Star Trek II: The Wrath of the Well-Read Villain

My kids have not grown up on “Star Trek”, and until recently they knew nothing about it beyond Spock’s ears, a captain named Kirk, and maybe a ship named Enterprise. For our regular movie night I recently picked “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” I didn’t tell the kids what I was going to show them, but I prepared them as any Trekkie dad would. For a full week I had both Jacob and Ava, with swords in hand, rehearsing the line, “From hell’s heart I stab at thee.”  I tutored Ava on how revenge is best served: cold.  And I had both kids read to me the opening and closing lines of “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Jacob’s favorite character was Khan.  We were joined by their grandma Shirley, also new to Trek; she said she wanted to pick Khan but didn’t expect to like Spock so much.  And why not. The Spock steals the movie.  Kirk has more screen time, but when Spock went into the radiation chamber he held the kids’ attention like nothing else and kept it until well into the credits. 

I’ve been wanting to show this movie to Shirley ever since she finished “Moby Dick” earlier this year.  She noticed that Khan’s library included “Moby-Dick” and “Paradise Lost.”  (In freeze-frame I can also make out Dante’s “Inferno,” the Bible and “King Lear”).  I told her how certain lines in “Moby-Dick”, when I read it many years ago, practically made me scream “Eureka” because I had heard them dozens of times in Khan’s mouth. I’d never suspected that they were borrowed lines.  I always thought these were just great lines from the screenwriters.

Ava clarified something for me.  I’ve seen this movie beyond counting, and yet I’ve always thought that Kirk was referring to his son David when he says to Carol, “There’s a man out there I haven’t seen in 15 years who’s trying to kill me.”

I had worried that the Ceti Eel scene was going to give the kids nightmares.  Many adults freak when the eel oozes out of Chekov’s ear.  But all of us sat quietly through the eel scenes, and the kids said it was no problem.  Jacob actually said it was his favorite scene.

When I saw it in theaters in June 1982, I was short of 12 years old, about a year younger than Jacob is now.   

Jacob said “Star Wars ripoff” when he saw the Enterprise’s first warp, but I told him during our mid-movie break that the Star Trek warp was about ten years older than Star Wars.  I mentioned that the Genesis demonstration was the first entirely CGI sequence in movie history, and that it was done by George Lucas’ ILM.

Jacob complained that the ships in Star Trek seemed to take so much damage, that just one hit could leave Enterprise on batteries only, without shields or phasers. Khan, of course, made knew exactly where to hit the Enterprise, which was very similar to the Reliant, the ship that Khan hijacked. But Jacob is right about the contrast with Star Wars. They are two different visions of space travel, and I think Trek suffers whenever it tries to ape the kinetic energy of the latter.

Jacob likes to critique but it never means that he doesn’t like a movie, and I got the sense that he actually was moved by this one, considering how quiet he was during Spock’s death scene.  He said, “What?” when the credits rolled, and I’m guessing he was surprised that the movie ended with Spock still dead.  He and his sister are old enough to have seen that death is quite often reversed in movies; but they seem to be no more confident about Spock’s return than I was as a preteen.

For me, Spock’s death continues to be heartbreaking, continues to overshadow everything else in this movie.  I told the group how I was in denial, back in ’82.  I simply could not imagine how Star Trek would go on without Spock – and I was a regular but not especially avid fan of the TV series.

Of course, two years after “Wrath of Khan” I wondered with equal shock and sorrow how Star Trek could go on without the Enterprise.

Over the years we learned that the answer to both questions was a resounding Not Possible. 

Ava said Spock’s death was so sad, because you see him getting up and you think he might be okay, but then…

Jacob said that the line “From hell’s heart I stab at thee” was done much better in this movie than in the 1956 adaptation of “Moby-Dick”, and I agree. That movie makes the line literal, with Gregory Peck actually stabbing the whale repeatedly; Peck tries his best but he has to halt throughout the line, and the poetry is lost.

The contrast between Khan and Spock at the conclusion of “Wrath of Khan” has always been obvious, but today I reflected on it as essentially dual suicides.  One man, as he had gently reminded a concerned friend, has no ego to bruise or to protect, and he will always serve the needs of the many before the needs of the one. The other man, once he’s facing certain death, is willing to hasten his own destruction if it will destroy the many, or at least, the one.

