Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fun & Khan Games. Star Trek: Space Seed Review


After watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan my curiosity for the original episode that served as the basis for the film was piqued. One of the great things about Wrath of Khan is that you didn't have to have seen or know anything about Space Seed, the episode that introduced Khan to the Star Trek mythos, to follow the plot.

This would be an interesting experiment: to have watched the episode that inspired or even served as a prequel to Wrath of Khan after watching the film. I freely admit I'm no Trekkie/Trekker and there's little chance of me being one (even after watching a total of three Star Trek: The Original Series episodes). However, Space Seed is a strong and quite intelligent story held together by a brilliant performance by guest star Ricardo Montalban.

The U.S.S. Enterprise comes across a spaceship from the distant past: the 1990's to be exact. This ship, the Botany Bay, holds as its cargo a group of men and women in suspended animation. Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and "Scotty" Scott (James Doohan) transport aboard, along with the Enterprise's historian, Lt. Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue).

There, they discover one of the people aboard coming to life. He is identified as Khan (Montalban). He is later identified as Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered dictator of part of Earth after the chaos of the Eugenics Wars that took place in the 1990's. Khan uses his powers of seduction on McGivers, and he then plots a coup to take over the Enterprise. Khan comes close to capturing the Enterprise but with a mixture of Kirk's and Mr. Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) intelligence and McGivers' shifting alliances back to the Enterprise, the coup collapses. Kirk offers the renegades exile on Ceti Alpha V, to which Khan and his Court readily agree. McGivers opts to go with Khan, and we end with Mr. Spock contemplating what the world these super-beings would create from this seed Kirk has planted.

As a first-time viewer of Star Trek: The Original Series, I was very impressed by Space Seed. The story holds up brilliantly, especially in that it is brains (mostly) that are used between Khan and Kirk.

Khan is a dangerous villain not because he has superior weapons, but because he has a coldness of mission to be the conqueror of all space. The script by Gene Coon and Carey Wilber tackles the subject of genetic engineering with a foresight that is remarkable for 1967. The idea of altering the basic code of humans as being good or evil is handled with great intelligence. It is Spock who said, "Superior abilities breeds superior ambitions", and this signals the dangers of playing with the basic building blocks of humans: a superman need not have a super-soul. Spock, being the rational being, would have no true feelings on the subject, but he would see that this was not a good step.

Curiously, Space Seed, with its idea of a space ship carrying travelers frozen in perpetual sleep until a specific time, premiered a year before a similar situation was featured in the original Planet of the Apes.

The biggest credit to Space Seed's success lies with guest star Montalban. His Khan is frightening and terrifying because he uses his intellect to stage his comeback. There are many ways to play a villain, especially a grand villain like Khan. Under Marc Daniels' direction, Montalban was never raging or raving as Khan. Instead, he had a general calmness and cool as Khan, which made his villainy more dangerous because he was so methodical. Even when he emerges from his deep sleep you sense that this man has incredible magnetism and power, especially over the weak in body and mind.

Montalban never overplays Khan, but instead imbues him with the confidence and self-assurance that comes with being a superior being. Montalban projects a powerful screen presence as Khan, making his delivery of such lines as, "My name is Khan. Please sit and entertain me", not silly but both elegant and oddly menacing.

There were things I didn't like. Shatner is up to his old tricks of pausing between a line, but in Space Seed it seems to border on parody. I give this as example: "Is it...possible they're still alive..........after centuries of travel?" His pause between 'alive' and 'after' was so long I thought he'd finished after he said 'alive'. I also wonder how, given Kirk's reputation for bedding beautiful women (and female aliens), he had never gotten around to Lt. McGivers. Side note: I see nothing wrong in having a Ship Historian.

Rhue's McGivers came off at times as a weak-willed woman, betraying her ship for the sake of one man who inspires more lust than anything else. It might be typical of this Mad Men-era episode to have women be so vapid, especially when compared to the stronger female role of Uhura (Nichelle Nichols).

I also noticed a very strange make-up situation. It looked like the male crew of the Enterprise, specifically Kirk and Spock, were wearing eyeshadow. It was somewhat distracting, as was the climatic fight between Kirk and Khan for control of the Enterprise. At times it was obvious that doubles were used.

Overall, Space Seed is a remarkable episode, self-contained, with a brilliant villain which is played masterfully by Ricardo Montalban. It is episodes like these that give Star Trek its reputation for being an excellent science-fiction program as opposed to episodes like Spock's Brain, which is just so wrong in so many ways.

It isn't perfect: its casual sexism (right down to McGivers' shockingly short skirt) will make one thankful Don Draper is no longer the average man, and Shatner's peculiar line reading (I counted at least twice when he would pause for no reason) weaken the overall episode. However, Montalban created such a dominant figure in Khan that its sins can be mostly forgiven.

Now, I'd like to go into plot points in Space Seed given that it served as the basis for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the episode, the Botany Bay is discarded after the apparent success of the coup. Yet in Wrath of Khan, we see what appears to be a piece of the original Botany Bay with the name "Botany Bay", which is how Chekov (Walter Koening) realizes where they are and who is there.

How is this possible given the original Botany Bay was cast off into space? Kirk couldn't have put the renegades along with their leader Khan and his (I assume future wife) McGivers onto the Botany Bay. Therefore, how did they manage to get the masthead (or at least part of it) onto Ceti Alpha V?

Moreover, the fact that Chekov (and curiously, George Takei's Sulu) were not in Space Seed appears to be a continuity error between Space Seed and Wrath of Khan. How could Chekov know who Khan is and, more confusingly, how could Khan recognize/remember Chekov if they never met in Space Seed?

I personally don't care about these minor issues: it doesn't take away from Wrath of Khan being a brilliant film that still holds up and holds its own so many years later. However, the Trekker/Trekkies care passionately about such minutiae, so I will give you a few scenarios.

Khan had read everything about the Enterprise, therefore it is possible that he read about Chekov as a member of the crew. This could include having Khan see Chekov via a picture of the Ensign that would have been part of his file. Therefore, Khan could have remembered his face.

Chekov could also have met Khan in an unseen moment while aboard the Enterprise: it isn't beyond reason to think they met even if it didn't happen on Space Seed itself. I'll say that it really is irrelevant because as I stated for Wrath of Khan, you don't have to have seen Space Seed to follow the plot of Wrath of Khan. Both stand on their own, so we can forgive this slight imperfection.

As it stands, Space Seed is one of the best Star Trek episodes in the canon, which makes it no surprise that The Wrath of Khan is one of the best (if not the best) Star Trek film.


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