Third in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.
“KHAAAAAN!” | Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan | June 1982
Captain Kirk is — as Spock observes, “a man of deep feelings,” an inspirational leader and breaker of rules if he feels the end justifies the means.
Kirk often wins fights by getting his shirt torn so that he can exude the charisma that overwhelms his opponents. But not in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Here, Kirk is aging gracelessly, experiencing a mid-life crisis now that his career has been reduced to babysitting some cadets on a training mission. The return of the genetically engineered superman Khan (from the TV episode “Space Seed”) assures us of a climactic showdown — which, in a sense, we never get because the two never meet in person. It’s not a flaw in the film’s structure, though; the payoff is more satisfying than if they’d clashed in hand-to-hand combat.
This is the crux of the story: how Kirk the lesser overcomes Khan the greater. Kirk sets Khan up, gambling that he can goad Khan into a confrontation, and he’s right – he succeeds in doing so, even after Khan has stolen the Genesis device, the MacGuffin that propels the movie. Kirk mocks Khan’s “superior intellect,” constantly baiting him: “Like a poor marksman, you keep missing the target!” That is, until Khan apparently traps Kirk in a cave deep inside a planetoid with no hope of escape.
“I’ve done far worse than kill you — I’ve hurt you,” breathes Khan, his face softening in an almost orgasmic release of tension. As he leaves Kirk, apparently buried alive, our hero responds with an expression of frustrated apoplexy that has become legendary — a moment so great it has transcended the boundaries of the fiction. “KHAAAAAN!” bellows Kirk into his communicator, his face puffing and reddening in glorious cinematic rage. His face inflates like a set of bellows and you’re afraid he’s going to stay that way. It is ludicrous and terrifying at once.
Then the camera cuts from Kirk to a shot that slowly ascends from the bleak, cratered surface of the planetoid beneath the surface of which he’s trapped and we hear that rage again, out here in the vacuum of space, emotion breaking through the diegetic boundaries of the reality of the movie itself. As James Horner’s score swells beneath it, Kirk’s anguished howl is so intense it can be heard even here, between worlds, beyond atmospheres. It’s a brilliant directorial flourish from director Nick Meyer, a moment of emotionally heated storytelling so assured it sells the idea that even if Khan may actually have triumphed over him, Kirk is still a force of nature and not to be underestimated.
It’s all part of a ruse, of course — Kirk changes the rules and cheats death one more time and overcomes his adversary in the kind of epic space battle we expect from him. But the moment of extreme, inflated rage persists and swells beyond the movie like some existential warp-propelled speech balloon. It is an instant in a character’s history that has passed into pop culture as a motif in its own right.
POSTS IN THIS SERIES: Justice or vengeance? by DAFNA PLEBAN | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss by MARK KINGWELL | “KHAAAAAN!” by NICK ABADZIS | “No kill I” by STEPHEN BURT | Kirk browbeats NOMAD by GREG ROWLAND | Kirk’s eulogy for Spock by ZACK HANDLEN | The joke is on Kirk by PEGGY NELSON | Kirk vs. Decker by KEVIN CHURCH | Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk by ENRIQUE RAMIREZ | Captain Camelot by ADAM MCGOVERN | Koon-ut-kal-if-fee by FLOURISH KLINK | Federation exceptionalism by DAVID SMAY | Wizard fight by AMANDA LAPERGOLA | A million things you can’t have by STEVE SCHNEIDER | Debating in a vacuum by JOSHUA GLENN | Klingon diplomacy by KELLY JEAN FITZSIMMONS | “We… the PEOPLE” by TRAV S.D. | Brinksmanship on the brink by MATTHEW BATTLES | Captain Smirk by ANNIE NOCENTI | Sisko meets Kirk by IAN W. HILL | Noninterference policy by GABBY NICASIO | Kirk’s countdown by PETER BEBERGAL | Kirk’s ghost by MATT GLASER | Watching Kirk vs. Gorn by JOE ALTERIO | How Spock wins by ANNALEE NEWITZ
SCIENCE FICTION ON HILOBROW Peggy Nelson on William Shatner as HiLo Hero | Greg Rowland on Leonard Nimoy as HiLo Hero | Peggy Nelson on William Shatner in Incubus | Matthew Battles on enlarging the Trek fanfic canon | Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, serialized | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail, serialized | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, serialized | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, serialized | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, serialized | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, serialized | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912 | Radium Age Science Fiction Poetry | Enter Highbrowism | Bathybius! Primordial ooze in Radium Age sf | War and Peace Games (H.G. Wells’s training manuals for supermen) | J.D. Beresford | Algernon Blackwood | Edgar Rice Burroughs | Karel Čapek | Buster Crabbe | August Derleth | Arthur Conan Doyle | Charlotte Perkins Gilman | Cicely Hamilton | Hermann Hesse | Aldous Huxley | Inez Haynes Irwin | Alfred Jarry | Jack Kirby (Radium Age sf’s influence on) | Murray Leinster | Gaston Leroux | David Lindsay | Jack London | H.P. Lovecraft | A. Merritt | Maureen O’Sullivan | Sax Rohmer | Paul Scheerbart | Upton Sinclair | Clark Ashton Smith | E.E. “Doc” Smith | Olaf Stapledon | John Taine | H.G. Wells | Jack Williamson | Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz | S. Fowler Wright | Philip Gordon Wylie | Yevgeny Zamyatin | AND LOTS MORE
CHECK OUT HILOBOOKS: In 2012-13, HiLobrow is serializing ten overlooked works of science fiction from the genre’s (1904-33) Radium Age; and HiLoBooks is publishing them in paperback! Here are the first six titles: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (in May, Introduction by Matthew Battles; PURCHASE NOW), Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail and “As Easy as A.B.C.” (in June, Introduction by Matthew De Abaitua and Afterword by Bruce Sterling; PURCHASE NOW), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (in August, Introduction by Joshua Glenn and Afterword by Gordon Dahlquist; PURCHASE NOW), H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook (in October, Introduction by James Parker; PURCHASE NOW), Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins (in November, Introduction by Tom Hodgkinson; PURCHASE NOW), and William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (in April 2013, Afterword by Erik Davis; PURCHASE NOW).