Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt XI – ‘Live Long and Prosper’

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…

Given how powerfully The Wrath of Khan ends, it is easy to miss the beauty in it, certainly in terms of how perfectly it caps off a character journey for Admiral James T. Kirk that we’ve witnessed almost from minute one. It may be Spock who dies in The Wrath of Khan, but the film unquestionably throughout is about Kirk.

It is also hard to overestimate how much of a shock Spock’s death might have been at the time. Characters like Spock didn’t die. You didn’t kill off someone like Leonard Nimoy. Star Trek had emerged from an era of largely safe, colourful, now even kitsch television in which America reflected its aspirational virtues for the post-war future in the 1960’s in heroes. Kirk. Bruce Wayne. Jim Phelps. Cinema had James Bond or Matt Helm. Morally flawed or compromised at times they might have been, but they were designed to save us from the hopeless devastation a generation had lived through. Star Trek’s heroes would fight battles, defeat foes, explore new worlds, but they would always at the end finish on TV with a little joke or the acknowledgement that they’ll be back next week for another adventure.

Even The Motion Picture, which tones down the colour and comedy of The Original Series to depict a post-Watergate, late-1970’s cooler vision of Starfleet’s future, saw Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise—with Spock having regained his purpose as a Starfleet officer—warp away toward a sequel. The human adventure, after all, was just beginning. Nicholas Meyer’s sequel is an incredibly humanistic film but it acknowledges that with humanity, with hope, has to come the balance of pain, and of sacrifice. While Kirk’s arc of spiritual rebirth has a resolutely Christian bent, Spock giving his life to save the Enterprise makes him the Christ figure who saves the crew from Khan’s defeated Devil. Kirk’s first best destiny is to lead, is to find his way back to himself, and to do that he must lose someone he takes for granted for much of The Wrath of Khan. His anchor. His best friend.

To even contemplate such a remarkable ending to a story like this proves just how special The Wrath of Khan is. That ending of Avengers: Endgame? It wouldn’t exist without what The Wrath of Khan dared to try.

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt XI – ‘Live Long and Prosper’”
Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt X – ‘Sauce for the Goose’

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…

What is the sequence in The Wrath of Khan that you most remember? Kirk’s bellow of KHAAAAAAANNNN!!!! in frustrated rage. The surprise attack on the Enterprise by the Reliant. What about the moment Chekov realises he is in the “Botany Bay… Botany Bay??!”? All of these are possibilities. Chances are, however, you’re imagining that fantastic last act.

Once Kirk, Bones, Saavik and the Marcus’s are back on the Enterprise, their ruse with Spock having duped Khan and the Reliant into believing their repair time is much longer than in reality, Nicholas Meyer plunges straight into the thrill ride of the so-called Battle of the Mutara Nebula, the gaseous cloud nearby the Regula moon where the Enterprise runs on empty, running low on power, as the Reliant closes in for the kill.

It is one of the most exciting, well-staged and powerful action sequences in science-fiction cinema, the culmination of a psychological and theological conflict between Kirk and Khan, between Heaven and Hell, between virtuous Starfleet and a rebel force incompatible with Federation ideals. If the original Reliant ambush, as we previously discussed, draws from the World War 2 submarine thriller, the Battle of the Mutara Nebula entirely drinks from that well.

In any other film, it would be a battle that culminates with rousing victory, with Kirk vindicated and re-energised by the noble defeat in combat of his intractable, vengeful, psychotic enemy, but The Wrath of Khan understands for Kirk to reborn, he must face death.

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt X – ‘Sauce for the Goose’”
Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part IX – ‘There Always Are… Possibilities’

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…

Across the entirety of The Wrath of Khan, we are reminded that James T. Kirk is facing his own mortality, coming to terms with his own youthful, exuberant past as a galaxy-hopping’ Starfleet Captain, but this is never more apparent than when he is in a room with Carol and David Marcus.

