Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Wrath of Khan, the Recreation of Star Trek, and the Redemption of Kirk

If there's one key insight that animates the Wrath of Khan, fueling its action and driving its plot, it is this: Kirk is not a very good person.

Yes, Kirk, the heroic exemplar of Kennedy-era masculinity, Horatio Hornblower for the Space Age Gene Roddenberry's fantasy of an ideal military commander, is, in truth, a shallow, irresponsible man, egotistically obsessed with winning at all costs, who has spent his life flitting from one easy success to another without ever dealing with the consequences of his actions, his human limitations and flaws, and his own mortality.

This may seem harsh and one-sided; and indeed, Kirk is without a doubt the hero of The Wrath of Kahn.  But if this central point is not grasped, in all its starkness, then it will be completely impossible to understand what makes TWOK tick: and, more than this, what makes The Wrath of Kahn without a doubt the greatest of all Star Trek films, and, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest works of American cinema as well.

Where does this insight come from?  Well, to really understand that, we will have to go back in time just a bit, to explain the origins of TWOK as a film, and to tease out a number of other insights that ultimately paved the way for this one.


The story of The Wrath of Kahn starts with a man named Harve Bennett; Bennett was an old television pro, having worked in the industry for decades on all manner of series.  Bennett was about as competent and business-like a producer as could be imagined--but he was also a very creative man, having originated and run his own television shows in the past.  He was, though, indelibly a man of television, and had never made a big-screen theatrical film before.

It was to this man that the studio now turned to create the next Star Trek film.  Their reasons were a bit complex, but they came down, effectively, to a desire to replicate the financial success of Star Trek The Motion Picture without that film's creative conflicts and insane, runaway budget.  To that end, Gene Roddenberry, whose egotistical antics had been partly responsible for turning the production of TMP into a living hell for all involved, was booted upstairs--and, after spending almost ten years trying to turn Star Trek into a bona fides, respectable film property, the studio decided that maybe, just maybe, only television people could really understand it anyway.  Hence Harve Bennett.

In his initial interview with the executives who had selected him, without his knowledge, for this task, Bennett was asked two questions in rapid succession.  First: what did you think of Star Trek TMP?  After an uncomfortable silence, Bennett admitted that he thought it was really boring.  Then: could you make another Star Trek film for less than TMP's 45-million-dollar price tag?  At that, Bennett just laughed, and replied without any hesitation: "Where I come from, I could make four or five films for that much."  The studio had found their man.

Given carte blanche authority over the franchise, Bennett set about watching and familiarizing himself with his new intellectual property.  Rewatching the show, Bennett, as an old television hand, got almost immediately what it seems no one in the '70s had ever gotten: Star Trek was just a Western, military drama set in space, a clever spinning of science fiction into more standard dramatic television terms.  From Bennett's perspective, almost everything here was intimately familiar to him: strong characters, barroom brawls, gunfights, monsters, black hat heavies, and a healthy dose of moralizing on the side.  The setting had changed, Bennett perceived, but the essential realities of human nature hadn't; and as exemplars of this unchanging human nature, Star Trek featured strong, bold, likeable characters, heroes to sympathize with and cheer for.  This was something Bennett both understood and liked; and it was something he knew how to do.

Pleased with what the studio had dropped in his lap, Bennett quickly set to work trying to come up with a suitable story for his new movie; and almost immediately, he fixated on the original series episode Space Seed, wherein was introduced the dastardly, mildly orientalizing villain Kahn Noonien Singh, a genetically-enhanced despot from the '90s, of supposedly Sikh origin but played by the great Mexican-born actor Ricardo Montalban.  In Kahn, Bennett had found his heavy; and he had also found a story ready-made for a sequel.

Space Seed is without a doubt one of the stronger episodes of TOS; and Kahn is definitely one of its most effective villains.  Viewed in retrospect, the episode does come off a bit strangely, though; it is essentially a meditation on the romantic power and fixation of absolute despotism, conceived through a vaguely orientalizing lens (a la "Oriental despotism").  Kahn is intelligent, charming, charismatic, but also absolutely determined to rule, which he sees as his natural right and as the proper order of things given his superior, genetically-enhanced nature; and everyone in the episode, from Kirk on down, is impressed, not to say awed, both by this idea and by Kahn himself.  There is something a little odd about all this; and it is difficult for me to avoid connecting it with Edmund Waldstein's thesis about the immense attraction of totalitarianism for individualistic societies.  The primary lens through which this episode examines this attraction, though, is the character of Marla McGivers, a Starfleet historian obsessed (in an explicitly romantic way) with the "great men" and great despots of history.  This is, again, a bit of an odd (not to say mildly sexist) idea; personally, I don't know too many female Classicists who are secretly in love with Julius Caesar.  In any event, McGivers does provides a dramatic way for the episode to examine Kahn's charisma through, as she rapidly falls under Kahn's spell and finally joins him in his quest to take over the ship.  Of course, at this point, the "oriental despot" finds himself in direct conflict with James T. "America" Kirk, and before you can say "We the People," Kahn has been subdued and exiled with his followers (and McGivers) to a harsh world, to make a life and an empire for himself.  The episode ends with Kahn quoting Milton: "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."  Exit Kahn stage right.

