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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Star Trek: "Space Seed" / The Wrath Of Khan

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In the real world, there is such a thing as an unwinnable scenario. Our lives are not always designed with plot loop-holes, third act twists, or cavalry charges built in; if you're reading this, you're lucky enough to have lived long enough to get to right here and right now, but there are no promises past that. There are no promises I'll make it to the end of this sentence. (Well, technically, I guess I would've had to've gotten to the end because you're looking at a page full of many, many sentences, but I had no guarantee I'd make it when I started typing, in that particular moment, which, if you follow me, is the point.) There are times when there's no good choice left, and there are times when there are no choices at all. Maybe that's what they're talking about when they say a child has lost his innocence—the realization that, no, Virginia, the fat man stuck in your chimney is not going to magic himself away. Unless you call maggots "magic."

That's probably why we love a hero who can find a way out of anything. Somebody like James T. Kirk, captain of the Enterprise, who faces death, disaster, and destruction, and dispels them every time without breaking a sweat. (A little sweat, maybe. Just enough to look totally awesome.) It gives us the illusion that with enough willpower and courage, any problem can be solved. Getting screwed over by the Kobayashi Maru? Think outside the box, and you'll find a way. But in order for good storytelling to rise to the level of art, it needs to have at least some passing relationship with truth; and that means acknowledging there aren't many happy endings in the world that don't require sacrifice.


The original series is unquestionably deserving of its place in the annals of TV history, and one of its greatest strengths is its willingness to let some darkness into its world. But even Star Trek had its limits. It's not until the second movie of the already critically suspect film franchise that it started bringing that darkness home. We've had our share of dead crew members, but for all that, we've never lost anyone we really cared about. It wasn't till the big screen that tragedy actually hit home. There is a lot to love about Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan—its expert pacing, sense of adventure, terrific script, superb performances (one of Shatner's best, no question), and just totally bad-ass action set pieces—but what always stays with me, no matter how many times I watch it, is Spock's death. Regardless of what happened in the later sequels, that scene alone, and the weight it carries, is enough make this more than just the best of Trek

But before we get to that, how about a little "Space Seed"? Like a lot of you (I'm assuming), I'd seen many times before I ever got a chance to watch the episode that inspired it. The movie works fine on its own; the conflict between Khan and Kirk is so instantly clear that back story becomes almost irrelevant. But watching "Seed" makes the characters richer, and gives their struggle more history. It's like putting together a puzzle; you already know what the picture's going to be, but seeing it finished has its own satisfaction. Plus, it's really just a terrific episode.


The Enterprise comes across a seemingly dead ship in the middle of space; the ship doesn't respond to any hailing attempts, but the Enterprise computers are able to pick up multiple (very slow) heartbeats inside. Soon enough, they identify the vessel as the S.S. Botany Bay (funny how every time anyone says that, I always hear saying it in my head), from the late 20 century. We get a brief, but important, lecture about Earth's history from that period—our attempts at selective breeding to create a race of supermen (and women), which resulted in The Eugenics Wars, humankind's last major global conflict. Even though we don't know exactly what we're in for, we're starting to have our suspicions, and it's pretty sure whatever's on the Bay isn't going to be pleasant.

Kirk beams over, along with McCoy, Scotty, and Marla McGivers, an expert in 20th century history with a passion for painting and an obsession with strong, single-minded men of ages past. There's a great shot of her in her quarters right before she gets called to the transporter; the room is stuffed with art and bric-a-brac of older times, and tells you basically everything you need to know about the character without her saying a word. On board the Bay, Marla soon has a chance to show off her expertise, as the boarding party finds bunk after bunk of apparently comatose people in gold fishnets and Speedos. (Or something.) Marla informs Kirk that this is a "sleeper" ship, designed for the incredibly long time it took to get anywhere via space travel in the pre-warp days. Somebody turns on the lights, one of the passengers goes into shock, and before you can say "Perdition's flame," that passenger gets sent to the Enterprise for some "modern" health care. By amazing coincidence, that passenger just happens to be the leader of this band of frozen travelers, the magnificent, deadly Khan Noonien Singh.


Things go much as you'd expect—and I don't intend that as a slight. One of "Seed"'s strengths is that it's full of strong characters bouncing off each other, and the slow build from Khan's arrival, to his chats with Kirk, to his eventual attempts to take the Enterprise as his own, have an enjoyable inevitability to them. As soon as Khan is discovered for who he is, the boldest and brightest result of Earth's dabbling in selective breeding, there's no question he's going to pit his will against the captain's. How could he not?