The screenplay for “Wrath of Khan” is full of simple connections that you don’t always recognize but must feel on some level.  To take a relatively obvious example, the Ceti Eel drops out of Chekov’s ear dripping with blood just moments before Kirk calls Khan “you bloodsucker!”

On YouTube I’ve been watching “Wrath of Khan” reaction videos, and the quick jumps made in those videos can help you see new connections. Chekov says, “Captain Kirk was your host, and you repaid him by trying to steal his ship and murder him,” just moments before Khan makes Chekov a captive host of a Ceti Eel.  Kirk, paraphrasing Carol Marcus, says “give up Genesis” right after we’ve heard Khan promise to round perdition’s flames “before I give him up!” 

Genesis was already filling my head when I turned on the movie, because I had just started the creation chapters of “Paradise Lost,” based on the Biblical account of creation.

The first sight we get of Khan’s crew, a group of hooded figures on a barren windswept plain, reminded me of Satan’s crew as we find them in the opening chapter of “Paradise Lost”: “there the companions of his fall, o’erwhelmed / With floods and whirlwinds of tempestuous fire”.

“Space Seed” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”

After our movie night I rewatched the “Space Seed” episode from the original series, after something like 25 years. I still remembered Khan’s allusion to one of Satan’s famous lines from “Paradise Lost”: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” (PL 1: 263). I was wondering if the episode contained any more allusions to “Paradise Lost,” and in particular whether Khan’s seduction of Lt. Marla McGivers could be compared to Satan’s seduction of Eve. 

Rewatching it, I didn’t see much of a similarity. Khan’s actual words to McGivers don’t remind me of anything Satan said to Eve (apart from generally flattery).  And really there’s no reason the two seductions should be the same. Satan is not trying to mate with Eve, and Eve doesn’t want him; something else is the temptation.

But Khan himself is clearly based on Milton’s Satan. In “Space Seed” we know from the first that he’s something more than human (due to genetic engineering). McGivers is taken with him, his form, his origin, his strength and destiny, from the instant she lays eyes on him, as she would be with a god.  He is not only physically and mentally superior to the average human, but also an unkillable thing; Bones says of the unconscious Khan, lying in sick bay at the start of the episode, that there is something in the man that refuses death.

Khan in “Space Seed” is less Ahab than Satan: a power-hungry and magnetic leader whom even his opponents aboard the Enterprise cannot help but admire.  And readers have always had that type of relationship with Milton’s Satan. That may be the best allusion in “Space Speed” to “Paradise Lost”.

When Khan wakes up aboard the Enterprise, he refuses to reveal his history or identity. With a little research, Spock finds out that he was one of the chief warlords of a global conflict that Star Trek lore sets in the 1990s. Now able to match Khan with a name from historical accounts, the Enterprise crew have a fascinating debate about him, with Spock unable to understand how his human crewmates can have any positive feelings about a ruthless dictator.

Kirk explains, “We can be against him and admire him, all at the same time.” Spock, with some justice, retorts that this is illogical. You can just imagine how many times in debates about “Paradise Lost” someone has said, This is Satan we’re talking about, let’s keep perspective here and not let our admiration get out of hand.

Khan is repeatedly likened in “Space Seed” to Napoleon Bonaparte, another figure whose bottomless appetite for power has not prevented widespread admiration for him, both in his own time and today. When Khan’s attempt to hijack the Enterprise is foiled, Kirk must decide what to do with him. This is a man who, we’ve learned, conquered over a quarter of the Earth’s populated regions during the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. Napoleon, we know, was defeated by a coalition of allies who exiled him to the island of Elba, giving him governorship of the island, and imposing minimal security measures over him — a controversial decision when it was made, and all the more so after Napoleon duly escaped and had to be defeated one last time at the Battle of Waterloo. Now, Kirk either is not too familiar with this history or he knows it very well, because, with Starfleet’s authority backing him, he exiles Khan to a remote planet, Ceti Alpha V, where there is minimal life, none of it humanoid; he rules that Khan must stay there but is free to make the planet his own.

