In fact, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan might just be my favorite movie ever.
It is a perfect film in so many ways. Most importantly, it taught me so much about storytelling, including the idea that action-adventure yarns can (and possibly should) have deep, human themes.
There is a lot going on in Star Trek II. When the film opens, Jim Kirk, now an admiral, is in a malaise. Because he was promoted, he is no longer captain of a starship. He works on Earth, training new recruits to explore strange new worlds, instead of boldly going himself.
Kirk, so good at solving problems in a crisis, isn’t good at self-reflection. He isn’t able to see what his trouble is, but his friends point it out to him.
“Get back your command,” McCoy tells him. “Get it back . . . before you really do grow old.”
And Spock puts it more bluntly: “It was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny.”
But Star Trek II is about more than an iconic pop cultural figure having a mid-life crisis. The story also centers around how things we leave buried in the past have a way of catching up to us.
The film’s titular villain, Khan Noonian Singh, is a megalomaniacal genius Kirk defeated on Star Trek’s first season. Kirk marooned him, but as Khan reveals, the now-admiral never checked on them, and a cataclysm caused most of Khan’s people to die. When the crew of U.S.S. Reliant accidentally discovers him, he steals the ship and sets off on a bloody quest for revenge.
But Khan isn’t the only skeleton in Kirk’s closet. There is also Dr. Carol Marcus. The details are never revealed, but it’s obvious she and Kirk had a stormy relationship that resulted in him fathering a son before an ugly breakup. David has become a scientist like his mother, and he’s learned to hate his father.
Both Drs. Marcus are involved in an experimental life-creation project called Genesis that Khan seizes to use for genocidal purposes.
Among the film’s most poignant moments is towards the second act, when all hope looks lost. Responding to Carol’s inquiry on how he’s feeling, Kirk replies, “There’s a man out there I haven’t seen in fifteen years, who’s trying to kill me. You show me a son who’d be happy to help.”
Star Trek II is not just an action film pitting good versus evil. It is the story of a man struggling to reconcile his past with his present.
The Big Picture
Those personal themes of aging and regret over mistakes made are only a piece of what is happening in the film, though. There is a larger framework of the meaning of human life.
The film begins with trainee Lt. Saavik taking the Kobayashi Maru test — a no-win scenario designed to evaluate the character of potential captains. Like everyone who took the test before her, Saavik fails. In an attempt to rescue crew members of a disabled ship, she violates treaty and gets everyone aboard the Enterprise killed.
Saavik is understandably frustrated, and that eats at her Vulcan stoicism throughout the film. We eventually discover that, when Kirk was a cadet, he reprogrammed the simulation so he could rescue the crew. As David puts it, “He cheated.”
Kirk justifies this infraction by saying he doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario, and this sets up a debate that rages through the film coming to no satisfactory conclusion.
In a way, Kirk is right. Despite being outgunned and his ship being terribly damaged, Kirk is able to defeat Khan. But for it to be more than a Pyrrhic victory, for the crew of the Enterprise to survive, Spock, Kirk’s best friend, must sacrifice himself. Had he known what Spock would attempt, Kirk would never have allowed it.
But the choice isn’t his. Spock confronts the no-win situation and makes his choice.
“Don’t grieve, Admiral,” Spock tells him as he’s dying. “It is logical.”
And then Spock reiterates another of the film’s major themes — “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” Personal desire and ambition — like Kirk’s drive for success and Khan’s lust for revenge — are destructive and don’t serve the best interests of larger society. Moreover, Spock presents Kirk with a better way forward.
“I never took the Kobayashi Maru test before now,” he says. “What do you think of my solution?”
Unlike Kirk, Spock sees the big picture. He makes a choice that preserves the most lives, does the most good.
All of these deep literary themes are deftly handled in the space of a taut thriller. Screenwriter Harve Bennett paces the story perfectly. The tension builds nicely to the first confrontation between Kirk and Khan at approximately halfway through the film.
Khan wins the initial match, and Kirk barely escapes alive. His survival comes at a terrible cost. Much of his crew — mostly young trainees — are killed or wounded by an enemy they don’t know or understand.
Khan uses Kirk to locate the Genesis project, so he can steal it — another victory for the villain. He appears to have the ultimate triumph over Kirk, seemingly marooning him just as Kirk did to him.