Bennett, with his eyes open for materials for a good film, immediately thrilled to Kahn's theatrical villainy and the open-ended conclusion of his story; and from then on, in Bennett's mind, Kahn's return from exile, propelled by a desire for revenge on Kirk, was never in doubt.

Very quickly, though, Bennett ran up against a rather unusual obstacle in his quest to revive Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry.  Although Roddenberry had absolutely no power in the making of the film, he did have a ceremonial role that gave him the ability to read and comment on its development--and more than this, Bennett, as an old acquaintance, and one a bit insecure in his new role as shepherd of Star Trek, did in fact want his input.  This relationship, however, soon took a strange turn, as, having first insisted that all their interactions take place via memos, Roddenberry began to viciously attack practically every idea Bennett put forward.  In doing so, Roddenberry also repeatedly pitched his own idea for a new Trek movie--involving the Enterprise crew travelling back in time and somehow getting involved in the Kennedy assassination--as well as his current vision of what Star Trek, in its essence, was.  To Bennett, however, the latter was far more confusing than the former; for, according to Gene Roddenberry at this stage, Star Trek was absolutely not a military show, Starfleet was not a military organization, and there could be little or no violence and conflict in the 23rd century.  In the future, according to Roddenberry, man had perfected himself, eliminating the need for such things.  This was Star Trek: a utopian fable about a perfect society.  Everything else was abomination.

To Bennett, fresh from watching the original show, all this was absolutely perplexing; it obviously bore no relationship at all to the television show Star Trek, as it had originally aired in the '60s.  Faced with this basic dilemma, forced to choose between Star Trek and its creator, Bennett bit the bullet, and chose Star Trek.  This was, clearly, the right choice.

He still, however, faced the challenge of getting a script, based on his basic concept of the return of Kahn, going; and to this end he turned to a succession of writers to help him flesh his ideas out into a full-blown story.  Here, again, the troubles started.  Writer after writer struggled, as their predecessors in the '70s had, to take Star Trek and turn it into a movie, without adding in lots of intergalactic weirdness galore.  Through these drafts, various elements were brought into the mix; the idea of killing Spock, for instance, arose as a way of intriguing a thoroughly disenchanted Nimoy enough to bring him back into the fold.  Bennett was also annoyed by the way in which TMP had ignored the aging of the cast since the television show, even using film-making techniques to try to make them look younger; this film, he decided, would have to deal, in some way, with the characters' rapid aging.  The Genesis Project, likewise, was conceived of by the film's art director as a plot device for Kahn to be after, and duly incorporated into the next draft of the script.  Still, rather dissatisfied with the results of his labors, Bennett finally brought in Sam Peeples, a classic Western and television writer, and the writer of the second Star Trek pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before, to salvage things for the fifth draft; left to himself, though, Peeples eliminated Kahn entirely and instead brought in fathomless, evil aliens from another dimension to serve as villains.  Bennett, and the development of Star Trek II, were officially in trouble.

It was here that a miracle, or something very like it, happened--one of many that prove that, to paraphrase Ira Steven Behr, showrunner of Deep Space Nine, God is a Star Trek fan.
Enter Nicholas Meyer.  Meyer was, like many of my own ancestors, a New York city Jew, who had grown up writing and reading and eventually gotten it into his head to travel out west to LA to make his living as a screenwriter.  There, after writing a few bestselling novels to pass the time, he finally got to adapt his own film for the screen, and then direct and write another film, Time After Time.

Time after Time is, to be honest, a very strange film, revolving around Jack the Ripper stealing H.G. Wells time machine and using it to escape into the 1970s, pursued by the outraged author.  It is, indeed, quite an entertaining action-adventure film; but it is perhaps most notable for its shockingly dark, but not all that atypical, view of the contemporary world of the 1970s.  According to the film, the '70s are basically Jack the Ripper's natural habitat, a place where his perversions are nothing unusual and his crimes would draw no particular notice, and a direct disproof of Wells' utopian ideas.  Despite this dark underbelly, though, the film does ultimately come down to the heroic humanist Wells falling in love, slaying the villain, and saving the day.  In retrospect, there is, in fact, something rather Star Trek-ish about Time After Time's combination of intellectualism and colorful action-adventure.

