I recently attended a convention, and while I was there I happened upon a copy of the script to “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.” The book also includes nice glossy photos from the film. Since this is by far my favorite of all the Star Trek movies, I could not pass up buying the script and closely reading the text that I had so often seen played out on the screen.
There are three main literary texts that figure prominently in “Wrath of Khan,” and those are pointed out to the viewer early in the film.
ANGLE – CHEKOV’S POV
Lethal-looking old swords on one wall, a bookshelf; CAMERA PANS by 20th Century volumes; MOBY DICK, KING LEAR, THE HOLY BIBLE – and a seat belt dangling with the name on it – BOTANY BAY.
The references to the Bible are very clear in the text. Project Genesis is the creation of life out of nothing and implies that humans have attained god-like powers. There is also a sense that this is somehow connected to the proverbial fall. In fact, the Genesis cave is described as Edenic.
A huge cavern. Kirk is actually standing in the middle of it. Space extends vastly above and below his point of view. Like Eden, lush growth everywhere, waterfalls, and a cobalt blue sky high, high above where a round orb glows sending light and warmth downward. There is a path from where Kirk stands down to the lower level where Bones, and the others are waiting and calling to him. Mist and haze waft gently across the cavern.
In the film, Kirk exhibits characteristics of King Lear. He is aged; his emotions cloud his judgment; and he struggles to figure out his relationship with his now adult child. This is most poignantly expressed in a dialog between Kirk and Carol Marcus, Kirk’s former lover and the mother of his son.
CAROL: Actually, he’s a lot like you in many ways. Please. Tell me what you’re feeling.
KIRK: There’s a man out there I haven’t seen in fifteen years who’s trying to kill me. You show me a son that’d be happy to help him. My son. My life that could have been and wasn’t. And what am I feeling? Old – worn out.
Of the three books that are most referenced in the film, Moby Dick is the primary. Khan is the embodiment of Ahab, obsessed with enacting his vengeance upon Kirk and the Enterprise, which symbolize the great white whale. Additionally, Khan’s helmsman, Joachim, symbolizes Starbuck, a voice of reason contrasted against Khan’s insatiable need for revenge.
JOACHIM: Sir, may I speak? We’re all with you, sir, but consider this. We are free, we have a ship and the means to go where we will. We have escaped permanent exile on Ceti Alpha Five. You have proved your superior intellect and defeated the plans of Admiral Kirk. You do not need to defeat him again.
KHAN: He tasks me! He tasks me! And I shall have him. I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.
There is a scene in the nebula where the Enterprise and the Reliant are engaged in battle, and the Enterprise is depicted as rising like a great whale, strengthening the connection to Melville’s novel.
Reliant motionless in the f.g. amid occasional flashes. Now, behind Reliant and from below, like a great whale rising from the depths, Enterprise rises vertically, slowly passing the unsuspecting enemy. When Enterprise is above, behind and quite close:
Finally, as Khan is in the throes of death, he quotes Moby Dick as he takes one last stab at his adversary.
KHAN: No . . . You can’t get away . . . From hell’s heart I stab at thee . . .
(amid the pain)
For hate’s sake . . . I spit my last breath at thee!
This film proves an important point: It is not special effects and lavish CGI that make a great film, it’s the writing and the storytelling. “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” is a masterpiece in storytelling and that’s why it still holds up today. I suspect I will be pulling my DVD copy off the shelf in the very near future and watching the film yet again.
3 responses to “Literary References in “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan””
I think you skipped a big one there. The book Spock gives Kirk at the beginning. The title is never stated, but it’s “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. The entire story is framed by the opening and closing lines of that novel.
Nice catch. Not having read ATOTC, any relationship to the script was lost on me. Seems I should add that one to my ever-growing list of books to read. Cheers!
Also, not as specific relationship but when Khan describes how Kirk abandoned he and his wife he says at the end…buried alive, buried alive which is also I think a reference to ATOTC. Mr. Lorry as he leaves to go collect the man unjustly imprisoned for 18 years uses these two words. A kind of echo rather than a quote.