Star Trek Re-Watch: “Space Seed”

“Space Seed”
Written by Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber
Story by Carey Wilber
Directed by Marc Daniels

Season 1, Episode 22
Production episode: 1×24
Original air date: February 16, 1967
Star date: 3141.9

Mission summary
The Enterprise stumbles across an unknown vessel, as it often does, but this one is transmitting a repeating signal in Morse Code: CQ. Kirk doesn’t even need Uhura to translate this old message, “calling any station,” leaving her with nothing to do. When they get in visual range, Spock identifies it as a DY-100, an Earth ship built in the 1990s. It has no business being out there, and they determine it must be a derelict or is being used by aliens. McCoy’s bioscanners do pick up faint non-human heartbeats, averaging “only four beats per minute,” and sensors detect functioning equipment on the other ship, though there’s no other activity.

The Enterprise moves alongside the smaller vessel and they continue to gather data on it. McCoy’s sensors indicate there may be as many as seventy bodies over there, with no life signs other than their weak heartbeats. They manage to read the name of the ship on the beat-up hull, the S.S. Botany Bay, but there’s no record of any vessel with that name in the official registry. Spock reminds them that records from the mid-1990s are spotty since Earth was in the midst of its last World War, the so-called Eugenics Wars that aimed to “improve the race through selective breeding.” (How could any of us forget those dark times? It seems they were only yesterday. But yesterday is tomorrow, isn’t it?)

Kirk locks their tractor beams onto the Botany Bay and decides to lead a landing party to check it out. He summons their late twentieth century historian, Lieutenant Marla McGivers, who seems none too pleased to have her painting interrupted to actually do her job for a change. The Botany Bay seems to prepare for their arrival, bringing its dormant life support systems online, and Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and McGivers beam over.

Scotty is delighted with the antiquated amalgamation of atomic power and transistors in the old vessel. McGivers starts earning her keep by identifying it as a “sleeper ship.” Before 2018, it was necessary to place passengers in suspended animation for long voyages. She also observes that they’re “a handsome group of people,” which Scotty notices includes a variety of Earth races. Their presence has triggered some mechanism: one of the sleepers is awakening, apparently the leader of the crew. McGivers takes one look at the man and goes all soft-focus and distracted. When Kirk snaps her out of it, she can’t stop talking about the guy: “From the northern India area, I’d guess. Probably a Sikh. They were the most fantastic warriors.” I would have guessed Mexican.

Unfortunately the sleeping alcove malfunctions and her new boyfriend’s vitals drop. The only way to save him is to get him back to the Enterprise. When Kirk breaks the glass and pulls the sleeper out, we see it’s…Ricardo Montalban! McGivers sees him lying there, close to death, and murmurs, “Magnificent.” She’s got it bad. Dr. McCoy has dibs though, and beams back to the ship with their new specimen.

Back on the Bridge, Kirk asks Scotty (still on the Botany Bay) for an update: “Twelve units have malfunctioned, leaving seventy-two still operating.” Since the engineer knows his captain well, he promptly adds, “Thirty of those are women.” Kirk knows he’s stumbled onto something significant, a relic from what Spock calls “a strange, violent period” in Earth’s history that they don’t know much about. There’s still the question of why the ship and its sleepers made the voyage, and Kirk ominously recalls that Botany Bay was the name of an Australian penal colony. But Spock discounts his theory that their discovery is a penal deportation vessel as completely illogical. Nonetheless, their lack of knowledge poses a danger, so Kirk decides to tow the Botany Bay to Starbase 12 and seek out some more facts.

Meanwhile, McCoy is fascinated by Ricardo Montalban’s remarkable physiology, and he hasn’t even seen his chest yet:

McCoy: There’s something inside this man that refuses to accept death. Look at that. Even as he is now, his heart valve action has twice the power of yours and mine. Lung efficiency is fifty percent better.
Kirk: An improved breed of human. That’s what the Eugenics War was all about.
McCoy: I’d estimate he could lift us both with one arm. It will be interesting to see if his brain matches his body.