Still, with this film under his belt, Meyer was now looking for his next project.  Unfortunately, the studios did not want to make that next project, an adaptation of a favorite novel of his, a reality--and so, when, after several fruitless years, a studio friend advised him to contact Harve Bennett, who was making the next Star Trek movie, he took her advice and did it.

There was just one problem, though, about Meyer directing Star Trek II; he had never seen a single episode of Star Trek before, and the little he had seen of the show had never either impressed or attracted him.  Meyer was an enthusiast for literature and opera, not a science fiction fan.

Still, that didn't stop him.  Meyer met with Bennett, talked things over, and discussed Bennett's plans for the film; and Bennett, impressed by this young director and author, promised to send him the fifth draft of the script as soon as it was finished.

Meyer had never watched Star Trek; but he had seen Star Wars recently, and he was excited about getting the chance to do his own big-screen space opera.  With this in mind, Meyer returned home, watched a bunch Star Trek, and set about preparing himself mentally for his new project.  It was at this stage, however, with thoughts of Star Wars dominating his brain, that Meyer began to realize that, in fact, something about Star Trek did seem...well, very familiar to him, and in an entirely positive way at that.  At first, Meyer couldn't think what could possibly be behind this; after all, he had never watched Star Trek before, and he had never been a fan of science fiction--or, for that matter, '60s Western and military drama shows.  Indeed, Meyer didn't particularly like or watch television.  Still, something about Star Trek inspired familiar feelings of affection in Meyer; and he couldn't remotely think what it could be.

As Meyer describes it in his autobiography, the answer came to him, in the end, in his sleep.  Waking up suddenly, he sat upright in bed and spoke one word: Hornblower.

Hence, it turned out that Meyer did, in fact have one very important thing in common with Gene Roddenberry: he, too, had been a fan in his youth of the Horatio Hornblower novels and their heroic, naval setting.  Suddenly, Star Trek--this bizarre, cardboard space-show that he had never understood before--began to make sense to him.  Kirk was Horatio Hornblower; the Enterprise was a 19th century naval ship; the stars were the high seas.  All of these were things he understood.

Meyer had always secretly nursed the idea of making a Horatio Hornblower movie for the big screens, but had never remotely expected to get the chance; now, it began to dawn on him that Star Trek could be that chance.

He was going to make a Horatio Hornblower movie in space.

At this stage, from what I can tell, Meyer had no idea that Gene Roddenberry had also been inspired by Hornblower.  He simply watched Star Trek, and saw what neither Star Trek's revivers in the '70s, nor Harve Bennett in the '80s, had ever seen: Star Trek was, to a large degree, English naval literature set in space.

Slowly, by a bizarrely serendipitous and roundabout process, Star Trek was being recreated from scratch, regrown from its deepest and most forgotten roots.  Harve Bennett had discovered half of these roots --Westerns and '60s television--and, by a bizarre twist of serendipity, Meyer was now set to provide the other half.

I put it to you again: God is a Star Trek fan.

If you want yet more proof of that fact, wait till you hear what happened next.

Meyer, excited to have finally gotten a handle on this strange new property, belatedly realized that weeks upon weeks had gone by, and no script draft had been sent to him.  He called up Harve Bennett to inquire--and Bennett promptly advised him to forget the whole project.  In those weeks, Bennett had received script draft number five; and, in Bennett's opinion, it was absolutely awful.  Moreover, all of the script drafts before it were also, as Bennett judged them, complete failures--and since each of them was an almost completely independent attempt to construct a story for the movie, there was little or no real creative progress contained in them either.  Put together, in Bennett's opinion, it added up to a big pile of nothing.  A chastened Bennett recommended that Meyer forget about the whole thing and go back to his life.  Star Trek II was a failure.

Meyer, though, refused to do so.  He had watched Star Trek, and realized that this was his chance to make a Horatio Hornblower movie--and he really, really wanted to do so.  He insisted that Bennett send him all of the drafts of the script for him to peruse.

After reading the drafts, Meyer called up Bennett again, and invited him and the film's producer, Bob Sallin, over.  There, he made them a proposal that blind-sided the two men; together, the three of them would make a list of all of the disparate elements they liked from the first five drafts.  Then, Meyer would go away and write a completely new script.

