Why The Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan is Refreshing

The Wrath of Khan is usually considered the best Star Trek movie out of the thirteen (or ten (or six), depending on how you count). Even if it’s not your favorite, it definitely tends to be the undeniable compromise. It’s got action, a bit of life advice, tension and suspense, fun space action, heroic and villainous sacrifice, and a few believable female characters, especially in comparison to the docile bunnies of the original series and the robotic Ilia of The Motion Picture.

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Hyoo-man females? With clothing, too?

Also in contrast with the original movie is the presence of a clear enemy. Khan is a real hole and a half, having no sympathetic qualities despite a reasonable motivation for revenge. V-ger is threatening but mysterious and literally nebulous. The movie is extremely approachable, allowing anyone to enjoy seeing a Bad Man fighting our heroes. You can also think a bit more deeply about Kirk’s struggle with aging if you want, too. That definitely doesn’t make this a cerebral or philosophical flick, but at least opens the movie up to people wanting more than just an action movie.

Most action movies glorify pluckiness. Quick thinking, resourcefulness, physical strength and speed all help the hero solve the problem at the last moment. This is a great way to keep the suspense up — you can feel that the cause is lost just before our hero comes through in the clutch. It’s a classic admirable quality in film and literature. It is especially revered in 19th century English works, Hollywood movies, and anything influenced by those (nearly everything in popular culture).

If our team details a military plan of action complete with contingencies, and then carries it out without a hitch, well. Okay. Good for them. But we want to see something that’s different from work.

An alternative to this is an Ocean’s Eleven style presentation, where the plan is described as a voice over during the execution, or with interstitial scenes.

Wrath of Khan does neither of these things, though. This isn’t strange at all. The Ulysses / Homestuck / Christopher Nolan style of nonlinear storytelling is pretty new as a pop culture thang.

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PLEASE

Wrath of Khan is a story about sticking to protocol. It’s a rare instance in film, even in the Star Trek universe, when the guy in control has most everything figured out ahead of time. An old go-getter realizing the wisdom of experience and accepting loss and the unavoidable is the obvious theme of the movie. Supporting this theme, though, is a pragmatic lesson about planning and protocol.

There are three instances when things don’t go as expected. The first and the third support the top-level theme. The Kobayashi Maru test and the background about Kirk cheating it sets us up; Ok, Kirk is going to have to learn how to approach the no-win scenario. Later, when Spock sacrifices himself, Kirk realizes he wasn’t able to save everything in the end and he learns a lesson about aging and loss.

It’s pretty goofy that Kirk learns this lesson only when he loses Spock, but not all the other people that have died on his ship over the years.

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Dig in there, Mr. Spock. Maybe it’s not so goofy after all. Don’t expect this to be the last time I link to this, by the way.

In the middle is the screw-up that causes nearly all of the trouble of the movie. When Khan approaches the Enterprise with the Reliant, with no communications, Saavik quotes Star Fleet protocol: Put the shields up, you idiot! For some reason, Kirk doesn’t, and Spock defends him. Why doesn’t he do that? Shields are never described as a precious resource, or particularly difficult to raise or lower. Thinking along the lines of the movie’s theme, he’s probably feeling some thrill of skirting danger.

This screws everything up. Khan gets the chance to fire on the warp core and disable the Enterprise. Kirk very quickly owns up, and tells Saavik that she should keep reminding him of the regulations. If the ship hadn’t been disabled, the Constitution class ship would outmatch the Miranda easily.

After this point, everything is done by the book. Kirk stalls for time expertly while the crew looks up the Reliant’s bypass code. They explain this is a failsafe — a technical workaround planned ahead of time in case of such a situation. They’re able to take down the Reliant’s shields and hit hard, taking away Khan’s advantage.

The entire operation on the Regula asteroid involves a pre-planned code between Kirk and Spock to ensure Khan misunderstands the situation. The code makes Khan think that the Enterprise will return after two days of repairs, when they only needed two hours. The other stranded characters, as well as the viewer might be surprised when they find out that the ship is back early, but Kirk isn’t surprised at all. They’re following through with an agreed-upon plan. In Khantrast, the villain decides to hunt down Kirk and his ship in spite of his crew’s suggestions to escape with the starship Reliant, a fantastic, futuristic home to a bunch of fossils from the 90s.