Another great element of "Seed," and one that plays nicely in conjunction with Wrath, is the Kirk-Spock interplay; they get a couple of great chats together, first discussing the various repercussions of the discovered Earth vessel, and then debating the danger Khan represents. (Kirk grants Khan access to the ship's technical manuals, a move that irks Spock considerably; the way it's played, you get a sense of the two's history together, like Kirk's been pulling this sort of shit for years, and Spock always has to clean up afterwards.) The friendship between the show's two leads has been so well established by now that it's easy to take it for granted, but episodes like this one show that the connection's a real one. It's a relationship between equals, and it's not hard to imagine both characters having a hard time finding that kind of a match elsewhere. (At this point, anyone considering the word "bromance" needs to stop doing that.)


The only weak point of "Seed" is the romance between Khan and Marla. Marla's infatuation with Khan isn't quite enough to explain why she's willing to go along with his attempts to take over the ship so quickly. Ricardo Montalban's chemistry is undeniable—he even manages to make some goofy tai chi movements work—but we're talking about a woman so enthralled with a stranger that she'll betray everyone she knows just to keep his favor. The scenes between them are a mixed bag, with Marla generally reduced to standing there staring while Khan pontificates and futzes with her hair. It's not a complete loss. Montalban's intensity could sell just about anything. But given the weight her character is given, it's too bad that Marla isn't stronger.

Something I always forget: Khan tries to take over the Enterprise, and he actually succeeds. Sure, Kirk manages to beat him in a one-on-one fight at the climax (the doubling here is even more blatant than usual), but after the initial invasion of Khan's newly awakened buddies, Kirk and his team are easily subdued and held captive. Khan shows Spock and the rest of the bridge crew that he's got James T. in a decompression chamber (do we ever see this again?) and that if no one is willing to go to Khan's side, he'll have Kirk killed. Nobody caves, so points to our captain there, but if it weren't for Marla (either growing a spine or losing one) sneaking away and freeing Kirk herself, the game would be basically over. It's a nice twist that, again, plays into the upcoming movie: sometimes you just get screwed, and having a bit of luck on hand is always a good thing.


For all you could blame Marla for her initial decision to side with Khan, the episode does go out of its way to show that most of our human leads share her admiration of the man. (Spock's reaction here is, as always, priceless.) It's the only way you could justify the ending. Once our heroes manage to subdue Khan and his people, Kirk holds a tribunal to decide their fate. Instead of assigning them to a "Reorientation Center" (which sounds positively Orwellian), Kirk opts to drop the whole lot of them off on a nearby planet, Alpha V. It's a dangerous, untamed world that will offer Khan an opportunity to use his skills to the fullest without endangering anybody else. Khan accepts the challenge, and is pleased when Marla agrees to join him. Apparently, her double-cross only endeared her to him further. (We hope. Otherwise, things could get awkward.) One of the coolest thing about watching "Seed" and Wrath of Khan back to back is that the ending of "Seed" really does leave questions unanswered. Kirk muses what it would be like to come back and see the progress Khan makes in a hundred years, but as a viewer, you can't help wondering if Kirk's math is a little off. This is a group that managed to take over the entire Earth. Left to their own devices for long, who knows what they could accomplish? Kirk isn't resolving the conflict. He's just delaying it. Eventually, Khan would have to come back, and he'd have to defeat the one man still alive who's capable of beating him.

When Wrath of Khan hit theaters in 1982, it had a lot to prove. The original series had been off the air for over a decade, and its first big screen adventure had opened to poor reviews. After Robert Wise's excessively serious-minded direction, it seemed like a good idea to bring in some fresh blood. In this case, that meant Nicholas Meyer, director of Time After Time, a neat sci-fi romance about H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper. (Um, they're not the ones who get romantically involved. That would've been a whole other movie, really.) Meyer decided to make a Trek movie that distanced itself from the series' increasingly stultified mythology while at the same time getting to the root of what made the show so fun to begin with: strong characters, space battles, and freaky alien things.

The result is, well, awesome, right? I think I've seen at least twenty times by now. There are probably better movies out there (maybe), but it belongs in that rare category of things I never get tired of watching. Ghostbusters, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Alien, Blade Runner, Die Hard, Salo—you know, the sort of thing that, it comes on the TV, and you get sucked in for the duration. You anticipate lines so much, you start to hear them in your head, and instead of fading over time, the emotional moments somehow become even more so with each successive viewing. Like a kind of Pavlovian response: oh, E.T.'s dying? Ah, fuck it, time to go all gooey again.

