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The Wrath of Khan: A Tale of Two Ships

By Zach Nichols

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is widely regarded as the greatest of the Star Trek films and quite possibly the greatest story in the entire Trek franchise encompassing 28 television seasons, 12 movies, and hundreds of books. It is regarded by critics and fans alike as the pinnacle of the franchise. Enough has been written about its portrayals, direction, effects and score to fill volumes of textbooks. Its merits are praised as the comparison for all other Trek films to follow.

trek crew

You can find any review out there that will tell you about why it’s actors deliver their best portrayals and the action is at its highest with fantastic graphics for their time, but there is far more depth to this film that stands apart as to why this film is the quintessential Trek story. For a franchise that at its best uses the galactic travels of a starship into the unknown reaches of space as an allegory for the interior exploration of the meaning, qualification and concepts of humanity, this film stands above the rest of the franchise as its themes, plot and chemistry are at their absolute finest while showcasing the characters reaching their absolute lowest points. Drawing inspiration from Dickens classic A tale of Two Cities, and referenced throughout the film, TWOK focuses heavily on the themes of life and death in a multitude of variations beyond their literal meanings, and showcases a story that exhibits all of the best that the franchise has to offer while showing the characters hitting the lowest points of their lives. It truly is the best of times and the worst of times for one James T. Kirk.


The film parallels Dickens’ work of the exploration of the concepts of life, the quality of life, death and a living death of imprisonment to showcase what it truly means to be alive and to be human. We find Admiral Kirk virtually imprisoned in the misery of his new duties as an authority in the training of new young recruits to replace himself and many others as the future of Starfleet. This is not the smiling, confident Captain of years past. What we are presented is a man so defeated by age and lack of self idealizing purpose that every ounce of him has changed in some manner. “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor.” His swaggering strut is replaced by an ordinary stroll more visualized on someone aimlessly walking down an empty alley than that of an accomplished Starfleet Admiral. His demeanor toward his friends has changed as well. When Bones stops in to deliver a birthday present, a pair of glasses that serve throughout the film as both a reminder of his increased age and as a reminder of the man that he used to be, Bones hits the nail on the head when pointing out the mood in the room. “Damn it Jim, what the hell is the matter with you? Other people have birthdays, why are we treating yours like a funeral?” The following exchange personifies exactly what has caused the downfall in the quality of life of the once prosperous captain.

Dr. McCoy: You’re hiding… hiding behind rules and regulations.
Kirk: Who am I hiding from?
Dr. McCoy: From yourself, Admiral.
Kirk: Don’t mince words, Bones. What do you really think?
Dr. McCoy: Jim, I’m your doctor and I’m also your friend. Get back your command! Get it back before you turn into part of this collection, before you really do grow old.

Spock also notes exactly where this trouble comes from. “If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.”

Later in the film, even after he is granted command of the Enterprise from his colleague Captain Spock, he displays his atrophied abilities as a Captain when he refuses to follow the regulation quoted by Lt Saavik, and allows the Enterprise to be unceremoniously crippled by a weaker ship, commanded by his great foe. This is not the Kirk we once knew. He is beaten not by his age, but by his lack of empowering capabilities and confidence atrophied away from lack of self purpose.


Yet he is not the only one changed from the great leader we once knew by his living imprisonment. Khan has been more literally imprisoned on a barren wasteland of a planet over the last 15 years. Once the great leader of nations, forced into exile where upon the Enterprise stumbled upon his cryo-ship, Khan commanded 72 genetically superior individuals who attempted to take over the Enterprise and were exiled again to this lone planet for their efforts. Since then Khan has watched as his people and his wife have died over time due to the planet’s harshness, detailing the madness and death that comes from the attack of the lone indigenous life form. When given a chance at freedom, Khan’s body leaves the planet on the stolen federation, but what was left of a soul that loved his wife, is left behind on the forsaken planet.

In a manner similar to Dickens’ Monsieur Manette, Khan’s imprisonment continues once he’s free. Because Khan is imprisoned by hate, rage and vengeance, not by bars of steel. Khan is unable to move beyond a single idea, the utter destruction of his once great rival James T. Kirk. Khan’s is a living death, unable to truly move on and to truly live his life. Even when he captures the Genesis project, literally life from lifelessness that he can use for complete and utter destruction, he can’t move beyond his single task.

