Friday, September 4, 2015

Strange New World Just Ahead, or: How to Make a Vulcan Feel at Home (Part 9 of 15)

9. Hail the Conquering Hero

After Paramount Pictures told Gene Roddenberry that his services, other than that of a consultant/figurehead, were no longer needed, you might have expected his replacement to be some hack. In fact, his removal paved the way for the Star Trek franchise's third great writer-producer, Harve Bennett (as far as the original cast was concerned.) Bennett was no hack, but that wasn't immediately apparent at the time. There was nothing in his resume prior to 1982 to suggest he was any kind of visionary (but then you could say the same thing about Roddenberry's and Gene L. Coon's pre-Trek efforts.) Bennett had been knocking around network television--and not motion pictures--for about a quarter of a century at that point. He got his start at CBS, and then moved to ABC where he eventually became Vice-President of Daytime Programming, and was later Vice-President of Programming, period. Poor Harve. Always the Vice, never the President. He then went from supervising producers to being an independent producer himself. That might seem like a step down, but it possibly allowed him to flex his creative muscles. As a producer, he helped bring into being such popular--and dissimilar--shows as The Mod Squad, The Six Million Dollars Man, and the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man. These weren't bad shows, the best I can remember them, but were they so good that they qualified Bennett to take over Star Trek, already considered a pop culture phenomenon by 1982? Plus, he had never written or produced a movie (though he had graduated from film school, so his ambitions did point in that direction.) It may be that the Paramount executives, which at the time included Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, did want to kind of downsize the next Trek movie, bring back a kind of TV sensibility while keeping it on the big screen. Star Trek: The Motion Picture really had more of a feeling of a series finale than a series launch, whereas the four films Bennett produced, and the fifth that was produced by an associate of his, ended up constituting a kind of fourth season of Star Trek, even if you had to wait a year or so between episodes. More importantly, there was something about a bunch of people traveling through space that brought out the visionary in Bennett, as it had earlier to Roddenberry and Coon. A slightly different vision, however. If Roddenberry was H. P. Lovecraft, and Coon Jonathan Swift, Bennett seemed to take his cue from the great Old Hollywood director Howard Hawks. In such films as Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo, and The Thing from Another World, Hawks would present us with a set of disparate, individualistic, often very quirky characters who, as contradictorily as it may sound, would come together to accomplish some goal, be it delivering air mail, taming the West, or defeating a monster from outer space. This may have existed in at least muted form during Coon's run, as it best describes the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship. The three may not have much in common, but it's more than what they have with anybody else. But Bennett expanded on the idea, so that it was now those three against the world, or, this being Star Trek, the universe. I'm not just talking evil aliens. Whereas Roddenberry came to see the Enterprise crew as representing the best ideals of the Federation and Starfleet, in Bennett's telling, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy got the job done in spite of the Federation and Starfleet, whose sorry asses always needed saving. As for Chekov, Scotty, Sulu and Uhura, you got the sense they were misfits too, their only loyalty to Kirk, who wasn't above asking them to commit a felony or two.

First, though, Harve Bennett had to familiarize himself with the show, which he had never seen. Also, he had to convince Leonard Nimoy to play Spock one final time. To those ends, Bennett screened all 79 Star Trek episodes. One in particular, "Space Seed" from the second season, jumped out at him.

