Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Star Trek at 50: Space Seed

Season 1
Episode 23: Space Seed
Filmed: December 1966 
First Air Date: February 16, 1967

Karen: Star Trek had a number of impressive guest stars, but perhaps none as striking as Ricardo Montalban. His powerful portrayal of the genetically-enhanced tyrant Khan Noonien Singh was unforgettable, and the raw energy between he and Shatner as Kirk was one of the reasons that this episode was chosen, out of the entire series, to form the basis for the second Star Trek film. Producer Harve Bennett was looking for something in the old episodes that would make for an exciting movie; he certainly found it in "Space Seed."

Karen: Khan is a mystery at first, but Kirk and Spock soon suss him out. He is one of a group of scientifically created super-humans who ruled Earth in the 1990s during a period known as The Eugenics Wars (obviously we are living in an alternate timeline). Apparently these super men and women decided that they should be running the show. As Spock puts it, "Superior ability breeds superior ambition." Eventually however, 'normal' folks prevailed. Khan and 72 of his fellows blasted off into space to escape being put on trial (or just shot, one supposes).  And that's how the Enterprise came upon them, adrift for a few hundred years in space. A normal man would feel gratitude and contentment at being revived from an endless sleep. But not Khan. No, right from the start, he begins plotting to take over Kirk's ship. Could there ever be a place for such a man in the enlightened era of the Federation?  

Karen: Montalban is a pleasure throughout the episode. His Khan is a being of power, amoral, existing only to fulfill his destiny -to rule. He reminded me of nothing less than a great white shark, ruthlessly pursuing his primal function. In some ways, Khan is a great Dr. Doom - seeing as how we've yet to get a fully realized Victor Von Doom on screen, Khan is not a bad template. He doesn't see himself as a villain; indeed, he thinks that what he was doing was right -"We offered the world order!" Khan says, slamming his fist on the table during the formal dinner. It is only natural and right that he should rule; he is superior. That others can't see this must perplex him to no end. Montalban throws himself into the role with everything he has, and is a great counterpoint to Kirk. Shatner, at this stage, was still very much controlled, capable of subtlety and quiet strength. His Kirk is a man of action, but also great intelligence and perception. The scenes in the dining room and  the one in Khan's quarters are all dialog, but you can feel a tremendous exertion of will between the two of them. The one place this episode falls flat, unfortunately, is the fight sequence towards the end where clearly stunt doubles have replaced the two actors. This would happen repeatedly in the first season.

Karen: McCoy and Scotty also had some fine moments in this episode. When Khan is recovering in Sickbay, he feigns unconsciousness, and when McCoy comes to check on him, he grabs him and holds a scalpel to his throat. McCoy remains cool as a cucumber and tells him that cutting the carotid artery on the left side would be the quickest way to kill him. It's a great bit for the character and for actor DeForest Kelly. We see much more of Scotty in this episode than in previous ones -he was becoming more popular with the showrunners, who saw the potential not only of the chief engineer but of the man who played him, James Doohan. While Scotty gets off a few quips, my favorite moment of his is after the Enterprise command crew has been taken hostage by Khan. Kirk and Spock have escaped, and they flood the room where Khan and his men are holding the crew with a knockout gas. Scotty jumps up to run out of the room, but pauses, turns back around, and socks one of Khan's men in the jaw and then runs out! It's that gratuitous punch that tells us so much about this character. Uhura also has a nice moment of defiance when Khan demands she turn on a viewscreen. No Sulu in this one, and of course, no Chekov, who didn't appear until season two, which is one of the faux pas of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Khan recognizes the Russian.

Karen: One thing that always bothered me about this episode is Marla McGivers. What a worthless officer.  She falls apart over Khan, betrays the ship, then just as quickly betrays Khan -this is a truly spineless and awful character. Necessary for the plot I suppose but she makes me cringe. Also, everyone talks about the great love story here, and much of Khan's motivation in Wrath of Khan is supposed to be about his desire for revenge on Kirk over losing this woman he loved so deeply. But in the episode, Khan treats her horribly. He manipulates her and physically abuses her (he forces her on her knees by crushing her hand). I don't see love here -I see a powerful man taking advantage of a weak woman. Whatever became of this relationship, I'm pretty sure it was a dysfunctional one. 

