This issue first appears early in the movie, when the iconic Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise is forced to chose between following orders not to reveal the Enterprise to other planets or saving both an indigenous civilization and Kirk’s friend and first officer Spock from an erupting volcano. Over Spock’s objections, Kirk’s choice is the latter option. After returning from the mission, Spock reports Kirk for violating his orders and the rules governing Star Fleet, and Kirk is relieved of his command of the USS Enterprise as a result.
Shortly thereafter, this balance again appears in a conflict between Spock and Kirk. Following an attack on Star Fleet headquarters, Kirk is again promoted to captain of the Enterprise and, despite their differences, selects Spock as his first officer. The initial parameters of the mission are to hunt for the terrorist responsible for the attack on Star Fleet headquarters and kill him. When Spock is made aware of the orders, he strenuously objects to them on the grounds that extrajudicial killing violates the rules and laws of Star Fleet. At first Kirk disregards these objections, however when he announces their orders to the general crew he changes them to capturing the terrorist and transporting him back to Earth for an appropriate trial. Kirk attributes much of this decision to the points raised by Spock.
During the course of the movie, we learn that the Enterprise is being set up in order to start a war between Star Fleet and the Klingons, and that Star Fleet’s chief admiral had used and then intended to destroy superior warriors from another planet to craft battle strategies. It also is revealed that the terrorist the Enterprise is hunting, Khan, was used by the chief admiral and then forced to attack Star Fleet headquarters on the threat that his own crew would be killed if he failed to do so. Kirk is confronted by the chief admiral, who gives Kirk the option of surrendering Khan or having the Enterprise destroyed. Kirk refuses to surrender Khan on the basis of the near certainty that Khan will be killed by the chief admiral. In an effort to save the Enterprise, Kirk and Khan find a way onto the chief admiral’s own ship, only to have Khan kill the chief admiral – against Kirk’s wishes – and take Kirk and several others from the Enterprise hostage.
Among those left in control of the Enterprise is Spock, who agrees to the terms requested by Khan in exchange for the return of Kirk and the other hostages. Assuming that Khan will renege on his part of the bargain, Spock engineers a plot in which the targets of Khan’s request are switched with weapons that ultimately will be used to destroy Khan’s ship. This is something that could be questioned given Spock’s adherence to the rules above all else, yet he does so to save the Enterprise, Kirk and the other hostages. Once the hostages are returned to the Enterprise, the ship encounters a potentially fatal loss of power. In order to save the ship and crew, Kirk enters the radioactive area of the ship to start the power device needed to provide the ailing Enterprise with the necessary energy to return to Earth. In the process, Kirk is exposed to deadly levels of radiation. Before his death, he and Spock talk and each notes that they acted to save the ship and the crew in the way that the other would have done – Spock acting outside of the rules and Kirk following his duty to save the ship rather than protecting himself.
To the relief of audiences everywhere, Kirk is ultimately saved through a transfusion from, rather ironically, Khan. It is obvious that both Kirk and Spock are changed by their experiences throughout the movie, although Spock is perhaps more demonstrably changed in terms of demeanor. More than an interesting series of plot twists, however, the continued stressing of right versus rules as a bi-polar and strictly construed narrative raises important questions of law and morality in the larger cultural context. This narrative itself highlights the question of whether in fact there is such a bi-polar binary – and indeed whether there should be such a relationship – and further asks if it is better and more culturally acceptable to use a flexible construct of the relationship between right and rules.