Ostensibly a cautionary tale about the dangers of genetic engineering, "Space Seed" is actually a mordant meditation on our mixed feelings toward such conquering heroes as Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, how we tend to admire them until we find ourselves in their paths (or the paths of those whom admire them even more than we do.) The Enterprise comes across what they regard as an old-fashioned spaceship called the "Botany Bay"--apparently named after the one in the former penal colony known as Australia. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Lieutenant Marla McGivers, who's a historian, beam aboard, where they find 73 bodies in suspended animation. One of the bodies (actor Ricardo Montalban) begins to stir, but maybe not for long as the man's vital signs are weak. He's beamed back aboard the Enterprise, where McCoy treats him, and almost dies in the process. Not the patient but the doctor, as the de-suspended visitor wakes up out of his stupor and clutches McCoy by the throat. Showing admirable, and arguably uncharacteristic, grace under fire, the MD replies, "It would be most effective if you would cut the carotid artery just under the left ear." Impressed by McCoy's chutzpah (come to think of it, that is kind of characteristic of him), the visitor lets go. After that, everything's cool for a while. The visitor, whose name we find out is Khan, is allowed the run of the ship, encouraged to comb the computer memory banks to catch up on the last couple of centuries, and is even given a banquet welcoming him to the future, which he uses as an opportunity to expound on his Might Makes Right philosophy, a philosophy that strikes almost everyone else at the table as an amusing, harmless anachronism. The banquet itself was the idea of Marla McGivers, who realizes this Khan is none other than the great Sikh warrior Khan Noonien Singh, who during the 1990s Eugenics War (I believe I was paying too much attention to O.J. and Monica Lewinsky to take much notice of it at the time) ruled a quarter of the Earth, mostly in Asia. It seems Ms. McGivers has a thing for warmongers--her quarters are decorated with pictures of Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Richard the Lion-Heart, and Leif Erikson--and is so turned on by Khan that she agrees to do his bidding for him. And once they find out it is indeed Khan the historical figure who's on their ship, Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty get a bit turned on themselves! In a scene rapt with romanticized rationalizations, the three go on about how Khan wasn't really all that bad of a guy, that he was strong, brave, daring, and ambitious, and while he may have relied on a bit of bloodshed to obtain his own sovereign state, things were peaceful once he got what he wanted. Before anyone can bring up that Khan got the trains to run on time, Spock notes that he was a tyrant who curtailed freedoms. Kirk reluctantly agrees, and assigns a guard to his quarters. Here's where the genetic engineering stuff comes in handy. Possessing superhuman strength, Khan easily knocks out the guard, returns to his old ship, and wakes up the 73 other genetically-engineered warriors. With their superior minds, they have no problem gaining control of the Enterprise, even if the technology is way beyond their heyday. First Khan gasses all those on the bridge, and then just Captain Kirk to the point of asphyxiation, threatening to go further if the crew doesn't agree to mutiny and follow their new genetically-improved leader. The lovestruck McGivers, who's allied herself with Khan up to this point, has a change of heart and frees the slowly suffocating Kirk from a decompression chamber. Spock then fights gas with gas by releasing some throughout the ship to knock out the 73 other warriors, while Khan and Kirk duke it out, with the physically-inferior latter defeating the former, as he's done in the past, with a lucky blow. Most shows would have ended the episode right there, but "Space Seed" has a wry epilogue in store. Despite almost dying at his hands, Kirk is still in sufficient awe of Khan not to want to see him rot away in some Starfleet version of Spandau Prison, and opts for an Elba solution instead. Khan and his followers (along with Marla McGivers in lieu of a court-martial) will be allowed to settle on Ceti Alpha V, a harsh but habitable world. The episode ends with Spock remarking, "It would be interesting, Captain, to return to that world in a hundred years and to learn what crop has sprung from the seed you planted today." As it turns out, Spock won't have to wait that long to find out. And it will come close to being the very last thing he ever finds out.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). In the 23rd century (it's official now) a young Vulcan woman named Saavik is at the control of the Enterprise, which is under attack by three Klingon warships. An impossible situation to escape from, she orders the starship evacuated. It's then that an amused Admiral James T. Kirk steps out from behind the scenery. No, this isn't Six Characters in Search of an Author you're watching. It's actually the "Kobayashi Maru" a training simulation test that all Starfleet Academy students have to take to in order to test their mettle. It seems Kirk is only person ever to pass the test, a fact that he loves reminding people of (though not on the original series, in which it never comes up.) Captain Spock, now in charge of the Enterprise, found Kirk's solution rather unique, but we won't learn why until later in the movie. For now, no more simulations. The students will take the Enterprise on a three-week training tour of the Federation, with Kirk along as an observer. Meanwhile, on another starship, the Reliant, Captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield), and his First Officer Commander Chekov, have been instructed to assist Project Genesis, an effort to develop a device that will reorganize matter so as to instantly terraform a previously uninhabitable planet. The two beam down to such a planet, and find themselves in a middle of a dust storm. They also find an abandoned space ship, which they then go inside to check out, only to find Khan Noonien Singh, whom Chekov instantly recognizes, an extraordinary feat, given that his character doesn't appear in "Space Seed". So what happened? I don't mean Chekov but to the planet to which Khan and his followers were exiled. Seems another world in the same star system exploded and ruined the environment of Ceti Alpha V, eventually leading to the death of Khan's wife (presumably Marla McGivers.) Craving revenge, Khan puts a couple of mind control eels into both Terrell's and Chekov's ears to get them to talk. Finding out just where Kirk is at, and now aboard the Reliant, Khan sends a fake message to the Enterprise ordering his nemesis to take possession of the Genesis device. It doesn't take Kirk long to find out that Starfleet Command gave no such order. As the senior officer aboard the Enterprise, Kirk now has to take command of the ship to find out what happened, getting much less resistance from logical Spock than he did from Decker in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Before they can do anything, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy need to find out what this Project Genesis is all about. It's on what's best described as a promotional video that they see an old flame of Kirk's, Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), head of the project. Spock seems to know her too, forcing me to go on a fruitless search to see if the character ever appeared on a regular Star Trek episode. No, she makes her debut in this movie, as well as a relative whom we'll learn more about later. On route to the space station where the project is based, they encounter the Reliant, now in Khan's command. The two ships shoot it out, with the bulk of the casualties inflicted on the Enterprise, though Kirk manages to deliver at least one photon bomb of a blow to the Reliant. Kirk, McCoy, and Saavik (who kind of invites herself along) beams down to the space station where they find many dead but Terrill and Chekov still alive. All five beam down inside the Regula asteroid, but not before Kirk instructs Spock to take the Enterprise somewhere else, lest Khan still be lurking. Inside a cave inside the asteroid, Kirk is attacked by Carol Marcus' peacenik son David (Merrit Bukrit), who believes the slaughter of the Project Genesis scientists (other than him and his mother) was the work of Starfleet! Meanwhile, the mind control eels go to work. Terrill points a phaser at Kirk, his superior officer, and is about to pull the trigger (or whatever they have on a phaser) when he summons enough will power to point the weapon at himself, an act of self-sacrifice that foreshadows an even more shocking (as it involves a familiar face) act of self-sacrifice at the end of the film. Chekov, for his part, merely passes out, and the eel takes leave of his ear, no doubt wanting a breath of fresh air. Kirk manages to get Khan on his communicator, and this memorable exchange takes place:

KIRK: Khan, you bloodsucker!! You're gonna have to do your own dirty work now! Do you hear me? DO YOU?!
KHAN: Kirk...Kirk, you're still alive, my old friend...
KIRK: Still...'Old friend!'' You've managed to kill just about everyone else, but like a poor marksman, you!
KHAN: I've done far worse than kill you. I've hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left me. As you left her. Marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet. Buried alive. Buried alive.

Like yelling's going to help. Khan takes off, with the Genesis device in tow. Meanwhile, Kirk and Carol have some catching up to do. Outside of David's hearing range they talk about his father, who just happens to be Kirk. That such an otherwise unmemorable character should be his son is a minor flaw of this film, one that would be remedied in a later sequel. Meanwhile, Kirk's hungry. Carol and David lead them all into another cave that turns out to be a Genesis-created underground oasis. With plenty now to eat, Kirk feels it's good enough table conversation as any to explain how exactly he beat the Kobayashi Maru. After failing the first two times, he reprogrammed the test, and received a commendation for original thinking. David accuses him of cheating, and Kirk replies that he just doesn't believe in no-win situations. At least not for himself. To prove his point, he contacts the Enterprise. Seems he had left a coded message telling Spock when to return to pick them up. Kirk, McCoy, a woozy Chekov, Carol Marcus, and David all beam back aboard the Enterprise, which is still badly in need of repair. Before they have time to fix anything, Khan and the Reliant show up. Kirk lures him to a nebula where an ion storm hampers both starships, ironically evening the fight. Another shootout in space. Heavy damage on both sides, but it's Khan who's mortally wounded. Determined to get one last lick in before he dies, Khan shoots into space the canister containing the Genesis Project, now set to activate. That might not seem like such a big deal. After all, Genesis is supposed to create life, not take it away. Except it creates new life by reorganizing matter, destroying any old life that happens to get in the way, which would include the crew of the Enterprise. Genesis in now a rapidly evolving planet headed right toward the starship. Kirk needs to get the hell out of there. Except the Enterprise's warp drive is knocked out. Might be a simple thing to get it going again if the engine room wasn't filled with lethally high levels of radiation, and it's not like you can just open up a window and air it out. Spock has a plan (the last plan he'll have in quite a while.) Without Kirk noticing, the Science Officer calmly gets out of his chair and walks over to the engine room. McCoy, however, does notice, tries to stop Spock, and is not surprisingly knocked unconscious by a Vulcan nerve pinch. Spock then places his hand on the unconscious McCoy's head, and says "Remember!" Actually, I think a nerve pinch is something the doctor would prefer to forget! Anyway, Spock walks into the radiation filled room, and fixes the engines. Warp drive is now possible, and the Enterprise quickly gets out of harms way. Kirk, clueless as to how this was achieved exactly, is nevertheless pleased with himself for once again cheating death. A grave-sounding McCoy voice is heard over the intercom--the Vulcan pinch apparently having worn off--telling Kirk he needs to get to the engine room, and fast. There he's shocked to finds a dying, radiation-scarred Spock on the other side of a glass partition, struggling to give the Vulcan salute.