Bennett was shocked by this proposal; but he quickly responded, with regret, that it was impossible anyway.  Star Trek II was already booked into theaters, and they needed a shooting script in ten days in order to have the film's special effects ready in time.  This was an impossible deadline--the only option was cancelling the movie altogether.

Meyer, though, refused to let go.  He could do the script in ten days.

Bennett reminded him that there was no way they would be able to work out a deal for him to write for the film in that time.

Meyer agreed; he would write it without credit.  If he didn't, the film wouldn't get made.  And Meyer really, really wanted this movie to get made.  Maybe God did too?  I'm just thinking out loud.

Bennett and Sallin were completely blindsided by this strange behavior, not often found in Hollywood writers or directors; but, in the end, they agreed.  After all, what did they have to lose?  With the greenlight given, Meyer spent a mostly sleepless ten days writing and writing and rewriting, until his hands were covered in papercuts, and his fingers in white-out fluid (this was before the days of PCs).  At the beginning of this process, Meyer wondered why Kirk couldn't read a book; he looked at his bookshelf, and pulled out the Tale of Two Cities.  Otherwise, he had Horatio Hornblower, the television show, and a list of random, divested elements from the other scripts: the revenge of Kahn, the death of Spock, the Genesis project, a simulator program, a Vulcan woman named Saavik, Kirk's son.  He did not, however, have a story.  This he would have to come up with himself.

Ten days of feverish activity later, there was a feature-length script.  Meyer sent it on to Bennett, then got some sleep.  Bennett was thrilled; and the film was suddenly back on, with Meyer as director.  Meyer would not, in the end, be credited with the script at all.

Revisions, of course, did take place in response to feedback from Nimoy and Shatner and others.  Nimoy recalls Meyer meeting with him to discuss his concerns, and then revising the script within forty-eight hours; Shatner, after screaming at Meyer that "This script is a total DISASTER!," was so pleased with Meyer's instant revision that he left a message on his machine extolling him as a genius.  Likewise, when Meyer explained to Shatner that he was basically making Hornblower in outer space, Shatner excitedly explained to him that Roddenberry had frequently said the same thing, back in the '60s.  Gradually, as if waking up from a bad dream, everyone involved began to realize that there was actually something pretty good going on here.  Maybe, just maybe, Star Trek really was, finally, being revived.

In any event, the movie was in the end, despite all odds, filmed, edited, and released--and what a film it was.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn is, in my humble opinions, a truly great movie.  It is, without a single doubt, the best Star Trek movie ever made; but in truth, it transcends Star Trek altogether.  It is not only a great movie by any possible standards; it is, as a film, practically sui generis.  Saying this, though, makes it seem like TWOK is something completely different from Star Trek the television show, that it owes nothing to its forebears.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  TWOK gets Star Trek the television show, like nothing and noone in the '70s had ever gotten it; and it takes this show, its setting, its inspirations, and its characters, more literally and more seriously than anyone has ever taken them before or since.  At the same time, TWOK ennobles and improves on Star Trek, selecting its very best elements and lifting them up into the realm of truly universal human stories and myths.

It is, in short, a very good movie.

To understand just how this is so, though, let us return to the central insight we began this essay with: James T Kirk is not a very good human being.  It is this insight which is the key to TWOK's greatness, both as a Star Trek movie, and just as a movie.

In the television show, Kirk was always Horatio Hornblower, John F. Kennedy, the American hero, the leading man--the paragon of childish masculinity for an entire generation.  He is, in fact, one in a long line of similar figures, stretching from the pages of myth to current television shows; hyper-masculine, womanizing, responsible but detached.  TWOK is in no way a denial of this trope; it is not a cruel or mocking parody of Kirk, nor is it a turnabout in the style of the Disney-villain-rehabilitation efforts popular these days.  It does not propose that Kahn is really the good guy; it does not turn Kirk into a vain, pompous Prince Charming, nor does it subject him even to the thorough drubbing Stanley Kubrick gave Kennedy-era military masculinity in Dr Strangelove.  Kirk is still a hero--indeed, in a sense, he is more hero than ever.  He is the heart of the film, and its sympathies are with him every step of the way.

This, though, is precisely the point; the movie sympathizes with him.  It feels his pain; and in doing so, it takes him more literally, and more seriously, than anyone has ever done before or since.  It accepts him, not as a leading man, but simply as a man.  The Wrath of Kahn looks at this boyish masculine hero; and it sees a deeply flawed and wounded human being.

