Cheating Death: Star Trek II and III

I watched the first three Star Trek movies back-to-back last night, tweeting as I went. I've always liked the first film for the things that it usually gets criticised for: its slow pace, 'transcendent' story, lack of 'action'. Its special effects by Doug Trumbull (with help from John Dykstra) are striking, with clear nods to 2001's Stargate sequence when the Enterprise penetrates V'ger's cloud, and the opening tour around the Enterprise in space-dock is so good that it's reprised at the beginning of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. This was partly for budgetary reasons, re-using the first film's footage, but the recognisability of some of the shots (as they pass the Enterprise's rear bay doors a man in an environment suit descends head-first; when the Enterprise gets under way, a worker in a suit stops to wave them goodbye) lends familiarity, a very literal sense that we've been here before.

Wrath of Khan trades on this familiarity. Its opening, with Chekhov and Captain Terrell landing on Ceti Alpha VI, a desert planet assailed by high winds, is straight out of a show from the original series (TOS): it's set-bound, the sand-storm effects are low-grade and when they find Khan and his remaining followers sheltering inside what appears to be a couple of shipment containers, we're definitely back on recognisable ground. Ricardo Montalban, of course, reprises the role of Khan from the TOS series 'Space Seed', again signifying recognition and familiarity. 'This is what you were expecting from the first film', Wrath of Khan tells us.

If Wrath of Khan is a sequel to 'Space Seed', then Star Trek III: the Search for Spock is a direct sequel to the second film, forming a mirrored pair within the sequence. Spock, of course, dies in saving the ship in Wrath of Khan, only for his 'soul' to be downloaded into McCoy's brain and his body resurrected on the planet Genesis in Search for Spock. There are strong parallels in the narratives of the two films. In both, a rogue antagonist springs a surprise attack on the Enterprise (Khan/ Commander Kruge, who is played by Christopher Lloyd with similar relish to Montalban); the damaged ship is abandoned while Kirk and others are stranded on a planet below; Kirk pleads for a mano-a-mano confrontation with the antagonist as a strategy, his passions at full tilt ('Khaaan!!'/ 'You Klingon bastard, you killed my son!'); Kirk triumphs by pulling off a kind of trick (the flight to the Nebula/ destroying the Enterprise).

Wrath of Khan begins with the 'Kobiyashi Maru' training simulation which, it is revealed, Kirk defeated in his own youth by re-programming the test before the event to allow him to rescue the damaged ship: 'I don't believe in no-win situations', he tells Saavik (Kirstie Alley). The 'Kobiyashi Maru' becomes the key to both Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock. In Wrath of Khan, it becomes an index of Kirk's problematic heroism, his unwillingness to yield, to 'lose': this means that he has never really faced death (this is instead, especially notoriously in TOS, visited on many a red-topped and expendable 'security officer'). He has never faced grief; he has always 'cheated death'. Spock's sacrifice ('But he'll die!' - 'He's dead already') causes an ethical re-alignment for Kirk, a means by which to re-assess his own heroism: the mission, this time, has been paid for 'in our dearest blood', and Kirk is contemptuous of a young crew-man's wish to have a homecoming parade. Although the end of Wrath of Khan was altered to more directly foreshadow the next film, it ends on a somewhat melancholic note, with a return to Earth and the loss of what Shatner will call 'the better part of me' in Search for Spock.

The third film, then, swiftly goes about inverting Wrath of Khan. Where the second film ends with death, the third one quickly enjoins the possibility of resurrection; where Kirk's tricky heroism was problematic, it becomes heroic once more in Search for Spock: as they stand on Genesis and watch the stricken Enterprise plummet through the atmosphere as a fireball, Kirk says: 'My God, Bones, what have I done?', to which McCoy replies: 'What you always do - turn death into a fighting chance to live.' Where Wrath of Khan was explicitly critical of Kirk's tendency to 'cheat death', Search for Spock unashamedly returns to Kirkian heroism, to the extent that he even defeats Kluge in a brawl, a real return to the double-fisted ethos of TOS. (Perhaps sacrificing the Enterprise is different from sacrificing an old friend, though even the ship is resurrected by the beginning of Star Trek V.)

As the film series wanders through the successful The Voyage Home (IV), the execrable The Final Frontier (V), and the solid The Undiscovered Country (VI) - the last also directed by Nicholas Meyer, who directed Wrath of Khan - it becomes apparent that the most pressing problem for the crew of the Enterprise isn't death, but ageing: even in Wrath of Khan, Kirk had opined that he was getting to old to be warp-driving around the galaxy. There's no way out of this battle, no trick to be pulled off (except in the ludicrous body-double shots Shatner uses to film 'himself' as Kirk climbing a mountain at the beginning of the fifth film, the outrageousness of which simply re-inforcing that which was meant to be hidden). While the title of the last film to feature the original cast in its entirety refers to Hamlet, and his pondering on what-comes-after, the final line of the film really indicates where it's coming from. Asked by Sulu, for a final time, what heading he should pursue (in Wrath of Khan, Spock says, unexpectedly, 'indulge yourself'), Kirk tells him: 'Second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning.' The destination for the crew isn't the 'final frontier', in their dotage, but Neverland. Perhaps, when he gets there, Kirk will engage his lost boys and girls in unending battles with the Pirates, and face off once more with Hook, who is played by Ricardo Montalban.


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