The Thing I Like About …

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: the layered meaning of the no-win scenario.

In The Wrath of Khan, we first see our main characters as they participate in the Kobayashi Maru test. We don’t know it’s a test at first; we’re alarmed when everything starts going wrong, when torpedoes start hitting the ship and consoles explode. Half of the main characters are “killed”, and the “captain” decides to cut her losses and evacuate the ship – but it’s likely too late, because the situation is already incredibly dire.

Then the lights come up and the shaking stops, and we realize that all of this was a war-game designed to test the subject’s response to an unavoidable catastrophe; it’s a “no-win scenario,” where all decisions lead to the same unhappy outcome.

“Ah,” the audience says, relieved that Sulu and McCoy are still alive. “I understand. Kobayashi Maru, no-win scenario, yes, yes.” And we go on with the rest of the movie.

But the movie comes back to the Kobayashi Maru. When the main characters are all trapped in an underground research facility, knowing that their only rescue – the disabled Enterprise – is likely going to be blown up by the bad guy whose ship (of course) still works just fine, Saavik (the test-subject at the beginning of the film) learns that Captain Kirk is the only one ever to beat the Kobayashi Maru test.

He explains that he reprogrammed the test so that it was possible to rescue the ship.

The others say that he cheated, but Kirk says that he doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario. And then Spock, who apparently doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario either, shows up to rescue everyone with a perfectly healthy Enterprise, and the ship goes out to find and defeat the gullible bad guy, like every other movie wherein the hero faces unbelievable – and at times ludicrous – odds but manages to save the day in the end. Why, even the fallen heroes aren’t really dead; just as in the opening training sequence, the fallen get back up, straighten their uniforms, and live to fight another day.

Because Hollywood – and every story-teller around every campfire, ever – doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario either.

Saavik treats the ending of Khan as though Kirk and Spock have finally faced the Kobayashi Maru test, and been forced to handle unavoidable catastrophe. But the catastrophe was avoided; the ship is safe. Very few have died. The bad guy has been destroyed. The good guys have won. We hear Saavik saying that they’ve just endured a Kobayashi Maru situation, but they really haven’t.

“Ah,” the audience says. “Kirk cheated again, and somehow didn’t really take the test he said he doesn’t believe in. But he has to believe in it now, because, just like Saavik said, this whole film has been the no-win scenario … except … except they … they won.”

They won because Kirk and Spock reprogrammed the options so it was possible to rescue the ship – just like Kirk did twenty years ago. Why, it almost seems like the whole movie is really about … how there … isn’t a no-win scenario.

So why did we-the-audience believe it was a no-win scenario in the first place?

Because someone told us it was.

Someone told us it was. …

Why did we listen?

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