In the twenty-second episode of the first season of Star Trek, the Enterprise discovers a seemingly abandoned ship that turns out not to be abandoned at all. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of eugenics and manipulation/abuse.
There’s no doubt in my mind that, despite a couple of odd moments, this is one IMMENSE episode of this show. I found it entertaining, eerie, and illuminating. I’ve come to find it clever how immersive Star Trek has been for me because the writers haven’t pulled back the curtain very often. As a new viewer, I’m thrust into this fictional world, given a few rules, and then left to discover it all on my own. The worldbuilding is piecemeal for the most part; we get bits here and there, but it’s not a consistent thing by any means. I don’t think this is necessarily an intentional thing. I know virtually nothing about how this show was made, but given the drastic differences between airing order and production order, I imagine that it’s very easy to say that the way I’m experiencing the worldbuilding is accidental.
The point of all this is that I loved how much history I got through watching “Space Seed.” Accidental or intentional, the way this episode unfolded was so exciting to me. It’s a slow born to a fight that’s both physical and ideological, and it’s done super well.
Not completely well. I have two tiny bones to pick with “Space Seed,” which I do consider to be a stellar episode for this show. First, I am kind of perplexed by the casting of a Mexican actor for someone who is South Indian and Sikh??? Which is not to criticize Ricardo Montalbán, who is FANTASTIC here. It’s great to see a man of color get such a huge role (in 1967, no less!), but I think casting an actual Sikh man would have been better suited. That being said, I get that NBC probably had issues with this show’s diversity to begin with, and I’ve read a few comments in these reviews about the challenges Roddenberry faced while trying to pull this show off. So, I don’t want to divorce this from the context of its time!
I was also utterly confused by the characterization of Lt. McGivers. The individual parts of her character aren’t bad by themselves, and there are elements of her that make sense during certain scenes. But as a whole, they’re not compatible at all. How does one person go from loyalty to betrayal to love to hatred to satisfaction so quickly? Look, Ricardo Montalbán is ripped in this, and I’m pretty sure I would have gaped just as she did if he was only wearing that tiny bit of a loincloth. (Did you see his biceps? Hahaha I’m fine, I’m an adult.) Having her be attracted to him? I get it. I get it even more if you think of her as someone who idolizes a period of history and is attracted to what Khan represents. But that only works if she doesn’t know who he actually is. Once you introduce that he was a brutal, oppressive tyrant, you’re telling me a historian of Earth culture in the late ’90s (THAT IS SO WEIRD TO TYPE) would be attracted to someone responsible for a quarter of the Eugenics Wars? If that’s the case, then the episode should have stuck with that.
But then we’ve got her clear abuse at his hands, and it’s never criticized outside of the actual scene. Then we’ve got her confidently betraying the Enterprise. Then we’ve got her standing up for Uhura because she can’t bear to see Uhura struck, and then she rescues Captain Kirk, but then SHE DECIDES TO GO LIVE ON THE UNINHABITABLE PLANET WITH KHAN? WHAT THE FUCK, WHO WOULD EVER CHOOSE THAT? You just saw what he was capable of and what he believed, and this is a good choice for you????
It’s weird. Really weird. But it wasn’t so strange that I couldn’t enjoy the episode. Despite that we’re given the sense fairly early on that something was wrong with the Botany Bay, this is still a slow burn of an episode that gradually becomes more and more disturbing. But it also kicks in to gear pretty soon, too, namely in the thrilling scene where Khan first meets Bones. HAHA Y’ALL, BONES IS AN INCREDIBLE BADASS. THAT SCENE WAS THE BEST THING. It’s a great character beat for Bones, but it also establishes Khan’s creepiness right from the start. And it only gets worse from here! He goes after McGivers, knowing she’s a weak link, so that he can resurrect his crew.
OF SUPER SOLDIERS. It’s at this point in “Space Seed” that we learn of the horrors of that last great World War in Earth History: the Eugenics Wars. It’s a bold and unsettling thing for the show to address so openly, but they do it head-on. How great is that scene where Spock insists that admiring Khan is illogical? Because he’s right! Divorcing Khan from his horrific actions might make a person more comfortable, but it doesn’t mean that they’re right. (Which is why McGivers’s behavior is so confusing.) The crew sees this in action later, but over the most AWKWARD DINNER EVER, they get to hear of Khan’s revolting views. In this, there’s a stunning commentary on the idea that humanity must “evolve” past its current state. Until when? At what point do we stop? When have we gone too far? I’d argue that Khan and his super soldiers are presented as a clear sign of going way too far. They are openly in contempt of the “inferior” nature of the Enterprise crew, especially given how far into the future they are. After two centuries, Khan is DISAPPOINTED in humans. Disappointed!
Well, and also full of anger and entitlement. That, too. Less than a day after being woken up, he enacts his plan to take over the Enterprise and begin conquering the galaxy. His takeover is stunning in its thoroughness, and I was actually concerned that this might be a two-parter episode because I couldn’t figure out how these people would be able to stop them. Hey, at least Kirk’s shirt wasn’t ripped open during the brawl he’s in here!
I’m fascinated by the ending to “Space Seed” because it does show that Captain Kirk was willing to come to a non-violent end to Khan’s story. I only just realized that I know Khan because one of the movies has his name in it, so this ending clearly leaves Khan’s story open. Instead of executing him (can they even do that??? Probably not) or dropping him off on a Starbase, Kirk elects to leave Khan on a brutal planet with the remains of his people. Their exile to Ceti Alpha V is a creative choice, especially if the place really is as brutal as it is promised to be. Will Khan face beings superior to him? Will he conquer the planet? We don’t know. The open-ended conclusion is a fantastic one, and I do hope that we get to see this villain again! THERE’S A MOVIE, I KNOW THAT MUCH.
The video for “Space Seed” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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