"From hell's heart, I stab at thee."
But Trek hasn’t always been that way; while The Next Generation‘s quotations are as stilted as the characters that intone them, the original series seemed to be sincerely trying to engage with its often passionate use of quotation and allusion. No doubt some of this may have been caused by the presence of William Shatner, who seems to be incapable of not being passionate and engaged with anything (just take a listen to his too-fun-to-be-ignored Transformed Man album), but tracking back a little further shows that series writer and creator Gene Roddenberry had a solid pre-Star Trek foundation in one of the most literate shows ever to air on television.
Although commonly described as ‘Wagon Train to the stars’, much of the underlying tone and approach (albeit not the content) of the original Star Trek can perhaps be seen as a logical extension of Gene Roddenberry’s work as a writer on Western series Have Gun - Will Travel (for which he wrote 24 episodes between 1957 and 1963). Have Gun‘s scripts and production demonstrate an unusually strong for the time focus on central-character consistency, one of the elements in Star Trek that helped it evolve so easily from a ‘series’ into a ‘universe’. Just as importantly, Have Gun - Will Travel stands out from its contemporaries by combining its standard TV liberalism with an active and often disruptive participation in its social dramas (often involving violent intervention).
Likewise, the original Star Trek sometimes seemed to revolve around some serious attempts (failed or otherwise) to engage with current and potentially difficult social issues beyond mere passive observation. The Enterprise crew often found themselves directly and willfully entangled in the problems they were supposed to be observing, leaning towards an interventionist stance and having only a tenuous reliance on the ‘prime directive’ of non-intervention that supposedly dominated their mission (it’s always a good laugh when Kirk all of a sudden feels bound by the Prime Directive after having already broken it four times before breakfast).
And, perhaps most importantly, Have Gun - Will Travel featured the most honestly cultured and literary character that’s ever lived inside the small-screen (that’s including the great poetic quoter, John Mortimer’s Rumpole). Quotation and allusion were key features of the Western series, beyond mere passing superficial references, and Kirk’s impassioned recitations don’t seem too far removed from Have Gun - Will Travel lead Paladin’s dramatic (and somewhat more restrained) tendency to view the problems he encounters through a prism of literary culture.
Star Trek‘s quotations were never as evocative, obscure (they tend to be fairly obvious) or naturally-integrated, but the sincerity behind the scripts and the intent, if nothing else, at real cultural connection seems clear. But if that connection is speculative at best, Trek really established its own pursuit of a literary core a few decades later, with two excellent films featuring the original cast and directed by Nicholas Meyer: 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (almost indisputably the best of the films, exciting and engaging even to non-Trek fans). The Wrath of Khan draws primarily on two fairly obvious and well-worn sources, A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick, but wins out through clear passion and direct application of these texts to the underlying themes and unique resonances of its story and universe.
The allusion to Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities in combination with Spock’s notion of sacrificing the good of the few for the good of the many isn’t surprising or extraordinarily insightful in itself, but it at least makes a perfect complement to Spock’s character and sacrifice: embracing his own death with the ultimate logical pragmatism that nevertheless broadcasts a paradoxical but irrefutable compassion. (And, of course, this opens up Kirk’s reversal of the quoted maxim in the following film, where the ‘good of the many’ is risked for the ‘good of the one’—a charming if not fully explored extension that nicely sums up the dual outlooks bubbling away under those well-worn characters and their long-established but slightly evasive friendship).
More excitingly, Khan’s use of Moby Dick in the film’s finale really latches on to the underlying emotion of its source with that uninhibited audacity that’s often dismissed as merely ‘camp’. I’ll take Shatner or Ricardo Montalban diving into some big emotions and chewing up the scenery over polished Next Generation actors dryly intoning ‘culture’ any day; literature is always best served by engagement rather than reverence. Nothing kills culture more quickly that a bunch of overly serious poseurs, desperate to prove their own profundity (and killing off the great hams in the process).
What really makes Meyer’s film special is the fact that this quote so cleverly and carefully emphasises the underlying repositioning of the characters and our potential sympathies in the film. After all, Kirk has essentially become the White Whale to Khan’s Ahab. Khan may have, like Ahab, become some almost inhuman creature driven to obscene vengeance, but it’s Kirk and the clean-cut Starfleet crew whose cavalier indifference and untouchable resilience have helped propel him to this state. Khan is, in fact, fairly justified in his hatred (after Kirk abandoned him on some miserable planet and wandered off, carelessly disposing of an entire race) and, thus, in getting the best lines. The lines from Moby Dick nicely define Khan as an being bound by monomaniacal rage in pursuit of an enemy as philosophical as it is tangible, but it is a rage that, like Ahab’s, contains the undeniable possibility of being, at times, our own.
“From hell’s heart, I stab at thee. For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!”
Importantly, this hatred hurled towards Kirk reflects not just upon the character but also on the show’s own underlying logic. As a result, it also challenges those elements we take for granted about Star Trek‘s approach to its scenarios. After all, didn’t we just as dismissively watch Khan abandoned on that planet, ignore the ethical dilemmas and then forget him completely as we tuned in for the next adventure? Much of Khan’s rage flies out at the shaky logic of always-justified and responsibility-free action that propels the Star Trek universe itself. Meyer doesn’t simply have his characters speak lines long dead, but instead suggests that we transpose, if only for a moment, the breadth of the logic and passion in Melville’s story onto this space-opera.