Wrath of Khan – Literate Sci-Fi

Star-Trek-II-The-Wrath-of-Khan-theatrical-poster“How do you feel Jim?”

Do you ever read a book or watch a movie as a kid who was maybe too young to do so, and think Hot diggity, it was awesome, only to leave it for a long time, go and get some grey in your hair (18 hairs exactly), then come back to that movie you loved as a kid, only to finally realise how brilliant it was?

Okay, maybe that was a bit specific. But that is my experience with what is undeniably the best of the Star Trek movies: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

When I was little, I could only appreciate how fun the movie was. But as a kid, I wasn’t equipped to understand the deft strokes with which writer/director Nicholas Meyer painted his space opera of revenge with the details of classic literature. I can now.

After Star Trek: the motion picture (1979) failed to turn heads or box office numbers the way Paramount wanted, a sequel with a much slimmer budget than its predecessor (11 million US dollars to the first movies 35 million). The screenwriter and author Nicholas Meyer was brought in to create a story that was a sequel to the 1967 Star Trek Episode Space Seed.

This saw Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise fighting against the wit of Khan Noonien Singh (played by the brilliant Ricardo Montalbán, who insisted his chest be visible at all times). The reduced budget meant that this movie is shot in a series of tight angles, close-ups on characters’ face. This meant that the acting and the script had to come before the spectacle of special effects.

The movie opens with Star Trek’s Catch-22, The Kobayashi Maru. Saavik, a young Vulcan trainee, is sitting in the captain’s chair, trying to rescue a ship. Klingons attack. The ship is destroyed. We see Spock, Uhura, Solo, and Bones. Everybody died. End simulation. Enter Admiral James T. Kirk. Thus starts the movie, the idea that at some point, we must all face a no-win scenario.

I have no problem saying that this movie is William Shatner’s best turn as Kirk. Never before again is this character so nuanced or layered as he is here. “How do you feel?” Bones asks, near the beginning of the film.

“Old,” Kirk says. Shatner’s delivery of the line and the tired, grim look on his face say more than I ever could.

And so begins the literary themes of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk’s journey through the conflict of Peter Pan. He is no longer the young flying adventurer he once was. Kirk is afraid to grow up. This is contrasted beautifully with Khan, the superhuman who does not age. Themes of ageing, sacrifice and death are the blood of this movie, running throughout every scene as Kirk and his companions have to face that old inevitability of the no-win scenario.

If ageing and sacrifice are the blood of the movie, then Revenge and obsession are the bones (no pun intended Dr McCoy). Nicholas Meyer, the literature expert and author that he is, makes it easy for us. Let’s look at the books on Khan’s shelf when Chekov stumbles onto the remains of the ship Botany Bay on a ruined planet.

Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Yeah, okay, it doesn’t take a genius to spot the reference this movie pays to Moby Dick. Khan hunts Kirk to the point of self-destruction while quoting Melville’s classic. Similarly reference to the bible is pretty easy to spot. Everybody is fighting over the invention of Dr Carol Marcus, called Genesis, a device that can make new life by creating an entirely new planet, though interestingly it first has to destroy whatever is already there.

But for Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno, you might have to look a little deeper. Because of course, this is the second appearance of Khan Noonien Singh. In his original TV appearance in Spaceseed, Khan is cast out of the enterprise for attempting to take over the ship and kill the crew and abandoned on an empty planet. When Kirk asks if this will be preferable to imprisonment, Khan said: “Tis better to rule in Hell, than serve in heaven.”

So if Spaceseed is Satan entirely out of heaven, then Wrath of Khan is definitely the devil rising from the pit to war with God. Is Kirk God for this story? Um… I’m not sure how to answer that on the off chance either William Shatner or George Takie ever read this and explode (each for entirely different reasons).

As for King Leer, there isn’t anything so specific save themes of fatherhood in Kirk’s discovery of his son, and themes of revenge. Kirk is the king and has been the king for far too long, and Khan has come to bring down the kingdom, only to ultimately fail.

What runs through all of these great works that connect the movie are the themes of revenge, sacrifice, and loss. The most famous line of the film is not a reference to what has come before, but of course Spock’s iconic “The needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

This is repeated twice throughout the film, once far closer to the beginning, and then at the end, in Spock’s death scene (aka the most well-done death scene in modern cinema). That is what links all of these stories. Khan forced his crew to hunt for Kirk, putting his needs above theirs, and they all die for it. Spock chose to die, putting the needs of his crew above his own.

In this, Spock manages to take a step forward, and manage what none of these classics of literature managed to do. He beat The Kobayashi Maru test. Self-sacrifice was the thing that never occurred to the characters in Moby Dick, or Dante’s Inferno, or Leer or Paradise Lost.

All of this is bookmarked by themes of aging. Yes, the crew of the Enterprise are getting older, yes Jim Kirk is not the young man he was in 1966. Instead of ignoring the ageing of its actors, this movie makes it integral to the plot. Kirk’s fear of ageing, of becoming irrelevant and outdated, is even juxtaposed by the superhuman that is Khan, who refuses to ever age or die, and who’s chest is still shiny and visible at all times.

Kirk admits, at the end of the movie, that he has never faced death. “not like this,” He says. Kirk has beaten his adversary who rose up from hell. He has watched Genesis as the creation of new life. He has found a new reality as a parent, and Spock is dead. This is all what makes Star Trek II the best movie of the franchise. It is a fascinating character study, layered with a reverence for literature and the themes of loss and revenge.

I think if anyone should take anything away, it should be that the best movie in this grand science fiction franchise wasn’t the one with the highest budget or the best special effects. It was the one made with little money and fantastic writing.

“How do you feel, Jim?” Asks Bones McCoy at the beginning and ends of the film. In the beginning, Kirk is beginning to feel his age, being left behind by a newer, younger generation. In the end, Kirk has lost his best friend and watches as a new planet roars to life. This is the most complicated and nuanced the character has ever been or ever will be again.

“Young,” He says in the end.

“I feel young.”


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