|Shame I already used “I got your gun”.|
I suspect if there’s one episode of the original Star Trek that my readers will expect me to come up with some mad, overblown stream-of-consciousness, recursive mess of a writeup for it would probably be this one. I hate to disappoint expectations, but that’s not going to be the case here. There was a fairly unbroken streak of episodes starting midway through the season that all seemed to call out for that kind of interpretation, hence a number of the last few blog posts have been in that style, and there’s at least one more coming up that will more likely than not warrant it as well, so my abandoning that structure is certainly not something to worry about for the short term. However, “Space Seed” calls for a different approach.
The elephant in the room is naturally that this episode provides the subject matter for the consensus-best Star Trek movie, which is at once a kind of revisit and reimagining of the events of “Space Seed” and also the debut of Nicholas Meyer’s unique, and much loved, interpretation of the franchise. Whether or not I feel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is actually deserving of the kind of breathless worship it gets from mainline fandom or is worthy of the title of Best Trek Ever, let alone Perfect Cinematic Masterpiece, is something I’m not going to even begin to worry about until we reach 1982, which is still quite a long ways off from where we are now.
The more important thing to keep in mind for now is that Carey Wilber, who was the actual writer of this episode is not Nicholas Meyer, and this is really where we need to begin before we get anywhere near close to figuring out what this episode really is. Gene Coon has a secondary credit on the teleplay, but given this episode’s plot and general tone I’m going to assume he just did some cleanup work after the fact because, for reasons I’ll get into a bit later, “Space Seed” doesn’t feel like Coon’s material at all. Actually, I’ll just come out and tip my hand right away. I’m positive this is going to be a nuclear bomb of a claim to make and this is without doubt the entry that will turn away any longterm Star Trek fans who haven’t been driven off already, but this is my reaction and my blog and I get to say it: This episode is bad. Really bad.
Actually, I take back part of that last paragraph. This isn’t *bad* television: It’s as competently and professionally made as any of the strongest episodes of the series so far. In this regard, the incoherent structural jumble of something like “The Menagerie”, or especially “The Alternative Factor”, is much worse. But the thing is both of those episodes hinted at, or maybe accidentally hit on, deeper, more exciting concepts and wound up delightfully oversignified as a result. No, “Space Seed” isn’t *bad* television, it’s *wrong* television. We’re right back in the territory we last tread in “The Corbomite Maneuver”, and in fact this one is infinitely worse: What we’ve got here is a perfect microcosm and embodiment of everything that’s wrong with Star Trek in 1967.
Let’s start with the obvious. Marla McGivers is terrible. She spends her off-time drawing and lusting over erotica of muscly, hyper-masculine historical figures and when she actually has a job to do she stands around dumbly and immediately falls for Khan before the dude’s even been defrosted. Once Khan comes aboard the Enterprise, she quickly and enthusiastically submits to his dominance and authority and than enters into what can absolutely only be described as an abusive relationship with him. Furthermore, McGivers’ character is *defined* by her submissiveness: In Wilber’s original script, she was meant to have a friend named Yeoman Baker, and there was to be a scene where Baker tells her a Lieutenant Hanson wants to take McGivers to the ship’s dance, which is apparently a thing now. McGivers was to have told Hanson to “get lost” and that she was “waiting for a man who will knock down my door and carry me to where he wants me”. And, well, there’s not a whole lot of ways for me to redeem that.
What’s almost even worse than McGivers herself is how the rest of the crew treats her. Kirk is noticeably disdainful and dismissive towards her from the beginning, sneering at the notion a mere historian would be a part of his crew. With one line, the show brings up years and years of prejudice towards both women and the humanities, and how the two are a natural, proper fit for each other. The humanities are frequently seen as more “feminine”, and thus inferior, fields of study when compared to the hard sciences, or indeed the military. That scene was enough to get me balled up with rage, and this offensively authoritarian, male supremacist attitude defines the rest of the episode. McGivers might even have been acceptable to me had there been other women to contrast her with: Maybe Yeoman Baker would have been that character. I doubt it, but we’ll never know. Even when “Shore Leave” gave us Yeoman Barrows, who was almost comically stereotypical, that episode at least also had Alice to contrast with her. McGivers is played painfully straight and just lands at irredeemably offensive and retrograde.
There’s Uhura, of course, but I can’t keep leaning on Uhura as a feminist and racial Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card for the show. The blunt reality is she’s simply not an important enough character according to the show’s own internal structure and logic. I wish she was, but 23 episodes after her debut, her role hasn’t developed much beyond generic background space switchboard operator and she barely gets any lines in any given episode. Nichelle Nichols is a wonderful stage presence and makes Uhura far more memorable and likable a character than she would have been without her, but the sad truth is this simply isn’t enough. And here, of course, she gets beaten by Khan’s super-soldiers and bursts into tears.
