Sunday, 20 April 2014

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan novelization review

Star Trek sure loves its rainbow covers.
I used to think it was pretty silly that people wrote novelizations of movies. But crazier than that, some people actually read them! What the hell? Why would you do that? What could you possibly get out of the novel that the movie didn’t already do better? As it turns out, loads of stuff. I’m pretty new to novelizations and but I can tell you right away that I won’t have stacks of them in my living room but I have discovered that some of them are really worthwhile.  Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan by Vonda N. McIntyre, is one of the few novelizations that is actually rather incredible. You’re probably expecting me to say that it’s better than the movie right? No, don’t be stupid. It’s difficult to compare the two not because of their similarities but because of their considerably important differences. McIntyre has managed to write a novel that doesn’t just try to emulate the movie in prose, it’s a companion piece. She’s written a book that successfully builds on the movie without contradicting it or making it boring.

I was pretty surprised as to McIntyre’s approach. She writes the events of the movie, it’s all there. There are significant portions of the dialogue that are the same as in the movie (sadly, the movie’s “KHAAAAAAAN!!” was a simple “Khan!” in the novel). That makes sense because it fits with my preconceived idea of what a movie novelization is but I think few people would agree that a novelization should limit itself to simply rehashing the film it’s based on. What surprised me is that McIntyre embellished and added to the movie experience. She did this primarily by developing characters, some of which don’t even appear in the theatrical release, such as Peter Preston.

In McIntyre’s capable hands, Saavik is an actual character, not just a new face on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. She gives her a background story and she gives the reader a fascinating look inside her teacher/mentor relationship with Spock. It’s quite the shame that actress Kirstie Alley never got a chance to develop the character on screen because novel-Saavik is far more interesting than movie-Saavik. In my revisionist history of the making of the Star Trek films, Alley didn’t return to her role as Saavik because she read McIntyre’s novelization of The Wrath of Khan and was pissed about who novel-Saavik is and just how much more interesting she is. The same can easily be said for Dr. David Marcus, Captain Kirk and Dr. Carol Marcus’ son. Remember how there are some strange looks that are made between Saavik and David at the end of the movie? That’s because they’re been flirting since they met. His budding romance with Saavik gives the fans a chance to see a different side of David. As it turns out he’s not solely concerned with the news that Kirk is his father. He has a life and he’s also aware of other things going on around him. McIntyre gives us the chance to spend some time in David’s head too and it was pretty great. I’ve always found him rather annoying in the movie but novel-David is interesting because he isn’t uni-dimensional. Other characters also get some time to shine such as the many scientists who worked on the Genesis Project and Peter Preston, the nephew of Montgomery Scott.

Cute (and smart) couple.
That’s really the secret as to what makes The Wrath of Khan a successful novelization. McIntyre isn’t focused solely on hitting all the plot points and writing descriptive action scenes or technically heavy descriptions of the workings of all the advanced technology. Similarly to the movie, the focus was also quite heavily put on the characters. The second Star Trek films isn’t the best because Khan is the best villain, it’s because Khan is a great character and the juxtaposition of Kirk and Khan is a fascinating to watch. McIntyre also did a great job writing Khan.

The Wrath of Khan is often considered a great revenge story and while it certain is that, it’s also much more. It’s the story of how 15 years of hardship broke Khan and his final self-destructive moments where everything around him crumbles not despite his actions but because of them. McIntyre shows us just how deeply Khan cares about his people and that’s the main reason he’s so angry at Kirk. He’s not a megalomaniac, he’s angry that he’s failed his people. His desire for revenge is fuelled by his love for his people who he wants to protect and lead them to a better life. The death of his wife, Lieutenant McGivers pushes him over the edge and he’s unable to focus on anything other than causing Kirk pain and suffering. He has to deal with his hatred of Kirk before he can return his attention to the well-being of his people. At heart, he’s a good if harsh man but the difficulties he faced while on Alpha Ceti V proved to be too difficult for him.

McIntyre brings forth this side of Khan by allowing the reader to spend some time in Joachim’s head. As one of Khan’s people and one of his close followers, he noticed firsthand the transformation that Khan went through while on Alpha Ceti V. At one point he realises that Kahn will regain his focus once he’s been able to deal with Kirk but that, of course, ends in tragedy.

This part was pretty heart-wrenching. Kind of sad it only made it in the
Director's Cut version of the movie. Poor Peter Preston.

One of the things I really like about Khan is how well he plays off of Kirk. His wrath may have truly begun with the death of his wife but it continues to grow during his showdown with Kirk and finally consumes him. Khan puts Kirk in an extremely difficult situation which is something Kirk unknowingly did to Khan. He’s plotting Kirk’s humiliation and death but he’s not doing it with any measurable amount of success other than by stealing the Genesis missile and that’s no consolation. Stealing Project Genesis was never Khan’s goal, it was a tool which allowed him to lure Kirk into a dangerous situation. Aside from the frustration of failing to successfully put an end to his rival, Khan also has to deal with the fact that Kirk is being selfless. Kirk is being exactly the kind of man Khan (presumably used to be in regard to his people and putting their needs before his own. Kirk even offered to give himself up to Khan in order to protect his senior officers and the training crew above the Enterprise. Khan is raging because the very man he’s trying to destroy is demonstrating his worth as an individual and as a leader making Khan look like a fool. Despite his enhanced physique and his advanced intelligence, Kirk is the better man because he puts his aging body and his mind at work with the goal of protecting and defending the men and women he cares about. If you set aside Khan’s enhancements, he and Kirk and very much the same person, both leaders who were put in difficult situations but one of them decided to act in the interest of the people he cares about and the other decided to act on his own desires and forgo the safety of his people.

The comparison extends beyond Kirk, though since other characters show that have a greater sense of duty and responsibility towards those who look up to them than Khan. Spock is a great example of this.
Spock: Don't grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many, outweigh...
Kirk: The needs of the few.
Spock: Or the one.
It’s fascinating that Khan takes one approach and Spock another. For Khan, despite his previous devotion to this people, believes that his personal revenge is more important than any of the other needs, be they personal or collective, of his people. As for Spock, he believes that the needs of his friends and crew are more important than his need to survive or keep on living. It’s even more interesting when you consider the events of the third movie, Star Trek: The Search for Spock, in which Spock’s friends collectively agree that his needs are more important than the needs of the group. They prove it with their actions and it’s great to see the same quote flipped on its head with equally emotional results (though one is negative and the other is positive).

The Wrath of Khan is one of the best novelizations I’ve ever read. Granted, it’s not a very long list, but McIntyre is able to present the events of the movie without adding unnecessary fluff. She doesn’t repeat the movie in further detail but she embellishes it by presenting smaller, character driven stories that take place in between the events that were included in the film. Lucky for me (and other Star Trek fans) she’s written two others novelizations, The Search of Spock and The Voyage Home. I’m very curious to see if she was able to write equally good novels out of the other films but there’s only one way to find out for sure. Either way, it’s clear that McIntyre’s got a great grasp of the characters and the universe of Star Trek and I’ll definitively be checking out more of her tie-in novels. 

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