This is Marla McGivers’ cue. She pops into sickbay and asks if the man will live. Kirk takes this opportunity to reprimand her in front of McCoy for her poor performance on the away mission:

Kirk: Lieutenant, at any one time, the safety of this entire vessel might depend upon the performance of a single crewman, and the fact that you find a man strangely compelling to you personally—
McGivers: Not personally, Captain. Professionally. My profession is historian, and when I find a specimen from the past alive, I’m in the sheer delight of examining his mind.
Kirk: And men were more adventuresome then. Bolder, more colorful.
McGivers: Yes, sir, I think they were.

After Kirk leaves, McCoy’s patient wakes up, does some calisthenics, then spots some surgical instruments on the wall. When the doctor comes to check on him, the man grabs him and holds the scalpel to his throat. McCoy doesn’t bat an eyelash as he’s questioned, maintaining his calm: “It would be most effective if you would cut the carotid artery, just under the left ear.” The man is impressed with his bravery and lets him go, demanding that the captain come to answer his “many questions.”

Kirk returns to sickbay and introduces himself, but the man won’t divulge his name until the captain tells him where they’re going and how many of his people are alive. He orders Kirk to revive them, but Kirk says not until they reach Starbase 12. Finally, the man tells him his name. It’s (wait for it…) Khan! Then he claims that he’s growing too “fatigued” to answer any more questions and innocently requests access to the Enterprise’s technical manuals. It seems like a terrible idea, but Kirk considers it a “common courtesy” to get the twentieth century man up to speed on advances in technology. Kirk and Spock trade some important exposition in private:

Kirk: Would you estimate him to be a product of selective breeding?
Spock: There is that possibility, Captain. His age would be correct. In 1993, a group of these young supermen did seize power simultaneously in over forty nations.
Kirk: Well, they were hardly supermen. They were aggressive, arrogant. They began to battle among themselves.
Spock: Because the scientists overlooked one fact. Superior ability breeds superior ambition.

Interestingly enough, at the end of the war eighty or ninety supermen went missing. While they puzzle out where they could have gone, McGivers goes to introduce herself to Khan in sickbay. He already knows all about her and flirts, in his own unique way:

Khan: I’ve been reading up on starships, but they have one luxury not mentioned in the manuals.
McGivers: I don’t understand.
Khan: A beautiful woman. My name is Khan. Please sit and entertain me.

She wants to question him about his time period, but he’d rather give her beauty tips, telling her to let her hair down to make herself more attractive. Flustered, she excuses herself and he tells her to come up and see him sometime.

A short while later, the senior crew prepares for a formal welcome dinner for Khan—apparently McGivers’ idea. Kirk expresses his concern over her attraction to Khan, but McCoy misunderstands: “Well, there aren’t any regulations against romance, Jim.” He points out that Khan has a magnetic personality that she might be susceptible to, given her “preoccupation with the past.” Truer words were never said, for at that very moment Khan is putting the moves on her in her own quarters, surrounded by her paintings of “bold men from the past” such as King Richard the Lion Heart, Leif Ericson, Napoleon, and…Khan! He tells her that “such men dare take what they want,” then shows her exactly what he means by kissing her.

Dinner doesn’t go as well for him. Kirk, Spock, and Khan spar verbally with each other over Khan’s mysterious past, until he accidentally reveals that he was one of the dictators who hoped to unify the world under the tyrannical rule of one man. Oops. Khan quickly grows “fatigued” again and excuses himself. McGivers follows him to his quarters, but when Khan tries to pick up where they left off, she feebly attempts to resist. He’s disgusted with her waffling and tells her to leave or stay if she wants, making her beg for it. He forces her to her knees and asks her to “open her heart.” Now that he’s dominated her he tells her, “I intend to take this ship. Do you agree?” She pleads with him not to ask for her help but finally agrees to do anything. Looks like she isn’t the only one who’s going to be screwed by Khan.

In the briefing room, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty have finally identified their guest as none other than Khan Noonien Singh, who ruled more than a quarter of Earth from 1992 through 1996, the last tyrant to be defeated. Spock is horrified when they admire and romanticize the man’s ambition. Kirk’s impressed but not stupid; he puts a twenty-four hour guard on Khan’s quarters, then goes to question him about his intent. Khan tells him all he needs to know:

Captain, although your abilities intrigue me, you are quite honestly inferior. Mentally, physically. In fact, I am surprised how little improvement there has been in human evolution. Oh, there has been technical advancement, but, how little man himself has changed. Yes, it appears we will do well in your century, Captain.

