Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan | How its space battles redefined the franchise

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Our spoiler-y dissection of Star Trek II examines how The Wrath Of Khan revolutionised the look of the franchise’s space battles.

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

The space battle that takes place roughly in the mid-section of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is the first example of the kind of space combat we would witness in the franchise’s subsequent TV series and movies right up to the present day. The film defined itself visually and formally on the British nautical structure, given director Nicholas Meyer’s love of the Horatio Hornblower series. Yet before this, Gene Roddenberry’s Original Series had framed the Enterprise’s encounters with dangerous alien life forms often more as a camera-shaking face off as opposed to a true battle of wits.

James T Kirk most often fought opponents at close quarters, as indeed he did Khan Noonien Singh in the episode Space Seed, and the Enterprise rarely felt the consequences of space combat. The Wrath Of Khan changed that when Meyer pitched the central encounter between the Enterprise and the hijacked USS Reliant as a World War Two submarine battle in space, particularly come the battle later in the Mutara Nebula. Their first skirmish ends up as an ambush, the lawless pirates taking on the nation-sailing frigate, and it’s one the Enterprise barely manages to escape from.

Crucially, Meyer ensures Kirk’s first encounter with Khan is not an anaemic one. As befits the overarching themes of loss and discovery, death and rebirth, the Reliant’s ambush takes its personal as well as metaphorical toll. People die. And for once, defying the classic Star Trek trope of the ‘redshirt’, we feel it.

Much has been said about Meyer’s touchstones for the Reliant attack, but only a couple of years ago speaking to SyFy Wire did he realise a major inspiration was the WWII submarine thriller, The Enemy Below, From 1957:

Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens [starred]. He had a long career and he played a Bond villain, the one who controls the oceans [Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me]. In The Enemy Below, Jurgens plays the German sub captain and Mitchum the destroyer captain. It was directed by Dick Powell, if you can believe it. He started off in those Busby Berkeley musicals with that high-tenor voice. Then he lowered his voice to do Philip Marlowe. Funny enough, Robert Mitchum also played Marlowe. But yeah, Dick Powell directed it. And it’s a f**king great movie. Real kick-ass story of this duel between the two captains, the one in the submarine and the one on the destroyer.

The irony in this inspiration is that Kirk more befits Jurgens’ German submarine captain than he does the traditional, masculine American archetype of Mitchum, in the sense that Kirk and the Enterprise are the fleet being attacked by the ‘destroyers’ of Khan and his mercenary band of genetically engineered crew.

This does flip around, ostensibly, come the battle in the nebula as the hunted becomes the hunter, but the great aspect of this attack is just how unexpected it is to Kirk and the Enterprise crew. “This is damn peculiar,” Kirk says before the attack begins, with Meyer’s script and direction enhancing just how unusual it is for Starfleet vessels not to follow standard greeting protocol. There’s a code and system in place which suggests the Reliant is an extraordinary situation that, theoretically, should never happen.

Even despite being on a training cruise with new recruits before the Regula 1 transmission re-directs them, the Enterprise is utterly unprepared. Khan and his crew are even more of an aberration in Federation society. Their attack simply isn’t the way things are done and in Meyer’s Starfleet, Kirk has to resort to prefix code trickery to bluff their way out of it – Kobayashi Maru style. “It’s all we’ve got,” he tells Spock. That fact alone is remarkable.

“They caught me with my britches down. I must be senile,” Kirk adds, his bravado wounded, age wearing on him, as Meyer directly alludes to the British nautical inspirations.

This perhaps reflects some of the deeper ideas about America’s ideological position at the turn of the 1980s, which Meyer would directly question and display anxiety about in his second Star Trek feature in 1991, The Undiscovered Country. By 1982, the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union had quietened, Reaganism was about to usher in a new era of neoliberal economics and colourful American exceptionalism, and the United States’ place as the global, post-war vanguard was assured.

If we’re to place the Federation as an allegorical future America, The Wrath Of Khan exposes their utter inability to react to a threat which exists beyond the purview of the geopolitical detente of the superpowers. Khan isn’t just a pirate – he’s a pre-fundamentalist terrorist. “I mean to avenge myself upon you, Captain. I have deprived your ship of power and when I swing around, I mean to deprive you of your life,” Khan says, and while his motives may be deeply personal, his objective is to invoke terror and he does this with a great deal of success.

