I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for probably the fiftieth time last Friday. The significance of experiencing a movie about sacrifice and the promise of hope and resurrection on Good Friday did not escape me, either. In a previous post I discussed the writing lessons learned from Gene Roddenberry, about the need for a story to always be about something; to that I’d add The Wrath of Khan as a further lesson, for not another science fiction film comes to mind with more of a pedigree so indebted to classical literature. Where Star Wars is the most famous embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, The Wrath of Khan is steeped like the finest blended tea in the traditions of Shakespearean drama, and its famous finale borrows greatly from the story of Jesus Christ. As writers we need to be aware of the traditions of storytelling, the recurrence of specific themes and motifs throughout history and the capacity of allusion to elicit powerful emotional reactions from our audience, for these notes will tend to seep into our own work whether we are conscious of it or not.
It is interesting to observe, as we delve into the Christian parallels at work in this particular tale, that The Wrath of Khan in many ways represents the “New Testament” of Star Trek, as it was the first Trek to be produced without Gene Roddenberry as its guiding hand. He was removed from day-to-day supervision of the film by Paramount studio executives who blamed the massive cost overruns of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Roddenberry’s working style. The Wrath of Khan was instead produced by Harve Bennett, who came out of the penny-pinching tradition of 70’s television, and written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, a beginning filmmaker whose biggest success to that point had been a series of Sherlock Holmes continuation novels. Meyer is a studied intellect with a well-stocked library, and he packed the screenplay with references to A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, the Horatio Hornblower novels, King Lear and Paradise Lost, eschewing complicated special effects unavailable to this movie’s reduced budget in favour of character development and deep thematic exploration. As a result, even though the movie cost a third of what it took to mount the first one, it feels substantially more epic. Meyer dared to tackle what tends to be taboo among movie stars forever worried about their image – growing older. He elicited from the infamously hammy William Shatner tremendous depth, nuance and vulnerability, arguably the best performance Shatner has ever given. Actors love Shakespeare, and Meyer gave his cast the next best thing – a brilliant pastiche, set, despite its futuristic trappings, firmly in the Bard’s thematic wheelhouse. (On the DVD director’s commentary, Meyer relates how he tried to convince Ricardo Montalban that he would have been a magnificent Lear, and regrets that such a performance never came to be; I know I would have loved to see it.) Although they never worked well together (or by any reports even liked each other that much), Meyer knew the same basic truth as Roddenberry, and by extension Shakespeare – that the weirdest, strangest, most alien people can be relatable on the basis of their emotions. A laugh and a tear are literally universal. This is where the use of allegory comes so strongly into play.
The best allegories operate invisibly. We don’t exactly know why something we are reading or watching is resonating with us so much, other than it seems to appeal to something deeper in the unconscious mind, or in the heart. The power of the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sins and his eventual resurrection touches the instinctual fear of death held by all living things, and to the human need to find nobility and purpose in what can seem like the meaningless end of life. The three-act structure of drama parallels this instinct as well: in the first act, you introduce your character(s), in the second, you drag them down to the lowest possible point of total collapse, and in the third, you show their climb from that abyss and ultimate triumph. In this too we find the Greek concept of catharsis – the emotional release found in an audience’s experience of a character’s pain and suffering. Interestingly, in the original cut of The Wrath of Khan, there was no hint that Spock’s death might somehow be overcome. It was observed by the powers that be following an ambivalent test screening that the movie featured Good Friday, but not Easter morning. The end of the film was then reshot (against the wishes of Meyer, it should be noted) to provide more uplift and hope, including a concluding shot of Spock’s coffin at rest in a Garden of Eden-like setting on the Biblically named Genesis Planet. Whether or not one is Christian, the cycle of sacrifice and rebirth (whether that rebirth is literal, or metaphorical in terms of the reborn spirit of those left behind) has a primal appeal, and when one of the pieces is missing, as in Wrath of Khan’s original ending, things feel out of sorts – the emotional experience is incomplete.
The issue I have struggled with in my own writing is when does allusion and allegory venture over the line into imitation and duplication? When so much of our creative world at present feels like karaoke, the value of true originality escalates into priceless. Yet audiences both literary and cinematic have this need for the reassurance of the familiar, the sense of being able to connect with the story on a visceral level, that commonality of hope and fear shared by all of humanity. Campbell observes that we have always been telling each other the same story over and over again; his titular hero of the thousand faces. Writers need to accept this basic truth or they will never even get started: they will be crippled, as South Park so wittily showed, with “Simpsons Already Did It” syndrome. And not just accept it, but come to embrace the idea that by infusing these ageless themes into their own work, they are taking part in a tradition that dates back to cave paintings and the fireside tale, and deepening the emotional experience of their story for the reader who will bring to it those same instinctive feelings about life and death. They will recognize the thread linking your words, their life, and the lives of all those who have come before and will come afterwards. And your work will truly live long and prosper.