After Kirk leaves, Khan puts his plan into action. He pries his door open barehanded and easily overpowers the redshirt outside it. McGivers takes over the transporter room at phaser-point and beams him over to the Botany Bay, where he revives the rest of his super people. Finally, having studied the Enterprise’s technical manuals, he knows how easy it is to commandeer the ship. He takes over Engineering and cuts off computer control and life support from the Bridge, locking Kirk and the crew in to slowly suffocate. Kirk refuses to surrender. With his last breaths, he records a log entry with commendations for Spock, Uhura, and the rest of his unconscious Bridge crew before passing out himself. “They have my ship,” he says. “I take full responsibility.”

Khan gathers the resuscitated Bridge crew in the briefing room and attempts to win them over to his side. All he wants is their help running the ship so he can find a colony to conquer. Uhura resists his orders to activate the viewscreen, even when one of Khan’s lackeys hits her, and Khan begins to realize he’s miscalculated: the crew is far too loyal to their captain. Fortunately he’s placed Kirk in a medical decompression chamber, and offers to spare his life if only Spock joins him. That fails too, so he promises to suffocate each of them one by one if they don’t cooperate. McGivers excuses herself from the evening’s entertainment, and Khan comments, “I hoped you would be stronger.” Us too, Khan.

Then again… McGivers may not be a complete loss after all. She knocks out Kirk’s guard out with a hypospray and frees the captain, begging him not to kill her boyfriend in exchange for the favor. Spock arrives under guard, next in line for a night of medical decompression. Kirk attacks the guard, giving Spock the opportunity to put him into a Vulcan nap. Though Khan has locked out their “intruder control circuit,” there happens to be a relay junction nearby. They flood all decks with neural gas, but Khan escapes and holes up in Engineering, where he blocks the gas.

Kirk heads down there to take him out in person, but Khan’s been listening in on the comm and knows he’s coming. He easily takes the captain’s phaser, crushing it like a cheap plastic prop. He’s placed the warp core into overload: “Your ship flares up like an exploding sun within minutes.” He tosses Kirk around like a ragdoll, gloating that he has five times Kirk’s strength, just before the resourceful captain scores a TKO by beating on Khan with a rod taken from one of the consoles.

Back in control of his ship, Kirk holds a hearing to determine the fates of Khan and his people. Considering it “waste to put them in a reorientation center,” he clears them of all charges and sentences them to live out their days on Ceti Alpha V, which Spock describes as “habitable, although a bit savage, somewhat inhospitable.” Kirk challenges Khan to “tame a world” for their own, and Khan replies, “Have you ever read Milton, Captain?” That sounds like a… yes?

Kirk offers McGivers a choice: face court martial or leave with Khan. She decides to accompany her he-man, and Khan accepts her as well: “A superior woman. I will take her. And I’ve gotten something else I wanted. A world to win, an empire to build.” A happy ending for all! Khan and McGivers depart for their new adventure.

SCOTT: It’s a shame for a good Scotsman to admit it, but I’m not up on Milton.
KIRK: The statement Lucifer made when he fell into the pit. “It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”
SPOCK: It would be interesting, Captain, to return to that world in a hundred years and to learn what crop has sprung from the seed you planted today.
KIRK: Yes, Mr. Spock, it would indeed.

Hey, it might even be interesting to check things out in fifteen years or so, just to see what’s going on with Khan and make sure no nearby planets have exploded or anything.

It’s a little hard to view “Space Seed” on its own merits, as it is forever in the shadow of arguably the best Star Trek film of all time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which continues the story of Ricardo Montalban’s memorable character. In some ways, it’s hard to see why this episode was singled out as good fodder for a feature film, but in others it makes complete sense. Khan is a worthy match for Kirk, a man born to lead with strength, opposed to Kirk’s sometimes reluctant acceptance of responsibility and more compassionate style of command. They’re both charismatic men and brilliant tacticians. And when you get down to it, this is simply an excellent episode with a somewhat open ending.

