Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan | Exploring Kirk’s journey from regret to rebirth

star trek ii kirk
Share this Article:

Our spoiler-y dissection of Star Trek II continues with a look at how The Wrath Of Khan sees James T Kirk confront his mortality and regrets, and ultimately regain his youth.

NB: Big spoilers lie ahead for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.

Across the entirety of The Wrath Of Khan, we’re reminded that James T Kirk is facing his own mortality, coming to terms with his exuberant past as a galaxy-hopping’ Starfleet Captain. It’s a theme that’s never more apparent than when he’s in a room with Carol and David Marcus.

Star Trek Generations might attempt to convince us that the unseen Antonia was the one who got away for Kirk, once he’s reliving happy memories in the Nexus, and we know there is a quadrant full of old flames who have different levels of meaning for Kirk – few would doubt that he did fall in love with Edith Keeler in City On The Edge Of Forever for example – but as far as we know, Kirk only ever had one child, and that was with Carol.

Star Trek Into Darkness, flawed as it might be, revives Carol for a new generation and understands the resonance of Bibi Besch’s character who, it must be pointed out, is no throwback to the 1960s. She was a Meyer creation and one of numerous, brave steps the writer-director took in exploring Kirk’s middle age. Of course he would have fathered a child at some point, given the amount of conquests he had! Indeed, it’s probable that David wasn’t the only one, with Kirk maybe unaware of others.

With the challenge of age, the loss of youth, comes also the challenge of continued masculine virility, and this is made clear as Kirk’s first, violent encounter on the Regula moon is with a defensive David, not realising at first who he is. “Of course he didn’t!” is Carol’s immediate remark when David suggests Kirk was responsible for all of the murdered scientists on Regula 1. She may not have seen the Admiral for years, but she knows Jim Kirk. She’s the wife he never married. They’re the family Kirk avoided.

They now represent the life he sundered to be James T Kirk, and if regaining his youth forces him to examine his own past, Carol and David represent a key marker on that journey of rebirth. The road to that marker is nevertheless a difficult one, as Kirk’s life is immediately threatened by the possessed Captain Terrell and Pavel Chekov having beamed into the Regula moon, and the makeshift Starfleet base within.

If we’ve established Khan Noonien Singh as the Devil in our biblical play, Terrell and Chekov arguably represent demons sent from hell in order to destroy Kirk and his fellow angels from within. They’re ‘possessed’ by the Ceti eels, forced by Khan to do his bidding, his emissaries of destruction. Terrell battles with this corruption when told to kill Kirk: “Sir, that it is difficult. I try to obey, but…”
He ultimately sacrifices himself in order to end Khan’s manipulation.

If we’re to literalise the eels as a form of demonic corruption, perhaps the reason Terrell dies, and Chekov manages to painfully reject the eel and expel it before he can shoot Kirk, is that Khan nor his poison are able to breach the Eden that Kirk and company have beamed into. Kirk after all goads Khan into a literal face off that never happens, after Khan beams out the Genesis device. “Khan, you have Genesis, but you don’t have me!” We never get the kind of physical fight we saw in Space Seed, not because William Shatner or Ricardo Montalban were incapable of it, but rather because if Khan is the Devil freed from hell, he cannot approach the gates of Eden. He can steal Genesis, but he’ll never reach it.

“I shall leave you as you left me. As you left her. Marooned for all eternity in the centre of a dead planet… buried alive. Buried alive!”

Khan doesn’t realise that true Genesis lies inside Regula, a working snapshot of the paradise Carol and her team believe can be created by the device, and is content to consign Kirk to the hell that Kirk consigned him all those years ago. Khan references Marla McGivers, the Enterprise Lieutenant he fell in love with during Space Seed and who elected to stay with him on Ceti Alpha V, and it is a timely reminder given Kirk is facing the woman he could have given everything up for.

Marla sacrificed her career and life for the man she loved. Kirk didn’t do that for Carol, and it’s clear when they finally do manage to talk in private that she didn’t want him to. “Were we together?” she asks. “Were we going to be? You had your world and I had mine.” They may have loved one another, but it wasn’t a powerful enough pull for Kirk to have given everything up for Carol as Marla did for Khan. Carol knew that going into a relationship one senses unexpectedly resulted in a child, that David was very much unplanned. Yet Kirk feels clear regret for David not even realising the man is his biological father.

