Christmas and Easter nihilists

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


    May 13, 2014 @ 11:00 pm

    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!"



  2. gatchamandave
    May 13, 2014 @ 11:07 pm

    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. Ross
    May 14, 2014 @ 1:12 am

    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.


  4. Ross
    May 14, 2014 @ 1:38 am

    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).


    May 14, 2014 @ 2:27 am

    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.)



  6. Ross
    May 14, 2014 @ 2:38 am

    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


  7. Josh Marsfelder
    May 14, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    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 🙂


  8. T. Hartwell
    May 14, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

    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.


  9. Josh Marsfelder
    May 14, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

    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.


  10. Adam Riggio
    May 14, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    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.


  11. T. Hartwell
    May 14, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

    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.


  12. Ross
    May 15, 2014 @ 12:34 am

    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.)


  13. gatchamandave
    May 15, 2014 @ 12:47 am

    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 ?"


  14. Josh Marsfelder
    May 15, 2014 @ 7:41 am

    "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.


  15. brownstudy
    June 7, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

    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.)


  16. Daru
    June 19, 2014 @ 6:53 pm

    "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.


  17. brownstudy
    June 20, 2014 @ 1:52 am

    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.


  18. Josh Marsfelder
    June 20, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

    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.


  19. Daru
    June 20, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

    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.


  20. brownstudy
    June 21, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

    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.


  21. Josh Marsfelder
    June 21, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

    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.


  22. Josh Marsfelder
    June 21, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

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


  23. Daf
    June 15, 2022 @ 6:23 am

    Just poppin’ in eight years after the fact to say that despite this being one of my favorite movies I found it really enjoyable to read someone butcher a sacred cow so shamelessly (while also refraining from crossing the line into being mean-spirited and unfair)!

    I’ve always found Star Trek II to be engaging and evocative enough that its peculiarities never bothered me, and like others here I appreciated its deconstruction of Captain Kirk. In particular its implication (in my observation) that Kirk essentially left Carol and David for Starfleet–“I stayed away; why didn’t you tell him?”

    You’d think Kirk would be angry here but he’s merely sad and resigned (as if deep down he knows he deserves it) and it is in fact Carol who is the indignant one: “How can you ask that?” That sounds to me as if Kirk had thought it just fine to be out of his son’s life on years-long voyages, and an appalled Carol let him know in uncertain terms to stay on his starship and never come back. Old wounds, indeed!


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