Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan | A series rejuvenated

star trek II the wrath of khan
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Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan reinvigorated the franchise in 1982. In the first of a multi-part series, AJ Black explores its themes of sacrifice and rejuvenation.


In many senses, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the second coming of the Star Trek franchise. While 1979 had given us The Motion Picture, a film which has improved like a fine wine, The Wrath of Khan imposed a framework and iconic visual structure which defined Gene Roddenberry’s creation across the subsequent films of the 1980s and into The Next Generation sequel TV series and spin-offs over the next two decades. The Wrath of Khan, under the guiding hand of director Nicholas Meyer, rediscovered a humanity in Star Trek that the The Motion Picture struggled to recapture in the eyes of audiences, existing at the end of a depressed 70s where the optimism and colour of the original 1960s show had been ripped from the American psyche.

That film removed certain key principles of Star Trek’s original mission statement. Time had passed and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise were, to a degree, diffused. James T. Kirk had been promoted. Spock had left Starfleet. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy grew a beard and went through a failed marriage. The ship even had a new Captain in the young, handsome yet naive Willard Decker. Come the end of The Motion Picture, the crew were reunited and, as the film promised, ‘the human adventure is just beginning…’, but what would that voyage look like? The world of the 1980s was a far different one from that of 1969, when the Original Series of Star Trek was cancelled after three seasons.

The Motion Picture proved it could never entirely return to where it began. The Wrath of Khan, as a result, exists within the “no-win scenario”, as Kirk describes the Kobayashi Maru test which opens Meyer’s film.

It couldn’t repeat what Robert Wise did on The Motion Picture, a film coolly received critically and considered emotionally distancing to audiences. But then the camp, melodramatic flavour of Roddenberry’s series wouldn’t pass in the slicker, corporatised early 80s, either. Meyer had less of a budget than Wise with which he needed to do more. He needed to recapture the spirit of Star Trek characters that helped define American television. This is precisely why Meyer chose to pivot the film around the vengeance of an antagonist from the 60s – Star Trek needed to look back in order to progress.

As the film begins, we’re again blind-sided. Meyer pulls an ultimate feint: we not only have another new, youthful character in command of the Enterprise – Kirstie Alley’s stoic Vulcan, Saavik – but following a Klingon attack, the majority of our beloved characters are instantly killed off. Sulu, Uhura, Chekov, Spock, all lie dead on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Consider how audiences may have reacted in 1982, before a culture of cinema and television that played such parlour tricks. Did they believe many of these characters were truly dead? It also serves as a quietly ingenious level of foreboding to the shock death that would stick at the end of the film; indeed, we see Spock visibly dead, slumped, as Saavik fails the Kobayashi Maru, just before we come to realise it was all just a training exercise – the science-fiction, in-universe equivalent of ‘it was all just a dream’.

The Wrath of Khan is the second film in a row to suggest the threat of the Klingons – established in the Original Series as an allegory for Cold War-era Russia – only to quickly dispense of them. The Motion Picture briefly established their modern portrayal, which has carried through until the present day, only to see their might bested by V’Ger’s superior intelligence. The Wrath of Khan presents them in clear, understandable terms – attack cruisers responding to the Enterprise entering the ‘Neutral Zone’ (Star Trek’s version of the post-Korean War Demilitarised zone) in order to rescue the paralysed Kobayashi Maru, filled with innocent passengers. The Klingons are a continued symbol of Cold War tension, but they’re more a vague background threat in The Wrath of Khan. They indicate an unbroken status quo, much like the US-Russia dynamic in the early years of the Reagan administration.

This is a crucial undercurrent to the ‘no-win scenario’ of the Kobayashi Maru. This is not just about rescuing a ship in danger – it taps into the ongoing broader detente inherent in the Star Trek universe between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, reflecting real world tensions of the time. The Wrath of Khan underscores the point that individual concerns, the “needs of the few” do not outweigh “the needs of the many”- a crucial aspect in Spock’s eventual self-sacrifice. Saving the Kobayashi Maru risks not just the death of the Enterprise crew but also war with the Klingons, in which millions could die. It’s the ultimate dilemma for Meyer’s vision of Starfleet as a ‘space Navy’, a militaristic corps jointly of explorers and officers. “A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face” Kirk opines to a frustrated Saavik, who believes there should have been a way to save the ship and the crew.

What we later discover, however, is that Kirk doesn’t truly believe his own rhetoric. He failed the test twice before, in his words, “I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship” (which we later see in an example of over-confidence in JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot). “Then you never have faced death?” Saavik later suggests, with Kirk’s confidence still intact. He considers himself above the no-win scenario. Meyer presents him initially as a confident, if spiritually listless, hero. He arrives on the destroyed  training room Enterprise bridge in a blaze of light, framed as the untouchable saviour he has always believed he is. The Wrath of Khan will present him as a commander who faces death, faces the no-win scenario, and loses. “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” he asks Saavik, and this is a question Kirk will come to understand himself throughout Meyer’s film.

If The Wrath of Khan as a film faces such a crisis, in how it must breathe new life into an ageing franchise, then this is aptly reflected in the journey of Admiral James T. Kirk. This opening scene reintroduces us to the elder version of the man he was in the 1960s. It foreshadows how The Wrath of Khan will be his, and by definition Star Trek’s, spiritual rebirth.

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.

Yet this elder Kirk is conveyed as restless from the beginning. Following the disastrous Kobayashi Maru, Kirk’s best friend, the equally seasoned Spock, presents Kirk with a birthday present – Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. 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 logical thought, so guesses Spock wouldn’t have passed the book onto him on such a key day arbitrarily. “None that I’m conscious of,” Spock replies coyly. 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 underscore.

Captain Kirk is gone. Admiral Kirk endures. Yet what’s left when the cowboy hangs up his boots?

Many of the themes running through The Wrath of Khan become apparent in my favourite scene. 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. As a side point: drinks became a recurring touchstone in future Star Trek. Jean-Luc Picard had his trusty Earl Grey tea, the Klingons developed 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). Here, Romulan Ale serves as a reminder of the ‘alien’ state of another well-remembered 1960s 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 to this day remain distant 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 1980s 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 that, 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 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 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 the same colourful joie de vivre of the 1960s era. The big-screen 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, 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,” Bones advises Kirk. “Get it back before you turn into part of this collection. Before you really do grow old.” Bones is referring to Kirk’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, 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.

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