“He was the best of the tyrants”: Space Seed (Original Series) vs. The Arik Soong Arc (Enterprise)

Star Trek: The Original Series – “Space Seed” (season 1, episode 24)

space seed 1Teleplay by Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber; story by Carey Wilber; directed by Marc Daniels; first aired in 1967

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise encounters an old Earth ship, adrift, with its crew in stasis. Leading that crew is Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically enhanced warlord from the “Eugenics Wars” of Earth’s chaotic, pre-Federation past. The Enterprise’s historian, Lt. Marla McGivers, is immediately drawn to the charismatic Khan, and eventually helps him revive his genetically engineered crew, who waste no time taking over the Enterprise. She can’t stand to see her crewmates tortured by Khan, though – who needs to convince some of the crew to help him run the ship – and so she helps Kirk retake command. Once Khan and his crew are in custody, Kirk makes the … unusual decision not to hand them over to the authorities, but to drop them off on an uninhabited planet instead, and leave them to fend for themselves. Khan approves, McGivers joins him, and Spock wonders what “crop” will grow from the “seed” they’ve planted on that planet. (Spoiler: that “crop” ends up being death, destruction, and a really good movie, as we’ll see in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.)

VS.

Star Trek: Enterprise – “Borderland”, “Cold Station 12”, & “The Augments” (season 4, episodes 4, 5, & 6)

arik soong 2“Borderland” written by Ken LaZebnik and directed by David Livingston; “Cold Station 12” written by Michael Bryant and directed by Mike Vejar; “The Augments” written by Michael Sussman and directed by LeVar Burton; all episodes first aired in 2004

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

To avert a war with the Klingons, Captain Archer recruits the help of brilliant geneticist and convicted criminal Dr. Arik Soong. A group of Khan-like “Augments”, raised in secret by Soong, are wreaking havoc in a stolen Klingon ship, and Soong agrees to help find them. He has his own plans, though, which involve leading the Enterprise crew into conflict with Orion slave traders, escaping to the Augments’ ship, and stealing thousands of Eugenics War-era Augmented embryos from the genetic research facility Cold Station 12. But Soong finds himself increasingly at odds with his “son” Malik, the Augments’ sociopathic leader, who stole something else from Cold Station 12: the makings of a biological weapon, which Malik plans to use against a Klingon colony, sparking a war which will keep the Federation from pursuing the Augments any further. Soong is many things, but bloodthirsty isn’t one of them, and he ultimately helps Archer stop the Augments after all.

space seed 5Watching the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” today is kind of an odd experience, for old and new fans alike, I’d bet. Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Trek in your life, chances are you know the name “Khan”, or, by its alternate spelling, “Khaaaaaaannnnn!!!” William Shatner’s melodramatic scream from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is, after all, one of Trek’s most iconic lines, delivered in one of the franchise’s most iconic films, directed at one of its most iconic villains. It’s easy for old fans to forget – and probably hard for new fans to imagine – that Khan only appeared in one single episode before getting his Wrath … and that the episode in question was pretty much your standard episode of The Original Series. Granted, it’s a good episode. Or at least, I think it is, while fully admitting that I can’t be even remotely objective about it: my memories of The Wrath of Khan are so strong – and so much stronger than my memories of “Space Seed”, before I rewatched it – that it’s impossible not to let them color my viewing of this episode. But for the most part, this episode fits pretty unobtrusively among its fellow Original Series episodes, complete with those elements of the series that can come off as dated or problematic now: the trope of a character being almost literally mesmerized by the mere sight of an attractive person of the opposite sex; the, uh, let’s say simplisticly written woman on the crew who would appear in only one episode, in this case Lt. McGivers; and, of course, the casting of Ricardo Montalban as a character of Indian descent, when the actor clearly isn’t (I’ve always, maybe naively, taken this to show the international, cross-cultural nature of these augmented warlords, but I absolutely understand why someone would take issue with a casting choice like this).

