Kobayashi Maru

Kobayashi Maru is the name of a spaceship in a training exercise in the Star Trek fictional universe. In the exercise, the "Kobayashi Maru" is the precipitating element in a simulated no-win scenario. The ship's name is occasionally used among Star Trek fans or those familiar with the series to describe such situations.

The Kobayashi Maru test was first depicted in the opening scene of the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which command division cadets at Starfleet Academy are presented with a no-win scenario as a test of character. This provided context for how the main character, Admiral James T. Kirk, deals with the possibility of unwinnable situations, and death in particular.

The training exercise in Star Trek II describes the Kobayashi Maru as a Class III neutronic fuel carrier-ship, commanded by Kojiro Vance, with a crew of 81 and 300 passengers. The name is Japanese, and loosely translates as the ship named Kobayashi, with Kobayashi (小林) meaning small forest and being a common family name. Maru (丸) is a common suffix for Japanese ship names.

The simulation

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the simulation takes place on a replica of a starship bridge, with the "testee" as captain and other Starfleet members, officers or other cadets, in other key positions. In the scenario of the 2280s, the cadet receives a distress signal, stating that the Kobayashi has struck a "gravitic mine" in the Klingon Neutral Zone and is rapidly losing power, hull integrity and life support. There are no other vessels nearby. The cadet is faced with a decision:

  • Attempt to rescue the Kobayashi's crew and passengers, which involves violating the Neutral Zone and potentially provoking the Klingons into hostile action or an all-out war; or
  • Abandon the Kobayashi, potentially preventing war but leaving the crew and passengers to die.

If the cadet chooses to save the Kobayashi, the scenario progresses quickly. The bridge officers notify the cadet that they are in violation of the treaty, which is duly noted in the log. As the starship enters the Neutral Zone, the communications officer loses contact with the crippled vessel. Three Klingon starships then appear on an intercept course. Attempts to contact them are met with radio silence; indeed, their only response is to open fire, with devastating results. The simulation ends with the understanding that the cadet's ship and crew have been lost. There is no way to win the resulting 'battle'; but then, the objective of the test is not for the cadet to outfight the opponent, but rather to test the cadet's behavior and thought processes in the face of insurmountable odds or circumstances.

By the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Federation had reached an alliance with the Klingons, rendering the previous format of the scenario no longer suitable. In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Learning Curve", Lieutenant Tuvok placed several former Maquis crewmembers in a similar scenario on the holodeck using a damaged Ferengi starship and Romulan warbird as the opponent in a tactical training scenario.

Notable test takers

Saavik's Test

The opening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is itself a Kobayashi Maru test, but this is not revealed until after it ends. As the test-taker, Lt. Saavik is in command of the simulated U.S.S. Enterprise. Captain Spock is in his familiar role as science officer and second-in-command, with Dr. McCoy standing by on the bridge, Uhura as communications officer, Sulu as helm officer, and (as the viewers later learn) cadets fill other roles on the bridge.

Saavik makes a captain's log entry and instructs Sulu to "Project parabolic course to avoid entering Neutral Zone." Suddenly, Uhura receives a distress signal. It's from the Kobayashi Maru, which has struck a "gravitic mine" within the Neutral Zone and is losing all its systems, including life support. Some may question the ship's presence in the Zone, but it's not inherently a treaty violation. If it's a cargo carrier, it could be a private ship and therefore can travel within the Zone. Furthermore, the test reveals that this is the Neutral Zone between the Federation and Klingon Empire (abolished very late in the 23rd century), not the Zone between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire.

Saavik orders Sulu to "Plot an intercept course," to which Sulu replies, in accordance with a Starfleet officer's duties, "May I remind the Captain that if a starship enters the Zone..." Saavik quickly interrupts him, saying she is aware of her responsibilities. As the simulated Enterprise violates the treaty and approaches the vicinity of the Kobayashi Maru, Uhura announces that she has suddenly lost the ship's signal. Immediately, a computer alert sounds that three Klingon battle cruisers are on an intercept course. Outgunned and on the wrong side of the border, Saavik orders the Enterprise out of the Neutral Zone.

