Tuesday, May 13, 2014

“Khan, nothing more?”: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I don't like it.

Yeah, I said it. As far as I'm concerned, the consensus-best Star Trek EVER is a bunch of *ridiculously* overrated tat. But honestly, you must have expected this by now. Was there really ever any suspense over how I was going to read this? Surely, there was no way I was ever going to taken in by Star Trek going whole hog into Horatio Hornblower naval pomp and circumstance? Not after everything I've yelled and screamed about here for the past year. I think it's a mistake, I think it gets Star Trek's philosophy utterly wrong, I honestly don't think its a particularly captivating movie in its own right and I can't in good conscience recommend it. So there. You can all close the book or the browser tab or whatever, as I'm sure my yay or nay on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is what you've been waiting breathlessly all this time to find out about.

Anyone still here? Good. Then we can continue.

The first, most obvious problem I have with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is in fact bringing Khan back in the first place. “Space Seed” was an utterly abhorrent episode that posited Star Trek's utopian future would be built on the back of Philosopher Kings and enlightened despots who benevolently oppress us while they squabble over turf by manipulating catastrophic gang wars and indulging in extravagant, overblown dick measuring contests. It also made the passionate claim that women gain their inner strength through submissiveness and subservience and that rape culture is the natural hierarchy of humanity. And Khan himself was a spectacularly racist amalgamation of generically “exotic” nonwhite, nonwestern motifs the script bewilderingly seems to think will add to his “charm”. Charm, incidentally, is the one thing Khan wasn't hurting for simply because the show hired Ricardo Montalbán to play him, who was an amazing stage presence and the one likable thing in that whole dreadful hour.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan does at least manage to be better than “Space Seed” as it drops pretty much all of the symbolism and themes Khan was originally written with in mind, bringing him back simply to exert gravity as a powerful antagonist, which is a role he's perfectly suited for. No, Khan does work here, which is more than can be said for any of his other appearances in Star Trek, but the problem this movie has is that, by virtue of being so obviously a sequel (something I'll talk more about later on) and because it was so phenomenally well received, this retroactively makes “Space Seed” seem like it was actually a good idea to any generation of Trekker who grew up with this movie, and in doing so renders both stories completely untouchable. And *that* has done provable harm to Star Trek's legacy, because any version of Star Trek that takes “Space Seed” as the definitive display of its philosophy is a Star Trek that's inherently wrongheaded and toxic.

I'm not going to talk about the plot or anything like that: Everyone knows it by heart, even the plot holes, of which there are about a billion. No, the chronology doesn't make any sense. No, it's never explained why the most seasoned crew in the fleet is running cadet training simulations when the last time we saw them they were gearing up for a new five-year mission (though the expanded universe helps out a lot here: You're frankly spoiled for choice when it comes to stories set between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). No, Chekov shouldn't know who Khan is. And no, Khan's behaviour in regards to both Kirk and Marla McGivers doesn't make an ounce of sense. The thing is though, none of this actually matters because it's very clear this movie is meant to be a retcon in everything but name.

In spite of the fact it did make money, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was considered a critical failure, and Gene Roddenberry (rightfully) got the blame for it and was kicked upstairs basically permanently, to be replaced with a guy famous for getting paid to write Sherlock Holmes fanfic. Bringing in Nicholas Meyer is the biggest creative shift the franchise has experienced since Gene Coon came on as executive producer, and it would make sense this film would want to distance itself from its predecessor any way it could. You can see this everywhere in Wrath of Khan, from the tone and obvious naval epic influence to its loose attitude to continuity: This is a movie that's more interested in Star Trek as a cultural object than it is in any kind of established Star Trek universe. Even the aging and death themes tie into this, with Wrath of Khan feeling very much like an attempt to pass the torch to a possible new kind of Star Trek (Saavik is the key character here, as she's obviously the protagonist and obviously The New Spock).

What Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan really wants is to be a new big screen debut for the franchise, to the point it even (likely unintentionally) recycles beat-for-beat a lot of the key scenes from “In Thy Image” that were left out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, such as McCoy trying to coax Kirk to get back in the captain's chair, and then an emergency forcing him to. Seriously, fuse Decker with Chapel and then replace them with Saavik and Admiral Nogura with Spock (and strip out absolutely all of Alan Dean Foster's utopian themes) and you've got essentially the same setup. One way to read this movie then is an alternate version of where Star Trek Phase II would have tried to go had it been made, which is basically the only thing that could possibly excuse the fact that practically the whole first half of the damn movie is stock footage from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

(And yet that said, Wrath of Khan is *also*, bewilderingly and paradoxically, the most continuity-heavy Star Trek has been yet: It requires the audience to know, for example, who Khan is and how Vulcans work. There is very little exposition of any kind here. As much as it's trying to reboot the series, it also remains firmly committed to the idea of an established canon and pleasing longtime Trekkers, and that's going to prove to be catastrophic to its overall effectiveness.)

