Stardate: 3141.9 (2267)
Original Airdate: February 16, 1967
Writer: Carey Wilber/Gene L. Coon
Director: Marc Daniels
“A world to win, an empire to build…”
The Enterprise comes upon a derelict Earth vessel floating in deep space called the S.S. Botany Bay. It is broadcasting an old Morse Code signal. Perhaps this vessel is an old DY-500 class ship, though Spock suggests it is actually a much older ship, a DY-100 class ship built centuries ago in the 1990s. Spock notes that the era of the mid-1990s was a “strange, violent” period which sat on the precipice of a new dark age. It was the age of the last “World War,” and the rise of The Eugenics Wars, a series of brutal conflicts spawned by ambitious scientists attempting to genetically improve the human race. So what is the S.S. Botany Bay? Apparently, Botany Bay was the name of a penal colony in Australia, a colony which mysteriously lost several ships in the Eugenics Wars though the records are scant.
Scanners trace faint heartbeats for over sixty people on the Botany Bay. Captain Kirk leads a landing party to investigate, along with Doctor Leonard McCoy, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, and a historian named Lieutenant Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue), a woman with a particular fascination for imperial conquerors like Leif Erikson, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Richard the Lionheart. In fact, she betrays a certain romantic attachment to these adventurous despots of yesteryear.
The crew beams aboard the Botany Bay where they discover a collection of sleeper berths holding dozens of “handsome” people –ghostly shadows, relics of an old imperial age known as the 20th century. The room lights up and one man is awoken from his berth. Notably, Lt. McGivors cannot take her eyes off this man –he appears to be a fantastic leader perhaps hailing from Northern India, and likely a Sikh (famously played by Ricardo Montalbán). The man slowly regains consciousness and whispers: “How long?” to which Kirk quietly responds that he has likely been asleep for two centuries.
The crew returns to the Enterprise where this strange man receives care from Dr. McCoy. When awoken, he snatches a sharp knife off a nearby display case –why would such a decoration exist in a medical facility? Does it have a more practical use? The strange man interrogates Dr. McCoy before meeting Capt. Kirk and requesting some additional reading material in order to gather his bearings. Kirk offers him the ability to read through the huge digital library made publicly available on the Enterprise.
With the Botany Bay in tow, the Enterprise sets course for Starbase 12. Kirk and Spock learn that 12 units on the Botany Bay have malfunctioned leaving 72 people still alive, 30 of whom are women. However, no records or logs are found aboard the Botany Bay. Notably, the survivors possess 50% better lung capacity than normal humans, and their heart-rate is twice the pace of a typical person. Most importantly, we learn their identity: this man is Khan Noonien Singh or simply “Khan,” a genetically-engineered super-human from the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. After fleeing from a penal colony in Australia, Khan and his crew put themselves to sleep in deep space.
Over a fancy dinner that evening, the group discusses how Khan’s ship managed to escape from the penal colony centuries ago in the “War Against Tyranny” which Khan disputes as merely a noble attempt by his compatriots to unify humanity and offer a better, more ordered world. Spock recalls that in the 1990s, entire regions were ruled by bands of petty dictators, though Khan deflects and comments on Kirk’s tactical silence –“It has been said that social occasions are merely warfare concealed.”
Khan seduces Lt. McGivers such that she becomes his mere peon, and he easily breaks free from his locked room. He overpowers an armed guard and beams back aboard the Botany Bay to awaken his fellow crewmen while McGivers jams the Enterprise communications. Khan and his crew quickly overtake the Enterprise by shutting off life-support systems to the bridge, threatening to suffocate every crewmen. Khan was apparently thorough in his study of the ship’s schematics –why would these weaknesses be freely available to read within the ship’s library? Is this not exposing a major flaw aboard the Enterprise?
At any rate, Khan begins torturing the Enterprise crew starting with Kirk. He requests help from Spock to join him and help navigate the newfangled machinery of the 24th century so they can navigate to a suitable colony to conquer, which would save the Captain from his torturous decompression chamber. However, Lt. McGivers redeems herself and leaves the room claiming she cannot handle watching her old crew-mates as they are tortured to death. In a sudden turn of allegiances, Lt. McGivers saves the captain as well as Spock, and then Spock takes out another Khan crewman with a Vulcan nerve pinch.
