Reflections on Star Trek,

with reference to the original series and Star Trek ll: The Wrath of Khan


A video presentation of this material is available here.


Gene Roddenberry created "Star Trek" to give expression to studies of our most human traits and societal issues set against a backdrop of excitement and adventure in space. Over the years it and its offshoots have dealt with a myriad of aspects and issues of life such as racism, responsibility, friendship, religion and seeking God, duty and doubt over one's purpose in life, and emotions such as love, anger, remorse, pity and envy, to mention but a few. And all of this is set in imagination-inspiring backgrounds and settings whose purpose was to offer clarification of the issues raised.

Inspiring viewers to reflect on life and treat the Star Trek characters as heroes and role-models, while also encouraging scientists to actually develop technology which appears in the series, and even inspiring some to study and learn the completely fabricated and artificial Klingon language, few TV shows can lay claim to have exercised such an influence on outlook and society as a whole, and the reason is not so much the sci-fi environment but rather the exploration of the profound humanity of its characters.

At the heart of Roddenberry's creation is the United Federation of Planets, an administrative organisation that aims to promote principle, justice, benevolence and exploration. This idealistic body seeks to offer order, stability and fraternity to its members, though there is scope for disagreement and cultural conflict among its affiliates as they endeavour to work together for the common good.

Although set in the vast expanses of outer space, resolution of quarrels and friction frequently requires personal debate and reflection on moral or philosophical issues, leading to judgement, decision and action.

While the mission of the Enterprise may represent humanity's desire to constantly expand and develop its knowledge and understanding, the crew may be viewed as a single unit pooling a variety of skills and acumen to undertake and complete their task. These range from engineering and motor skills to communication and health care, but all are supervised and steered by the triumvirate of McCoy, Spock and Kirk, and in these characters we have a trio who bear a remarkable resemblance to the Freudian model of the human psyche. Bear with me while I explain what I mean...

According to Freud, the ID is, very roughly, the emotional or instinctive part of the brain, and McCoy constantly evokes emotion and instinct, while Spock espouses logic, rules and order, representing the SUPEREGO which, Freud suggests, exercises control over our primitive desires. Between these two clashing components of our judgement system lies the EGO which has to take account of both views and reach a decision that leads to action. This would be the position occupied by Kirk who holds ultimate responsibility for whatever decision is taken, and action pursued. This dynamic contributes to many plots in the original series and provides the foundation for interplay and debate between these three characters in the script of The Wrath of Khan.

A recurring theme in The Wrath of Khan is ageing and death, and how we deal with them, and this is contrasted with the theme of renewal and the circle of life.

Kirk is restless and frustrated as he has been promoted out of the ranks of the active and, as he sees it, the worthy. He sees little future for himself. McCoy advises him to concede to his instincts and seek a command again, while Spock offers conformity and acceptance, and Kirk appears to go along with that view, if somewhat reluctantly and out of a sense of duty. However, when a potentially dangerous situation arises, Captain Spock willingly relinquishes command to the senior officer, Admiral Kirk, as it is judged the young and inexperienced crew will benefit from Kirk's experience and leadership.

The refurbished Enterprise with its young crew and the very nature of Project Genesis, offering life from lifelessness, contribute to the theme of renewal and contrast not only with Kirk's mid-life crisis, but also the fate and location of the film's antagonist, Khan.

Having been deposited on an isolated planet by Kirk some fifteen years previously, as a result of a murderous plot to take control of the Enterprise, Khan and his cohort have suffered great loss and hardship due to the decay and destruction of a neighbouring planet which caused disastrous and irrevocable changes to their own orbit and environment.

However, Khan's contribution is not restricted to the theme of ageing and decay. His entire outlook is at variance with the fundamental principles of compassion and brotherhood of the United Federation of Planets, and comes into conflict with its underpinning ambition of promoting humanity. The result of genetic engineering, Khan is hugely intelligent and that, interestingly, is also his principal source of weakness in terms of his antagonism.

We humans strive constantly to extend and develop our knowledge and understanding, but in so doing, and in recognising the limits of our existing knowledge and understanding, we show a certain humility and we recognise the value of fraternity as we help one another in the joint aim of development.

In contrast, Khan is self-satisfied and is smugly impressed with his existing knowledge and understanding, so his superior intelligence appears to result in his failure to recognise his own limits. Thus, he has no humility or great sense of fraternity. His crew are devoted to him and follow his commands in admiration and faith, but their loyalty and devotion are their value to him, not their thoughts or opinions.

As a result of all this, Khan is given to pride and that leads to obsession. When presented with the opportunity to escape definitively and avoid pursuit and conflict, he dismisses it in favour of pursuing and avenging himself on his old enemy Kirk, the only man to have outdone him.

The theme of Khan's obsession is underscored by numerous references to Moby Dick, the famous tale of whaling captain Ahab hounded by the thought of revenge on a giant whale which, on a previous voyage, bit off a piece of his leg. These references include a prominently placed copy of the book in Khan's home on Ceti Alpha V and quotations from it at various points.

These traits contrast with the underpinning precepts of Star Fleet in general, but in particular with Spock's act of self-sacrifice to save the Enterprise and her crew. Spock may couch his act of courage in logical terms (the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one), but there also had to be a willingness to act for the benefit of others at one's own expense, and that is an act of humanity, not mere logic.

Spock's death comes as a considerable shock and there is genuine sorrow and grief as we, the audience, are tested in exactly the same way as the trainees when they undergo the "Kobayashi Maru" exercise at the start of the film. Out of the blue, we are forced to confront death and defeat, and I have to confess I fail that character test each time I watch the film. We may admire Kirk's ingenuity in finding a way through the test and his determination to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but Kirk did fail to address the issue at the time. His emotional yet controlled reaction to Spock's demise, combined with his measured but poignant recognition of Spock's self-sacrifice and his motivating insistence on the importance of humanity at his funeral, contribute significantly to the overwhelming sense of loss in the audience while demonstrating Freudian EGO-style leadership as he controls his emotions and exercises control of the situation. This may be viewed as a solution to the Kobayashi Maru test while holding on to a combination of reality and hope.

I suspect that when The Wrath of Khan was being developed, it was foreseen as the final Star Trek film, making its themes of decay, death and renewal all the more pertinent. It is somewhat ironic that it actually served to regenerate the series' popularity and commercial viability, leading to four further films with the original crew, five if you include the handover film, Generations.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (