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The ‘Star Trek’ movie that makes a case against pursuing perfection

Forty years ago this week, ‘The Wrath of Khan’ rejected the idea that humanity can fully transcend its flaws.

Ricardo Montalbán as Khan.CBS Studios

What sets the “Star Trek” franchise apart from its science fiction brethren is its optimism about progress. The Federation is a secular egalitarian utopia dedicated to a mission of interplanetary discovery, peaceful cooperation, and intellectual enlightenment. Captain Picard put the matter succinctly in the 1998 film “Star Trek VIII: First Contact”: “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

What has never been fully appreciated is that the film widely agreed to be the best in the entire franchise — 1982′s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” — performs an internal insurrection against the core ethos of “Star Trek.” The film’s unmistakable theme is the dangerousness of the quest for the perfection of human societies.

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A 1967 episode of the original “Star Trek” TV series, called “Space Seed,” set the stage for that movie. In the TV episode, the Enterprise encounters a sleeper ship, the SS Botany Bay, carrying 72 people who were genetically engineered in a project to perfect the species. Now they have become vainglorious despots, and their leader, Khan Noonien Singh, played by Ricardo Montalbán, tries to commandeer the Enterprise. After the failed coup, Captain Kirk convenes a court-martial and sentences Khan and the insurgents to build a new civilization on the savage planet Ceti Alpha V.

When “The Wrath of Khan” picks up the story, Kirk has become a listless middle-aged admiral overseeing Academy cadets on the Enterprise. His former navigator Pavel Chekov is now the first officer of a starship called the Reliant, which is surveying a barren planet as a candidate on which to deploy a secret scientific experiment, the Genesis Project, that would create life from lifelessness. But the Reliant is waylaid by Khan’s surviving crew, who hijack the ship. Craving revenge, Khan lures Kirk into a confrontation, and the Enterprise and the hijacked Reliant ultimately face off in a treacherous nebula, where Spock is forced to sacrifice himself to save the Enterprise and its crew.

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Death, decrepitude, sacrifice, vengeance, betrayal — it’s the stuff of high tragedy, but with an original twist for “Star Trek”: The drive to perfect humanity is the tragic flaw.

"Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" was released in June 1982.StarTrek.com

Khan was unwittingly created by a project that we’re told was dreamed up as the solution to human barbarism, an attempt to perfect the genome to transcend the flaws of human nature. The result, though, was an elite clutch of autocrats bent on imposing order through brute force. Convinced of their infallibility, Khan’s group reject empathy and compromise. They implant eel-like creatures into people’s heads to negate their free will. And at the root of Khan’s obsession with total control is an unwillingness to accept the frailty of human life: He blames Kirk for the death of his beloved wife.

Even Kirk harbors illusions of immortality. In the film’s opening scene, cadets are in a starship simulator room to take part in a no-win tactical exercise known as the “Kobayashi Maru Scenario.” It’s a training exercise meant to demonstrate something about the cadets’ character. Later it’s revealed that when Kirk was in that training himself, he became “the only Starfleet cadet to ever beat the no-win scenario.” How did he do it? He reprogrammed the software. “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” Kirk says, in effect staving off any reckoning with death. Later, Kirk’s bravado is punctured by Spock’s unavoidable demise.

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All of this adds up to a philosophically sophisticated indictment of perfectionism, one that anticipates the arguments marshaled by the Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel in his 2009 book “The Case Against Perfection.” The pursuit of perfection, Sandel argues, exerts three baneful effects. It erodes humility, stymieing our openness to unbidden things; it confers a godlike sense of freedom that severs us from ethical responsibilities; and it corrodes social solidarity by treating society’s losers as deserving authors of their own failure. All these get played out in “The Wrath of Khan,” a movie devoted to the insight that human life is precious because of its fragility.

The leading actors in the Enterprise crew in "Wrath of Khan."ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

I had to know how this warning against perfectionism came about. So I reached out to Nicholas Meyer, the film’s director, who went on to co-write the franchise’s fourth film and direct and co-write the sixth.