Putting aside its many fine qualities for a moment, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Khan’s macho, chauvinistic domination over Marla McGivers. It’s really uncomfortable to watch her immediate attraction to him and her easy acceptance of his abusive and controlling behavior. It’s well established that she has more than a professional fascination for strong leaders of the past, but it’s still disappointing to see a woman, especially a 23rd century woman, show such weak character—even her redemptive act of saving Kirk is really an attempt to save Khan. Perhaps it’s cruel irony that in STII, we learn she was killed by a Ceti eel, a parasite that wraps itself around its host’s cerebral cortex, making it susceptible to suggestion; it probably took Khan a while to realize she was infected.

Khan’s not off the hook either; sure, he’s a product of a different time, the barbaric 1990s (at least, that’s how I remember my high school years), and he’s obviously used to getting what he wants. But even if his rough treatment of her is used for effect, to show just how bad and different he is, it’s rather…awkward and unfortunate. Perhaps we’re meant to interpret his appraisal of her at the end as an interest in more than just her body, but whatever; she’s still a commodity to him. Notably, Uhura shows a bit more backbone, refusing to bend to his will even after one of Khan’s men backhands her in the face. In fact, everyone but McGivers holds out against Khan’s attempts to control them, to his complete astonishment. McCoy really shines when Khan threatens to cut his throat and he stays completely cool and even flippant.

Kirk talks of people from Khan’s time as more adventurous, bolder, and more colorful; yet, these are the qualities attributed to him in the 24th century by the captains following in his steps, including Janeway and Sisko. He himself admires Khan’s leadership abilities, while he abhors his methods—and as mistaken as Khan is, on some level, he seems to be doing what he thinks is right. From his perspective, the ends justify the means. Naturally, much of this episode concerns a fascination with the past, but whereas “Tomorrow is Yesterday” showed simpler times and the joy of rediscovering them, this shows the flip side of history: the darker bits that no one ever talks about, the wars that people want to forget. As with Khan’s strength and ambition, you have to acknowledge the bad along with the good.

I also appreciated some of the smaller moments in the episode and new observations I had missed on my earlier viewings. When Khan changes into a Starfleet uniform, he’s wearing a red shirt, since he “was once an engineer of sorts.” Kirk and Khan seem to be roughly the same height, something I never realized because we never see them face-to-face in STII. It was fun to hear McCoy’s first real gripe over the transporter: “I signed aboard this ship to practice medicine, not to have my atoms scattered back and forth across space by this gadget.” There’s also a lot of great dialogue between Kirk and Spock, though it has a bit more edge than usual. They revisit their discussion of irritation from “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” or maybe they just more or less repeat it because the writers didn’t realize it had been done before.

I found it curious that the Morse Code call signal “CQ” at the beginning of the episode was never explained to viewers. It’s hardly as recognizable as “SOS,” but maybe in the 1960s it was, as ham radios were becoming popular back then. In the absence of a historian as talented as McGivers, or a communications officer, I had to resort to Wikipedia for a translation.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Torie Atkinson: To piggyback on his discussion of McGivers, it’s interesting to note that Khan is not the only person who does a dress down of the ladies. The opening has Kirk snapping at Uhura for explaining the S.O.S., for apparently no reason—she didn’t do anything but do her job! Later, Kirk harshly lectures McGivers on her performance inside the Botany Bay. This of course is an absurd double standard considering he lets his own attractions get in the way all the time, and in the same mission Scotty was just as distracted by old school transistors. Why didn’t he get reprimanded? I don’t think those things would’ve stuck out at me so much if we didn’t see in Khan where the natural end to that kind of discrimination is—overt manipulation and abuse through violence and intimidation. Creepy.

Now, I had never seen this (though I’ve seen STII plenty of times), and even without the context of the phenomenal film, this is a truly stand-out episode. It’s perfect Star Trek: McCoy, Spock, and even Scotty have great character moments; Khan is actually a formidable villain, utterly ruthless, cruel, and despicable as much as he is worthy of admiration; it wrestles with big moral questions like eugenics, tyranny, and the way we romanticize those things; and it ends satisfyingly but openly, leaving room for different interpretations and ideas. Kirk doesn’t kill Khan and his men—it was men who created them, and I think Kirk feels a sense of responsibility on behalf of mankind for their existence. They didn’t ask to come into this world, and they didn’t ask to be the ambitious and brutal people that they are. But they are still human, and I think Kirk believes they have the right to live out their genetic destinies—far from other men, of course.

