FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological, sociological*
Whatever factors motivated the producers of STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE to launch the Trek-franchise into a Kubrick-esque terrain, that ambition was erased by the negative blowback to the "motionless picture." Thus WRATH OF KHAN has many of the elements that MOTION PICTURE neglected: pulse-pounding action, intense dramatic moments and even a smattering of humor. On top of that, circumstances made it possible to sell the film with the death of a major character, one who had always seemed integral to the popularity of the teleseries.
When I first watched the theatrical release of WRATH, I had no doubt that Paramount, as represented by executive producer/co-scripter Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer, was on the right track in this iteration of STAR TREK. The movie might not have had any of the philosophical depth of, say, "The Apple," but WRATH was a perfect incarnation of bracing thrillers like "Balance of Terror" and "Obsession." Indeed, the somewhat dumbed-down "Moby Dick" tropes of "Obsession" are the driving force of WRATH, far more than the themes of "Space Seed," the TV-episode to which the movie is theoretically a sequel.
Predictably enough, WRATH also does not pick up on anything from MOTION PICTURE, except the inevitable acknowledgment that the whole legacy cast of actors were getting long in the tooth, ranging from those in their forties (Takei, Koenig) to those in their fifties or higher (Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Nichols). This time there's no overt talk of the young forcing out the old, except insofar as Mister Spock is now training a much younger protege, Lieutenant Saavik (a perpetually grim-faced Kirstie Alley). Nevertheless, Admiral Kirk is even more conscious of his age than before. Once he could've taken on three thralls of Triskelion at once, and now he needs glasses to read doleful passages from Dickens. Prior to regaining command of the Enterprise once more, Kirk mourns his lost youth-- which isn't a plotline of great originality, though it's more development than any other character gets.
The villain, though reduced from his previous status to an Ahab chasing The Admiral with the Puffy Hairpiece, works well against the legacy cast. Ricardo Montalban was in his sixties when he reprised his role of the domineering superman Khan Noonien Singh, and he gives a barnstorming performance equal to Shatner's. True, Khan doesn't look all that great dressed up in Mad Max regalia, but he fits in with the idea that Kirk is now encountering the phantoms of his vanished youth.
Possibly a more formidable phantom is one of Kirk's many old love-interests, albeit one never seen on the series. Doctor Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) isn't a threat in herself, even though she's unleashed a radical new science experiment, "Project Genesis," that could save or imperil the Federation. Carol's most intimidating aspect to Kirk is that she not only gave birth to the child she had by Kirk, but also raised him to manhood without any input from his father. It's intimated that Kirk was aware of the existence of his grown son David (Merritt Butrick), though the script never suggests what rift kept the former lovers apart.
Project Genesis itself might be loosely interpreted as a cosmicized symbol of female creativity, though it's of such magnitude that it seems on a level with the sort of miracle-working aliens the Enterprise used to encounter. Genesis is the last word in terraforming, in that, by some never explained mechanism, its power can instantly convert anything it touches into a verdant planetary body. (This doesn't make a lot of sense when it's used on a dead planet, and even less when it's employed on an inert spaceship.) In any case, the Genesis experiment is responsible for Chekhov, now a Commander, checking out a planet to use for the experiment. There the former ensign and his new crewmates are shanghaied and brainwashed by Khan and his surviving followers. There's no real discussion of the circumstances of "Space Seed" that led to Kirk's consigning Khan's people to a backward world; had one never seen the episode, one might think Kirk was playing Long John Silver, marooning an enemy to get rid of him. Anyway, Khan takes possession of Chekhov's current vessel, which becomes the "Pequod" with which Khan will hunt down his hated enemy.
The dueling starships of Khan and Kirk finally makes it possible for the heroes to fight a battle that doesn't look like it's taking place between plastic models. The conflict also makes it possible for at least two characters to fault Kirk for his never having "faced death," only for having "cheated" it. The importance of this psychological insight seems a bit muddled, given that Kirk's very determination not to lose is essentially makes it possible for him to outmaneuver his opponent. The existence of his grown son may even cause Kirk more concern than Khan, though there's not really much closure to this plotline-- except insofar as the admiral is eventually forced to "face death" in the form of losing his best friend.
Watching the film back in the day, I confess that the filmmakers, or at least Leonard Nimoy, totally took me in. Director Meyer has recorded that he started out the project with the understanding that he was doing the story of a hero's death, with no "take-backs." Nimoy , having said very publicly that he didn't want to play Spock any more but was OK with giving the character a noble death, reversed himself during the shooting of WRATH, necessitating the insertion of scenes that would lead to the character's resurrection in THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. Ironically, once Kirk has defeated Khan, the villain makes a last-ditch attempt to pull his "White Whale" down to perdition with him by triggering the Genesis device aboard Khan's hijacked ship. As noted earlier, this gambit leads to the formation of a burgeoning new planet out of a hulk of damaged metal machinery, and though saving the Enterprise costs Spock's life, Khan's spite also makes the Vulcan's future rebirth. Back in The Day, I did not catch the vaguely Christian symbolism of seeing Spock's coffin descend to the Edenic wilderness of the Genesis planet; I took it for granted that Spock was dead-dead. I was moved by the death of a character who seemed to embody all the best aspects of Gene Roddenberry's vision-- thought-provoking philosophy, dramatic conflict and humor. And though I wasn't sorry to see the return of Nimoy's seminal character, subsequent movies would tend to prove that, for all the breast-beating about Kirk's vanished youth, it was Spock whose glory days were well and truly gone.