Predicting the Future, Rewriting the Past, TOS: S1E22 “Space Seed”

Throughout its five-year mission, the starship Enterprise endeavored to explore the galaxy, offering freedom and liberation from tyranny whenever necessary.  The United Federation of Planets represents the unification of entire worlds, within themselves and with each other.  Such a grand utopia was the Star Trek vision of the future.  Against Captain Kirk, the twentieth century dictator Khan Noonien Singh is a scar across one brief era in the past.  This bitter relic became such a famous adversary, he eventually starred in his own feature film.


Considered by many to be one of the greatest Star Trek movies of all time, “The Wrath of Khan” is preceded by this somewhat ordinary episode from the first season.  Here we meet Captain Kirk’s greatest rival, after stumbling upon his hibernating crew drifting through space aboard the SS Botany Bay.  From the beginning, Khan establishes himself as forceful and ruthless: he takes what he wants and he wants it now.  It didn’t take long for Spock to discover that these strangers were genetically superior humans, and warlords of the 1990’s.  This dialogue is now comically dated, but it still offers a prediction that governance would deteriorate first before the eventual Star Trek utopia is realized.  When Khan is revived, the ideals of his past threaten to revert a utopia back into a dictatorship.

Through ingenious cunning and psychological manipulation, Khan takes command of the Enterprise and recruits Lieutenant Marla McGivers in his plan to regain his former power and glory.  Kirk and Spock manage to outmaneuver him, but only because McGivers briefly betrays Khan to help them.  Without her betrayal, Khan could have easily succeeded.  The ultimate battle between the superior warrior and the ordinary starship captain also seems anticlimactic, given that we are shown the extent of Khan’s might and ability.  In a simple clash of brute strength, Kirk manages to find a pipe and bludgeon Khan into unconsciousness.

This episode appears average at first, because it shares similarities with so many which preceded it.  In terms of ingenuity and creativity, Kirk’s battle with the Gorn was more entertaining.  A cunning and manipulative villain was just as interesting in “The Corbomite Maneuver”, and the episode “Court Martial” also featured a takeover of the ship’s controls… by someone who had a personal grudge against Kirk.  So why did Khan rise above all others to be Kirk’s greatest rival?  Perhaps it is a play on the opposites and similarities between the two men.

Kirk is a vision of the peaceful and unified future, whereas Khan embodies a brutal past.  Therefore, Kirk’s existence represents an end to tyranny, and the loss of Khan’s control.  Nothing is more important to Khan than being in control, and he is ruthlessly compelled to do whatever is needed to take it back.  In the same vein, Kirk will also fight tirelessly for what he believes in… or what he wants.  Perhaps this unwavering drive is what connects the two opposite and opposing men.  They are two competing philosophies driven by the same spirit of leadership and ideals.

This could explain the bizarre pardon of Khan and McGivers in the end, leaving the dictator free to colonize a planet with his new ‘family’.  The lieutenant was given a choice to join Khan or face a court martial, but in reality, her choice should have been court martial or court martial!  Arguably, a man as dangerous as Khan should not have been freed so easily, but Kirk couldn’t help his respect for the ancient dictator, at least enough to trust him with an inhospitable planet.  Hopefully nothing will go horribly wrong…

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