Given that the space program itself had begun to fizzle by the mid-1970s, as Apollo lunar landings gave way to decades upon decades of imprisonment in low-earth orbit, this film was significant in keeping a core group engaged in imagining a future beyond the confines of our own planet.
There is much to like about the film itself. It’s most essentially a glorification of the spirit of exploration, suggesting that the quest for knowledge is worth the risks posed by space travel. This is a notion that I’ve agreed with numerous times in print, arguing it should inform NASA’s human spaceflight program.
Perhaps The Wrath of Khan’s most forward-thinking theme, which was also true for the original series, was its consideration of the dangers of genetic engineering and perhaps even terraforming. It questions whether scientists or the military should be charged with advancing these ideas. During the Cold War the military became the predominant actor in funding research and development programs, which by the early-1980s was being seriously debated. Today, we seem to have abandoned those concerns. This is evidenced by President Trump’s creation of a Space Force, for reasons that pass understanding given that the Air Force was doing just fine, with very little public discussion. As The Wrath of Khanargues, this is a dangerous path to travel.
If we are to play God, as the Genesis Project does by terraforming an entire planet in a single step, we must discuss the ethical questions this raises about our role in the universe.
I would be remiss if I didn’t end by highlighting the clearly best part of the original Star Trek films, which are characterized by the truly wonderful overacting of William Shatner. Is there anything better than watching him scream uncontrollably into a microphone: “Khan. KHAN. KHAAAAAAN!!!” Glorious.
(Up Next: Blade Runner)