(Note: This post is also viewable as a page elsewhere on this site. If you haven’t read it yet, my introductory post on this Star Trek: The Original Series rewatch is a good place to start. Previous essays on specific episodes can be found here.)
Original Air Date: February 16, 1967
Crew Death Count: 0
Bellybuttons: 1 (The Botany Bay uniforms are as sexist as Starfleet’s!)
It’s hard to fairly evaluate “Space Seed” as a stand-alone TOS episode. After 1982, it will always be the set-up for what may be Star Trek’s finest moment, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The episode and its characters have also been referenced numerous times in other Star Trek series, novels, and comics. We do know the episode wasn’t a ratings smash – Bewitched (1964-1972) on ABC and CBS’ broadcast of the Marlon Brando movie One-Eyed Jacks (1961) both surpassed it in the Nielsens. On the other hand, we also know at least some critics acknowledged “Space Seed” was something special: the Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune called it “highly imaginative” and wrote, “What makes the drama particularly interesting is its commentary on the scientific know-how of the late 1990s…”
The premise is one that will be explored periodically in Star Trek: The Enterprise comes upon a mysterious ship with an unconscious crew. In this case, the ship is the S.S. Botany Bay, broadcasting an automated message in Morse Code (thankfully our crew is proficient in Morse Code). The Botany Bay’s crew consists of eighty or more genetically enhanced humans in cryogenic sleep, led by a would-be dictator named Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), all refugees from earth’s Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. The Enterprise crew seems familiar with Khan’s history, based on comments by both Kirk and Scott, but somehow it takes them more than half the episode to figure out that their newly awakened passenger is the same person. Khan then tries to take over the ship and mayhem ensues.
The extent to which Khan and his people are “genetically engineered” is never specified. They clearly have greater strength and endurance; they’re supposedly more intelligent, though that’s debatable based on the evidence. While McCoy mentions “a group of ambitious scientists,” Kirk and Spock both use the term “selective breeding,” which can take many generations to produce results. It’s hardly a novel science; humans have engaged in selective breeding of plants and animals for thousands of years, it’s what gave us corn and English Bulldogs. True genetic engineering involves deliberately modifying an organism’s DNA, and this seems more likely to have triggered the 1990s Eugenics Wars referenced in TOS. The subject has been explored in science-fiction since at least 1936, in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story Proteus Island, but wasn’t practiced in real life until the early 1970s. Genetic engineering has been applied to the manufacture of a variety of drugs, and in 2012 the first gene therapy treatment was approved for clinical use. From a 1960s perspective, the speculation in “Space Seed” seems both creative and credible, that genetic engineering would not only have advanced sufficiently to alter human physiology, but also that 1990s humans would lack the discipline to control the results.
Whatever variety of science gave us Khan, the character both explores and collapses the idea of the exceptional individual, the tired old mythology of the alpha male. Yes, Khan is charismatic, but the appeal fades quickly once he starts barking orders at complete strangers. (Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Ricardo Montalban portraying Khan’s confidence, charisma, and strength so effectively.) We have no information on Khan’s pre-engineered personality, but Spock points out the great flaw of the genetic engineering that led to the Eugenics Wars: “superior ability breeds [there’s that word again!] superior ambition.” Indeed, conflict between Khan and his kind prevented any one of them from becoming a global ruler. TOS reminds us frequently that power corrupts, so however Khan started out, his enhanced traits instilled in him a compulsion to control others. It’s human nature to glorify individuals rather than teams or groups; crediting achievements to one individual is an easier story to sell. True, Khan must have some degree of exceptionalism if scores of other genetically enhanced individuals volunteer to follow him; McCoy describes Khan as having “a magnetism, almost electric.” Reviewing the history of the 1990s, let’s consider who some of Khan’s world-conquering role models might have been:
Fictional characters and public relations aside, the likes of Steve Jobs and aspiring plantation owner Jeff Bezos accomplished nothing single-handedly. Neither has Khan, who is clearly not a self-made man. Without genetic engineering he might have ended up hosting a reality TV show or cheating to win elections. The alleged superiority didn’t give him, or his 1990s peers, improved collaborative abilities, and even if he could maintain control of the Enterprise in “Space Seed,” renewed infighting might still have led to his undoing. And when Kirk and Spock gas the conference room where Khan is holding court, the exceptional individual flees with no regard for what happens to his own crew, the only people who might be able to help him. Khan is not so much a visionary as he is an opportunist.
The biggest opportunity in Khan’s favor is the typically weak security protocols on the Enterprise. Kirk hands over the ship’s entire technical manuals before he even knows who Khan is. Once his identity is established, a single guard is posted outside Khan’s quarters, and like all Enterprise security officers, this one is easily overpowered. The lessons of “The Naked Time” apparently forgotten, Khan and his people (who he had ample time to awaken and beam on board Enterprise without anyone noticing) seize control of the ship’s life support system in only a few minutes.
Of course, like so many prominent men, Khan also needs a woman’s help, specifically the weak-willed Lieutenant McGivers (Madlyn Rhue). McGivers joins Bailey (“The Corbomite Maneuver”), Stiles (“Balance of Terror”), and Finney (“Court Martial”) as Starfleet’s biggest hiring blunders. How do they all end up on the Enterprise? Our introduction to McGivers is her sullen attitude at being assigned to the Botany Bay boarding party when she really wants to stay in her quarters painting such historic figures as Napoleon and Richard the Lionheart. (To McGivers’ credit, she’s a pretty good artist; maybe history would have turned out differently if she had stuck to that.) She becomes infatuated with Khan before he’s even awake, behaving like such a schoolgirl that Kirk feels the need to admonish her later; Kirk foreshadows what’s to come when he tells her, “At any one time, the safety of this entire vessel might depend on the performance of a single crewman…” She quickly initiates an affair with Khan, who literally forces her to her knees and demands that she betray her shipmates. By the time McGivers flip-flops and saves Kirk, putting the crew’s recovery in motion, she has done too much damage to redeem herself.
Khan is defeated not only by his faith in his own self-promotion, but also the unity of the Enterprise crew. While Khan is his own favorite project, the Enterprise officers, as they did in “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” cooperate toward a common goal: when Khan threatens to kill the senior officers one at a time, they don’t waver in their silent opposition. This is also played out in individual examples, when Uhura and McCoy show us two of the most courageous moments in Star Trek history. When Khan awakens in sickbay and threatens McCoy at the blade of a knife, the doctor calmly dares Khan to proceed, confident that he can express the futility of a patient murdering his own physician. Later, when Uhura refuses to cooperate with Khan, she stands firm under physical assault by Khan’s primary sidekick, Joaquin (Mark Tobin). Considering Malcolm X had been assassinated in 1965, and the Black Panther Party founded in 1966, I don’t know if Nichelle Nichols intended her expression to represent defiance in the face of centuries of racial discrimination, but it’s hard not to see it that way today, and it’s a powerful moment. Uhura and McCoy are not taking risk for their own gain, but behaving as true heroes, in defense of their comrades and mission.
Spock also behaves admirably, bluntly questioning Khan during a “Welcome to the 23rd century” banquet. Khan considers this part of Kirk’s strategy, looking for weakness while his first officer attacks, but it looks more like Spock doing what Spock does, asking the important questions without emotional attachment, just as he did in “The Enemy Within.” Khan says, “Social occasions are only warfare concealed” (calling to mind a similarly tense banquet in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)), and that may be true, because Spock appears to already understand Khan’s warlike tendencies as he probes for information. Spock is understandably shocked at the admiration of Khan expressed by McCoy, Scott and Kirk. “I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for this one,” Scott says. Americans (and, apparently, Scottish engineers) have a foolish tendency to admire a decisive leader, even if they’re leading in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons. Kirk says, “We can be against him and admire him, all at the same time,” a common sentiment in real life, and while it’s easy to appreciate Khan’s (really Montalban’s) charisma, it’s not an attitude I’ve ever understood. There is no nobility in a crime-free society obtained through coercion and repression. Hopefully it’s not really Khan we envy but his potential for great achievement, wasted though it is.
After Khan is finally subdued, Kirk makes the exceedingly generous offer of allowing the Botany Bay crew settlement on Ceti Alpha V instead of imprisonment in a “reorientation center” – I don’t know what that is, but it sounds bad. Khan accepts and refers to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, specifically the line, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Literary Kirk is, of course, familiar with the passage but doesn’t seem to understand all its implications. The quote from Paradise Lost is spoken by Satan when God expels him from heaven, but that’s hardly the end of the story. Satan makes the most of his reign in hell, corrupting Adam and Eve, condemning them and all of humanity to lives of mortal suffering. Khan tells us, during the banquet, that his group left earth for “a new life, a chance to build a world,” with no destination specified. By sending Khan and his followers to the hell of Ceti Alpha V, the captain is, in a sense, giving Khan what he set out to achieve two centuries ago. Again, it’s hard to view the episode objectively from here, but the resolution of “Space Seed” justifies a sequel, because Khan’s story is no more finished than Satan’s was. The final look exchanged between Kirk and Khan expresses an expectation that these men will confront each other again. Spock goes further, saying, “It would be interesting, Captain, to return to that world in a hundred years, and learn what crop had sprung from the seed you planted today.” However, we know it will take Khan only fifteen years, and another opportunity to exploit (via the appearance of Chekov and the Reliant), to make manifest his tragic destiny.
The moral of “Space Seed,” repeated without irony in Star Trek II, is that, like Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, we are destined to endure the consequences of our actions. We’re living the same lesson in the 21st century: by ignoring the warnings of climate scientists in the 1970s, we find ourselves in the beginning of the end of a self-created global catastrophe; ignoring the cautions of experts in fields as diverse as mental health and digital security, we now live in a surveillance state, our elections at risk of sabotage and our public health decisions contaminated by disinformation propagated through social media (which has also decimated most of our reliable news sources). Much as we might hope to pass our failures on to the next generation, the price must be paid. Perhaps this is why our crew’s admiration of Khan is so dangerous, or “illogical” as Spock calls it. Give a would-be autocrat even the slightest foothold – say, using a bottom-feeder television show to promote a narcissistic, illiterate, bankruptcy-declaring con artist – and the final outcome could be disastrous. We can respect Kirk’s compassion while finding the flaw in his decision. With the grace of hindsight, we know that Khan, like all the other aspiring dictators, never deserved the chance we gave him.
Next: A Taste of Armageddon