This May, we’re taking a look at the fourth (and final) season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Check back daily for the latest review.
The film has featured on several AFI ballots, even if it rarely placed. The film was included in The Guardian‘s 2011 “my favourite film” cycle. It placed second in a Rolling Stone readers’ poll of the best movies adapted from television series. A 2013 fan poll placed it as the best loved of all the Star Trek movies, the same poll that (ridiculously) ranked Into Darkness as the worst film in the franchise. In 2016, the film’s final conversation between Kirk and Spock topped a fandom poll of the duo’s best moments.
As such, The Wrath of Khan casts a long shadow. Four of the ten Star Trek films that followed borrow its structure and tone. Star Trek: First Contact swaps Khan for the Borg as the returning television antagonist. Star Trek: Nemesis casts Tom Hardy in the villainous role, complete with super weapon and nebula battle. Star Trek finds Eric Bana doing his best Ricardo Montalban impression. It is practically a relief (and a surprise to absolutely no one) when Benedict Cumberbatch finally announces, “My name is Khan.” At least he’s being candid.
Star Trek: Enterprise paved the way for all of this with its Borderland trilogy, which amounts to one gigantic nostalgic tribute to that second Star Trek film. Although the episodes bookending the trilogy are hardly subtle, the middle instalment of that trilogy is perhaps the most egregious example. There are points at which Cold Station 12 plays like a forty-minute deleted scene from The Wrath of Khan.
It is worth pausing to acknowledge the historical importance of The Wrath of Khan. It is the film that saved the Star Trek franchise. Following the success of Star Wars, Paramount decided to give Gene Roddenberry the go-ahead to produce Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film was very much intended to be a prestige piece. Roddenberry took his cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey, recruited veteran science-fiction writer Alan Dean Foster and renowned Hollywood director Robert Wise.
The result was a financial success for the studio, but one that did not satisfy either the fans or the critics. As a result, it was decided that the studio would greenlight a sequel, but with certain caveats. The budget would be dramatically lowered, and Roddenberry would not be allowed anywhere near the production. The fact that Roddenberry pitched a story where Spock would shoot JFK from the grassy knoll probably didn’t help his case much. Nicholas Meyer stepped in, and the rest is history.
It is important to properly contextualise The Wrath of Khan. There had been a gap of almost a decade between the broadcast of The Turnabout Intruder and The Motion Picture. While Star Trek had struggled on original broadcast, it had thrived in syndication. Many fans of the original show discovered it through repeats, filling up airtime on network television in the seventies. During that time it was off the air, Star Trek cultivated a larger fanbase who had not watched the episodes as they originally aired.
For those fans, the feature films would serve as the first piece of Star Trek that they could legitimately call their own. For many of the fans who went to see The Motion Picture, it was their first experience of an “original” Star Trek story. Although those fans had watched and loved the classic show, the feature films held a special place in their hearts. While The Motion Picture was something of a disappointment to those fans, The Wrath of Khan was a triumph. It was something on to which those fans could latch, something that could be fashioned to cornerstone of their fandom.
Enterprise executive producer Manny Coto was one of those fans. When the studio commissioned a new set of commentaries for the feature films, pairing those who worked on the films with those who worked on later series, Manny Coto got to provide an audio commentary for the director’s cut of The Wrath of Khan alongside director Nicholas Meyer. Coto framed his appreciation of the film with a personal introduction:
I’m sitting here – with great humility – in the presence of one of my favourite Star Trek movies, in fact one of my favourite science fiction movies. And to be here with the director of this is a dream come true. I remember this movie with great fondness because I was one of the myriad fans who lined up for the original Star Trek. First of all, I was a fan of the original series when it was on repeats and fell in love with the series as one of the people who helped the Star Trek phenomenon. I was one of the ones who saw it when it was in syndication. And waited with great anticipation for the first movie. And, when it came out, watched the first movie and convinced myself that it was actually quite great.