space seed 2That casting choice, though, is one thing which really does make “Space Seed” stand out, aside from its historic significance in the franchise. The man who commits terrible deeds while striving for perfection is a well-worn Trek trope in itself – it was the basis for the pilot episode which earned The Original Series its place on television – but Montalban’s performance, along with the writing and direction of “Space Seed”, immediately sets Khan apart from other iterations of that trope. In addition to Montalban’s obvious charisma as an actor, Khan is believable as a brilliant tactician and leader because we’re not just told that he is those things – we really see those traits in action. Khan is repeatedly shown to be hyper-aware of his surroundings, as when he remembers details from a discussion amongst the away team, overheard as he was waking from his deep, centuries-long stasis. His tactical prowess isn’t just a historical detail, but is demonstrated during his dinner with the Enterprise crew, when he calls out Kirk’s own subtle tactics for getting information out of him: “You let your second-in-command attack, while you sit and watch for weakness.” And while Khan’s ability to practically mesmerize McGivers is a dated artifact of this episode’s 60s origins, Montalban still sells us on the idea of Khan as a leader so inspiring and charismatic that Kirk refers to him as “the best of the tyrants” (which is, admittedly, a problematic phrase in its own right). While it might have been hard to predict, at the time, that Khan would return in as grand a fashion as he does in The Wrath of Khan, it certainly makes sense in retrospect; a capable, charismatic, believably motivated villain is even more crucial to a feature-length film than a single episode of television, and Khan already fits that bill in “Space Seed”.

space seed 4It’s notable, though, that when Khan does return in Star Trek II, his origin as a genetically engineered warlord from Earth’s past is rarely mentioned, and is really only relevant to the film’s plot in as much as it makes him a formidable foil for Kirk, the target of his revenge. Notable, because the introduction of the Eugenics Wars and World War III into Star Trek lore is the other thing about “Space Seed” that stands out from your average Original Series episodes. Where many plot details of “Space Seed” were hazy in my memory until I recently rewatched it, its cryptic references to the troubled times between the 20th and 23rd centuries left a much more lasting impression on me. And I think it’s fair to say that it had a similar effect, not only on other fans, but on future writers of the franchise as well. As I’ve noted before, one of the most striking (and successful) elements of The Next Generation’s first episode, “Encounter at Farpoint”, is its brief, cryptic glimpse of the “grievously savage” past for which Q holds 24th-century humans accountable. The vaguely mid-21st-century “post-atomic horror” depicted in that episode doesn’t sync up exactly with the history implied by Khan’s backstory; the timeline for World War III, for instance, was understandably pushed farther into our future than that proposed in the 60s by “Space Seed” (which had Khan seizing power sometime around my thirteenth birthday). But the broad strokes of Earth’s post-apocalyptic past, as depicted in “Farpoint”, seem to carry on pretty clearly from the future history suggested by “Space Seed”, with drug-controlled soldiers standing in for genetic engineering as a sign that technological progress took the humans of the Trek universe to some very dark places before it helped them arrive at the bright future of the Federation. If The Wrath of Khan had never been made, “Space Seed” would still be significant for introducing that post-apocalyptic ingredient into Trek’s recipe for a utopian future. The Trek universe is made much richer, I think, by this episode’s suggestion that the Federation is only paradise because of some very, very hard lessons learned from Earth’s past (or from our fictional, but disconcertingly plausible, future).

arik soong 7It’s no surprise, then, that Enterprise, a prequel series set a hundred years in The Original Series’ past, would take the opportunity to further explore the fallout from the Eugenics Wars. In a three-episode arc which begins with “Borderland” – and which sets a template for multi-episode, anthology-style arcs that will be followed for most of Enterprise’s fourth, and final, season – Trek returns both to the idea of genetically engineered warlords (or Augments, as they’re called here), and to pitting the captain (Archer, in this case) against a formidable, charismatic foil. The arc handles one of these elements far, far better than the other; Dr. Arik Soong, played as a virtual supervillain by The Next Generation’s Brent Spiner, is much more impressive and entertaining than the actual supervillains, the Augments, who really fall flat for me. While these episodes do manage to portray the Augments’ physical strength and fighting skills in a way that “Space Seed” didn’t have the budget to do with Khan, Malik and his siblings are utterly unconvincing as either tactical geniuses or charismatic leaders; Malik is conspicuously bland, and his big master plan – to start a galactic war as a distraction, just so the Federation will leave the Augments alone – is cartoonishly, boringly evil, in stark contrast to Khan’s much more grounded and interesting need to see himself as a benevolent dictator in “Space Seed”, or as the wronged party seeking righteous vengeance in Wrath of Khan. And Persis, the only Augmented woman to get any lines, is given even less purpose and agency in these episodes from 2004 than Lt. McGivers was in “Space Seed” in 1967 … all while wearing a strategically ripped version of the ridiculous-looking Augment outfits, which were clearly meant to reference Wrath of Khan in a bit of fan service that makes no sense otherwise. (Khan and company’s outfits were ragged because they’d spent decades struggling to survive on a barren, apocalyptic planet … what’s the Augments’ excuse?)

