Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan | God, science, and the return of Noonien Singh

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Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan explored themes of playing god and rebirth as well as bringing back Khan Noonien Singh. AJ Black’s series continues.

Star Trek and God have an interesting relationship. For a show revolving around scientific discovery and set in the cosmos, the franchise frequently returns to biblical allegory and religious mystery. The Wrath Of Khan is no exception, even for an ostensibly secular film.

How else can the Genesis Project be defined than the product of a god complex? The scientists of space station Regula 1, as directed by Dr. Carol Marcus, are well aware of how powerful the Genesis device is. “We are dealing with something that could be perverted into a dreadful weapon,” agonises her son and fellow scientist, David, in the wake of being contacted by the USS Reliant as they scout out test sites for the project.

These are scientists tethered to the Federation but not driven by Starfleet’s rhetoric, who appreciate they have the power to create or destroy life, and David seems positively terrified that Starfleet itself could corrupt their science. Every time we have dealings with Starfleet, I get nervous…”

It would be hard to imagine Gene Roddenberry’s pure vision of humanity’s future space navy containing any suggestions they could warp the power of God.

Director Nicholas Meyer, in his humanistic version of the 23rd century, is far less convinced of Starfleet’s purity. He’d lived through the horror of Vietnam just a decade before his take on Star Trek’s future, having witnessed progressive democracies almost destroyed by ideological fear, not to mention raised in the shadow of Hiroshima and the work of J Robert Oppenheimer, a scientist whose actions led to a century-defining blight on American history.

The Regula scientists react in horror at Reliant’s Captain Terrell openly wondering if the life signs detected on Ceti Alpha VI (or what they think to be Ceti Alpha VI) can be transplanted.It might only be a particle of pre-animate matter.” The Federation already have powers over matter and space that would have been considered God-like to earlier humanity, and Carol Marcus chafes at his casual lack of humility in the face of such power. Little do any of them realise that on the surface of the planet lies an expression of corrupted humanity, a sundered ‘god’ resting in his own personal Dante’s inferno.

Terrell’s assertion, based on the scans of ‘on loan’ Enterprise security officer Pavel Chekov, about the pre-animate matter is a casual assumption of control that comes back fatally to bite him and his crew.

Chekov, when the Reliant crew beam onto the sandstorm covered arid horror of Ceti Alpha VI, describes the area as “the garden spot” of the planet, confused about his surroundings. It’s become a classic joke in Star Trek lore that Chekov wasn’t actually around for the events of Space Seed, the season one episode of the 1960s Original Series that first introduced cryogenically-frozen exiled prince Khan Noonien Singh. But Chekov here suggests Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew left Khan and his people at the end of that episode in an Edenic paradise, even if he doesn’t seem to immediately recall the proximity or significance of Khan (which would make sense as he wasn’t in Space Seed).
If 60’s optimism left the eugenic abominations of the Botany Bay crew in heaven, 1980s cynicism returns to them forgotten in the depths of Hell. Yet Terrell believes Starfleet’s own technological power of their surroundings can remove what they erroneously believe to be “caught in the matrix” with an arrogance they are immediately punished for on reaching the surface.

The introduction of Khan is suitably iconic. We experience the dread of Chekov’s realisation about the significance of the Botany Bay, and the scene operates on a metatextual level of audience recognition. We wonder how audiences at the time reacted to the aged, grey, nomadic visage of Khan, with Ricardo Montalban looking so different from the black haired, dashing Asian noble who fenced with Captain Kirk like he’d just walked off the set of a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. movie. Did they gasp? Did they half remember a character who was last seen 15 years before? Did some need to be reminded just who Khan was, and how unusual a threat to the crew of the Enterprise he posed?

This was no malevolent alien being, war-like race, or corrupt god-entity. Khan was a human. Genetically advanced, but human nevertheless, though fuelled by belief in his own eugenic superiority. “On Earth… two hundred years ago… I was a prince… with power over millions.”

Khan believes his own hype, and his introductory scene quite brilliantly outlines his psychology, his aspirations and his backstory. The remainder of the film simply accentuates and builds on the foundations Meyer lays here.

