The release of a new Star Trek film invariably incites vigorous, sometimes expectorating discussion everywhere on the internet. Thankfully, I've been on the internet long enough to know how to "accidentally" miss out on much of this. Still, I can't help but want to join the debate. In private time, with good friends, I'll eventually turn to the only really powerful Star Trek question we agree should be asked: is this new movie as good as Wrath of Khan?

Even in college, friends and I would have long drunken metaphysical discussions that asked the hard questions. Like, "Is Dark Side of the Moon the best Pink Floyd album?" and, "If you could only watch one comedic film for the rest of your life, would it be This Is Spinal Tap or Dr. Strangelove?" The Wrath of Khan question proved enduringly trenchant.

Here's why: Wrath of Khan was, until recently, the only Star Trek movie that would have been considered great even if you didn't like Star Trek. You didn't need to understand what Kirk's situation meant or what Spock's philosophy was; the movie told you. Sure, Khan was some strange bad guy, for a bit. Then you knew. Everything you needed to know about that movie was told in that movie.

Even better, it's two great other tales mashed into one. It's Run Silent, Run Deep and Moby-Dick together. Series creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned the starships like submarines (instead of worrying about rupturing and letting water in, they worry about rupturing and letting air, people, everything out), which informed the battle strategy. And in case people didn't get the Moby-Dick feeling of vengeance — the worry that an obsession from or of evil is as evil as Evil Itself — Khan paraphrases and quotes from Moby-Dick during the movie:

KHAN: I'll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition's flames before I give him up!

MELVILLE: I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up!

KHAN+MELVILLE: [No, Kirk, you can't get away.] From hell's heart, I stab at thee. For hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.
It takes fantastic classical themes of vengeance, obsession, fraternity and sacrifice, plunges them into space and makes the themes we accept as enduring seem new and unfamiliar.

Of course, this new movie throws a monkey wrench into the age-old argument. Because it's fun. It's an action-adventure romp bereft of the weighty (some might say ponderous or self-important) themes that made Star Trek inaccessible to some moviegoers. It almost passes the "is it as good as Wrath of Khan" test because it really can be just as great if you don't care a whit for Star Trek.

Despite that, it's still inferior. And there's a one-word reason why, and I think it will surprise you:


Now, full disclosure: Mr. Shatner will be guest-blogging here in the near future in the Letter Blocks section (and the wag in me wants to believe it's going to be about nothing other than As and Hs), but that's not why I'm saying this. I come not to praise Shatner, but I don't intend to bury him either. I come to share this video.

This video is amazing, because the thing it points up is how evocative Shatner's always been. We tend to dismiss him because of his predictable vocal patterns, but underneath that has always been a very responsive, engaged face. Watch the video. It's mesmerizing. Four seconds of his reaction are stretched out to 15 minutes, and in that time you can see a wrenching range of impotence, rage, loathing, need, fear. Every muscle moves in time to a thought. This might seem like nothing to you, if you've never done any acting, but stop and think about what it means for a scene. If Shatner were so godawful as pop-culture would suggest he is, how did he ever share a meaningful moment with anyone or anything?

The canard that "Shatner Is Horrible" is especially belied by how funny everyone seems to agree he is. (He is. I challenge you to prove he isn't. These words are a gauntlet: I have thrown them on the floor. I dare you to pick them up.) Comedy is hard. A lot of actors will tell you it's much harder than drama, and there is an entire mortuary of brooding Hollywood leading men who absolutely tanked in comedies and stayed away for the rest of their careers because of how badly comedy exposed them. You have to react sincerely, enough to respond to the aggression of a joke, let it come at your expense, yet feed the comedy of the aggression directed at you in such a way as to not evoke pity but rather further the gag. You have to be authentically shamed, yet have the pride to keep going, even if that means boldly going across a gangplank that isn't there. You have to take pride in your own loathing and contempt. You embrace defeat lovingly. A lot of great comedy is anti-hammy: it's collusively humiliating. Yet hammy Shatner's great at this selfsame ritual of subordination.

The new Star Trek is great fun. Don't get me wrong. But it's fun in a disconnected way, both from the mythos that created it (it necessarily has to rewrite some things to qualify as a reboot) and also from the anguish that the original did so well. We can laugh at some of those old episodes because they took themselves very seriously, but taking themselves very seriously is what made their successes that much more poignant and timeless. If they had merely been romping across the stars for scores of episodes, who would care?

That "Khaaaan!!!" moment became a joke and an internet meme (and was featured on The Critic and The Simpsons, as in other series), but would it matter if the movie wasn't so good? Moreover, is it even bad? The reverb and echo are probably a poor stylistic choice, but Shatner had nothing to do with that: the director looped it and panned out to an FX shot of the planet. The "Khan!" short film shows a fastidious re-imagining and re-appreciation of an iconic film shot that we lampooned far more for the direction than anything.

The acting, when fragmented and processed, re-processed, re-conceptualized, transfixes the viewer. It's good. It's really good. Combine that with Moby-Dick, classic submarine warfare, sacrifice, brotherhood and loss, and you have the best Star Trek movie ever made. And, even without the name Star Trek added, a great movie in its own right. Hail Shatner!

Message Edited by L_Monty on 06-04-2009 01:20 PM
by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎06-04-2009 01:25 PM
Kahn was good but Star Trek 4 is my favorite (can you tell me where the nuclear wessels are?)
by on ‎06-04-2009 03:41 PM

I have a cat named Khan.  Not after the Star Trek character, but at the same time, it's kind of cool to think that he might be. 


Ricardo Montalban was great as Khan.  I once saw a photo of a practical joke that they played on him on the set of the movie.  They pasted a picture of Herve Villechaise's face on a really small robot.  Montalban was totally cracking up.

by SFSignal on ‎06-04-2009 05:58 PM
And don't forget the always-available-when-you-need-a-hit website, Khaan!
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