Kirk and Spock then flood the room with gas, and Kirk battles Khan (who physically rips apart a phaser with his bare hands) while Kirk surprises Khan by striking him with a utility device in the engine room. Control of the ship is regained.
Kirk assembles a makeshift court martial for Khan, however rather than allow Khan the chance to enter a Federation “reorientation center,” Kirk drops all charges and decides to maroon Khan and his crew on the harsh planetary landscape of Ceti Alpha V where Khan claims it will be better to reign in hell than serve in heaven (a quotation from John Milton’s Paradise Lost). The traitorous Lt. McGivors surprisingly decides to join Khan on Ceti Alpha V.
As the Enterprise sails away through space, Spock ominously remarks: “It would be interesting, Captain, to return to that world in a hundred years and to learn what crop has sprung from the seed you planted today.”
“Space Seed” is perhaps my personal favorite episode of early Star Trek episodes. It fulfills a deeply satisfying blend of horror and science fiction while continuing the trend of the Enterprise stumbling upon echoes of long-decaying civilizations just waiting to be resurrected. What else might be lurking out there in the dark reaches of space?
Putting aside the shockingly feeble security protocols aboard the Enterprise, perhaps the biggest cautionary moral in “Space Seed” can be taken from the complacent crew which seems to marvel at Khan’s livelihood and ingenuity. By this point in the 24th century, brutal tyrants of the Napoleonic variety are mere relics of a bygone era. When the crew actually meet one in-person, they welcome him with open arms.
One other point of note in this episode: Kirk mentions the “reorientation centers” offered for prisoners of the Federation. The existence of this type of recidivism in the 24th century raises all sorts of questions –many of which were explored in the earlier Season 1 episode “Dagger of the Mind.” Are these centers made for rehabilitation? Or should we interpret them as examples of the Federation’s true imperial machinations?
Carey Wilber (1916-1998) was a journalist and television writer from Buffalo, New York. He wrote for television programs like Lost In Space and Bonanza. He was hired to write a script for Star Trek. His idea for the story was based on an episode he wrote for the television series Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949–1955). His work on that show featured Ancient Greek-era humans transported in suspended animation through space, with the people of the future finding that they have mythological powers. He was also inspired by the British Empire’s 18th century penal colony expulsions. The script actually changed numerous times during preproduction because producer Bob Justman felt that it would be too expensive to film. Eventually Gene L. Coon and series creator Gene Roddenberry also made alterations.
Director Marc Daniels (1912-1989) was a World War II veteran and notable television director for a number of different shows. During his career he was nominated for several Emmys, two Directors Guild of America awards, and four Hugo Awards. He is tied with Joseph Pevney for most TOS episodes directed.
Star Trek Trivia:
- Fifteen years after the events of this episode Khan returns in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Many Trekkies consider it to be the finest film in the Star Trek movies. In the movie, Khan amusingly claims to recognize Pavel Chekov’s face, even though Walter Koenig’s character Chekov was not yet introduced in “Space Seed.” This later became known as the “gaffe notorious throughout Star Trek fandom.” The novelization for Wrath of Khan attempts to find a way around this error by suggesting Chekov was working the night shift at the time.
- In Wilber’s early draft for the story that became “Space Seed” the villain was named Harold Erickson, an ordinary criminal exiled into space. The story was partly inspired by the use of penal colonies in the 18th century.
- The character of Khan required five costumes, more than any other guest star in the entire series.
- Ricardo Montalbán had previously appeared in a television movie created by Gene Roddenberry, The Secret Weapon of 117 which was his first attempt to create science fiction on television.
- Madlyn Rhue, who portrayed Lt. Marla McGivers, worked with Ricardo Montalbán several other times in Bonanza and Fantasy Island, as well as in Gene Roddenberry’s NBC television series, The Lieutenant. Tragically, she contracted multiple sclerosis and did not appear in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan.
- Khan is said to have a North-Indian ethnicity, but in original drafts of the script he was intended to be Nordic.
- “Space Seed” actually cost a total of $197,262 against a budget of $180,000. By this point, the series was nearly $80,000 over budget in total.
- In his novelization of this episode, James Blish, used the name “Sibahl Khan Noonien” which was taken from an early unfinished script.
- A version of Khan is reprised by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Kelvin timeline film Star Trek: Into Darkness.
- The Eugenics Wars appears many more times throughout the Star Trek universe, from The Animated Series to the paperback books.