But there was always a gnawing feeling… it only set in about a year later, when I realised – and my friends realised – that it wasn’t really a Star Trek movie, Star Trek I. Not to take anything away from the great director Robert Wise and the job that he did, but it just fell flat for us. There was something missing. So when this movie came to theatres, we were a little skeptical and wondering what it was going to be. We were just blown away, from moment one, staring with the look, the feel, the way it swept us away. It was just a total immersive experience. And the characters that we’d loved and been so fond of when we were falling in love with the series seemed to have just come to life again for this movie. It was like they’d been resuscitated and brought back to life. And then it was just a glorious story.
Coto describes The Wrath of Khan in almost religious terms, and it certainly seems apt. It is perfectly fair to argue that the critical and commercial success of The Wrath of Khan resurrected with Star Trek franchise. Without that film, there would be no Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. And without that film, there would be no Star Trek: The Next Generation and so on.
The legacy of The Wrath of Khan has elevated Nicholas Meyer to something approaching a franchise legend. When Star Trek V: The Final Frontier derailed the feature film franchise that he had previously course-corrected, Meyer was recruited to salvage the movie series and direct Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, affording some sense of closure to these characters and their world. Fandom were excited when Bryan Fuller was announced as showrunner for the new Star Trek show, they were overjoyed when Nicholas Meyer was brought in.
Given the love for The Wrath of Khan, it is no surprise that the film has had a significant impact upon the shape and tone of the franchise. Most obviously, it became increasingly common for the Star Trek films to pit their characters against a single antagonist. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock had Kruge. Star Trek: Generations had Soran. Star Trek: Insurrection had Ru’afo. The fourth Star Trek film was perhaps the exception that proved the rule, with its whale probe serving as the vaguest antagonist since V’ger.
When JJ Abrams took creative control of the franchise with the reboot in 2009, the producer and his staff found themselves heavily criticised for blatantly aping The Wrath of Khan in the plotting and structuring of Star Trek and Into Darkness. The first film featured a villain obsessed with revenge against a crew staffed mainly by cadets. However, it was the second film that attracted the most criticism, with fans rushing to lambaste the movie for emulating The Wrath of Khan as early as the release of the first trailer.
Despite the fact that the production team swore up and down that Khan would not be the villain of Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch was eventually be revealed to be playing Khan. The film featured the genetically enhanced superman exacting a terrible vengeance upon those who had wronged him while trying to protect those left in his charge. The film borrowed a number of dramatic beats from The Wrath of Khan, down to Khan quoting Melville and killing off one of the leads in the final act, saving the ship. (However, Into Darkness did not wait for the sequel to revive them.)
This became a stock criticism of the film, with even the production team acknowledging that Khan caused a problem for the plotting of the film. Discussing Into Darkness in hindsight, Abrams conceded, “There were too many nods to The Wrath of Khan. I’ll cop to that.” However, it should be acknowledged that these issues reflected a broader trend in both the Star Trek franchise and wider popular culture. Into Darkness just took those issues to their logical conclusion. In a way, it was the franchise’s most honest homage to The Wrath of Khan.
The decision to have Khan in the movie met with a great deal of criticism, but the production team were also criticised for the decision to keep his presence a secret. Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as “John Harrison”, and revealed to be Khan more than halfway through the film in a scene that would mean absolutely nothing to anybody unfamiliar with the name. The inclusion of Khan in Into Darkness appeared to be a reference to franchise sacred text for the sake of a reference to franchise sacred text. The character’s arc could easily have been allocated to a new character.
It should be noted that Abrams’ film was not the only follow-up to a franchise reboot to make the same mistake. Sam Mendes’ second James Bond film, Spectre, replicated the plot point almost exactly with the character of Ernst Stavro Blofield. In both cases, the plot point was itself contrived, but that awkwardness was compounded by a desire to keep the reveal secret. Matt Singer pointed to the twist as an example of competing market trends:
Movies like Star Trek Into Darkness and Spectre represent a strange and troubling confluence of incompatible pop cultural trends: Fandom’s increasing obsession with anticipating blockbusters with years of hype and theorizing, and Hollywood’s continuing obsession with endlessly remaking the same handful of stories over and over again. Each new tentpole release is met with thousands of words of conjecture and hundreds of screengrabs and GIFs; literally every single poster and publicity still and teaser and television ad and piece of ancillary merchandise is subjected to a level of scrutiny that would awe Talmudic scholars. We’ve arguably reached a point in film culture where movie marketing is more carefully analyzed than the movies themselves.
