Welcome to “Friday Favorites” which highlight some of my favorite movie-related things.
In this week’s “Trailer Tuesday” for Star Trek Into Darkness I talked about how, as a Trekkie, I’m not a fan of 2009’s Star Trek. In particular I hated its depiction of Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru test, so today I thought I’d highlight my favorite scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where a middle-aged Kirk describes his solution to the test.
Wrath of Khan opens with Lt Saavik (Kirstie Alley) commanding the Enterprise when it receives a distress call from the Neutral Zone from the stranded freighter, Kobayashi Maru. Saavik violates the Neutral Zone to rescue the ship, but the Enterprise is attacked and defeated by Klingon Battle Cruisers and Admiral Kirk emerges to tell Saavik she is dead. He explains that the test is designed to be unwinnable in order to study how potential captains face death and a no-win scenario.
She repeatedly asks Kirk how he handled the test when he was in Starfleet, and each time he evades the question. Eventually Kirk, McCoy, Saavik, Chekhov, Kirk’s son and his former lover are all trapped in an experimental cave deep within a moon, the Enterprise having abandoned them on Kirk’s orders. Saavik asks Kirk again about his test, and here is his reply:
Saavik: Sir, may I ask you a question?
Kirk: What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?
Saavik: The Kobayashi Maru, sir.
Kirk: Are you asking me if we’re playing out that scenario now?
Saavik: On the test, sir… will you tell me what you did? I would really like to know.
McCoy: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.
Kirk: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship.
David Marcus: He cheated.
Kirk: I changed the conditions of the test; got a commendation for original thinking. I don’t like to lose.
Saavik: Then you never faced that situation… faced death.
Kirk: I don’t believe in the no-win scenario. [pulls out his communicator] Kirk to Spock, it’s two hours. Are you ready?
Spock: [on communicator] Right on schedule, Admiral. Just give us your coordinates and we’ll beam you aboard.
Kirk: All right! [to Saavik] I don’t like to lose.
William Shatner plays the scene wonderfully, and it’s perfectly written to his acting abilities. (Despite Shatner being the butt of many jokes about his easy-to-imitate style, he actually can be a very good actor, particularly with this character he’s known so long.) The scene fits perfectly into the film’s exploration of aging. Kirk starts the film as an Admiral no longer in command of a ship, feeling the effects of middle age weighing on him. “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young,” he tells McCoy on his birthday. The film takes place eight to ten years after the previous one, despite being released only three years later, and it marks Kirk’s transition from one phase of life to the next, a transition he’s struggling with.
As the film progresses, however, Kirk’s youthful exuberance returns to him, first merely from joy at being in space again and then from the challenge that Khan represents. Facing an adversary from his past reminds him of the man he used to be, as does Saavik’s questioning. His constant evasions of her questions represent his struggle to act the way he thinks someone of his age is supposed to act. When he finally agrees to answer its as though he’s realizing who he truly is, and that twinkle in his eye returns. It’s far more meaningful to have Kirk tell the story himself instead of Saavik learning from someone else, because it allows Kirk to have that personal revelation in the moment. It’s almost the defining moment in Kirk’s entire story, through almost 30 years of television and movies, and it allows Kirk to continue to be the man he is meant to be throughout the rest of his life.
The impression we get from the scene of Kirk’s encounter with the Kobayashi Maru in the Academy is very different from what we’re shown in 2009’s Star Trek. (Yes, I realize it’s an alternate timeline and is therefore allowed to be different, but that’s a discussion for another time.) I feel like Kirk, who took the test multiple times, was excited by the challenge of a no-win scenario and annoyed by facing something he refused to accept, determined to defeat it despite what others might have told him. In the end he hacks the test, giving himself an opportunity to defeat it. I’ve always imagined it was just a slight tweak, giving him a small opening that he exploited, making the programmers question whether their simulation had a flaw. And once his “cheating” had been discovered Starfleet Academy was so impressed that he was commended for it.
What we get in the 2009 film is an arrogant Kirk out to “beat” Spock, who programmed the test. He doesn’t take it seriously, he’s not out to prove anything, he just swaggers in on his 3rd attempt, having romanced a programmer into altering the test, and the test becomes a joke. The Klingons are able to be defeated with one shot each, and he sits there smiling and munching on an apple, in a reference to the scene above that I find a bit insulting. I’m sure many people would argue that this is a different Kirk, deprived of the guiding influence of his father in this timeline, who still has to grow into the Kirk we know, but that doesn’t change the the fact that I don’t like it. I feel like it lost all meaning.
All of that is unable to ruin this wonderful scene, however, and I can just ignore the “new” timeline. The Kobayashi Maru is such a clever and believable story device, that works on its own as a part of the plot and fits in with the characters’ growth and the issues they are facing. It’s a simple scene, and an example of how sometimes telling can be better than showing.
What do you think? Is there another scene in Wrath of Khan that you like better? Am I crazy for not liking the new Star Trek? Would you try to rescue the Kobayashi Maru, or refuse to violate the Neutral Zone?