Joachim: We’re all with you, sir. But, consider this. We are free. We have a ship, and the means to go where we will. We have escaped permanent exile on Ceti Alpha V. You have defeated the plans of Admiral Kirk. You do not need to defeat him again.
Khan: [paraphrase from Melville’s Moby Dick] 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!

Even to the end, when his life is forfeit and defeated, he still cannot escape his single focused purpose.

Khan: [quoting from Melville’s Moby Dick] To the last, I will grapple with thee… from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!

This theme of the confrontation of life and death continues throughout the film and touches so many others along the way. The Kobayashi Maru, taken by Saavik in the opening of the film, is a test that confronts the cadet with their death to see how they would react in their final moments, to see how they would handle a no win scenario. Saavik fails the actual test, as do all other recruits but one, a young Cadet Kirk.

As a mirror to his confrontations throughout the three seasons that precede the film, young cadet Kirk cheated death. He cheated on the test to allow himself to win the scenario and throughout the show, he cheats death again and again. He constantly comes up against certain death and always comes out unscathed. He loses a few underlings along the way, but no one close to him, at least not close enough to truly affect him.

"Buried Alive"
“Buried Alive”

Only in this film does he feel the cold wrap of death’s fingers around his throat. It is a slow realization that happens over three events that he realizes his mortality. First, he is “buried alive” by Khan, in a phrase again borrowed from Dickens’ work. Kirk is left by Khan in the depths of an underground cavern that is thought to be guaranteed death. In foreshadowing of things to come, Kirk is handed life by what should be death. In what should be his murder by the burial inside what was thought an empty cavern of darkness, Kirk is given the chance to survive in a cave surrounded with fruit, trees, vegetation, water and a paradise perfect for being stranded in thanks to the Genesis project.

The second instance in which Kirk sees death is while escaping from the exploding Reliant and Genesis effect. The explosion will surely kill them all and destroy the ship. With warp drive out, the ship is only on impulse power and cannot escape doom on their own volition. It will take a miracle to get them out, and in the time waiting for that miracle, you can see the realization of death on Kirk’s face. You see him encounter what is coming. The mourning is in his eyes, until that miracle comes from the only person in the movie that truly understands the no win scenario.

"I have been and always shall be ... your friend"
“I have been and always shall be … your friend”

The third instance is when death finally comes home for Kirk, in the loss of his greatest friend, Spock. Spock is the only one who understood from the beginning about how to confront the no win scenario. “The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” In his last moments, Spock sacrifices himself to save everyone else and allow his friend to be with his true love, the ship and his crew. That is why Spock is so amazing. Spock does what no one else does in the film. He confronts death head on with the full knowledge of its ramifications and in doing so gives life to others. “It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. A far better resting place that I go to than I have ever known.” To Spock, sacrificing himself for everyone else, is simply logical.

Only in seeing this and losing his best and greatest friends does death finally reach Kirk. Only then does he allow himself to truly feel mortal. He now knows he cannot escape death indefinitely. He sees Spock live and die triumphantly, committing the greatest deed that a human can. The sacrifice is not in vain either. By learning to acknowledge his own mortality. Kirk is able to focus on the rest of his life to come and not on the life that has passed. Symbolized in the fracture of his constant physical reminder of his age, his glasses, Kirk is able to focus on fulfilling his self actualizing purpose again. When approached by Carol Marcus about his current mood, he simply states “I feel young.”

There are hundreds of reasons to love this film. It is by far the greatest of all the Star Trek films. The plot is fantastic. The leads are at their best. The score is amazing. You can find volumes of essays and reviews detailing why all of these are at their best, but what truly makes this film so amazing, is its depth in theme and accomplishment in examining the human condition. If Star Trek was created to explore the human condition through allegory, satire and hyperbole of space exploration, nothing comes close to its exploration here. This is Star Trek at its finest, boldly going where it’s never gone before.

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