"'Sauce for the goose,' Mister Saavik. The odds will be even."
The Battle of the Mutara Nebula was the final engagement between James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh. In 2267, Captain Kirk left Khan and his followers on Ceti Alpha V in exile. Because Kirk never returned to check on their progress, he had no way of knowing that a catastrophic environmental calamity had occurred that made Ceti Alpha V a desert wasteland, just months after Khan and his followers were left on the planet. Nearly twenty years later, Khan seized an opportunity to achieve what he had wanted for so long: the death of Kirk.
In 2285, the USS Reliant was on a survey mission to find a suitable location for Project Genesis, a Federation project to turn an uninhabitable world into an M-class planet. While examining what they thought was Ceti Alpha VI, Captain Clark Terrell and his first officer, Commander Pavel Chekov, were captured by Khan and his followers. He implanted each with Ceti eels and learned not only why they had come to the planet, but also where he may find James T. Kirk. Shortly afterward, Khan and his people took control of the Reliant, marooned the crew on Ceti Alpha V, and headed for the Regula I space station.
Meanwhile, the now-Admiral Kirk was inspecting the USS Enterprise when he received a transmission from Doctor Carol Marcus, who was stationed at Regula I. Chekov had already hailed her and had told the station's science team that Starfleet was taking control of Project Genesis now, the order coming directly from James Kirk. The ruse was quite effective; Marcus' team had been operating independently of the Federation on their project and Khan knew that they would contact Kirk and ask to confirm the order, bringing him to the remote science outpost Regula I.
When communication was broken, Kirk ordered the starship to proceed to Regula I. While en route, they came face-to-face with the Reliant, which initially failed to open communications. In a serious lapse in judgment, Kirk disregarded Starfleet regulations dictating a defensive posture when encountering a non-communicative ship. As a result, Khan opened fire in a surprise attack, severely damaging most of the Enterprise's key systems, notably weapons, shields, and propulsion. Khan then hailed Kirk, agreeing not to destroy the Enterprise on condition that Kirk would hand over both himself and all of the information on the Enterprise computers relating to Project Genesis. Kirk pretended to comply, but instead he and Spock entered the Reliant's prefix code, lowered its shields, and returned fire. With Reliant's photon torpedo launcher and warp drive disabled, Khan was forced to withdraw.
Sometime after the skirmish, the Enterprise engineering team was able to restore auxiliary power, and the ship resumed its course to Regula I. When Kirk and an away team boarded the station, they found that the science team had been murdered. They also found, in a closet, Chekov and Terrell, now traumatized. The away team and the two Reliant officers then beamed down to nearby planetoid Regula and discovered the Genesis Device, along with Carol and her son, David Marcus. Khan, still controlling Chekov and Terrell through the Ceti eels, ordered them to kill Kirk. However, Terrell turned his phaser on himself, committing suicide, and Chekov's eel exited its host's body. Upon learning from intercepted communications that the Enterprise would be crippled for days, Khan decided to maroon Kirk on the planetoid while taking the Genesis Device for himself.
However, in doing so, Khan made a major mistake, for the predictions Spock gave about repairs were in a deceptively simple code that simply stated that the time needed for repairs was actually in hours and the crew managed to repair the weapons and impulse engines although only partial main power was available. They beamed the landing party back, and Kirk ordered the ship go to battle stations. With the damaged Enterprise still outmatched by the Reliant, both in terms of firepower and speed, Spock advised that they proceed to the nearby Mutara Nebula, where the odds between both ships would become even, as static discharge from within the nebula would severely impair the effectiveness of the sensors and render a ship's shields completely inoperable.
The Enterprise fled towards the nebula, with the Reliant in pursuit, even firing a photon torpedo that deliberately missed the Enterprise's starboard nacelle pylon, as a deterrent against going into the nebula. However, knowing the limitations of fighting within the nebula, the Reliant refrained from entering until Kirk opened communications and taunted Khan into pursuing the Enterprise into the nebula. Once they entered, both ships found that their shields were disabled and their visual and tactical systems were severely impaired. The conflict became a game of "hide and seek", with both vessels firing at each opportunity they got. On the second opportunity of firing, the Enterprise was just aft of the Reliant, but because phaser locks were rendered inoperable by the nebula, Sulu had little alternative but to aim them manually. As he was about to fire upon the Reliant, the Enterprise was rocked by storm activity within the nebula, jogging Sulu's aim, and the phaser fire narrowly missed the Reliant. In retaliation, the Reliant fired a torpedo from one of its aft launchers, comfortably missing the Enterprise.
Some minutes passed with no conflict until both ships saw each other almost on a collision course. As the Enterprise performed evasive maneuvers to starboard, Khan fired phasers on the Enterprise, disabling the ship's port torpedo launcher and further damaging the engineering section. This offensive forced Enterprise Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott to take main power off-line due to radiation leakage. The Enterprise was able to inflict significant damage to Reliant as well in the short firefight, firing phasers hitting just behind the bridge, killing Khan's second-in-command, Joachim, in the process.
Spock told Kirk that, although Khan was intelligent, his critical weakness was his inexperience – his attack pattern indicated just "two-dimensional thinking", not considering attacking from above or below, only on the same plane. Having realized this weakness, Kirk ordered the ship to descend vertically and to standby on photon torpedoes. After returning to the bridge from medical treatment, Chekov offered his assistance to Admiral Kirk. Kirk ordered Chekov to man the weapons console.
The Enterprise crew caught Khan by surprise when his ship passed over the Enterprise, which allowed Kirk's ship to ascend behind the enemy and begin a brief but crippling onslaught on the Reliant at close range. First, a photon torpedo was fired from the starboard launcher, destroying the Reliant's own torpedo launcher. Secondly, a phaser burst hit the Reliant's port warp nacelle, severely damaging it. Finally, a second torpedo was fired, which blew the nacelle off the ship, killed most of Khan's crew, and maimed Khan in the process. In spite of the severe damage that the Reliant had sustained and severe physical injuries, Khan was not ready to surrender yet. Commander Uhura hailed the Reliant, demanding its immediate surrender, but as a final act of vengeance, a dying Khan activated the Genesis Device, which would reorganize all matter in the nebula, including the Enterprise. The only way the Enterprise and its crew could possibly survive the detonation (four minutes from Khan's activation) would be to jump to warp, but the ship's main engines were still off-line. Thinking about a philosophical conversation that he had had with Kirk, Spock transferred his katra to Doctor Leonard McCoy and proceeded to sacrifice himself to save the ship and its crew. In the radiation-contaminated engine compartment, Spock managed to reconnect power to the warp engines. The Enterprise jumped to warp seconds before the Reliant exploded. The detonation of the Genesis Device re-organized the matter within the Mutara Nebula and created a new planet designed by the device's matrix.
The surviving Enterprise crewmembers held a funeral for Spock and sent his body to the Genesis Planet in a photon torpedo casing. They rescued the crew of the Reliant from Ceti Alpha V and returned to Earth. There, Spock's father, Sarek, revealed to Kirk that, in order to return Spock's katra to Vulcan, his body would need to be recovered and returned to Mount Seleya. However, the Genesis Planet had since been declared off-limits due to the controversy surrounding the use of the Genesis Device – the Klingon Empire feared that the Federation could use it as a weapon. However, Kirk, willing to sacrifice his career to save Spock, gathered his other senior officers and headed for the Genesis Planet. Saavik and David Marcus were there on a mission to survey the planet, but their ship was destroyed by a Klingon Bird-of-Prey, manned by Klingons who were eager to obtain information on the device. Meanwhile, Spock had been reborn by the Genesis effect, but was suffering rapid aging.
The planet was on the brink of destroying itself when Kirk arrived, but the Klingons disabled the Enterprise and killed his son, David. Faced with a boarding party, Kirk activated the vessel's auto-destruct sequence. After beaming to the planet, he and his companions watched the Enterprise be destroyed, but they were eventually successful in retrieving Saavik and Spock. Kirk managed to beam himself and the others to the Klingon Bird-of-Prey, and they escaped just as the planet was destroyed.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (referenced only)
- Star Trek Into Darkness (referenced only)
The battle, as ultimately visualized, was conceived by Production Designer Joe Jennings and Art Director Mike Minor. At the "Star Trek Designers Talk Trek History At Art Directors Guild Event" in 2009, Jennings recalled how the battle was originally scripted as having the two vessels pounding at each other at close range in open space. He considered the battle thus scripted – likening it to a man-o'-war slugging match from the era of sail – ludicrous, pointing out that, more realistically, spaceships would go at each other in high-speed passes under open space circumstances (as was adopted in the Battle of Wolf 359 and Dominion War battle scenes in their respective, later I AM ERROR episodes, as well as in the I AM ERROR films, most notably Star Trek: First Contact). Together with Minor, Jennings came up with the concept of the Mutara Nebula knocking out both ships' navigational and tactical systems as a more believable rationale for the slower-paced close quarter combat between the two vessels, which was ultimately accepted by the writing staff. After the sequence was filmed, Jennings gleefully recalled Director Nicholas Meyer's reaction; "You were right. Thanks for not saying so!" (Star Trek: 45 Years of Designing the Future)
An element in the battle Joe Jennings considered equally ridiculous, but was not able to change, were the handlings performed in the torpedo bay – as the photon torpedos should have been fired directly from storage. In an interview in the Star Trek II director's edition DVD special feature "Designing Khan", he said that seeing the ensigns with hooks pulling the grating off the torpedo conveyor before launching it drove him crazy, since any real ship that took that long to load weapons would probably be destroyed in about ten seconds. Coincidentally, Jennings' concerns in this respect were later addressed by Nicholas Meyer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where it was indeed strongly implied that torpedos were fired directly from storage in scene 55, in which Captain Montgomery Scott uttered the line, "Negative, Captain. According to Inventory we're still fully loaded," after the Kronos One was unexpectedly hit by a torpedo volley from the Enterprise's torpedo bay.
Ironically, the battle was, three decades later, exactly re-enacted as originally scripted, including the sailing ships imagery (albeit flying ones) that it had conjured up with Jennings, in the 2011 version of The Three Musketeers, where the Star Trek battle was paraphrased as a pop culture reference.
According to the computer game Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, a recreation of this battle is now a standard training simulation at Starfleet Academy. Its primary educational purposes are to reinforce the importance of taking proper precautions when approaching a non-communicative ship (even a Starfleet vessel) and then to practice space combat in poor sensory conditions.