As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…
Very early on, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan positions itself as a film not just about life and death, but also about age.
We like to think of Captain James T. Kirk as one of the iconic heroic figures of 20th century media. Gene Roddenberry envisaged Star Trek as a Western in space, a “Wagon Train to the Stars”, and for the second film director Nicholas Meyer thought a lot about Horatio Hornblower, from the mid-20th century novels by C. S. Forester. The younger Kirk was a space cowboy, an honourable sharpshooter riding his starship steed across the galaxy with his trusty crew, encountering life forms, putting out fires, starting a few unintentionally, and finding a girl in almost every port. Meyer reconfigures Kirk in middle-age as the swaggering commander in chief, the seasoned voyager whose cowboy days are long over. “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor” he tells Leonard McCoy, after all.
Yet this elder Kirk is restless and Meyer conveys this from the beginning. Following the disastrous Kobayashi Maru, Kirk’s trusty, unlikely best friend, the equally seasoned and middle-aged Spock, presents his commander with a birthday present – Charles Dickens’ 19th century classic A Tale of Two Cities, in a beautiful, historic hardback edition. Kirk reads the legendary opening lines: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times… message, Spock?”. Kirk understands that his friend gives everything deliberate and naturally, as a Vulcan, logical thought, so guesses Spock would not have passed this book onto him on such a key day arbitrarily. “None that I’m conscious of” Spock replies coyly, but we don’t believe either. Kirk is intelligent and well read enough to be aware Spock detects in him a melancholy, a sorrow, which the Kobayashi Maru—a reminder of his youthful brio—serves to simply underscore.
Captain Kirk is gone. Admiral Kirk endures. Yet what is left when the cowboy hangs up his boots?
Many of the themes running through The Wrath of Khan become apparent in what could be my favourite scene of the entire movie, in which Bones pays Kirk a visit at his San Francisco apartment on his 52nd birthday, replete with a bottle of illegal—and likely skull-crushingly potent—Romulan Ale.
Just as a side point on that particular beverage, it subsequently became a recurring touchstone when Star Trek’s fictional future dabbled in drinks – Jean-Luc Picard had his trusty Earl Grey tea, the Klingons developed their tough Raktajino coffee once we began to peer inside their Empire following the Cold War thaw of 1991 (which Meyer himself allegorised in his second Trek film, The Undiscovered Country), but here Romulan Ale serves as a reminder as to the ‘alien’ state of another classic, and well-remembered, 1960’s antagonist, who would barely play a part in the Star Trek movie world until 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.
If the Klingons were Russia, the Romulans have always been China, and in many respects even to this day remain as distant, reclusive and unknowable to Western eyes. Bones bringing a bottle smuggled in by a reader across the intractable Neutral Zone “for medicinal purposes” recalls both the Cold War neutrality of the early 1980’s and also the trope of the gnarled, frontier medicine man holding back a whiskey flask to distribute to the wounded cowboy, soldier or sailor in times of need. Another reminder under Meyer we’re in Hornblower’s Star Trek.
Kirk does also fit the figure of a wounded sailor, if not in a physical sense. Though high in rank and at the age many voyagers would be ready for a relaxed family life watching children grow into adults, the Admiral is restless and alone. His apartment, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge near Starfleet Headquarters—the very heart of the Federation in a sense—is filled with antiquities which reflect his former life; 18th century sailing ships and flintlock pistols adorn the walls. Kirk is a Captain in repose, a sailor without the vessel and crew that defined him. McCoy’s intended celebrations just bring these facts home. “Damn it, Jim, what the hell’s the matter with you? Other people have birthdays. Why are we treating yours like a funeral?”. If Spock communicates through metaphor, through Dickens, then Bones straight shoots right to heart of Kirk’s lingering demons. “You’re hiding …hiding behind rules and regulations”.
If we are to assume that The Wrath of Khan represents a rebirth for the Star Trek franchise, then is the accusation that Kirk is hiding from his own true self a broader metaphor for the franchise as a whole? The Motion Picture, after all, seemed almost embarrassed to embrace on the big screen the same youthful, colourful joie de vivre of the 1960’s era – the Enterprise was cleaner and duller of hue, as were the uniforms of the latter part of the 23rd century, and the film delivered a cool, arch existential dilemma for the crew to angst their way through. With The Wrath of Khan, Nicholas Meyer seeks not just to recapture some of the derring-do inherent of Star Trek of old, but rediscover the fire Kirk had lost by The Motion Picture and his promotion. Admiralty and respect did not constitute satisfaction for Kirk, in the same way fans were left feeling The Motion Picture lacked some of the series’ spark.
“Get back your command. Get it back before you turn into part of this collection. Before you really do grow old.” Bones advises Kirk, reflecting on the man’s apartment, but he could also be reflecting on the franchise as a whole. The Wrath of Khan feels like an intentional call to action, a shock to the middle-aged system, and as Kirk’s old instincts are rediscovered, so too does Meyer find the key to Star Trek itself. Humanity and emotion amidst the final frontier. In a different manner, the scenes revolving around the celebration of Kirk’s birthday are as key in terms of foreshadowing as Spock’s ‘death’ during the Kobayashi Maru.
This is about life… from lifelessness.
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series here:
II – ‘Surely, the Best of Times’