It’s a scene that opens lots of questions, some of which remain canonically unanswered. Khan confuses his dates. He claims to be from the year 1996 yet later suggests two centuries ago – which would be circa 2085, around the time Trek lore tells us humanity was recovering from the catastrophic post-atomic horror of World War 3. While this is easy to write off as a script issue, it could also be a sign of Khan’s psychological degradation over the last decade, in which he and his people were decimated by ecological devastation and Khan himself lost the Enterprise crewmember he fell in love with during Space Seed, Lt Marla McGivers, who elected to stay with Khan on Ceti Alpha V in exile.

“Ceti Alpha Six exploded six months after we were left here. The shock shifted the orbit of this planet and everything was laid waste.” Khan believes Kirk marooned him on Ceti Alpha V, conveniently ignoring the fact the Enterprise left him on a planet he could easily have started his own people on, a eugenically advanced human colony who lived in peace.

Khan blames Kirk for their suffering rather than the hand of an unseen creator, or even the random chance of cosmic fate with events that Kirk could not possibly have foreseen or prevented. Khan, by the end of his introduction, feels Luciferian; a fallen symbol of an advanced version of humanity.

A slight sidebar: for an excellent non-canon exploration of both Khan’s history on 20th century Earth and what happened between Space Seed and The Wrath of Khan, do give Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh and To Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh novels a read. They’re tremendous and superbly sketch in elements previously left as major questions.

Ultimately, as Khan captures Terrell and Chekov, both are punished for their hubris in believing they could manipulate the natural order for the Genesis Project. Khan uses the only indigenous remaining life form, a parasitic creature which the Reliant believed they could, in essence, transplant. “Their young enter through the ears and wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex. This has the effect of rendering the victim extremely susceptible to suggestion. Later they grow… then follows madness… and death.”

Khan unleashes the unnatural order of Ceti Alpha V on the Starfleet crewman, who mistakenly believed their dominance of space, conquering of technology allowing them to not just explore the stars but bring life to barren worlds. Khan’s ‘pets’ are a warning to humanity, a warning against their god complex. Khan managed to survive and conquer the hellish inhospitality of his paradise lost, becoming the Devil in a destroyed garden, and now uses his own snakes to infiltrate, corrupt and control the lives of mere men. Genesis might well be a project about creating life, but paradise is far easier to destroy than to create.

Though it retains the innate sense of optimism built into Star Trek’s world view, The Wrath Of Khan approaches Gene Roddenberry’s universe from far more of a humanistic, historical naval tradition.

Starfleet of The Original Series was a crew of cowboy scientists galloping, as Kirk suggests, through space. Nicholas Meyer’s film recasts the organisation as a respectful militaristic structure riven with rule and tradition. The Federation may not be equivalent to the British Empire of the 19th century, but if Kirk is Captain Horatio Hornblower and the USS Enterprise his frigate, Starfleet most certainly is a classical ‘space Navy’ in a way that wasn’t apparent in The Motion Picture.

What facilitated this change? Why did Meyer see Starfleet, later described in JJ Abrams’ reboot as a “humanitarian and peacekeeping armada”, in terms of rank and file, of rules and regulations? One significant factor is that Meyer had never watched The Original Series and, as a result, had what he describes as a “healthy disrespect” for the concept, as he told the New York Times:

Star Trek was human allegory in a space format. That was both its strength and, ultimately, its weakness. I tried through irreverence to make them more human and a little less wooden. I didn’t insist that Captain Kirk go to the bathroom, but did Star Trek have to be so sanctified?

It is perhaps a little unfair to suggest The Original Series presented the Enterprise crew as wooden. That argument could be levelled at The Motion Picture, which swaps the 1960s colour and camp of the series for colder, unemotional distance; you can even accuse the awkward first two seasons of The Next Generation, arriving on the back of The Wrath Of Khan’s sequels, of such a charge. Yet Meyer is onto something. Roddenberry’s central thesis that humanity would, by the 23rd century, have evolved into a unified race free of internal conflict also bleeds out to a level of inviolate weakness. The Wrath Of Khan dares to have Kirk truly doubt himself. It allows him to feel loss. It challenges the paradigm of what Star Trek is capable of.