arik soong 1Granted, Brent Spiner’s presence here as Arik Soong is blatant fan service, too – stunt-casting in an arc that already features the extremely recognizable professional wrestler, the Big Show, as an Orion slaver in “Borderland”. There’s no in-universe reason why Arik, for the purposes of this story, needs to be a (conveniently identical) ancestor of Noonien Soong, who created TNG’s Data (aside from the similarity between the names Noonien Soong and Khan Noonien Singh, which, as I understand it, was always more a personal choice by Gene Roddenberry than a plot point). But I’m a lot less critical of this instance of obvious pandering, because Spiner turns out to be very well-cast here. Like Montalban’s Khan, Dr. Soong holds my attention from his first moment on screen, and really does make an excellent foil for Captain Archer; I’m admittedly not a fan of Archer as a character, but I enjoy his scenes with Soong a great deal. And, also like Khan, Soong is believably shown to be the genius everyone says he is, and his motivations throughout these episodes are solidly based in well-defined character traits. While he refuses to allow his scientific aspirations to be held back by the ethics of others, he isn’t amoral. He honestly prioritizes the well-being of humanity in general over the well-being of individual humans, but he isn’t needlessly cruel to those individuals, and he’s capable of seeing that he was wrong about the Augments when he realizes that they do, indeed, pose a danger, both to individuals and to humanity in general. He’s also just a lot of fun to watch, which is important in its own right. Enterprise was, at this point, establishing a new (if short-lived) tradition of multi-part, high-adventure mini-arcs, with a fourth season that plays more like a series of split-up movies than a season of episodic television, and a distinct sense of sci-fi fun is a crucial part of that format.

arik soong 8But on top of the fun, the Arik Soong arc also manages to add some serious thought to Trek’s take on genetic engineering. The discussions of genetic engineering in “Space Seed” reflect an understandably simplistic attitude towards what was, in the 1960s, a fairly abstract sci-fi technology, with Spock offering this piece of simplistic conventional wisdom: “the scientists overlooked one fact – superior ability breeds superior ambition”. Enterprise’s Arik Soong episodes, meanwhile, first aired in the mid-2000s, by which time cloning and genetic engineering were starting to be more science than fiction. As a result, we get significantly more nuanced discussion on the subject from Soong, Archer, and Dr. Phlox. Soong’s goal isn’t to make conquerors of “supreme ambition”, but to improve the human race as a whole; he points out that Archer’s father died from a condition that could have been prevented through the sort of genetic engineering that produced Khan and the Augments, and Archer genuinely struggles with that knowledge, as anyone in his position would. Phlox, in particular, manages to take us past the simple yes-or-no question, ‘is genetic engineering good’, to a place where we can consider whether there are helpful or appropriate uses of genetic engineering, while still acknowledging that making Khans is probably a bad idea:

Soong: I didn’t realise you shared humanity’s reactionary attitude toward this field of medicine.

Phlox: On the contrary. We’ve used genetic engineering on Denobula for over two centuries, to generally positive effect.

S: But you don’t approve of what I’ve done.

P: You tried to redesign your species. The first time that was attempted on Earth, the result was thirty million deaths.

S: We can’t let past mistakes hold us back.

P: It’s your responsibility as a scientist to learn from past mistakes.

S: Well, what makes you think I haven’t?

P: I can read.

arik soong 3The Denobulans’ use of genetic engineering adds something important to the discussion of genetic engineering here. To call a technology, any technology, inherently good or bad is to ignore the various effects, both good and bad, that technology has on the lives of real people. The mistake made by the Augments’ original creators wasn’t playing god; it was failing to prevent their creations from hurting, killing, and subjugating millions of people. Soong’s mistake isn’t his interest in genetic engineering; it’s his failure to learn from the failures of those earlier scientists. This way of looking at genetic engineering – not as a Pandora’s box to never be opened, but a very powerful tool that must be approached thoughtfully and carefully – reframes that intriguing premise from “Space Seed” in a way that feels more relevant now, in a time when human genetic engineering seems like something that will probably become reality eventually, regardless of how we feel about it. I’m often critical of Enterprise’s overreliance on inserting itself into previously established Trek continuity, but this, I think, is a pretty good example of Enterprise adding to that continuity, rather than just fetishizing it.

arik soong 4Next time, we’ll look at two tragic tales of what the word ‘patriotism’ might really mean, when we compare The Next Generation‘s “The Defector” with one of Deep Space Nine‘s finest moments, “Duet”!duet 2

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