Steven Lloyd Wilson, in his brief review of this film, provides much to think about:
The film begins with… a simulation called the Kobayashi Maru, a test required of all command cadets, a test that cannot be won. The importance of the test is gradually revealed over the course of the film and dovetails with the plot: the contradictory need both to face death and to refuse to believe there is any such thing as a no-win situation….
The battles between the two ships have a tension to them, a gravity, enhanced by the film’s clever decision to establish that the Enterprise was on a training mission with an entire crew of half-trained cadets. They’re terrified, undisciplined, make mistakes, die by the dozens in fire and vacuum. Survival becomes dependant on the intelligence and tactics of their commanders. Strategy makes sense throughout the film, emphasizing guile and logic in the place of technobabble.
The duality of life and death runs through all elements of the film: the polar opposites of the scientists and the fleet officers, Spock dying so that everyone else may live. And running through all of it the Genesis device: creation through destruction.
1. The plot of the film is simple enough: some time before, Captain Kirk had an encounter with a genetically engineered superman – Khan – who got one of Kirk’s crew to fall in love with him and tried to take over the ship. She, Khan and a few others failed in their mutiny upon the Enterprise and were banished to a remote planet. A Federation starship some years later stumbles upon Khan and is taken over; he wants revenge for his sufferings – including the misery and death of his wife – on a harsh, nearly lifeless planet.
The Federation starship stumbled upon Khan because it was helping do research for Project Genesis, a device that can make dead planets abound with life. Khan sees the potential for a super weapon in this device. The Federation, not knowing what happened to their starship, sends out now-Admiral Kirk to find out. One of the scientists who made Genesis is Kirk’s ex-wife: his son is working on the project: all are in danger because of Khan’s wrath.
2. The characters follow a classical division: one (Kirk/Khan, those who rule), few (scientists), many (crew of the Enterprise). What is most curious is that “one” destroys, but creation (Project Genesis) is the preserve of the few.
In order to figure out what’s going on, one has to concentrate on the “one.” Khan is easy enough to figure out: he’s someone who believes power exists to benefit him. Spock’s The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few makes no sense for him. One who is entitled to rule would betray weakness by conceding that other opinions mattered.
The question is why this viewpoint has any credibility that the film would have to treat it at length. It seems insanity, but remember that Kirk cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test. The point of the test is to face death, to face a no-win situation. Kirk cheats on this test, saying there’s no such thing as a no-win situation – in employing this logic, he is most certainly a hero. He is also mirroring Khan’s tyranny.
3. So the question becomes: how do heroes grow? Spock – as human reason incarnate – is there to guide an almost everyman Kirk throughout every film. Human tenacity is shared by all, just to different degrees; still, Kirk is something special. He is philosophically courageous in seeing the idiocy of outright accepting death instead of trying something. This is perhaps why his ex-wife and son are militant about creation; they’ve settled on human making as the solution to a world where confrontation with death is inevitable. Khan’s progeny are more moderate than he is, but are united in their hatred. Khan only realizes he loves them when it’s too late.
Kirk doesn’t quite get the lesson that the power to destroy is the power to preserve until the end. There’s a reason why Plato and Aristotle (see esp. Aristotle’s “Poetics”) rate “making” below “discovery:” you need to understand and appreciate before you put your signature on everything. In a sense, without understanding, creation is just as good as destruction – we can conceive of faulty creation being murderous quite easily. Kirk can’t get this lesson immediately: his job forces him to focus on destroying Khan. The viewpoint that makes him good at his job doesn’t allow him to sacrifice or order others to their death; he’s a leader that treats his crew like equals.
But Spock understands the deep lesson of the Kobayashi Maru – you go out and get killed in the simulation because something precious is at risk, something worth dying for. That’s the real reason why there are no no-win scenarios: life isn’t about ourselves all the time.