I’ve said this a few places in the past, but my perception of movies is sometimes colored by their direct sequels. It all depends on how well they match the tone, and how directly tied into that next movie they are. The most dramatic effect this generally has on me is when I was on the fence about a movie, but the sequel either shores up the original movie’s weaknesses, or wallows in them.
Now, some movies are so strong, I think even a bad, directly tied in sequel doesn’t hurt them too much. But the degree to which this is true is going to vary movie to movie. I greatly respect Nolan’s Dark Knight movies, but my desire to watch Batman Begins is dulled by my perception of how The Dark Knight Rises played out, but despite all of that, I’ll watch The Dark Knight just about any time it comes on.
I posted about this on the blog, but my impression of Man of Steel wasn’t completely negative, but I soured on the movie when Dawn of Justice decided to play in all the worst areas introduced in Man of Steel.
That’s the context in which I’m looking at the Wrath of Khan, one of my favorite movies, but one that I think lost some of its impact as sequels started to chain off the events of the movie.
The Anomaly is Larger in the Past than it is In the Future
I’ve got a disclaimer I want to get out of the way before we dive too deeply into Trek movies and values people assign good and bad. People have derided the Bad Robot reboot Star Trek movies for being too action oriented and not feeling enough like Star Trek. I won’t argue that. I’ll argue, however, that the same argument was true of Insurrection and Nemesis.
Both of those movies fell into the trap of “we’ll throw some philosophical trappings onto the story, but the crux of the story is that we have irredeemable bad guys that you won’t feel bad about when they get blown up, and the only real solution is to have the Enterprise crew kick some ass.”
To fully put my cards on the table, I love First Contact. You could argue that the same formula exists in that movie as well. However, I think the story of Cochrane getting the Phoenix into space has enough narrative weight in the story that it feels more like a plot element and less like an excuse to have the crew of the Enterprise kick Borg ass. Also, instead of introducing new, faceless, irredeemable bad guys, we got irredeemable bad guys that had been used for years in Star Trek. You can disagree, and that’s totally cool, I just wanted to show where I personally drew that line.
Back to Wrath of Khan!
What Was Wrath of Khan Actually About?
I have no idea what the creative types behind the Star Trek movies had in mind initially as a follow up to the Wrath of Khan. I know that at least at some point, Nimoy was of the mind that he wasn’t coming back to the series.
With that in mind, it’s clear that what we got, post Wrath of Khan, may not have been what was originally planned.
I have heard Wrath of Khan characterized as a movie where Kirk got to prove he was more awesome than the superhuman Khan, even though the initial resolution of their conflict was generally peaceful. It “action movied” a resolution from the TV series that was more cerebral. I don’t think that’s an incorrect criticism of the film, but it isn’t entirely how I read the structure of the movie, as it unfolded.
Traveling Back in Time
Try to isolate the plot of The Wrath of Khan from its sequels. I know, it can be difficult, because The Search for Spock dovetails so directly from The Wrath of Khan that it feels like it was always meant to happen that way. But nobody knew that when The Wrath of Khan first came out.
The themes that were explored in Wrath of Khan were themes of change. McCoy and Kirk talk about Kirk getting older. Spock is a Captain, and Saavik, a new supporting character, gets a fair amount of screen time. We’re told that the crew is young, with new Starfleet graduates all over the place. Kirk isn’t in charge, but circumstances put him in charge. We get massive foreshadowing with the discussion of the Kobayashi Maru, and how Kirk has never faced the no win situation.
One point I have brought up in the past that made a few Trek fans a bit upset with me is that Kirk screws up big time in this movie. His actions cause members of his crew to get killed.
I have been corrected by said upset fans, arguing that Khan is the one that fired on them, so Kirk didn’t kill anyone, etc. The point being, anyone in that command position that had deviated from standard protocol, and had crew members that had died due to that deviation, would be held accountable for those deaths. Saavik points out what Kirk should have done.
In fact, there is an important point here. In the past, Kirk has been lauded for “going with his gut” instead of sticking to the rules. However, in most of those circumstances, Kirk’s gut told him to take bold action, to do something. This time, Kirk’s gut told him “hey, don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine.” He ignored the rules this time, not to take bold action, but to remain complacent and hope for the best.
That’s the whole point being driven home by the earlier discussion between McCoy and Kirk. Kirk isn’t the young starship captain that can do no wrong, no matter how much he pushed the boundaries of the rules. Everyone changes. Everyone gets older, and assumes new roles. Kirk’s role isn’t to be on the bridge of a starship anymore.