SPOCK: Don't grieve, is logical. The needs of the many...outweigh--
KIRK: (grieving anyway) --the needs of the few.
SPOCK: Or the one...I never took the Kobayashi Maru test...until now. What do you think of my solution?
KIRK: Spock!
SPOCK: I have been...and always shall be...your friend...Live long...and prosper.

Man, I got choked up just typing that.

After the funeral, the casket containing Spock's body is placed in a torpedo tube and shot into orbit around the new planet that Genesis created. Kirk and David bond.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also did some uncredited work on the screenplay. Meyer first gained attention with his best-selling 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution, which had Sherlock Holmes, looking to kick his cocaine habit, as a patient of Sigmund Freud. Meyer got into film making when he was allowed to direct his own screenplay for Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper visit 1970s San Francisco. Obviously, Mayer wasn't attracted to low-concept projects, which made him a good fit for Star Trek. He was willing to go all-out-pulp while making sure the project had an overall intelligence. Arthur C. Clarke by the way of Jack Kirby, which pretty much describes the original TV series. The spartan look of the Enterprise in the first movie is gone, the IKEA store having been replaced by a video arcade. The color red in particular is a recurring motif, the crew's new uniforms matching the pyrotechnics that occur throughout the movie. Ironically, this movie has almost as much highfalutin pontification--e.g., Kirk and Spock discussing the meaning of Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities--as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The pontificating is just punctuated by explosions this time around.