But that's not the major issue here. On the Memory Alpha wiki, there is a *lengthy* section in the article for this movie called “Analysis”, dedicated to exploring Wrath of Khan's apparently extremely heady and complex themes such as “Age”, “Vengeance” and “Death”. This is the only Star Trek work that is given such an in-depth treatment, so obviously Trekkers, at least the Trekkers who edit Memory Alpha, think this movie is more intelligent and sophisticated than any other Star Trek, a prospect that I find gravely concerning, as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the most childishly obtuse and obvious this franchise has been since Gene Roddenberry was running it in 1966.

This movie reads like a high school English essay with the characters blatantly reciting the CliffNotes of the movie's Major Themes. It has absolutely all of the overblown and silly Big Important Speeches people accuse The Dark Knight of having, and is no more subtle when it comes to blocking and visual symbolism. I was particularly impressed with the cut in the cargo container, made as dramatically and noticeable as possible, to Khan's literature collection, which contains such obscure rarities like King Lear, Paradise Lost and Moby-Dick, helpfully reminding us precisely what he's supposed to symbolize and how we're supposed to read him just in case any of the audience had fallen asleep or happened to actually be Vulcans.

Roderick Long will want me to mention that, since this movie is basically “Star Trek Does Moby-Dick (Again)”, there's a useful redemptive reading of that book courtesy of Trotskyist and post-colonialist writer C.L.R. James we can apply that basically sees Starbuck and Ahab as representing two sides of capitalism, with the former symbolizing prudence and the latter symbolizing obsessive totalitarianism. James has a famous quote here, stating that

“For generations people believed that the men opposed to rights of ownership, production for the market, domination of money, etc. were socialists, communists, radicals of some sort united by the fact that they all thought in terms of the reorganization of society by the workers, the great majority of the oppressed, the exploited, the disinherited...Nobody, not a single soul, thought that in the managers, the superintendents, the executives, the administrators would arise such loathing and bitterness against the society of free enterprise, the market and democracy, that they would try to reorganize it to suit themselves, and, if need be, destroy civilization in the process.”

This is what James sees Ahab as: Someone who, while a product of the capitalistic system, embodies its worst excesses and resents the way it prevents him from attaining absolute control. And furthermore, someone whose extremist sense of individuality alienates him from his peers and causes him to see them as machine parts instead of human beings. And it is possible to apply at least part of that reading to what happens to Khan here, as his blind hatred for Kirk and desire for vengeance drives away his loyal crew (as symbolized by that one random guy who says a few lines and then dies pointlessly) and is ultimately his downfall.

The thing is, doing that is, to be very charitable, putting far more thought into the motif then the people writing this movie did, who very obviously did *not* intend to write a polemic against capitalism but rather wanted to reference Moby-Dick because it's a Big Important Western Literary Thing that makes them look highbrow and intellectual. It would certainly redeem a lot about Khan as a character to have him fill the role James feels Ahab plays in the original, but I simply don't see any evidence this story in particular is anything other than a hollow recitation of Moby-Dick done simply because Moby-Dick was a naval epic and Star Trek is the Space Navy again now. Add to that the use of “Amazing Grace” at Spock's funeral (unfortunately, Meyer and his team did not have the benefit of time travel and were thus unaware that Spock was fond of that poem, as we learned in “Come What May”), Kirk constantly flashing A Tale of Two Cities as if it's cash and he's a high roller at a dance club, not to mention *Genesis* itself, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan becomes a truly insufferable paean to Great White Western Culture as filtered through the lens of a New York State Regents Exam.

The other thing about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that is looks astonishingly cheap. I don't just mean it looks like it had a smaller budget than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which it did and is understandable because that movie's budget was obscene and ridiculous and it still looked like crap when it wasn't doing things with V'Ger. I mean this movie doesn't actually even look like a proper Hollywood blockbuster, which is...puzzling, to put it mildly, considering this was Paramount's marquee release in 1982 and meant to compete with The Empire Strikes Back and Blade Runner. There's simply no excuse for the overabundance of stock footage here: I don't care if your budget was slashed, you make a movie of this scale and get Industrial Light and Magic to do the effects and you can't get a single new shot of the Enterprise model until three quarters of the way in? Especially when you've somehow managed to make the drydock scenes look *even worse* than they did in Star Trek: The Motion Picture?