Even when he’s keeping up the facade of being stranded, Kirk is going by the book. He starts with the most pressing issue, survival, while David is accusing him of ignoring escape.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. <https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html>

Later in the Mutara Nebula, while not explicitly a by-the-book maneuver, the 500 meter drop which circumvents Khan’s “two dimensional thinking” probably reflects the Starfleet veterans’ training as their experience. The experience comment aligns with the coming-to-terms-with-aging theme, but it’s also hard to believe a space-naval strategy course wouldn’t give some statement like “Please use all three dimensions available in a fight” on the first day. It’s such a basic maneuver it hardly deserves a name. In submarine warfare, finding an enemy ship, overtaking it out of range, dropping below it and waiting for it to pass overhead before rising to fire torpedoes is a classic World War II tactic called an end-around (pdf). Kirk and crew just did the last bit.

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The Enterprise faces off with the Reliant in the Mutara Nebula

The take-away here is that Kirk really messes up by not adhering to standard procedure in one instance, which leads to all of the further problems in the movie. Later he acts conservatively, avoiding brash, spur-of-the-moment decisions. From his point of view, everything goes swimmingly after the initial attack. Yes, Spock has to sacrifice himself in a last-ditch effort to fix the warp engine, but only after every other option had been exhausted.

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Spoilers!!

It’s a palette cleanser to see a blockbuster-style movie based on planning. Aging gracefully is still the backbone motif of the movie,  and it’s supported by the reliance on plan, not pluck. This doesn’t get in the way at all of delivering the story. It’s invisible. That’s good! But a rewatch, while keeping in mind their use of protocol, can help one appreciate how the characters got into and out of the whole mess.

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Thoughts before watching Star Trek: Discovery

Looking back over my thoughts on Star Trek in general, I’m reminded that Star Trek: Discovery is the only TV show I’ve ever truly felt some investment in before its release. I do feel a sort of obligation to myself to pay attention to the show, to keep track of the details. It’s a very distinct feeling from the Abrams movies. In 2009, I had only watched TNG and TOS, and was also geared to expect a Star Trek movie, along the lines of the TNG movies, which taken all together are tolerable at best, and totally different in tone in the tv shows.

The new series has more incentive to live up to them if it is trying to cater to Star Trek fans, even if they can be nitpicky.

The Abbreviation

A lot of people are snickering about their abbreviation of the name of the show. Star Trek Discovery can be shortened to STD! Ha! Disease is funny! Didn’t the producers realize that, before deciding to use the forbidden fourth letter of the alphabet?

But really, this is a fine way to abbreviate the show’s name. I’m not going to tell you you can’t refer to the show as STD. We should remember, though, that there is an established abbreviation convention for the previous Star Trek series: we only abbreviate the subtitle! Star Trek (1966) is abbrevated TOS for The Original Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation has long been abbreviated TNG, Deep Space Nine DS9, Voyager VOY, Enterprise ENT. CBS’s use of DSC (or the more popular use of DIS) for Discovery is not a cover-up or a workaround, but falls in line with the rule.

The details and tech should serve the story

One of the big technical issues with Star Trek is in the speed of the ships themselves. Warp Factor, a number (1 through 9.995) that describes the ships faster-than-light speed, is a brilliant device because it draws the audience’s attention away from the actual speed of the ship, except for implying super-future-fast (warp 5) or flippin-fantastic-future-fast (warp 9). We don’t need to know how quickly the ships are zooming around in terms of kilometers per second for the sake of most stories. The show can be totally inconsistent from one episode to the next in terms of speeds and distances travelled and the times between, but very very few Star Treks are about the specific speeds of the ships. Stating these speeds has the potential to be distracting. It was great when the writers created a function and diagram mapping the warp factor to a real speed, but this would be violated many times afterwards.

The point to remember is that we are not going to get so caught up in this TV show that we’re going to lose sight of the fact that it isn’t real. We acknowledge the inconsistencies and move on, giving us mental energy to think about the story at hand.

This extends to other technologies or plot elements in the show that might seem contradictory, both to each other, or to our own world. Who cares that the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s, cited in the original series and The Wrath of Khan, didn’t seem to happen. Exhaustive in-universe retconning should only be done if it makes an interesting story, or else they’ll be wasting our time.

Some fans really griped that the ship bridge and technology featured in ST:DIS didn’t look like the original series. Again, the point of these visuals is to support a believable story, and not be distracting. For someone who has “lived in” the Star Trek universe their whole lives, thinking of Kirk on the bridge all the time, it might be distracting to try to believe that DIS comes ten years before and yet doesn’t have all the goofy memory tapes and buttons of the original series bridge. However, for most people, recreating the original Enterprise set for a modern television show that’s trying to take itself seriously would be much, much more distracting.

