Wrath of Khan and failure
SPOILERS AHEAD: I will comment a couple of things about Star Trek Into Darkness, so, if you haven’t seen it, and don’t want to know some plot details, you may not want to read this. Just watch the movie and come back, I’ll be here waiting 😉
Oh, there were plenty about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and a little of Space Seed), but being a movie from 30 years ago, I doubt they can be considering spoilers.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is, no doubt, a fan favourite. It has a great combination of a powerful story, iconic moments, connection with the TV series roots, and that extra Shakespearean touch that keeps everything together. But I want to focus in a particular aspect, one of the stronger themes than runs through the movie.
And that is to grow old. The fact that in particular (here Admiral) Kirk is not young any more is presented through the whole movie. He becomes an unexpected father. He needs to use reading glasses.
But, over all, he has to face the consequences of his previous actions. Especially failed ones.
Kirk starts the movie as that invincible fleet captain that has faced all possible risks and dangers (“Risk… risk is our business! That’s what this starship is all about…”) and has been triumphant on each and every occasion. Getting as far as cheating on Kobayashi Maru (a training mission designed to present failure to cadets) because, well, he simply don’t believe in non-win situations. During The Original Series, basically every single opportunity to take the bold approach to fix a problem is taken, with amazing success.
But, just as the movie starts, we discover that there has been something unexpected during this time. Khan and his crew were left at the end of Space Seed on a harsh planet, basically so they can get a challenge worth of genetically engineered supermen. At the same time, the rest of the universe won’t have to worry about their conquest aspirations. But there was a mistake. That challenge has mutated into a nightmare, even for men like Khan. Enterprise crew (and Starfleet, for what matters) just forgot about the issue, moving to the next exciting adventure the following week. But the truth is that it has been a disaster. Kirk failed without noticing it.
Ok, so Kirk goes to fix the problem and saving the day. He is even able to use some tricks and cheat Khan a couple of times, giving the impression that he is defeated, but managing to save the day at the eleventh hour. As usual, on the other hand.
But, then the final moment arrives. Kirk truly faces a real non-win situation. Spock sacrifices himself to save the full ship, in a move that Kirk couldn’t anticipate. And here is the genius on the script. Spock dies. He truly does! There are no tricks, no last minute saving, no technobabble that reverts death. Spock is dead, he is no more, has ceased to be, expired and gone to meet his maker. For real. For the next 2 years (until the next Star Trek movie) Spock was totally dead. And this is extremely powerful from the point of view of drama. It is not common at all for a big budget movie, and it was a big bold move for Star Trek.
Because Kirk faces the moment he has feared for his whole life. The moment of failure. Yes, sure, it’s not a total failure, the ship has been saved. But he has been able during his whole career to end every adventure making a comment with Spock and McCoy at the bridge without a scratch. Death is for Red Shirts and aliens, not for him or close friends.
And that’s the main point of it. Failure really sucks. It hurts a lot. That’s why no one wants to fail. No matter how many times we say “failing is the first step in succeeding“, or how we repeat the mantra of “fail often, fail early“. Fail small sucks less, but still sucks. But it is unavoidable. Kirk was able to deal with it because, well, he is a fiction character. But in our lives, the truth is that we fail constantly. And the way of dealing with it is not denying that fact, or cheat our own Kobayashi Maru, living in a “I don’t believe in non-win situations” bubble. The way of doing it is trying to make each failure the seed of a new success, to learn from our errors, to keep us motivated to better ourselves. Even if it hurts every single time.
That’s one of the main reasons why Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t really move me inside. While there are some superficial similarities/homages, the character of John Harrison does not have any particular meaning for Kirk or Spock. He does not represent any personal failure for them or haunt from the past. And the end is yet-another-protagonist-almost-die-to-be-saved-by-a-gimmick, lacking the deep meaning of The Wrath of Khan.