Monday, July 30, 2012

Space Seed

What made Khan Noonien Singh so appealing to Harve Bennett when he was developing the second Star Trek film? One answer comes from listing all the obstacles (people, aliens, concepts) Kirk has overcome in the episodes aired up to Space Seed. Take out all the ones obviously unsuitable as movie baddies (space drunkeness, the children on Miri's planet, the world where imagination becomes reality, etc), and the ones who end their episode dead (salt vampire we hardly knew ye), and you are left with Charlie, Harry Mudd, Balok, the Talosians, off-screen Romulans, Trelane, the Gorn and the Metrons, and Khan. Eight individuals from the 22 episodes aired. Anyone who crosses Kirk doesn't often survive.

By the time Turnabout Intruder airs this list will be longer but a story in which Janice Lester teams up with the brains from The Gamesters of Triskelion to make Kirk, Harry Mudd, and Balok compete in a tranya drinking match is almost certainly not going to make a great film. More seriously, someone like Charlie could return but it would take a lot of care to avoid writing a script which did not simply rehash that episode. A lot of characters are one shot concepts designed to illuminate a specific theme the writer wants to discuss. Fear of the unknown in The Corbomite Maneuver, or the painfulness of adolescence in Charlie X. Take these characters out of the context of their story and they don't work, or have to be changed so much it negates the point of bringing them back. Others, like specific Klingon or Romulan officers, could come back as part of their military regime but simply going, “let's do a film with Klingons or Romulans” won't move the film development process forwards.

Harry Mudd is an exception because his character is written so broadly; effectively a prototype for what the Ferenghi will become. He could just keep coming back. All that's required is a con or caper to involve him. It's even possible to imagine slotting him into existing episodes, The Trouble With Tribbles, wouldn't be massively different if he replaced trader Cyrano Jones. However, just because it's easy to shape a story around Harry Mudd that doesn't make him a character you could use at the dramatic heart of a story.

Khan is another exception. (Trelane may be a third. The similar character Q shows the concept of a god-like alien tormenting the Enterprise D crew can support a lot of different stories. Still I'm not completely certain Trelane, as originally imagined as child god, would work. He doesn't easily fit into a story which doesn't involve him playing games with the Enterprise crew until Kirk outwits him. How many times could Kirk do this before the god-like alien starts to look ineffective?). Khan genuinely has built in sequel potential. At the most basic level his massive arrogance means his defeat by Kirk will rankle, and he'll always be looking for a chance to even the score. Plus, Kirk leaves him on a planet to build a civilisation in his own image. Spock even speculates about returning to Ceti Alpha V in 100 years to see what Khan has done. Both Khan's character, and the situation he finishes the episode in are open ended. In fact his sequel potential is so obvious I can't help wondering if one of the writers, Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber, was thinking along these lines at the time and, rather like the time travel ending of The Naked Time, was discretely setting events up for a second story which never happened.

It also helps that Khan is expertly played by Ricardo Montalban. As in Charlie X, and The Squire Of Gothos, we have an actor taking a part and running with it. Montalban brings an already well written character to life, and gives him the power, charisma, and magnetism the role needs. And the script needs Montalban's input. Not because it's bad, it isn't, but because it's incredibly wordy. One of the unusual things about Space Seed is the lack of action. A story about a genetic superman taking over the Enterprise could reasonably be expected to be very physical, full of fist fights and action sequences, but it isn't. Anyone could make the part of Khan work if it was a Darth Vader-like role involving picking people up by the neck and flinging bodies around but Montalban has to sell us on both Khan's physicality and intellect, and he does it so well it's easy to see why Harve Bennett wanted Khan for the second film.

