I remember reading, in one of those old Best of Trek paperback volumes, a fan expressing his or her displeasure with the martial atmosphere of Star Trek II. “What terrible disasters must have happened,” this fan asked, “to have caused Starfleet to become so militaristic overnight?”
I’m paraphrasing the question (my Best of Trek books are long gone). But I’ll admit it’s a good one. While Star Trek II is my favorite of the franchise’s films, I admit it foregrounds Starfleet’s military aspects far more than the original series, the animated series, or The Motion Picture did.
Yes, the crew always wore uniforms and held ranks. Yes, we saw shipboard hearings, trials, even two courts-martial. And yes, we saw the Enterprise go to battle.
But previous Trek productions generally kept Starfleet looking and feeling less like the navy and more like NASA. The much-maligned duty uniforms in TMP are a great example. Real-life astronauts on the International Space Station wear short sleeves all the time—why wouldn’t Starfleet crew at least some of the time?
I raise this issue because minutes 4-8 of Star Trek II, taken strictly on their own, do indeed suggest these characters are living amidst a war in the stars. (Ha.) Indeed, nothing so far in the film would lead an uninitiated viewer who’d never watched Star Trek to think Starfleet was anything but a military force.
In the first four minutes, we heard Saavik talk about a “training mission” and order Sulu to plot a course that would avoid a “Neutral Zone.” This is the language of warfare. The Enterprise received a distress call (so we were led to believe) from a crippled ship in a gravitic minefield—some actual enemy must have deployed the mines. As far as we can tell, the Enterprise is a ship of war, training new recruits in the midst of a war.
These four minutes (minute 6, to be exact) reveal the Kobayashi Maru scenario for the simulation it is. But even then, nothing about the world in which such a simulation would be necessary suggests peace.
We assume the enemy—three (gorgeously detailed) K’t’inga-class Klingon battle cruisers, in footage recycled from TMP—would rapidly respond to the Enterprise’s territorial transgression. Spock calls it a “violation of treaty” (00:04:45), which we could, if we didn’t know better, take to mean he is calling out “Captain” Saavik on an aggressive act. We see a detailed graphic of the ship’s shields being activated (00:05:04)—a visual that will prominently feature in the Enterprise’s first battle with the Reliant, but which here has an almost talismanic feel, reinforced by the anonymous tactical officer’s silent nod to Sulu, as though to say, “We’ll be all right now” (00:05:05). We would assume this crew is as used to battle as is the crew of the Enterprise-D in the alternate timeline of the TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise.”
Once the simulation is over, Admiral Kirk makes a spectacularly dramatic, smoke-filled entrance (00:06:05-00:06:19)—a scene suggested, as noted last time, by producer Robert Sallin. Sallin compares Kirk’s entrance, visually, to “the Second Coming” (The Fifty-Year Mission, page 418). At least some biblical images of the Second Coming are distinctly military, notably the image of in Revelation 19:11-15.
Bu the moment also feels like it may owe a little something to George C. Scott’s famous entrance in Patton (1970).
Saavik stands at attention as surely as if she’d heard the “Ten-hut!” command preceding Patton. Instead of the United States flag for a backdrop, Kirk has the bridge simulator’s viewscreen (at least until it finishes sliding into the wall on either side). Instead of proclaiming “Americans love a winner,” Kirk declares, “Klingons don’t take prisoners.” His uniform’s decorations are not as elaborate as Patton’s, but they are present. Instead of Patton’s riding crop, Kirk carries under his arm a copy of A Tale of Two Cities—arguably the only visual clue Kirk is anything but a military leader.
So, yes: Hypothetical viewers who knew nothing of Star Trek might, from these first eight minutes, never imagine or guess Starfleet is the United Federation of Planets’ exploratory, space sciences, peace-keeping arm. Kirk’s retort to McCoy about “galloping around the cosmos” (00:07:32) could hint at Starfleet’s other functions, but in its immediate, narrow context, it could just as easily refer to “galloping around” violating Neutral Zone treaties. The fan who wrote to Trek complaining about Star Trek II’s militaristic feel was far more justified in doing so than I thought at the time.
But the Kobayashi Maru sequence—surely the most riveting and memorable opening sequence of any Star Trek film to date—does much more.
Saavik and the First “Death” of Spock
Most notably, this sequence features the first “death” of Spock in Star Trek II (00:05:46-00:05:50).
Gene Roddenberry, unhappy at having been sidelined from the evolution of his creation, leaked word of Spock’s impending demise, causing an uproar in fan circles and even some notice in the mainstream media. In early drafts, Spock’s actual death occurred far sooner than it does in the finished film. It was, as several people have noted, a “Janet Leigh” moment, referring to the fact that audiences seeing Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho for the first time never dreamed such a major star wouldn’t survive the movie.