Star Trek Generations might attempt to convince us that the unseen Antonia was the one who got away for Kirk, once he is reliving happy memories in the Nexus, and we know there is a quadrant full of old flames who have different levels of meaning for Kirk—few would doubt that he did fall in love with Edith Keeler in City on the Edge of Forever for example—but as far as we know, Kirk only ever had one child, and that was with Carol. Star Trek Into Darkness, flawed as it might be, revives Carol for a new generation and understands the resonance of Bibi Besch’s character who, it must be pointed out, is no throwback to the 1960’s. She was a Meyer creation and one of numerous, brave steps the writer-director took in exploring Kirk’s middle age. Of course he would have fathered a child at some point, given the amount of conquests he had! Indeed it’s probable that David wasn’t the only one, with Kirk maybe unaware of others.

With the challenge of age, the loss of youth, comes also the challenge of continued masculine virility, and this is made clear as Kirk’s first, violent encounter on the Regula moon is with a defensive David, not realising at first who he is. “Of course he didn’t!” is Carol’s immediate remark when David suggests Kirk was responsible for all of the murdered scientists on Regula 1. She may not have seen the Admiral for years but she knows Jim Kirk. She is the wife he never married. They are the family Kirk avoided.

They now represent the life he sundered to be James T. Kirk and if regaining his youth forces him to examine his own past, Carol and David represent a key marker on that journey of rebirth.

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part IX – ‘There Always Are… Possibilities’”
Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt VIII – ‘By the Book’

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.

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt VIII – ‘By the Book’”
Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt VII – ‘The Word is Given’

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…

In a very real sense, the space battle that cuts right into the end of Act One, and roughly the mid-section, of The Wrath of Khan is the first true example in Star Trek of the kind of space combat we would witness in subsequent TV series and movies even up to the present day, as of writing, with the huge space combat sequence in Star Trek: Discovery’s Season Two finale.

The Wrath of Khan, as we have discussed, defined itself visually and formally on the British nautical structure, given 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 the bad guy in close quarter combat, as indeed he did Khan Noonien Singh in 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.

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt VII – ‘The Word is Given’”
Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part VI – ”Round Perdition’s Flames’

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…

If we understand Nicholas Meyer’s approach to the Star Trek universe as exploring the naval tradition in space, of transposing 18th or 19th century nautical literature to an imagined star-sailing future, then The Wrath of Khan at the end of its first act lays these credentials fully on the table.

Before the inevitable first confrontation between James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh, prepared for by one and unexpected by the other, Meyer presents the villain of the piece with a choice. It is not too late to change his fate. Khan’s chief lieutenant, the younger genetically engineered Botany Bay crewman Joachim, suggests they have the means at their disposal to start a new life. “We have a ship and the means to go where we will”; in the naval sense, they are commanders of their own destiny. They have received a second chance at life, after exile from Earth and being marooned by Kirk and the Enterprise crew by the end of Space Seed. “You have proved your superior intellect, and defeated the plans of Admiral Kirk. You do not need to defeat him again”. Joachim in this sense is, quite literally, the Devil’s advocate. He believes that destiny does not drive Khan in the way the man imagines, even if his people would never abandon him or mutiny.

Meyer here, nevertheless, fully establishes Khan as a twisted version of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab from his classic 19th century novel Moby Dick. Kirk is his white whale, his obsession. It has gone beyond any sense of reason, any consideration for anything or anyone outside of his fixation. Kirk is Khan’s destiny. “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…” This is, of course, a direct lift and alteration of Ahab’s famous declaration from Moby Dick about the titular whale. “I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up…” Ahab says this to Starbuck, and Joachim very much fits that template – the loyal second in command who may question his Captain but would never challenge him.

If Kirk’s destiny is to find a purpose like Ahab did his whale, Khan’s manifest destiny, and his Luciferian escape from the depths of Hell, sends him deeper and deeper into the realm of insanity.

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part VI – ”Round Perdition’s Flames’”
Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part V – ‘First Best Destiny’

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…

Running through the broader themes in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan of life and death, birth and rebirth, is the concept of destiny. The idea that James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh are on a pre-determined, fate-driven course.