Meyer as a writer seems interested in exploring existential threats to Federation security in all of his contributions. In his co-written script for The Voyage Home, a careless abandon for environmentalism almost destroys Earth, The Undiscovered Country explores what might happen if the Cold War detente was shattered and war threatened on the eve of peace, and in helping to devise Discovery he returns to the Klingons and terrorism, brewing them together as a fundamentalist danger to existing peace.

Khan is Meyer’s purest and most unusual problem, however; a madman risen from hell lacking complete objectivity and seeking a weapon of mass destruction. Meyer even suggests Khan might represent these creeping, existential threats of which America cannot yet even conceive. “Time is a luxury you don’t have, Admiral,” Khan states as he confidently taunts his nemesis over sub space. Khan’s titular wrath could well be a bellwether for the brooding, fundamentalist anger of those who would later attack, and perhaps even in some way destroy, western democracy.

Apart from being vividly directed and portrayed, Reliant’s attack kills many of the young recruits who recently came aboard ship, chief among them Scotty’s ill-fated nephew Peter Preston. We briefly met him during Kirk’s training inspection, but the Director’s Cut of the film re-inserts a further scene which adds meat to the bones of Preston’s character, fully spelling out ahead of time his relationship to Scotty.

In the theatrical version, you are left to infer it to an extent, given Star Trek rarely gives you much in the way of biographical detail about the families of the characters beyond Kirk, Spock or McCoy. What do you know about Scotty’s brother? Do you know who Uhura’s father is? Did you know Sulu had a daughter until Star Trek Generations? Ultimately, Preston isn’t just another redshirt. He exemplifies the human cost of Khan’s inhumanity. He dies horribly, suffering from extreme burns. “He stayed at his post when the trainees ran,” Scotty tearfully declares after Preston passes on. Preston, in some sense, sacrifices himself as a precursor to Spock’s broader sacrifice at the end of the film.

star trek ii battles

“Is the word given, Admiral?” are Preston’s dying words, with Kirk giving him some solace in assuring him they have escaped. The moment is mirrored later in Spock’s death, as he asks if the ship is out of danger. A barrier lies between them both whereas here, Preston’s bloody hand staining Kirk’s tunic is a startling image. Star Trek has never previously depicted brutal loss at the hands of an enemy in such a visual, arresting fashion. Kirk looks exhausted, washed out by the attack, and visibly wounded at Preston’s death. He may be a young crew member he only just met, but he’s also the nephew of his friend, his trusted crewman, and Preston’s death represents something bigger. He represents the seismic shock of Khan’s attack on the Enterprise and the Federation, even the biblical realisation of a risen Satan attacking Starfleet’s heavenly domain.

As a film, The Wrath Of Khan is existentially changed by the Reliant’s attack. It begins Kirk’s transformation back into a leader, onto his journey of self-discovery, as the spectre of his past, of his life as a younger man, strikes terror into the heart of his ship and crew. While sacrifices remain, this is the point Kirk begins to rise and Khan’s slow, steady fall back to hell begins. One of the key aspects to the character arc of Kirk across The Wrath Of Khan is how he, as Dr McCoy puts it toward the beginning, hides behind rules and regulations as a way of insulating himself from his own inertia. Following the Reliant’s ambush, and the death of young a Starfleet crewmen who represent the next generation, Kirk has nowhere else to hide.

It has been oft-discussed in analysing Star Trek about how frequently the captain of the ship puts himself in unnecessary risk. Jean-Luc Picard jokes in Star Trek: Nemesis how his first officer, Will Riker, is a “tyrannical martinet” for never allowing him on away missions. By that point, Star Trek can laugh at its own history, across multiple series and captains, of the figurehead throwing themselves into the fray – and this is precisely what Kirk does once the Enterprise reaches space station Regula 1, after hearing no word from Carol Marcus or her people.

Across The Wrath Of Khan, Kirk has been challenged by regulations, or he has enforced them with company drills or refusing to take command from Spock on joining them for the training cruise, and the green, curious Lieutenant Saavik has been there repeatedly to query any attempts to not go “by the book”, as Spock later describes it. Saavik here quotes General Order Fifteen: No flag officer shall beam into a hazardous area without armed escort” as a justification for joining the away mission, and Kirk knows in this case she is not going by the book herself.