I have to admit I was surprised that Khan was supposed to be from so early as the 1990s. So either Khan was born at the time of the writing of this episode, or he was grown sometime in the next thirty years. Either way, that the writers postulated this kind of thing could happen in their lifetimes, rather than the distant future, is ominous indeed. I don’t know that it’s any one historical event in particular, but I can fully imagine that the shadow of the Holocaust or other “scientific” pursuits towards perfection informed this imagined future. It’s not new to Star Trek—we saw in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” as well—but this is the first time I’ve walked away feeling that it was a legitimate and real threat, rather than a distant warning. Again we see a warning about the dangers of scientific progress, if left uncontrolled. The exchange between Spock and McCoy is telling:

MCCOY: The Eugenics Wars.
SPOCK: Of course. Your attempt to improve the race through selective breeding.
MCCOY: Now, wait a minute. Not our attempt, Mister Spock. A group of ambitious scientists. I’m sure you know the type. Devoted to logic, completely unemotional—

Again, there is the emphasis on the “human” element (emotion, compassion) as necessary for the proper restraint and control on scientific and cultural progress.

Ultimately, this is an argument against tyranny. We have Khan’s brutal dictator set up against Kirk, and while Kirk is still a captain and does get the last word, he generally leads via the input of trusted advisers and even consensus building. His strength is not in manipulation or coercion, but rather, as we saw in “The Enemy Within” and “The Naked Time,” in his compassion and loyalty to his crew. That strength is also his greatest weakness—and it’s the weakness Khan ultimately exploits and “wins” with (though he never realizes it) in STII.

Oh, and Ricardo Montalban is amazing. You can see the cruelty and manipulation in his eyes. And he keeps rocking that waxed chest 15 years later!

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6 (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Line: McCoy: “Well, either choke me or cut my throat. Make up your mind. “

Syndication Edits: Kirk, Spock, and Uhura discussing the vessel’s approach; Kirk ordering a full security alert; McGivers in her quarters painting before she gets called away; McCoy’s second report on Khan’s vitals; the Captain’s Log, supplemental; Kirk leaving sick bay and returning to the bridge, explaining that the technical manuals he provided were a courtesy; Khan entering McGiver’s quarters and complimenting her new hairdo; Khan referring to Kirk as an excellent tactician in the dinner scene; chunks of the scene with Khan manipulating McGivers into helping him sabotage the Enterprise; Khan’s statement to the crew that he made a serious error in suffocating them all together, creating a sense of heroic camaraderie.

Trivia: In writer Carey Wilber’s initial story treatment, the Khan character is a Nordic superman named Harold Erricsen, variations of which persist in early drafts of the script. In James Blish’s adaptation of “Space Seed” in Star Trek 2, he identifies Khan’s full name as “Sibahl Khan Noonien,” from an early draft of the script. Blish’s adaptation also has slightly different dialogue, included in the shooting script but cut from the final episode, which is most striking because it provides a nice setup for STII:

“Let us think ahead, then,” Spock said. “It would be interesting to come back to this system in a hundred years and see what crop had sprung up from the seed we have planted today.”

“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 looking for us.”

And an oops: in TNG’s “Encounter at Farpoint,” it’s indicated that World War III happened in the mid-21st century. This is reinforced in First Contact, where we know that first contact took place in 2063, after the world war. So either the third World War was really a fourth World War, or uh, they forgot.

Other notes: The Eugenics Wars and the history of “augments” like Khan and his people are explored in the Star Trek: Enterprise episodes “Borderland,” “Cold Station 12,” and “The Augments,” set 100 years before “Space Seed” and starring Brent Spiner as criminal leader Arik Soong, great-grandfather of Data’s creator Dr. Noonien Soong.

Previous Episode: Season 1, Episode 21 – “The Return of the Archons.”


Next Episode: Season 1, Episode 23 – “A Taste of Armageddon.” US residents can watch it for free at the CBS website.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.