky to use it once!"

“See, Bones, I told you that court martial bell was an expense that we could justify… And you said we’d be lucky to use it once!”

And Space Seed reveals that Khan is a fraud. Despite his fine posture, his strength, his good looks and his charm, he’s little more than a common thug who uses power to impose his view upon others. When McGivers confesses her affection for him, he warns her, “I am honoured. Thank you. But I caution you. Such men dare take what they want.” It seems like just more flirtatious banter, until it’s made clear that he was being honest. Given that taking what he wants involves killing Kirk and trying to turn the crew into his slaves, that’s not a good thing.

Sure, Khan is cultured. He is refined and well-educated, and well-spoken. He can make casual reference to Milton, giving academics lots of fodder to compare his character arc to those found in classic literature, but he’s still just a bully who uses his strength to get what wants from people. Montalban is so charming that we are almost taken in by him, in the same way that Kirk is almost irresistibly drawn to his machismo, but Space Seed is clear in its condemnation of the character.

Khan still has some pull...

Khan still has some pull…

Khan seems unable to perceive anything beyond conflict. His world view suggests perpetual warfare, perhaps more in line with Thomas Hobbes than with Frederich Nietszche. Hobbes, like Nietszche, has always been a heavy influence on Star Trek. Perhaps the most recognisable villains of the post-Kirk era, the Borg, owe a debt to Hobbes, as acknowledged in The Psychology of Superheroes:

The Borg are a species of machine symbiants whose individuality has been suborned to the greater collective. This vision recollects Thomas Hobbes original conception of Leviathan which is embodied (literally) in the illustration shown in Figure 1.

The “perpetual war” argument, the notion that mankind is trapped in a constant state of conflict, is taken from Hobbes’ Leviathan, and it’s easy to understand why Star Trek might be philosophically opposed to that position.

Airs and graces...

Airs and graces…

To Khan, a polite dinner with Kirk and Spock is just a more subtle form of conflict. The conqueror treats idle conversation as a battlefield, recognising his opponent’s skill. “You are an excellent tactician, Captain,” he notes. “You let your second in command attack while you sit and watch for weakness.” To be fair, he might have a point in this case. Kirk is hardly the most committed pacifist and he relishes a good battle of wits. Still, it’s clear that Khan’s worldview is completely incompatible with this optimistic future.

“It has been said that social occasions are only warfare concealed,” Khan explains. “Many prefer it more honest, more open.” Khan is a man who needs conflict to survive – hence Kirk’s decision to send him to Ceti Alpha V, where he can live on a planet that is “a bit savage, somewhat inhospitable.” There’s no place for Khan in this version of the future. Despite the fact he lacks super speed or super strength, Kirk is the more evolved human now.

Whatever grabs him...

Whatever grabs him…

Of course, Kirk is still something of a flawed hero. He’s arrogant and over-confident in his victory. With the exception of rare episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever, or even Operation: Annihilate!, it seems like Kirk never really loses. Even in those episodes where Kirk accrues a cost for his meddling, the situation is never made any worse for the fact that Kirk arrived. So Space Seed is interesting because it would have consequences for Kirk. His decision to allow Khan to settle to on Ceti Alpha V rather than sending him to an Orwellian-sounding “reorientation centre” leads directly to Spock’s death and indirectly to the death of Kirk’s own son.

It’s an act of monumental arrogance on the part of Kirk to assume that he could just deposit Khan on a planet and forget about him. Did he even inform Starfleet Command? You might imagine they’d be interested in the former despot building his own community in the middle of nowhere. Based on the fact that Starfleet seems to planning to colonise the Ceti Alpha system, and Chekov is the only member of the Reliant’s crew who seems to be aware of Khan, plus the fact that this whole decision is rife with potential for blowback, it seems highly likely Kirk just took it on himself to dump Khan and his followers on Ceti Alpha V and then move on with his life.

Talk about living history, McGivers seems to be loving it...

Talk about living history, McGivers seems to be loving it…

In that respect, then, The Wrath of Khan seems almost poetic. Kirk’s hubris comes back to haunt him, as he is forced to face the consequences of his own arrogance. Although the final line of the episode as aired does hint at the events to follow, it’s worth noting that the script originally had a much more prophetic closing thought. James Blish preserves it in his adaptation of the story:

“It would indeed,” Kirk said. “But I’ll tell you something else, Mr. Spock. I only hope that in a hundred years, that crop won’t have sprung right out of the ground and come out looking for us.”

Of course, there are any number of episodes that end with Kirk or Spock pondering what will happen next to an alien civilisation, and the fact that Space Seed is one of the rare Star Trek episode to earn a follow-up probably adds a lot of retroactive depth to that sentiment. Still, it can’t help but seem a little ironic in light of what unfolded.

"Just Ceti us down anywhere..."

“Just Ceti us down anywhere…”

It’s worth noting that the wonderful Stephen Fry apparently even wrote his thesis on the overlap between Nietzsche and Star Trek, making a convincing argument that Star Trek is a fairly wonderful exploration of the German philosopher’s theories:

I actually did the finals of my Cambridge degree on the subject of Nietzsche and tragedy. And I mostly wrote about Star Trek.

And I have to say, I got a very good degree. Mostly because, just in case you wanted to write an essay about Nietzsche and Star Trek, Nietzsche argued that all tragedy was based on the opposition between the Apollonian and the Dionysian instincts in Ancient Greece, particularly in Greek tragedy. In other words, the Dionysic instinct for wine and revel and feasting – the id, you might say, the animal part of us. And against that, the Apollonian – harmonic, logic, reason, rhetoric. And the Greek civilisation was playing out, in front of itself, the story of its own beginnings – from blood feuds and trials and tribal wars and appetite and sexual lust and animal instincts, and this incredible thing of logic and reason that it had founded through Aristotle and the philosophers. Music, and Pythagarus, and everything else. And the two of them were always at war. As they are in all of us, of course, which is why tragedy is so fantastic a medium.

