How the Kobayashi Maru Test Demonstrates Character

This is why I love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There are an infinite number of things to talk about in it. What I’d like to focus on today is the Kobayashi Maru test. It’s a test of character, as Admiral James T. Kirk points out. There is no correct solution, only a revelation of what makes a person tick when under extreme pressure.

Three characters take the test in Star Trek II: Lieutenant Saavik, Admiral Kirk, and Captain Spock. And they each demonstrate why they’re in the positions they’re in. Saavik is inexperienced and not yet ready for command duties. Kirk is a wise old fox who believes he can think his way out of any scrape. Then there’s Spock. He is a loyal friend and an ever-present source of support to Kirk.

Saavik – Do the Right Thing

Due to her inexperience, Saavik tends to rely heavily on Starfleet regulations. She goes by the book for most of the film. However, that’s not who she really is. Deep down, she believes in doing the right thing. That’s why she breaks so many rules and regulations in the opening scene to try to save the crew of the Kobayashi Maru during a training exercise.

She wanted to save those people. Instead, she got her whole crew killed and didn’t save anyone. Additionally, she could have plunged all of Starfleet and the Federation into war with the Klingons by illegally entering the Neutral Zone.

Basically, her way of thinking led to disastrous consequences. And that fact drives her crazy for the rest of the film because she’s convinced there was no other way for her to respond. She had to save those people. It was the right thing to do. But she failed, and the situation quickly cascaded into a total disaster.

That’s why she’s so curious about how Kirk responded to the same test. It needles in her mind, which makes her hang around Kirk every chance she gets. She has to know how he could beat a no-win scenario.

Kirk – Outthink the Opponent

As it turns out, Saavik didn’t have to wait long to find out how Kirk would respond to the Kobayashi Maru test. She got to see it firsthand during the Enterprise’s initial encounter with the Reliant. Kirk and his crew don’t know that it has been commandeered by a vengeful old foe named Khan Noonien Singh. So Khan takes them by surprise and manages to cripple the Enterprise in one of the film’s tensest scenes.

Outmatched in every way, Kirk’s only option appears to be total surrender. The Reliant’s shields are too powerful for the Enterprise’s phasers to penetrate. The engines are offline, so there’s no hope of escape. And no ships are nearby to come to the Enterprise’s aid.

How does Kirk respond to this no-win scenario? By cheating. Or, rather, by thinking outside the box. According to the usual terms of combat, he can’t win. But by using his superior knowledge and experience with Starfleet equipment and procedures, he musters a fighting chance to score a temporary victory. He uses a prefix code to order Reliant to lower its shields just long enough for the Enterprise to deliver a crushing blow. As a result, Khan is forced to retreat and lick his wounds.

Khan may have been able to outsmart Kirk for a moment, but now Kirk knows to constantly keep his guard up. He won’t be so easily tricked twice. While he did lose some of his crew during the assault, Kirk saved the rest from falling into the hands of Khan. And he managed to live to fight another day. That’s who Kirk is. He’s a thinker, a fighter, and a survivor.

Spock – Sacrifice Self for Others

Immediately after hearing about an emergency situation, Spock insists that Kirk take command of the Enterprise. He knows that Kirk is the superior captain, and he has no ego to bruise. For a lesser man, it would sting to admit someone is better at his job than he is. But not Spock. He is a better man than just about any red-blooded human could claim to be.

Without showing weakness, cowardice, or fear, he effortlessly makes way for others to shine. For example, Spock could have easily piloted the Enterprise out of Spacedock, but he saw an opportunity for Saavik to test her command ability. So he handed over the reins to her. Perhaps it was out of compassion for seeing her mess up so badly in the Kobayashi Maru test. Whatever the case may be, it was a growing experience for her that he made possible.

Spock’s selflessness finds its logical conclusion at the film’s climax when he takes his own version of the Kobayashi Maru test. It’s a no-win scenario. Playing by the rules, he, and everyone else aboard the Enterprise, will die. Thus, Spock breaks all the rules in a very Vulcan way. He abandons his post on the Bridge, hurries to the Engine Room, performs a Vulcan neck pinch on Dr. McCoy, takes Scotty’s gloves, and calmly walks into an irradiated room where death awaits.

All of this he does to save the lives of his friends. He repairs the damage to the Enterprise’s warp drive just in time for it to escape from certain death at the hands of Khan. And then all he can do is wait to die himself. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. When Kirk confronts him one last time, Spock asks him what he thinks of his solution to the Kobayashi Maru test. That nearly stuns Kirk into silence. It’s my favorite part of their last exchange.

If this was meant to be a test of character, Spock showed the astonishing depths of his humility. He looked upon his own life as being valuable only in the service of his beloved trainee crew and veterans, alike.

3 Solutions to an Impossible Problem

As Kirk describes it, the Kobayashi Maru test is not meant to be rightly or wrongly handled. I agree that there is no one correct solution to this problem. Saavik did what she thought was right, but it led to many problems. Kirk acted questionably, but I can’t deny his results. And Spock had to die for his belief in what was right and logical. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t be able to make that choice again, even though it was probably the best option available.

Even with his death, Spock was supporting Kirk. It’s appropriate that in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Kirk would have to sacrifice everything dear to him for his friend. And that he would initiate the enterprise by declaring, “The Kobayashi Maru has set sail for the Promised Land.” Instead of a no-win scenario, that film’s events are a series of tradeoffs. We can debate whether or not Kirk acted wisely or foolishly. But even if we question his methods, we can’t argue with his results.

This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.

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About Robert Lockard, the Deja Reviewer

Robert Lockard has been a lover of writing since he was very young. He studied public relations in college, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 2006. His skills and knowledge have helped him to become a sought-after copywriter in the business world. He has written blogs, articles, and Web content on subjects such as real estate, online marketing and inventory management. His talent for making even boring topics interesting to read about has come in handy. But what he really loves to write about is movies. His favorite movies include: Fiddler on the Roof, Superman: The Movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Back to the Future, Beauty and the Beast, The Fugitive, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight. Check out his website: Deja Reviewer. Robert lives in Utah with his wife and four children. He loves running, biking, reading, and watching movies with his family.
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