“‘ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Message, Spock?
None that I am conscious of. Except, of course, happy birthday. Surely, the best of times.”
-James Kirk, Spock
“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!”
-Khan (via Captain Ahab)
Welcome back, nerds! Today we’ll be discussing Charles Dickens Pwns Herman Melville, otherwise known as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. If it had been released today, a movie like Star Trek: The Motion Picture would never have gotten a sequel, but because the universe is just, Paramount decided to give Kirk and co. another go, and we got the sci-fi masterpiece that is the Wrath of Khan.
Along with the main action-y plot, we’ve a bunch of profound explorations of aging, no-win scenarios, life and death, and sacrifice, giving us the best Star Trek film ever. Of all time.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The Ship: U.S.S. Enterprise (Constitution Class refit)
The Captain: Spock, until he hands command over to Admiral Kirk when trouble arises. We see how it is, Spock.
The Premise: It’s a sequel to the TOS episode “Space Seed” in which Kirk picks up a ship lost in space that’s filled with genetically engineered humans. After said humans are revived, the leader, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), tries to take over the ship while romancing the lovely 20th century expert, McGivers, who just happens to have a weakness for megalomaniacal men. Now, in the Star Trek timeline, the 90’s were not the nostalgia-drenched decade of peace and Tamagotchis, but rather a violent period of war in which Khan was a ruthless dictator who controlled a quarter of the world. After the Eugenics Wars, Khan and a bunch of his cronies stole a spaceship (because we totally had those in the 90’s) and fled Earth, only to be picked up by Kirk centuries later. After Kirk quells Khan’s uprising aboard the Enterprise, he allows all of the super-folks (and McGivers) to colonize the planet Ceti Alpha V and leaves them be.
Ok, fast forward a bunch. While on a scouting mission for Project Genesis, a revolutionary device invented by Doctor Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) that allows one to create a habitable planet out of a lifeless one, Chekov (now a commander) finds Khan on Ceti Alpha V (and Khan’s super mad because Ceti Alpha VI blew up, turning Ceti Alpha V into a desert planet that makes Arrakis look like a lovely resort world). After literally sucking the pertinent information from Chekov’s brain (with an ooey-gooey worm thing called a Ceti eel), Khan steals the science vessel Reliant and goes off to
kill the wabbit blow up Kirk with Ahab-like intensity (while literally quoting Ahab every so often).
The Enterprise is now a training vessel filled with newbs (and most of the original squad), but when Khan attacks Carol Marcus’ research space station, the Enterprise is the “only ship in range,” an excuse we’ll hear a lot. So Kirk and Co. rush to help, unaware of the crazed adversary who’s waiting for them.
The Best Moments: There are a bunch. I love the intro where Saavik (Kirstie Alley), Spock’s Vulcan protégé, seemingly destroys the Enterprise until we learn it was a simulation.
I love an early scene where Bones calls Kirk out on his moping about growing older and convinces him to get back into command. The fact that McCoy gives Kirk a pair of 18th century glasses for his eyes probably isn’t the best way to not make Kirk feel old, but holy crap, 400 year-old glasses is a pretty cool gift. He also gives him a bottle of illegal Romulan ale. Basically, you should be friends with Bones because he gives the best gifts.
Any time Khan quotes or paraphrases Captain Ahab is pretty swell.
The ooey-gooey worm scene is gross and terrifying and I love it.
There’s also a great moment where Carol Marcus and Kirk are talking about their past and what they might have done differently. Carol is such a strong, liberated character, and its awesome to see how, unlike Kirk’s TOS conquests, Carol makes it clear that she deserves to be respected. In this scene, Kirk is so emotionally vulnerable after learning that he has a son, and Carol carries the whole scene, offering both stability and empathy, culminating in her iconic line, “Can I cook, or can’t I?” when she shows him the Genesis Cave to brighten his spirits.
Kirk and Spock’s goodbye, of course, is completely emotionally devastating.
And I love the moment when Kirk figures out what Spock was saying when he gave him the antique copy of A Tale of Two Cities. It took me a while to figure this one out, but once I finally read the book, it all clicked into place. In the novel’s conclusion, Sydney Carton, a barrister, allows himself to be guillotined in place of Charles Darnay, who has been convicted of treason, so that he can continue to watch over his family, including his wife Lucie whom Carton was in love with. Kirk’s recitation of the novel’s final line is so gorgeous because he realizes that Spock basically promised to die for his ship family, and Kirk most of all, which ultimately, he does. It’s just magnificent.
Oh, and of course…
Why It’s Awesome: My gushing about my favorite scenes basically already covered this, but I love its take on the mid-life crisis thing. Kirk, throughout the original series, was impulsive to the point of reckless and confident to the point of arrogance. He was a good captain, and a hero of the Federation, but he was also more than a little invincible. He saw death, but never really faced it, even if the people who died were close friends such as Matt Decker in “The Doomsday Machine.” In this film, we have a Kirk who’s lost his spark and is just about to commit to a life behind a desk before a training cruise is interrupted by a vengeance-fueled reminder of that time, long ago, when one could make decisions and somehow avoid dealing with the consequences.
The Genesis Device is also one of the coolest ethical quandaries I think Star Trek has ever faced. It’s a technological marvel that could solve a great many problems, but because sentient beings aren’t perfect, there will always be someone who could use it as a weapon of mass destruction. In that, it adds a fun layer to Carol Marcus who is far too intelligent to be naive, but yet she is naive because she believes in science as a positive force in the galaxy (which it is) while not wanting to admit that it is also incredibly dangerous.
Even though a lot of the emotional impact of the film stems from the established friendships between the main characters that were established in the Original Series, this is just an all-around good sci-fi flick, even if you’re not a die-hard fan of the series.
One final word of advice, if you do come across the Director’s Cut of the film, I’d say avoid it. It’s not bad, but it’s just not as sleek a narrative. There are a lot of previously cut lines of dialogue that, while interesting from a character point of view, really end up causing scenes to drag for no reason. The only added scene that I really like is McCoy explaining the origin of Kirk’s glasses. The theatrical cut omits Bones’ comment about the glasses being 400 years old (which will be referenced again in Star Trek IV). But the rest of it is stuff that is already implied and doesn’t really need to be spelled out for the audience. Definitely go for the theatrical cut.
Next week, we’ll be looking at The Search for Spock, a film that isn’t completely good, but isn’t completely bad, either. See you then!