The Enterprise finds a derelict ship that left Earth in the late 1990s. On board are about 70 individuals asleep for (ahem) two centuries. The leader is automatically awakened when Kirk and Co, enter the ship and later identifies himself only as Khan (Ricardo Montalban). It turns out he is actually Khan Noonien Singh, one of many genetically engineered supermen who fought for control of Earth in the early 1990s, when most of us were watching “The Real World” or something. These supermen were defeated, but Khan and his followers escaped in the sleeper ship. Khan awakens his followers and briefly takes over the Enterprise with the help of the ship’s historian, Lt. Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue) who has fallen for him. But after Khan gets more and more brutal in attempts to turn enough of Kirk’s crew to operate the ship, McGivers helps Kirk escape suffocation. Kirk defeats Khan in hand-to-hand combat (hmmm) and then allows Khan, McGivers and the rest of his people to settle on the savage Ceti Alpha V, rather than going to prison. And everything works out just swell for Khan after that. Oh, wait …
Why it’s important
This could have been a very good one-off episode. But Khan, of course, returns in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and returns (in a different way) in “Star Trek Into Darkness”). Anyone who hasn’t seen Wrath of Khan who’s reading this blog is probably a statistical anomaly. But, if you are the anomaly, stop reading now. 🙂
Not long after Kirk maroons Khan on Ceti Alpha V, a nearby planet explodes, making Khan’s planet even less hospitable. For the following 15 years, he and his remaining superpeople somehow manage to survive (they played a lot of checkers) until Khan captures the U.S.S. Reliant and steals the experimental Genesis device, which can turn a dead planet into a living planet. More details on all that when we review “Star Trek: II”. After a battle with the Enterprise, Khan detonates the Genesis device in the Mutara Nebula. Spock sacrifices himself to fix the Enterprise’s engines to escape the device’s blast, setting up the events of “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”. When Kirk steals the Enterprise to retrieve Spock’s body on the newly created Genesis planet (what used to be the nebula) he encounters a Klingon vessel intent on stealing Genesis’s secrets. In the ensuing ordeal, Kirk’s son David Marcus (one of the Genesis creators who we meet in the previous movie) is killed, the Enterprise is destroyed and Kirk and Co. steal the Klingon ship and escape as the unstable Genesis planet explodes. They then take Spock to Vulcan, where he is, in effect, reborn.
And, of course, Kirk and Co. use the Klingon ship in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”. Without the ship and its cloaking device, it would have been much harder to go back in time to 1986 San Francisco to bring two humpback whales to the 23rd century to answer the call of a probe threatening to destroy Earth. Without them, Earth would have been lost.
I could keep going, of course, as the death of David Marcus plays a minor role in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”. But you get the idea. The introduction of Khan is a major domino in Star Trek, even though the character only appears in one episode and one movie. Our apologies for the high amount of spoilers — but we figured it was important to explain Khan’s relevance .
What doesn’t hold up
There’s, of course, the issue of Khan and other supermen taking control of Earth in the early 1990s. This is one of those nudge-nudge-wink-wink moments on par with (pre-“Star Trek: Enterprise”) why the Klingons didn’t have forehead ridges in TOS when they had them starting in “Star Trek — The Motion Picture”. All that said, it’s hard to be that critical of the creators for not expecting in 1967 that people would be watching Star Trek in 1996, let alone 2014.
But there’s also some dispute regarding Earth’s third world war. Spock says the events surrounding Khan and his ilk in the late 20th century were a world war, which McCoy labels “The Eugenics Wars.” Subsequent Trek episodes and movies seem to place the third world war in the mid-21st century (at least, that’s when it ended).
There’s no real good explanation for this — unless you figure that the tampering with the timeline (starting with “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and continuing throughout the next 50-plus years of Trek) had a bigger effect than the good guys realized. I personally blame it all on Scotty’s decision to give that one dude the secret to transparent aluminum in 1986.