Karen: Once again, Marc Cushman's excellent book These Are The Voyages Vol.1 has some interesting information about this pivotal episode. The original story, by writer Carey Wilbur, featured a group of 20th century criminals who had been put into suspended animation and launched into space; it was Gene Roddenberry who added the idea of making the criminals super-humans, and that created the hook that made Khan so intriguing. Gene Coon came in to do a major overhaul of Wilbur's script, making the Enterprise crew sound like the people we know and love, as well as working out a number of rough spots. Originally Khan was to be called 'Harold Ericsson' and was envisioned as a Viking-like  antagonist.It was Roddenberry who, in the very final draft made the name change (supposedly to that of a long lost friend). McGivers started out as a Communications Officer; Coon changed her to a historian, to give her an intrigue with men of the past. Roddenberry conceived of a 'Dark Ages' in the late Twentieth Century -a very un-Star Trek like idea, one that contrasted with the generally hopeful vision of the future that the show portrayed. This ultimately became The Eugenics War.

Karen: Certainly "Space Seed" is a highlight of the first season, and I would argue one of the best episodes of original Trek -maybe of all of Trek? That is due in no small part to the work of Ricardo Montalban - one of the most memorable of Star Trek's guest stars.

Addendum: I couldn't let it go unmentioned that today is the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon (and yes, it really did happen). 

Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.


Anonymous said...

Hi Karen,

Another cracking episode. You mention ST 2 in the movie sequence, but Cumberbatch was also Khan, right? Also in ST2. But the other one. We really are living in an alternate timeline!

I love the name Khan Singh….which apparently makes him a Muslim AND a Sikh. He didn’t really need to go to war with anyone else, he could have stayed home and fought himself. I assume the name Khan refers to the Mongul dictators who used it before it became a Muslim name.

I also think that Khan’s assumption that he should rule is based not only on his innate superiority, but also the fact that he did rule over a quarter of the Earth (roundabout now, I guess). Great performance by Montalban – he could have played it brutal psychopath, but he went charismatic dictator.

BTW, not sure if you read Empire magazine, but there is a great free ST review magazine with the current month (current here). Written by the Empire team, so obviously to that standard.


Unknown said...

"Space Seed" is definitely in my top 5 of Original Series episodes. Conqueror Khan exudes a feral dynamism that is unforgettable—his granite will and icy ruthlessness are utterly compelling.

Star Trek fans who would like to learn more about Khan should check out the two-volume set of novels by author Greg Cox, "The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh." The books cover Khan's life from the time he and his group were genetically engineered to the time they escaped from Earth aboard the Botany Bay and were discovered by the Enterprise in a state of suspended animation.

Anonymous said...

Nooooo !!! The moon landings were faked, everyone knows that !!! And Obama is an alien from Alpha Centauri. The fact that Khan recognized Chekov in Star Trek 2 is easily explained - the Enterprise was on a five-year mission so obviously Chekov was on board but not yet on the bridge so Khan saw him in the corridor or something :D

Edo Bosnar said...

People, I keep telling everyone that the Eugenics Wars happened! It's just that everybody was distracted by that whole Clinton/Lewinsky/impeachment thing back in the late '90s and didn't notice...

Anyway, this is definitely among the most legendary TOS episodes. And I would would say Montalban stole the show, but as you noted Karen, some great performances were put in by the members of the regular cast (and thanks for linking that scene with McCoy and the skalpel - I'd almost forgotten how cool that was). I'm also fond of the comparison with Dr. Doom: you're right, Khan has the same easy and cool, sociopathic arrogance and charisma.

Edo Bosnar said...

Colin, re: Chekhov meeting Khan. I think it was actually "officially" explained somewhere (in one of the novels?) that Chekhov was assigned to engineering during season one.

And the moon landings weren't faked, but those astronauts may very well have been green lizard aliens in disguise (like Queen Elizabeth, the pope and Vladimir Putin).

Martinex1 said...

I too think your comments about Doom and Kahn are spot on. I think you succinctly summarized their high regard of their own superiority and how that shapes their interaction.

After mostly knowing Montalban as Mr. Route from Fantasy Island it was great to see him in an entirely different role.

Again I was surprised by the resolution at the end. In more modern and generic telling a the villain woul get their comeuppance. Here Kahn gets a planet. Weird... But as I am finding this type of conclusion is not uncommon in Trek.

And yes the female officer was developed poorly. It would have been better if she was strong and decisive but still chose to go with Kahn.

Martinex1 said...

Mr Rourke. My phone's auto correct is annoying. Sorry about the grammatical and spelling nonsense.

Karen said...