Yes, he rises to the challenge eventually, but the point isn’t that he suddenly becomes good old young Captain Kirk again—its that Kirk is still enough of the man he was to fix the problem that he helped to create. But there is a cost. Not only does he lose a lot of this young crew, including Scotty’s nephew, he loses his best friend. After years of avoiding the Kobayashi Maru, it bites him hard in the ass.
All the above is some powerful stuff. If there was never another Star Trek movie made with the original series crew, it would be easy to picture Kirk retiring from Starfleet entirely, realizing he’s not happy being an admiral, but that his place isn’t on the bridge of a starship. People like Sulu and Saavik would move up into important positions on the flagship, and time would move forward. But, hey, they made so much money on this one, why not undermine all those lessons?
Why Do You Hate Kirk? Why Do You Want Spock Dead?
I neither hate Kirk, nor want Spock dead. Wrath of Khan, however, was such a powerful step for the characters that you aren’t going to top what happened in that movie. TOS Kirk was awesome, but we get to see old “he’s still got it, right?” Kirk live long enough to go camping and complain about his captain’s chair not being comfy enough, and even to have his womanizing lampshaded. I get why this happened, since we did get more Captain Kirk, but it might have been a bit more powerful to let the “you can’t keep doing what you did in the past” lesson be a more serious lesson, rather than a comedic one.
I absolutely love Spock, and I’m glad that eventually we got to see him as an ambassador doing ambitious things like trying to mend the rift between the Romulans and Vulcans (thank goodness no later storylines casually gutted the Romulans before they could show his work paying off, er, moving on). Spock death, however, is one that still, to this day, brings a tear to my eye.
Just thinking about “I have been . . . and always shall be . . . your friend,” as it was delivered in that scene, still gives my shivers. But I saw The Wrath of Khan, in theaters, almost as many times as I saw The Empire Strikes Back. I didn’t know Spock was coming back before that scene had really imprinted on me. I wonder if it has near as much power for people that see it for the first time knowing that he comes back in the next movie?
The Search for Spock also attempts to absolve Kirk by letting his gut lead him back to Genesis, not just for selfish reasons, but to accidentally stop the Klingons from getting information about the Genesis device. Except, I’m not sure they could have reverse engineered the device from the planet, and I don’t think we ever established that David knew enough about it to reconstruct it for them. But, hey, at least Kirk and company didn’t do something completely selfish, even if they didn’t know the Klingons were on their way.
Lost in Translation
Just about every lesson we learn in The Wrath of Khan is reversed in subsequent movies.
- Kirk is getting older and isn’t the man he was in his youth—except he eventually gets “punished” by being made a Captain, and the decommissioned Constitution class starship gets rebuilt, even though that class of ship is out of date, because Kirk shouldn’t have to deal with change
- Spock made the ultimate sacrifice based on his belief that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one—and he makes this not by sacrificing others based on cold logic, but by sacrificing himself, so why not have his friends all risk themselves and to bring him back to life?
- We introduced characters like David and Saavik to show that time was moving forward, and that Kirk and his crew weren’t the center of the universe—so why not kill off David (essentially having Kirk trade his son’s life for his old friend’s—the needs of the franchise outweigh the needs of the one), and have our recast Saavik never show up again?
Just about every one of the most powerful, bold aspects of Wrath of Khan got walked back in the subsequent movies.
Lots of people love Star Trek IV. The crew all hang out together, and except for the fact that they have to use a Klingon ship and Spock has to comedically remember who he is, all is right with the world. Nothing of any import has happened anywhere, because the crew is all back together.
In fact, not only does the crew get to save the Earth, Kirk gets “punished” by getting his captaincy back, and they build him a new Enterprise.
For stealing a starship, destroying it, defying a Starfleet order, and sabotaging another Starfleet ship, I could have totally bought that Starfleet might commute Kirk’s sentence and let him retire on a farm instead of a penal colony. Giving him a ship and the title he already wanted is like pressing a big reset button with the middle finger of nostalgia, telling everyone that it’s more important to see the crew together on the Enterprise than to tell a good story.
So, no, Star Trek IV is not the Hell one of my favorite Star Trek movies.
Fun thought experiment—you actually could have had the Undiscovered Country still take place by having Starfleet pull Kirk out of retirement to act as an ambassador, because “only Nixon can go to China.” Everything else could have unfolded almost exactly the way it did, on a ship that someone else was commanding. And you could have weaved in even more character development in showing what Kirk’s life has been like since he left Starfleet.