Kirk, the film makes clear, is now really and truly old.  Not only that, he feels old; as the film opens, Kirk finds himself reduced to training cadets in simulator versions of starships, while younger men captain starships out in space; after a day of this, he returns home to his empty apartment, just a bit too large for him, stuffed with old antiques and not much else.  He is, in a very real sense, a man adrift.

His closest friends, Spock and McCoy, both realize, in their own way, that Kirk is out of sorts; and both try to help.  In the beginning of the film, it is Kirk's birthday, and each man gives him a symbolic present.  Spock gives him a copy of The Tale of Two Cities; McCoy gives him a pair of reading glasses.  The message of both gifts is similar; acceptance of old age, acceptance even (perhaps) of death.


Kirk, though, is not at the point of acceptance.  He is not, really, even at the point of acknowledgment.  Through the first part of the movie, he is quiet, taciturn, unresponsive to his friend's efforts, unwilling to acknowledge even his own discomfort.  Surrounded by young cadets, including the precocious Vulcan Saavik, he finds himself an old man in a sea of children--not in command, not in control, and not at ease.

Then, all of a sudden, Kahn, a villain Kirk beat fifteen years ago and never remotely expected to see or hear from again, is back, mad and screaming for revenge.  In a confrontation, Kirk acts carelessly, and reacts slowly; and in an instant, the Enterprise is crippled, and young men are dead.  Kirk is stunned.

As if this weren't enough, in short order, Kirk is confronted by an old flame from the distant past, and by a young, blond man who attacks him with a knife.  The man, whom Kirk does not recognize, is his son--a son Kirk fathered and then systematically avoided through his entire childhood and youth.

Kirk is now in a dark cave, underneath a planet, with a powerful enemy, a crippled ship, dead cadets, and an estranged son.  He finds himself alone now with his long-lost former lover, Carol Marcus.  There is no possibility of romance here, not even of the shallow Kirk sort--just regret and hollowness.  Over the last hour or so, Kirk, already out of sorts, has taken blow after unexpected blow, each one directed at his gut, each one challenging his aura of control, invincibility, and glamour.  The hero of the '60s, Horatio Hornblower and Jack Kennedy, Master and Commander of intergalactic space, is tired, slumped over, small.  Marcus asks him what he's feeling.  He responds:

"There's a man out there I haven't seen in 15 years who's trying to kill me. You show me a son that'd be happy to help.  
My son. My life that could have been... and wasn't. 
How do I feel? Old. Worn out."


The problem, though, is not really Kahn's rage, or even his son's obvious disdain.  These are symptoms of a deeper dysfunction, and of a deeper wound.  There is, the film makes clear, something terribly wrong with the way Kirk has lived his life up until this point; and now he is reaping what he sowed.

The Wrath of Kahn, then, is in its essence the drama of Kirk's soul.  The question at the heart of Wrath of Kahn, the question the film poses insistently over and over again, is simply this: can Kirk be redeemed?

Of course, there's also a more immediate and pressing question in play here, involving the film's justifably famous villain.  Can Kirk not die?

If Kirk is the heart of the film, Kahn is his insistent counterpoint and mirror image.  He, too, is a man growing no younger; he, too, is haunted by the ghosts of the past, including long-ago glories of command and a long-lost love; he, too, has followers who depend on him, and who suffer as the result of his actions.  Kahn, though, is something Kirk, for all his flaws, is not; he is consumed.

Kahn in TWOK, to be honest, is a very strange villain in a number of ways.  As a screen villain, he is undoubtedly a touchstone for modern cinema; and while he has had many imitators in his larger-than-life presence and mannerisms, it seems to me that few of these imitators have really ever understood what makes Kahn such a fascinating and compelling person in the first place.

Montalban's performance is, in truth, a grand, theatrical one at times.  However, watching him today, what stands out about Montalban's performance, oddly enough, is its remarkable restraint, its frequent muted quality, its odd formality.  Kahn, when he first appears in the film, is oddly conventional, strangely quiet and pensive, a bit like a caged animal.  He does not exude the gleeful confidence of modern-day comic book villains; he does not even exude the dry wit of older film villains.  He is a little bit of everything; a genetically-enhanced strongman (he lifts Chekov bodily with one hand in an early scene), but clearly uninterested in physical violence; witty and intelligent, but completely without enjoyment.

When he is not dealing with Kirk, Kahn is muted and unhappy, going through the motions of villainy without the delight.  He does not shout and rave; he speaks quietly, with an edge of irony, but without obvious pleasure.  As soon as he interacts with Kirk, though, Kahn changes; he becomes over-the-top, gleeful, furious, grand.  He savors each word, every interaction, with obvious, unhinged pleasure.

