Admiral James T. Kirk is the ultimate space cowboy. The only thing missing from his grizzled-but-handsome look is some spurs…and we're pretty sure the only reason the Stark Trek masterminds didn't include those is because they'd be a touch dangerous to have while aboard a tin can hurdling through deepest space.
As captain of the Enterprise on its famous five-year mission, John Wayne—er—Kirk shot from the hip, said what he meant, and managed to brass his way into saving the galaxy every week with nothing more than a hunch and yard of guts. (He also liked having sex. Lots and lots of sex.)
But if Star Trek II had left his character as simply a sci-fi rodeo clown, it might have been a pretty boring movie.
Luckily, the natural course of time gave the movie a chance to do something entirely new with him. William Shatner was getting on in years, after all—he was fifty-one when the film opened—and having someone that age playing a hard-living space stud just stretches credibility. (If you need an example, look at Roger Moore during his last couple of outings as James Bond.)
So the powers-that-be behind Star Trek II decided that, rather than trying to pretend that their leading man wasn't well into middle age, they would make his character middle-aged.
And, since Porsche dealerships are few and far between in space, his mid-life crisis had to be a lot more dynamic.
When we meet him in Star Trek II, Kirk's been promoted to Admiral (yay) but is parked behind a desk and afraid that his best days are behind him (boo). His concerns about growing old are present from the beginning, though he leaves it to his friends to voice them:
McCOY: Damn it, Jim, what the hell's the matter with you? Other people have birthdays. Why are we treating yours like a funeral?
But there's more than just a midlife crisis going on here. Kirk's "party like it's 2299" lifestyle comes with some serious consequences—consequences he's been able to outrun before now, but which now seem to be coming back at him from all directions.
For starters, there's the fact that he parked Khan on a wasteland planet and never even bothered to file a report. We can empathize—Khan was sort of trying to kill him at the time. But Kirk's maverick interstellar policing gives Khan some grievances that he's set on airing in a properly gruesome fashion once he catches up with his nemesis.
We can't help but think that things might have gone differently if Kirk had bothered hauling Khan to the space-age version of Pelican Bay.
More important, there's the loss of his family, which he's blithely ignored until now. He and Carol Marcus had a son, David, who seems like a pretty cool kid, all things considered.
And Kirk missed out on rearing his bouncing baby boy because he was off having sex with space babes on distant asteroids. He missed the whole thing. Now he has to come back and look that loss in the eye:
KIRK: There's a man out there I haven't seen in fifteen years who's trying to kill me. You show me a son and he'd be happy to help him. My son… my life that could have been… and wasn't. And what am I feeling? Old. Worn out.
That's got to sting.
But the biggest thing he's forced to confront is loss of a more permanent kind. As he himself says, he's never had to confront death in any real way, even though he's been happy to deal it out to any space scum he meets, and people in his own crew have died under his command (mostly guys in red shirts whose first names he never got around to learning).
As he says:
KIRK: I haven't faced death. I've cheated death. I've tricked my way out of death... and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.
All of that puts Kirk is a very reflective mood, learning lessons he thought he'd successfully skipped out on and not exactly happy with the process.
But in so doing, he does what all great heroes do: he grows and changes. He learns from his mistakes, and he gains wisdom as a result. It's a classic case of teaching an old dog new tricks, and proof that, when you're on the Hero's Journey, there's no such thing as too old to change.
As villains go, it's hard to top Khan Noonian Singh for pure buttoned-up fury. He's an angry, angry man when we first meet him… and he looks even angrier than when we saw him in the original Star Trek episode "Space Seed."
But one of the great things about this movie is that you don't need to have seen the earlier episode to get where Khan is coming from. They get you up to speed quick and then let the man do his thing.
And by "do his thing," we mean, "be a psychopath armed with squicky space-worms."
Khan began life as a genetically engineered conqueror who controlled over one-quarter of the Earth in the dangerous future of the early 1990s. (We know, we know. This movie is so 80s it bleeds Aqua Net.) Eventually deposed, he and his followers escaped by boarding a spaceship in cryogenic storage, hoping for their lot to improve in the reaches of space.
It didn't. They got revived by the crew of the Enterprise, and Khan responded by trying to kill Kirk and take the ship. Kirk, never one to be outdone in the "take the law into your own hands" department, exiled Khan and his followers to a desert planet, where they could eke out a rough living.
Now here's the thing: Khan's crew didn't go alone. One of the Enterprise crew—Lt. Marla McGivers—fell in love with Khan and helped him try to take over the ship. When the dust settled, she went with him to Ceti Alpha Five: giving up paradise in the Federation and a snazzy Starfleet career to fight dust storms and suck moisture out of the local plant life.