(And really, I don't mean “admirably and promisingly amateurish” or “pleasingly theatrical”, I mean “cheap”. All of the interior starship scenes are shot on what are visibly the exact same sets with no effort made to distinguish them, which is distracting and sad, and that William Shatner and Ricardo Montalbán never actually get to act off one another because Khan only appears in what are obviously pre-recorded segments is absolutely ridiculous and basically the antithesis of theatre.)

It's not that I expect or want Star Trek to look like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I do expect it to actually *try* with whatever resources it has. You don't have to have a ludicrous budget to look imaginative and inspiring: Doctor Who can do it. Raumpatrouille Orion is a bloody masterclass at it. Once we get further into the 1980s, I'll start talking about a show that absolutely revolutionized doing world-class science fiction on an Ed Wood budget. Even the Original Series *itself* wasn't terrible at this: It didn't start to look cash-starved until invisible one-way exploding spaceships started showing up and we began to do episodes about empty Enterprise stage sets. This though, looks and feels like every bit of the drab, grey and uninspired military affair it is.

The big problem is that this is simply not good enough for a marquee Hollywood blockbuster, which by its very nature needs to have an element of spectacle about it. But this brings us to an interesting revelation: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan isn't actually a marquee Hollywood blockbuster in spirit, even if in practice it was supposed to be: It's a B-movie. Granted, just about nobody involved is treating it as anything *other* than a B-movie (just look at the acting, especially in the big emotional moments, in particular William Shatner and DeForest Kelley), but the fact is that's what this is. And this is interesting, because it *also* wants to be a deathly serious war epic and a story about aging. And this genre and that narrative structure have never really overlapped before. But while it has the trappings of a B-movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan lacks the art house enthusiasm of something like Eraserhead, the niche appeal of a horror movie or the the campy escapist fun of any of the cult classics. It is, somewhat tragically, a B-movie that doesn't realise it's a B-movie.

Yeah, OK, I'll briefly talk about Spock's death.

I mean, there's not a whole lot to say about it, aside from the acknowledged clever double feint of having him die in the simulation early on to cover up for the fact the initial draft of the story leaked. Leonard Nimoy wanted to retire from Star Trek again, which is something of a hobby of his, and wouldn't do the movie unless Spock was killed off. So he was. It was, understandably, a big emotional moment for fandom and one of the most memorable images from the franchise's history. No need to go over that again. A few things that stick out to me about this scene that I don't think are commented on a lot: One, everything leading up to the actual death scene is completely laughable and ridiculous: Spock just gets up, as if he got a cue from off camera and then heads down to the irradiated engineering deck as if to say “Welp. Guess it's time to die now”, where he proceeds to just wreck all of the shit in sight with no particular method or purpose while DeForest Kelley and James Doohan try their absolute hardest to give the single most hilarious, overblown and impossible-to-take-seriously tragic monologue in history.

The other thing about this scene though, is that it's an absolute perfect microcosm for this movie's ambition...and its shortcomings. Because killing off Spock happens to be incredibly symbolic, considering he is the most iconic aspect of the Original Series story and arguably the character who symbolizes it the best, both diegetically and extradiegetically. Those comparisons I made to “In Thy Image” above? Those musings about how this could have laid the groundwork for a new Star Trek? That was precisely the point. Not only was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan meant to be the “new” Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it was also meant to be the *last* Star Trek Motion Picture. Those aging motifs may have the relative subtlety of your average blunderbuss, but Meyer put them in for a reason: This is very clearly and explicitly an attempt to end Star Trek as a mass market Soda Pop Art franchise. In many ways we're back in the territory of Star Trek: The New Voyages: The new status quo is established with Saavik, The New Spock (and really, The New Kirk as well), ready to take charge of a new generation of Star Trek, which is to be left in the capable hands of the fans to take wherever they want her to go.


How many times has Star Trek tried to kill itself off by now? Like, five or six, by my count already? How do you think that was going to take? There's no way Paramount was going to let its primary cash cow disappear, and so we get a stonking great sequel hook where Spock's casket lands on the Genesis planet and every single bloody character makes unbelievably unsubtle comments about “new life”. Yeah, no, contrary to popular belief it's not the next movie that zombifies the Star Trek film franchise, it's this one. Even *without* knowing the next movie is called Star Trek III: The Search for Spock its impossible *not* to assume a sequel is going to be imminent looking at the last shots of this movie. It's as obvious as anything else this movie does, and Harve Bennett, who wrote the initial draft of the script, is on record saying Paramount immediately contracted him to write Star Trek III before this film was even released. The studio simply couldn't leave it alone, so Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ends up feeling utterly pointless on top of everything else that's unsatisfying about it.

