I didn’t intend to write two Star Trek-themed pieces in a row, but it seems appropriate: Not only did we lose Leonard Nimoy last week, but also Maurice Hurley (writer/producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation and creator of the Borg), and Harve Bennett just a few days ago. Bennett helped resurrect the Trek film franchise after the “disappointment” of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as producer of the follow-up feature Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And Star Trek hasn’t been the same since.
The Wrath of Khan has been the template that so many Star Trek films have tried to emulate, usually with middling results. Every new film is the “best since Wrath of Khan,” every new villain is measured by how Khan-like they are. But the lessons learned from Star Trek II have been all the wrong ones.
Because Wrath of Khan was so successful and the titular villain so effective, writers and producers feel every Trek film needs a bigger and badder villain than Khan. This has had the effect of reducing many a Trek film to a hero versus super-villain formula, which is a format not generally suited to Star Trek. Many of these villains are fueled by revenge, but their motives don’t bear much scrutiny. Think Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis, Nero in Star Trek (2009), and, well, Khan again in Star Trek Into Darkness. The most successful Star Trek film until Trek ’09 was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which had no villain at all.
First Contact, the most successful of The Next Generation films, also owes a debt to The Wrath of Khan, in the sense that it acts as a sequel to an episode of the TV series. The Borg in First Contact has weight as an enemy because it was a rematch with a foe previously encountered on the show. We don’t give a shit about Shinzon in Nemesis because we’ve never met him before. We don’t know who Nero is in Trek ’09, but he gets extra badass points for killing Kirk’s dad and destroying Vulcan in that movie. (First Contact, like Wrath of Khan, also lays the Moby Dick allusions on pretty thick but that’s neither here nor there.)
Star Trek Into Darkness goes so far as to re-introduce Khan as the villain in the rebooted universe. But it’s the pop culture version of Khan that Into Darkness trades on rather than the actual character. They wanted Khan to be to Kirk what The Joker was to Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But Khan was never the Enterprise’s worst enemy. He only has such notoriety among Trek fans because he’s indirectly responsible for Spock’s death and because the movie he was in was really good. Into Darkness even knows Khan isn’t that fearsome; they have to rely on a cameo from Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in a superfluous scene to tell the audience that “Khan was the most fearsome enemy the crew of the Enterprise ever encountered.” Which, for anyone who has seen any Star Trek, is patently untrue. Khan was formidable enemy but he’s hardly a super-villain. He got lucky because Kirk made a mistake, both by letting him off the hook in “Space Seed” and by letting himself be too complacent in Star Trek II. Khan forces our characters to reevaluate themselves, and Star Trek II is a movie about the past returning to haunt the present.
The Wrath of Khan is a great movie because it’s about more than space battles and fisticuffs. The stakes are personal, and the movie is willing to upset the status quo of Star Trek to explore new territory. As is often pointed out, Khan and Kirk don’t even meet face-to-face in the whole movie. I’d like to see a Star Trek movie that could pull that off again.
2016 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, and as of this writing it seems like the only commemoration we’re going to get is the third entry into the JJ Abrams film franchise. I’d like to hope that we’ll get a story that’s more than just another super-villain threatening the galaxy. Star Trek is capable of so much more than that.
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