Khan agrees, but his reply to Kirk is most interesting, because he doesn’t invoke the obvious parallel with Napoleon that the screenplay has been driving at all this time. Khan instead asks Kirk, “Have you read Milton, Captain?” Kirk silently nods in understanding, and sends Khan and company on their way. Kirk explains to his own officers that Khan is referring to Satan’s line, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Kirk may or may not know his European history, but he knows his English literature. Spock gets the last word, saying merely that it would be interesting to come back to this planet in a hundred years and see what has become of the seed Kirk has planted.

The explicit parallel made with “Paradise Lost” by Khan implies that Kirk/Starfleet are in the role of God and that Khan is being punished and exiled for something like Satan’s rebellion in heaven. 

Satan and his loyalists were thrown down into Hell during their rebellion. When Khan was defeated in the Eugenics War, he and his band left Earth on a space ship named after Australia’s 18th century colony, Botany Bay.  They are found asleep on this ship by the Enterprise crew centuries later, and that is how we first encounter Satan and his comrades at the opening of “Paradise Lost” – waking up in Hell, trying to find out where they are, what happened, and how they can get back.  Satan, per Milton, decides at that point that he must go to a newly created world, Earth, and make it his own. That is what Khan intends to do on Ceti Alpha V, echoing both Napoleon’s exile on the island of Elba and Satan’s incursion into Eden.

Of course, none of these analogies are meant to be rigid, and there are several analogies mixing with each other. Ceti Alpha V is obviously not meant to be Eden, and it’s not yet Hell. Kirk likens life on that planet to the hardscrabble existence of those convicts who first arrived in Botany Bay.  It’s a penal existence, an imprisonment, if not yet a hell.  “Star Trek II” runs with that interpretation by making Ceti Alpha V evolve into a truly hellish world, from which Khan must find a way to escape.  When he does, he’s no longer searching for a world to make his own; he is now Ahab and is seeking only revenge, not upon God, but upon one creature that has won his hatred and obsession.

2 thoughts on “Star Trek II: The Wrath of the Well-Read Villain

  1. Well done on successfully introducing this movie to your family film night. I attempted to do the same with a personal favourite of mine, the Erroll Flynn version of Robin Hood with so much wonderful character acting from the supporting cast, Flynn’s balletic physicality that is utterly riveting at the all too short golden age of his career, Olivia de Havilland’s beauty and Korngold’s wonderful music that entranced me long before I knew what a great composer he was.
    Anyway, enough of that. All I would add was that I failed to engage the interest of my wife and daughters. So well done.
    I am very struck by the contemporary interest in Milton’s Satan. Of course C.S Lewis wrote about this in his “Preface to Paradise Lost”, a book introduced to me by my teacher who first taught me Milton. He had himself been a student of Lewis’s and I suspect had a greater influence on me than I realised at the time.
    When I first read Philip Pulman’s Dark Materials I was at first his character of Lord Asriel not knowing that he was based upon Milton’s Satan. I simply knew that in any conflict with Pulman’s Magisterium or his Authority (his so-called God) I would have to be on Asriel’s side. I would rather be punished by a divine bully than serve him. “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”. Actually it wasn’t until I saw the wonderful recent dramatisation of the trilogy that I realised that Asriel was as much a tyrant than the divine being with whom he was fighting. Now more and more I want to emphasise the words that Jesus speaks that “the Son of Man came not to be served as to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

    1. You know, I think growing up I unfairly tossed anything to do with Errol Flynn into the “corny” category and simply never bothered with it, to my own loss. Thank you, actually, for going into detail about what you love about it, because you give me more reasons to check it out now.

      I don’t know how Star Trek will go down overall with my kids. The generational gap is wide. We’ll see.

      Before reading PL, I had no idea the Dark Materials books had anything to do with it, but they are on my to-read list now. (And the movies, on your recommendation.) And surely my kids will take to those books far more easily than to Paradise Lost, which is quite difficult (and worth every bit of effort!). Yet, who knows, maybe they’ll surprise me one day.

      I recently finished Lewis’ “Preface to PL” and got a lot out of it, particularly with regard to Satan’s character.

      Amen to that NT quote, and thank you for your comment!

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