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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.