She gave up everything for him…and for that, she got to die sometime after they were exiled when one of those Ceti eels crawled into her ear.
KHAN: What do you think? It killed twenty of my people, including my beloved wife.
It was an ugly way to go, and Khan isn't the kind of guy to forget about something like that. When the planet shifted its orbit and nobody came to check on them, he basically had nothing to do but stare at the walls and plot all the various ways he could brutally murder the guy who put him there. Namely: one James Tiberius Kirk.
And when one turns an intellect as big as Khan's towards revenge, things get dangerous.
That thirst for revenge comes across as a deep wellspring of passion, reflecting the passion he felt for his dead wife. (Ricardo Montalban goes into some detail on it during an interview for the film, which you can peep over in the "Best of the Web" section.)
His need to carve off a piece of the man supersedes everything else. He and his gang escape—by hijacking another Federation ship, more successfully this time—and basically can do whatever they want after that.
But Khan isn't interested in doing anything but putting Kirk in his place. None of the tempting possibilities of escape—building a new empire/blackmailing governments with the Genesis device/eating ice cream for the first time since the 1990s—appeal to him, because he makes Liam Neeson look like a mild-mannered forgiveness-happy bloke:
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!
That last bit is a riff of Moby-Dick…a little book about a man who's too obsessed with vengeance to know what's good for him. And revenge-thirst is the most notable feature of Khan's personality.
Just take a look at how dogged his quest for vengeance is…even when the Enterprise has him basically cornered:
KIRK: This is Admiral Kirk. We tried it once your way, Khan. Are you game for a rematch? Khan? I'm laughing at the "superior intellect."
KHAN: Full impulse power!
JOACHIM: No sir! You have Genesis. ... You can have whatever you...
KHAN: Full power! Damn you!
Sure, Khan's strength and intellect make him a scary bad guy, but his thirst for vengeance ultimately forces him to essentially sign his own death warrant. But this character trait is also the thing that makes him human, what turns him from a cartoonish supervillain to someone whose actions are made understandable.
He is, in short, a villain worthy of challenging Kirk to a duel to the death…and a character who turns this space opera from a good yarn into something really epic.
While Kirk undergoes the most profound change of all the characters in the film, his redoubtable first officer Spock remains the same as he always was: wise, astute, courageous and loyal unto death.
Oh, jeez. Now we're crying. You were supposed to live long and prosper, Spock. You were supposed to live long.
As a Vulcan, Spock's given himself over to the tenets of logic, but that logic is tinged with a deep and abiding compassion for all living things. That one-two punch lets Spock save the ship in ways that Kirk never could.
It also makes him an awesome teacher. When Kirk became an Admiral, Spock became Captain of the Enterprise. As the film opens, he's using his position to train a new crew: he's acting as mentor, not unlike Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings or Dumbledore in Harry Potter. He's there to pass on his hard-earned wisdom to his trainee crew, and hopefully get them up to speed as the next generation of galaxy-savers.
Seriously. Where was Spock when we needed mentorship?
KIRK: I told Starfleet all we had was a boatload of children but ...we're the only ship in the Quadrant. Spock, these cadets of yours, how good are they? How will they respond under real pressure?
SPOCK: As with all living things, each according to his gifts.
And his sage-like instruction doesn't stop with his students. He's just as much of a teacher to his old friend Admiral Kirk. The lessons he teaches are harder, of course—he dies while teaching 'em—but Kirk needs to hear them just as badly.
SPOCK: I never took the Kobayahsi Maru test until now…what do you think of my solution?
By sacrificing himself to save the ship, Spock demonstrates how to face certain death, and the true meaning of selfless leadership.
Even if you weren't familiar with Trek before seeing Star Trek II, you can sense how much of a loss Spock's death is to Kirk… and why Spock's at peace with his decision. After all, he's dying in the defense of logic—his guiding philosophical tenet—as well as saving his entire crew.
SPOCK: Don't grieve, Admiral...it is logical. The needs of the many...outweigh…
KIRK: ...the needs of the few.
SPOCK: Or the one.
Hard to argue with his wisdom…or complain about the way he goes out. By facing death the same logical way he faced life, he leaves peace and wisdom alive and well behind him.
The introduction of Lieutenant Saavik is one of the biggest red herrings in movie history. We open with her voice entering a log in the Enterprise records as captain, then show her in Kirk's vaunted chair while the rest of the Trek crew—the familiar gang we all know from the series—go about their duties.
And we're baffled. Who is this woman? Why is she in command of the Enterprise? Where's Kirk?
