Study Guide

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Moby-Dick

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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.

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