There’s zero doubt The Wrath of Khan is an action-packed masterpiece. Two men with an ancient grudge battle through pain, loss, and the fear of growing old and irrelevant while shooting blindly at each other in a nebula. What’s not to love?
Like any classic, The Wrath of Khan could be and has been nitpicked to death. Minor errors in continuity and lapses in logic have been discussed in nerd circles for ages. There’s Khan recognizing Chekov when the young ensign wasn’t on the show when Space Seed aired. Or the Genesis Device making a planet and star from scratch when just an hour early it could only terraform an existing world. Or the fact that the Enterprise and the Reliant would never find each other again in a lightyear-wide nebula and no sensors. Ghaah! Whatever! More Melville quotes!
Catching the Idiot Ball, however, is a narrative sin that goes far beyond pickable nits. It’s when a character suddenly becomes bafflingly stupid in order to advance a sequence of events that are integral to the plot. Events that the character, at their previously established intelligence level, would see through immediately.
Unfortunately, much of Wrath of Khan’s plot, and even some of its major emotional hooks, depend on people who should know better acting like morons. Here’s seven major examples.
7. The Reliant Doesn't Scan The Ceti Alpha System
By Wrath of Khan Star Trek’s palette of future technology and what it could achieve fairly well established. In a number of Original Series episodes the ship’s sensors were fully capable of scanning the configuration of a whole solar system. In Doomsday Machine, for instance, the Enterprise can tell several planets are missing from a system before even entering it.
Despite this, the Reliant can’t tell Ceti Alpha VI has been turned to rubble and Ceti Alpha V is actually the planet they are orbiting. Even if you were counting the planets with your fingers Ceti Alpha V is still the fifth planet. Ceti Alpha VII is now the sixth. A lot of people, including the science officer, the navigator, Captain Terrell, and First Officer Chekov, have to ignore a ton of sensor info to make a mistake this big.
To compound things, there’s no way Ceti Alpha V, even with its decimated ecosystem, would be identical to Ceti Alpha VI in size, mass, topography, and atmospheric makeup. I’m pretty sure our modern astronomers could make the differentiation with a ground telescope. Why can’t 23rd century super-science?