Almost everybody loves Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, even if it’s just for the “KHAAAAAAAN!” that bubbles up from somewhere past Kirk’s sternum. The movie more than makes up for the lack of growth afforded Kirk in ST:TMP. It is not so much a deconstruction (if I’m using the term correctly) of Star Trek as it is of Kirk himself.
TWOK begins with Kirk in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Promoted back to Admiral, somehow, he’s overseeing the training of Starfleet cadets with the Enterprise (or a simulator) as their classroom. He’s not out there himself, because “galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.” Instead of Kirk being obsessed with regaining the Enterprise, as he was in TMP, he’s resigned to being supplanted by a new generation. Once again, McCoy is blunt with him: “Get back your command. Get it back … before you really do grow old.”
TWOK’s strength is its treatment of Star Trek’s characters and settings. It’s not just Kirk getting older, either. The Enterprise herself was the most advanced ship in the fleet in TMP (some eight years ago, according to the Trek calendar), but now she’s relegated to training duty. We’ll see her replacement in the next movie.
Where TMP showed everybody promoted and/or otherwise upgraded, TWOK has them hitting career ceilings, even marginalized. Sulu and Uhura look like they would be pretty upwardly mobile officers, vying for their own commands, but they are apparently content to stay at this Academy gig. (From what I have heard, a subplot about Sulu getting command of the fancy new U.S.S. Excelsior first appeared in drafts of this movie, but it never made it into the final film.) At least Chekov has another gig, as first officer of U.S.S. Reliant (again, a job that may originally have been Sulu’s).
Still, the focus is once more on Kirk. As in TMP, a crisis provides an opportunity for him to regain command of the Enterprise. However, this time there is a clear chain of command, and Admiral Kirk is a lot more courteous to Captain Spock than he was to Captain Decker. In TMP Kirk turned in his flag rank for captain’s stripes, and forced Decker to take a step down in rank as well. Here Kirk and Spock have a conversation about how they’ll share the ship. There are a lot of practical factors which distinguish this situation from TMP, but right now let’s just note that Kirk is deferential to Spock and almost reluctant to take charge again.
There is one clear contrast, though. In TMP, Bones calls Kirk obsessed with the Enterprise. Here, both Bones and Spock tell Kirk flat-out to get back his command (Spock says it’s his “first, best destiny”), but Kirk isn’t in any hurry. Maybe there’s some self-awareness about his treatment of Decker earlier, but it seems like something happened to Kirk in those eight years (Trek time) between films. (The Marvel miniseries Star Trek: Untold Voyages offers an explanation, but I’m not including it here because I don’t want to get sidetracked.)
Anyway, if Kirk’s worried about his instincts being rusty, it doesn’t show. He fights off Reliant’s first attack and, while in the Genesis cave, suckers Khan into leaving the Enterprise alone. Throughout the movie Shatner gives Kirk an excellent balance of bravado and humility. Even “KHAAAAAAAN!,” with all its out-of-context cartoonishness, makes sense within the rest of his performance. I give Shatner a lot of credit for making Kirk really come alive, not just in the series or in a few of the movies, but over the course of his career. He allows Kirk to grow independent of William Shatner, and it’s nice to see.
Still, despite Kirk’s heroics, TWOK’s message is that everyone must face the no-win scenario. Kirk has successfully avoided it his entire career, and it catches up with him with … well, with a vengeance. His speech to his son David is a powerful description of his reversal of fortune: “I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.” David, who had seen his father as a manipulative, self-serving symbol of military control of science, now tells Kirk he was wrong about him, and he’s proud to be Kirk’s son. I’m not doing the moment justice, I know; suffice it to say that the scene lets us see Kirk as a person too, perhaps for the first time.
Good thing, too, because Spock’s death deprives Kirk of (arguably) the most important person in his life. (Also, please note – for the second movie in a row, the erstwhile Enterprise captain sacrifices himself.) Star Trek II forces Kirk to confront not just death, but also demystification. It’s easy to see the familiar swashbuckling Kirk from the series in the Kirk of TWOK, but the movie presents the character oddly removed from those exploits, like an athlete at an old-timer’s game. The Kirk/Spock/Bones scenes in this movie feel like the exercising of old muscles too, especially since there tend to be more Kirk-and-Spock and Kirk-and-Bones scenes than with the three together. In fact, this might not be entirely accurate, but it seems like Bones is there to guide Kirk through the “aging” scenes, whereas Spock’s scenes have more to do with Kirk commanding the ship.
In any event, TWOK has Kirk transcend his previous roles (as Captain, as allegorical figure) in favor of becoming a real person. If Kirk had been defined by those roles previously, he is defined by them no longer. Instead, TWOK leaves him with the ability to look back on his life honestly, and in so doing to chart his destiny accordingly. So what does he do in Star Trek III…?
We’ll get back to that soon enough, but first let’s see how Star Trek II expanded the scope of the series. For one thing, it showed audiences the first Federation starship that didn’t look like the Enterprise. By making Chekov the first officer of that ship, it showed that our crew could move on and still be part of the story. TWOK also hinted that a second-generation crew (or at least a second generation of crewmembers) could include Kirk’s son and Spock’s “daughter.” The movie ends with Kirk still an Admiral and the rest of the group presumably available to either be promoted off the ship a la Chekov or stick around with the Enterprise and her (new?) crew. In other words, TWOK offers a wide range of possibilities for a new Trek format involving all, some, or none of the old gang.
Nevertheless, few of them apparently included a scuttled Enterprise, David dead, and our heroes fugitives on Vulcan. We’ll pick up there next time.