The Good: Decent acting, Decent plot, Good pace
The Bad: Light on character development
The Basics: When the Enterprise is taken over by a genetically engineered villain, Star Trek creates a memorable episode . . . which has disturbing weaknesses.
There are a few elements that are taken as granted in the Star Trek fandom universe, but no idea is so enshrined in the fandom culture than the idea that the best villain in the franchise is Khan Noonien Singh, from the episode "Space Seed." Khan is a strong villain, no doubt, but I put my money with Gul Dukat from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for the front-runner for best villain in the franchise. Khan is somewhat monolithic, whereas Dukat has facets. And as far as the cinematic endeavors go, Khan talks, Kruge kills. Kruge is the Klingon nemesis from Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. My point is, Khan is a decent villain, but he's not the clear front-runner when one looks objectively at the Star Trek franchise as a whole the way many would have one believe.
"Space Seed" introduces Khan Noonien Singh and the episode clearly establishes the tenants of the Star Trek universe's timeline, a problematic little bit that has buggered the writers of the modern Trek series. In the novels, writer Greg Cox was charged with explaining the Eugenics Wars (see below) in the context of history as it actually occurred as opposed to being imaginative and allowing the timeline to diverge from reality. In other words, as later series's in the Star Trek franchise have entered years referenced in Star Trek, most significantly in "Space Seed," the franchise has tried to make the series match reality as opposed to being creative. For some reason, I suppose they want fans to buy into the idea that Star Trek's universe will somehow truly come to pass. Go figure. But "Space Seed" had imagination in it and it casts the die for the franchise that commits it to a direction or a contradiction. Sadly, too often, it has been contradicted.
The U.S.S. Enterprise comes across a ship adrift in space, the S.S. Botany Bay, a sleeper ship from the mid-1990s. After centuries drifting in space, Kirk and a landing party beam over to discover the crew of the ship in suspended animation. Their presence awakens the leader of the ship, a man in weakened condition who is returned to the Enterprise to recuperate. Once his strength is back, he attacks Dr. McCoy and demands information. McCoy, now suspicious of the man's strength and speed, encourages Kirk, Spock and the ship's historian to figure out just who the man who goes simply by Khan actually is. Khan, as it turns out, is a genetically enhanced warlord who used his armies to rule over the majority of the world in the Eugenics Wars, a series of conflicts that seems to have engulfed the world prior to World War III. Khan and his followers escaped death and trial by leaving Earth and when Khan awakens his people, they set to taking over the Enterprise, a task they seem quite able to pull off!
"Space Seed" is a decent idea, which is probably why the basic concept is reused in every other series of the franchise in one form or another. And while "Space Seed" is a pretty solid hour of television, it's not the end all and be all flawless episode that many fans of "Star Trek" would have us believe (and for those who have not read my extensive collection of reviews on this entire franchise, I am one of them!). Khan Noonien Singh is portrayed as smart, sexy, strong, ambitious and somewhat ruthless. Khan is also abusive - he smacks Uhura full across the face with no real provocation - and cruel and it's hard to see why Lt. McGivers, the ship's historian, falls for him. I suppose for all the evolution Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to embody he was all right with women falling for guys for purely superficial reasons. To be fair to Roddenberry, he did not write "Space Seed," but as Executive Producer, one suspects he had some control in these matters.
The problem with Khan is that he is characterized as smart, strong and sexy almost entirely through exposition and appearance. Khan, we are told, is incredibly smart, as evidenced by him reading through the ship's library at an extraordinary speed. And yet, he is easily outwitted by Spock and . . . Lt. McGivers. There's no real brain trust here! We see no evidence that he actually is smart! And we are told that he is superstrong, yet Kirk is able to defeat him in hand to hand combat . . . after nearly being killed himself. My point with this is that the idea of Khan is more villainous than the execution of Khan.
And "Space Seed" is weakened by that. Heroes are made more heroic by the capabilities of the villains. The more powerful and incredible the villains are, the more heroic and decent the heroes must be to defeat them. By allowing Khan to be outwitted and overcome at the first opportunity, Khan is just a thug! Kirk wasn't able to defeat Kor, the first Klingon adversary, in the episode "Errand of Mercy," but few (if any) declare Kor the greatest villain of the franchise. Indeed, Kirk and his crew dispatch Khan and his followers with relative ease, whereas the far lamer first season villains like Charlie Evans, Trelane and Kor (who is not lame) are all only stopped by the intervention of even more powerful forces or beings. And the aliens in "The Galileo Seven" are not defeated! My point with this is that in this season alone, there are four villains who outmatched Kirk and his crew, Khan - in that context - is a relative lightweight.
That said, I like "Space Seed." Khan is interesting and the way everyone seems to recognize him for the despot he was once he "comes out" makes it disturbing that none of the characters figured it out beforehand. Sulu, for example, is known for being fascinated with Earth history, it would have been wonderful for his character to have a moment when . . . Sulu doesn't even appear in the episode. Hmmm . . . that makes it sound like I don't like it that much . . . Let's try again. Okay, Kirk, Spock and the ship's computer are a bit dense when it comes to identifying the Botany Bay and Khan's true identity. But once they do, they take all precautions to prevent . . . no, they lose the ship to the members of Khan's cadre.
Okay, the thing is, I LIKE this episode. It's fun to watch it. The episode moves along at a decent pace, develops well (so long as one doesn't really think about it) and has an exciting conclusion. And despite the characters being somewhat dense (I mean, if they had recovered Adolf Hitler from the ship, one suspects one of the command crew would have recognized him pretty much right away) the acting is good.
William Shatner gives a good performance when Kirk is weakened and beaten up and DeForest Kelley does great bringing strength and resolve to Dr. McCoy. Nimoy is actually great in this episode at creating Spock as a methodical, logical and unemotional character (most episodes find Spock having an "exception" to the Vulcan behavior rules!). Even guest actress Madlyn Rhue is decent as McGivers, quickly creating a memorable guest character with her brief role.
But it is Ricardo Montalban who steals the show as Khan Noonien Singh. Montalban has a great performance that takes him from weakened and vulnerable to commanding and ruthless. He's great and charismatic as Khan. It's easy to see why he is liked, he has the same magnetism that Shatner has when playing Kirk. Montalban is easily able to portray a natural leader and that brings him instant credibility. But the best moments with his acting are the first moments Khan is awake and he is weak and hoarse. Impressive, completely believable acting.
But Montalban's performance does not cover the weaknesses of Khan's character. The result of the character weaknesses and plot problems - this is a very simple plot and it does seem the obstacles are too easily overcome - make the episode better for escapist fun that actually holding up with meaning and significance. The movie falls closer to average than one might like as a result. "Space Seed" is good, it's enjoyable and it's suspenseful and worth watching multiple times so long as one doesn't think about it, but it's not the end all and be all most of us fans want it to be.
[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek - The Complete First Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the premiere season by clicking here!
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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.