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I just watched the Star Trek: the Original Series episode Space Seed.

Kirk's decision to drop the charges against Kahn and just maroon Khan on Ceti Alpha V instead of turning him over to the Federation is baffling to me. Khan is obviously a major threat to be reckoned with, and giving him free reign of a whole planet seems like a pretty bad idea.

Are there any sources that offer an explanation of Kirk's reasoning? The more canon the source, the better, but I'm open to most any sources that aren't just speculation (later episodes or movies, novelizations, statements by the writers, extended-universe books, etc).

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    “Free reign of a whole planet”: Ceti Alpha V isn’t exactly a cushy place. (even before what happens to Ceti Alpha VI) There’d be no reason to expect Khan to access warp capable transport any time soon.
    – Ben Murphy
    Jul 3, 2023 at 4:27
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    @lucasbachmann The events of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would suggest he's not just a "villain of the week". No other original series antagonist re-appeared to cause trouble later, unless you count Mudd as an antagonist, but he's certainly no Khan. Jul 3, 2023 at 7:09
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    @ToddWilcox how is Kirk supposed to make decisions based on events 20 years in the future?? Jul 3, 2023 at 7:10
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    @lucasbachmann I didn't realize you were speaking in-universe. I can't imagine any characters in the Star Trek universe thinking that anyone they meet is a "villain of the week". Kirk knew that Khan ruled a quarter of the entire earth. Doesn't seem like the resume of someone who is "not a major threat". Jul 3, 2023 at 7:13
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    IMHO "free reign" should read "free rein". Reins are used to control a horse; "free rein" means to let the horse run wherever it wants to go; it has nothing to do with reign. Possibly to confusion arose because the late Queen use to be a good horsewoman: she reigned and reined. Jul 4, 2023 at 19:29

3 Answers 3

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Star Trek: Khan - Ruling in Hell IDW Publishing October 2010 – January 2011

From issue 1

Kirk states his concerns that Khan could easily escape a re-education facility or Starbase. His preference was having Khan focused on this new world.

https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Star_Trek:_Khan_-_Ruling_in_Hell

Ruling in Hell comic

Additional comment that this mercy is in character for Kirk as also seen in the episode "By Any Other Name". The villains in this were lovecraftian aliens from the Andromeda galaxy that killed a member of his crew!

Transcript from http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/50.htm

ROJAN: We have a duty, our mission. We've got to accomplish any way we can.

KIRK: Your mission is to find new worlds for your people to live in. You can still do that. We can bring this problem to the Federation. There are many planets in this galaxy that can be inhabited.

ROJAN: You would really do that? You would extend welcome to invaders?

KIRK: No. But we would welcome friends.

SPOCK: Rojan, you are only a link in a chain, following an order given three hundred years ago. This is an opportunity for you to establish a destiny of your own.

ROJAN: Perhaps. Perhaps it could be done.

SPOCK: A robot ship could be sent to Kelva with the Federation proposal.

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According to Memory Alpha:

Later, at a formal hearing, Kirk drops all charges against Khan and his people, considering it a "waste" to put Khan in a penal colony, and gives him the offer of taming the uninhabited world of Ceti Alpha V an offer which Khan accepts referencing a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost that "it is better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven." Marla McGivers is given the option of court martial or accompanying Khan and his people. Khan warns her it will be difficult at first to survive, to find food, and Marla chooses to join Khan and his people.

Stated in the episode:

  • Kirk has some appreciation and/or admiration for Khan and his people and doesn't think a penal colony would be justice for them.
  • Kirk is empowered to make these decisions.

Conclusions and suppositions that could be drawn:

  • Kirk and the senior officers are Starfleet and are empowered to act as they did and make such choices. The idea of turning Khan over to Starfleet doesn't make sense - he is already a prisoner of Starfleet.
  • Returning to the nearest starbase might delay or impede the progress of their exploration.
  • It may not be safe to allow Khan and his people to remain aboard Enterprise or to be imprisoned by Starfleet pending any other kind of trial.
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  • I just realized I made a mistake in my title question. I meant to say, "turning them over to the Federation" instead of "starfleet". I guess I assumed that the Federation as a whole would have better resources for managing dangerous criminals than Starfleet. Then again, I get the impression that the notion of "the Federation" wasn't super well developed this early on in the series, so maybe that wasn't an option that the writers had
    – T Hummus
    Jul 3, 2023 at 17:59
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Risks of returning Khan to Earth:

  • Before the trip is over, Khan might find another way to take over the Enterprise and cause all sorts of mischief. Remember, in TOS the Enterprise carries potentially planet-destroying weapons.

  • Since so much time has passed since Khan's dictatorship ruled part of Earth, the citizens of Earth may no longer connect emotionally with the bitterness of Khan's past tyranny. They may decide not to try him for his war crimes, or if they try him, might acquit him. And even if they sentence him, it probably won't deprive him of life or his freedom of speech.

  • In or out of prison, Khan could use his charisma and political cunning to win supporters, freedom, and power, a goal he has not abandoned. Kirk knows Khan has the desire and maybe the ability to conquer the world. Perhaps Kirk believes that Earth's people are a bit "softer" and more trusting than people of the 20th century.

  • In short, Kirk would be unleashing a superhuman sociopath on an Earth which may or may not be prepared to deal with him.

On the other hand:

  • Kirk certainly can't keep Khan on the Enterprise.

  • It'd be wrong to foist Khan on another intelligent race, or leave him anywhere he might be able to steal a ship with a warp drive.

  • Kirk's ethics would not allow him to simply execute Khan and his men without trial.

  • If he tried to kill them, these superhumans driven to desperation might do almost anything.

In conclusion:

Kirk can't risk releasing Khan and his men on Earth or any other world where he might gain power or weapons, but it would also be dangerous to try to kill them, or otherwise back them into a corner that would make them desperate. Marooning them on Ceti Alpha V is a good solution because:

  • It gets Khan off Kirk's ship and away from its weapons.

  • It keeps other worlds safe from Khan. (I assume it would take more than one lifetime for Khan's people to discover/invent warp travel).

  • It gives Khan and his men a prize -- an entire world! -- if they are tough enough to conquer it. This is a challenge that pleases Khan's ego, thus, he's willing to leave without doing anything desperate.

  • It might even be a net good in the long run. Ceti Alpha V, tamed by Khan, might become a productive and valuable Federation colony in Khan's grandson's time.

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