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.
The battle itself was originally envisaged as the equivalent of two historic man o’war vessels pummelling each other with phaser fire, in place of the cannon which would have featured in the original nautical parallel Meyer pursues throughout the film, but this was soon deemed impractical.
Ken Ralston, one of the visual effects designers, stated that the Enterprise and Reliant needed to reflect a different, classical aesthetic:
Both Enterprise and Reliant are majestic ships, something akin to grand whaling vessels at the turn of the century. I wanted to capture some of the boldness and spirit the show had in its visuals. The ship models were lit differently in this sequence. They all were lit to match the bizarre colors of their backgrounds — yellows, reds, orange, etc.: each scene a different color scheme. Lighting ratios were increased to heighten the drama of the nebula and more backlighting was used.
Drama is the key word there. Few directors have the skill to tease out of the Mutara Nebula battle just what Meyer achieves, backed by James Horner’s magnificent score.
Just five years before The Wrath of Khan, the Star Wars saga revived the idea that science-fiction could be colourful and thrilling, and X-Wings and TIE Fighters duked it out in fast moving fashion. This was subsequently sped by legions of sci-fi films and TV series over the years, including JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot saga, but Meyer resists the temptation to suddenly have the Enterprise and the Reliant flying around the screen in a dogfight. These are, as Ralston puts it, *vessels*; slow moving ships for which evasion and careful approximation are the by word, lost in the soup of the nebula. Rather than frigates sailing in the dark or misty waters, waiting to strike, the Starfleet vessels circle each other surrounded by gaseous emissions transmission failure. “Visuals won’t function and shields will be useless” Saavik warns. It is a calculated risk Kirk, now fully back in charge of the Enterprise, is prepared to take to ensure survival.
Following the regeneration in the Genesis cave, Admiral Kirk seems to have rediscovered his verve and purpose in these scenes like never before. Rather than cowering at the prospect of facing the Reliant, a ship Spock promises “can out-run us, and out-gun us”, Kirk seems galvanised by the challenge. If Khan previously had the upper hand with his ambush and then the demonic spies he dispatched to assassinate his opposite, Kirk here, in his element as a starship commander, turns the tables, goading Khan’s ego. “We tried it once your way, Khan. Are you game for a rematch? …Khan! I’m laughing at the ‘superior intellect’“. The psychopathy inherent in Khan’s genetic engineering is enough for him to take the bait, pursuing the Enterprise and taking the same risks Kirk has. “Sauce for the goose, Mr Saavik” Spock declares, quoting an old British idiom, when Saavik worries they are outmatched. “The odds will be even”.
Meyer is skilled enough a director to allow the visuals and Horner’s music do much of the storytelling as the Enterprise and Reliant, both largely blinded thanks to the effects from the nebula, dance around one another, striking blindly. Ultimately, Kirk’s skill as a commander, and the confidence the Enterprise’s desperate situation, allows him to outwit Khan and gain the upper hand. “He’s intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates …two-dimensional thinking” Spock claims, very much underlining how for all of Khan’s genetically enhanced gifts, he is no match for Kirk’s first best destiny. Khan spends a film playing at the role of Captain with his brigands but he can never live up to Kirk’s exceptionalism when the chips are down, when Kirk finally embraces the role he has avoided over the entire film. Khan, however, refuses to concede, right to the last. “No, Kirk. …The game’s not over… to the last I will grapple with thee!”
One might suggest that Khan having the Genesis device on the Reliant provides a necessary narrative device to cue up Spock’s incoming sacrifice, but thematically it works. Khan literally attempts to steal paradise after escaping Hell, only to destroy it from within, turn the creator of life into the bringer of death. “From Hell’s heart …I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath …at thee” Khan curses, as Meyer again directly lifts from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Khan doesn’t even live to see if Kirk and the Enterprise are destroyed by Genesis, succumbing to his wounds content enough that Kirk is in the middle of a no-win scenario – he cannot escape. In that sense, Khan dies with his vengeance, his wrath, intact – believing he has wrested his white whale into submission. We as a viewer are spared the realisation of his failure but Meyer understands this would be far less powerful than witnessing what Kirk has to lose in order for his rebirth to be complete. It would have been easy to end The Wrath of Khan on Kirk victorious over Khan’s body.
The Wrath of Khan, however, chooses to end with a moment that lives on in cinema history and popular culture among Star Trek fans and beyond almost forty years on. A moment that will define the next two films in the series and inspire the series, the entire franchise, to scale heights it would almost never reach again.
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’