Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan

I have been ambivalent about Star Trek for my entire life. This is in large part due to the fact that my name is Kirk, thus whenever un-clever people want to say something “clever” about my name their go-to reference is Captain James Tiberius Kirk. By the time I left middle school I had semi-permanently associated the Star Trek franchise with a vague feeling of annoyance, and while that feeling has abated somewhat as I’ve gotten older it’s probably never going to disappear completely.

However, part of that ambivalence also stems directly from the franchise itself. Star Trek has always put on airs of being intelligent, but I’ve always found it to be fundamentally goofy, which creates a troubling disconnect for me. If it executed it’s “bold” science fiction concepts in a way that was legitimately intellectually challenging then it would be fine; if it was honest about how goofy it was then it would be great; but there’s something unworkable in the way that it goes about trying to marry big ideas with pulpy action.

Take for example Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, a movie which is blatantly trying to reach a Biblical scope. It centers around a battle for the fruits of “the Genesis project”, a missile which can create life on a dead world in a matter of hours. The two men at the heart of the fight are Captain Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh, two selfish fathers whose sins are being visited on their sons – both men are so committed to their fight against each other that they are willing to endanger their more level-headed offspring. The film also ends on a somber note, since one of the main characters sacrifices himself to save his fellow crew members because “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” - which is a slightly more New Testament message, but still Biblical nonetheless.

While those ideas are all worthy in the abstract, the movie executes them in ways that are unnecessarily silly. For starters, the Genesis project is so ill defined that it’s basically nonsense. It’s explained that the missile can alter matter on the molecular level to create growth… which, okay, whatever. That’s vague but not worth arguing over. Unfortunately, the Genesis missile actually does more than create plants: it apparently also spontaneously generates water on barren worlds, heats that water up enough that it stays liquid, and then organizes that water so it will form waterfalls. It can also apparently take inert gas clouds in outer space and bundle them together into a working star? That's too much for me to buy with a vague mention of "molecules." This movie needs to explain how the Genesis missile knows when to create a plant and when to create a pond or a sun, because if it tried to turn a planet into a star it would destroy everything in sight, not jumpstart it's development.

 Can you spot the ham in this photo?

Can you spot the ham in this photo?

The battle between Kirk and Khan is similarly underwhelming. We’ll leave aside how both William Shatner (who plays Kirk) and Ricardo Montalban (who plays Khan) are overacting hams – their line readings might not be subtle but they can be pretty enjoyable. We’ll also ignore the film’s costuming, which can safely be labeled as regrettable – Kirk regularly folds over part of his uniform so it looks like he’s wearing a bib while Khan’s barbarian outfit leaves him bare-chested, a design touch which makes him hard to take seriously. Instead let’s look at the way they choose to fight their war: at one point Khan uses a mind controlling worm to take control over Chekhov, who used to serve under Kirk, and then uses Chekhov to lure Kirk into a trap. Once Kirk is captured, however, the worm just falls out of Chekhov’s ear – with no explanation given as to why. It’s as if this parasite just decided “enh, I’m done here.” It's a detail that wouldn’t bother me very much except the other man who was brain-wormed at the same time as Chekhov had to commit suicide to get out from under it’s grip. Would he have been fine if he had put off shooting himself by another three minutes?

Which brings me to my final subject: death. At the end of the movie there is a funeral, at which point Kirk mentions to his son that he’s never really had to face death – he’s always been able to cheat it. What the hell is he talking about? On almost every episode of the TV show Kirk landed on a new planet with a backup crew of “redshirts” and almost every week one of them died. He doesn’t remember any of the hundred of crewmembers that died because he led them into ill considered situations? Even if we grant that the original Star Trek TV series occurred so long ago that Kirk has forgotten all the nameless crew members who died under his watch he's still not off the hook - he should be able to remember back to the middle of the movie where Khan hit the USS Enterprise with some photon torpedoes and several members of the engineering crew died. Kirk doesn't just know about their deaths abstractly - he visited them in sick bay and watched with his own two eyes while a young recruit was covered with a sheet for the final time. Did that man’s sacrifice not count? Does Kirk only think that the people on the bridge of his space ship count as people? The funeral that ends Wrath of Khan is meant to be a touching, emotional deal, but the speech that Kirk gives immediately afterwards ruins the whole thing by showing him to be a callous and forgetful jackass.

I know it’s trite to compare Star Trek to Star Wars, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that Star Wars has never denied what it was. Fans of that series can get mad about the Ewoks if they want to, but it was always intended to be entertainment for children, and when you watch it with clear eyes that's pretty much what it is. As far as I can tell Star Trek has never had that sort of conceptual clarity – it wants to appeal to forward thinking Utopians and blood thirsty action fans at the same time, so it pairs lots of talk about peace conferences and biogenesis with space battles and blood feuds. It’s a weird mixture, and it’s one that I’ve never been able to tap into – especially since Star Wars was around to give me a similar type of entertainment without any of the weird aftertastes. Although I will say this: while I was often annoyed about the fact that I was named after Captain Kirk, who is a selfish egotistical ass, that's still infinitely preferable to being named Chewbacca, who is, after all, an eight foot tall naked Sasquatch wannabe.

Winner: Draw

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on IMDB