Is this a better movie than Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Well, I suppose so, simply by virtue of it having things like actual scripted dialogue instead of making the actors recite flight training manuals and pacing that resembles something human beings might film rather than primeval stone-giants. And, much of the acting is well done and suitable for the setting: Special props must go to Kirstie Alley and Bibi Besch, both of whom give absolute first-rate performances and the latter of whom perfectly embodies what James T. Kirk's wife would be-Someone every bit as commanding and driven as he is. But, when the smoke clears and Khan gets his final Epic Villain Monologue, the fact Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a B-movie that doesn't want to admit it's a B-movie and that Trekkers actually think this is an erudite and sophisticated cinematic masterpiece say it all for me. This movie is every bit as self-absorbed and pretentiously middlebrow as its predecessor, it just doesn't *look* like it anymore.

In many ways, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan really is the definitive Star Trek movie: It's a solidly executed translation of the blunt, ham-fisted moralizing and blatant militarism that characterized the early Original Series to film. Perhaps that's why this movie is as beloved as it is. And why I can't stand it.


  1. I'm fond of The Wrath of Khan for a number of reasons that run counter to the general fondness of it. It seems surprisingly critical of Kirk. It's never explicit, but the original script suggested Kirk didn't even know about David. Even here, Kirk doesn't seem too bothered he has an illegitimate child running around.

    Along with the obvious implication that Kirk never bothered to warn anybody about depositing a genocidal madman on a random planet - suggested by the fact Starfleet never checked up on Khan nobody but Chekov knows about Khan - it paints Kirk as a feckless and impulsive leader, the movie acknowledging that his actions have unforeseen consequences. (It's worth noting that tie-in media works very hard to simian this reading and avoid these implications.) This is a man who leaps at the chance to lead children into a crisis involving a super weapon.

    One of the interesting things about The Wrath of Khan, and something very seldom mentioned in discussions, is how - as you note - it is supposed to be the death of the franchise. Kirk's son and Saavik's protege, passing the torch to a metaphorical next generation.

    However, The Search for Spock which - I'd contend is massively underrated, though not for this reason - is a striking rejection of all this self-consciously meaningful content. Ha! Kirk shouldn't shuffle aside and pass the torch! He'll show those whippersnappers with their fancy new ships! Let's kill of David to get Spock back! New for the old! It's basically a film which rapidly undermines a lot of what Wrath of Khan is trying to say, and blatantly and gleefully so. "Ha! All that stuff about being old? We were just kidding!"


    1. Along with the obvious implication that Kirk never bothered to warn anybody about depositing a genocidal madman on a random planet - suggested by the fact Starfleet never checked up on Khan nobody but Chekov knows about Khan

      Kirk set Khan up.

      I have no illusions that this is what anyone intended, but still, when Captain Terrel starts to tell Kirk that Khan blames him for his wife's death, Kirk cuts him off and says "I know what he blames me for". Kirk knew what was going to happen to Ceti Alpha 5 and he set Khan up. Why? Not sure. Maybe he wasn't confident he could get away with just executing Khan outright (the Federation doesn't have capital punishment, unless you go to the Talos system). Maybe he was just pissed and wanted to twist the knife. But Kirk set Khan up.

    2. That's a pretty great reading. The Wrath of Khan works quite well as an indictment of Original Series Kirk, I think.

      If you keep having casual no-strings-attached-never-see-or-call-'em-again sex with these random women week in and week out, there's every chance that you will end up with a child running around as the result. Whether Kirk knew about him (as the cut of the movie implies) or not (as the original script suggests), the entire point of The Wrath of Khan is that Kirk was too busy running around playing emperor of space to bother with the consequences of his actions. If he didn't know about David, he should have known. If he did know, the fact that Carol didn't trust him to raise his son should have been some form of warning sign.

      Similarly, Kirk takes a bunch of inexperienced cadets on a risky adventure because he's feeling old. The Enterprise may have been the only ship in the area, but you don't commandeer a school bus to stop a bank robbery. The Motion Picture flirted with the idea of Kirk as a man who doesn't like the idea of getting old, and does stupid poorly-considered things to avoid that feeling, and The Wrath of Khan builds on that. And basically says "Eventually, that isn't going to work out well.")

