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.
When Carol talks about Starfleet keeping the peace, we now know she is referring to the events of the first Earth-Romulan War, which brought the pre-Federation agency close to annihilation, but Meyer doesn’t factor in the Federation-Klingon War which Discovery has since sketched in details of.
Meyer’s broader anxiety concerns the misuse of ultimate power, and in that sense the Genesis device works as a potent allegory for Khan himself. What is playing God other than creating something more than human? The Biblical allusions we’ll explore a little down the road but The Wrath of Khan is concerned with Starfleet’s mission of purity and scientific research being corrupted by darker forces who would manipulate such powerful scientific tools for dark ends. “Why are you taking Genesis away from us?” Carol asks a confused Kirk, upon trying to verify Chekov’s claim, and it would be easy to read this as science fearfully asking unchecked militaristic power why it is robbing them of Heaven in order to create Hell. Kirk is, of course, a misappropriated Lucifer in this scenario, when the real Devil (Khan) is attempting to cloak his own intentions of ruining Regula’s intended Eden. “Who’s taking Genesis?” Kirk right now doesn’t understand his role in this destined, quasi-Biblical struggle he finds himself part of.
In truth, right now, Kirk doesn’t understand his place even in the grand tapestry of the Enterprise and her crew. He remains trapped in the existential limbo discussed earlier in his home with Dr. McCoy, caught between his role as an Admiral and his natural role as a Starfleet commander. His anxiety over the youth swarming the Enterprise continues unabated, even when confronted by Saavik’s visible hero worship, anxious as she is for failing the Kobayashi Maru. “May I ask how you dealt with the test?”. “You may ask…” Kirk replies with a chuckle, which exemplifies not just the cultural gap between human and Vulcan but also the generational one.
Kirk almost flirts with Saavik here, noticing her hair is being worn differently. “It’s still regulation, Admiral” Saavik replies, utterly missing the point. In the 60’s Kirk would have been necking her before the turbo lift reached its destination. This is brought home when Bones arrives, a little like catching the teacher in an awkward tryst with his cute ingenue. “Did she change her hairstyle?” “I hadn’t noticed” is Kirk’s reply. They both understand how times have changed yet there remains a sexual element to this moment which is unerring and hard to define, from both Kirk and Saavik.
What this reinforces is Kirk’s lack of certainty. He no longer quite understands the Starfleet he is in. The pretty lieutenant’s no longer fall at his feet. He can’t be as convivial with much of his crew now he is top brass. Kirk remains torn between the two sides of his nature, especially when Carol calls. There is a strange sense of familiarity between them even over sub space, as if Kirk’s wife is calling to ask why the shopping hasn’t arrived on time. “Jim, did you give the order?” Carol asks with the anticipated disappointment of someone who knows this man well enough to be let down by him. Bones understands the significance of getting a call from her. “As a physician you of all people should appreciate the danger of re-opening old wounds” Kirk icily declares. Another reminder of the past he has left behind, the destiny he has been running from. His ship, his crew, perhaps even the one who got away.
The point is brought home by Spock, the only person with the insight into Kirk and the understanding of his character to see through the veil of his uncertainty and disillusionment. Spock here positions himself as the wise mentor as much as best friend, the zen spirit guiding Kirk towards illumination. “If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.” Kirk knows Spock is right, has known it from the beginning, and Spock encourages him to command the Enterprise, to sit back in the chair. Kirk remains in denial at this point in his character arc, afraid of the implications. “It may be nothing, …garbled communications. You take the ship.” Spock nevertheless understands his friend’s reticence and pushes him toward facing the destiny he knows is behind the man, reminding him of the aphorism that further foreshadows his later sacrifice about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one. “You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours.”
This is one of many beautiful moments which underscore the humanity and heart within The Wrath of Khan, the quieter character points that help the bigger revelations and emotional beats land later in the script. These scenes are the calm before the initial, inciting storm as Kirk and Khan come face to face, as Kirk’s first best destiny begins to truly become apparent for all to see.
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series here:
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’