Kahn, it turns out, is a hollow man.

The Kahn of TWOK is, in fact, little more than the ruins of the charming, intelligent despot we saw in Space Seed.  At the end of Space Seed, we saw him confidently, boldly setting out to conquer a new world, filled with passion and accompanied by his new, Federation-born lover.  When we first see him in TWOK, his hair is grey, and most of his followers are dead, including his "beloved wife."  He lives in a sandy, hellish wasteland, in shipping containers--the result, we are told, of an unforeseen catastrophe that altered the hostile, but liveable world he was promised into a living hell.  If the Kahn of Space Seed was a man who believed absolutely in his own superiority, his destiny to rule over others, and (more than this) the unparalleled ability of the will of man, empowered by science, to overcome any obstacle, then Kahn of TWOK clearly believes in none of these things anymore.  He has been conquered by reality, broken on the wheel of events.  The intellectual vision that propelled Kahn in Space Seed, of a better world made by better men--the vision that made him so intriguing that even true-blue Starfleet folk admired him (and one even fell in love with him), is entirely gone.  Perhaps those are young men's games; and Kahn is by no means a young man anymore.  Like Kirk, Kahn is lost in old age and obsolescence, despondent over the failure of the vision of youth.  Like Kirk, he is a hollow man.


Unlike Kirk, though, Kahn has plainly found something to fill that hollowness--or at least mask it.  When he talks to Chekov and Terrell, his captives, he speaks quickly and quietly, with an ironical politeness.  Soon, though, his real passion is laid bare.  Kahn is filled with anger, with rage; and its target is Kirk.  Kahn blames Kirk for sending him into exile on this world, and never returning to check on him--just as Kirk's son, David, blames him for fathering him, and never returning to check on him.  Like David, Kahn is one of Kirk's mistakes--and unlike David, he is entirely unable to live with that fact.  The idea of Kirk living in peace and freedom elsewhere, while he rots in hell with a dead wife as the result of Kirk's irresponsibility, has clearly become Kahn's fixation, even obsession.

Here, though, is where things get interesting--for Kahn's obsession, his desire for revenge, is clearly based, in Nicholas Meyer's script, on the classic tales of revenge and of fallen angels in literature: Moby Dick, King Lear, Paradise Lost.  Kahn even, as the film progresses, begins to quote from these works as his quest to slay Kirk escalates.  What are we to make of this?

In the very first scene where Kahn appears, the camera pans across his new habitat--and lingers on a bookshelf, wherein are contained...well, all of the works in question.  Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, King Lear, The Inferno, even a copy of the Bible (which has its fair share of revenge stories).  Kahn, it is clear, has kept up his reading in exile--and we are invited to imagine him reading these books, the few comforts of his exile, over and over again, stewing over their plots, identifying with their self-destructive characters.

Kahn, it turns out, knows exactly what he's doing.  He is, clearly, deliberately, playing a role.  He is choosing to be the bad guy, choosing not to go on living, choosing to kill himself, and his followers.  When one of his followers points out to him, part-way through the tale, that he has no real reason to pursue Kirk, that with his stolen starship he could go anywhere, do anything he wanted--and we might remember, here, that this was what the Kahn of Space Seed had wanted, so long ago, to steal a starship and found his own perfect society--Kahn responds, not with reasoning, but with a direct quote (carefully adapted) from Moby Dick:

He tasks me...he tasks me, but 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 certainly madness of a kind; but it is also something far more interesting, and far more sad.  Kahn is a broken idealist, a man who used to have a vision of himself and his life, but who now finds himself, like Kirk, old and tired and adrift; but in Moby Dick, in Paradise Lost, he has found a new ideal to live for, one into which he can pour himself and his soul.  When he repeats his bastardized quote, Kahn is alive, vibrant, saying the words with such passion and such longing that even we believe in this new Kahn, this magnificent, self-destructive failure, this Captain Ahab, this Satan.  It is only upon reflection that we realize how constructed, and hence how twisted, all this really is.

