When a story is part of a long-running series, it's harder to appreciate its ending. Doubly so for a film like "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," which innately does not stand on its own. It's a sequel, but not so much to the first film as to the TV series episode "Space Seed." Said episode depicted the Enterprise discovering the ancient ship "SS Botany Bay" adrift in space. Aboard is Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically enhanced tyrant from Earth's past. After failing to seize the Enterprise, Khan and his crew are exiled to Ceti Alpha V, an uncivilized, out-of-the-way planet: "It's better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."
"The Wrath of Khan" is best experienced if you're familiar with its characters' backgrounds. Likewise, its own sequel, "The Search for Spock," is centered around undoing the ending of "Khan," where Spock (Leonard Nimoy) sacrifices himself to save his friends. Thus, looked at as part of a larger canon, "The Wrath of Khan" can feel like a transient film. And yet, it's also a classic and the most satisfying of the six "Star Trek" films starring the original cast.
Divorcing the film from canon and judging it on its own merits, here is how the film's themes and characterizations tie together in a complete package.
Aging And Consequence
"The Wrath of Khan" features the 50th birthday of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). Kirk's character arc in the film is a mid-life crisis. In the series, he was always a clever, larger-than-life adventurer. Now he's unsure if he can be that adventurer anymore and is humanized because of it. As Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) pointedly asks his Captain, "Damn it Jim, what the hell is the matter with you? Other people have birthdays, why are we treating yours like a funeral?" McCoy answered his own question by gifting Kirk a pair of reading glasses, the implication being that Kirk can't rely on his own dulled sense anymore.
All Kirk seems to have left is consequences. For one, there's his son David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), who was raised by his mother Carol (Bibi Besch) since Kirk was never around to be a father. Now that his relationship with David is non-existent, Kirk questions if he made the right decision.
A more unexpected consequence comes from Khan. As it turns out, Ceti Alpha V's neighboring planet exploded a mere six months after Khan's exile. With their new home ravaged by the shockwave, the Botany Bay crew barely clung to survival. Kirk never paid Khan a second thought after "Space Seed." Khan, though, spent every day of those 15 years thinking of Kirk. When the Starfleet ship Reliant visits the Ceti Alpha system, Khan hijacks the ship to get his revenge.
While reigning in hell, Khan's only entertainment was a small library of classic literature. Among them is Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." Now Khan has appointed himself in the role of Ahab, determined to get revenge for a long past wound. He even paraphrases Melville to explain his pursuit of Kirk. Khan's levelheaded lieutenant Joachim (Judson Scott) is Starbuck; he offers his leader sound advice only to be ignored.
Of course, anyone who's read "Moby Dick" (and many who haven't) could tell you how it ends. Ahab's obsession with killing the white whale destroys not only the captain himself but his crew too. The same happens to Khan's crew, who follow their leader to defeat and death. As Khan lays dying and makes one final play to destroy the Enterprise, he again quotes Melville: "To the last, I grapple with thee … From Hell's Heart I stab at thee … For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee."
The beautiful prose, and Montalban's acting, belie how futile this statement is. Ahab utters them just as he stabs the white whale with his harpoon, but fails to inflict any lethal damage. Khan, likewise, fails to kill Kirk.
"The Wrath of Khan" opens with Starfleet cadet Saavik (Kirstie Alley) taking a battle simulation test called the Kobayashi Maru. In said test, the cadet role-plays as a starship captain who has to rescue the eponymous ship trapped in Klingon territory. If you don't rescue the ship, the Kobayashi Maru crew dies. If you try to rescue it, Klingons appear and your crew dies. As explained later, the test is unwinnable and designed to teach cadets about no-win scenarios. Kirk, though, cheated when he took the test, for he doesn't believe in no-win scenarios. The film is designed to test that belief.
During the first battle with Khan, the Enterprise is disabled. Kirk pulls a last-minute ploy, transmitting a code to disable Reliant's shields. If it fails, the Enterprise is doomed. Thankfully, as with so many of Kirk's gambles, the plan works. It's not completely a winning hand, though. Due to the attack, one of the engineering cadets, Scotty's (James Doohan) nephew Peter, is dead, foreshadowing the soon-to-come sacrifice that will break Kirk's heart.
When Khan sets the disabled Reliant to detonate, Spock exposes himself to lethal radiation to reactivate the Enterprise's warp drive. The parallels between this and the Kobayashi Maru test are spelled out when the dying Spock admits to Kirk that he never took the test before: "What do you think of my solution?"
This focus on the no-win scenario is another way that "The Wrath of Khan" is focused on consequences. Not every outcome can be a flawlessly executed Corbomite Maneuver, and sometimes people die because of that.
The MacGuffin of "The Wrath of Khan" is called the Genesis device. Developed by the Marcuses, it can terraform planets to create new life where there was none. When Khan learns of it, acquiring it becomes his secondary goal (after killing Kirk). Khan's last plan to destroy the Enterprise is to activate Genesis — the result is a new planet, where Spock's body is laid to rest.
Genesis is another of the film's literary allusions, this one to the Bible instead of Herman Melville. The metaphor also reflects Kirk, not Khan; the hero undergoes a metaphorical rebirth over the film. He begins "The Wrath of Khan" feeling, "Old and worn out." Subsequent events, as traumatic as they can be, shake him out of this. For one, Kirk has reconciled with David and they now have the chance at building a relationship.
While Spock is gone, Kirk won't let his friend's death be the end of the journey. As Kirk looks out at the Genesis planet, he quotes Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," a book Spock had given him for his birthday. That novel ends with one man giving his life to save another from execution. Kirk realizes that this is what Spock has done for him. Ensuring that sacrifice isn't in vain rejuvenates Kirk. Holding back tears, he now declares, "I feel young." Meanwhile, the late Spock is the one who delivers the closing narration ("Space, the final frontier …"), showing how his memory now pushes Kirk forward.
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