      (In Josh's In Thy Image and Motion Picture piece, he heavily implies that he doesn't like this version of Kirk. Personally, I think it's the same version of the character who was jumping at the bit to start a war in Errand of Mercy and who would presume he had the right to dump a genocidal maniac from one of the most devastating conflict in human history on a random planet without bothering to let anybody know. I wonder if he even phoned that one to Command in afterwards. It's why I have less of a problem with the portrayal of Kirk and the crew in The Undiscovered Country than most - it's a story that essentially says "if you look at the Enterprise's history, they're really not that enlightened a bunch.")

      Of course, all of this gets somewhat mitigated by the canonisation of Kirk after the fact, with fandom quick to present him as the best thing ever. Greg Cox's Reign in Hell devotes far too much space to trying to make Kirk's decision at the end of Space Seed seem like the rational thing to do rather than a massive ego-trip that justifiably came back to bite him in the ass.

      Kirk isn't anywhere near as well-formed and reasonable as Picard, who had his bad days. He's more like Sisko, a character who the writers weren't afraid to have make very poor decisions for bad reasons that feel consistent with the character. (As opposed to Janeway and Archer, who made bad decisions because if they didn't, there's no episode this week.)


    3. I wonder if he even phoned that one to Command in afterwards.

      I wonder if some of the stuff in the Augment arc in Enterprise was a sly attempt to justify this; the way Archer-era humanity freaks out about augments might suggest that Kirk taking any action other than "Shoot him, burn the body, seal the ashes in cement and drop the cement into the heart of a star" would have to be done strictly off-the-books

    4. I would even argue that this critique of Kirk is explicitly textual, given that almost the whole point of the film is that his whole way of dealing with conflicts (particularly his insistence on avoiding 'no-win' scenarios) is fundamentally troubled and wrong. The film starts off with the Kobayashi Maru sequence for a reason, after all.

    5. Yes, I would agree that it is too. I'm still not convinced this all comes together as effectively as it needs to though (and indeed as it does in Star Trek VI).

      Also note how fandom is very quick to lionize Kirk for his way of dealing with the Kobayashi Maru simulation.

    6. Yeah, I think the ending falls short in quite a few respects- one of which is, as you said, the fact they so obviously sequel-bait for Star Trek III, which undermines the entire point of the death and its use as a counter to Kirk's way of thinking. The lack of clarity in the death itself also hinders it in this regard as well.

      And yeah, the tendency to glorify Kirk for cheating runs completely counter to its intent in the actual film...I remember being annoyed at how obnoxiously the Abrams film treated it, with Kirk smugly chomping on an apple as the simulator glitches in his favor. Eck.

    7. Yeah, but in the Abrams film, he's called out for being a smug git who cheated, and it nearly scuttles his career.

      Note that the "chomping on the apple" thing is exactly the same thing Classic Kirk does in the tunnels in this movie at the reveal that Spock's been secretly repairing the hidden Enterprise, rather than legging it as they led Khan to believe.

      (I also thought it was a nice touch that Spock wrote the test, presumably explaining why he never took it himself -- which I found more emotionally satisfying than the conventional fanon that he didn't take it because he was a Blue Shirt major rather than a Gold Shirt major.)

  2. I think you are correct, Josh, although I'm firmly in the camp of loving this film. It came along justas I was starting University so, having to some extent lost contact with my immediate family, here was my dear old friends from Star Trek offering some comfort, that you could both wallow in nostalgia whilst moving forward. So to this day this film is, to me, the equivalent of slipping on a tattered but beloved old t-shirt to lounge about in.

    But at the same time you give a valid reading. The only disagreement I can come up with is that I view it as having been conceived as, if not a B movie, then not really a big A movie either. You see cheap, I see economical - an attempt by Paramount to claw back some more of the money they had burned through realising Roddenberry's vision. To me, it makes sense to keep your money for the big space battle at the end - that is, if you do decide to have s big space battle in the first place.

    The only other think I can think of that's remarkable is that this filmdoes a rather good job of making Khan out to be a complete twat, such that it functions as a critique of this particular character as a supposed Great Man of History - he can steal Reliant, but he doesn't know how it works, he wants the Genesis data from Kirk but only gives him 60 seconds to retrieve it or he'll melt the Enterprise, he tortures Carol Marcus's crew to death and learns nothing, and he gets every one of his people killed. As.Fearless Leaders go, he's a loser. So take that, Space Seed ?

