So far, as I’ve been writing about the scenes that make Star Trek great, I’ve been shying away from the scenes everyone thinks of—Riker facing off against Locutus at the end of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1,” for instance. The reason is I’m making a distinction: just because it is a big moment doesn’t mean it’s a great scene. In fact, to me the greatest scenes are usually the quiet ones. I’d argue that it’s harder to make a great scene out of a big moment than out of a small one because big moments are so goal driven. Certain things have to happen in order to satisfy pre-determined plot points, and it’s difficult to add the little something extra necessary to make it a great scene as well. Maybe there’s even a temptation for writers, directors and actors to get lazy at big moments. The big moment is so interesting in its own right there’s the temptation not to put in the extra effort to make a great scene out of it as well, while in small moments the creative types will work extra hard to make sure the audience isn’t bored.
Well, the death of Spock at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is both—it’s definitely a big moment, but it’s also a great scene. It’s the climax of the entire movie, and it also might be the best scene William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy do together in the entire Star Trek series.
There is a misconception about Star Trek II that I want to address before I talk about the scene more. Some people claim that Star Trek II is the best Star Trek movie because it has a strong antagonist. Strong antagonists, the theory goes, are missing from Star Trek and as a result the drama is undercut. Therefore, nearly every Star Trek movie since Star Trek II has been trying to duplicate the feat of creating an antagonist like Khan—I remember Soran, the Borg Queen, Ru’afu, Shinzon and Nero all being compared to Khan by the producers of the various films. In the case of the antagonist of the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness (John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch), he has not only been compared to Khan, there is an unbelievably persistent rumor that he actually is Khan.
People who think that the reason The Wrath of Khan is so good is because it has a strong antagonist have been reading too much Syd Fields. Yes, an understanding of basic dramatic structure can improve an ailing narrative, but you can’t chalk up Star Trek II’s greatness to a cheap storytelling formula. Especially since Khan is not a strong antagonist. He’s a madman with a two-dimensional motivation who spends about twenty minutes on screen in the entire movie, most of it sitting on the bridge of his stolen starship surrounded by his hair metal lackies. During the film, he never comes face to face with any of the heroes of the movie, except for a scene at the beginning with Chekov—Chekov! Ricardo Montalban’s performance is memorable in spite of the material, not because of it. In fact, most of what is interesting about Khan as a character comes from his original appearance in “Space Seed,” and it’s all irrelevant here. Any unhinged madman bent on revenge could have filled Khan’s place in the film. Please take note: It isn’t good villains that make good Star Trek. What makes good Star Trek is using a sci-fi adventure story to explore what it means to be human—and Star Trek II is one of the best examples of this winning strategy.
The aspect of human existence explored in The Wrath of Khan is mortality, not a subject that Star Trek touches very often. The entire movie is full of references to mortality. As it begins, we learn that Starfleet gives every aspiring captain a test designed to impress upon them that death is sometimes inevitable, and to get an idea of how each candidate would choose to meet hers or his. “How we face death is at least as important as how we face life,” Kirk wisely tells Saavik, but we soon learn he hasn’t taken these words to heart. Our swashbuckling captain is now a middle-aged admiral facing another depressing birthday—he nostalgically collects antiques, needs reading glasses, and believes the best days of his life were over the day he gave up command of the Enterprise. No matter what he said to Saavik, it’s clear Kirk isn’t facing death very well, but he’s facing it a heck of a lot better than Khan is. Unable to accept the death of his wife, Khan has gone absolutely off his rocker. His hatred is so single-minded that even his most loyal minion, Joaquin, questions Khan, suggesting maybe Khan should just let it go. The territory that Kirk and Khan are fighting over, coincidentally, is the possession of the Genesis Device, a miracle of Federation science. Khan doesn’t seem to realize why he wants Genesis so badly, but when you consider that Khan can’t accept death and Genesis can create life from nothingness it becomes a whole lot clearer. The device was created by Kirk’s erstwhile love and his son David. It is said that having children is the closest human beings can get to immortality. If that’s true, it’s of no use to Kirk because his son doesn’t even know who he is; in fact, he believes Kirk embodies all that’s wrong in the world and tries to kill him. It all leaves Kirk feeling old and worn out. And no wonder. Kirk reveals to his stranded landing party that he cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test—he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario, he has always thought that if he’s clever enough he can defeat death every time, forever. That’s the cause of his unhappiness—age has begun to teach him otherwise. The whole thing comes to a head with an actual no-win scenario. As Kirk sits by doing nothing, Spock saves the ship in the most logical way, by accepting death, and Kirk must do what Khan never could. He must watch as the person he cares most about in the universe dies, and he must accept it.
This actually happens in two scenes: the actual death scene rightfully focuses on Spock, and then the funeral scene where we see Kirk’s reaction in the eulogy. Both the writers and Nimoy nail the death scene. Spock’s dignity is spot on—the way he stands stiffly and adjusts his tunic even as he is dying. First he intellectualizes, talks of logic. Then he mentions the Kobayashi Maru test, in what almost seems like a bit of gallows humor. Spock always was a funny man. Then he begins to collapse, and at the same time as his dignified bearing slips away he lets go of his trademark stoicism in order to use his last moments to say what is most important: “I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper.” And William Shatner may be accused of overacting sometimes, but the look on his face of a man who has been completely destroyed is about as perfect as it could be. In the funeral scene, we see a man who is grieving but who has accepted his friend’s death. Spock died as logically as he lived, Kirk says, reminds his friends that life follows death as surely as death follows life, and ends with, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.” What does he mean by this? Human is a loaded word in Star Trek. The entire series is about defining what it means. No definitive definition has emerged, but whatever human means on Star Trek, we’re told that Spock embodies it.
The film ends with Kirk’s reconciliation with his son — his connection to the future, and therefore immortality — and then a scene on the bridge where Bones asks Kirk how he feels and Kirk says, “I feel young.” Lesson learned.
Some might argue that most people don’t even notice all this philosophical stuff when they watch Star Trek II. They enjoy it because of the space battles, period. I disagree. You don’t have to notice it to be affected by it. On a deep level, most people are concerned with the big questions of human existence, and when those questions are asked they are interested. We just resonate at those frequencies. We don’t have to notice. It can happen on an unconscious level. Not everyone sees the systematic discussion of mortality in almost every aspect of Star Trek II, yet they feel it at a deep level and are left wondering, “Why was that so much better than Star Trek Nemesis?” And then they say to themselves, “Well, I guess it’s because it has a strong villain…”