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…
Though it retains the innate sense of optimism built into Star Trek’s world view, The Wrath of Khan approaches Gene Roddenberry’s universe from far more of a humanistic, historical naval tradition.
Starfleet of The Original Series was a crew of cowboy scientists galloping, as James T. Kirk suggests, through space. Nicholas Meyer’s film recasts the organisation as a respectful militaristic structure riven with rule and tradition. The Federation may not be equivalent to the British Empire of the 19th century, but if Kirk is Captain Horatio Hornblower and the U.S.S. Enterprise his frigate, Starfleet most certainly is a classical ‘space Navy’ in a way that wasn’t apparent in The Motion Picture.
What facilitated this change? Why did Meyer see Starfleet, later described in JJ Abrams’ reboot as a “humanitarian and peacekeeping armada”, in terms of rank and file, of rules and regulations?
One significant factor is that Meyer had never watched The Original Series and, as a result, had what he describes as a “healthy disrespect” for the concept:
Star Trek was human allegory in a space format. That was both its strength and, ultimately, its weakness. I tried through irreverence to make them more human and a little less wooden. I didn’t insist that Captain Kirk go to the bathroom, but did Star Trek have to be so sanctified?
It is perhaps a little unfair to suggest The Original Series presented the Enterprise crew as wooden. That argument could be levelled at The Motion Picture, which swops the 1960’s colour and camp of the series for colder, unemotional distance; you can even accuse the awkward first two seasons of The Next Generation, arriving on the back of The Wrath of Khan’s subsequent sequels, of such a charge. Yet Meyer is onto something. Roddenberry’s central thesis that humanity would, by the 23rd century, have evolved into a unified race free of internal conflict also bleeds out to a level of inviolate weakness. The Wrath of Khan dares to have Kirk truly doubt himself. It allows him to feel loss. It challenges the paradigm of what Star Trek is capable of in a unique way
Hence the stylistic and functional regression, almost, of Starfleet from a loose frontier exploration agency to a cautious and expedient naval office. Kirk’s promotion to Admiral (which admittedly happened by the time of The Motion Picture, if we’re splitting hairs) is another example, logically assuming he would have reached the rank and stature after years commanding a crew, to hold a position of higher Starfleet authority. This is a Kirk overseeing the Kobayashi Maru training exercise or, as we witness in these next few scenes, evaluating the crew and operations of the Enterprise. Yet, as we have already seen in his conversation with Dr. McCoy, he is unhappy with his status. “I hate inspections” he moans to an enthusiastic Hikaru Sulu. Kirk perhaps also hates, in some way, what Starfleet has become, or what Starfleet has turned him into.
The sense of time passing around Kirk, of the world he knew evolving, is exemplified in the presence of the training crew he evaluates upon coming aboard ship. Everything is in its place. Rank and file. Though filled with their customary warmth for each other over years of friendship, there remains a respectful professional distance between Kirk and Spock, now Captain of the Enterprise. There remains a cheeky level of interplay between Kirk and Montgomery Scott, who in Meyer’s vision of the Enterprise crew rarely escapes the bowels of engineering where he recovers from a “bout” of shore leave.
The atmosphere is formal but collegiate, relatable and human. Kirk refers to Scotty as “you old space dog”. Scotty is even gifted a nephew in the ill-fated Midshipman First Class Peter Preston, engineers mate. While he may fall under the definition of ‘redshirt’, a term applied to the endless, nameless crewmen who would die on away missions in The Original Series, Preston is more than just a hollow loss. He has a face, a name and a connection to the characters we know, and therefore to us.
Meyer’s script is riven with foreshadowing, and Preston’s death is no exception. When Spock reminds Kirk of his familiarity with the trainees, Kirk flippantly jokes that they have been “through death and life together”, drolly referencing the Kobayashi Maru test that similarly foreshadowed the eventual death of Spock. It is a key phrase that also reflects the rebirth central to Kirk’s character arc, and the underpinning broader theme of The Wrath of Khan. From death comes life, in numerous different forms.
We come to further understand in these scenes, which as Kirk rejoins the Enterprise are primarily designed to establish his reason for being there and set the ship on course for eventually colliding with the dual Khan narrative already in play, the importance of Saavik to Meyer’s story. We have already seen her as the primary symbol of the changing of the guard in The Wrath of Khan, the new life breathed into the old Enterprise, given her failure to successfully beat the Kobayashi Maru’s no-win scenario, but she remains increasingly fascinated by Kirk’s balance of nautical regality and innate collegiality.
“He’s so… human” she remarks to Spock, in a rare moment of cultural significance as they speak in pure Vulcan. “Nobody’s perfect, Saavik” Spock drolly replies, perhaps as a slight rejoinder regarding his own dual heritage. Saavik doesn’t seem to mean this as a slight, rather a curious observation about a man who she previously had only presumably studied and read about. Kirk by this point is a living legend, and you sense this in how characters like Saavik and Preston react to him.
Yet there remains a sense that Kirk is still uncertain and quietly dubious about the youthful brio aboard his old ship. Preston is confident despite it being his first training voyage, while Spock seems more at ease with Saavik’s abilities—understandably as his protege—than Kirk. “For everything there is a first time, Lieutenant” Spock remarks as he offers Saavik to pilot the Enterprise out of space dock, considered here to be a far trickier and more nuanced commanding manoeuvre than later Star Trek might have us believe. “Wouldn’t you agree, Admiral?” Spock asks Kirk, challenging a nervousness he likely detects. “Would you like a tranquilliser?” Bones chips in, almost akin to a Greek choral observer gauging his friend’s thoughts. Kirk’s anxiety about change, about perhaps feeling irrelevant, about his place within Starfleet’s naval structure, is all too apparent.
Part of his journey will be rediscovering that youth in himself as he comes to trust the new life around him, even if some of it is born in death.
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series here:
IV – ‘Death and Life Together’