The question about Space Seed will always be: what brought it to the attention of the producers of Star Trek II as the episode on which to base the movie that saved the franchise?
I don’t know whether this episode was a particular fan favorite before that movie, but it certainly is today – and with, I think after watching it again, very good reason.
You know the plot. The Enterprise comes across a derelict ship from what would appear to be Earth’s late 1990s. If you thought Space:1999 was overly optimistic about the trajectory of humanity’s technological development in 1975, consider that Star Trek was even more so in 1967. This is only highlighted by the fact that we’re told that the 1990s were a period of war-torn strife after a group of genetically engineered supermen tried to take over the globe. Yes, in the fantasy 90s, we managed to fight world wars and still develop interstellar travel in our spare time. TV humanity is so much cooler! Anyway, how the ship got this far away from Earth in 200 years is never explained, but it’s from Earth’s past, so the ship’s historian gets a chance to do something for a change. Ship’s historian? Well, yeah. To their credit, the writers seem to have realized this was a bit ridiculous; when we first see Lt. McGivers, she’s painting in her quarters and clearly a bit annoyed at being asked to do her job for once.
On board the derelict, the landing party finds lots of bodies in suspended animation. Lt. McGivers explains that they’re on a sleeper ship – people were cryogenically frozen because warp drive hadn’t been invented yet, and space voyages took an impossibly long time. One of the pods starts to revive automatically, but the process doesn’t go entirely smoothly, so they have to beam the man on board to sick bay.
“The man” is of course Khan Noonien Singh, one of the very genetically engineered supermen who tried to take over the planet, but Kirk doesn’t know that yet. All they know is that he’s evasive, a bit of a dick, and charismatic. Oh, and that Marla McGivers is heavily attracted to him – ostensibly because he’s a historical specimine, but in reality it’s clear, starting with her paintings, that she’s attracted to the macho type. After Khan regains consciousness, much faster than McCoy would’ve expected, they leave him to read the ship’s technical manuals as per his request. He insists he has 200 years of catching up to do. Why that isn’t better done with a textbook or two…
Anyway, about the time they figure out who he is, Khan has already convinced McGivers to help him take over the ship, which his implausibly quick study of their technical manuals enables. Khan is able to beam his people back aboard and shut things down from Engineering. He puts Kirk in a medical decompression chamber and threatens to kill him if the bridge crew doesn’t join him. The bridge crew is admirably stoic here, with Lt. Uhura taking a good beating rather than so much as turn on the viewscreen. McGivers, realizing that Khan isn’t going to succeed, makes an excuse and goes to sickbay herself to free Kirk in exchange for a promise not to harm Khan.
Spock, who is next in line for torture, apparently, is able to flood the ship with knock-out gas. Khan realizes what’s happening just in time and makes it to Engineering, where he sets the ship to self-destruct. In a move that’s pure Star Trek, rather than sending a crew with phasers to take out the genetically-engineered superman, Kirk decides to fight him alone. In another move that’s pure Star Trek, he even manages to win this fight.
Khan apparently gets the picture, because the contingent of guards seems small in the follow-up hearing to decide what to do with Khan. In spite of having invited McCoy and Spock to sit on the panel with him, Kirk unilaterally decides to ignore the law and dump Khan on a nearby uninhabited planet – Ceti Alpha V – and McGivers elects to go with him.
It seems like a singularly bad idea. But then, Kirk is full of those today, having let Khan read their technical manuals and take over his ship. And we know it WILL turn out badly. Ceti Alpha VI will explode and shift Ceti Alpha V’s orbit, a fact which no one will notice until a survey party lands on what they apparently think is Ceti Alpha VI, without anyone noticing that it’s out of place, or that Ceti Alpha V is missing. Mmmkay. But what the hell, Star Trek II is simply excellent in every other way – the only one of the Star Trek movies that is inarguably a great movie even outside of fandom. We’ll let them have one major plothole in the name of getting that story going.
As the episode closes, they quote Khan quoting Milton: “it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
It’s a great episode. As always, the pacing is a marvel. We open with the mystery of who’s on this ship and how it got where it is. They stoke our suspicions that Khan is one of the dictator supermen a bit early, perhaps, but this is unavoidable – they have to establish the background story somehow, after all. Once Khan’s identity is firmly established, the show switches into action mode, and it holds our attention that way through to the final scene.
It’s that scene that makes the episode, really. It’s so obviously a bad and cavalier thing to do, leaving Khan on Ceti Alpha V when we know that he wants to rule the world. Spock says as much as the episode closes. And yet, it fits. Not only have we seen Marla McGivers go all moony over Khan, but Kirk and company admitted to admiring him earlier as well.
Where I think a lot of people get this episode wrong is in taking it too literally as a condemnation of eugenics. Yes, it’s true that the episode takes that stand – and takes it in Star Trek‘s typically two-left-footed way. “Superior ability breeds superior ambition” is the only real argument we get that eugenics is bad, and all it does is beg questions. Suppose instead of breeding military men we’d just bred scientists, given them tons of money and all the toys they wanted, and enjoyed the economic windfall? It’s not obvious to anyone watching the show that breeding people to have better abilities automatically leads to war.
