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.
In order to further establish the Biblical underpinnings behind the cosmic, Judeo-Christian myth playing out between Kirk and Khan, Meyer first works to present the Genesis Device as a futuristic Creation story.
Carol Marcus, presenting the details of the Genesis Effect and the project being developed on space station Regula 1, speaks like a cross between a modern scientist and a Biblical prophet. “Genesis is life from lifelessness. It is a process whereby molecular structure is reorganised at he subatomic level into life-generating matter of equal mass”. The scientific explanation continues but the concept is quite simple – Genesis contains the matrix of Creation itself. It can transform a dead planetoid into a rich and verdant Eden in no time at all, and Carol presents the reasoning behind such a device as economic and ecological necessity. “When we consider the cosmic problems of population and food supply, the usefulness of this process becomes clear”.
Meyer fuses Christian and Biblical iconography with the scientific allegory of the Manhattan Project, with Carol a veritable Robert Oppenheimer, creating a device of supreme power for noble reasons that has deadly potential applications. “As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create” Spock pragmatically says, amidst a debate about the moral implications with an impassioned, horrified Leonard McCoy.
The use of a direct Christian myth by Meyer works against the traditional approach to religion as employed by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in The Original Series. Interest and suspicion of religious myth is all over the 1960’s TV series but Roddenberry was a devout atheist, avoiding Christian allegories in favour of polytheistic tales of false Gods and tricksters amidst the alien cosmos. In his effort to humanise the Star Trek story, Meyer directly accesses central Christian tenets – Eden, which we see in the Genesis cave later; Hell, which Ceti Alpha 5 became; and the Devil, incarnated in Khan himself.
Reading Kirk as Jesus is a stretch but Spock’s sacrifice to save the Enterprise crew, and potentially millions or billions of lives had Khan ever truly been able to deploy Genesis as a weapon of mass destruction, fits the Judeo-Christian myth as Christ, particularly in how he is later resurrected. Genesis, in the Bible, was the story of Creation. It’s telling that in Meyer’s rebirth of the Star Trek franchise, via Kirk’s own personal rebirth within The Wrath of Khan, he uses these constructs as a Creation myth for the Star Trek franchise of the 1980’s and beyond.
In the Genesis debriefing scene, it is interesting just how quickly Bones accuses Spock of being “inhuman” in his calculated, logical response to what the Genesis device could do were it used on a planet that already sustained life. From a visual perspective, scholars have remarked how much Spock represents a demonic archetype, with his pointed ears, which runs in contrast to his measured, peaceful containment of emotion, as is the Vulcan way. McCoy seems to be direct questioning Spock’s humanity in this scene, given the Vulcan analyses the reality of what Genesis can do from a dispassionate, factual position. McCoy instead counters “the man’s talking about logic… we’re talking about universal Armageddon!”.
Bones is there directly accessing another Biblical myth, of the final battle between good and evil, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, to decide the fate of not just humanity but the entire universe. The ultimate conflict, one the majority of fiction over the centuries has re-told with millions of different variations and scales. Why use the word Armageddon if not directly tethering The Wrath of Khan’s central conflict to the Biblical construct that has already positioned Khan as Lucifer having broke free of Hell? And how interesting the man Bones believes to be the most inhuman on the Enterprise, among the angels racing toward Eden, ends up being the Christ figure who dies to save them all.
We are about to approach that first moment of conflict between Kirk and Khan, the point of Revelation within this Creation story that propels the film through what feels like a shorter second act than many films with such a structure. The first act of escalation and the third act of conflict are the key foundations of The Wrath of Khan.
What they build stands as a potent piece of myth-making that has already lasted almost 40 years, and will remain standing for a great deal longer.
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series here:
VI – ”Round Perdition’s Flames’
VII – ‘The Word is Given’
VIII – ‘By the Book’
IX – ‘Sauce for the Goose’
X – ‘Live Long and Prosper’