Unfortunately many of us Bronze Age Babies grew up seeing Montalban as Mr. Rourke with all that "De plane! de plane!" nonsense. He had a rich career in films in the 40s and 50s. I've seen him in a few films and he was quite the dashing romantic lead. A really cute movie is "Neptune's Daughter" with Esther Williams. And Montalban had a superb physique - you can tell he's quite a bit bigger than Shatner, although in the dining room scene I suspect Shatner may be standing on an orange crate or something to make him match Montalban in height.

I also enjoyed Montalban in the two Apes films he was in, "Escape" and "Conquest". He played Armando, the sympathetic circus owner. I had the opportunity to see and meet Montalban at his first (and I think only) Star Trek convention appearance, and he was just a wonderful, charming man. Very forthright about the issues of being an older, Hispanic actor in Hollywood, and also about the pleasure he had in revisiting the role of Khan years later and figuring out how to play him. I think he was also surprised and touched by how many fans turned out to see him. When signing autographs he spoke to every person -not like some stars I've seen. Two of his children were with him and they were clearly trying to move things along but he was really enjoying it, despite being in pain (he had back problems). Meeting him that day, I had the feeling that I was in the presence of one of the last members of 'old' Hollywood stardom. He was a very special, gracious man.

Garett said...

Great episode! And great movie in Star Trek 2. Ricardo Montalban talks here about trying to shake off Mr. Rourke when he played Khan the second time:

Anonymous said...

Karen, you forgot to mention "rich Corinthian leather" :) This episode is definitely a classic, in spite of the timeline being superseded by reality (I guess the Trek Universe is on a parallel Earth to our own?) and the really obvious use of stuntmen in the big Kirk/Khan fight. Khan is a great villain because he doesn't think he's a villain.

Mike Wilson

Anonymous said...

Lucky me - my local library had a copy of These Are The Voyages vol 1 - highly recommended. One thing in the book that stood out for me is how re-writing of first season episodes was required because the writers had no point of reference since most of the scripts were submitted before the show premiered. I believe Roddenberry may have screened the two pilots for a few writers but that was it. Since we have been saturated with Trek for years it is easy to forget the early script writers were working with a virtual unknown.


Anonymous said...

Great review Karen and definitely a top 5 from TOS for me too.


david_b said...

Karen, wow and WOW.., meeting Mr. Montalban. What a fantastic memory that must be. Very very impressive.

Not much to add here.., definitely Trek recovering from the Lazarus episode, back to the nice glide path of great scripts, nice interplay (thanks to Mr. Coon) and tight direction/performances. The only weakness was yes, 'the wilting yeoman' under the power of LOVE (or well, something close to that...). Glad her character was rewritten as a historian so her attraction had some gravitas and depth versus just falling for a great-looking hunk.

Like Joan Collins and other notable guest stars, it's certainly great when not-quite-legendary (and highly underrated) actors have both spare time and desire to engage in memorable television appearances, especially Ricardo both then and reprising his role in 'Wrath'.

When the first Trek movie suffered from all the bad press and reviews (it's still my fav Trek movie, but that's for another column..), Meyers and Bennett made a very shrewd (and ticketsales-safe..) choice in resurrecting this classic Kirk/Khan tale. It paid off in droves and effectively started the entire franchise.

Classic episode here.

Karen said...

Glad you all stopped by today for this classic episode. At some point, we will have to review Wrath of Khan. This Sunday, we'll have a Discuss post to look at the new film, Star Trek Beyond. I have to say, although I was cringing at the first trailer, recent clips are making it look better and better. So I'm off to see it Friday, and hoping it captures the right Trek spirit. At least a little bit between all the explosions.

Edo Bosnar said...

Yeah, so cool that you met Montalban, Karen. Thanks for sharing that story as well - it brought a smile to my face. Also, it means I have to envy you for meeting yet another of the luminaries of our childhood (along with Lee, Kirby, Shatner, Takei, etc., etc.).

A discussion of Wrath of Khan would be cool. Actually, we should discuss more of the films, the way we did all of the individual Trek series. I know the first Trek movie came up here at least twice, but it wouldn't hurt to revisit it (like David, I'm really fond of that one - it's one of my favorites - and get really annoyed when it gets unjustly panned).

As for this latest installment of Fast 'n' Furious Trek, I don't have my hopes up. That last New! Improved! With more explosions! And Sherlock! "remake" of Wrath of Khan really left a bad taste in my mouth...

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