Study Guide

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Analysis

  • The Kobayashi Maru

    Training Day

    No, unfortunately this does not refer to the adorable cat Maru, who graces the interwebs by fitting his entire fluffy body into a way-too-small box.

    In fact, there's nothing adorable (or fluffy, for that matter) about the Kobayashi Maru.

    The Kobayashi Maru is a no-win scenario: a training exercise at Starfleet where the cadets have to try to rescue a damaged ship. And here's the fun part: the ship can't be rescued. Ever.

    The idea is to throw the captain against a hopeless obstacle and see how he or she responds. Let that brave young cadet take a good long stare into the abyss, the logic goes, and then when they're really out there in the cold reaches of space, staring icy death right in the eye, they'll know themselves well enough to make the right call.

    Or as Kirk explains to Saavik after she's succeeded in blowing the scenario room to smithereens:

    KIRK: A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face, has that never occurred to you?

    SAAVIK: No sir. It has not.

    KIRK: And how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?

    SAAVIK: As I indicated sir, that thought had not occurred to me.

    Of course, it's funny that he would say that, because once upon a time a bright-eyed young cadet named James T. Kirk found a way to beat the no-win scenario…by reprogramming the simulation. Where we come from, we call that "cheating," but Starfleet felt differently and gave Kirk a commendation for original thinking. As he later (and rather snidely) tells Saavik later on:

    KIRK: I don't like to lose.

    And yet he does lose, as all cheaters do. Because, having never faced death, he has absolutely no idea how to deal with real loss.

    When Spock dies, it shatters him: it forces him to confront what he might have learned in the scenario back in his Eager Young Space Man days. And, while he puts up a brave front, it leaves a mark that he's never experienced before. His confrontation with Khan is the Kobayashi Maru scenario in essence.

    And this time, he's not going to be able to hustle his way out of it.

    Spock has his own take on the whole thing, which he displays with his sacrifice to save the Enterprise. Kirk, when faced with a hypothetical no-win scenario, cheats for his own glory. Spock, staring down the real thing, cheerfully lets the radiation of the busted engine turn his innards to goo in order to let the rest of the ship escape.

    He offers self-sacrifice instead of Kirk's self-serving aggrandizement, and—in addition to costing Kirk his best friend—shows Kirk the price of his devil-may-care attitude. Only then can Kirk learn the lesson he should have learned as a squeaky young cadet. Spock may know that when he gives the whammy to Kirk, just seconds before his death:

    SPOCK: I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?

    As a symbol for the no-win scenario—and how we all deal with it when it's our turn in the chair—you can't get much more on-the-nose than the Kobayashi Maru.

    Maybe that is actually better than a test involving a cute box-loving Japanese kitty.

    This Is Not a Test

    When Spock dies, it shatters Kirk, forcing him to confront what he might have learned in the scenario back in his Eager Young Space Man days. And, while he puts up a brave front, it leaves a mark that he's never experienced before. His confrontation with Khan is the Kobayashi Maru scenario in essence.

    And this time, he's not going to be able to hustle his way out of it.

    Spock has his own take on the whole thing, which he displays with his sacrifice to save the Enterprise. Kirk, when faced with a hypothetical no-win scenario, cheats for his own glory. Spock, staring down the real thing, cheerfully lets the radiation of the busted engine turn his innards to goo in order to let the rest of the ship escape.

    He offers self-sacrifice instead of Kirk's self-serving aggrandizement, and—in addition to costing Kirk his best friend—shows Kirk the price of his devil-may-care attitude. Only then can Kirk learn the lesson he should have learned as a squeaky young cadet. Spock may know that when he gives the whammy to Kirk, just seconds before his death:

    SPOCK: I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?

    As a symbol for the no-win scenario—and how we all deal with it when it's our turn in the chair—you can't get much more on-the-nose than the Kobayashi Maru.

    Maybe that is actually better than a test involving a cute box-loving Japanese kitty.

  • Moby-Dick

    The Wrath of Ahab

    Here we have it, folks: the amazing moment where Trekkies and Lit Nerds converge into a giant ball of happy geektitude. It's Melville meets The Enterprise,and it's basically paradise (for indoor kids like us).