There’s a sense in Nicholas writing of a clear distrust of extreme, enforced regulation. Once Kirk throws those self-enforced shackles off, he starts to rediscover the swagger and humour he displayed in The Original Series. He begins to embrace that deeper humanity, even in the face of the kind of chilling horror he encounters on Regula 1, which moves the film away from WWII submarine thriller into haunted house territory.

Regula 1, cold and deserted following the Reliant’s unseen arrival, blends the open, quiet, ominous terror of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with the science fiction dread of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien, both movies which cast a long shadow over cinema in subsequent decades. These sequences are tense and unerring, filled with the lingering horror of what Khan, off screen, may have wrought. Bones bumping into the bloodied, hanging corpses of Regula 1 scientists brings it home, accompanied by a thundering blast of horror movie strings from James Horner.

Had we witnessed Khan’s attack, and the slaughter of the Regula 1 team, this sequence would have been much less effective; instead we are left to imagine what, if we’re sticking with a horror movie theme, could have been a slasher in all but name. “He tortured those people. He went wild. He slit their throats,” the traumatised Captain Terrell recounts to Kirk, having witnessed a terror all the more potent for how we can imagine it.

In some respects, it almost doesn’t track with the performance Ricardo Montalban gives as Khan. There are points where we see how feral and unhinged he is, particularly toward the end when he loses control, but Meyer intentionally holds back on showing Khan actively murder people. He never even fights Kirk mano-a-mano, which could have happened given the shape both Montalban and William Shatner were in as middle-aged men (Kirk does of course get such a fight when he battles Commander Kruge in The Search For Spock). We simply hear Khan urbanely, almost with a degree of irritation, order Terrell to murder Kirk. These choices simply add to the enigma and terror of Khan and his crew, hearing horrors recounted. “He’s completely mad, Admiral,” Terrell says, and you can believe it.

It further adds to, as previously discussed, just how much Khan and his crew break the traditional, regulatory norms of Starfleet and societal conduct. They don’t just attack, they slaughter. They are marauders and do the futuristic equivalent on Regula 1 of rape and pillage, stringing innocent people up (civilians, lest we forget) having sacked the station in order to reap its riches – in this case the Genesis materials, which Carol and her scientists wisely destroyed any information of before Khan or his people could access them.

What’s interesting is that when Carol and the escaped survivors beam down to the Regula planet, down to what we later see to be Eden, Khan didn’t follow them. As the traumatised Pavel Chekov says, “He spent most of his time trying to wring information out of the people,” suggesting that Khan focused on torturing and interrogating captured Regula scientists to give up the secrets of heaven. “Those people back there bought escape time for Genesis with their lives,” Bones makes explicit. Many scientists – in this case, not Bothans – died to protect this information.

Perhaps Khan didn’t follow Carol and the scientists down to Regula because he was unable to see, or understand, the Edenic paradise Kirk soon realises exists there, hidden in plain sight. Saavik reports Regula as “a planetoid we know to be lifeless” but Kirk understands from Carol’s Genesis briefing that the first stage of bringing life from lifelessness was to test the device underground. It’s a neat, symbolic inversion of classical Christian and Greek myth; Khan raises himself from the hell of Ceti Alpha V (where he later maroons the Reliant crew) but is unable to find heaven, which itself has been rendered below, as opposed to above.

Kirk’s decision to follow them, to beam down to Regula, is not just proof he is abandoning regulation: it’s a veritable leap of faith. All the scans suggest Regula is a dead planet, a moon incapable of supporting life, yet he’s willing to buck the rule book and find out where they went. He and Spock discuss how going by the book renders the Enterprise and her crew in a far graver situation than is ultimately the case.

“Admiral, if we go by the book, like Lieutenant Saavik, hours could seem like days,” Spock says. If Saavik justified her own rule-breaking to follow Kirk, Kirk does the same to undertake his leap, and Bones ironically is much less certain of Kirk’s faith than he earlier in the film encouraged him to be. “Suppose they went nowhere?” he anxiously asks. “Then this will be your big chance to get away from it all,” is Kirk’s brilliantly pithy reply.

This existentialism, and Kirk’s continued abandonment of Starfleet regulations, provide the catalyst for the moment when his own journey to rebirth and the film’s direct Christian allusions become clear. The admiral is about to face his own youth by discovering his own personal paradise.

Read the previous part of AJ Black’s Star Trek II series – A spoiler-y look at a question of fate. 

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