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.
The road to that marker is nevertheless a difficult one, as Kirk’s life is immediately threatened by the possessed Captain Terrell and Pavel Chekov having beamed into the Regula moon, and the makeshift Starfleet base within.
If we have established Khan Noonien Singh as the Devil in our Biblical play, Terrell and Chekov arguably represent demons sent from Hell in order to destroy Kirk and his fellow angels from within. They are ‘possessed’ by the Ceti eels, forced by Khan to do his bidding, his emissaries of destruction. Terrell battles with this corruption when told to kill Kirk. “Sir, that it is difficult. I …try to obey, but…” and ultimately sacrifices himself to rid himself of Khan’s insidious manipulation.
If we are to literalise the eels as a form of demonic corruption, perhaps the reason Terrell dies, and Chekov manages to painfully reject the eel and expel it before he can shoot Kirk, is that Khan nor his poison are able to breach the Eden that Kirk and company have beamed into. Kirk after all goads Khan into a literal face off that never happens, after Khan beams out the Genesis device. “Khan, you have Genesis, but you don’t have me!”. We never get the kind of physical fight we saw in Space Seed not because William Shatner or Ricardo Montalban were incapable of it, but rather because if Khan is the Devil freed from Hell, he cannot approach the gates of Eden. He can steal Genesis, but he’ll never reach it.
“I shall leave you as you left me. As you left her. Marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet… buried alive. Buried alive!” Khan doesn’t realise that true Genesis lies inside Regula, a working snapshot of the paradise Carol and her team believe can be created by the device, and is content to consign Kirk to the Hell that Kirk consigned him all those years ago. Khan references Marla McGivers, the Enterprise Lieutenant he fell in love with during Space Seed and who elected to stay with him on Ceti Alpha V, and it is a timely reminder given Kirk is facing the woman he could have given everything up for.
Marla sacrificed her career and life for the man she loved. Kirk did not do that for Carol, and it is clear when they finally do manage to talk in private that she didn’t want him to. “Were we together? Were we going to be? You had your world and I had mine”. They may have loved one another, but it wasn’t a powerful enough pull for Kirk to have given everything up for Carol as Marla did for Khan. Carol knew that going into a relationship one senses unexpectedly resulted in a child, that David was very much unplanned. Yet Kirk feels clear regret for David not even realising the man is his biological father.
“He’s a lot like you, in many ways” Carol remarks to Kirk about David, clearly having believed her son could have ended up like him, and wanted him in her life, not his. “Not chasing through the universe with his father”. What a different fifteen years between the end of The Original Series and The Wrath of Khan that would have made, had Kirk perhaps sundered his Admiralty in order to raise a son, in a romantic ideal of adventure, “galaxy hopping” through the cosmos. “My son. …My life that could have been, …and wasn’t” Kirk wistfully ruminates.
Instead while David clearly displays physical prowess and bravery—evidenced particularly in The Search For Spock—Carol also breeds into him caution for Starfleet and for exactly the kind of man Jim Kirk is. Or was. Kirk has lost that man. He is an echo of the past in which Carol was romanced and David was conceived and outside of Spock or Bones, Kirk is the most honest with Carol as he is with anyone. “What am I feeling? …Old. …Worn out”. Kirk, threatened by a dangerous physical manifestation of his own history in Khan, has no idea how to break such a deadlock.
The brilliance of Meyer’s script is precisely in how Carol provides the key to unlocking Kirk’s youth, in how the Genesis cave provides a literal realisation of emotional and physical rebirth. “You did all this in a day?” Kirk asks Carol, astounded. The angel is facing God, asking how it is possible for such a spark to exist fully formed. “The matrix formed in a day. The lifeforms grew later at a …substantially accelerated rate” Carol replies and metaphorically, she is talking about Kirk’s development from here on in. This is the day Kirk understands who he was, and who he is. Genesis and the events to come provide the spark. The growth begins in time.
And like a trickster, Kirk is already half in on the joke, given how he has, like the Kobayashi Maru that Lieutenant Saavik is so interested in, reprogrammed the conditions of their confinement to ensure they are in with a fighting chance. Spock’s reported six days of the Enterprise recovering (the same amount of time God created the world in Genesis) becomes a matter of hours, to fool Khan’s listening devices and wrong foot him tactically. “I don’t believe in a no-win scenario” Kirk tells Saavik, his confidence rising, that self-belief to some extent returned.
Kirk comes out of these scenes having experienced a miniature rebirth in the broader context of his journey in The Wrath of Khan. Seeing David restores some hope. Seeing Carol gives him some closure. Finding Genesis provides him life, even if Saavik anxiously worries that he has never faced death. It’s a microcosm of a journey Kirk is on across the film, a journey that remains incomplete. “As your teacher Mister Spock is fond of saying, ‘I like to think there always are …possibilities.’”
It will be a turn of phrase that haunts Kirk as we enter the last, devastating act.
Don’t miss out on the rest of this series here:
IX – ‘There Always Are… Possibilities’
X – ‘Sauce for the Goose’
XI – ‘Live Long and Prosper’