Before Sulu can pilot them out, the Klingon ships fire photon torpedoes. Sulu "dies" when the helm explodes. Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott intercoms that the main energizer is hit. Subsequent explosions "kill" Uhura and then Doctor McCoy. The cadet at the weapons console announces that the shields are collapsing. Saavik orders all phasers fired, but Spock reports that there is no power to the ship's weapons. He then "dies" when his science station explodes. Scott reports that the Enterprise is dead in space, so Saavik orders the log buoy launched and that the crew abandon ship.

Admiral Kirk, who had been monitoring the situation from an outside control room, halts the simulation. All the "deceased" officers begin to rise, and Spock (now revealed to us as the cadets' instructor) orders the trainees to the briefing room. Saavik protests to Kirk, "I do not believe this was a fair test of my command abilities...because, there was no way to win." He explains that "A no-win situation is a possibility that every commander may face," and that "How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life."

Later in the film, during repeated inquiries from Saavik, Kirk allows that the exercise is a true "no-win scenario," because there "is no correct resolution." Rather than a problem-solving exercise, "It's a test of character."

Other test-takers and their solutions

James T. Kirk takes the test three times while at Starfleet Academy. Prior to his third attempt, Kirk surreptitiously reprograms the simulator so that it is possible to rescue the freighter. This fact finally comes out, later in the movie, as Kirk, Saavik and others appear marooned, near death. Saavik's response is, "Then you never faced that situation. Faced death." Kirk replies, "I don't believe in the no-win scenario." Despite his having cheated, Kirk was awarded a commendation for "original thinking."

As Spock had not entered Starfleet Academy as a command track cadet, he did not take the Kobayashi Maru test while there. In his death scene at the conclusion of The Wrath of Khan, he would describe his sacrifice as his solution to the scenario.

Depictions of the Kobayashi Maru test are a fairly popular subject in Star Trek literature. Non-canonical examples of Kobayashi Maru tests have been shown in many Star Trek novels. Much like how Kirk cheated to win, characters are frequently depicted as coming up with very innovative or surprising ways of handling the situation.

The Kobayashi Maru (Original Series novel)

The Kobayashi Maru (1989) by Julia Ecklar tells how each of these officers faced the problem:

  • Chekov evacuates his ship and then crashes it into the three Klingon cruisers, destroying all four ships in the process and (inadvertently) all of the evacuees as well.
  • Sulu realizes it is probably a trap and refuses to cross the Neutral Zone.
  • Scotty attempts to fight the Klingon ships, employing a series of unorthodox tactics, such as bypassing the Klingon shields using a works-on-paper-only calculation (the failure-to-work-in-practice demonstration experiment was published by Scotty before he joined Starfleet and this fore-knowledge of theory/practice results in his being judged unsuitable for command track and sent off to engineering, as he actually desired), and transporting various destructive items to them. At first, he is surprisingly effective, but the computer scenario ups the ante with the arrival of additional Klingon ships. Scotty responds in kind with even more unorthodox tactics that rapidly escalate in on-the-fly engineering derring-do and destructiveness. The simulation is shut off before reaching a completed state, but it is clear that the simulation will never end, no matter what the student throws at the Klingon ships, as an ever-increasing number of Klingon vessels will arrive on the scene, guaranteeing that the testee will lose eventually.
  • Kirk reprograms the simulated Klingons to be afraid of "The Captain Kirk," arguing that he expected to build a comparable reputation.

Dreadnought (1986)

In the novel Dreadnought by Diane Carey, the protagonist, a recent academy graduate, Piper, manages to crash the entire simulator by attempting to improvise an engineering solution to the problem through a very unorthodox series of computer commands and jury-rigging, essentially tricking the computer into fighting itself. Her instructors admit that her solution might theoretically have been successful.