    While aboard the Botany Bay, Chekov spots a copy of Moby-Dick—the tender, loving story of one man's bloodlust for a giant white whale—sitting on the bookshelf.

    Presumably, Khan read it a whole lot. He quotes it at least twice—once when his underling Joachim suggests not hunting Kirk down like a mad dog and killing him:

    KHAN: 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.

    Granted, that's a paraphrase (Khan sci-fied it up a bit), but later, he quotes Moby-Dick again. This time it's when he's getting ready to detonate the Genesis Device, killing both him and the crew of the Enterprise:

    KHAN: From hell's heart, I stab at thee! For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!

    It's his last words… and Captain Ahab's too. Clearly, that's no mistake.

    The parallels between the two characters are obvious, and The Wrath of Khan makes no bones about where they go for their inspiration. Both Khan and Ahab are obsessed with vengeance—Ahab because he lost a leg to Moby-Dick, Khan because Kirk didn't even bother with a memo to Starfleet when he exiled the crew of the Botany Bay—and both have ships that they think will help them get it. Both of them also go way too far with their madness, and both of them lead their crew to a messy death before dying themselves.

    It's a great little literary nod in the midst of all the spaceships and ray guns, but it also has a subtler purpose. Director Nicholas Meyer wanted this film to feel like an old-fashioned naval war story, something like Treasure Island or the Horatio Hornblower stories, with Napoleonic man 'o wars exchanging broadsides on the high seas.

    The reference to Moby-Dick helps cement that notion in our heads, as well as tipping the film's cap to its distinguished inspiration.

  • A Tale of Two Cities

    2285 Was the Best of Times, 2285 Was the Worst of Times

    Continuing our whirlwind tour of Literary Classics in Outer Space, Star Trek II makes a series of overt references to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Mr. Spock gives a copy to Kirk on his birthday, and Kirk ends up quoting it at a couple of key points.

    The novel covers the events of the French Revolution, and ends with the heroic self-sacrifice of Sydney Carton, an alcoholic lawyer who goes to the guillotine so his friends can be safe.

    Sound familiar? It should: Spock should change his name to Spock Carton.

    Star Trek II uses A Tale of Two Cities in the same way it used Moby-Dick—to show us where the film got its ideas from and acknowledge the literary notions at the core of its space opera laser blasts.

    That lesson isn't lost on Kirk, who had never understood what it really meant to give up your life for another person's, and who only sees it after Spock is gone. But rather than pouring salt in his wounds, it helps him find some peace, accepting Spock's death and moving forward with a newfound respect for the wonders of life.

    He even goes so far as to say Sidney Carton's last lines with a peaceful smile on his face.

    KIRK: "It is 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."

    CAROL MARCUS: Is that a poem?

    KIRK: No. Something Spock was trying to tell me. On my birthday.

    Now if only they could work Tristram Shandy in there somewhere, our nerdy bookworm hearts would be full.

  • The Genesis Device

    Not to Be Confused With the Band That Launched Peter Gabriel's Career

    The Genesis Device is a convenient plot thread: a kind of bomb, developed by Federation scientists, intended to turn uninhabitable planets into bountiful gardens. Of course, if you launch it at a planet with people (or, you know, sentient aliens) on it, you're going to wipe out the whole planet in favor of recreating Eden.

    The parallels to the atomic bomb are obvious. Like Dr. Marcus and her crew, the bomb's creators believed they were doing it for a greater good: ending the Second World War successfully. And like the Genesis Device, the atomic bomb became an apocalyptic weapon with the capacity to destroy a planet.

    That might be why McCoy freaks out a little bit at Spock's dispassion over the whole thing:

    MCCOY: Logic! My God, the man's talking about logic! We're talking about universal Armageddon!

    So we've basically got a souped-up version of the A-bomb kicking around the galaxy and in danger of falling into the hands of a genetically engineered megalomaniac. It aptly demonstrates what the road to hell is paved with…and how good concepts sometimes turn into terrifying realities.

    And there's a literary tradition that covers this too, though Star Trek II never makes direct reference to it. Once upon a time, there was a doctor named Victor, who had a great notion about how to bring the dead back to life. And hey, who doesn't want that? Turns out he created a monster who ended up running amok and destroying everything he held dear.