  3. THe end of the movie has increasingly bothered me in the last few years. First, and I'll admit this should be a smaller thing, there is absolutely nothing in what is shown or said to tell us exactly what Spock does to save the ship. He opens up a thingy that we don't know what it is, takes off his gloves, sticks his hands in it, does something we can't see, and then the ship is saved. How? Why? Eh. There are loads of extended-universe explanations, sure, but as I said, nothing we see or hear tells us. Because the "real" answer is that Star Trek has sinned. They made Genesis -- tried to usurp the place of God. Worse, Kirk has denied his "First, Best destiny" by giving up command of the Enterprise. Star Trek II's moral crux, such as it is, is that Kirk and company are getting old. It's narrative collapse writ large: Star Trek is eating itself. We're getting too old to go have fun adventures in space. The Enterprise is getting too old to have fun adventures in space. Kirk is a dad. Dads don't have fun adventures in space (At least, that's what the doctor told me when they cut the cord and handed me my son. "Congratulations, it's a boy. Now, don't you go having fun adventures in space; you're a dad now."). And more. Khan is back. A one-off villain from one episode decades ago. We no longer live in a universe where one-off villains can be safely ignored and forgotten and are gone forever. There's no forward from here. There's no Star Trek: Admiral Kirk's Adventures in Paperwork While Spock Teaches Cadets How To Fly a Star Ship (I mean, maybe someone could make that into a compelling series, but Gene Rodenberry and company certainly couldn't.)

    Star Trek is broken. And to save it, to restore balance to the universe, a blood sacrifice is required. That's why Spock dies, and that is how the ship is saved: Spock doesn't fix anything, he just sacrifices himself to appease the gods. (And, indeed, as Darren points out, once Spock has died, the balance reasserts itself. By the end of the next movie, we get Spock back. Kirk... Stops being a dad. He gets a big and shockingly cheap-looking action scene. By the movie after that, he's a captain again officially, he doesn't wear glasses any more, and he has a shiny new Enterprise, ready to set off on fresh new adventures in space. No one's musing about being too old for this crap any more, at least for a few movies.)

    Which is nice and all, but you don't want it laid bare like that. This is Star Trek. The day is not supposed to be saved by God reaching His hand down and magically fixing everything because you've paid the right homage. (This is why there is only one episode of TNG where the solution is "Picard calls his omnipotent frenemy and asks him to just fix everything for him") Someone should have said what the hell he was doing by sticking his hands in the ship's ladyparts.

    (Though they screw up so much else, credit where it's due: Star Trek Into Darkness gets this much right. Star Trek is broken. Again. A blood sacrifice is required. Okay. But it is very clear what the hell Kirk is doing: There are two bits in the engine that are clearly supposed to line up. They don't line up. Kirk kicks one of them until they do line up. The engines start back up. STII didn't need to make it a big action scene; just have the second unit shoot an inset of a pair of hands pushing two glowing thingies that look like they belong together back together).

  4. There are a couple threads here I want to pick up on (and first of all, great readings everybody):

    The first thing I want to point out is that while I didn't talk about it much in the article itself (mainly because I could swiftly tell it was turning into a ranty polemic and I figured it would be more entertaining that way) that while I stand by my argument that Wrath of Khan doesn't work, I don't actually dislike Nicholas Meyer as a writer or director. I think he turned in a turkey here, but his next movie is, spoilers I guess, one of the only two Star Trek movies that I think actually *works*.

    As a matter of fact, I'd argue that all of the points people have been making so far about how Wrath of Khan recognises, builds on, and ultimately subverts the most problematic aspects of the Original Series (Kirk's ultimate textual feklessness and flightiness, for example) are actually far more applicable to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country...Where I feel all of those themes and motifs do work (or at least I remember feeling like they did: I haven't rewatched the movie for this blog yet). On top of that, the next Meyer Trek outing gives us a solid critique of TOS' irreducible and irredeemable militarism to boot, something I think this movie just doesn't even go near, and indeed makes even worse.

    As for Carol Marcus...I actually think she's the one part of the movie that works *against* that particular argument, because I read Carol as basically a mirror image of Kirk: She's just as stubborn, determined, driven and tenacious as he is. And Kirk didn't abandon her and David, she specifically "wanted him in [her] world", as she says when they're in the tunnels. I think it was Bibi Besch herself who actually pointed this out: The mere fact they *are* equals is the thing that ultimately guarantees Kirk and Carol will never settle down together, because neither one was willing to sacrifice their career for the other.