Leaving aside the awkwardness of positioning these reveals as twists rather than organic plot developments, the inclusion of characters like Khan and Blofeld points to contemporary trends in nostalgia. Khan and Blofeld are included as markers harking back to the franchise’s idealised past, crispy nuggets of nostalgia baked into franchise and properties that already come seasoned with it.
Still, the brazenness with which Into Darkness mimics and homages The Wrath of Khan seems to be the source of this fan frustration, as if viewers are upset at how candid the film is about its influences. However, this candour is almost refreshing. While the influence of The Wrath of Khan can be felt upon the other movies in the film series, this influence blossomed into full-blown obsession in the mid-nineties. Once the franchise hit its thirtieth anniversary, it seemed like the shadow of The Wrath of Khan only loomed larger and larger.
This obsession began to be felt with First Contact, the second film to feature the cast of The Next Generation. As with The Wrath of Khan, this was a sequel that followed a lackluster original film; Generations had generated something of a muted response from the fanbase. As with The Wrath of Khan, the production team decided to bring back an antagonist from the series to focus as an antagonist. As with The Wrath of Khan, there was even a snazzy change in uniforms that ushered in this new and darker aesthetic.
However the similarities ran deeper than all that. As with The Wrath of Khan, the writers structured First Contact as an homage to Moby Dick (complete with characters explicitly acknowledging that through dialogue) by fashioning a tale of obsession and revenge. The film’s biggest reversal was that the protagonist was consumed by his obsession, rather than the antagonist. Picard was cast as Ahab rather than Khan. It was a nice twist, and enough time had passed that the references to The Wrath of Khan felt like an appropriate tribute for the franchise’s thirtieth anniversary.
It is interesting to wonder about the timing of this renewed focus on The Wrath of Khan. Perhaps it was simply the fact that almost fifteen years had passed between the release of The Wrath of Khan and the release of First Contact, time enough to allow a generation of fans who had grown up with the second film to make their impact on the franchise. Perhaps it was the passing of Gene Roddenberry in the early nineties that made this revived fixation possible; after all, The Wrath of Khan established a blueprint for what post-Roddenberry Star Trek could look like.
It should be noted, of course, that The Wrath of Khan was far from the first Star Trek story to crib mercilessly from Moby Dick. Given that Moby Dick has been described as “the greatest American novel” or an “American bible”, it makes sense that it should be filtered through the lens of a show as anchored in American popular consciousness as Star Trek. The original show’s second season contains two memorable riffs on Herman Melville’s classic, The Doomsday Machine and Obsession. Still, The Wrath of Khan remains a towering influence on Star-Trek-as-Moby-Dick.
However, First Contact opened the flood gates; it seems like every Star Trek movie since (excluding Insurrection) has been an extended homage to The Wrath of Khan. Nemesis, the final feature film starring the cast of The Next Generation, even found Picard facing an opponent who blamed the hero for his life stranded on a cruel and desolate world before chasing the Enterprise into a nebula and attempting to mitigate his eventual defeat by detonating a super weapon as a suicide attack. The JJ Abrams films were just less veiled in their references.
This fixation on The Wrath of Khan was not confined to the feature film franchise. The entire Borderland trilogy is an extended love letter to the second Star Trek film. The three episodes are literally saturated with references and in-jokes. The costuming and make-up on the Augments in Borderland very consciously evokes the look and feel of The Wrath of Khan ahead of Khan’s first appearance in Space Seed, down to the fact that that these strapping young people all look like strippers from a Mad Max burlesque show. (Their torn clothes look like a dystopian fashion line.)
