About 80% of the way down in the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan movie script,

[Reliant bridge]

JOACHIM: If they go in there we'll lose them.
KHAN: Explain it to them.

[Enterprise bridge]

SAAVIK: That was close.
KIRK: They just don't want us going in there.
SPOCK: One minute to nebula perimeter.

After Khan's "Explain it to them" command, the pursuing Reliant fires a shot towards the rear of the fleeing Enterprise. This can be seen starting at about the 0:53 point in

Khan's statement, and that there's only one shot fired, implies this has a symbolic meaning. It seems this was meant to be something similar to "A shot across the bow". The Wiktionary shot across the bow page gives an etymology of

From the naval tactic of firing a warning shot across the bow or front portion of a ship in order to force it to stop or alter its course.

Since the Reliant is behind the Enterprise, the shot is to the back end of the Enterprise, so this doesn't fit very well. However, that Web page later also gives an idiomatic meaning as a noun of

A warning that negative consequences will be faced if something is carried out or allowed to continue.

This fits much better with Khan's statement of "Explain it to them" (although this is redundant since Khan would know that Kirk realizes there are negative consequences, regardless of what Kirk does or doesn't do). Nonetheless, the potential "negative consequences" of the Enterprise entering the Mutara Nebula would usually likely be less than if the ship remains outside. Also, although Kirk's statement of "They just don't want us going in there" would be accurate in this case, even a close shot from behind will not cause the Enterprise to change its course much, if at all, or do anything else to slow down its approach. If anything, the Reliant firing on the Enterprise should cause Kirk to want to enter the nebula even more for its relative safety, thus doing the opposite of what the potential stated intention is!

My question is if something similar to "A shot across a bow" is basically the intended meaning behind Khan's statement & the fired shot and, if not, then what does that scene mean, e.g., it was just included for dramatic effect?

Update: About half way down this Web page from the Vonda McIntyre novelization,

... Khan decided to give him one last chance.

"Rake the Enterprise," he ordered.

The phaser rippled outward, a long finger of dense light. It streaked along the side of the Enterprise's starboard engine nacelle. The starship heeled over and began to tumble, spiraling on its headlong course.

The Enterprise lurched; its artificial gravity flexed, trembled, and finally steadied. ...


The ship shuddered again. ...

Reliant fired again. The Enterprise shuddered. If the shields were not quite steady, at least they held.

"Reliant is closing fast," Saavik said.

Directly ahead, the nebula's core raged.

"They just don't want us going in there," Kirk said, nodding toward the viewscreen.

"One minute," Spock said.

Here, not only did Khan give a quite different command, but this text indicates that at least 3 shots were fired, with them either hitting or at least being close enough to have a significant effect.

Note the Wikipedia's movie's filming section says "Principal photography began on November 9, 1981, and ended on January 29, 1982". Since the novel was published in July, 1982, I suspect most, if not all, of it was written after the filming, and certainly after the movie script was created.

I don't know why the novel is different in this section. Several possibilities I can think of are that it's actually similar to an alternate version of that scene that was in the script but was not used in the released film, Vonda McIntyre decided their version made more sense, and the book's handling works better in a printed format than the visual & audio format of the movie. Regardless, for me, at least, what Khan said instead here (i.e., "Rake the Enterprise") and there being at least 3 shots fired, definitely intended to hit & damage the Enterprise, makes more realistic sense than what was in the movie.

  • What shot? where in the movie or in the script is "a shot across the bow" mentioned? Can you clarify that in your question?
    – Luciano
    Sep 14 at 9:50
  • @Luciano After Khan;s "Explain it to them", the Reliant fired a shot at the Enterprise. The specific meaning of this is not explicitly explained in the movie or script, but it seems it has a symbolic meaning something like a "shot across the bow". I've added more detail to my question text to make this more clear. Sep 14 at 13:24

Khan wanted the Enterprise intact. He was hoping that Kirk would rather give the ship up than see it potentially destroyed in the Nebula. The purpose of the warning shot was to let Kirk know they would further engage if he kept running.

Obviously, it didn't work.

Primarily because there was no way that Kirk was going to give up his ship.

  • Khan's ego is big enough, IMHO, that he would have believed he could possibly capture the Enterprise intact, with having 2 ships being better for him than having one. Thus, your suggestion is plausible, but are there any particular parts (e.g., conversations, actions, body language, etc.) in the movie that would indicate this is the likely reason for the shot being fired? Sep 15 at 20:21

Reliant's shot was not meant to damage or alter Enterprise's course; there's nothing that implies it was a "shot across a bow" as you mentioned in your question.

The intention of the shot was merely a warning: you're within range of our weapons; if you keep moving your ship forward, the next shot will cause real damage.

Khan was counting on Kirk putting the safety of Enterprise (and its crew) above his ego.

  • As I stated in my question that the shot meaning to be similar to a "shot across the bow" does not fit completely, so that may not have been the intention. You wrote it was a warning, with it specifically being "you're within range of our weapons; if you keep moving your ship forward, the next shot will cause real damage". However, the Enterprise did keep moving forward, with there not even being a next shot fired at all before the Enterprise entered the nebula, so this does not seem to me to fit very well with what happened. Sep 15 at 20:27
  • @JohnOmielan the shot was an empty threat, as Khan didn't actually want to damage the Enterprise, he just wanted Kirk to believe it. Otherwise why would he even bother shooting? He wouldn't be able to change the course of the ship with a shot.
    – Luciano
    Sep 17 at 9:30

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