Regardless, it’s fun to nitpick and note details

A fan picking apart details and trying to fit everything together in the puzzle should be able to acknowledge they’re doing it for fun, or for their enjoyment of the show. There doesn’t need to be some higher purpose involved, and it will be in their best interest to learn how to do so without being angry or indignant towards the creators. It will also serve a consumer well to learn how to interpret someone else’s nitpicking and exploration as an exercise in puzzle-solving rather true criticism. I’m going to have fun recognizing Star Trek elements and seeing how they fit (or don’t!) in the established world.

“Missing” and tacked-on information

Fans have been skeptical about the use of Sarek in the show as Michael Burnham’s adopted Vulcan father. Sarek, introduced in the first series as Spock’s father, serves as the only character we’ve seen connecting Discovery to another Star Trek series. It’s an obscure (enough) character that only fans of Star Trek will really care about. And this is maybe a good point: using him shrinks the universe a bit. Why can’t we have a story about a bunch of people in the same universe who have never met an Original Series character? I’ve heard this argument made with the Aliens franchise, in which many incarnations of the movies, games, or comics seem to feature a family member of Ellen Ripley. It’s easy to be drawn from the narrative when presented with something unlikely. The reminder of a character from an earlier incarnation of Star Trek is designed to connect and bridge us more closely to the show, but it backfires by just reminding us that the show is manufactured to do so.

The fact that Spock has an adopted human half-sister, though, is not much of a retcon. Some fans have said, why did we never hear of Spock mention his sister Michael? Why didn’t Sarek, Perrin, or Sybok, Spock’s immediate family members, ever mention her in their appearances in their appearances in The Original Series, the movies, or The Next Generation?

I’d answer: because she never needed to come up. Spock is notorious for being efficient and logical. Do you think he’d yammer on about his experiences with his sister while in a life-or-death situation onboard the Enterprise? Even at the first appearance of Sarek, Spock appears reluctant to mention that he is his father, defaulting to the business at hand and referring to him as a diplomat. His failure to mention his sister is no plot hole. Although TNG season 7 might make it seem otherwise, a TV show does not need to have an episode devoted to each family member of each main character.

Again, let’s remind ourselves, this is a TV show. Let’s do our best to judge it as one, and not as an historical record of real events. We don’t have to convince ourselves to like it, completely disregarding continuity errors, but we can adjust how strongly we react.

 

 

Thoughts and speculation on Star Trek’s popularity

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It may be possible that I have thought of Star Trek more than half of the days I’ve been alive. Those days are also pretty skewed towards the second half of my life as well. Is this much of a feat? Sometimes I will think of people or places that have been important in my life, and I’ll take pause to wonder how many weeks or months it’s been since I last thought of them. I’m not sure I have the same issue with this TV show. Plenty of entertainment is manufactured to stick in our minds.

People who like Star Trek can seem pretty evangelical for a bunch of humanists. This comes with any fandom, but it’s a special thing to be able to look at the culture surrounding the show that is often considered the originator of the modern fandom. It might be ridiculous to say that fanzines and fanfiction, slash fiction and shipping, conventions and cosplay were all created from this one 3-season show. People published and shared stories about their favorite characters beforehand, I’m sure. I’m also sure that plenty of these were a bit sexy, played with taboo, and featured author-insertion (no pun intended). Theatrically or historically minded folks dressed up and played parts for their own sake. Interestingly, one of the first major renaissance “faires” was in 1966, the year ST debuted, at the Paramount ranch (although Paramount did own the rights to broadcast the show until 1969). But Star Trek does seem to be a major popularizer for these ideas, and set up some expectations about things like anime conventions and unwritten rules about how to write yourself doing some cool kissing with Matt Smith without receiving too much judgement.

Part of the continuing success of Star Trek is due to its popularity. It’s a franchise, and success leads to success. It’s a household name.

There must be original things that originally led to its popularity, though, and keep it going. It boils down to the following.

It drew from established genres that were underserved and added to them. Gene Roddenberry drew inspiration for Captain Kirk from the Horatio Hornblower novels. I haven’t read these, but it seems that they themselves heavily draw from the fetishized “plucky” character type and high adventure of (boys’) Victorian-era novels and subsequent pulp fiction. In addition, the space-adventure theme of the show probably drew in a lot of grown-up boys who used to read Tom Swift, Flash Gordon, and still looked fondly back on watching Captain Video. The Twilight Zone, and other “short story” format science fiction shows existed beforehand, but it seems they didn’t have the draw of a character connection.

