As a prequel to Star Trek's most beloved movie, "Space Seed" has a lot to live up to. Originally just another of the original 79 episodes (and a cost saving bottle show at that), it was rarely considered a "top ten" episode for its first fifteen years. Even today, caught in The Wrath of Khan's shadow, the episode is considered an average offering with an incredible guest star. And that's a bit of a shame, because the script itself is actually rather good.
Layering the plot with a science fiction story set in the 1990s (or the near future, as it was in the 1960s), Coon's teleplay (which includes a Roddenberry polish) is cleverly structured to tell its multi-century story without overwhelming the viewer. The ambitious backstory itself is, as a certain Vulcan would say, fascinating, combining genetic enhancement, World War III, and cryogenics. Director Marc Daniels doesn't rush a moment, letting the story unfold organically. (Fans of The Wrath of Khan can be frustrated by the slow establishment of a character they already know, but for an ignoramus, it works beautifully).
Of course, none of it works if there's no believable guest star to fill the leader's role. And that's where the show hits a grand slam, with Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalban playing Khan with such strength, intelligence, charisma, and leadership, it's as if the part was written for him.
Star Trek, of course, is blessed to have three actors of movie star caliber at its core. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley could have all been valuable contract players in the film industry had that system not collapsed following World War II. (In fact, Kelley did get a contract in the system's waning days... for Paramount, the studio that decades later would invite Kelley to reprise McCoy in the Star Trek movies). Or, had the industry had time to reinvent itself in time, they could have skipped television altogether and jumped to the big screen much sooner than they did. But in the late 60s, with the film business still in flux, the "big three" were happy to do television, and Star Trek is all the richer for it. When it comes to the guest stars, however, the series often had to settle for lesser talent. There are some great character actors: Roger C. Carmel as Harry Mudd, William Campbell as Trelane, and Mark Leonard as Sarek come to mind. But only Montalban could bring enough presence to Khan to make him a believable character, and only he could hold stage with Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley, making the three even better than usual. (Kelley, in particular, shines, working with Montalbn for one of McCoy's most memorable scenes of the series).
Unfortunately, the writers make Kirk look like an idiot by having the captain share all the Enterprise's technical information with Khan. In a way, it's a necessary evil; a plot contrivance required to tell the story. But it sure doesn't seem like Coon and Wilber are making much of an effort to hide it. They have Kirk basically say, "Our technical journals are available for everyone, and Khan probably just wants to catch up on his engineering But nobody's buying it. (At least the journals are on a computer, a bit of forward thinking in the 1960s that's easy to overlook What's interesting is that the true substance of the story lies in the relationship between Khan and crewman McGivers (played by Madlyn Rhue, who had already played Montalban's wife in an episode of Bonanza). Having a confused McGivers give Khan the information rather than Kirk would enhance the main storyline and be much more believable. As is, Montalban and Rhue give quite a demonstration of an abusive relationship, which is all the more interesting for being more psychological than physical.
It all leads to a James Bond-like climax, with circumstances boiling the episode down to a fight between Kirk and Khan. (It proves to be a unique encounter, with Khan and Kirk never actually meeting in person in their feature film followup).
As a bottle show, "Space Seed" is never going to be mistaken for a multi million dollar movie where Khan and Kirk can chase each other across the galaxy through space stations and nebulas; but as a small screen story it covers a lot of ground and features some compelling performances. Of course, back in 1967 nobody could have thought the Star Trek franchise would be alive and well in the 1990s (its most prolific decade), and the series has struggled with reconciling a piece of Earth history that didn't come to be. (For The Wrath of Khan, the writers are intentionally more vague about Khan's origins, and in The Next Generation, the wrtiers move World War III to the 21st Century). But having no hoverboards in 2015 makes Back to the Future no less fun, and viewed as a piece of 1960s science fiction, "Space Seed" is quite good.
Remastered: Just as the script is kind to the casting department, needing only one good superman to speak his dozens of followers, the script is also kind to the special effects people, giving them some memorable work to do early before the episode becomes character-based with no effects needed. As such, the original work is actually quite good, with a gorgeous ship for Khan and his people and some nice shots of it interacting with the Enterprise before it's cut loose. (The episode even throws in a shot of the bridge's viewscreen from far enough back to see most of the crew, a more difficult compositing trick than than the standard viewscreen shot where it fills most of the
For CBS Digital, the episode presents the ideal scenario: a chance to recreate a great looking spacecraft for a memorable episode with only a few shots to do and nothing else to eat up the budget. Pouring themselves into the task, they recreate the original physical model as a digital model, adding "1990s" details such a docking hatch designed to be compatible with international space station and tiles identical to those on space shuttles. Employing some new dynamic camera angles, they bring the new ship to life in a way that honors the original but looks closer to the quality of the effects in The Wrath of Khan.