Our dive into the world of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan looks at the whole idea of fate in the acclaimed sequel: spoilers lie ahead.
NB: Big spoilers lie ahead for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.
Running through the broader themes in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan – life and death, birth and rebirth – is the concept of destiny. The idea that James T Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh are on a pre-determined, fate-driven course.
Following the reveal of Khan and the establishment of the Enterprise crew of foundling trainees, not to mention the Reliant’s mission and the Genesis project on space station Regula 1, director Nicholas Meyer (and screenwriter Jack B Sowards) works to begin tying these disparate threads together and send Kirk and Khan toward their inevitable confrontation. Carol and David Marcus begin to suspect that the crew of the Reliant – now taken over by Khan and his genetically superior Botany Bay crew – have more sinister motivations for taking control of the Genesis device, as communicated by a robotic, parasite-controlled Pavel Chekov. The order is not just political but personal, given Chekov lies that Kirk is behind such an order. “Scientists have always been pawns of the military!” decries a quite paranoid David, even as Carol refuses to believe quite what Chekov is suggesting.
It further underlines a persistent theme in Meyer’s script: his fascination with quite what Starfleet is, given how loosely defined the organisation was in Star Trek lore up to this point. Even before the Reliant is seized by Khan, David is suspicious of Starfleet’s motives as a naval, militaristic agency, and Chekov’s lies only further deepen that suspicion. “Starfleet has kept the peace for a hundred years. I cannot and will not subscribe to your interpretation of this event,” Carol asserts, convinced that Starfleet’s motivations are about the science, not its nefarious applications. Meyer’s lens is informed by 20th century history, nevertheless. He is fully aware of how J Robert Oppenheimer believed he was building a weapon to defeat fascism, only to see the H-bomb take millions of innocent lives.
The Wrath Of Khan pointedly attempts to wrap up these bigger political questions about Starfleet’s operation around Kirk and Khan’s mutual destiny. Their mutually assured destruction. When Carol talks about Starfleet keeping the peace, we now know she is referring to the events of the first Earth-Romulan War, which brought the pre-Federation agency close to annihilation, but Meyer doesn’t factor in the Federation-Klingon War which Star Trek: Discovery has since sketched in details of.
Meyer’s broader anxiety concerns the misuse of ultimate power, and in that sense the Genesis device works as a potent allegory for Khan himself. What is playing God other than creating something more than human? The biblical comparisons we’ll explore a little down the road, but The Wrath Of Khan is concerned with Starfleet’s mission of purity and scientific research being corrupted by darker forces who would manipulate such powerful scientific tools for dark ends.
“Why are you taking Genesis away from us?” Carol asks a confused Kirk, on trying to verify Chekov’s claim, and it would be easy to read this as science fearfully asking unchecked militaristic power why it is robbing them of heaven in order to create hell. Kirk is, of course, a misappropriated Lucifer in this scenario, when the real Devil (Khan) is attempting to cloak his own intentions of ruining Regula’s intended Eden. “Who’s taking Genesis?” Kirk right now doesn’t understand his role in this destined, quasi-biblical struggle he finds himself part of.
In truth, Kirk doesn’t understand his place even in the grand tapestry of the Enterprise and her crew. He remains trapped in the existential limbo he discussed with Dr. McCoy, caught between his role as an Admiral and his natural role as a Starfleet commander.
His anxiety over the youth swarming the Enterprise continues unabated, even when confronted by Saavik’s visible hero worship, anxious as she is for failing the Kobayashi Maru. “May I ask how you dealt with the test?”
“You may ask,” Kirk replies with a chuckle, which exemplifies not just the cultural gap between human and Vulcan but also the generational one. Kirk almost flirts with Saavik here, noticing her hair is being worn differently. “It’s still regulation, Admiral,” Saavik replies, utterly missing the point. In the 60s, Kirk would have been kissing her before the turbo lift reached its destination. This is brought home when Bones arrives, a little like catching the teacher in an awkward tryst with his ingenue.
“Did she change her hairstyle?”
“I hadn’t noticed,” is Kirk’s reply. They both understand how times have changed, yet there remains a sexual element to this moment which is unerring and hard to define, from both Kirk and Saavik.
What this reinforces is Kirk’s lack of certainty. He no longer quite understands the Starfleet he’s in. The pretty lieutenants no longer fall at his feet. He can’t be as convivial with much of his crew now he’s top brass. Kirk remains torn between the two sides of his nature, especially when Carol calls. There’s a strange sense of familiarity between them even over sub space, as if Kirk’s wife is calling to ask why the shopping hasn’t arrived on time. “Jim, did you give the order?” Carol asks with the anticipated disappointment of someone who knows this man well enough to be let down by him. Bones understands the significance of getting a call from her. “As a physician you of all people should appreciate the danger of re-opening old wounds,” Kirk icily declares. Another reminder of the past he has left behind, the destiny he has been running from. His ship, his crew, perhaps even the one who got away.
The point is brought home by Spock, the only person with the insight into Kirk and the understanding of his character to see through the veil of his uncertainty and disillusionment. Spock here positions himself as the wise mentor as much as best friend, the zen spirit guiding Kirk towards illumination. “If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.” Kirk knows Spock is right, has known it from the beginning, and Spock encourages him to command the Enterprise, to sit back in the chair.
Kirk remains in denial at this point in his character arc, afraid of the implications. “It may be nothing, …garbled communications. You take the ship.” Spock nevertheless understands his friend’s reticence and pushes him toward facing the destiny he knows is behind the man, reminding him of the aphorism that further foreshadows his later sacrifice about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one. “You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours.”