But—gotcha!—it's all just a simulation, and Saavik is still undergoing training. When we meet her, we understand instinctively that she's not a part of the crew, her youthful ambition standing in marked contrast to the more weathered wisdom of her fellow officers.
And "ambition" is the best word to describe Saavik. She's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to get out there and show the galaxy what she's made of. We can see that in her obvious frustration at failing the Kobayashi Maru test. Like Kirk, she doesn't like to lose.
SAAVIK: I don't believe this was a fair test of my command abilities.
KIRK: And why not?
SAAVIK: Because...there was no way to win.
She's also is a bit of a stickler for military protocol, which we learn when the Reliant first appears onscreen.
SAAVIK: Sir, may I quote General Order Twelve, "On the approach of any vessel, when communications have not been established..."
SPOCK: Lieutenant, the Admiral is well aware of the regulations.
She might be little too brash and eager…but she's definitely right. In other words, she has the makings of a first-rate Starfleet officer. And as a younger character (and a Vulcan to boot), she makes the easiest and most direct representation of the entire crew of trainees: the people who Spock will mold and shape into heroes.
On a subtler note, she's also a good audience surrogate—especially for people who might not be super-familiar with the Star Trek canon. This lets her ask the questions that they people watching the film are asking…and even make observations about characters that the hard-core Trek fans know by heart.
SAAVIK: (in Vulcan) He's never what I expect, sir.
SPOCK: (in Vulcan) What surprises you, Lieutenant?
SAAVIK: He's so ...human.
SPOCK: (in Vulcan) Nobody's perfect, Saavik.
Her fresh observations, along with her dedication to excel and do her duty, helps Star Trek II pull off its greatest trick: looking at these characters with fresh eyes and showing how the old warriors of the original series pass the torch on to the next generation of officers.
Next generation…hmm. Now that's a good title.
Dr. Carol Marcus is, to put it mildly, the one who got away.
She's not just one from among the rich and diverse array of space ladeez that Kirk seduced in the original series; she's someone who's really and truly his equal. In another universe—or maybe in an ideal one—they would have ended up together.
But Kirk, space stud that he is, wasn't willing to give up his wandering ways. And Dr. Marcus wasn't prepared to just sit quietly at home and knit while he satisfied his wanderlust (and maybe other lusts, as well).
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.
But Dr. Marcus wasn't just about child-rearing. The Genesis Project is her deal, and while it lacks the flash and sizzle of saving the universe in a warp-10 hot rod, the Project looks to solve some very big problems—assuming that marauding space pirates don't get their vengeance-crazed hands on it first.
In other words, she's pretty much 100% awesome.
And this awesomeness makes her unwilling to cut Jim an inch of slack for his reckless ways, and to stress—again—that it's his own fault if his kid hates him.
At the same time, though, she can be gentle. While she and Kirk have a past full of wounds, she still cares about him and is willing to cut him some slack when she feels like he's suffering unnecessarily.
KIRK: And what am I feeling? Old. Worn out.
CAROL: Let me show you something that'll make you feel young as when the world was new.
There's real warmth there, and a shared past that they can both draw from. Considering that her prized creation falls into the hands of a madman, it speaks well of her that she can handle things so adroitly.
Here's a sentence that will make Star Trek II sound like a soap opera: David Marcus is Kirk's son…but he doesn't know it.
But don't let that sentence put you off: Star Trek II is much more of a space opera than a soap opera. Marcus is around, in part, as a way of showing that the adventures of the Enterprise aren't going to be stopping just because Kirk has retired to some space Florida to play space shuffleboard.
Marcus is also a doctor like his mother, and is helping her on the Genesis Project. In that sense, he's superfluous to the actual plot…though he does make a great living representation of all the things Kirk has missed out on. He's clearly been up to some impressive things while his dad was out cruising for space chicks.
There's some resentment there too, presumably because Kirk hurt his mother. Even though Marcus doesn't know that Kirk's his dad, he's heard enough from mom to know that he's kind of a louse.
DAVID: Remember that overgrown Boy Scout you used to hang around with? That's exactly the kind of man...
CAROL: Listen, kiddo, Jim Kirk was many things, but he was never a Boy Scout!
That continues into their first encounter, where David basically comes at Kirk with a knife.
DAVID: Mother! He killed everybody we left behind.
CAROL: Oh, of course he didn't. David, you're just making this harder.
Oof. That's evidence of some serious daddy issues. Kirk's got a lot to make up to his son.