The acting. Lets start with Khan himself. Though he played a lot of different types of characters early on in his Hollywood career, Ricardo Montalban eventually became best known as the embodiment of suave. The suave Mr. Roarke of Fantasy Island. The suave Chrysler Cordoba pitchman. The suave villain in The Naked Gun. And he was a suave warlord when he first played Khan in "Space Seed". His second take at Khan was considerably less suave and more gritty, reminding everybody that this was yet another actor who could have had a much more varied, more interesting career if he hadn't fallen victim to typecasting. As the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said of Montalban, the second Trek movie "was the only validation he has ever had of his power to command the big screen." That said, I can't help but think there was a bit of a diminution from the first Khan to the second Khan, even as the screen got bigger. In "Space Seed" we're told Khan is a world-historical character on par with Napoleon Bonaparte. That fact is barely mentioned in the movie. Instead, the genetic engineering aspect is played up, asking us to regard Khan more as a monster running loose in the countryside. That has more to to do with the script than with Montalban, who still manages to invest his monster with a bit of dignity. Moving on, Paul Winfield's bravura performance as Captain Clark Terrell was somewhat overlooked at the time. If his character's self-sacrifice didn't resonate with Star Trek fans as much as Spock's later on, it's only because he was a newcomer (and destined to stay a newcomer) to the franchise. More about this a few paragraphs from now. Bibi Besch is OK as Carol Marcus. Kirk's had so many ex-flames (more so than current flames, as a matter of fact) that it couldn't have been easy to stand out from the rest, even if she is the only one that we're aware of to bear him a child. Speaking of the child, I didn't much like Merrit Butrick's David Marcus, but that may be more due to the script than with the actor, whom I remember playing a very funny New Wave high school student in the short-lived '80s sitcom Square Pegs. There's so much going on in this film, that there's really not a lot of time for a subplot about a long-lost son (purposely lost; Kirk knew about him from the beginning but was asked to stay away at Carol's request.) Petulance is the first, and not very attractive, glimpse we get of David, until near the end of the film, when he's suddenly compassionate. A person can be both, of course, but the sudden change of heart needed more exposition to be carried off convincingly. Kirstie Alley as Saavik. Long way from Rebecca on Cheers, huh? Well, she's a good actress. Some have complained about her character shedding tears at Spock's funeral, but I chalk that up to my Vulcans-have-emotions-but-supress-them theory. More interesting to me is her literally having let her hair down in the elevator she shares with Kirk. Only literally, but she seems to know that it turns Kirk on. As for the regulars, Walter Keonig as Chekov gets an unusual amount of screen time, which he puts to good use. Keonig was in his mid-40s when this was made, and had become a tad pudgy, but whenever he opens his mouth, he's that boyish young Russian all over again. Most of the humor in the movie once again centers on DeForest Kelley's Dr McCoy, though he doesn't get the wittiest lines this time around. That honor goes to Kirk (when it's implied in the cave that a rescue's unlikely, he replies, "Now it's your chance to get away from it all.") But McCoy doesn't really need jokes. "Who's been holding up the elevator?!" has no discernible punchline, but I still laughed out loud anyway. Leonard Nimoy has a great death scene that he plays just right, and it ended up being the centerpiece of the movie, but, curiously enough, I don't know that he got all that much screen time otherwise. It's important to remember that The Wrath of Khan, unlike, arguably, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, isn't told from Spock's point of view. He's not in the middle of an identity crises as he was in the first film. In fact, he seems at peace with himself even while he's dying! Still, it would have been a lot more interesting if Spock had beamed down into the Regula asteroid along with Kirk, McCoy, and Saavik. Scotty could have manned the Enterprise, as he had in all those past episodes. Why the long absence? Some books about the original series claimed that William Shatner had it written into his contract that he got more lines than anyone else, but I doubt if he would have had that much clout a decade-and-a-half later when producers and studio execs were practically begging Nimoy to appear in these films. It must have been the actor's own decision. After all, Nimoy didn't really want to do this movie, only agreeing to appear in it if his character was killed off. Maybe there were other reasons. I remember seeing a Barbara Walters interview with Bing Crosby where the crooner claimed that whenever appearing in a movie with an actor of equal stature--Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra--he insisted on second billing. He figured there was less overexposure, more longevity that way. Perhaps something like that figured into Nimoy's thinking. The Spock character had some amazing longevity indeed, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. Finally, William Shatner is OK in the lead, but what lead exactly is he playing?

DAVID: Every time we have dealings with Starfleet, I get nervous. We are dealing with something that...could be perverted into a dreadful weapon. Remember that overgrown Boy Scout you used to hang around with? That's exactly the kind of man-- 
CAROL: Listen, kiddo, Jim Kirk was many things, but he was never a Boy Scout!

Not in this film he's not. In preparation for The Wrath of Khan, Harve Bennett is said to have screened all 79 episodes of the original series. I have to wonder if he was watching the same starship captain I was. While the TV Kirk certainly radiated self-confidence, I don't recall him as being as hung-up on himself as the vainglorious fool we meet in this film. The smug smile on his face as he steps out from behind the scenery to chide poor Saavik for flunking the Kobayashi Maru test! The Vulcan lass should have nerve pinched him. And to find out he cheated--"I changed the conditions"--on that very test! Starfleet hands out commendations for that? Do they also give an A if you program an android to do your homework? Where Kirk gets particularly obnoxious is the exchange that immediately followed his admission:

KIRK: I don't like to lose.
SAAVIK: Then you never faced that situation...faced death.
KIRK: I don't believe in a no-win scenario...Kirk to Spock. It's two hours. Are you about ready?
SPOCK (on intercom): Right on schedule, Admiral. Just give us your coordinates and we'll beam you aboard.
KIRK (smugly smiling): I don't like to lose!