    It's a pretty good story…much like The Wrath of Khan.

  • Kirk's Glasses

    Unless your name is Clark Kent or Diana Prince, there's only one reason to wear a pair of glasses—your peepers are in need of a little help.

    And the glasses on display in Star Trek II remind us that Studly McStud Muffin James T. Kirk is getting older. He's forced to wear glasses to see things he used to spot without a second thought. We even get a pithy line from Bones when he gives the specs to his buddy, just to drive the point home:

    McCOY: Dammit Jim, what the hell is the matter with you? Other people have birthdays. Why are we treating yours like a funeral?

    Kirk is no longer a young buck, and the film isn't going to pretend that he is. This is an older man's tale, and the glasses make sure we see that clearly (glasses pun!).

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    The ordinary world is the entire universe…but it's the universe where everything's going more or less according to plan.

    The various Dr. Marcuses are working on their big project, Kirk and the gang are training a new crew, and all is well. Even the training cruise – featuring the Enterprise majestically moving out of space dock – doesn't constitute a Call to Adventure. Just another Tuesday morning in Starfleet.

    Call to Adventure

    In this case, the call to adventure is literal: Carol Marcus is on the horn to Kirk, yelling at him about trying to take Genesis away from her. Sounds like trouble to us.

    There's a hurried discussion with Spock and McCoy, and then we're off to see what's what over at Dr. Marcus's pad.

    Refusal of The Call

    No refusal of the call here. Kirk's not some shmoe who wants to find better things to do when trouble arises. He tells Mr. Sulu to punch it and heads out towards Regula One.

    The Galaxy ain't gonna save itself, guys.

    Meeting the Mentor

    The mentor situation is tricky here, because Mr. Mentor also does double-duty as a good buddy.

    But Mr. Spock has some wisdom to lay down on Lirk…as well as on his students. So once they get the garbled signal from Dr. Marcus, Kirk sits down with Spock to discuss the situation. It seems like two old friends hashing out strategy, but considering some of the wisdom Spock lays down, it sure feels like meeting the mentor to us:

    SPOCK: 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.

    Crossing the Threshold

    The Threshold officially arrives where Kirk takes command of the Enterprise. We're no long on a training cruise: the safety settings are off, and they're heading into a real situation. Kirk apologizes to the crew for forcing them to "grow up a little sooner than you expected."

    In other words: it's on.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    We've got allies, we've got enemies, and we've got allies who turn out to be enemies until they become allies again.

    It starts with the attack of the Reliant, which is ostensibly a Federation vessel but has been hijacked by Khan and his gang of space pirates. It continues when they arrive at Regula One to find Terrell and Chekov under control of the space worms and through the confrontation in the Genesis Cave.

    Things are rarely what they appear to be and there's danger all around. Luckily, after stumbling out of the gate, Kirk gets back in the saddle again pretty quickly.

    Approach to the Inmost Cave

    You could argue that the innermost cave is the Genesis Cave in the center of Regula One. It is, after all, an actual cave.

    But the challenges it presents are fairly easily overcome, and there's no sense of finality to the threat. Kirk's not worried, so why should we be?

    No, the real innermost cave is the Mutara Nebula, where shields and sensors won't work and Kirk needs to face his nemesis on an equal playing field. The nebula's ability to disrupt sensors riffs on the classic Campbellian notion that the hero can't take any special gadgets to get him off the hook. Whatever he does, he needs to do it himself, with no help.

    Ordeal

    The ordeal itself is the final battle with the Reliant, pitting Kirk's nerve and experience against Khan's intelligence and thirst for revenge. It's a pretty harrowing sequences, and we're pretty sure once it starts that at least one set of combatants isn't getting out of there alive.

    Reward (Seizing the Sword)

    Canny thinking by Kirk (coupled with a suggestion from Spock) gives the Enterprise the edge. They start playing in three dimensions when the Reliant is stuck in old-school 2-D.

    Up pops the Enterprise right behind the Reliant, close enough to phaser the righteous snot out of it and order Khan to surrender.

