After the false start of The Motion Picture, the Star Trek franchise got back on track with The Wrath of Khan. In my opinion, this is the best of the Star Trek films. The main reason, I think, is that there’s real continuity between this movie and the TV series. TWOK makes a real contribution to the Star Trek canon and cements the show’s and character’s iconic status in the popular consciousness. The fact that the recent entry, Into Darkness, could do no better than reference TWOK is evidence of its cultural endurance, even among non-Trekkers. For example, how many times has Shatner’s famous “KHAAAAAAAN!” yell been emulated or parodied? Incidentally, when Zachary Quinto did so in Into Darkness, I laughed. I don’t think the filmmakers intended it to be comedic, but it took me out of the movie. But I digress.
Another digression: by way of background to this project, I should mention that my brother and I went through all of the Star Trek movies recently in anticipation of the release of Into Darkness. My brother is an even bigger Trekker than I am, so several of the points I make came up in conversation with him. It’s been a long time since I saw TOS episode “Space Seed” in which Khan makes his first appearance, so my brother refreshed my memory on some of that continuity.
For those who don’t remember Khan’s origin, he was a product of eugenics experiments in the 1990’s (remember those?). He and other ‘supermen’ fled the Earth and and were later revived from suspended animation by Kirk. Khan tries to take over the Enterprise, but is thwarted and marooned on Ceti Alpha V. By the time TWOK takes place 15 years later, Ceti Alpah V has shifted in its orbit, making it a barren, inhospitable planet. The USS Reliant shows up to survey the planet as a potential candidate for terra-forming using Carol Marcus’ Genesis device. The survey team includes Pavel Chekov, who is captured and brainwashed with an alien ear worm, but not before providing a primer on the events of “Space Seed” for Capt. Terrell and, presumably, the audience. Incidentally, Chekov does not appear in “Space Seed” leaving some fans to wonder how he knows so much about these events. Khan even seems to remember him. I’m content to leave this continuity puzzle to others and stipulate that any member of the Enterprise crew would have known enough about the events to offer a synopsis and that any previous encounter between the two characters happened off-screen.
The plot is fairly boiler plate, but I’ve never been terribly interested in plot driven films; it’s the characters that are interesting. The actors are all great in their respective roles (yes, I consider Shatner a great actor) and really put their stamp on these characters and bring them to life. Shatner, Nimoy, and Montalban especially sell their parts and make this movie a very enjoyable ride. We’re also introduced to Star Trek lore, such as the aforementioned ‘KHAAAAAN!’ cry, the Kobayashi Maru, and learn that ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.’ I’ll have more to say about those last two in a moment.
The central conflict between Kirk and Khan is a great rivalry. Apparently, due to the shooting schedule, Shatner and Montalban did not film their sequences at the same time and, in fact, the two characters do not meet face to face on screen. However, this works to the film’s advantage. The battle between Kirk and Khan is a battle of wills and wits. I also like the fact that Khan is a serious threat despite the fact that the Reliant is a weaker ship than the Enterprise. He uses his guile and cunning rather than relying on superior firepower. Contrast this approach with later films in the series, like Nemesis, Star Trek 2009, and Into Darkness, which make a point of showing how the Enterprise is hopelessly outgunned by another, more formidable ship.
The Kobayashi Maru, or no-win scenario, is introduced early in the film. Later, we’re told that Kirk beat the scenario by ‘cheating.’ I’ve always thought that this attitude was definitive of Kirk’s character. It harks back to TOS episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” in which Kirk is confronted with another no-win scenario, and Spock tells him “In chess, when one player is outmatched, the game is over.” Kirk’s reply “Not chess, Mr. Spock. Poker!” is one of my favorite moments in TOS. Of philosophical interest, at least to me, is the way Kirk repudiates in practice what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has dubbed ‘the ludic fallacy.‘ Simply put, the ludic fallacy (from the Latin ludus, or game) is the tendency to think that probabilities in reality function like probabilities in games. In fact, this is not necessarily true. Games are rule governed enterprises, whereas in the real world, people ‘game the system.’ People bluff and cheat. Kirk realizes this fact, which gives him a tactical advantage that the hyper-logical and rule-governed Mr. Spock missed.
Speaking of Spock, one of the defining moments in TWOK is when Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise. Logical to the end, Spock cites the principle: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few … or the one.” I’ve used this example countless times in class to illustrate utilitarianism, the moral system that says that the right action is the one that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Utilitarianism is a form of hedonism and owes a debt to ancient Epicurean hedonism. In modern parlance, hedonism is often thought to be antithetical to altruism, however, the refined hedonism of Epicurus and the utilitarians would say that one cannot prioritize one’s own happiness. In other words, one has to give the happiness of others equal weight to one’s own. In this way, Spock’s utilitarian calculation compelled altruistic action. Of course, we can debate the adequacy of utilitarianism as a moral system, but I always appreciated the fact that TWOK provided me with an example that usually led to quite a fruitful classroom discussion.
There are several other points of philosophical interest that I will only briefly highlight. There’s a scene in which Carol and David Marcus complain that their scientific discovery is being hijacked for military purposes and that scientists are always forced to serve military interests. I thought this was interesting for a couple of reasons. First, is it true that science, in a free society, is only funded because of foreseeable military applications? I can certainly think of examples of this being true, but in general? Is that position overly cynical or am I being overly naive? Second, it’s interesting that this issue comes up in the idealized world of Star Trek. Is Starfleet a military entity (or perceived as such) at this point in the Federation’s history? As I recall, Roddenberry was always adamant that Starfleet is not a military force, despite its obvious similarities to a navy (it has a military command structure and its ships are armed vessels that protect our interests and patrol our borders). Later Star Trek plots would see the crew of the Enterprise (whichever iteration) fighting attempts by corrupt admirals to militarize Starfleet, of which Into Darkness is only the most recent example. Is Starfleet a military presence in TWOK or is that simply David Marcus’ interpretation of their function? Either way, it’s an interesting side issue.
There’s also the question of how the Genesis device and terra-forming is consistent with the Prime Directive. Wouldn’t the Federation be responsible for guiding the evolutionary development on any Genesis planet, thereby violating the Prime Directive? Granted, I’ve never really understood the purpose of the Prime Directive except to generate plots and rather contrived dilemmas for the various captains. It’s routinely broken, which is probably an indication that it’s not a very workable rule. Anyways, it’s interesting to speculate how the Genesis project might be consistent with the Prime Directive.
These philosophical side issues, however, should not detract from the enjoyment of the film. In fact, it’s to the film’s credit that it delivers action and manages to provide fodder for philosophical reflection, something its predecessor failed to do on both counts. In my opinion, TWOK is the best Star Trek movie to date and I doubt a serious rival is forthcoming.