This is the awesome benefit of having a show based on an indefinitely fast space ship. You can have an episodic format which allows for missing a broadcast and still following the story, like a sitcom, but offers a way to feature completely different premises as often as the creators want. This gives more freedom than a sitcom, which returns to the status quo at the end of every episode, and also keeps the same neighbors around.

Star Trek wasn’t really a huge hit except with a vocal minority (you could spin as an example of the Pareto principle) until in syndication, after its cancellation. The Next Generation series wasn’t exactly a hit right off the bat either. But, funnily enough, it likely benefited from a similar drought of science fiction on tv, only a couple decades later. The drop in popularity (and as many others say, quality) of Star Trek in the 90s, as Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise continued on, was likely an indirect result of TNG’s popularity: the new Star Trek spawned a new interest in the genre. We might not have seen Babylon 5, Stargates, The X-Files without it, but these might have also saturated the market.

It straddled the lines of being interesting, silly, and thoughtful. Again, Star Trek wasn’t a huge hit at first, but the new-setting-every-week bit was attractive to the science fiction short story lovers. These types are usually looking for ideas that will stick with them for some time afterwards. The ending of The Twilight Zone I’m sure left a hole that Star Trek was able to fill. These ideas were social and political commentary, either unspoken or explicitly stated, or technological and scientific. Deeper personal stories wouldn’t start until the first movie, and The Next Generation, and the political intrigue wouldn’t really pick up until later seasons of TNG (and DS9!).

Viewers at least had some characters to count on week after week. Again, this could have attracted the pulp lovers who fondly remembered reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew (although I’m not sure the Hardy Boys were giving the die-hard fans homoerotic suggestions in the first year of publications). These characters served as the much needed “human” connection that short stories tend to lack — having seen them week after week raises the stakes when they find themselves in peril.

The thinly veiled suggestions of a romantic or sexual relationship between Kirk and Spock brings us to the common assertion that Star Trek was intentionally camp. It’s come to my attention, after seeing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at our little Fancy Movie Night, that at the time the camp aesthetic was becoming more popular on television as well as in film. By the way, this might also owe itself to the popularity of Some Like it Hot, also seen at FMN, a film which served to help dismantle the Motion Picture Production Code. The effective removal of this explicitly written code made it a lot easier to play around with the potentially gay relationship, which allowed the creators to bring in other campy qualities.

The title of this section isn’t to suggest being gay is silly, but it may have appeared so to a typical viewer. In addition, the camp aesthetic definitely connected lightheartedness with homosexuality.

Finally, and maybe most obviously, the show was entertaining on a surface level. The traditionally boyish interests of seeing the ship fly around, shooting ray guns, goofy aliens, funny and sexy pajamas, and brawling action I’m sure solidified the interest of plenty of people (and not just boys).

But the thing people like to talk about the most nowadays is…

It introduced a progressive cast of skilled officers and regularly gave social commentary. This is the part that remains the most inspiring. I wonder how essential it was to the show’s initial popularity, but without these aspects, the show would certainly be a lot less interesting, and definitely not worth getting worked up over 50 years later. Having a collection of Earth’s races all working together on the same bridge, backed by Roddenberry’s vision that they have moved beyond interpersonal conflict, stands as a great source of inspiration. In addition to the obviously racial statements, the addition of the Russian Chekov in later seasons, although he was largely there for comic relief, represented a promising future (respect, as well as existence!) for what had been the United States’ chief enemy at the time. (I’ll have plenty of chance in the future to chat about the other representations of the USA’s enemies, the Klingons and the Romulans.)

Human progress was not only shown in social achievement or technological power. Spock himself was often played for laughs due to his rigidity and failure to acknowledge his (clearly present) humanity. Although loved and respected by fans, Spock often was a straw man representing the emotionally bankrupt, completely unempathetic man struggling to maintain feelings of superiority based on knowledge and critical thinking. I think if Spock were a character created today, he would be compared to “mansplainers” or Red Pill types. The fact that the other characters can explain their choices outside of Spock’s coldness, and make fun of him when he lets a bit of emotion shine through, promises a future in which people don’t have to be miserable pedants who only care about things for their academic value. The human still has a place in the 23rd century. We don’t have to replace ourselves or mimic machines as time pushes forward. People liked this idea.

 

I’ve been thinking about Star Trek even more than usual lately, what with the first episodes of Star Trek Discovery airing last week. I’ve got even more to say about that, but perhaps it can wait for another day.