‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ Revisited: “Space Seed”

KHAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNN!

Kirk utters that immortal bellow in the film The Wrath of Khan but it reverberates back to this first appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. Guest stars don’t usually steal the bridge from William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, but “Space Seed” is a big exception. As Khan, the wonderful Ricardo Montalbán speaks in a rich, accented rumble. His disdainful piercing gaze, his insouciant braid; you can hardly blame historian Lt. Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue) for falling head over heels at first sight.

Marla’s reaction isn’t just hers; it’s the show’s. Director Marc Daniels, writers Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber, and much of the Enterprise crew are enamored with their villainous visitor. He recalls iconic swashbuckling strongmen from Caesar to Leif Erickson—to, for that matter, Captain Kirk. He is, in many ways, Kirk’s double in a truer sense than the doppelganger from “The Enemy Within.” The episode is a kind of love letter to a heroic type the show half disavows only to more enthusiastically embrace.

The Great Man

The episode begins with the Enterprise encountering a mysterious unidentified ship in a distant and uninhabited galaxy. The ship turns out to be an earth vessel named The Botany Bay, and on further investigation, a landing party discovers it is inhabited by some 70 odd men and women frozen in stasis.

The ship left earth in the 1990s during the Eugenic Wars when genetically perfected supermen seized control of large portions of the earth. The leader of The Botany Bay, who wakes first and alone while his comrades sleep on, is one of those supermen: Khan.

The crew has trouble identifying Khan at first but they eventually work out that he was a brutal dictator on earth who ruled 40% of the globe. He’s also a perfect physical specimen, with mightily increased strength and resilience and heightened intelligence. “You are quite honestly inferior. Mentally, physically,” he tells Kirk with a satisfied smirk. “Yes, it appears we will do well in your century.”

Kirk grows more and more suspicious of Khan’s ambitions. Yet he somehow inexplicably allows him to view the ship’s technical specs in a scene which practically begs you to shout at the screen, “DON’T SHOW HIM THE SPECS KIRK! DON’T SHOW HIM THE SPECS!”

Where was I? Oh right. Kirk shows him the specs, but doesn’t trust him. For her part, Marla, the historian is romantically and sexually obsessed with great strong men of the past, and Khan makes her fall to her knees (yes, literally). The scene where he dominates her, demanding her obedience with contemptuous brutality, is right out of racist harem fantasies like the 1921 smash film The Sheik.

A Streak of Barbarism

Marla finds Khan irresistible, and does everyone else. The male officers of The Enterprise get a scene where they all talk about how they think he’s hot too. Lt. Scott (James Doohan) says “I must confess, gentlemen. I've always held a sneaking admiration for this one.” Kirk adds, “He was the best of the tyrants and the most dangerous. They were supermen in a sense. Stronger, braver, certainly more ambitious, more daring.”

Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the Vulcan voice of humanism, is appalled. “Gentlemen, this romanticism about a ruthless dictator is…” he says, before he is cut off by Kirk’s explanation. “Mister Spock, we humans have a streak of barbarism in us. Appalling, but there, nevertheless.”

Kirk insists that it’s possible to admire Khan and fight him at the same time. It’s not exactly clear that that’s true though.

Marla’s admiration interferes with her opposition; she helps Khan hijack the transporter, wake his crew, and come back and take over the Enterprise.

Kirk’s admiration doesn’t stand him in great stead either. He fails to appreciate Khan’s full ruthlessness, and as a result, Khan seizes his command. It’s only because Marla betrays Khan in the end that Kirk wins the day.

Khan vs. Putin vs. Kirk

Khan isn’t real obviously. But dictators themselves project fictional strongman images to create the kind of cult of personality that sweeps Marla and Kirk off their space boots.

Vladimir Putin infamously would have pictures of himself taken shirtless or on horseback. Stalin cultivated an image of himself as an iron man of will and force. Trump reportedly dictated a medical report released by his doctor which said: “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.”

There’s some question about whether Khan’s vaunted abilities are propaganda, too. There’s a marvelous scene where he is shown doing upper-body stretches before batting a guard across the room; he looks magnificent and powerful.

But then, in the final battle in the engine room, when he fights Kirk, one-on-one, he’s a lot less impressive. He tells Kirk that he has five times his strength—and then Kirk bludgeons him into submission with what looks like a piece of plastic. Is Kirk just that good? Or is Khan’s superior strength a bit of propagandistic puffery?

Of course, the answer is neither; Kirk wins because Kirk always wins. He’s the hero. If there’s propaganda here, it’s propaganda for Kirk—a character who is, in broad outline, not that different from Khan.

Besides the similarity in names, Kirk and Khan are both captains. They’re both master tacticians (Khan praises Kirk’s tactical smarts.) They’re both able to get into women’s heads—Kirk quickly figures out that Marla is obsessed with Khan, and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) praises his psychological acuity. Both Kirk and Khan are virile, good-looking physical specimens, capable of sweaty rough and tumble when more subtle methods fail.

They’re both also essentially good men—men of honor. The Enterprise crew all agree that Khan didn’t commit massacres when he ruled. Nor did he start wars. He was a good despot. Similarly, Kirk runs the Enterprise with compassion, deciding in the end not to imprison Khan, but to exile him (and Marla) to an uninhabited planet the supermen can cultivate, conquer, and rule.

Is There a Good Khan?

Was Khan really a good guy, though? History doesn’t always tell the truth about powerful people. Most Americans still don’t know that Columbus ordered the wholesale slaughter of native people who couldn't and wouldn’t give him as much gold as he wanted. Khan tortures the Enterprise crew cheerfully enough. He attacks them in the first place without provocation. Maybe his honorableness was always a myth.

If Khan’s virtues are exaggerated, maybe Kirk’s have been too. The strong, sexy, forceful, brilliant, brawny leader who exudes charisma—could it all just be a bunch of hooey cobbled together from selective footage and selective memory?

Khan is wonderful fun to watch. So is Kirk. The story of Great Men is a fun story, which is part of why dictators go to such lengths to build that legend around themselves. But as Spock says, romanticizing the brutality has its downsides. Shout KIIIIIRRRRRRRRKKKKK for the joy of it sure. But remember that the syllables and the volume may be bigger and better than the man.

Rating: 8.6/10 SPECS

All episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series are currently streaming on Paramount+.

This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.


Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.