As I get older, I appreciate the movie more and more for its economy. Even if you don't compare it to the bloated indulgences of the first flick (whose biggest crime, apart from wasting its emotional crux on characters we've never met before, is that it takes everything soooo daaaaaaamn seeeeeriousssslly), this moves at an expert clip, setting up conflicts with precision and constantly keeping the pressure on the narrative, so that while we never feel rushed, we never feel like we're just moseying from place to place, either. It's the kind of professionalism you don't see a lot of these days—with every blockbuster hitting theaters at two hours and change, to watch a space opera that manages to get the job done in under a 120 minutes, without a single minute left to bad mugging or pointless effects, is a thrill.

And talk about your iconic sequences! There's the opening training fake out—the tape I had growing up was off network TV, and we missed the first ten minutes of the movie, so while I always had the "director's cut" footage, it wasn't till I bought the DVD that I finally saw the real beginning. Then there's Chekov and Capt. Terrell (Paul Winfield) making an unfortunate discovery in universal geography ("THIS IS CETI ALPHA V!") and the horrible squirmy ear-worms that follow soon after. Montalban's really impressive physique. (According to Meyer, this was not faked. The dude was cut.) Khan blindsiding Kirk in his stolen Reliant.

A moment for that scene, because it's one of my favorite; the Reliant meets up with the Enterprise and won't respond to Uhura's hailing. Before anybody knows what's going on, Khan starts firing—but he doesn't go for the killshot. He's heard of this thing called Genesis, a life-giving bomb, and he wants to know more about it. ("Seed" doesn't really get into it, but in Wrath, we get to see Khan's arrogance struggling against his lack of information; he's not stupid by a long shot, but the limitations imposed on him by his twentieth century training keep hindering his strategies.) Kirk agrees to pass on the info, but only so he can buy some time—and even though this is really the oldest trick in the book, note how Khan's pushiness here never lets up, and we never feel like Kirk is at his leisure to explore other options—long enough to code in a frequency that shuts down the Reliant's shields and let's the Enterprise get in a few hits of her own.

I'm getting chills just thinking about it. Words can't really describe how immensely satisfying this is to watch; man, just the look on Kirk's face when he says, "Here it comes." On his commentary track for the DVD (which is excellent), Meyer talks about how he kept making Shatner repeat a scene until he got bored with it, at which point all the ham went away and actual acting came out. Wrath still has its moments of near-camp, but it never loses its honesty. This is a more subdued Kirk than we've seen before; older, sadder, and a bit less sure of himself. The age factor is something the series would trot out with increasing regularity, but Wrath does it first and does it best, in no small part because when Kirk says, "I feel old," he really fucking means it.

There's a lot here worth talking about—and I'm thinking, that's what the comments are for, because I've already dragged this on long enough. But before I yield the floor, I do have to talk about that what happens to Mr. Spock. For all it's triumph, Wrath still has its share of sorrow. Khan himself is a tragedy, a brilliant leader undone by rage and ego; watching "Seed" makes his line about his dead wife land all the harder, and no matter how many times I see this movie, part of me still kind of hopes he'll find some way out in the end. Although he couldn't, not really. It's a question that "Seed" raised and took ten years before answering: how does someone like Khan live in a reality where he's outdated, outmatched, and obsolete? He can't. Maybe if Ceti Alpha VI hadn't blown up, maybe if Marla hadn't died, maybe if Chekov hadn't stumbled across maybe the wost planet to stumble across—maybe things might have been different. But that's not what happened.

And as for Spock… Every time. I cry every goddamn time. Oh sure, he comes back eventually, but I don't think that matters. I think the scene works because we recognize the truth in it. Just like we need heroes who always win because we know that nobody wins forever, Spock's sacrifice is moving because it's honesty without pretension. This is what happens. You will lose your friends, no matter how important they are to you, no matter how much you can't imagine life without them. You will lose them. And in the end, you're just standing on the other side of the wall, hand on the glass, as they break down, piece by piece, and you can't be there, and you can't make it better. All you can you do is mouth the old pleasantries and pretend there's some nobility in all of it. In the end, all you can do is watch.

It's not a depressing movie—there's a definite "life goes on" vibe in the conclusion—but that it's willing to be that bleak is part of what makes it great. And now I just want to watch it again.

"Space Seed": A
Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan: A

Stray Observations:

  • So, how much of Khan's crew is from "Seed" and how much are new recruits? It looks like he got the lot out of an Italian Road Warrior rip-off.
  • Kirk's eulogy for Spock ("Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.") used to bug me growing up; everybody knows Spock didn't want to be human, right? But there's another way you can read it; that by "human," Kirk means that Spock represented the best of us. He was the person we wanted to be.
  • Never a huge fan of Kirk getting a son. But hey, he won't be around for long…