“The Needs Of The Many…” Retro Review: The Wrath of Khan
The first shot of the crew sitting at their regular stations, only for a new face – Saavik – in the big chair before everyone dies isn’t quite the shock now as it was in 1982. Mainly as it’s all too familiar to us. By now we all know the story. Admiral Kirk comes back to his old command to inspect Spock’s class of cadets as they undertake field duty while, far out in the depths of the final frontier, a scouting mission to find a testing zone for a new terraforming system uncovers one of Kirk’s deadliest foes…
Considered by many to be the definitive Star Trek movie, the highly praised Wrath of Khan. Launching in cinema’s in the US 39 years ago this month we’ve decided to put the return of 90’s warlord Khan in the Retro Review spotlight….
The Wrath of Khan had a lot resting on it’s shoulders. The Motion Picture did well. Khan had to do better. With a new vision, new style and new director at the helm it not only took the huge risk of being a sequel to a singular Star Trek episode, but helped to set a new course for Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise crew.
Let’s get the ugly bits out the way first. I know for most, this is the perfect film. But it does come with a few problems. There are plot holes that aren’t plot holes, such as Chekov recognising Khan despite not being around for the original episode (he could have been lower decks crew, who knows!). And then there are some things that just stand out as a bit oddly silly.
One of them is the usual Trek trope of the Enterprise being the “only ship in the quadrant.” When this sort of thing comes up, it can often be handwaved after the eyes roll. Here, however, the Enterprise wasn’t just ages away from Regula 1 when Starfleet ordered Kirk to go and answer Carol Marcus’ angry messages, it was also not the only ship close enough to help as it was established early on that the Reliant was still nearby.
There’s also the big issue of Captain Terrell and Chekov not realising they were on Ceti Alpha V. If one planet went boom, knocked everything out of alignment and messed everything up, that poses a massive problem. Aside from any leftovers from such a catastrophic event – even something simple like a planet amount of debris – we know from Space Seed that this was a known system. Did no one notice that an entire planet was missing? Did no one look at the star charts? And surely, if Ceti Alpha VI was missing, couldn’t these expert explorers not just look out of a window and see that they’re about to beam down to the fifth planet where Chekov knows full well a mad man lives?
Such mystery doesn’t end there. How can Reliant scan the planet and find Khan’s pets, but not the life signs of the Botany Bay crew? There’s a lot about that set up which just doesn’t make sense. I could go on, but for the holy grail of Star Trek films – and the barrage of insults the newer Trek products can get – this is the biggest “because the plot says so” films.
Right about now is where I imagine pitchforks being grabbed after painting a target on my back. But where the film comes with supernova scale plotholes, there is a good reason it’s considered the best of all the Trek films. And, despite it featuring two actors known for chewing up the scenery, it comes down to it’s acting as well as it’s simple and effective story.
For many of us, particularly at the time as original series fans who followed from the 60’s into the 80’s, the thought of getting older creeps up. This was particularly true of William Shatner who used some de-aging tricks in The Motion picture to try and remain youthful; the curse of Hollywood. Here however the crew are shown to be their age. Kirk especially, still showing signs of boredom with a desk job and facing the fact that his adventures are long behind him as he accepts new glasses for his fading eye sight. On the flip side, as Kirk is beginning to feel old and obsolete, we have Khan who may also be visibly older, but he’s still a superhuman and far from being obsolete himself.
Aside from age the other main theme comes from Spock, a theme that would be repeated more than once over the years; The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. A verbal assessment of the Trolley Dilemma. In Space Seed Khan was stranded to make a better lkife for himself and it all went wrong. He blames Kirk for this and instead of going off and making a new life for himself with new new stolen starship, he sacrifices everything – including his followers – just for that misplaced vengeance. To get one up on Kirk.
On the flip side, Spock puts his statement into practice. When Khan is beat and opts for a suicidal finale to take down the Enterprise in his wake, Spock finds a solution a solution Kirk would never approve of. He gives his own life to make sure the Enterprise can warp outside the blast and saves the crew. A very nice contrast that not only shows the difference in ideologies between Khan’s vengeance and Starfleet’s unity, but one that forces Kirk to deal with loss.
“I don’t believe in a no win scenario” is another line that’s resonated and repeated over the years, particularly in the 2009 alternate timeline movie where it hit harder for Kirk there than it did in the Prime timeline. But here, after revealing to Saavik that he’d always cheated death – even in his academy exams by quite literally cheating – he has to face one of his closest friends dying. Not just by chance, but to save him and the crew. The one sacrifice Kirk was never really ready to make or face.