Then we come to Khan himself. Now, before I get any more hate for this piece than I already know I’m going to get, let me first say for the record Ricardo Montalbán is brilliant: He delivers a tremendously multi-layered and charismatic performance that’s unlike just about anything else we’ve seen on Star Trek so far, and that alone may be the reason this story gets revisited in fifteen years’ time. The first thing to note about Khan as a character then is he’s another in a line of evil or otherwise dark doubles or reflections of Captain Kirk. A surprisingly significant number of episodes this season have dealt with this theme: First we had Gary Mitchell in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, then the Good!Kirk/Evil!Kirk split in “The Enemy Within”, Kirk’s android duplicate in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos”. By this point this particular thread could charitably be called “tired”, but Khan is without question the most memorable of the lot.
Khan is also a unique twist on this particular formula, and it’s worth putting in the context of all those other characters like him. Coon’s big contribution to this script seems to be changing Khan’s background details. Wilber originally wrote him as Harold Erikson, a regular, non-enhanced criminal who would become a space pirate. Coon apparently suggested Erikson should become “a true rival to Kirk” and introduced the genetic engineering dictator plotlines. The name change to Khan came when Montalbán was cast (the Noonien was apparently Gene Roddenberry’s idea, who named him after an old Chinese friend of his he wanted to reconnect with, which I’ll just let speak for itself). Of course, as conceived this gives the character rather disturbing Nazi overtones, especially given the way the episode as filmed actually plays out. Whether or not it’s better he became a charismatic, masculine, generically foreign man (Khan is supposedly Indian, Montalbán is Mexican, the show seems to think the two are one and the same) is something I’ll leave to you to hash out.
Regardless, Coon’s edit is worth paying very close attention to: He specifically said in order to become a match for Kirk, Khan would need to be functionally superhuman, which is highly interesting given the reading about Kirk’s character we’ve been building since “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. We should also contrast Khan with Trelane, the last such instance of an antagonist being a mirror of Kirk: What’s crucial to note here I feel is that Trelane was for all intents and purposes a mirror of William Shatner, or at least Shatner’s performance-He’s the other side of Shatner’s drag action hero. Khan, however, is explicitly a rival for *Kirk*, or at least he’s meant to be, and Jim Kirk-as-written and William Shatner are absolutely not interchangeable, something a great many Star Trek fans and, actually, members of the larger pop culture, would do well to remember. But Khan is more than just Kirk’s evil clone or doppelganger; He’s also his equal, and by doing this the show opens up a whole host of problematic subtexts, and I’m not sure exactly where this leaves Star Trek at the end of it all.
What I do know is that, through this, “Space Seed” takes the show to some very dark places, and I’m not convinced this is a good thing. Khan is a ruthless dictator and the product of eugenics such that he considers himself morally, intellectually and physically superior to anyone not of his lineage. Also, as befits his name, his one desire is to conquer the universe and lord over an empire of his making. But Khan is also frequently and distressingly validated in these beliefs: In many ways he really *is* superior, or at least the show seems to want us to think he is. He frequently comments on how humanity hasn’t fundamentally changed in two centuries, easily outmaneuvers and dispatches the Enterprise crew, and the only reason Kirk survives his intended execution is due to McGivers betraying Khan and saving his life at the last second in an act that is framed both diegetically and extradiegetically as a “weakness” on her part. Even once Kirk regains control of the ship and rounds up Khan and his soldiers, the hearing he gives is essentially a surrender-As Khan explicitly says, he gets what he wants. A planet to rule and turn into the seat of a new empire. Khan wins.
What’s even more disturbing is that Kirk, McCoy and Scott *admire* Khan, and are furthermore actually in *awe* of him. Once they discern his identity, they take turns musing that he was “one of the good ones”, stresses that there were “no deaths” under his rule and go out of their way to praise his charisma, energy, ambition and style of dictatorship. This manages to do the impossible and cause Spock to be visibly shocked and appalled, but his protests are laughed down and dismissed with an incredibly unconvincing bit from Kirk and McCoy about how humans can detest a person for what they did while admiring their stamina. This is exacerbated by the fact Kirk and McCoy are just about the most patronizing and demeaning to Spock we’ve ever seen them: McCoy calls him unfeeling and inhuman and launches into an ugly rage for really no reason and Kirk is intolerably smug and condescending to him throughout the entire episode. This is, frankly, undistilled speciesism conveyed in racist language and bald-facedly patriarchal. No manner of diverse casting is going to make up for this.
But this is, sadly, to be expected, given what the rest of this episode is doing. Look at the word choice here: If Khan is Kirk’s “rival” or equal and opposite, than we’re to take them as expressly comparable entities. The threat Khan poses is not that of a dark mirror of what humanity might become or the dangerously re-emerged relic of a misbegotten age long in the past, it’s that he might just show himself to be manlier and more competent than Kirk. The central battle of “Space Seed” isn’t authoritarianism sparring with democracy, nor is it even a fight over the value of eugenics: It’s a war to control the Enterprise and over who gets to be the leading man. The show is overtly likening Kirk to Khan, and it’s not doing anything to problematize this. And Kirk definitely is not opposed to Khan on principle: Putting aside for the moment his hero worship of Khan’s suave badassery, his dropping of official charges against him and granting him and his followers a planet has to be seen as a tacit endorsement of his beliefs. If he were truly interested in demonstrating humanity had evolved, he absolutely would have brought Khan to justice. Even Spock gets to say “It would be worthwhile to return in several centuries to see what grew of the seed you planted here today”.