This is one of many beautiful moments which underscore the humanity and heart within The Wrath Of Khan, the quieter character points that help the bigger revelations and emotional beats land later in the script. These scenes are the calm before the initial, inciting storm as Kirk and Khan come face to face, as Kirk’s first best destiny begins to truly become apparent for all to see.
Before the inevitable first confrontation between Kirk and Khan, prepared for by one and unexpected by the other, Meyer presents the villain of the piece with a choice. It is not too late to change his fate. Khan’s chief lieutenant, the younger genetically engineered Botany Bay crewman Joachim, suggests they have the means at their disposal to start a new life. “We have a ship and the means to go where we will”; in the naval sense, they are commanders of their own destiny. They have received a second chance at life, after exile from Earth and being marooned by Kirk and the Enterprise crew by the end of ‘Space Seed’. “You have proved your superior intellect, and defeated the plans of Admiral Kirk. You do not need to defeat him again.” Joachim in this sense is, quite literally, the Devil’s advocate. He believes that destiny does not drive Khan in the way the man imagines, even if his people would never abandon him or mutiny.
Meyer here, nevertheless, fully establishes Khan as a twisted version of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab from his classic 19th century novel Moby Dick. Kirk is his white whale, his obsession. It has gone beyond any sense of reason, any consideration for anything or anyone outside of his fixation. Kirk is Khan’s destiny. “He tasks me… He tasks me and I shall have him. I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I give him up…” This is, of course, a direct lift and alteration of Ahab’s famous declaration from Moby Dick about the titular whale. “I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up…” Ahab says this to Starbuck, and Joachim very much fits that template – the loyal second in command who may question his Captain but would never challenge him.
If Kirk’s destiny is to find a purpose like Ahab did his whale, Khan’s manifest destiny, and his Luciferian escape from the depths of Hell, sends him deeper and deeper into the realm of insanity. In order to further establish the Biblical underpinnings behind the cosmic, Judeo-Christian myth playing out between Kirk and Khan, Meyer first works to present the Genesis Device as a futuristic Creation story.
Carol Marcus, presenting the details of the Genesis Effect and the project being developed on space station Regula 1, speaks like a cross between a modern scientist and a biblical prophet. “Genesis is life from lifelessness. It is a process whereby molecular structure is reorganised at he subatomic level into life-generating matter of equal mass.” The scientific explanation continues but the concept is quite simple – Genesis contains the matrix of creation itself. It can transform a dead planetoid into a rich and verdant Eden in no time at all, and Carol presents the reasoning behind such a device as economic and ecological necessity. “When we consider the cosmic problems of population and food supply, the usefulness of this process becomes clear.”
Meyer fuses Christian and biblical iconography with the scientific allegory of the Manhattan Project, with Carol a veritable J Robert Oppenheimer, creating a device of supreme power for noble reasons that has deadly potential applications. “As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create,” Spock pragmatically says, amid a debate about the moral implications with an impassioned, horrified Leonard McCoy. The use of a direct Christian myth works against the traditional approach to religion as employed by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in The Original Series.
Interest and suspicion of religious myth is all over the 1960s TV series but Roddenberry was a devout atheist, avoiding Christian allegories in favour of polytheistic tales of false gods and tricksters amid the cosmos. In his effort to humanise the Star Trek story, Meyer directly accesses central Christian tenets – Eden, which we see in the Genesis cave later; Hell, which Ceti Alpha 5 became; and the Devil, incarnated in Khan himself. Reading Kirk as Jesus is a stretch, but Spock’s sacrifice to save the Enterprise crew, and potentially millions or billions of lives had Khan ever truly been able to deploy Genesis, fits the Judeo-Christian myth as Christ, particularly in how he’s later resurrected. Genesis, in the Bible, was the story of creation. It’s telling that in Meyer’s rebirth of the Star Trek franchise, via Kirk’s own personal rebirth within The Wrath Of Khan, he uses these constructs as a creation myth for the Star Trek franchise of the 1980s and beyond.
In the Genesis debriefing scene, it’s interesting just how quickly Bones accuses Spock of being ‘inhuman’ in his calculated, logical response to what the Genesis device could do were it used on a planet that already sustained life. From a visual perspective, scholars have remarked how much Spock represents a demonic archetype, with his pointed ears, which runs in contrast to his measured, peaceful containment of emotion, as is the Vulcan way. McCoy seems to be direct questioning Spock’s humanity in this scene, given the Vulcan analyses the reality of what Genesis can do from a dispassionate, factual position. McCoy instead counters, “The man’s talking about logic… we’re talking about universal Armageddon!”
Bones directly accesses another Biblical myth here – Armageddon being the final battle between good and evil, heaven and hell, God and the Devil, to decide the fate of not just humanity but the entire universe. The ultimate conflict, one the majority of fiction over the centuries has re-told with millions of different variations and scales. Why use the word Armageddon if not directly tethering The Wrath Of Khan’s central conflict to the biblical construct that has already positioned Khan as Lucifer? It’s also interesting that the man Bones believes to be the most inhuman on the Enterprise – Spock – ends up being the Christ figure who dies to save them all.
We’re about to approach that first moment of conflict between Kirk and Khan, the point that propels the film through what feels like a shorter second act than many films with such a structure. The first act of escalation and the third act of conflict are the key foundations of The Wrath Of Khan. What they build stands as a potent piece of myth-making that has already lasted almost 40 years, and will remain standing for a great deal longer.
Read the second part of AJ Black’s Star Trek II series, The Wrath Of Khan – God, science and the return of Noonien Singh.
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