CINEMA CLASSICS: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The first of two Trekkie offerings this evening in honour of Leonard Nimoy. First, Dylan revisits the best Trek movie.

Who made it?: Nicholas Meyer (Director/Co-Writer), Jack B. Sowards (Co-Writer), Robert Sallin (Producer), Paramount Pictures.

Who’s in it?: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Ricardo Montalban.

Tagline: “At the end of the universe lies the beginning of vengeance.”

IMDb rating: 7.7/10.

I’ve only ever been a lukewarm Star Trek fan.

Most of my franchise knowledge comes from occasionally watching whatever show was on TV around dinner time. It was never a case of appointment television. This means I’ve never been a die hard follower of the series’ mythology. What I enjoyed about the world was either its interesting concepts, or the personal relationships that could squeeze into many good stories. This is why I think Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is such a great film. It manages to give humanity to these characters as they are noticeably older, and they have to face their responsibilities. At the same time, it mixes fascinating science fiction spectacle with ideas as old as storytelling itself. I don’t appear to be alone in this view. From an $11 million budget, the film grossed $97 million and can be credited for bringing life and interest back to the series. So, what is it about Wrath of Khan that made it so popular?

The plot follows the crew of the Enterprise as they are pushing retirement. Whilst supervising a training mission, they come across Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), an old enemy they exiled many moons ago in The Original Series’ episode “Space Seed.” As he takes on Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and the galaxy, the old crew must come together to defeat him.

What’s so great about the plot is that it feels developed by fans. I’m a huge believer in seeing what has happened to beloved characters further down the line. To see the cast getting older is a great expansion to the mythology and feels believable. There’s nothing worse than seeing actors approaching middle-age playing exactly the same character as they did in their twenties or thirties (late Roger Moore Bond being a good example). This is more like a logical extension for the franchise, and it enriches as well as extends the mythology of the programme. Khan himself is a character from the original run, first seen in 1967. It was a brave decision to assume an audience would know or care about him, especially when interacting with the public was much more difficult back then. There must’ve been someone out there who was blown away by this idea, and it’s one of the first examples of proper fan-service in this extended movie series.

There are some big changes to continuity, however, and the film is brave enough to stick with them and treat such alterations with dignity. The revelation that Kirk has a son is a great example. It’s so easy to throw in a “kid sidekick” that can cover the action the older actor can’t. This can usually end up with a diluted main character. Here, however, it only adds to the sense of Kirk changing and growing, and the theme of responsibility, without deviating from the main plot.

The ending (SPOILER ALERT) is one of the major moments in Star Trek history. The death of Spock (the already much-missed Leonard Nimoy) must be seen in context. There was no guarantee that Star Trek would ever continue after this film; this really could’ve been the end of the Vulcan forever. It could still be the biggest moment in the entire film canon. Khan manages to handle it very well. A death of a major character is hard to pull off, but here the film balances the sacrifice given, as well as his intimate relationship with Kirk. Also, his funeral has gone down as one of the iconic moments of the series.

At the same time, the film doesn’t alienate those joining for the first time. Wrath of Khan works because the plot contains so many relatable elements of storytelling as whole. Getting older, taking on responsibility, revenge and sacrifice; all are key themes that any audience can grapple with. This is all tied up in a nice “save the world” plot that makes the film highly entertaining. This makes Khan a more philosophically satisfying movie than the supposedly deeper Motion Picture (1979), whilst still working within Hollywood action parameters. You can sit back and enjoy it without having to re-watch the series, which is an astonishing achievement considering the bad guy is a direct result of an episode.

The cast has received some criticism for their performances, but this is unfair. It is easy to mock Shatner for his real-life persona, and the admittedly staccato nature of his dialogue, but there is a reason for why he has been acting so long. He is an extremely watchable actor, and this allows anyone to enjoy his performance. We don’t need to know what Kirk was like before to sympathise with his problems. The rest of the crew work well off each other, too, with Walter Koenig being especially memorable as Chekov. On the other end of the spectrum, Montalban is clearly in love with his villainous character and plays him absolutely straight. This elevates the part to almost Shakespearian levels.

In fact, this is indicative of the performances as a whole. The worst thing that could’ve happened here is either campy acting to ramp up the epic action, or a lot of wry smiles about getting old. But everyone takes the script very seriously and it shows. At the heart of this movie is a machine that can turn a barren planet into a jungle. Thanks to their belief, you believe it too. And though some have critiqued the movie for bad special effects, personally I’ve no issue with them whatsoever. Whilst the film doesn’t complete a world in the way that Star Wars did, it is still totally believable, especially with characters inhabited by actors so at home with the material.

Khan’s most important legacy is this: When people think of Star Trek movies, they come up with moments from this movie. This film manages to bring back familiar faces and ideas, expand and change them, without tainting the original. Fans of the series can be assured that the filmmakers treat the source material with respect. But even if this wasn’t a Star Trek movie, it would still be a great science fiction piece. It just goes to show that you can make something of real artistic worth whilst keeping it within a fairly standard story structure. Wrath of Khan is not just the best of the Star Trek films, but one of the best science fiction films ever, and a genuinely good drama in its own right. For those who have no interest in this universe, I would still highly recommend Wrath of Khan. I would even recommend it for those uninterested in science fiction.

Best Scene

Khan has some bad news for Kirk.

Supplemental

(Via IMDb)
  • Director Nicholas Meyer envisioned the film as the ultimate extension of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s idea of “Horatio Hornblower in space.” Therefore, prior to filming he had the cast watch Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. for inspiration.
  • For this film Roddenberry was given a consultant position and replaced as executive producer by Bennett. Apparently, Paramount blamed the constant production delays and budget overruns for Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Roddenberry’s constant meddling and demanding script re-writes.
  • Producer Harve Bennett viewed all the original Star Trek episodes and chose “Space Seed” as the best candidate for a sequel. Spock even remarks in the script that it would be interesting to return in a hundred years or so to see what type of civilization had grown there. In the aforementioned episode, approximately eighty genetically-engineered supermen were left behind on Ceti Alpha V by the Enterprise. By the time of this film, only fifteen (including Khan) are left. Twenty were killed by Ceti Eels, the rest through other means (presumably as a result of the explosion of Ceti Alpha VI).
  • The Enterprise Torpedo Room and Spacelab transporter sets were originally parts of the Klingon bridge built for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In order to save money, shots of the Enterprise departing from dock, and in space, were taken from the first Star Trek movie. The Spacelab model is that of the orbiting space office turned upside down and with some cosmetic changes from the first movie. Khan was produced by the Paramount Television division and released by the feature film division, in order to avoid the then-astronomical $43 million cost of the first feature film.
  • The famous “Space, the final frontier” monologue is heard for the first time since the original Star Trek TV series, now narrated by Leonard Nimoy, however it has been changed slightly. Instead of saying, “…its five-year mission…” and “to seek out new life,” it now says, “her ongoing mission…” and “to seek out new life forms.”

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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