It’s not the only emotional or personal thread in the film. The terraforming project is run by Carol Marcus, a former fling who it turns out had a kid thanks to Kirk. One Kirk never knew about. And that brings in both the concept of age and loss in a much different way. A fling was a side effect of being a Captain, learning he had a son he missed grow up was a loss in itself. Especially after watching the original series and knowing Kirk’s family was familiar with tragedy and loss.
Those kind of personal touches, from age, to loss, to personal vengeance and even coming face to face with the product of misadventures really contrast to the subdued sci-fi-centric Motion Picture. The Wreath of Khan is often praised for it’s stylistic choices. The militaristic uniforms, darker tone, more bottled filming as most of it focuses on two leaders on two bridges. Even the base submarine warfare – trying to outmatch each other through tactics show brains over brawn (or more accurately, special effects).
Bringing down the pace to a game of intellect as the two try to outsmart one another still holds up well in a world dominated by action. In directing it all, Nicholas Meyer paced the film very nicely. Especially as neither the hero or villain ever meet face to face. It’s all about performance; Khan dramatically taunting Kirk, Kirk doing his best Columbo as he pretends to fumble around on the bridge confused or sending coded messages to Spock while trapped underground.
The film does have it’s action spots, but it centres around those performances to help build to the tension; even the climatic battle is 90% tension before the Genesis device explodes and brings us back down as we learn Spock’s in the engine room dying.
But the game of chess between Kirk and Khan plays secondary to it’s personal themes. Personally speaking, I don’t think those themes work as well as they do in The Undiscovered Country which deals more directly with the idea of ageing and replaces a core vengeance story with that of mistrust and conspiracy. Where Kirk did seem a little off in The Motion Picture, here you can see and understand this older version of him and have a better grasp of the fact that he’s moved on from his days of being the hero in the big chair.
That theme of being older and more matured also plays well within Khan’s return. Dropping Khan off and letting him have a small sort of freedom was the merciful choice during the original Space Seed. Once the day was done, Khan was merely an afterthought never to be followed up on; and that resentment came back.. Likewise, the fling with Carol Marcus in his youth also brought consequences. Kirk moved on, never knowing he would leave behind a son.
Even Spock’s mentoring of Saavik plays a part, with Spock being more accepting of his internal conflict as he teaches the next generation who will follow in his footsteps, or so he hopes. But again, with age he and Kirk have gained a much stronger bond which only serves to make Spock’s death hit a lot harder in the end.
Aside from Meyer’s directorial work, looking back on Khan the film is littered with small details. The makeshift chess board on Botany Bay leading to the clothes and tech built by spare parts in isolation; Kirk reminiscing with Carol without looking her in the eye as he wonders what his life could have been; even wonderful shots that show Spock layered in calming blue light from the science station as Kirk’s flooded in red emergency lighting.
And it’s hard to ignore all those moments in the film which have become either iconic, or referenced back. Kirk’s scream through the communicator will forever live on through the internet. Spock’s philosophy carried over to later films and television shows. Even the No Win Scenario was revisited for 2009’s movie and more recently as a throwaway reference in Discovery.
For a sci fi film, it really doesn’t revolve around it’s core genre. Sure, it’s all spaceships and magic terraforming tech. But following the Motion Picture’s more hard sci fi concepts, Khan brings us back to what always made Star Trek work; it’s characters. The relationships between them all feel more natural than before, the performances more subdued and settled. And of course, it all boils down to that big pay off in the Mutara nebula where even within that tension, it’s all about the games being played.
Though the films crowning achievement was doing the unthinkable. Sure, Spock came back and ended up out living everyone. And connecting the franchise between different timelines and realities. Though it’s hard not to feel the room getting a little dusty as Kirk watches, helplessly, and says goodbye to one of the strongest constants in his life.
It’s not a perfect film. But Wrath of Khan put the franchise back on the right track, welcomed more sequels and was a key part in helping to expand the universe down the line. Filled with great performances, thoughtful character work and some of the most memorable scenes in the entire movie era, it’s legacy as the best of the best is hard to dispute.
Our latest issue of Comms talks in depth – and we mean in depth! – about Discovery’s Third Season with episodic reviews, an overall season analysis and special featuring including a look at the 32nd century tech, the Crossfield Class, Tilly’s Journey, Georgiou’s exit and more! Comms is available as part of SFCQ2’s free membership! To find out more visit our Comms preview or Enlist Today!