Premièred by Paramount Pictures Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan Written by Jack B. Sowards
Is Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan the best of the Star Trek features? It’s considered and accepted to be by fans, but critically, it’s only the third highest-scoring. Nevertheless, it’s still extremely popular, and has inspired the most homages in popular culture. Whatever one subjectively thinks of it, the creative industry has looked to the second Star Trek feature for material more than the others. Which is both interesting and ironic, given that the story is essentially Moby Dick; or, the Whale in space, inspired by Herman Melville‘s novel. That was the approach taken by director Nicholas Meyer – it’s a modern day ocean adventure with a science fiction dressing. That’s when science-fiction is at its best – when it’s telling a universal story through a particular style. Is science fiction even a genre? A genre is a category of an artistic medium based on form, style or subject matter.
The form in this case is a motion picture feature. Using moving images to tell a story, based on a written blueprint that follows the composition of others to make sense to the other artists involved. Whereas a style is just a “manner of doing something”, which is more attributable to the director than anything else. The auteur theory suggests that each film-maker has their own, unique style, but then that’s obvious, because the director’s the principal artist. Every artist has fingerprints on their works. So in that sense, Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan is simply “a film by Nicholas Meyer”, which is just a factual statement. It even says “a film by Nicholas Meyer” in the credits. But then subject matter is really where the meaning comes-from. And in that sense, Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan is the best of the Star Trek features because its subject matter is the most substantial. Science fiction is so popular because it raises questions and tries to answer them by creating fantastical analogies that all relate back to the real world.
But it’s not “just science fiction”, it’s Star Trek. And the core of the Star Trek universe is Leonard Nimoy as Spock. He’d been hesitant to reprise his role based on confirmed suspicions from previously, but was persuaded to do so by the plot point of Captain Spock dying. This, Nimoy figured, would be a way to finally put the role to rest with a definitive end. And Meyer embraced that element of the story as the strongest character moment. The reason Spock’s death works so well is because it resonates with the rest of the narrative in perfect synch. The story was crafted around the concept of killing a character like Spock, which gives Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan a thematic overtone that other Star Trek features simply don’t have.
Spock’s death became the key scene in a story with themes relating to it, but that meant those themes had to be developed. Death is finite in storytelling, and often impacts the story less because a character’s now absent, but because other characters will be affected by that absence. And there was never going to be anyone more affected by Spock’s death than Admiral Kirk. Which meant that, if Kirk were to be affected by Spock’s death, Kirk’s own feelings about such things had to be established. That lead to the scene in Kirk’s apartment in-which Doctor McCoy visits Kirk and their conversation brings-up those themes. Kirk’s next strongest bond after Spock was to McCoy; therefore, using McCoy to establish Kirk’s own feelings about death would be a more subtle way of giving his reaction to Spock’s own death meaning than having Spock be the one with whom he discusses those feelings. This scene in particular is the second most important in the story, and shows how Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan uses storytelling-by-numbers to create something artistic, substantial and meaningful.
By having established Kirk’s evasive personality to matters such as death, a character flaw’s established. The Kobayashi Maru test is explained in the plot as being something Kirk cheated to win his captaincy, despite being rewarded for it. The character development as such follows a natural pattern: Kirk confronts his own fear of death, then has to deal with it when it confronts him. But for that second element to make sense (the first being explained with the death of Spock, Kirk’s oldest friend), it must be presented as a challenge. Kirk, in the Star Trek series, was presented as a great space hero, a man who could overcome anything. Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilber created Khan Singh in the episode Space Seed, which ends with Kirk banishing Singh to Ceti Alpha V, which is referenced in dialogue. That episode was very much in keeping with Kirk’s status as a flawless hero, which fit the period for 1960s television being very pulpy but no less entertaining. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan‘s status as a Star Trek: Space Seed sequel also makes it, in that regard, a sequel to Star Trek itself. As arguably the protagonist, Kirk’s development as understanding himself to be a flawed hero is the franchise itself coming to understand itself as it reaches its age. The Kobayashi Maru test presents us with a man who can’t be beaten, not even by a dictator, who then has to understand that inevitably he’ll be defeated by time, in the same way as Singh – the aforementioned dictator – being defeated himself.
This also makes Singh the other side of this. He’s the figure from Kirk’s past – the embodiment of everything he was during that time. Kirk finds himself facing Singh, and this is the reason he finds himself reflecting on his past. The two characters are fixed against each other ironically – Singh has thought about Kirk constantly since his exile, but Kirk’s forgotten Singh until he sees him on the view screen. Singh made the decision to reveal his identity to Kirk in order for Kirk to know who’d beaten him, but finding himself faced with his past is what made Kirk able to defeat him, as it helped him address the mid-life crisis he felt he was having, and to finally move on from it. But the cost of that was Spock’s death, which presented the next challenge to Kirk. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan shows an example of an effective storytelling technique – if the protagonist’s experiences are to change them, the story must end with them facing their next challenge, which fits with the challenge they’ve just overcome. Spock’s death prompted Kirk to finally understand that he was flawed, and the next stage of his life is to tackle the problem of understanding those flaws, and the conduit for that is how he’s to live without his oldest friend.
But Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan succeeds as a story because it allows the audience catharsis. Kirk’s acceptance of the challenge to live without Spock presents the audience with the possibility that he may yet become heroic again, an exciting prospect. It’s often said that science fiction serves as an analogy for real life, and the inclusion of a major character’s death is the closest it can come to reality, because death is the one thing everyone must eventually face. By having a fictional character face that universal prospect, it’s the most accurate mimicry of real life, and the one to which everyone can relate the most. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan is not the only Star Trek feature to include the death of a major character, but it’s the only one that shows death for what it is by having another major character with some connection to them be affected by it. Kirk dies in Star Trek Generations (Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga), but nobody from the original Star Trek series was with him, so it wasn’t as impacting. When Lieutenant Commander Data was destroyed in Star Trek Nemesis (John Logan), he was only an android anyway. When Lieutenant Yar died in Star Trek: the Next Generation – Skin of Evil (Joseph Stefano and Hannah Louise Shearer) , that didn’t have an impact either because she’d only been a regular for one season. In fact, the only other Star Trek franchise character death that works is considered to be Lieutenant Commander Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tears of the Prophets (Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler), because she’d been a regular for six seasons. And when Commander Tucker died in Star Trek: Enterprise – These are the Voyages… (Rick Berman and Brannon Braga), it was considered forced and unnecessary. Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan‘s the only Star Trek death to actually have both impact and cultural resonance. So much so that it was even famously recreated in Star Trek Into Darkness (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof), to much criticism, which also noticed the way the Alternate Reality’s death had been cured when Captain Kirk’s revived using alternate Singh’s blood.
What Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan gives us is an ordinary story with added elements for style to make it unique. A man faces something from his past –> realises he isn’t indestructible –> must face the death of an old friend –> accepts the challenge and goes on living, being a changed person. And it takes place within the Star Trek universe, combining elements of it in such a way as to still make sense, and developing them to have a greater meaning than previously. It takes a lot to use elements from something already existing and transform them into something more. And the fact that everyone involved did that should show other storytellers how a story should first be universal, and only then, unique. Contrary to popular cynicism, there’s nothing wrong with franchises if the story has some substance. The reason Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan‘s often cited as the best of Star Trek is – get this – because it’s got the best story. All people want from Star Trek is a good story that makes sense and means something. And, based on the given analysis above, it’s clear Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan does that the most.