It is here that the brilliance of TWOK as a film comes through.  Kahn is, in a sense, a dark mirror for Kirk; but he is also, in a truer sense, another one of Kirk's victims, like David or the young cadet whose blood Meyer allows to stain the white of Kirk's uniform after the first battle; and in a yet deeper sense, he is just one more man drawn into the orbit of this hero of ours, someone who needs Kirk far more than Kirk needs him, someone who desperately wants to live up to his role as villain, and who also desperately needs Kirk to live up to his heroism, in order to give his own life meaning.  When he finally does rouse Kirk up, get him angry, in one of the more famous scenes in the movie, Kahn's reaction is pure pleasure.  Kahn relishes the anger, the intelligence, the glamour of his enemy--for without it, he is only a lost old man, with a dead wife and a life full of regrets.  He is happy when Kirk outwits him, happy when he defeats him; he is even happy when Kirk kills him, as he spits out yet another Moby Dick monologue with his last breath...gleeful in the thought that his death will mean Kirk's as well--but also, more truthfully, simply happy for the ability to keep living, to keep on playing his role of fallen angel until the bitter end.


The funny thing is, Kahn, in the end, succeeds perfectly--destroying himself, like the damned souls in the Inferno; leading his followers to destruction, like Satan; finishing his life with a curse, like Captain Ahab.  It even looks, for a moment, like he will get his man.  The Enterprise is crippled, and Kahn has set a countdown detonator.  For Kirk, there is no way out.

At the heart of TWOK, running like a black thread down its spine, is the reality of death. In the film's very first scene, we open on a strange face, Cadet Saavik, in the command chair of the Enterprise, surrounded by Spock, McCoy, Sulu, and all our friends, on a mission to the stars.  Then, the impossible happens--and we watch as, one by one, each and every one of them die.

Then, of course, the set opens up, and Admiral Kirk enters the scene like Zeus descending from Olympus; and we find that this has all been a part of a simulator test, the Kobayashi Maru, for cadets, a test of Saavik's command abilities.  The test, though, has an interesting character; there is, literally, no way to win.  The test always ends the same; with the (simulated) death of all involved.  Saavik, despite her Vulcan calm, is incensed; this is entirely unfair as a test of her abilities.  Kirk, though, is humorously dismissive; after all, he calmly retorts, "How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life."  This is, Kirk tells Saavik, the whole purpose of the test: to make future commanders accept the limits of their abilities, face defeat, face even death--and accepts its possibility, its inevitability.

Starfleet, it turns out, is a pretty wise place.

Kirk, however, is not a particularly wise person.  In a later scene, with Kirk having just met his son, Saavik, still fuming over the test, asks Kirk how he himself responded to it.  Kirk is relaxed about it; he was, it turns out, the only person ever to beat the no-win scenario.  His solution?  Reprogram the simulator.

"He cheated."  David verbalizes.  Kirk doesn't even flinch: "I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking...I don't like to lose."  Saavik, though, is shocked by what she hears, at the denial of what he, as representative of Starfleet, had told her earlier in the film: "Then you never faced that situation...faced death."

Kirk, though, is unrepentant: "I don't believe in a no-win situation."  Then, he pulls out his communicator, and puts a new, clever plan into action.  As with David, as with Kahn, Kirk is not interested in confronting the consequences of his actions; he is interested in winning, yet again, against odds.


By the end of the film, though, Kirk is, truly, facing a no-win scenario--though it is doubtful he is aware of it, so busy is he scheming and plotting to cheat it once again.  Faced with death, it is likely that Kirk would go down into it without, once even, really dealing with it at all.  Like Kahn, he would keep on trying to escape it, to live in the fantasy of his own control, right to the bitter end.

Then, something happens that, without his knowledge or cooperation, does save Kirk, in both senses of the word.

To understand this famous event, we must take a moment to go back and examine Spock's role in this film.  Spock's role in The Wrath of Kahn is, in fact, remarkably small for most of its runtime; he has no real conflict in this film, and no great place in its central conflicts.  As the film opens, he, like Kirk, is occupied training new cadets; but, unlike Kirk, he seems entirely at peace with his assignment, obviously proud of Saavik and her success.  A little farther into the film, and the crisis begins; and Spock turns over command to Kirk, in a scene that speaks of old friendship on many different levels.  Kirk is insecure, cagey, restless; Spock is, despite his internal conflict, perfectly clear on the path ahead, and which route to follow.  He is selfless, in the way that many basically tortured souls are selfless; he is willing to sacrifice his own interests for Kirk's without question, because (as he says) it is the logical thing to do--but also, clearly, because he cares about Kirk, and his happiness.

This is, to a great degree, Spock's role for much of the film; quietly and deliberately taking the background role, pushing Kirk to the fore, helping him to reclaim himself.  Spock perceives, clearly, that Kirk is lost, out of sorts--and he wants to help him find himself again.  At the beginning of the film, as I already pointed out, he gives Kirk a gift: A Tale of Two Cities.  Kirk quotes the first line: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  "Message, Spock?"  "None that I am aware of."  Spock responds, deadpan as ever.  Clearly, though, Spock is trying to help.