Slightly less successful is Lieutenant Marla McGivers, who falls for Khan in a big way, and helps him in his attempt to take over the Enterprise. The problem is she's a bit of a wet fish. Her character is nicely established as someone who fantasises about strong historical figures -Napoleon, Richard the Lionheart, Leif Ericson- but it's harder to spot what Khan sees in her. She mainly seems to spend her time looking doe-eyed at Khan as he psychologically bullies her. Perhaps this is what Khan wants? Presumably the female genetic superwomen in his group would share Khan's arrogance so maybe he's on the lookout for someone he can dominate rather than to have children. Kirk also seems to have very little time for McGivers, and isn't worried about criticising her in front of the bridge crew, “here's a chance for that historian to do something for a change,” he says as he prepares an away team to board the SS Botany Bay. It's not clear exactly when McGiver's recognises Khan although after he storms out of a formal dinner she goes to his quarters and worries him by saying, “I know who you are,” but he's been on board for hours by this point. McGivers seems to be a pretty solid historian. She's studied great men of history. She identifies the sleeper ship, knows when it was in use, and knows how the revival process resuscitates the leader first. Either she knows who Khan is from more or less the moment she first sees him, or at least that's the point where she begins to hope this mystery man might be Khan. Put it this way, if you were a historian who discovered an 200 year old ice packed figure, wearing a bicorne hat, with his hand tucked into his jacket, frozen alive on a French Frigate called the Elba wouldn't you at least wonder if he might be Napoleon?

The first 30 minutes of the story pass quickly. It's a surprise to get to Khan's takeover of the Enterprise and realise the episode is already more than half over. The hijacking of the Enterprise is a good example of how to write an exciting sequence which contains no action. The whole scene is set on the bridge and begins with security alerting Kirk to Khan's escape. One by one Kirk's orders to the crew fail because Khan has already anticipated them; communication channels are jammed, atmospheric controls are cut off, neural gas cannot be used to knock out the hijackers, and the turbo elevators are inoperative. Kirk comes to a surprised halt as the elevator door fails to open, and it's surprising how effective this one simple visual is to an audience who have got used to doors swishing open automatically. Several things impress about this scene. Firstly we get a sense of the effectiveness of the bridge crew as they switch from relaxed routine to dealing with the emergency. Secondly, although the scene is short it sells the idea that hijacking the Enterprise is really difficult. And, thirdly, it's confirmation of everything Khan has been saying through the episode. The bridge crew are good, but he's better.

While the script is enjoyable it's not perfect. The climax particularly disappoints. Up to now the dialogue has been really good, with Kirk and Khan jabbing at each other with words, so it's more of let down when the stunt doubles run in and begin exchanging punches. Worse this fight comes after a whole episode of being told Khan is superior to regular humans, including an awesome scene in which Khan first pulls open the locked door to his quarters by hand and then knocks a stuntman flying (Montalban sells the scene where he pulls the door open, and the stuntman does a fantastic backflip as Khan catches him under the chin). The idea Kirk could go toe to toe with Khan just doesn't work. Especially not with Kirk fresh out of a decompression chamber. Still, the ending does provide a character point. Kirk wins by cheating, he clubs Khan with some sort of tool he pulls out of the engineering panel. It must grate with Khan that the superior man was beaten in an unfair fight. Two episodes ago Court Martial ended in engineering with Kirk fighting Finney in a race against time to prevent Finney's sabotage from destroying the Enterprise. Now, Space Seed ends in engineering with Kirk fighting Khan in a race against time to prevent Khan's sabotage from destroying the Enterprise. Court Martial was made as episode 14, and Space Seed as episode 24, so it's unfortunate that when aired only one episode separates two stories which end so similarly.

When Khan is revived he wants to know how long he has been asleep, “two centuries we estimate,” Kirk tells him. Along with the “I am going to lock you up for two hundred years”/ “That ought to be just about right” joke from Tomorrow Is Yesterday this pretty much confirms that, whatever the consensus now, the sixties production team thought Star Trek was set in the 22nd Century rather than the 23rd. It's also odd to hear characters talking so glibly about the terrible history of the 1990s. “A strange, violent period in your history,” Spock says. “Your Earth was on the verge of a dark ages. Whole populations were being bombed out of existence.” It's difficult to believe these dates were chosen at random. If Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilbur wanted a more futuristic feel they would either have been less specific about the years Khan ruled, 1992 to 1996 as Spock tells us, or they would probably have gone for a date after the millennium. The 1990's represent a time the Star Trek target audience could reasonably expect to see, Carey Wilbur died in 1998 aged 81. These dates have the double advantage of allowing the audience to hear the characters talk about their personal future as if it was the ancient past, and giving the audience a frisson of excitement in much the same way James Cameron gives the date of Judgement Day as August 29th 1997 in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Crew deaths: None, again. Assuming the security guard Khan hits is just knocked unconscious.
Running total: 25

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