Sarek (1994)

In A.C. Crispin's novel Sarek, Peter Kirk, James T. Kirk's nephew, uses his experiences through the novel to come up with another way to defeat the unwinnable scenario. Upon entering the Neutral Zone, he provokes the Romulans who are expected to destroy the Enterprise. Before the Romulans open fire, Peter challenges the Romulan commander to a ritual fight-to-the-death (using an obscure but still valid Romulan law predating their schism with the Vulcans), in which actual battle is prohibited until the contest is resolved. As Peter leaves the bridge to go to the simulation transporter room, he instructs the crew to beam aboard the "survivors" and escape, leaving him to certain death. The simulation ends with the supervising instructor ending the test in confusion. Upon learning of Peter's trick, he promises to change the scenario to prevent it from being re-used. Peter is credited with coming up with an actual "winning" solution: saving the Kobayashi Maru and his own ship by sacrificing himself.

Avenger (1998)

In William Shatner's novel Avenger, Captain Christine McDonald of the USS Tobias tells Captain Kirk that in her time, the Kobayashi Maru scenario is no longer used to test character, but rather to evaluate the very "original thinking" for which Kirk had received a commendation. In the new version of the scenario, cadets are charged with coming up with ways to outsmart the simulation by reprogramming it to counter various moves made by the more advanced AI of the computer.

Stone and Anvil (2003)

In his Star Trek: New Frontier novels, Peter David suggests that future versions of the scenario would involve the Romulans. In the novel Stone and Anvil, Mackenzie Calhoun realizes that it is impossible to rescue the Kobayashi Maru, and takes the unorthodox solution of destroying the Kobayashi Maru itself. He determines that a rescue attempt will be unsuccessful, would likely end in failure and would probably also result in his own ship being destroyed or captured. His reasoning is that it is more merciful to kill the civilians outright rather than let them be captured (and likely tortured) by the Romulans. Alternatively, he proposes an alternate possibility that the entire scenario is a Romulan trap and the Kobayashi Maru is in league with the Romulans, so destruction of the Kobayashi Maru is a valid attack on an enemy.

Rock and a Hard Place Peter David

Quintin Stone was reputed to have beaten the Kobayashi Maru test, without cheating. His strategy was not described in the book, but the achievement was still considered to be particularly noteworthy, even amongst seasoned officers.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Three short stories in the Strange New Worlds anthologies series have also tackled the test. In "The Bottom Line," by Andrew Morby (Strange New Worlds III, 2000) and Shawn Michael Scott's "Best Tools Available" (Strange New Worlds VI, 2003), cadet Nog solves the scenario in two entirely different (and thoroughly Ferengi) manners. Kevin Lauderdale’s "A Test of Character" (Strange New Worlds VII, 2004) depicts a different version of Kirk's solution from Ecklar's, in which Kirk's tampering is "cheating without cheating," since he merely creates a level playing field, where success is not necessarily guaranteed.

Kobayashi Maru (Enterprise novel)

In this novel by Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin, the Kobayashi Maru is a retrofitted Klingon cargo vessel under Earth control and with a human crew. When the ship is attacked, apparently by three Klingon cruisers, Captain Jonathan Archer and the crew of the Enterprise are sent to assist. Since the Klingon vessels are actually being controlled by remote Romulan telepresence systems, Archer cannot help and is forced to withdraw, leaving the Maru crew to die.

Star Trek video games

In the PC game Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, one of the missions given to the player is the Kobayashi Maru scenario. The player -- who controls the character of Cadet David Forrester -- has a choice to make prior to the test. The player can have Forrester face the unaltered version of the test, or have Forrester reprogram the computer as Captain Kirk did, altering the scenario in one of three ways. He can reprogram the Klingon AI, making them fight dumber (they do not fire at all), reprogram the strength of the Klingon ships by making them easier to beat (in addition, their weapons cause no damage), or make the Klingon captains fear and respect him personally.