And, oddly enough, that’s what most Star Trek stories are about. That you have the captain in the middle, who is trying to balance both his humanity and his reason. And on his left shoulder, in the original Star Trek, you have the appetitive, physical Doctor McCoy. And on his right shoulder, you have Spock, who is all reason. And they’re both flawed, because they don’t balance the two. And their at war with each other. Bones is always having a go at Spock. And Kirk is in the middle, representing the perfect solution.

And not only that, but the planets they visit usually make the mistake of either being over ordered, over reasonable and over logical – so they kill those who dissent and they do it calmly and reasonably. And they have to learn to be a bit human – “you! will! learn! to be! human!” Or they are just a savage race that needs reason and order. So it’s that question of the universe. Anyway, that’s why Star Trek is incredibly important, of course.

It’s a very thoughtful way of looking at Star Trek, particularly the original series.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

As a side note, it’s interesting to consider how Fry’s observations apply to Space Seed. With an episode revolving around that Apollonian urge for war and violence above reason and culture, it’s no surprise that Spock finds himself in conflict with both McCoy and Kirk here. In the opening sequence, Kirk seems to take particular relish in proving his science officer wrong.

When Spock identifies Khan’s craft as human in design, Kirk remarks, “I thought you said it couldn’t possibly be an Earth vessel.” Spock responds, “I fail to understand why it always gives you pleasure to see me proven wrong.” (Kirk concedes, “An emotional Earth weakness of mine.”) Later on, when Spock quite rationally refers to the Eugenics Wars as the result of mankind’s attempts to “improve the race through selective breeding”, McCoy takes irrational umbrage. “Not our attempt, Mister Spock. A group of ambitious scientists. I’m sure you know the type. Devoted to logic, completely unemotional –“

"And you promise you'll visit, Captain?" "... eh..."

“And you promise you’ll visit, Captain?” “… eh…”

In this case, however, you get the sense that Coon was on Spock’s side. Kirk and the crew were acting in a very human manner, and that very human manner allowed them to take Khan into their trust. They even began to glorify a genocidal tyrant, allowing nostalgia to colour their interactions with him. Star Trek is often very anthropocentric – something reflecting in the franchise’s fear of transhumanism, treating humanity as a perfect ideal rather than a work in progress. However, Gene L. Coon is slightly more sceptical about that. This is one case where Kirk’s human judgement errs repeatedly, even if you don’t consider the motion picture sequel.

Space Seed would be a classic, even without The Wrath of Khan offering a conclusion to Khan’s story. It’s just a demonstration of pretty much every part of Star Trek working perfectly. Even the production design in fantastic, with Khan’s male followers wearing a bright red jumpsuit, while his female companions wear a much less practical gold mesh. It’s the kind of visual that no other Star Trek series could pull off, but Space Seed does it perfectly.

What a man!

What a man!

It’s one of the stronger episodes of a very strong season, and that’s taking into account the rather questionable use of McGivers as a supporting character. It’s a classic, and one of the best demonstrations of what Star Trek has to offer.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

13 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on M2wa2 DigiTech..

  2. Wow – what an astonishingly good review!

    • I hope I was thorough!

      This season of Star Trek has been a labour of love for me. An exhausting but wonderful labour of love.

  3. “…defines all cultures in relation to his own; recall the ‘nazi planet’ and the ‘gangster planet’ and the ‘greek mythology’ planet, none of which seem to have any distinctive features outside of their resemblance to past Earths.”

    All three had been influenced by Earth people pre-story, consciously remade to resemble an Earth period, not randomly evolved in parallel. Thus all 3 examples do not support the writer’s point.

    [gangster planet and nazi planet were corrupted by a book-from-the-stars and professor John Gill, respectively. greek planet was created as a sort of retirement home harkening to their heyday by beings who had been worshipped as gods by the ancient Greeks… (sorta like an old rockstar in seclusion surrounded by his platinum records, instruments and groupies, or an old retired general surrounded by military hardware from his youthful campaigns)]

    • That’s a fair point, and the specifics might not line-up, but there are lots of other examples like Miri’s planet or 892-IV from Bread and Circuses or even Beta III from The Return of the Archons that provide a sense that the cosmos isn’t really alien so much as a reflection of Earth and humanity. (And that’s not counting the “looks alien, but clearly a metaphor for contemporary Earth” variety of alien planets like the ones from A Taste of Armageddon or Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

  4. This was an extremely insightful examination of “Space Seed.” Khan is a fascinating individual. I’ve written about the very contradictory nature of the character on my own blog. One of the aspects I addressed is Khan’s troubling, dysfunctional relationship with Marla McGivers. Another is how a person who is capable of such ruthlessnes & violence engenders a certain amount of admiration in others, and what this says about human consciousness on a wider scale. I hope you enjoy it…


    • Thanks! Part of me wonders if Khan’s relationship with Marla was intended as a grim parody of Kirk’s “seduce and destroy” approach to crisis management. Kirk is obviously not physically abusive when he seduces beautiful women to give him the upper hand, but I think you could read Khan as a rather sinister reflection of Kirk.

  5. I think part of what endears Khan to Kirk, McCoy, and Scott is the human fetish for poise and culture even if it supports brutality and evil.

    • That’s a fair point. And there’s a case to be made that there’s an element of that in contemporary culture as well, how we romanticise historical conquerors and invaders.

  6. Great review – interesting perspective from Stephen Fry.

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