There are points at which these stylistic touches seem to reach self-parody. The Augments appear to have been stranded on a desolate planet without a single pair of scissors or an electric razor, but with immaculate hair care products and matching outfits that only tear in the same spotty pattern. When Persis and Malik are in bed during The Augments, for their sexy underwear fight, it turns out that Persis’ nightwear is torn in almost exactly the same pattern as her clothes. It is no surprise that Malik seems to speak of the Botany Bay as the Holy Grail in The Augments.
Malik suffers because the scripts paint him as nothing more than an inferior copy of Khan. He even cribs lines from the character, taunting Archer with the fact that he as “five times” the strength of a regular human. Hijacking an enemy ship and stealing weapons of mass destruction, Malik finds himself defeated at the end of the trilogy because he is unwilling to simply live out his life peacefully. The Augments even frames the destruction of the Bird of Prey with references to the destruction of the Reliant, particularly shots of Malik crawling through the debris.
That said, it is not as if the Borderland trilogy is shy on references to other iconic Star Trek stories. This is most obvious when Mike Sussman chooses to pad out The Augments with an extended sequence during which the crew are hassled by a Klingon patrol. Although he avoids having the crew root through Klingon dictionaries, the scene very conspicuously references a similar moment in The Undiscovered Country. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that The Wrath of Khan is the single biggest influence on these three episodes.
And, of all the episodes in the trilogy, it is Cold Station 12 that is most overt in its obsession with The Wrath of Khan. The entire episode plays like an extended deleted scene from The Wrath of Khan. Specifically, it plays like somebody watched The Wrath of Khan about twenty times, and thought that the flow might be improved by adding a scene set on board the station Regula One. It is a sequence left largely implied in the film, positioned between Khan’s hijacking of the Reliant and his first confrontation with Kirk.
Both the Borderland trilogy and The Wrath of Khan feature a bunch of renegade supermen who hijack an enemy ship and use it to attack a secret laboratory. In The Wrath of Khan, the eponymous antagonist attempts to get his hands upon the top secret research into the Genesis Device. In Cold Station 12, the Augments are looking to steal a collection of enhanced embryos. However, the net result is the same; the genetically enhanced supermen torture a bunch of researchers before absconding with a superweapon that threatens to escalate hostility with the Klingons.
In The Wrath of Khan, this torture happens off-screen. Following Khan’s first attack on the Enterprise, Kirk and his colleagues journey to Regula One to confront the aftermath of Khan’s visit to the secret laboratory. The consequences of Khan’s brutality are on full display, with member of the research team murdered and turned upside down as part of Khan’s efforts to leverage information about the Genesis Device. It is a haunting sequence, all the more effective for showing the consequences of violence rather than lingering in its application.
(To be fair, the sequence does appear in Vonda M. McIntyre’s novelisation of The Wrath of Khan, but told in a way that humanises the largely anonymous researchers who appeared in the film. More than that, McIntyre turns the violence inflicted on the staff of Regula One into a recurring plot thread in her novelisations of both The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. In doing so, McIntyre offers her own meditation on the type of violence that movies frequently unleash upon anonymous or background characters.)
Cold Station 12 is essentially an extended forty-minute alternate version of that sequence, one that opts to depict the torture of the researchers in graphic detail and decides to have our heroes arrive while the supermen are engaged in their grisly enterprise. Nevertheless, the episode draws several other beats from The Wrath of Khan, most notably the suggestion that the enemy ship is simply hiding from view behind “one of the larger asteroids.” In many ways, Cold Station 12 is playing out a fannish alternate take on one of the franchise’s most beloved stories.
It seems like the years since the release of The Wrath of Khan have turned it into something of a fetish object for fans, an object to be emulated and imitated time and time again to ever diminishing returns. There is a sense that the franchise is aggressively chasing past successes instead of trying to break new ground, which is all the more frustrating given that The Voyage Home demonstrated that The Wrath of Khan was not the only valid way to make a successful (and enjoyable) Star Trek film.