What's so obnoxious about his behavior, you may ask? After all, it ain't bragging if it's true. Except this conversation takes place not too long after he witnessed Captain Terrell take his own life in order to save his! Kirk didn't change that particular condition, Terrell did. Yet Kirk doesn't even acknowledge Terrell's sacrifice. He wants the attention to be all on him! Plus, he's only just met Terrell. It's different when Spock does something similar later on. They're old friends. Actually, I think it's a bit more impressive that the first time around it was a stranger sacrificing his life. Kirk's just impressed with himself.  The film, curiously, does suggest Kirk is going through a mid-life crises. He even tells Carol that he's "tired...worn out." Worn out from bragging, I bet! Besides, future films will suggest that hubris has always been part of Kirk's makeup. Jumping a bit ahead to Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, Kirk non-nonchalantly states near the end, "Once again we've saved civilization as we know it." Star Trek: Generations has Kirk telling Picard: "I don't need to be lectured by you. I was out saving the galaxy when your grandfather was in diapers. Besides which, I think the galaxy owes me one." And it continues into J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot that has Kirk, now played by Chris Pine, getting into bar fights, merely a prelude to a Starfleet promotion. Kirk, the maverick saver of galaxies! That where the character now stands, and he first took that stand in The Wrath of Khan. Harve Bennett and others that's come since (including Shatner himself) seem to have taken their inspiration from Old Hollywood swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. I like both those guys, but that's not the Kirk I remember from the TV show.

On the original series, James Kirk was a bit of a Boy Scout. He was Trustworthy (in "The Ultimate Computer" other Federation starships won't fire on a shieldless Enterprise, despite an earlier attack, out of their trust for Kirk), Loyal (he lets Spock kill him in "Amok Time"), Helpful (he instructs McCoy to heal the Horta in "The Devil in the Dark"), Friendly (he lets an alien take control of his body in "Return to Tomorrow"), Courteous (he doesn't kill Wyatt Earp in "Spectre of the Gun"), Kind (despite all the trouble it's given him, he decides to help the disabled alien ship at the end of "The Cobermite Maneuver"), Obedient (he has plastic surgery and steals a Romulan cloaking device, just as he was ordered to do in "The Enterprise Incident"), Cheerful (he takes it good-naturedly when Spock suggests he's Satan in "The Apple",) Thrifty (he makes a cannon out of bamboo in "Arena"), Brave (just about every episode), Clean (he and Spock tidy up Edith Keeler's basement in "The City on the Edge of Forever"), and Reverent (he extends full Presidential honors to Abraham Lincoln in "The Savage Curtain"). Also, keeping with Scouting policy until very recently, James Kirk was thoroughly heterosexual (examples too numerous to mention.) Here's something not out of the Boy Scout Handbook but the episode "Return to Tomorrow" that I think basically defines the TV version of Kirk:

"They used to say if man could fly, he'd have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to. Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn't reached the moon, or that we hadn't gone to Mars and then to the nearest star? That's like saying [to McCoy] you wish that you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut like your great-great-great-great grandfather used to. I'm in command. I could order this. But I'm not because Doctor McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this. But I must point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great. Risk. Risk is our business. That's what the starship is all about. That's why we're aboard her..."

Reading the above, the word "risk" stands out but so does "potential for knowledge and advancement". Kirk is just as much interested in the latter as Spock, risk is just the means to get there and not the ends. A student instructor at the Starfleet academy, Kirk was once described by friend Gary Mitchell as "a stack of books with legs". He really was a very serious guy in the original series and not this glib fellow in "The Wrath of Khan" and later movies who wisecracks his way through grave danger as if he's James Bond (yeah, I know, I compared the British secret agent to Spock in an earlier installment, but that was in a whole different context.) Sure, Kirk does have his light side, can be witty, the guy kind of guy you want to have a beer with. But that's when everything's going smoothly. That's when all of us tend to be more agreeable. It's different for the TV Kirk when danger approaches. He's no coward but that doesn't mean he's in for a fun time. The graver the situation, the graver Kirk gets. His brows furrow, his body stiffens, he clenches his fists (as well as his phaser). He's so tense you'd probably break your fingers giving him a massage. The man is trying to hold it all together. He sometimes erupts in anger, but tries not to, and those are the tics that Shatner brings to Kirk for which he's often been mocked, but that I find more realistic than the hero who looks unconcerned as bullets or phaser beams fly around him. Then near the end of just about every episode, once the danger has passed, if you watch closely, you'll notice his shoulders kind of drop, almost like the gravity has been turned up. It's not a sigh but rather a slump of relief that he's experiencing. I find that realistic too, and very different most (but not all) of the time from the Kirk of the movies. To be fair, the movies take place a little later on in his life. It's quite possible that evading death on a weekly basis did go to his head a bit, did make him a bit shallow (he was kind of boorish in "Requiem for Methesulah" which was aired near the end of the original series run.) The TV Kirk was in awe of Khan Noonien Singh. The movie Kirk is in awe of himself.