As it stands, Spock’s “death” in the bridge simulator “reassures” audiences that news of Spock’s death was a greatly exaggerated misunderstanding. Kirk’s first comment to Spock after leaving the simulator—”Aren’t you dead?” (00:07:46)—is the filmmakers’ arch acknowledgment of the controversy (see production assistant Deborah Arakelian’s comment in The Fifty-Year Journey, page 421).
But Spock’s simulated death is notable for an “in-universe” reason, too. His is the only “death” of the several in these minutes—Sulu’s at 00:05:25, Uhura’s at 00:05:35, McCoy’s at 00:05:40—to which Saavik offers any visibly troubled reaction.
Unlike the first-time viewer, Saavik knows this whole situation is a simulation, a test. She knows no one around her, Spock included, is actually dying. And yet the sight of him slumped against the bridge railing, his head lolling on his chest, gives her pause. Spock is acting—again, Starfleet crews are seemingly well-trained in dramatics, notwithstanding Kirk’s protestation that he is “not a drama critic” (00:06:47)—but the tight one-shot of Saavik’s reaction suggests she is not. The camera is giving us an intimate, unguarded glimpse of her true emotional state at this moment.
I think Saavik’s reaction reflects her sense that she has disappointed her mentor. Sure, she’ll shortly tell Admiral Kirk she doesn’t think the test is fair—as we’ll learn later, it isn’t—but that’s an after-the-fact attempt to justify what has happened. You can literally watch her decide she’s going to defend her performance, as she starts to leave for the briefing room, pauses, and spins on her heel to squarely face forward, 00:06:35-00:06:39. And watch the little things Kirstie Alley does with her eyebrows and mouth (00:07:00-00:07:20) as Kirk lectures her. This woman is pissed, and royally, at having been denied an opportunity to prove herself.
But in the lowest moment of the test, as the “bridge” blows up around her and her “crew” is perishing, as she is on the verge of ordering all hands to abandon ship, she feels she should have been able to find a solution. She has convinced herself she’s made a mistake. And she fears she has let Spock down.
Nether the theatrical nor the director’s cut versions of Star Trek II explicitly identify Saavik as Spock’s protégé, although both versions clearly imply he has been her primary teacher and guide. Cut scenes and Vonda N. McIntyre’s excellent novelization, let alone numerous licensed short stories and novels, establish and expand on their teacher-student relationship. (Frankly, so does Spock’s speech about faith in the future to Valeris, who was originally intended to be Saavik but mercifully was not, in Star Trek VI.)
Saavik’s reaction to Spock’s “death” during the Kobayashi Maru exercise is a beautiful bit of acting on Alley’s part, conveying in a few seconds the character’s deep respect for Spock and her deeply felt shame at, she believes, having disappointed him. She feels she is, as she muttered earlier under her breath, in “over [her] head” (00:05:13).
If you’ve ever had the same suspicions and fears about yourself, that you’ve let down people who were expecting great things from you, you can likely relate.
The Kobayashi Maru and the Character of Kirk
Finally, the Kobayashi Maru sequence establishes some of the movie’s central themes.
First, it introduces the idea of the no-win situation—”a possibility every commander may face,” says Kirk, although Shatner’s delivery makes it clear Kirk doesn’t really believe this lesson applies to him, as does his rather smug assertion that Saavik now has “something new to think about.” At several points ahead, Kirk will be asked to accept defeat, but he will never have to until Spock’s actual death.
Knowing when to defy defeat and when to accept it is an important life lesson, so it dovetails nicely with the second thematic concern this sequence establishes. Kirk’s aforementioned comment about space travel being “a game for the young” introduces the movie’s concern with aging. Star Trek II is the movie in which Kirk must do more than grow old—he must grow up. Harve Benett and Nicholas Meyer wanted to use the cast’s age as an asset instead of ignoring it. “I decided Star Trek II was going to be gritty,” says Bennett, “about people and how they cope with aging” (The Fifty-Year Mission, page 397). Given what might be charitably described as the rest of the franchise’s ambivalence about aging (“The Deadly Years,” “Unnatural Selection,” Star Trek: Insurrection, et al.), it was a bold decision not only for a summer blockbuster but also for a Star Trek film. (It also seems, inexplicably, a lesson Kirk chooses to turn his back on at the end fo Star Trek VI, as he orders Chekov to set the Enterprise’s course for “the second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning,” quoting Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up.)
Were the Kobayashi Maru sequence only a tense and exciting action sequence, it would still be a great opening to the film. But Nicholas Meyer, whose uncredited 12-day rewrite of the movie’s by mixing and matching elements from five different drafts (The Fifty-Year Mission, page 411), deftly uses it to not only build a completely new character but also put a new light on a pre-existing one.
By this point in Star Trek history, we’ve seen several aspects of Jim Kirk. But no wonder McCoy’s face falls (00:06:49) when his joke to Kirk falls flat. He, and we, are seeing Kirk as a jaundiced cynic for the first time. It’s a crisis of character that will drive the rest of this film as surely as does Khan’s crazed quest for revenge.