Following the reveal of Khan and the establishment of the Enterprise crew of foundling trainees, not to mention the Reliant’s mission and the Genesis project on space station Regula 1, Nicholas Meyer works to begin tying these disparate threads together and stitch Kirk and Khan toward their inevitable confrontation. Carol and David Marcus begin to suspect that the crew of the Reliant—now taken over by Khan and his genetically superior Botany Bay crew—have more sinister motivations for taking control of the Genesis device, as communicated by a robotic, we know to be controlled Pavel Chekov. The order is not just political but personal, given Chekov lies that Kirk is behind such an order. “Scientists have always been pawns of the military!” decries a quite paranoid David, even as Carol refuses to believe quite what Chekov is suggesting.

It further underlines a persistent theme in Meyer’s script: his fascination with quite what Starfleet actually is, given how loosely defined the organisation was in Star Trek lore up to this point. Even before the Reliant is seized by Khan, David is suspicious of Starfleet’s motives as a naval, militaristic agency, and Chekov’s lies only further deepen that suspicion. “Starfleet has kept the peace for a hundred years. I cannot and will not subscribe to your interpretation of this event.” Carol asserts, convinced that Starfleet’s motivations are about the science, not its nefarious applications. Meyer’s lens is informed by 20th century history, nevertheless. He is fully aware of how Robert Oppenheimer believed he was building a weapon to defeat fascism, only to find the H-bomb corrupted into a terrifying agent of prevention at the cost of millions of innocent lives.

The Wrath of Khan pointedly attempts to wrap up these bigger political questions about Starfleet’s operation around Kirk and Khan’s mutual destiny. Their mutually assured destruction.

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part V – ‘First Best Destiny’”
Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part IV – ‘Death and Life Together’

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…

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 James T. 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 U.S.S. 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?

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Part IV – ‘Death and Life Together’”
Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt III – ‘Something We Can Transplant’

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…

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 U.S.S. 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 be inviolate, 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.

Nicholas Meyer, in his humanistic and flawed version of the 23rd century, is far less convinced of Starfleet’s purity. He has 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 Robert Oppenheimer, a scientist whose noble 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 preanimate 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.

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt III – ‘Something We Can Transplant’”
Film, Scene by Scene, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt II – ‘Surely, the Best of Times’

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…

Very early on, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan positions itself as a film not just about life and death, but also about age.

We like to think of Captain James T. Kirk as one of the iconic heroic figures of 20th century media. Gene Roddenberry envisaged Star Trek as a Western in space, a “Wagon Train to the Stars”, and for the second film director Nicholas Meyer thought a lot about Horatio Hornblower, from the mid-20th century novels by C. S. Forester. The younger Kirk was a space cowboy, an honourable sharpshooter riding his starship steed across the galaxy with his trusty crew, encountering life forms, putting out fires, starting a few unintentionally, and finding a girl in almost every port. Meyer reconfigures Kirk in middle-age as the swaggering commander in chief, the seasoned voyager whose cowboy days are long over. “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor” he tells Leonard McCoy, after all.

Yet this elder Kirk is restless and Meyer conveys this from the beginning. Following the disastrous Kobayashi Maru, Kirk’s trusty, unlikely best friend, the equally seasoned and middle-aged Spock, presents his commander with a birthday present – Charles Dickens’ 19th century classic A Tale of Two Cities, in a beautiful, historic hardback edition. Kirk reads the legendary opening lines: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times… message, Spock?”. Kirk understands that his friend gives everything deliberate and naturally, as a Vulcan, logical thought, so guesses Spock would not have passed this book onto him on such a key day arbitrarily. “None that I’m conscious of” Spock replies coyly, but we don’t believe either. Kirk is intelligent and well read enough to be aware Spock detects in him a melancholy, a sorrow, which the Kobayashi Maru—a reminder of his youthful brio—serves to simply underscore.

Captain Kirk is gone. Admiral Kirk endures. Yet what is left when the cowboy hangs up his boots?

Continue reading “Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt II – ‘Surely, the Best of Times’”