There is something fundamentally unhealthy with this relationship to The Wrath of Khan, as Ryan Britt has noted:
We the fans are partially to blame here, too. Because we (correctly) love The Wrath of Khan, it’s slipped into the social consciousness that no Star Trek movie will ever be as good as The Wrath of Khan. Well, Star Trek VI was pretty good. Sure, maybe Christopher Plummer wasn’t as memorable as Khan, but he was pretty damn good. If you are a person that wants to see more Star Trek stuff, holding The Wrath as this untouchable standard seems like an unhealthy paradox. It’s like we’ve set up Khan as some perfect ex-girlfriend/boyfriend who dumped us a long time ago, and we compare everyone we date to Khan. We’ll never be happy if we do this!
The Wrath of Khan will never die as long as we remember it, but maybe it’s time to move on.
After all, this fixation upon The Wrath of Khan tends to dilute the impact of the original film.
There is an irony in all of this. For all that The Wrath of Khan has become an immortal and recurring Star Trek story, the original film was very much intended to be the last Star Trek story. In many respects, The Wrath of Khan is a story about ageing and dying; it is the film where Spock dies, where Kirk reflects on his advancing years, where Kirk is sent out with a ship full of cadets. The film even presented the audience with two young surrogates from Kirk and Spock; David Marcus and Saavik are quite literally the next generation.
In that respect, it shares a lot in common with The Undiscovered Country, the other Nicholas Meyer Star Trek film that reflects upon the idea that Kirk and his colleagues might be dinosaurs best laid to rest. Both The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country could be seen as Viking funerals for the original Star Trek crew. If anything, The Wrath of Khan is more powerful because it was released long before The Next Generation was a twinkle in anybody’s eye. There is a sense that this would not be the worst place to leave James Tiberius Kirk.
Given the disappointment with The Motion Picture and Leonard Nimoy’s desire to bury Spock, there was every possibility that The Wrath of Khan could be the final Star Trek story. Of course, the film became a massive success. It is striking how hard The Search for Spock seeks to reverse the more powerful insights and observations of The Wrath of Khan. Spock is resurrected, David Marcus is sacrificed. Far from Kirk leading an inexperienced crew into danger, the classic crew of the Enterprise get to save the galaxy in their soon-to-be-decommissioned ship.
However, a lot of power of The Wrath of Khan comes from the possibility hanging over it that this could really be the end of the franchise. In some respects, it fits within the broader context of eighties pop culture, similar to the changes that took place in mainstream comic books later in the decade. Pulpy science-fiction and superhero comic books have a common pedigree; in fact, the Silver Age renaissance at DC and Marvel owed a lot to fifties and sixties science-fiction. Both genres were also routinely dismissed and overlooked, despite the existence of large fanbases.
During the eighties, a number of changes took place in both superhero comic books and science-fiction cinema that changed the course of the genres. In both cases, there was a move towards more mature content, as if in response to criticisms of the genre as childish or shallow. The eighties saw directors like David Cronenberg and Paul Verhoeven produce pulpy schlocky science-fiction that was also politically engaged and thematically rich. Within comic books, creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller were ascendant.
There were a lot of different strands to this cultural evolution: storytelling became more aggressive, political themes became more overt, irony was layered on more heavily. Films like Robocop or Total Recall or Videodrome would simply not have been possible in the context of the sixties or the early seventies. There was also a willingness to deconstruct and interrogate genre. Alan Moore proved particularly adept at this kind of storytelling, picking at the superhero genre in comics like Miracleman, Swamp Thing and V for Vendetta.
It could be argued that comic books never quite recovered from this deconstructive phase of their existence; 1986 was perhaps the year the superhero genre reach its limits, and not just in the reboot of the shared DC universe with Crisis on Infinite Earths. That same year, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons published the comic book miniseries Watchmen while Frank Miller also released The Dark Knight Returns. Both comic book series changed the way that audiences looked at the genre and the medium forever.
