That Moment In Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan (1982): Fooling Khan
REVIEW In the depths of outer space, the starship Enterprise receives a distress signal from a fuel-carrying cargo ship. The Kobiashi Maru has hit a space mine and needs assistance. But there’s a bigger problem. They went and hit a mine while in the off-limits Klingon Neutral Zone, a great swath of space where it’s been agreed both Federation (good guys) and Klingons (bad guys) don’t enter.
The Enterprise Captain, named Saavik, a Vulcan female, makes the call and decides to violate the treaty and rescue the 300 crew on the failing vessel, despite warnings from her science officer Mr. Spock. As soon as they arrive, three Klingon warships appear and attack, firing upon the weaker Enterprise. The crew begin to fall. First goes Sulu, then Uhura, McCoy and finally, Spock. The Klingons have no mercy and seem determined to destroy the starship. But those aren’t really Klingons, and the crew isn’t really dead. It’s all a simulation run by Admiral James T. Kirk to test the meddle of Lieutenant Saavik. She didn’t do so well. Kirk enters the simulation room and has little warmth for the trainee, as she complains it was a no-win situation. He retorts that how we deal with death is just as important as how we deal with life. But he’s got no kudos for his old shipmates either, who have, in their opinions, performed their best death scenes. When they ask him about putting an experienced crew on the ship instead of training so many new ones, he say galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.
Meanwhile, out in deep space, orbiting a murky, desolate planet called Ceti Alpha VI, Captain Terrel and his first officer, Commander Chekov, are scouting locations for a Project Genesis, a new experimental device that can reorganize matter and create new life. Some faint life readings on the surface raise concerns though, and so the Captain and his second in command beam down alone. There, they discover a small group of survivors from the S. S. Botany Bay, a name familiar to fans of the Star Trek television series. It’s also familiar to Commander Chekov. It’s the ship of one Khan Noonien Singh, better known as Khan, a warrior Kirk abandon on the planet 15 years earlier. And now that he can be free, he sets out on avenging his dead wife and his interment on a dead planet.
Directed by Nicholas Meyer, with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry infamously removed from the production due to his involvement with the failure of the first film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is arguably considered by most to be the superior film in the entirety of the franchise (with The Voyage Home being the most successful at the box office). Picking up the pace from the previous movie and concentrating more on character development and conflict rather than effects and metaphysical themes, the story is a simple one, based on an original series episode called Space Seed. Producer Harve Bennett, who would produce three more Trek films, found that the real problem with Star Trek: The Motion Picture is its lack of a villain. People like bad guys and so he watched all original episodes for inspiration and found Khan Noonien Singh to be the most memorable, with a perfect backstory for a next chapter. The film is certainly a new direction from The Motion Picture, and far more endearing as the characters are more fleshed out and approachable. With just the right amount of humor and humanity, the story is compelling and character-driven, keeping the action purposeful but with focus on the intelligent battle of wits between the leads. While we love a great action scene, we love it more when something is clever and surprises us. The script is full of cleverness and the dialog always crackles, especial as Khan and Kirk engage each other, constantly keeping the audience guessing. What’s more is the deeper emotional exploration beneath the central storyline. We learn that Kirk not only did have true love once, but fathered a son, and how Kirk’s ambitious drive for being out among the stars deprived him of a life he will never experience. Both Carol Marcus–his long ago lover–and their son David, are well-written and provide enough weight to further give Kirk the burden of regret that was introduced in the first film. The relationship of all three is wonderfully portrayed and truly gives the film a heart. But it’s Khan who ultimately steals the show as his mad quest for revenge keeps us coming back. Quoting Moby Dick throughout (there’s even a copy of the book in the downed shuttle), his passionate hunt for vengeance is the mirror of Captain Ahab, blindly chasing his white whale against the advisement of his crew, straight to his own horrific death (whoops, spoiler). Thrilling, funny, emotional and oh so satisfying, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is one of those films that never gets old and remains a great viewing experience.
That Moment In: Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan
Scene Setup: It’s the first encounter between Kirk and Khan (not counting the original episode, of course). Khan, having taken control of Captain Terrell’s Starship Reliant, has found the Enterprise and fooled Kirk into thinking they are merely without communication. He lures Kirk in and when the larger ship is close enough, fires a series of shots that cripple the vessel. It leaves the Enterprise with no power to move and its ability to raise shields ineffective. They are sitting ducks and all Kahn needs to do is swing around and fire again. Revenge secured. But hubris wins the day. He wants to make sure Kirk knows who’s delivering the death blow. He wants to see Kirk’s face after he realizes it is he, Khan Noonien Singh, who has the last laugh. Probably shoulda just fired that last shot.
The Scene: (Time stamp 0:50:32) With his ship disabled and much of his bridge on fire, Kirk gets the signal from Reliant that they wish to discuss terms of surrender. He has the incoming message put on screen and for the first time in 15 years, Kirk sees his old nemesis staring him in the face. It’s a bit disconcerting and Kirk is, for once, at a loss for words. Khan however, seems positively overjoyed, and is relishing the moment of victory. But Kirk quickly recovers and tells Khan that if it’s he that he wants then spare the Enterprise crew and beam him aboard. Khan agrees, but with one condition: he comes aboard with all data and material concerning Project Genesis. Whoops. This is a costly mistake, as he’ll soon learn. It gives Kirk time, even if it is only the 60 seconds that Khan provides. It’s more than enough for Kirk to get the upper hand. And he does, quite effectively.
With his back to Khan, he and Spock talk strategy under the pretense of gathering data on Genesis. Kirk even tells Spock to nod as if he is receiving instructions. Nice. They decide to use the “prefix” code, a safety measure that Starfleet uses to ensure a ship can’t be seized by external forces. When coded properly, it allows one Starfleet vessel to remotely control another Starfleet vessel, thus preventing its ability to become a weapon. See what I mean about clever? Khan thinks Kirk and his crew are scrambling around computer systems to find Genesis, but in fact are secretly taking control of the defense systems of Reliant. When Khan impatiently demands the data, Kirk tells him it’s on its way. Right. In the form a volley of phaser fire, that is. The Enterprise cripples the Reliant, sending Khan scrambling for safety and the fight ends in a draw as both ships are without propulsion power and shields.
This moment is full of surprises and immediately sets the tone for the remainder of the film. William Shatner (Kirk) may have a reputation for over acting and presenting a peculiar acting style, but there is no denying his commitment. Here, he is pitch perfect, encompassing the grand traditions of his famous character while adding further depth and resonance. Before filming had even begun, Shatner had expressed doubts about playing Kirk again (he was 50 at the time and thought himself too old to be playing the part). Instead, they embraced aging and incorporated it into the story. There’s a wonderful moment in this scene where Kirk needs to put on his eyeglasses (given to him by Bones earlier in the film) in order to see the computer panel. In the midst of the action and tense stand-off, it is unexpected and, for Kirk, way out of character. This is a guy who beats up lizard people and beds pretty alien chicks all around the galaxy. What’s he doing putting on specs? He’s being human, that what, and that reached out to audiences, especially those who grew up with this character. It’s poignant and funny, and encapsulates precisely what the film’s message really is.
But more importantly, this entire moment reveals much about the two main characters and their new fight. Khan has been isolated on his desolate planet for 15 years, a highly intelligent, genetically modified super-being who once had millions at his feet. Now he is reduced to a petty thief, hoping to exact some revenge on a man who inadvertently caused his downfall. Kirk is a once high-flying starship captain, reduced to a desk job as an admiral, now back in the captain’s chair for maybe all the wrong reasons. When they meet, old habits, good and bad, re-emerge. Khan has intellect, but lacks space combat experience. Kirk has experience, but allows that experience to blind him to the obvious. This moment has each learning valuable lessons about themselves and their enemy.
Perhaps most interesting about this scene is its ability to create a conflict without the good guy and bad guy ever meeting face-to-face. At no time in the film in fact, do Kirk and Khan stand toe-to-toe and invariably have a silly karate-chopped, ear boxing infused fist-to-cuffs. Instead, their weapons are their brains, and the two spar constantly, each overcoming the other to a partial and limited victory. It shows great confidence in the story and the characters to allow this to happen, never letting the good-versus-evil-punch-out-trope to take place, something that further entries in the series couldn’t resist, with the reboot going to epic scales of punching and destruction (though it’s Spock and Khan in that iteration duking it out). Instead of filling the screen with minutes upon minutes of brain numbing hand-to-hand combat, we get minutes upon minutes of brain invigorating mental combat, where intelligence (instead of brawn) wins the day. Plus, there’s lots of cool spaceship battles and laser lights.