Meyer offered exuberant interpretations of the whole canon of Western art and literature — our 45-minute conversation hit on Bertolt Brecht, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Eliot, Sigmund Freud, John Gay, Christopher Isherwood, Mozart, Plato, Giacomo Puccini, Renoir, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, and Tchaikovsky. But when it came to “The Wrath of Khan,” he clammed up with hermeneutical humility. It turns out the script was stitched together, like Frankenstein’s monster, from bits and pieces harvested from the screenplay graveyard.

“A few months after producer Harve Bennett brought me on as director, I learned the whole project was about to go belly up,” Meyer said. “We had five discrete and unrelated failed scripts, and George Lucas’s effects company needed to begin work in less than two weeks. So, too naïve and desperate to know better, I asked Harve to have the scripts loaded on a truck and delivered to my house. I plowed through them, and over 12 days of breakneck delirium, I culled the best elements and frantically rearranged them like a Rubik’s Cube. And by some miracle, I emerged — bonkers — but with a workable script.”

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Work behind the scenes was no perfectionist utopia. Meyer had to sneakily wear down William Shatner’s hammy acting with multiple takes. And death threats poured in through the mail when word leaked that Meyer’s script called for Spock to die.

Ultimately, corporate meddling forced Meyer to undo Spock’s death. In the revised final cut, Spock’s casket is jettisoned into space and lands on the terraformed and newly verdant Genesis planet. This coda sequence enabled the follow-up film, with some sci-fi magic, to resurrect Leonard Nimoy’s character.

“I thought then that canceling Spock’s death was an unmitigated disaster,” Meyer recalled. “For one thing, it was driven only by crass commercial considerations. But beyond that, it was a dry hustle of people’s emotions, to wring the tears out of them — and test audiences literally sobbed at Spock’s death — and then say, ‘Forget it, folks, just yankin’ your chain.’” Furious at being steamrolled, Meyer refused to direct the post-production additional shots at a botanical museum.

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To my mind, Spock’s canceled death was an even worse error than Meyer had reckoned. The entire film is organized around Kirk’s confrontation with bodily failure and mortality — the flesh-entombed precarity of human existence. The contrived resurrection of Spock eviscerates the core tragedy of the film and implies, bizarrely, that Kirk was right to believe he could sidestep mortality.

The saving grace is an allusion to Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” The novel ends with the whale ramming and sinking the Pequod, only to have the narrator, Ishmael, shoot to the surface in a wooden coffin, the only survivor to emerge from the oceanic abyss. By echoing “Moby Dick,” Spock’s casket becomes a symbol of survival and salvation, elevating the film’s end from a cheap trick into something poignant with sorrow and pregnant with hope.

As I began to ask Meyer if he meant to invoke “Moby-Dick,” he interrupted me: “All collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” spontaneously quoting from memory the final lines of Melville’s novel.

Still, the creator of “Star Trek,” Gene Roddenberry, found Meyer’s cynicism a blight on his creation. A Sept. 30, 1981, memo to Harve Bennett insisted “Star Trek” must present an “optimistic future for humanity” devoid of militarism.

“Gene believed in the perfectability of humans,” Meyer told me. “And I’ve just never seen a shred of evidence for it. Human civilizations undercut their progress. We burn up our resources, launch wars of aggression, sell out the future for a quick buck. Yeah, mine is kind of a depressing worldview. Later on, in ‘Star Trek VI,’ I portrayed racial prejudice as baked into the Federation ethos. That really got under Gene’s skin, and I regret he was so upset by it, but in the end, I felt his idealism just didn’t hew to reality.”

Roddenberry’s optimistic worldview provided the main ideological current to “Star Trek” across its ever-expanding incarnations, but look closely and you’ll see that it was joined by a countervailing warning against perfectionism: the totalitarian ambitions of the perfection-seeking Borg or the havoc-wreaking omnipotence of Q. Meyer’s darker tragic vision seeped into the franchise, dampening its optimism with a grim strain of realism — and making it better.

Tom Joudrey is a Pennsylvania-based writer who covers politics and culture. Follow him on Twitter @TomJoudrey.