Many commentators have noticed the parallels between Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Several parallels are intentional, but is one of the biggest similarities just a coincidence? Note that this post has spoilers for both Moby Dick and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
The Wrath of Khan (“TWOK“) mirrors the overrding theme of vengeance from Moby Dick. Just as Ahab is driven by his desire for vengeance against the white whale, TWOK focuses on Khan’s obsessive quest for vengeance against Captain Kirk (William Shatner). The movie writers’ intent is reinforced with Herman Melville’s book appearing in one scene and Khan quoting or paraphrasing from Moby Dick at points (“to the last I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee”). Finally, the ending of TWOK is almost identical to the ending of Moby Dick. But what is interesting is that, despite all of the intentional similarities, it appears that this major similarity about the two endings is entirely coincidental.
In the end of TWOK, after Spock dies, his body is sent off in a photon torpedo as his coffin. In one of the final scenes, we see that this “coffin” has landed on the planet where Genesis is bringing the planet back to life.
The test version of the film, though, omitted the final coffin-on-the-rejuvinating-planet scene. Various sources, including Wikipedia, explain that Leonard Nimoy had initially agreed to reprise his role as Mr. Spock in TWOK only because his character would finally be killed. But, as the filming was coming to a close, Nimoy had enjoyed the making of the movie so much, he wanted to allow for Spock’s return if they so chose. So, the scene of Spock mind melding with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) was added, but the initial cut of the movie still ended in a way that appeared to make Spock’s death final. Only after test audiences reacted poorly to seeing the icon’s death did producer Harve Bennett add the final scene showing Spock’s coffin on the rejuvenating planet with Nimoy’s voiceover of the traditional Star Trek series opening monologue.
The director, Nicholas Myer objected to the changes but allowed them. According to his director’s commentary on the video, he believed it was cheating to change the finality of the death scene (and having no interest in a resurrection story, he declined an offer to direct Star Trek III: The Search for Spock). In the commentary, he explains that as the movie was being finalized, producers realized that they might want to continue the series. And so the movie has the ending we all know:
Other sources confirm the story about the changes to the ending of TWOK. The book Star Trek and Sacred Ground, by Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren, reports that the first versions of the film did not include the scenes with Spock’s coffin landing on the Genesis planet. (p. 155.) A 2010 Los Angeles Times article noted Nimoy’s response to seeing the coffin scene: ”I was caught by surprise by the ending…. I was sitting there watching it and the camera goes across some foliage, some mist — a little magical kind of look — and guess what, there’s the black tube … whoa, I think I’m going to get a call from Paramount.”
So why is it interesting that the final scene was an afterthought and not planned from the start? Because so much of the rest of the movie echoes Moby Dick, and in the classic novel, a coffin plays an important role. Aboard the novel’s ship the Pequod, the character Queequeg at one point thought he was dying and had a coffin built for him. At the end of the novel, the obsessed Ahab is killed by his obsession just as the obsessed Khan is effectively killed by his obsession Kirk. Then, the book’s narrator Ishmael survives because after the Pequod is destroyed, he uses the coffin as a life buoy, just as Spock is left with a coffin after the Enterprise is almost destroyed. As Ishmael is adrift after the ship’s destruction, he describes his discovery of a “black bubble” in the ocean:
“[T]he black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin like-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last.”
[Update February 2015: The final coffin scene from the Gregory Peck movie does not seem to be on YouTube any longer, but below is a trailer for the movie.]
When I first saw The Wrath of Khan in the movie theater, because of the Moby Dick references, I thought the director intended to invoke Moby Dick again at the end. Just as the classic novel ended with Ishmael surviving in a scene with a coffin, I thought the producers’ message with the final coffin scene was designed to evoke Ishmael’s survival, revealing that Spock would live again. While they did intend to imply Spock might live again, it seems it was a coincidence that the way they did it once again invoked Moby Dick.
Were the similar endings a coincidence? What do you think? Leave a comment.
Bonus Moby Dick References: There are a couple of other parallels between Moby Dick and Star Trek outside The Wrath of Khan. Captain Picard, i.e., Patrick Stewart, starred in a TV version of Moby Dick and like Khan he quoted the book in a Star Trek movie, Star Trek: First Contact (1996).
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