“He’s a lot like you, in many ways,” Carol remarks to Kirk about David, clearly having believed her son could have ended up like him, and wanted him in her life, not his. “Not chasing through the universe with his father.”

What a different fifteen years between the end of The Original Series and The Wrath Of Khan that would have made, had Kirk perhaps sundered his admiralty in order to raise a son, in a romantic ideal of adventure, “galaxy hopping” through the cosmos. “My son. My life that could have been – and wasn’t,” Kirk says, wistfully.

Instead, while David clearly displays physical prowess and bravery – evidenced particularly in The Search For Spock – Carol also breeds into him a caution for Starfleet and for exactly the kind of man Kirk is. Or was. Kirk has lost that man. He’s an echo of the past in which Carol was romanced and David was conceived. Outside of Spock or Bones, Kirk is the most honest with Carol as he is with anyone. “What am I feeling? Old. Worn out.” Kirk, threatened by a dangerous physical manifestation of his own history in Khan, has no idea how to break such a deadlock.

The brilliance of Meyer’s script is precisely in how Carol provides the key to unlocking Kirk’s youth, in how the Genesis cave provides a literal realisation of emotional and physical rebirth. “You did all this in a day?” Kirk asks Carol, astounded. The angel is facing God, asking how it is possible for such a spark to exist fully formed.

“The matrix formed in a day. The lifeforms grew later at a substantially accelerated rate,” Carol replies. Metaphorically, she’s talking about Kirk’s development from here on in. This is the day Kirk understands who he was, and who he is. Genesis and the events to come provide the spark. The growth begins in time.

And like a trickster, Kirk is already half in on the joke, given how he has, like the Kobayashi Maru that Lieutenant Saavik is so interested in, reprogrammed the conditions of their confinement to ensure they are in with a fighting chance. Spock’s reported six days of the Enterprise recovering (the same amount of time God created the world in Genesis) becomes a matter of hours, to fool Khan’s listening devices and wrong foot him tactically.

“I don’t believe in a no-win scenario,” Kirk tells Saavik, his confidence rising, that self-belief to some extent returned.

star trek ii kirk

Kirk comes out of these scenes having experienced a miniature rebirth in the broader context of his journey in The Wrath Of Khan. Seeing David restores some hope. Seeing Carol gives him some closure. Finding Genesis provides him life, even if Saavik worries that he’s never faced death. It’s a microcosm of a journey Kirk is on across the film, a journey that remains incomplete. “As your teacher Mister Spock is fond of saying, ‘I like to think there always are… possibilities.’”

It will be a turn of phrase that haunts Kirk as we enter the last, devastating act.

Once Kirk, Bones, Saavik and the Marcus’s are back on the Enterprise, their ruse with Spock having duped Khan and the Reliant into believing their repair time is much longer than in reality, Meyer plunges straight into the thrill ride of the so-called Battle of the Mutara Nebula, the gaseous cloud nearby the Regula moon where the Enterprise runs on empty, running low on power, as the Reliant closes in for the kill.

It’s one of the most exciting, well-staged and powerful action sequences in sci-fi cinema, the culmination of a psychological and theological conflict between Kirk and Khan, between heaven and hell, between virtuous Starfleet and a rebel force incompatible with Federation ideals. If the original Reliant ambush, as we previously discussed, draws from the World War II submarine thriller, the Battle of the Mutara Nebula entirely drinks from that well.

In any other film, it would be a battle that culminates with rousing victory, with Kirk vindicated and re-energised by the noble defeat in combat of his enemy, but The Wrath Of Khan understands for Kirk to reborn, he must face death. The battle itself was originally envisaged as the equivalent of two historic man o’war vessels pummelling each other with phaser fire, in place of the cannon which would have featured in the original nautical parallel Meyer pursues throughout the film, but this was soon deemed impractical.

