Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — Revenge and the Price of Holding a Grudge

Tonight I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. TCM and Fathom Events were presenting it for the movie’s fortieth anniversary. The movie was excellent, but it was bittersweet. Suzanne was a major, big-time Trekker. the kind who could tell you the season, episode number, and title of every episode of what has come to be called “The Original Series.” She would tell you that the movie continues the story arc of Season 1, Episode 12, “Space Seed.”

In “Space Seed,” the Enterprise encounters a sleeper ship containing specially bred superhumans, led by a man named Khan Noonien Singh, from Earth’s past who try to take over the Enterprise. Captain James T. Kirk exiles them to the planet Ceti Alpha V.

The movie takes place fifteen years after the events in “Space Seed.” Khan has spent the last fifteen years trying to find a way to escape his exile planet and exact his revenge on Kirk.

The starship Reliant is on a mission to find a lifeless planet to test a scientific device for the Federation called the Genesis Device, which was developed for the Federation by a civilian scientific team led by Dr. Carol Marcus, one of Kirk’s former lovers, and her son David. It is designed to reorganize dead matter into habitable worlds. Two Reliant officers, Captain Clark Terrell and Commander Pavel Chekov (a former Enterprise officer), looking for a lifeless planet to test Genesis, beam down to what they believe is Ceti Alpha VI.

They are captured by Khan and his people and told they are actually on Ceti Alpha V. Ceti Alpha VI has blown up. Khan injects indigenous eel larvae into their ears, controlling their minds. He then takes control of the Reliant. Using Reliant, he attacks the space station Regula I, where Dr. Marcus and her crew have their lab. Regula I sends a distress signal, which is picked up by the Enterprise. The Enterprise is out on a training mission to train new officers, including Spock’s protege, Saavik (played by Kirstie Alley, in her first major motion picture role.)

Admiral Kirk is on board for the training, and due to the emergency, he takes command from Captain Spock. (Yes, everyone got promoted.) Reliant attacks and cripples the Enterprise and Khan demands all material related to Genesis. Kirk buys time and remotely cripples the Reliant‘s shields, making it vulnerable to counterattack. Khan retreats for repairs while the Enterprise limps to Regula I.

Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Saavik beam aboard Regula I, where they find Dr. Marcus’s crew murdered (except for Dr. Marcus and David.) They also find Terrell and Chekov. Soon they find Dr. Marcus and David hiding Genesis deep inside a planet. Khan orders Terrell and Chekov to kill Kirk. Instead, Terrell kills himself and the eel comes out of Chekov’s ear. He is taken back to the Enterprise.

Khan is transporting Genesis on the Reliant, intending to maroon Kirk on the lifeless planetoid, but Kirk and Spock trick him into a rendezvous inside the Mutara Nebula. In the nebula, shields are disabled. The two wounded ships can have a fair fight. Kirk and his crew disable Reliant, mortally wounding Khan. As he dies, Khan activates Genesis.

The Enterprise crew detects the activation and tries to escape, but is unable to do so without the disabled warp drive. Spock goes to repair the warp drive, but the engine room is flooded with radiation. McCoy tries to stop him from entering, but he uses a Vulcan mind trick on McCoy and repairs the warp drive, allowing the Enterprise to escape the explosion, which forms a new planet. In so doing, Spock dies. (Spoiler alert: He’s back in the next four movies.)

We also learn that David is Kirk’s son.

What can we learn from this tale? Khan’s fierce drive for revenge drives him to his death; Spock dies saving his friends. Genesis breeds new life. We can see in Khan’s story arc the price that revenge and anger cost. They can literally kill you. We see nobility of helping people, even when it costs you, perhaps even your life. We see the devotion of one’s life to service. And we see that there is always a new life if we but know how to create it.

This is a wonderful, dramatic, swashbuckling adventure with several underlying metaphysical messages. I highly recommend it.