    The Road Back

    "No Kirk…the game's not over yet."

    Wait, there's more to do? Yup: like outrun the Genesis wave, which Khan triggers to destroy both him and the Enterprise. Better hope you can get those engines fixed, guys.

    Resurrection

    Resurrection in this case comes packed with a big helping of Final Sacrifice to take it down. The Enterprise restores its engines and zips away just in time…thanks to Spock absorbing lethal amounts of radiation in order to get the engine fixed.

    He dies…but in so doing, he saves the ship from certain death, while simultaneously ushering in the birth of a new world with the very energy that was supposed to destroy them. The resurrection is more cosmic than personal, but hey: that's what Campbellian heroes are supposed to do.

    Return with the Elixir

    There's plenty of elixir to be had here. Khan is dead, the crew of the Reliant is on its way to being rescued, and we even got a whole new planet out of the arrangement.

    True, we've lost Spock, but that too carries with it the rewards of wisdom and insight…and the peace of mind that comes with the universe unfolding more or less as it should. And as the final shots suggest, death may not be the end after all.

    Not as long as there's profit to be made from a properly marketed sequel.

  • Setting

    Space, the Final Frontier

    The great thing about outer space is that it can be whatever you need it to be. We don't hear much about political boundaries here, or the location of Regula One in relation to Earth. We don't need to: we're in outer-freaking-space.

    The screenwriters cheerfully lay down everything they need: a desert planet of marooned pirates, a nebula where the shields don't work…whatever the narrative demands, they can conjure it out of whole cloth. Because space is just that big.

    But here's the thing: you could say the same thing about the ocean in 18th- and 19th century adventure stories. The world hadn't been mapped out back then. There were still plenty of corners where anything could crop up. People believed in little mermaids and giant sea dragons.

    And director Nicholas Meyer drew upon these swashbuckling tales of the high seas as inspiration for Star Trek II.  The planets here could easily be islands (or even hidden countries) in a some ocean-bound tale. Both settings have the same plastic quality, letting the storytellers turn them into whatever they want without much of a fuss.

    After all, before people even dreamed of going off into space, the oceans were the final frontier.

  • Point of View

    Third-Person Omniscient

    You know it, you love it, and it makes the whole "narrative thread" thing just go down a whole lot more smoothly. Yes, it's Third-Person Omniscient: the god-like ability for the filmmaker to go anywhere he or she needs to in order to unload that nifty plot exposition we all crave.

    It's useful, however, to note where that camera goes and why. Meyer focuses on the basic POV for three characters and uses any other perspectives to either set them up or help them stand out.

    Kirk-Cam

    The first is Kirk, of course: our manly-man hero who leads the Enterprise into battle and serves as the head of the whole gang on board. We rarely leave his side when we're aboard the Enterprise. Even Mr. Spock gets only a few precious moments away from him to, you know, die.

    In many ways, that's as it should be. We start with Saavik to clue us in to who she is and raise the inevitable "Where's Kirk?" question, but once that's done with, it's James T. for you and me.

    Khan-Cam

    A similar narrative trick takes place with our lucky Contestant Number 2: Khan, the sinister yin to Kirk's yang, and the guy who makes sure we have a story to follow in the first place.

    Like Saavik setting up Kirk, Khan gets set up with Pavel Chekov, a well-known member of Team Good Guy with a new gig on the Reliant and a survey mission that goes disastrously wrong. Like Saavik, he becomes an instant surrogate for the audience during those scenes…and, like Saavik, our sympathies serve only to point us firmly in Khan's direction.

    Once the whole ear-worm unpleasantness is out of the way, we're pretty much following Khan anytime we're on the Reliant. Other members of its pirate crew are background color at best, and in fact the scene never really departs Khan's brooding, Moby-Dick-quoting butt.

    But that only covers the whole "hate-filled revenge" half of the plot. What about the "Kirk has regrets" half?

    Marcus-Cam

    For that, we get the third and final character that the narrative chooses to focus on: Carol Marcus, Kirk's ultimate gal-who-got-away who's busy getting the Genesis Device together and showing the universe what happens when the power of creation inadvertently ends up in the hands of a madman.