None of this is to say I didn't like The Wrath of Khan. On its own terms I think it's a terrific movie. I also see it as more than the mindless summer blockbuster that it was sold to the public as. Once you get past all the explosions, it's really a canny satire of 60 years of motion picture derring-do (even more years now; remember it came out in 1982) that has Kirk learning the hard way that how you throw a punch or acrobatically jump on a table doesn't automatically confer on you the rubric of hero. As he says to David after Spock's funeral: "I haven't faced death. I've cheated death. I tricked my way out of death, and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity." That's why I find the mid-life crises subplot so out of place in this film, which has Kirk at the end claiming everything that's just transpired finally has made him feel young. Spock's unintentional upending of Kirk's dauntlessness should have put him in a mid-life crises, not taken him out of one!

Nevertheless, it's now a very sober Kirk who delivers Spock's eulogy:  

"We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of a new life, the sunrise of a new world, a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one. And we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels...his was the most...HUMAN."

(Hmm...I just reread Kirk's eulogy. Forgive me, but I can't help but speculate. If Spock had been black instead of Vulcan, Kirk might have said, "Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels...his was the most...WHITE.")

(If Spock had been Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, he might have said, "...his was the most...CHRISTIAN.")

(If Spock had been gay, he might have said "...his was the most...STRAIGHT.") 

(If Spock had been Hispanic, he might have said, "...his was the most...NORDIC.")

(If Spock had been female, he might have said, "...hers was the most...WELL-HUNG.")

(If Spock had been a pauper, he might have said, "...his was the biggest...BANK ACCOUNT.")

(If Spock had been a beatnik, he might have said, "...his was the most...GRAY FLANNEL-SUITED.")

(If Spock had been a Furry, he might have said, "...his was the most...REALISTIC-LOOKING ANIMAL COSTUME.")

(If Spock had been a Trekkie, he might have said, "...his was the most...APPRECIATIVE OF LOST IN SPACE.")

(If there had been no difference in race, religion, gender, ethnicity, class, creed, association, subculture, or planetary origin, and Spock had merely been different, he might have said, "...his was the most...NORMAL." Say, you suppose that's what Kirk meant all along?)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a huge success, the sixth highest-grossing film of 1982. I was surprised to learn that actually made it less of a success than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was number five the year it came out. The execs at Paramount, however, were pleasantly surprised. The lower production costs meant the second movie actually earned more money than the first. Naturally, there would be a sequel.

As for Leonard Nimoy, a funny thing happened while making The Wrath of Khan: he enjoyed the experience. He began having second thoughts about his character's demise. Indeed, he was already having these thoughts when the film started doing boffo box office in theaters, telling the media at the time, "No one ever dies in science fiction." He asked Paramount execs about the possibility of being in the next movie. The execs just sniffed and said "You made your coffin and now you have to lie in it. We can get along fine without you. Humph!" I'm joking. They said nothing of the sort. Studio execs may be venal, but they're not crazy. OF COURSE, they were going to let him be in the next movie. And to sweeten the deal, they let him do something that hadn't been done in 2000 years. Nimoy would get to direct his own resurrection.

Next: Vulcan Rising, or: Can't See DeForest for the Trees



  1. For some reason, I had a problem with Ricardo Montalbán playing Khan. I think maybe it was his bangs.

    I absolutely love your sociological eulogy breakdown, especially "well-hung".

  2. I love that you love it, Kass.

    I think Montalban was just having a bad hair day.

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