So, now that nobody cares anymore, about that Star Trek movie.
Not only is it full of homages to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it’s the thematic opposite to that movie, covering youth rather than age. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of these little homages. No, not the chief villain who wants revenge against a single one of Our Favorite Crew, and doesn’t care how much carnage he creates in pursuing it; not the mind-control beastie; not the starship hiding in a cloud trick; not the part where after a space-battle victory, the Enterprise is almost swallowed up by cosmic anomaly until argle-blargle space magick frees it. Nor the straightup dialogue lifts or riffs — “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?”; “I have been, and always shall be, your friend”; “You lied…. I implied [exaggerated].”
Not those. This: while Kirk circumvents the Kobayashi Maru simulation, he’s nonchalantly eating an apple. Because in Khan when Kirk is sitting in the Genesis cave explaining how he circumvented the Kobayashi Maru simulation, he’s eating an apple.
Why’s he eating that apple? In Khan, the plot centers on Kirk facing up to age, which means reckoning with death in a way he’s always avoided. He’s cheated death so many times he doesn’t believe the reaper’s really out to get him. Until he eats the apple, in the Edenic cave of, ahem, Genesis. Which he does while explaining how he avoided even pretending to face death. That act of insouciant hubris is the turning point in the plot that sends it, inexorably, to the death of his closest friend. Kirk has finally to reckon with the reality of death—that it’s coming for him, too—which lets him grow up, a bit, at last, ready to face the universe anew.
(You might think the earlier death of Peter Preston undermines this interpretation. But it doesn’t: Preston’s death touches his uncle, Scotty—it’s real to Scotty—but it doesn’t really touch Kirk, who uses it as an opportunity to grandstand a little as the Great Captain and to castigate himself for being a little slower on the uptake than he should be. Kirk here, as always, is a bit of a jerk; almost everyone is an expendable red-shirt to him.)
But in the new Star Trek, Kirk’s eating that apple much younger. And he should be—unlike the Kirk of Khan, this Kirk has had to reckon with death snapping at his heels since the moment of his birth, when the cosmos opened its maw and swallowed his father. Both Kirks do death-defying deeds, but for different reasons and in different ways. Shatner-Kirk risks lives, including his own, without ever really believing in the stakes. Pine-Kirk does it knowing that tomorrow he may die. It’s the difference between Peter Pan and Batman.