In the end, Kirk finds himself, as we have seen, in a truly no-win scenario.  Kirk is insistent, demanding, with the confidence of someone who has never believed in such things.  He demands that Scotty, once again, accomplish the impossible.  Spock, though, clearly understands what Kirk does not; and as we watch, the camera pushes in on Spock's face, as inscrutable and as transparent as ever.  Then, his decision made, he stands up, and walks off the bridge.  Up to this point, we have, most likely, overlooked Spock's quiet role in the film, his quiet charity for Kirk and his crewmates.  Now, though, this caritas is about to show itself for all to see.


I imagine there are few, if any, people who do not know what happens next.  Spock sacrifices his own life to repair the ship in time; Kirk learns of it, and rushes to the scene; and perhaps the most famous scene in all of Star Trek plays out before our eyes.

This is a brilliant scene on so many levels that it is a bit silly to enumerate them all; and, in any event, it has mostly all been said before.  It is a scene, too, that is in a sense the perfect culmination of Star Trek as it had existed up until this time; for the more we know and have seen of Star Trek and of Kirk and Spock's friendship, the more we will understand just what is going on here, and the more we will feel it.  It is a scene, most of all, about memory, about the thousand memories and scenes and words, small understandings and small kindnesses, that go, year after years, to make up a friendship-- and the awful indignity, the unfathomable terror, and the unthinkable finality of death.

It is also, more to our point, Kirk's own redemption.  For as Spock lies dying, after telling him that, logically, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, Spock says something even more incisive: "I never took the Kobayashi Maru test ...until now. What do you think of my solution?"

Like Kirk, Spock has won the no-win scenario; but his solution has nothing in common with Kirk's shallow reprogramming of the terms of the problem.  Spock has confronted death; and he has overcome it.

The answer to death, it turns out, is self-sacrificial love.  Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  This is the moral of Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn.

Later, in his cabin, Kirk's son, David comes to meet his father, as though for the first time.  He does not ask Kirk, but tells him: "Lieutenant Saavik was right. You never have faced death."

Now, though, everything is different.  Kirk is no longer defiant, no longer careless.  He acknowledges, now, the truth: "I haven't faced death. I've cheated death. I tricked my way out of death, and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity.  I know nothing."

"You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life."
"Just words."
"But good words. That's where ideas begin. Maybe you should listen to them. I was wrong about you and I'm sorry."
"Is that what you came here to say?"
"Mainly. And also that I'm...proud...very proud...to be your son."


Spock's death of love, has, it seems, truly redeemed Kirk.  If Kirk's living death throughout this film, was the result of his own shallowness, his refusal to commit to anyone or anything, his inability to acknowledge his own limitations or the reality of death, then Spock has now given him the answer to all of these problems: self-sacrificial, self-giving love, of the sort that commits completely, fights tirelessly until the end, and is willing to accept everything, even death, for the good of the beloved.  Because of this transcendent sacrifice, everything is, as if by magic, renewed and made new.  Kirk has a son, a ship, a crew; and a chance, perhaps, to begin to live entirely differently.

As the film closes, Kirk quotes some of the last lines of The Tale of Two Cities: 'It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before...A far better resting place that I go to than I have ever known.'  This, it turns out, was Spock's message to him, delivered with his birthday present at the very beginning of the film: a love strong as death.  Then, the clincher: McCoy asks him how he feels now, after all that has happened.  Now, though, Kirk smiles.

"Young.  I feel young."



What a movie.  What a magnificent, magnificent piece of art.  What a truly transcendent work of human creativity.

...okay, I'm done; and I haven't even begun to get into so many of the strands of this film's thematic complexity and beauty.  I haven't mentioned the film's intelligent, tactical approach to space battle, or its Genesis project metaphor for rebirth and creation, or the fact that it's essentially a stage play shot on one set, or the beautiful, new naval uniforms, or the scene where the Enterprise runs out her guns like an 18th century galleon.  I haven't talked about the behind-the-scenes conflicts and last-minute changes to the ending of the film, or Meyer's struggle to get it edited in time, or his innovative tactics for getting a subdued performance out of Shatner...but you know, that's okay.  For now, all is well in the universe.  Kirk has been redeemed; and maybe, Star Trek has been, too.  If Star Trek never again produced a single worthwhile work of art, it would still be responsible for TWOK; and that is no small favor for the human race.

Godspeed!

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