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.
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
ALSO 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 | 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
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker