Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - A Look at Friendship

(This is my contribution to the "You Gotta Have Friends Blogathon," hosted by Moon in Gemini.)

"I have been and always shall be your friend." 

Those words epitomize the greatness of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It isn't just my favorite Star Trek film, it's one of my all-around favorite movies of all time. It finally brought to the big screen everything that made Gene Roddenberry's television franchise so great -- the examination of human nature and modern society through the lens of science fiction exploration and adventure, swashbuckling American Western tropes set in outer space, and most importantly some magnificent character dynamics.

Much has been said about the friendship shown by the "triumvirate" of Kirk-Spock-and-McCoy, how their differing personalities perfectly complimented each other, clashing and reconciling as Id, Ego, and Superego. The end result is terrific escapist drama that surpasses mere genre entertainment.  

In Wrath of Khan, rather than the more cerebral, special-effects-heavy excuse for a plot in the first Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a more emotional and exciting story unfolds. Admiral James T. Kirk is celebrating his birthday during a test-exercise aboard his old ship the U.S.S. Enterprise.  "Celebrate" is the wrong word, since he's having a crisis of purpose, unhappy with his bureaucratic duties in Star Fleet. "Bones" McCoy says to him over a glass of Romulan ale, "Damn it, Jim, what the hell is the matter with you? Other people have birthdays, why are we treating yours like a funeral?" Then McCoy offers a bit of tough love advice (and references Kirk's hobby of collecting antiques, such as old books and reading glasses): "Jim, I'm your doctor and I'm also your friend. Get back your command! Get it back before you turn into part of this collection, before you really do grow old."  

McCoy's funeral reference foreshadowed the ending, when a personal sacrifice saves the lives of many.  It's a shining example of the meaning of friendship. It's a sharp contrast to the movie's villain, Khan Noonien Singh, genetically-engineered from Earth's Eugenics Wars whose self-centered obsession to destroy Kirk leads to Khan's own downfall, as well as the death's of Khan's own family and friends. 

Wrath of Khan is an excellent sequel to the "Space Seed" episode of the original Star Trek series, in which Khan and his team are discovered aboard the Botany Bay ship, asleep for centuries. After they awake and cause mayhem, they are banished by Kirk and the Federation of Planets to another world to live in exile. Khan's friendship with his crew of warriors is worth exploring -- they will arguably do anything for each other. Khan's fierce desire for vengeance stems from losing his loved ones when his planet shifts rotation, for which he blames Kirk for "abandoning them" and not checking on them.  Yet, Khan lets his anger consume him, allowing his thirst for revenge to overshadow common sense, eventually leading his own friends and followers to their doom.

 The friendship among Khan's Human Augments is best exemplified by Joachim, who would do anything for his leader. He offers advice, like McCoy did to Kirk.  When they capture the U.S.S. Reliant, he tells Khan that they can go anywhere now that they have a Federation starship, but Khan is driven to hunt for Kirk, like Captain Ahab chasing the whale in Moby Dick, one of the film's blatant literary allusions. When they seize the powerful Genesis device, Joachim again tries to reason with Khan, telling him that they can now go anywhere to regroup and no one would dare challenge them, but Khan wants Kirk to pay for perceived injustices. During the climax, when Khan is on the verge of losing everything, Joachim speaks his loyalty with his last words.  Even then, Khan only has an eye-for-an-eye mentality, saying, "I will avenge you," unable to see that the selfish need for revenge has driven him to this.

Quotes from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens are sprinkled throughout Wrath of Khan. The Enterprise crew sacrifice "the needs of the one" for "the needs of the many." In the sequels to follow, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Kirk and his team will flip this, risking their own lives for the "needs of the one," to save a friend.  

As I was re-watching Wrath of Khan, I was amazed how many times the word "friend" was used, even ironically among enemies.  If you haven't seen the film, do yourself a favor and watch it to see why so many consider it one of the greatest.  Likewise, if you've seen it before, check it out again and view it from the theme of friendship, and I have no doubt you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you discover.


Debra Vega said…
Do you know I've never seen this? I can't believe it, either, since it's such a popular entry in the Star Trek movie franchise. I have to get on that and will definitely keep in mind friendship as an overall theme.

Thanks so much for joining in, Nick!
Nick Leshi said…
Debbie, I am SHOCKED that you have never seen this. :-)