And, maybe, the time-traveling we see throughout Star Trek’s many episodes and films could explain even more timeline questions …
Obviously, this episode is probably the greatest illustration of the creators being overly optimistic about the progress of space exploration in the late 20th century. There’s the existence, in 1996, of a sleeper ship capable of interplanetary travel and McGivers’ line about how suspended animation was used in space travel until the late 2010s because of the time involved (a reference to the fact that ships were likely slow). That said, if anyone knows how I can get on one of those sleeper ships, I hear Vulcan is lovely in the spring. And I’d love to go skiing on Andoria.
There are even more, less obvious clues. Khan left Earth in 1996, and Kirk tells him that he’s been asleep for two centuries. Of course, the timeline established later puts this episode in 2267 — 271 years after Khan left Earth. Wouldn’t most people, in a similar situation, tell Khan he had been asleep for three centuries, or NEARLY three centuries, or even 250 years? I doubt someone in 1967 would say something that happened in 1696 took place two centuries ago …
It’s pretty clear to me (as discussed in previous reviews) that TOS was loosely intended (back in the ’60s) to take place in the late 22nd century. Fifty years ago, a Federation of Planets with Earth as a key member might have seemed somewhat plausible, by the late 2100s, if space exploration had continued at its 1960s pace throughout the rest of the 20th century. This episode, Kirk’s comment in “Tomorrow is Yesterday” that being locked up for 200 years (starting in 1969) would be about right and Gary Mitchell’s comment in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” that a poem written in 1996 was “one of the most passionate love poems of the past couple of centuries” (among other things in that episode and others) all would seem to back me up.
BTW, I don’t keep bringing this up to knock TOS. I just find it interesting to note the optimism the creators — and the adjustments they quietly made over the years when their optimism turned out to be misplaced. The adjustments start appearing early in the TOS films.
In other news, I’m constantly amazed at how much access to the Enterprise Kirk routinely gives to potential security threats like Khan and Christopher from “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” (to say nothing of Lazarus in the absolutely awful “The Alternative Factor”). This is a very different episode if Kirk doesn’t decide it’s cool for Khan to wander the ship (allowing him to manipulate McGivers) and look over the Enterprise’s technical manuals. Hell, it’s hard to imagine that Khan would have had the wherewithal to run the Reliant 15 years later if not for that knowledge.
Lastly, while some would say that Chekov’s absence in this episode doesn’t jibe with Khan recognizing him in “Star Trek II,” that can easily be explained as Chekov being on the ship but not yet a bridge officer. I note this to show that I’m not a total geek when it comes to continuity — but just wait until we get to “Voyager” …
I go back and forth between “Space Seed” and “Mirror, Mirror” when asked about my favorite episode of TOS. I’m probably in a “Space Seed” mood these days, because “Mirror, Mirror” has two of my least favorite Trek tropes — exposition dialog that somehow analyzes a very strange problem with amazing clarity (the TOS equivalent of technobabble, really) and a technical solution that’s just totally ham-fisted and doesn’t make a ton of sense.
“Space Seed” isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t use either of those crutches — and it’s a great episode besides. Montalban is just amazing as Khan, and the scene where he manipulates McGivers is about as edgy as anything Trek has ever produced (it’s amazing it was on television at all in 1967). Shatner, too, is really strong in this episode. Of course, we are shown another example of Kirk in a fight to beat the bad guy for all the marbles — but while that’s cliche, it’s a believable cliche that mostly makes sense. I guess that thing Kirk hit Khan with was really, really hard?
I suppose the biggest question is, should Kirk have left Khan and Co. on Ceti Alpha V? Even if you put aside the fact that the planet became a barren wasteland after the events of this episode, Kirk’s decision could have had some pretty nasty side effects (as Spock hints at before the credits roll). What if Khan had escaped isolation and become a major threat to the Federation? Rich Corinthian leather and Chryslers for all?