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…
In a very real sense, the space battle that cuts right into the end of Act One, and roughly the mid-section, of The Wrath of Khan is the first true example in Star Trek of the kind of space combat we would witness in subsequent TV series and movies even up to the present day, as of writing, with the huge space combat sequence in Star Trek: Discovery’s Season Two finale.
The Wrath of Khan, as we have discussed, defined itself visually and formally on the British nautical structure, given Nicholas Meyer’s love of the Horatio Hornblower series. Yet before this, Gene Roddenberry’s Original Series had framed the Enterprise’s encounters with dangerous alien life forms often more as a camera-shaking face off as opposed to a true battle of wits.
James T. Kirk most often fought the bad guy in close quarter combat, as indeed he did Khan Noonien Singh in Space Seed, and the Enterprise rarely felt the consequences of space combat. The Wrath of Khan changed that when Meyer pitched the central encounter between the Enterprise and the hijacked USS Reliant as a World War Two submarine battle in space, particularly come the battle later in the Mutara Nebula. Their first skirmish ends up as an ambush, the lawless pirates taking on the nation-sailing frigate, and it’s one the Enterprise barely manages to escape from.
Crucially, Meyer ensures Kirk’s first encounter with Khan is not an anaemic one. As befits the overarching themes of loss and discovery, death and rebirth, the Reliant’s ambush takes its personal as well as metaphorical toll. People die. And for once, defying the classic Star Trek trope of the ‘redshirt’, we *feel* it.
Much has been said about Nicholas Meyer’s touchstones for the Reliant attack but only a couple of years ago speaking to SyFy Wire did he realise a major inspiration was the WW2 submarine thriller The Enemy Below, From 1957:
Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens [starred]. He had a long career and he played a Bond villain, the one who controls the oceans [Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me]. In The Enemy Below, Jurgens plays the German sub captain and Mitchum the destroyer captain. It was directed by Dick Powell, if you can believe it. He started off in those Busby Berkeley musicals with that high-tenor voice. Then he lowered his voice to do Philip Marlowe. Funny enough, Robert Mitchum also played Marlowe. But yeah, Dick Powell directed it. And It’s a f**king great movie. Real kick-ass story of this duel between the two captains, the one in the submarine and the one on the destroyer.
The irony in this inspiration is that Kirk more befits Jurgens’ German submarine captain that he does the traditional, masculine American archetype of Mitchum, in the sense that Kirk and the Enterprise are the fleet being attacked by the ‘destroyers’ of Khan and his mercenary band of genetically engineered crew.
This does flip around, ostensibly, come the battle in the nebula as the hunted becomes the hunter, but the great aspect of this attack is just how unexpected it is to Kirk and the Enterprise crew. “This is damn peculiar” Kirk voices before the attack begins, with Meyer’s script and direction enhancing just how unusual it is for Starfleet vessels not to follow standard greeting protocol. There is a code and system in place which suggests the Reliant is an extraordinary situation that, theoretically, should never happen.
Even despite being on a training cruise with new recruits before the Regula 1 transmission re-directs them, the Enterprise is utterly unprepared for this kind of happenstance. Khan and his crew are even more of an aberration in Federation society. Their attack simply isn’t the way things are done and in Meyer’s Starfleet, Kirk has to resort to prefix code trickery to bluff their way out of it—Kobayashi Maru style. “It’s all we’ve got” he tells Spock. That fact alone is remarkable. “They caught me with my britches down. I must be senile”. Kirk adds, his bravado wounded, age wearing on him, as Meyer directly alludes to the British nautical inspirations.
This perhaps reflects some of the deeper ideas about America’s ideological position at the turn of the 1980’s, which Meyer would directly question and display anxiety about in his second Star Trek feature in 1991, The Undiscovered Country. By 1982, the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union had quietened, Reaganism was about to usher in a new era of neoliberal economics and colourful American exceptionalism, and the United States’ place as the global, post-war vanguard was assured.
If we are to place the Federation as an allegorical future America, The Wrath of Khan exposes their utter inability to react to a threat which exists beyond the purview of the geopolitical detente of the superpowers. Khan isn’t just a pirate, he’s a pre-fundamentalist terrorist. “I mean to avenge myself upon you, Captain. I have deprived your ship of power and when I swing around, I mean to deprive you of your life” Khan says, and while his motives may be deeply personal, his objective is to invoke terror and he does this with a great deal of success.
Meyer as a writer seems interested in exploring existential threats to Federation security in all of his contributions. In his co-written script for The Voyage Home, a careless abandon for environmentalism almost destroys Earth, The Undiscovered Country explores what might happen if the Cold War detente was shattered and war threatened on the eve of peace, and in helping to devise Discovery he returns to the Klingons and terrorism, brewing them together as a fundamentalist danger to existing peace.
Khan is Meyer’s purest and most unusual problem, however; a madman risen from Hell lacking complete objectivity and seeking a powerful weapon of mass destruction. Meyer even suggests Khan might represent these creeping, existential threats of which America cannot yet even conceive. “Time is a luxury you don’t have, Admiral” Khan states as he confidently taunts his nemesis over sub space. Khan’s titular wrath could well be a bellweather for the brooding, fundamentalist anger of those who would later attack, and perhaps even in some way destroy, Western democracy.
Apart from being vividly directed and portrayed, Reliant’s attack kills many of the young recruits who recently came aboard ship, chief among them Scotty’s ill-fated nephew Peter Preston. We had briefly met him during Kirk’s training inspection but the Director’s Cut of the film re-inserts a further scene which adds meat to the bone of Preston’s character, fully spelling out ahead of time his relationship to Scotty.
In the theatrical version, you are left to infer it to an extent, given Star Trek rarely gives you much in the way of biographical detail about the families of the characters beyond Kirk, Spock or McCoy. What do you know about Scotty’s brother? Do you know who Uhura’s father is? Did you know Sulu had a daughter until Star Trek Generations? Ultimately, Preston isn’t just another redshirt. He exemplifies the human cost, in a very human film, of Khan’s inhumanity. He dies horribly, suffering from extreme burns. “He stayed at his post when the trainees ran” Scotty tearfully declares after Preston passes on. Preston, in some sense, sacrifices himself as a precursor to Spock’s broader sacrifice at the end of the film.
“Is the word given, Admiral?” are Preston’s dying words, with Kirk giving him some solace in assuring him they have escaped. The moment is mirrored later in Spock’s death, as he asks if the ship is out of danger. A barrier lies between them both whereas here, Preston’s bloody hand staining Kirk’s tunic is a startling image. Star Trek has never previously depicted loss, brutal loss and death at the hands of an enemy, in such a visual, arresting fashion. Kirk looks exhausted, washed out by the attack, and visibly wounded at Preston’s death. He may be a young crew member he only just met but he is also the nephew of his friend, his trusted crewman, and Preston’s death represents something bigger. He represents the seismic shock of Khan’s attack on the Enterprise and the Federation, even the Biblical realisation of a risen Satan attacking Starfleet’s Heavenly domain.
The Wrath of Khan is existentially changed by the Reliant’s attack as a film. It begins Kirk’s transformation back into a leader, onto his journey of self-discovery, as the spectre of his past, of his life as a younger man, strikes terror into the heart of his ship and crew. While sacrifices remain, this is the point Kirk begins to rise and Khan’s slow, steady fall back to Hell begins.
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series here:
VII – ‘The Word is Given’