No, what this episode is really about is the existential crisis that civilization causes in men. Women are always biologically necessary: they make the babies. Back in our cavemen days, men were every bit as necessary: when life was dangerous and food was scarce, someone had to take care of women so they could have babies. But in a civilized society, it’s less clear what men are needed for. True, even after feminism, men do most of the science and economic production, but that line is getting blurred. Space Seed, in its way, is a 1960s version of the same thing that drove slashers in the 1980s – it’s about gender role anxiety.
What puts the 1960s into this, of course, is the focus on the supposed virtues of hypermasculinity. In the 1980s, the slasher genre of horror films rose to dizzying heights showing us images of semi-androgynous women who beat back the primordial masculine force, albeit at great cost. It was a generationally critical moment, when the feminism of the 70s had been successful enough to provoke a real backlash. In the 1960s, we weren’t there yet. Feminism was just getting off the ground. Consequently, Space Seed is much less bleak. But look a bit beneath the surface and you’ll see some of the same elements. There is a villain that is initially mysterious or unrevealed – unrevealed in this case. We know that Khan is the bad guy almost from the moment we meet him, and the Enterprise crew senses that too. But the situation is kept ambiguous for a while all the same, perhaps a bit in the face of evidence. That’s the first critical element of a successful horror film: a threat that the main characters know is a threat but fail to fully see as one for sheer not wanting to believe it. We also have something like an anti-Final Girl in Marla McGivers. Like in the prototypical slasher, McGivers is aware of the danger – if only dimly – to a greater extent than everyone else. She understands better what’s going on. This enables her to defeat Khan where the crew had failed. Also, like the best Final Girls, she’s an outsider. She exists on the ship and has a role, but as the historian she doesn’t have a lot to do. But that’s the extent of the similarities. While McGivers doesn’t start out the episode exactly hyperfeminine, she isn’t androgynous either, and in any case she’s feminized, rather than masculinized (a la Laurie Strode stabbing Michael Myers with a coathanger), by her encounter with the villain. Rather than opposing the villain, she helps him – and even when she works against him, she’s ultimately working to save him. And as for her outsider role, rather than being the straight-laced one of the girls on the Enterprise, we get the impression that if she doesn’t date much on board it’s not because she’s frigid or shy or straightlaced, it’s just that she hasn’t seen anyone she likes.
Everyone senses instinctively that it’s the ending, more than anything, that makes this episode, but if you’re viewing this as a straight-ahead condemnation of eugenics, the ending doesn’t make any thematic sense. If eugenics is bad, why are we giving the supermen a colony planet on which to continue the supposedly-failed experiment? However, it makes perfect sense if this is really about gender anxiety. Khan is the kind of manly man that men want to be (because they suspect that women desire), but Federation society can’t function with him running around. Indeed, it’s not clear that any civilization can. Contrary to Khan’s claim that improving man would improve technological output a thousand fold, he seems focused entirely on who gets to be in charge. Unless that question is settled, and settled in favor of some flavor of the Rule of Law over the Rule of Men, it’s hard to see how anyone will have time or resources to develop technology. What Kirk understands is that despite Khan’s claims to be the man of the future, he’s actually a throwback to cro magnon. Men like Khan were essential in getting the civilizing project off the ground, and that kind of virility is indispensible in taming a wilderness – like Botany Bay or Ceti Alpha V. Kirk has enough perspective to recognize that Khan’s real “crime” is being in the wrong century – he’s unstuck in time not just in the 23rd, but also in the late 20th. So, we’ll put him on a planet that is still at the stage of development that men like him are good for.
In the final analysis, what Space Seed is is the mid-century liberal’s version of the themes of the late-century conservative slasher. On the surface, it has nothing in common with, say, Halloween. And even on a thematic level, the priorities are quite different. The mid-century liberal acknowledges that civilization was never possible without virility, but believes he can contain the alpha male by giving him constructive things to do, and then training the alpha out of him. The late-century conservative questions whether alpha males maybe live in all of us, and whether civilization reorganizes gender roles along lines that are at odds with evolution, and whether there aren’t unforeseen consequences to that.
My own sympathies are more with Halloween than Star Trek. People are what they are, and social engineering’s time scale is no match for evolution’s. That isn’t to say that progress is impossible, just that it’s not as polite and neat and Star Trek likes to believe. Also, I acknowledge that the comparison is unfair: an hour of 1960s network TV can’t hope to compete with an independent film made by a talented filmmaker working essentially unsupervised.
Given what they had to work with, and the mid-century assumptions they were working under, the crew did a really good job with this one, and it’s a classic on its own merits, even in the shadow of the superior 1982 follow-up movie. I’m personally glad the 60s ended and the 80s came along, but this is one of Star Trek‘s better moments all the same.
Overall Rating: A