Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Relevance of Wrath

Star Trek has been on my mind some lately. For no good reason, really. I was never a true Star Trek fan, you see. A viewer, for certain, and appreciator, indeed, but it never spoke to me the way it did to many of my friends. But they quite enjoyed it, so I did too, though my strongest early memory of Next Generation is when Levar Burton devoted an entire Reading Rainbow to its production. I’ve watched reruns and the like, sampled the various spin-offs—they have their charms, I understand the appeal, they just don’t hold appeal for me.

The original cast films are another beast, however. I think that Search for Spock was the second film I watched in a movie theater without my parents, as part of some summer activity package deal. I don’t know, I was about 5, the mechanics of how I ended up at the theater watching that movie were way beyond me, I just know I put my ticket into a cup held by a robot. Robert Altman’s Popeye was the first, incidentally.

No, I don’t count myself as a Trek fan, but I count myself as an original cast movie fan. And the best of these, no question, is Wrath of Khan. I think that’s indisputable, and needs no qualification. Time has changed my appreciation for 3 to sort of a camp thing, 5 requires RiffTrax, and 1…no, I still hate 1, but Wrath of Khan remains just a great movie, even today.

Not much of a bold statement there. Wrath of Khan’s widely accepted as the best Trek movie, sitting pretty pretty at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. As a reminder of why, I’d offer this sequence—it terrified me as a child, and remains tense as all get-out. And it leads me laboriously toward my main point.

Central to Khan is the duel between two men, Kirk and Khan, both great in their own right, brilliant leaders with years of experience behind them. But, the film regularly points out, their time has passed. Kirk, old, tired, perhaps a little lazy and bored, gets caught in a trap he could have avoided had he been a little sharper and a little more cautious. Khan, completely out of his own time, wields technology he only understands well enough to wreak havoc. Take special note of Khan’s expression. Your grandfather looked the same trying to hook up the DVD player you gave him, didn’t he?

Their duel makes Wrath of Khan a profoundly sad movie, as far as action-packed sci-fi adventure romps go. And it’s not just Spock’s death, the whole movie is suffused is a powerful sense of both age, but loss and waste. Watching recent real world events, this sense gets stronger and stronger in my mind, fueled by watching the nameless extras in the periphery and the background. They’re red shirts, even if they aren’t wearing the colors, but with a twist this time. This time the Enterprise is crewed by trainees and cadets—the kids, the next generation, as it were. Likewise, Khan’s raggedy bunch of genetic supermen are kids.

The kids play central roles in key scenes. There are the trainees who scatter during the attack, Savik (the only kid to get a proper name), whose suggestion would have nullified Khan’s trap, the brave cadet who dies while Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty look on, and Khan’s chief henchman, a kid who spends his last breath proclaiming his loyalty and faith in his leader. “Yours is superior,” he says. In the fullness of time, I’ve come to see Wrath of Khan not just as a fun movie, not just a tale of the emptiness of revenge, or of simply aging, but a movie about how the young trust in the old and the experienced, and the old, in their hubris and their stubbornness, fail to live up to that trust.

How old were the cadets of the Enterprise when Kirk first banished Khan to Seti Alpha V? Had they even been born? Maybe someone who knows their Trek chronology can tell me. Regardless, the point remains—for a battle that has no relevance to their world, their experience, their very generation, the kids fight and die.

More than a bit like us and the healthcare debate, really. Every time an old Cold Warrior like McCain invokes “socialism”, I think of Khan. They’re both stuck fighting a battle that was relevant several decades ago, yet they just can’t give up. And we get to pay the price. Likewise when managing the Internet comes up. It doesn’t seem likely Ted Stevens will ever live down his “series of tubes” comment, and he really shouldn’t—it betrays how much the world has left him behind. Yet they still hold the reins.

By the end of Wrath, Khan’s ship is crippled, his followers are dead, and his body is maimed. But still he persists, because this fight is all he knows, it’s been his whole life, he doesn’t know another way to live. Dragging his mangled, dying form about, rails against shadows that cannot hear him, spewing venom into an emptiness that won’t respond to his taunts. Once he was a great man, in days that lay long behind him. A chimerical fight conducted by a warrior who should be done, dearly costing the younger generations—I wish that didn’t sound so strongly like our political climate, but it does.

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