In a way, both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns suggested the end of the superhero genre. Watchmen unfolded in an apocalyptic world forever changed by the existence of superheroes, while The Dark Knight Returns was set in a world where Bruce Wayne had long since given up the mantle of the Batman. The parallels with The Wrath of Khan are obvious, in that The Wrath of Khan unfolds far removed from Kirk’s earlier adventures, in a world in which Kirk is a living legend. There are even those same hints of deconstruction to Kirk’s behaviour.
Alan Moore and Frank Miller have both talked about how they saw Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as the end of the genre as it had existed to that point. “It really did feel to me like a handful of grown-up fans waving our childhood heroes a fond goodbye,” confesses Miller. Moore suggests some slight disappointment at the legacy of those two works:
At the time, when I was doing Watchmen, somewhere in my head I got this vainglorious notion that Watchmen would be the absolute deconstructionist last word on the superhero, and that somehow, mystically, after it had been published, all the superhero book publishers would, I don’t know, turn to westerns or something like that, but it would be impossible to do superhero comics afterward – which was completely stupid and a completely misplaced hope. What you really got afterwards was a kind of more pretentious superhero comics, often with a lot more nasty, gratuitous violence.
In the late eighties and early nineties, it seemed like Moore and Miller were right, they had pushed the genre to its very limits. However, instead of breaking it, or inspiring it to look beyond those limits, the genre became comfortable there. The decades following Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were populated with stories and events that mimicked the adult content about those comics with none of the maturity.
In a way, it feels like something similar has happened with The Wrath of Khan. Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyers pushed the Star Trek franchise to its very limits, constructed a story about Kirk’s catastrophic failures and wondering if it was time to let go of these characters. This gave the story depth and resonance. No Star Trek story to this point had wrestled with age or death in a similar manner. (Although The Deadly Years is really the only contender, so the less said, the better.) The film’s power did not derive from Khan or Genesis, but from its maturity and depth.
There is a perversity in all of this, that fans and creators should cling so rigourously to a story that is so powerful precisely because it advocates letting Kirk and his crew go. Much like all of those comics imitating The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, there is a certain hollowness to these reproductions. Only First Contact comes close to replicating the emotional power of The Wrath of Khan, and a lot of that is down to the fact that Patrick Stewart is phenomenal and the incongruity of seeing Jean-Luc Picard go “full Ahab.”
Then again, perhaps it speaks to a wider yearning in popular culture, the deep-seated nostalgia that yearns to lovingly recreate past glories at the expense of new possibilities. To be fair, this flaw came baked into the premise of Enterprise as a prequel; on a fundamental level, a prequel cannot help but serve as an object of nostalgic fascination. Although the series arrived in the wake of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, it was still ahead of the curve. It seemed to foreshadow the contemporary fixation upon nostalgic objects.
That nostalgia trapped Enterprise, whether during the first two seasons when the production team desperately tried to emulate the style and flow of The Next Generation or in the fourth when the show’s future amounted to nothing more than dovetailing into the original show. That nostalgia doomed Enterprise, whether through the angry expectations of fans frustrated at the lack of references to the original Star Trek (and the abundance of references to The Next Generation) in the early years or through the indulgence of nostalgia in the later years.
There were times when Enterprise did seem to move past nostalgia, particularly when afforded an expanse into which it might boldly go during the third season. There were also times when that nostalgia seemed appropriate, with certain moments in the fourth season taking on the feeling of watching a franchise’s life flash before its eyes before the axe might fall. However, the show creaked and groaned under the weight of history it had invoked through both its setting and its title. Cold Station 12 just pushes that as far as it might go.
Appropriately enough for an episode with such a title, Cold Station 12 suggests a franchise caught in deep freeze long before JJ Abrams took hold of it. The most shocking aspect of Into Darkness is how honest it eventually was about its intentions; it only lied about not being a remake of The Wrath of Khan until about halfway through its runtime. There are times when it seemed like The Wrath of Khan marked the end of the Star Trek franchise, the limits of the final frontier.
Watching Cold Station 12, it occasionally feels like that just might be true.