The final battle between the two is pulse-pounding. Director Nicholas Meyer uses the format of a submarine movie to ratchet up the tension as the two titans search for each other.
And after Kirk disables Khan’s ship, the villain isn’t done. If he’s going to die, he’s going to take his nemesis with him. He sets Genesis to go off, so Kirk’s disabled Enterprise won’t be able to get away, setting up Spock’s sacrifice.
And because Spock is one of the main characters — a giant part of the show’s ethos — his death is unthinkable. No one expects him to actually die.
A Lot of Character
Finally, the characters in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are powerful. Kirk is tortured by his demons. Spock is the wise, stoic. McCoy carries the film’s conscience — arguing passionately for Kirk to regain his command and against the existence of Genesis. Saavik is the frustrated youth, unable to fully reconcile her Vulcan stoicism with her anger and disappointment in the man who is supposed to be training her.
And then there’s Khan. He is among the great villains in cinematic history. Larger than life, he is both dangerous and accomplished. He’s smarter and cleverer than Kirk. He’s ruthless and bloodthirsty. He also is devoted to his people, rewarding their loyalty.
But he is too obsessed with avenging himself on Kirk. “He tasks me,” he says quoting Moby Dick. “He tasks me, and I shall have him.”
Khan’s Ahab-like obsession with besting Kirk leads to his downfall. His advisors try to persuade him to find new worlds to conquer, but he won’t listen. In the end, that’s what destroys him.
Timing Is Everything
I was 14 years old when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hit theaters. I’d been a casual fan of Star Trek, watching reruns on Saturday mornings in my childhood. My father took me to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture three years before.
But this film was so very different from any Trek I had seen before. It was bold and action-oriented, something many of the episodes and the first feature film were not. It was also primal. Star Trek II invoked the rawest emotions in me.
I saw it several times, and I watched it over and over when it came to cable. I had it practically memorized before I was 16.
I was offended when 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock undid the sacrifice and noble death of Spock. To this day, it is the only Star Trek film I refused to see in the theater.
Regardless, because I was young, “Wrath of Khan” was in position to really influence me. Youth comes with a lot of leisure time, and cable TV made it possible to watch a film to death. Thus, Star Trek II imprinted on me, even the parts of it I was too young to understand at the time.
But these days, as a writer in my 40’s, my heroes are Jim Kirk — tortured, struggling, perhaps even impetuous. It doesn’t matter if they are the mid-30’s Wolf Dasher, who is hyper-aware of the hypocrisies of the government for which he works and the religion of his allies, the early 20’s Calibot, hero of The Swords and the Sorcerer, who is angry his father didn’t love him for whom he is, or 12-year-old Sally Prescott, the main character in Little Red Riding Hoodie, who must care for her brother after her mother left and her father became an alcoholic. All of them are uncomfortable in the world, and seek to find some place to belong, like an aging Kirk, lost when he’s not commanding a starship.
They are surrounded by allies who give them support, friendship, and love. May Honeyflower loves Wolf unquestionably, passionately — McCoy to Wolf’s Kirk. Likewise, Devon is in love with Calibot but gives him gentle, graceful advice like Spock. Alison stands by Sally under any circumstance, willing to follow her into Hell if need be, just as Khan’s followers do.
And my villains all have a piece of Khan in them. Sagaius Silverleaf is a megalomaniac. Elmanax is obsessed with revenge. Molly Richards is larger than life.
I may write adventure stories, but they are not simple battles of good versus evil. Wolf Dasher battles more than James Bond-style masterminds. He fights against blind nationalism, struggles with the impact of religious extremism, and questions the motivations of his own government.
Calibot is a young man trying to come to terms with a father who never loved him while grieving over his death. How can he reconcile love and loathing?
Sally battles depression and bullies. She desperately wants to succeed in the school play, but she is beset by the kinds of troubles a sixth-grader shouldn’t have to face, although many do.
And I write this kind of literature because Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan showed me how. High-minded literary fiction and thrilling action-adventure can co-exist in the same story.
For all those reasons and maybe a few more, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan may just be my all-time favorite film. It is also one of the most profound influences on my work as an author.