    Her scenes run far shorter than Kirk's or Khan's, and we don't get a funky rope-a-dope setting her up like we do the two boys, but she does more than just plot exposition to cover the consequences of Kirk's space cowboy lifestyle. She's the reminder of what he's lost; and, while they're clearly on the same side, she won't let him forget that skipping out on her and David is on him.

    CAROL: Were we together? Were we going to be? You had your world and I had mine. And I wanted him in mine, not chasing through the universe with his father.

    That's pretty harsh. It's also a key part of the plot. And in order to get the full impact, we need at least of couple of scenes where Carol is front and center. Once again, it's the third-person omniscient narrative to the rescue, letting us see what we need to in order to grok her overall mood.

    The comparative discipline with which it sticks to these three characters helps accentuate the drama and makes sure we know what's going down at every opportunity. The technique lets us go anywhere the filmmaker wants us to, but by focusing on these three, Meyer provides the right sense of discipline to help hammer his story home.

  • Genre

    Science Fiction and Adventure

    First and foremost, Star Trek is science fiction, positing a utopian future where Earth lives in harmony as part of an intergalactic federation of funky aliens (and the less-funky aliens who they sometimes have to blow to kingdom come).

    More specifically, it's space opera, a sub-genre of science fiction that's known for adding epic grandeur to its future, and tends to stray into the more fantastic side of science fiction. (Contrast that with "harder" science fiction like 2001, which doesn't want to get too far into the "technology is just like magic" discussion.)

    Space opera really came of age with the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as old movie serials from the 1930s like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. (All of those informed George Lucas when he made Star Wars, as well as Gene Roddenberry's approach to Star Trek.)

    They harked back to older myths and legends like Greek and Norse mythologygussied up in future tech and set loose in the cosmos, but otherwise touching on the same tropes as a much older kind of storytelling.

    That brings us to the movie's other big genre: adventure. In part, that comes with space opera, since space opera always features mighty deeds to do and cunning foes to defeat. But Nicholas Meyer also wanted to evoke the Napoleonic adventure stories of the 19th century, when characters like Horatio Hornblower and young Jim Hawkins went up against the scurvy dogs of the high seas.

    It wasn't hard to shift that dynamic to Starfleet's jumped-up hot rods and bring old-fashioned naval adventure stories into a fresh new location. Space opera may be Star Trek II's main course, but adventure is definitely its all-you-can-eat salad bar.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    This movie's a lot of things, but subtle isn't one of them. It wears everything on its sleeve: emotions, personality…everything but those space eels, which have another home.

    Accordingly, the title basically sums up the whole story in a neat little phrase: Star Trek II (because it's the sequel) and The Wrath of Khan (because there's a guy named Khan who's awful wrath-y). Cue the theme music and tell Mr. Sulu to hit the gas: that title leaves us ready to go.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    We love the ending to this, and not just because it has that great "space, the final frontier" line delivered by Nimoy instead of Shatner for the first time ever.

    Happy endings are par for the course in Hollywood, and this one is pretty happy…all things considered. The Enterprise is safe, Khan is dead (so very, very dead) and there's even a brand new planet that may or may not bring Spock back to life. (Spoiler alert: it does.)

    But at the same time, it's much more melancholy than we usually expect: tinged with the sense of getting older and of Kirk finally having to pay the piper for all those tunes he's called over the years.

    That gives Star Trek II a somewhat more literary ending than we usually expect from Hollywood: something a little more thoughtful than normal, and with some subtleties and nuances that leave us with more to think about than just who Kirk is going to shoot/pummel/sleep with in Star Trek III.

  • Shock Rating

    PG

    Real talk: the space eels get to us.

    Seriously, they crawl into your ear, nestle in your brain, and basically turn you into a drooling robot until they presumably chew their way out of your brain and kill you. That's some serious David Cronenberg-level squickiness.

    Beyond that, though, this film is pretty tame. Sex and harsh language are nonexistent, and while there's plenty of action (and even some bleeding), it's limited to comic-book-style swashbuckling, and nothing truly violent. That leaves it firmly in PG territory: a little harsh for the youngest of kiddies, but pretty family-friendly overall.

    Except for those eels. Oh dear lord, those eels.