    (Also, I may be misremembering it, but I thought I read somewhere that Besch wanted Carol in Star Trek III and her reaction to David's death would have been intentionally not what people would have expected, because she was explicitly not a "mother" figure. I could be wrong though.)

    Also in regards to the Genesis Bomb...I actually talk about it a lot more in the next movie. I think it is a *huge* sign Star Trek, really the Federation, has gone wrong, but not for the reasons Ross and Doctor McCoy cite :-)

  5. I don't know that Wrath of Khan doesn't work, per se, as much as it works quite well in a particularly simple way. Part of what I remember as the studio reaction to the relative failure of TMP was the presumption that the movie was too cerebral and meditative. I read that they demanded a return to the action mode of Star Trek, and that any philosophical elements of the film would be delivered with the fists of ham appropriate to an action film. In this way, Paramount made a hammy B-movie on a slightly higher budget.

    And when I first saw this hammy B-movie, I thought it was brilliant. Granted, I was 7 years old at the time. Since then, the movie has grown somewhat stale as I've aged and my media habits have become more nuanced. In particular, I think of the interactions between Kirk and Khan, which produced some of the greatest Star Trek stereotypes and comic images, particularly, "Khaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnn!!!!!!!" Today, I can't help but see them as what they are: intercut monologues made to look like conversations in editing, even though the actors give them as much panache as they can. I've seen interviews with Shatner and Montalbán where they both lament how they never actually got to interact in real time. Knowing what I know now about the craft of acting, I agree that this entire story constitutes constant missed opportunities in this regard. But when I was 7? What intensity!

    Frankly, that appears to be the target mental age of the film. It is loved because it abandons beauty in its space sequences for battles among cheap models, because it abandons philosophical complexity for platitudes about age and death. I love some of the alternative readings you and the other commenters offer, Josh. It accomplishes one of the most important acts of popular culture criticism, adding new meanings that the original filmmakers never intended, so that we have more vectors along which to understand and enjoy our art. But there is an inherent juvenilia to Wrath of Khan which, once I saw for the first time, I can't unsee.

    You also make an excellent point about the centrality of Saavik and David Marcus as important elements gesturing at a transition away from the original cast of the series. But even within this film itself, the gravity of the original crew asserts itself again, foregrounding the notion that Star Trek is synonymous with the adventures of the primary seven: KSMSSCU. If your extended analysis is showing me anything, it's just how truly radical simply having a cast for "the next generation" really was for Star Trek.

    1. "Frankly, that appears to be the target mental age of the film. It is loved because it abandons beauty in its space sequences for battles among cheap models, because it abandons philosophical complexity for platitudes about age and death. I love some of the alternative readings you and the other commenters offer, Josh. It accomplishes one of the most important acts of popular culture criticism, adding new meanings that the original filmmakers never intended, so that we have more vectors along which to understand and enjoy our art. But there is an inherent juvenilia to Wrath of Khan which, once I saw for the first time, I can't unsee."

      Yes, and this is the problem as far as I'm concerned. Wrath of Khan is *not* seen as a movie for 7-year olds, it's seen as a heady and sophisticated cinematic masterpiece that's the greatest movie ever made and beloved by generations of *adults*.

      And certainly no 7-year old in 1982 is going to get the numerous bits of fanwanky references this movie so frequently relies on.

  6. True story I heard from Walter Koenig, might as well tell it here.

    Every couple of years in the 80s George Takeii would start getting anxious about the next movie and would start phoning Walter and Nichelle on pretty much a daily basis -" Have you heard about the next movie ? Are we in it ? How big are our parts" and so on.

    'Yeah, George, " Walter snaps one day, "I have....they're making it in Claymation"

    "OH MY GOD !!!" - short pause at the other end of the phone- " Well, do you suppose they'll use OUR voices ?"

  7. My memory of the film when it came out (I was in college) was that I heard it was supposed to be a movie for TV, hence the cheaper budget, re-use of sets, staticky setups, etc. A friend at the time who saw it with me said afterward, "There was no running." Yeah, there was running through corridors but no showdowns/faceoffs between the antagonists, it was playing Battleship in space.

    Still, after the debacle of the first ST movie, I remember enjoying this very much at the time.

    (The alternative readings of this movie made me think of Kirk as Odysseus, wily but self-absorbed who manages to kill off his entire crew. Was it a Tennyson poem that suggested that the aging Odysseus could never settle down? Something like that.)

  8. "Yes, and this is the problem as far as I'm concerned. Wrath of Khan is *not* seen as a movie for 7-year olds, it's seen as a heady and sophisticated cinematic masterpiece that's the greatest movie ever made and beloved by generations of *adults*."

