As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…
One of the key aspects to the character arc of James T. 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 lack of 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, upon 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 upon 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.
You sense in Nicholas Meyer’s writing 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.
While The Wrath of Khan primarily operates as a naval adventure, with a dash in places of WW2 submarine thriller, during the Regula 1 sequence Meyer segues almost quite deliberately into haunted house horror.
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, once found in the station, 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 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. We never see him directly break out into violence; he never even fights Kirk mano-a-mano, which could have happened given the shape both Montalban & 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 reports, 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 it’s 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 recounts “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 is 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 is a veritable leap of faith. All the scans suggest Regula is a dead planet, a moon incapable of supporting life, yet he is willing to buck the rule book and find out where they went. He and Spock, in one of the frequent, lovely conversations they have in The Wrath of Khan where they display the pure simpatico only friends and colleagues over decades would have, 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 reports. 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 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.
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series here:
VIII – ‘By the Book’