Ken Ralston, one of the visual effects designers, stated that the Enterprise and Reliant needed to reflect a different, classical aesthetic:

Both Enterprise and Reliant are majestic ships, something akin to grand whaling vessels at the turn of the century. I wanted to capture some of the boldness and spirit the show had in its visuals. The ship models were lit differently in this sequence. They all were lit to match the bizarre colors of their backgrounds — yellows, reds, orange, etc: each scene a different color scheme. Lighting ratios were increased to heighten the drama of the nebula and more backlighting was used.

Drama is the key word there. Few directors have the skill to tease out of the Mutara Nebula battle the way Meyer does – all backed by James Horner’s magnificent score.

Just five years before The Wrath Of Khan, the Star Wars saga revived the idea that science fiction could be colourful and thrilling, as X-Wings and TIE Fighters duked it out in fast moving fashion. This was subsequently copied by legions of sci-fi films and TV series over the years, including JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot saga, but Meyer resists the temptation to suddenly have the Enterprise and the Reliant flying around the screen in a dogfight.

These are, as Ralston puts it, vessels; slow moving ships for which evasion and careful approximation are the byword, lost in the soup of the nebula. Rather than frigates sailing in the dark or misty waters, waiting to strike, the Starfleet vessels circle each other cagily. “Visuals won’t function and shields will be useless,” Saavik warns. It’s a calculated risk that Kirk, now fully back in charge of the Enterprise, is prepared to take to ensure survival.

Following the regeneration in the Genesis cave, Kirk seems to have rediscovered his verve and purpose in these scenes like never before. Rather than cowering at the prospect of facing the Reliant, a ship Spock promises “can out-run us, and out-gun us,” Kirk seems galvanised by the challenge.  If Khan previously had the upper hand with his ambush and then the demonic spies he dispatched to assassinate his opposite, Kirk here, in his element as a starship commander, turns the tables, goading Khan’s ego. “We tried it once your way, Khan. Are you game for a rematch? Khan! I’m laughing at the ‘superior intellect’.”

The psychopathy inherent in Khan’s genetic engineering is enough for him to take the bait, pursuing the Enterprise and taking the same risks Kirk has. “Sauce for the goose, Mr Saavik,” Spock declares, quoting an old British idiom, when Saavik worries they are outmatched. The odds will be even.”

Meyer is skilled enough a director to allow the visuals and Horner’s music do much of the storytelling as the Enterprise and Reliant, both largely blinded thanks to the effects from the nebula, dance around one another, striking blindly. Ultimately, Kirk’s skill as a commander, and his confidence amid the Enterprise’s desperate situation, allows him to outwit Khan and gain the upper hand. “He’s intelligent, but not experienced,” Spock says. “His pattern indicates …two-dimensional thinking.”

This underlines how, for all of Khan’s genetically-enhanced gifts, he’s no match for Kirk’s first best destiny. Khan spends a film playing at the role of captain with his brigands but he can never live up to Kirk’s exceptionalism when the chips are down, when Kirk finally embraces the role he’s avoided over the entire film. Khan, however, refuses to concede, right to the last. “No, Kirk. …The game’s not over… to the last I will grapple with thee!”

star trek ii Khan loses to Kirk

We might suggest that Khan having the Genesis device on the Reliant provides a necessary narrative device to cue up Spock’s incoming sacrifice, but thematically it works. Khan literally attempts to steal paradise after escaping hell, only to destroy it from within, turning the creator of life into the bringer of death. “From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee,” Khan curses, as Meyer again directly lifts from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Khan doesn’t even live to see if Kirk and the Enterprise are destroyed by Genesis, succumbing to his wounds content enough that Kirk is in the middle of a no-win scenario – he cannot escape. In that sense, Khan dies with his vengeance, his wrath, intact – believing he has wrested his white whale into submission. We as a viewer are spared the realisation of his failure but Meyer understands this would be far less powerful than witnessing what Kirk has to lose in order for his rebirth to be complete. It would have been easy to end The Wrath Of Khan on Kirk victorious over Khan’s body.

The Wrath Of Khan, however, chooses to end with a moment that lives on in popular culture, both among Star Trek fans and beyond, almost forty years on. A moment that will define the next two films in the series and inspire the entire franchise to scale heights it would almost never reach again.

Read the previous part of AJ Black’s Star Trek II series – How its space battles redefined the franchise.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.


Share this Article:

More like this