Hence the stylistic and functional regression, almost, of Starfleet from a loose frontier exploration agency to a cautious and expedient naval office. Kirk’s promotion to Admiral (which admittedly happened by the time of The Motion Picture, if we’re splitting hairs) is another example, logically assuming he would have reached the rank and stature after years commanding a crew, to hold a position of higher Starfleet authority. This is a Kirk overseeing the Kobayashi Maru training exercise or, as we witness in these next few scenes, evaluating the crew and operations of the Enterprise. Yet, as we have already seen in his conversation with Dr. McCoy, he is unhappy with his status. “I hate inspections,” he moans to an enthusiastic Hikaru Sulu. Kirk perhaps also hates, in some way, what Starfleet has become, or what Starfleet has turned him into.

The sense of time passing around Kirk, of the world he knew evolving, is exemplified in the presence of the training crew he evaluates on boarding the ship. Everything is in its place. Rank and file. Though filled with their customary warmth for each other over years of friendship, there remains a respectful professional distance between Kirk and Spock, now Captain of the Enterprise. There remains a cheeky level of interplay between Kirk and Montgomery Scott, who in Meyer’s vision of the Enterprise crew rarely escapes the bowels of engineering where he recovers from a “bout” of shore leave.

The atmosphere is formal but collegiate, relatable and human. Kirk refers to Scotty as “you old space dog.” Scotty is even given a nephew in the ill-fated Midshipman First Class Peter Preston, engineers mate. While he may fall under the definition of ‘redshirt’, a term applied to the endless, nameless crewmen who would die on away missions in The Original Series, Preston is more than just a hollow loss. He has a face, a name and a connection to the characters we know, and therefore to us.

Meyer’s script is riven with foreshadowing, including Preston’s death. When Spock reminds Kirk of his familiarity with the trainees, Kirk flippantly jokes that they have been “through death and life together,” drolly referencing the Kobayashi Maru test that similarly foreshadowed the eventual death of Spock. It is a key phrase that also reflects the rebirth central to Kirk’s character arc, and the underpinning broader theme of The Wrath Of Khan. From death comes life, in numerous different forms.

We come to further understand in these scenes, which as Kirk rejoins the Enterprise are primarily designed to establish his reason for being there and set the ship on course for eventually colliding with the dual Khan narrative already in play, the importance of Saavik to Meyer’s story. We have already seen her as the primary symbol of the changing of the guard in The Wrath Of Khan, the new life breathed into the old Enterprise, given her failure to successfully beat the Kobayashi Maru’s no-win scenario, but she remains increasingly fascinated by Kirk’s balance of nautical regality and innate collegiality.

“He’s so… human,” she remarks to Spock, in a rare moment of cultural significance as they speak in pure Vulcan. “Nobody’s perfect, Saavik,” Spock drolly replies, perhaps as a slight rejoinder regarding his own dual heritage. Saavik doesn’t seem to mean this as a slight, rather a curious observation about a man who she previously had only presumably studied and read about. Kirk by this point is a living legend, and you sense this in how characters like Saavik and Preston react to him.

Yet there remains a sense that Kirk is still uncertain and quietly dubious about the youthful brio aboard his old ship. Preston is confident despite it being his first training voyage, while Spock seems more at ease with Saavik’s abilities – understandably as his protege – than Kirk. “For everything there is a first time, Lieutenant,” Spock remarks as he offers Saavik to pilot the Enterprise out of space dock, considered here to be a far trickier and more nuanced commanding manoeuvre than later Star Trek might have us believe.

“Wouldn’t you agree, Admiral?” Spock asks Kirk, challenging a nervousness he likely detects. “Would you like a tranquilliser?” Bones chips in, almost akin to a Greek choral observer gauging his friend’s thoughts. Kirk’s anxiety about change, about perhaps feeling irrelevant, about his place within Starfleet’s naval structure, is all too apparent.

Part of his journey will be rediscovering that youth in himself as he comes to trust the new life around him, even if some of it is born in death.

Read the first part of AJ Black’s Star Trek II retrospective series, The Wrath Of Khan – a series rejuvenated

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