If the player cheats by altering the battle itself, he is treated to two larger waves of Klingon D7 cruisers after destroying the initial wave of three. After destroying those waves, the simulator computer crashes with a Guru Meditation error, and in debriefing the commandant remarks that he would be impressed were it not for the impossibility of such a feat.

If the player cheats by instilling fear and respect into the Klingon captains, he is able to hail the Klingons during the scenario. The Klingon captain extolls Forrester's prowess, and agrees to help him rescue the freighter instead. This allows the scenario to complete successfully, and the commandant seems truly impressed in debriefing.

No matter how the player cheats, if he chooses this option the cheating is detected by Academy staff, and Forrester is offered a chance to avoid punishment by helping the authorities with an ongoing criminal investigation.

If the player decides to face the unaltered version, the ship is swiftly destroyed by the first wave of D7 cruisers. In the PC game Star Trek: Starfleet Command III, one of the campaign missions is titled "Klingon Maru". However, the player can rescue the ship and not fight a battle. There was also a Kobayashi Alternative computer game published by Simon & Schuster in 1985. The game was a text adventure written by Diane Duane depicting the "Kobayashi Alternative Command Performance Evaluation," a test being proposed to replace the Kobayashi Maru scenario, and was available for the Apple II, Commodore 64, MS-DOS PC-compatible, and Macintosh platforms.

The first mission of the first-person shooter, Star Trek: Voyager: Elite Force, developed by Raven Software and published by Activision in 2000, is considered Ensign Munro's (the player character's) Kobayashi Maru by Commander Tuvok.

References in other media

A ship named the Kobayashi Maru appears in the manga Gundam F90, and proves to be just as ill-fated as its namesake, being destroyed in the prologue just before finishing up a tour of duty.

In the U.S. film version of Godzilla (1998), the Japanese freighter destroyed by the creature in the beginning is named the Kobayashi Maru.

In the film Dog Soldiers (2002) a soldier describes their situation as "the Kobayashi Maru test" when they find a bug in a radio. He assumes that their exercise was always a no-win scenario.

The phrase is featured in the rock band Powerman 5000's lyrics in the song "Neckbone" from their Mega!! Kung Fu Radio album.

The Kobayashi Maru is mentioned in the US TV series Friends episode _1996-1997 when Chandler calls another no-win scenario a "Kiriat Moriah" and is corrected by Ross.

In Duke Nukem 3D Expansion Pack Caribbean, a boat named Kobayashi Maru is set as the start and end point of several game levels.

A character from the movie The Usual Suspects (1995) is named Kobayashi, who blackmails the others into a seemingly unwinnable situation.

In the CSI episode "Monster in the Box" (2007) the lab technician David Hodges admits he has a cat called 'Mr. K' and subsequently calls him Kobayashi Maru.

In the Bridge Simulator used at the State University of New York Maritime College, simulations often include a container ship, which is flagged in Japan, and named the Kobeashi Maru.

Star Trek Bridge Commander has several mods under the name Kobayashi Maru which gives the game more ships, better graphics, and still allows multiplayer capability. The Kobayashi Maru 1.0 mod also includes the test as misson.

Business theory commentators have used the Kobayashi Maru as an example of the need to redefine the foundation upon which a business competes -- changing the rules rather than playing within a rigged game -- as an example of successful business strategy.

In the webcomic Erfworld (Bonus page: Parson's Klog 1), Parson suggests himself to be in an altered state of consciousness and theorizes that his gaming group may have provoked it as an out-of-the-box Kobayashi Maru tactic for getting rid of the no-win scenario. He also thinks about rewarding them for their original thinking

In the webcomic Home on the Strange, in Tanner's Party Prep, Part 3, Tom referred to Tanner as "A living Kobayashi Maru."

Randy Pausch, of Last Lecture fame, had the childhood dream of "being Captain Kirk." After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (which proved fatal almost a year later) he received a signed autographed picture of Kirk saying "I don't believe in the no-win scenario. My Best, William Shatner


See also

External links

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