    Basically I completely agree. But as a kid when I saw this (13) it totally blew me away and I loved it. I got none of the references and I loved it. I agree that it was *intended* to be serious but just did not work that way and the only audience it really clicked with was kids (at least kids like me anyway!). I think the only reason I have watched this as an adults is as a child, as the film is pretty childish despite its appropriation of scraps of serious literature to attempt to make it appear weighty.

  9. I think to defend those of us 'adults' or near-adults who saw "Khan" at the time: the first ST movie was a disappointment and this movie was, by contrast -- sitting in a big dark room, with other fans around or people just wanting to be entertained with a popcorn movie -- glorious. We didn't know from diagetic or Joseph Campbell or how stupid an episode "Space Seed" was.

    You have to remember that WE DIDN'T KNOW AS MUCH AS YOU KNOW NOW. I would say, old as we were then, that we were innocents. We didn't have the history, the critical tools, or frankly the interest in slotting this movie into an ongoing narrative. It was a different world where VCRs were just taking off and all we had were our memories of the series and previous movies. And in that world (where old TV shows being transferred to the big screen was a real and true novelty -- this was new and weird), "Khan" was a big deal and much better than anything Roddenberry had gifted to the world. Hell, even Harlan Ellison liked "Khan" at the time.

    That said, yes, of course, we made criticisms of the movie as a movie. Everyone does, at every age of the art. The minds and emotions and expectations of those watching movies and tv at that time aren't well documented or re-viewable on Youtube, but it should be part of the picture too.

    1. I understand and respect your perspective, but I'm not sure it's the perspective I'm criticizing here.

      To me, you seem to be describing a casual fan's reaction to Wrath of Khan in 1982, someone who, as you say, only had hazy memories of the Original Series and who were (justifiably) bummed out by The Motion Picture. I totally get that.

      What I'm talking about here is the perspective of a hardcore Trekker: Someone who not only religiously followed the Original Series in its original run, but who also watched the show constantly in syndication after the fact. The person who attended all the conventions and had all the technical manuals, yet who wouldn't touch the zine scene with a ten-foot pole because it was full of women who were, according to them, all fangirls with cooties. The kind of science fiction fan who rose to prominence in the 1990s due to throwing their veteran status around and who went on to write all the official histories and retrospectives of the franchise.

      This is a person who, in my experience, actually *did* think "Space Seed" was a legitimately great moment in television history (even if it was in some cases only because of this movie) and who *actually did* think Wrath of Khan was a highbrow and literate cinematic masterpiece. To them, this movie wasn't just fun and better than the last one, it was the greatest movie ever made and to argue otherwise was unthinkable.

    2. Ah, OK, yes, thank you for clarifying that for me. You're right., I was only a casual fan (by Star Trek being the default afterschool syndication fodder in my youth; which means I was also a casual fan of Gilligan's Island and Wild Wild West). I never had any contact with the hardcore ST fans, so that is a side of life of which I'm still innocent.

      I was a reporter for a smalltown NC newspaper in the late '80s, and covered Leonard Nimoy giving a lecture at a local small college. What was he doing there? Who knows. It was after ST4, I think, because during the Q&A afterward, an ST fan (he *looked* like an ST fan, and I hope that doesn't sound prejudicial), with his voice trembling, told Nimoy that ST4 was the best movie ever made, and of course the crowd applauded.

      Nimoy was a little taken aback but gracious in his thanks.

      I also recognize the type you describe from the documentary on Trekkies that Denise Crosby hosted; some of the people depicted in there,, like the woman who wants people to call her "Commander," strike me as people who've lost perspective.

      In any case, thank you for your kind reply and I apologize for my misinterpretation. I am really looking forward to your discussions of DS9; I phased in and out of following during its original run, but I always thought it had an edge that none of the other series had.

    3. No worries-Sorry I was unclear originally.

      DS9 is going to be a workout. Split across two different books, taking some very controversial positions on it. It's going to be a bumpy ride, yet an engaging one I hope too.

  10. Yeah I totally get that. In a lot of ways as a kid when viewing Khan, I feel I was probably sheltered from all of that - luckily! Though we have all had to deal with as you say, their rise in the 90's and beyond. I'll be honest here, and I love Star Trek as much as Doctor Who (do many do this?), but I have always had a bit more of an issue with Trek'a hardcore fandom than Who. It could be my prejudice but they have always seemed that bit more *intense*.

    1. I think you and I may be the only people who are mutual fans of Star Trek and Doctor Who.