Aside from once again completely derailing the ethics of Star Trek, this also gives us one of the most distressing morals in the show’s history. There is an unsettling tendency amongst some classical liberals to believe that a temporary dictatorship might be beneficial, even necessary, to bring about true egalitarianism in the future. There is a quote often attributed to 18th century French economic philosopher Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune in which he is alleged to have said “Give me five years of despotism and France shall be free”. The alleged theory, which is scarily believable given some aspects of liberal thought, is that an enlightened absolute ruler would be better than looser, more generative forms of government because we’d finally have someone who knew what they were doing in charge and he (it’s always a he) would be able to institute reform without hindrance from annoying checks and balances from less-intelligent obstructionists. I’m also reminded of the Philosopher Kings mentioned in Plato’s The Republic, which uses very similar language: People would be best served under the kind, wise and benevolent patrician authority of a king who was also a scholar. Jesse Walker, editor of Reason Magazine, further elaborates on these issues in this article, where he takes to task free-market economist F.A. Hayek, Jorge Louis Borges and other such leftist thinkers who, in seeming violation of their stated beliefs elsewhere, at one time or another expressed fondness and admiration for Vladimir Lenin, Mao Tse Tung and Augusto Pinochet, some of the most violently right-wing totalitarian governments of the modern age.
This is what Khan is. A tyrannical dictator, but one of the “good” ones. A monomaniacal despot, but one who is somehow more “enlightened” and “liberal” in his views, as if that’s supposed to be some kind of excuse. His eugenics backstory and the crew’s deference to him is incredibly telling: Khan is not some artefact of Earth’s shameful past: If Star Trek is about idealistic futurism, then Khan is the show’s own potential future. After all, as he is so fond of saying, humanity hasn’t evolved much, and right now the terrifying thing is he’s the only clear-cut vision of the future Star Trek‘s given us so far. And why wouldn’t he be? Wasn’t the original pitch for the show about a crew of space naval officers going around telling morality plays, teaching everyone the difference between Right and Wrong? Just last episode we had Kirk strolling onto Eminiar VII and making all their decisions for them, all the while touting humanity’s inherent barbarism. Here we have him the most stern, authoritarian and masculine he’s been since “The Corbomite Maneuver” and treating Spock with open contempt for not being human enough to understand the value of emotion and illogic. Why isn’t the end result of this train of thought going to look suspiciously like Khan Noonien Singh?
And let’s go one better. Let’s also take another look at Khan’s relationship with McGivers. At first, this seems to open up the one confusing structural logic hole in the otherwise very tight production we’ve got this week: Khan has thirty genetically perfect Überfraus aboard the Botany Bay: Why would he waste his time pursuing someone of inferior stock? His interest in McGivers can really only be seen as a means to an end to get access to the Enterprise. Sure, he gets a line at the end about how she’s a “superior woman” and he’s glad she’s joining them, but it really doesn’t take as far as I’m concerned. But that’s exactly it. The reason Khan is interested in McGivers is horrifically clear: Because he can use her. Because he can control her. He can dominate her completely and utterly and she’ll love it. Oh, she may not at first, but he’ll just need to give her a strict lesson from the back of his hand to make her step in line before him. Of course he’s not going to be interested in the Überfraus: They’re his equals, or perhaps they might be superior to even him in some respects. Either way he’d have to treat them accordingly, and that’s not something Khan wants in a female companion. Nor, would it seem, is it what Star Trek wants in its female characters.
We’re coming off of a stretch of episodes that have been about nothing if not tearing down the show as it exists right now bit by bit. This isn’t by definition a bad thing, but against that backdrop “Space Seed” is horrifying. This episode would have us believe the only way forward for Star Trek is Khan’s enlightened despotism. Well I’m not going to stand for that: There is absolutely nothing leftist or progressive about authoritarianism, totalitarianism and male supremacy, no matter how much “liberal” or “socialist” language the monster wishes to clothe himself in. Tyranny and domination are tyranny and domination regardless of the form they take. I cannot tolerate this and I will not accept this. The other side of the argument is no better: Can the equation of Kirk and Khan, and thus “Space Seed” on the whole, be read as yet another condemnation of the show’s militarism and patriarchy? If so that’s even worse, as Coon has doomed the show to an inevitable and inescapable future of iron-fisted despotism.
But, no matter how toxic it may be, I’m stuck with it for now. Thanks in no small part to the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there are few episodes in the Original Series more influential, more fondly remembered or with more of an artificially inflated reputation than “Space Seed”. And, as a result, I’m marooned here. Trapped once again facing down the show’s Death Drive, this time brought upon by its own egotistical conception of itself and delusions of lordship. I really want to help turn Star Trek into something that can be taken as a genuine source for good in the world and as a version of idealism that it’s actually possible to respond to and is something to strive towards. But at the moment the biggest obstacle in my path is Star Trek itself: I can, once again, appeal to the future, but now it’s a question of what that future is going to entail, exactly. A future that leads to Khan Noonien Singh is not one anyone should be allow to come to pass.