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 many senses, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the second coming of the Star Trek franchise.
While 1979 had given us The Motion Picture, a film which has improved like a fine wine with age, The Wrath of Khan imposed a framework and iconic visual structure which defined Gene Roddenberry’s creation across the subsequent films of the 1980’s and into The Next Generation sequel TV series and spin-offs over the next two decades. The Wrath of Khan, under the guiding hand of Nicholas Meyer, rediscovered a humanity within Star Trek that the elegant but stale The Motion Picture struggled to recapture, existing at the end of a depressed 70’s where the optimism and colour of the original 1960’s show had been ripped from the American psyche.
That film removed certain key principles of Star Trek’s original mission statement. Time had passed and the crew of the USS Enterprise were, to a degree, diffused. James T. Kirk had been promoted. Spock had left Starfleet. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy grew a beard and went through a failed marriage. The ship even had a new Captain in the young, handsome yet naive Willard Decker. Come the end of The Motion Picture, the crew were reunited and, as the film promised, ‘the human adventure is just beginning…’, but what would that voyage look like? The world of the 1980’s was a far different one from that of 1969, when the Original Series of Star Trek was initially cancelled after three seasons.
The Motion Picture proved it could never entirely return to where it began.
The Wrath of Khan, as a result, exists within the “no-win scenario”, as Kirk describes the Kobayashi Maru test which opens Meyer’s film. It could not repeat what Robert Wise did on The Motion Picture, a film received in lukewarm fashion critically and considered emotionally distancing to audiences, but the camp, melodramatic flavour of Roddenberry’s series would not pass in the slicker, corporatised early 80’s. Meyer had less of a budget than Wise in which he needed to do more. He needed to recapture the spirit of Star Trek, the spirit inherent in characters that helped define American television in the most radical social decade of American society. This is precisely why Meyer chose to pivot the film around the vengeance of an antagonist *from* the 60’s – Star Trek needed to look back in order to progress forward.
As the film begins, we are again blind-sided. Meyer pulls an ultimate feint. We not only have another new, youthful character in command of the USS Enterprise, in Kirstie Alley’s stoic Vulcan woman Saavik, but following a Klingon attack the majority of our beloved characters are instantaneously killed off – Sulu, Uhura, Chekov, Spock, all lying dead on the bridge of the Enterprise. Consider how audiences may have reacted in 1982, before a culture of cinema and television that played such parlour tricks. Did they believe many of these characters were truly dead? It also serves as a quietly ingenious level of foreboding to the shock death that *would* stick at the end of the film; indeed we see Spock visibly dead, slumped, as Saavik fails the Kobayashi Maru, just before we come to realise it was all just a training exercise, the science-fiction, in-universe equivalent of ‘it was all just a dream’.
The Wrath of Khan becomes the second film in a row to suggest the threat of the iconic Klingon race, so well remembered from the Original Series as a fierce allegory for bullish Cold War-era Russia, only to quickly dispense of them. The Motion Picture, albeit briefly, established their modern portrayal which has carried through until the present day, only to see their might bested by that of the ultimate power of the V’Ger intelligence. The Wrath of Khan presents them in clear, understandable terms – attack cruisers responding to the Enterprise entering the ‘Neutral Zone’—Star Trek’s version of the post-Korean War Demilitarised Zone—in order to rescue the paralysed Kobayashi Maru, filled with innocent passengers. The Klingons are a continued symbol of Cold War tension, of a neutrality that if breaches could warrant serious repercussions, but they are just a vague, continued threat in The Wrath of Khan. They indicate an unbroken status quo, much like the US/Russia dynamic in the early years of the sitting Reagan Administration.
This is a crucial undercurrent to the ‘no-win scenario’ of the Kobayashi Maru. This is not just about rescuing a ship in danger, it taps into the ongoing broader detente inherent in the Star Trek universe between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, reflecting real world tensions of the time. The Wrath of Khan underscores the point that individual concerns, the “needs of the few” do not outweigh “the needs of the many”, a crucial aspect in Spock’s eventual self-sacrifice. To save the Kobayashi Maru risks not just the death of the Enterprise crew but also war with the Klingons, in which millions could die. It is the ultimate dilemma for Meyer’s vision of Starfleet as a ‘space Navy’, a militaristic corps jointly of explorers *and* officers. “A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face” Kirk opines to a frustrated Saavik, who believes there should have been a way to save the ship *and* the crew.
What we later discover, however, is that Kirk doesn’t truly believe his own rhetoric. He failed the test twice before, in his words, “I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship” (which we later see in an example of over-confidence in JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot). “Then you never *have* faced death?” Saavik later suggests, with Kirk’s confidence still intact. He considers himself above the no-win scenario. Meyer presents him initially as a confident, if spiritually listless, hero. He arrives on the destroyed, training room Enterprise bridge in a blaze of light, framed as the untouchable saviour he has always believed he is. The Wrath of Khan will present him as a commander who faces death, faces the no-win scenario, and loses. “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” he asks Saavik, and this is a question Kirk will come to understand himself throughout Meyer’s film.
If The Wrath of Khan as a film faces such a crisis, in how it must breathe new life into a franchise which had no idea it was capable of a true renaissance, then this is aptly reflected in the journey of Admiral James T. Kirk. This opening scene reintroduces us to the elder version of the man he was in the 1960’s. It foreshadows how The Wrath of Khan will be his, and by definition Star Trek’s, spiritual rebirth.
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series here:
I – ‘A No-Win Scenario’
V – ‘First Best Destiny’
VI – ”Round Perdition’s Flames’
VII – ‘The Word is Given’
VIII – ‘By the Book’
IX – ‘Sauce for the Goose’
X – ‘Live Long and Prosper’