Tuesday, September 16, 2008

TOS Rewind #21: "Space Seed"

This time we tackle:



Space Seed (02-16-1967)

We have a podcast for this one featuring Eric, Rob, Andy, and myself (and my, do we go on!)

I'll let Eric start us out:

“Space Seed" is a truly classic Trek episode that ranks in my top ten of favorites. It’s a great, original story that’s free of any overt campiness. And with the exception of a couple of flaws, it works beautifully.

As I noted in my last review, “Return of the Archons" was one of many Kirk vs. machine episodes. And while it was an excellent example of that kind of episode, it’s refreshing to get away from that premise. And “Space Seed" does this beautifully--it’s Kirk vs. man (or superman). The essence of the story is Kirk’s conflict with a genetically engineered villain from the late 20th century named Khan, who is awakened from suspended animation and tries to take over the Enterprise. Kirk and company win, just barely, thanks to the loyalty and ingenuity of the crew and Kirk’s physical stamina.

Come to think of it, “Space Seed" is actually Kirk vs. Science (rather than Kirk vs. man), since it was genetic engineering that produced Khan. He is cited as being the product of eugenics (or selective breeding), which interestingly was how Hitler attempted to create his “Aryan" race. Eugenics is basically a form of genetic engineering that weeds out undesirable traits and emphasizes other traits through carefully controlled breeding. It does not involve any direct manipulation of DNA as later Star Trek series have suggested. Anyway, it was apparently effective enough to produce a large number of these supermen (and women) in the late 20th century, which led to the Eugenics War of the 1990s.

I have often wondered why Roddenberry signed off on the Eugenics War. It obviously  contradicts actual history. Maybe it was a backhanded condemnation of Hitler’s insidious “master race" ideas? I suppose one could write it off as an example of the parallel universe idea, but I prefer to look at it as a fictional alternate history. In any case, given that the episode was written in 1966, it’s a forgivable flaw.

A not-so-forgivable flaw, however, is the portrayal of Marla McGivers, the crew member who initially helps Kahn in his bid to seize control of the Enterprise. She is mesmerized and seduced by Kahn in about as much time as it’s taken me to write this sentence. She abandons all of her Starfleet training and her sense of morality and ethics, with only token protests, simply because Khan is a charismatic beefcake. As a man, I find this offensive, so I can’t imagine how insulting it is to women.

Still, despite its flaws, “Space Seed" is a great episode. It manages to accomplish a kind of time travel, without having to fall back on any tired tricks or ridiculous pseudoscience. Marc Daniel’s directing is top notch, and the acting is uniformly excellent, especially Ricardo Montalban as Khan. The character is well-written to begin with, and Montalban does a superb job bringing him to life. Khan is perhaps the best villain in the Star Trek universe. Which leads to one of the main reasons this episode is near and dear to me—it was the basis for the second Star Trek movie:  “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan".  Hands down, this is the best of the movies. It takes place fifteen years after the events in “Space Seed" and answers the implicit question at the end of the episode, after Kirk has exiled Khan and his comrades to a primitive, uninhabited world. Spock says:  “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".
And the drink today:  White Russian.

I have little doubt that most Trek watchers would agree that this is one of the best of the run.  Even without its connection to Star Trek II, it stands as a classic of the series.

The familiar crew dynamic is present as usual, though Kirk (thanks to Rob for reminding me of this) is downright snippy with people on the bridge at the beginning of the episode.  However, the elements that make this one shine are the "improved human" ideas in the story and Khan himself.

Eric did a good review of the concept of the eugenics war as portrayed here and while it may not have been new to science fiction as a concept, it must have been pretty fresh for television.  It really is humanity vs. science, though it did occur to me that this is a bit about humanity vs. humanity.  Spock says that superior ability breeds superior ambition.  This is about science, but I'm glad something was written in the show to mention how humanity itself adapts along with changes in its abilities.  "We offered the world ORDER!"  Indeed...

Khan is the closest thing TOS has to a supervillain.  He's physically tough and quite intelligent (though he suffers from the unfortunate tendency to monologue his adversaries, like many of his kind); a good match for Kirk.  It is of course difficult to imagine anyone but Ricardo Montalban playing Khan.  He so thoroughly inhabits the role that you forget he's supposed to be a guy of Indian-descent.  His swagger, charm, and forceful delivery of his lines just kicks ass.  Truly, no one aside from Shatner chewed the scenery with as much aplomb in the world of Trek.

As we discussed in the podcast, the character of McGivers was the one weak link in the episode.  Her character is so weak and easily seduced that it comes off as insulting and sexist.  I don't know if I buy the way that Khan takes her back at the end of the episode after she's betrayed him.  She's awfully quick to change allegiances.  But, this really doesn't spoil anything for me or make the episode fully hold up as a TOS classic.

Next time:  “A Taste of Armageddon"

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