But there's a silver lining to this dark nebula cloud: David—and specifically David's resentment—is part of what helps Kirk change and grow: to acknowledge the mistakes he's made and to endeavor to be a better man. Because of that, he earns David's forgiveness and acceptance, which in turn helps him accept the loss of Spock more easily.
DAVID: You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.
KIRK: Just words.
DAVID: But good words. That's where ideas begin. Maybe you should listen to them. I was wrong about you and I'm sorry.
KIRK: Is that what you came here to say?
DAVID: Mainly... And also that I'm... proud... very proud... to be your son.
Aw, shucks. Group hugs all around.
If Spock is Kirk's superego, all cold logic and impassive observation, Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy is his raging id.
The ship's doctor has never been shy about expressing his opinion…or about letting others know when they're falling down on the job. That gives him the ability to say things to both Kirk and Spock that no one else can say: to call them on their horse-pucky and make sure they know what they've been hiding from.
He gives it to Kirk first, while Kirk is wallowing in self-pity on his birthday.
McCOY: What the hell do you want? This is not about age, and you know it. This is about you flying a goddamn computer console when you wanna be out there hopping galaxies.
KIRK: Spare me your notions of poetry, please. We all have our assigned duties.
McCOY: Bull. You're hiding: hiding behind rules and regulations.
KIRK: Who am I hiding from?
McCOY: From yourself, Admiral!
Later in the film, Spock gets the same treatment, when McCoy suspects him of dodging the moral implications of the Genesis Device.
McCOY: But, dear Lord, do you think we're intelligent enough to... suppose… what if this thing were used where life already exists?
SPOCK: It would destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.
McCOY: It's new matrix? Do you have you any idea what you're saying?
In literary terms, that makes Bones a foil—a character who challenges and tests the hero by forcing him to look at things in a particular way.
It's also, we might add, one of the great things about the character in the original TV show…and something that the first Star Trek movie completely glossed over. Fans were quite relieved so see McCoy's old grumpy self come back, especially because he wasn't going to let Kirk or Spock get away with anything.
Poor Pavel Chekov. He finally gets out of the navigator's chair he was stuck in for two seasons on the show—but as soon as he lands a new gig, he gets a super-creepy space eel stuck in his ear.
It's a raw deal, especially for a guy who's so gregarious and friendly. That friendliness helps us understand just how horrible Khan is when he sticks that eel in his ear—it makes Khan look like the kind of monster that would torture puppies.
And it also lets at least one of the supporting members of the crew get in on the action. We love Sulu and Uhura and Scotty, but frankly, they're just moving scenery in this movie (which is why they don't get entries here: forgive us, Trek faithful). Chekov gets some skin in the game: he's transformed into Khan's hapless zombot and forced to lie to Dr. Marcus in an effort to secure Genesis for his master.
It's a tough road, but luckily for him, Kirk totally gets it. When some madman sticks a mind-control worm in your head, you can't be held accountable. That's why he not only forgives Chekov for pulling a phaser on him, but he doesn't hesitate when Chekov comes back looking to help out in the battle against Khan.
CHEKOV: Could you use another hand, Admiral?
KIRK: Man the weapons console, Mister Chekov.
Nothing more needs to be said, and all is forgiven: another one of those signs that Star Trek II understands how much the friendship of these characters matters to the fans. That's worth the odd space eel or two, and we thank Mr. Chekov for taking one for the team.
Joachim is Khan's de facto second-in-command, and the only other member of his motley crew who has any dialogue. (Yeah. Khan loves him some movie villain monologuing.)
He's loyal to Khan unto death (his last words are "Yours… is… superior"), but he's less blinded by the need to cut Kirk open and do horrible things to his internal organs. That gives him the clarity to tell Khan things he really needs to hear…like the fact that maybe they're wasting everything they've gained in a pointless hunt for vengeance.
JOACHIM: We're all with you, sir, but consider this: we are free. We have a ship and the means to go where we will. We have escaped permanent exile on Ceti Alpha Five. You have proved your superior intellect, and defeated the plans of Admiral Kirk. You do not need to defeat him again.
He's even willing to push the point before the battle in the Nebula, to the point of telling Khan "no." (We're guessing "no" isn't something Khan hears a lot.)
JOACHIM: No sir! You have Genesis... you can have whatever you...
That serves an important purpose as far as demonstrating Khan's tragic flaw. Khan can't say he wasn't warned against his hellbent vengeance-fest.
Instead, Khan goes into it eyes wide open thanks to Joachim's question. He can't hide behind ignorance—especially because the advice he gets is from his loyal lieutenant, and he knows that it's delivered in his best interests.
But that's the thing about hellbent vengeance-fests: they're not too susceptible to reason.