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Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru: the infamous test explained

Want to know the purpose of Starfleet's Kobayashi Maru? You've come to the right place. Let's explore its sacred place in Star Trek lore.

Chris Pine Kirk and Leonard Nimoy Spock Kobayashi Maru

The words “Kobayashi Maru” might be two of the most iconic in all of science fiction, let alone Star Trek. The concept, introduced in The Wrath of Khan, is an infamous training exercise that puts Starfleet officers in an extreme situation to monitor how they react.

Of course, there’s much more to it than that, and the Kobayashi Maru has become a fascinating aspect of Star Trek lore referenced over decades. So, here we examine its relevance across the Star Trek timeline, and its origins in the Star Trek movies.

What is Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru test?

The Kobayashi Maru is a simulation undertaken by Starfleet officers that tests their ability to lead a team under pressure in the face of a no-win scenario.

Specifically, as first seen in The Wrath of Khan, a Starfleet officer will temporarily act as a captain and will decide whether or not to rescue a civilian fuel ship (named the Kobayashi Maru) that’s become stranded in the Klingon/Federation Neutral Zone.

If the captain decides to leave the ship, they fail. If they decide to retrieve the ship, they are attacked by cloaked Klingon ships and will be destroyed, also failing. There is no way to win. This allows Starfleet to assess an officer’s values and reaction to pressure.

In the Kelvin timeline, the Kobayashi Maru serves a different purpose. Instead of testing the officers’ reactions, it’s designed to train them to be able to serve in the face of fear and certain death. The simulation is designed similarly, but how it is assessed is different.

Chris Pine Kirk doing Kobayashi Maru

Who has to take the Kobayashi Maru test?

Not all officers are subject to the Kobayashi Maru, and famously, Spock never had to face the test.

This is despite the fact that the half-Vulcan would go on to become a Star Trek captain later in his career, responsible for the training of cadets. Equally, officers seen during the TNG era, like Picard and Riker, make no mention of having to take the test, though we know from Lower Decks that Starfleet still uses the simulation to assess its officers late into the 24th century.

So, how the Kobayashi Maru is administered is unclear, and it might be that specific Star Trek characters are chosen to take the test for specific reasons. For example, perhaps Kirk and Saavik showed an early aptitude for command and so were selected to take it. Or, maybe the simulation is designed for those who need to improve their command skills.

William Shatner Kirk Kobayashi Maru

How did Kirk pass the Kobayashi Maru?

Kirk is the only Starfleet officer to have ever beaten the Kobayashi Maru, and his solution was to change the parameters of the test after having ‘failed’ the test twice.

He tells Saavik that, despite believing in the virtues of the simulation, he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario. It’s indicated that Kirk reprogrammed the simulation before beginning the test, but it isn’t explicitly stated how (and that mysterious ambiguity is a lot of fun).

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However, Kirk is later confronted by his own real Kobayashi Maru during his battle with Khan when Spock is forced to sacrifice himself for the needs of the many. For Kirk, the no-win scenario created by Khan was to either lose Spock or lose the USS Enterprise. Spock’s solution nearly broke Kirk, who then traveled across the galaxy to rescue his friend at the expense of his ship and career.

In the Kelvin universe movies (which we actually recommend watching first if you want to go through the Star Trek movies in order), Kirk passed the Kobayashi Maru on his third try by covertly inserting a new subroutine which lowered the attacking Klingon ships’ shields, making it possible to beat them. However, unlike Prime Kirk, he was reprimanded by Starfleet for manipulating the test.

Chris Pine Kirk doing Kobayashi Maru

Is the Kobayashi Maru ship real?

While a lot of Star Trek’s ships are based on the names of real ships from history, the Kobayashi Maru is not based on a real ship, and even in the Star Trek universe, the ship is fictional and created for the simulation.

In the simulation, the ship is a Class III neutronic fuel carrier operated by the Federation.

That’s it on the Kobayashi Maru. We’re hoping to see more of the no-win scenario in action in future Star Trek series, and could perhaps even see its genesis in Strange New Worlds season 3.

For more Star Trek fun, see what we know about the status of Star Trek 4 and Star Trek Legacy. Or, see why Star Trek’s Groundhog Day episode blew people’s minds.