As with The Motion Picture, my older sister took me to see Star Trek II. And I was quite simply blown away. Just like I was when I saw The Empire Strikes Back for the first time. (Both films still rank as my two all-time favorites.) I loved the movie, and went back to see it several more times that summer. It fired my imagination on a profound level, and from that point on, it became a goal of mine to somehow contribute creatively to the Star Trek mythos, whether in the form of novels or comic books or maybe, if I was really, really lucky, an actual movie. It took a long time, but I finally got my wish in 1998 with Star Trek: Untold Voyages, a limited series I conceived and wrote for Marvel Comics. Several years later, I wrote a pair of Star Trek novellas for Simon and Schuster’s e-book line. (Still hope to write a full-length novel someday. A movie seems less likely.) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was—and continues to be—a major influence on me, and an endless source of inspiration. Fortunately, I was able to tell its writer/director that in person. He seemed to appreciate it.
Needless to say, I was very excited about the prospect of watching this movie with my eight-year-old daughter Maddie. After watching Seasons One, Two, and Three of the original TV series, all 22 episodes of the animated series, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Maddie is now very well-versed in Star Trek lore. She knows and loves the characters—particularly Spock and Dr. McCoy—and is always eager to see their next adventure. It took a lot of effort, but I was able to keep Maddie from finding out anything crucial about Star Trek II before we sat down to watch it. I wanted her to go into it with absolutely no foreknowledge, so that she could experience it with absolutely fresh eyes and be shocked, startled, surprised, and emotionally moved at the appropriate moments. It was worth the effort…
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Admiral James T. Kirk, now stationed on Earth and an instructor at Starfleet Academy, is dissatisfied with his career and in the midst of a mid-life crisis when he goes aboard the Enterprise to oversee a training cruise under the command of Captain Spock. Meanwhile, the notorious genetically-engineered superhuman, Khan Noonien Singh, manages to seize control of the Federation starship U.S.S. Reliant and escape from the planet Ceti Alpha V, where Kirk had exiled him 15 years earlier. Now free to go anywhere he wants in the galaxy, the obsessed Khan chooses to track down Kirk and take revenge for his long and painful imprisonment—and to get his hands on a top-secret scientific project called Genesis, which has the power to create life from lifelessness… or to bring about vast cosmic destruction. During this crisis, Kirk finds himself challenged by Spock’s ambitious young female protégée, the half-Vulcan/half-Romulan Lieutenant Saavik—and wondering if he’s lost his edge as a starship commander. He must also confront some important unfinished business from his past, involving an old flame, Dr. Carol Marcus, and her son David, both of whom helped create Genesis. And with Khan’s relentless quest for vengeance comes a staggering loss for Kirk and the entire crew of the Enterprise.
It’s my opinion that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best Star Trek movie ever made. It’s certainly not without flaws, but those imperfections are completely overshadowed by the good stuff, of which there is an overwhelming amount. (And by the way—I don’t consider Khan and Chekov remembering each other to be one of the flaws. It’s true that Chekov wasn’t in “Space Seed,” a first-season episode, because Walter Koenig did not join the cast until Season Two. But just because Chekov was never seen before the second season doesn’t mean he wasn’t serving aboard the Enterprise during that time. So it was absolutely reasonable to establish retroactively that Chekov and Khan had crossed paths—albeit offscreen—during “Space Seed.” I even tackled this matter head-on in Star Trek: Untold Voyages #4, and I still get praise for my handling of it to this day.)
Using Star Trek: The Motion Picture as an example of what not to do, director Nicholas Meyer (who also wrote the screenplay, though he didn’t receive a screen credit for it) and executive producer/co-writer Harve Bennett set out to, among other things, restore humanity and warmth to the crew of the Enterprise. As much as I like The Motion Picture, I acknowledge that the characters are, for the most part, presented as very stiff, formal, and reserved. They lack a lot of the charm and likeability that was so prominent in the original TV series. But with Star Trek II, Meyer and Bennett more or less restore the characters while accounting for the fact that they’ve gotten older and gone through some changes in their lives. Nowhere is this more evident than with Admiral Kirk. He’s the Kirk we remember from the old days, but now with a lot of mileage on him. He’s grown lonely and wistful. And without his starship to command, he’s unhappy, even a little embittered. Sadly, he seems resigned to his fate, unsure of how to change his situation. McCoy and Spock separately chide him for giving up the Enterprise again and both advise him to get back to doing what he does best. This kind of character stuff could have easily been a big part of The Motion Picture—Kirk started out in that movie too as an Admiral stuck on Earth and unhappy in his job. But The Motion Picture was more about ideas and special effects than it was about people. Nicholas Meyer has stated on numerous occasions that he wasn’t interested in making a movie about spaceships—but he was interested in making a movie about the people who live and work aboard them.
As much as I hate to say it, it turned out that one of the best things Paramount Pictures did for Star Trek II—and for the Star Trek movie series in general—was remove creator Gene Roddenberry from the driver’s seat, make him a relatively toothless “Executive Consultant,” and put Harve Bennett in charge. Roddenberry’s overall vision for Star Trek had so changed by the late 1970s/early 1980s that it didn’t much resemble the show that millions of people had fallen in love with in the first place. 1979’s The Motion Picture, which is not remembered fondly by most people, is the only one that Roddenberry worked on directly and influenced in a big a way. He later applied his revised vision to the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, which he developed and oversaw directly in its early years. Apparently, the ideal Star Trek for the older Roddenberry entailed flawless, bland, stuffy, bloviating protagonists and their talk-filled—often action-free—quest to spread political correctness across the galaxy.
(Incidentally, Roddenberry’s big story idea for Star Trek II was that the crew would go back in time and get involved in the JFK assassination. As Harve Bennett pointed out, we already know the outcome, so where’s the suspense? It’s not like Kirk and crew are going to save JFK and allow history to be altered. Also, this story—at least the main thrust of it—was more or less done already, in a little ditty called “The City on the Edge of Forever.”)
Bennett, who took over Star Trek as a total newcomer with little background knowledge of it, wisely sat down and watched all 79 episodes of the original TV series over several months to gain a full understanding of the characters and the universe they inhabit. He ended up embracing the canon, the continuity, and the history, instead of trying to distance himself from it. And he came away from the experience recognizing “Space Seed”—and Ricardo Montalban’s Khan—as the perfect sources for a new story.
Meyer, who came into the job with even less knowledge about Star Trek than Bennett had at first, is, without a doubt, the person most responsible for the creative success of Star Trek II. His script is wonderful and, as director, he managed to get pitch-perfect performances out of everyone in the cast—particularly and most significantly, William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban.
In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that this is Shatner’s very best performance as James Kirk. Hell, it may be his very best performance PERIOD.
As for Montalban, it’s important to note that at that point in his career, he was best known as Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island. A lot of people went into Star Trek II snickering and planning to make jokes about Tattoo and “de plane.” After
Montalban’s first couple of seconds on screen, any snickering and joking ceased. There’s no denying that Khan remains the best, most memorable villain in ANY Star Trek movie, and Montalban’s performance is one for the ages.
Leonard Nimoy portrays Spock, now captain of the Enterprise, as very much at peace with himself and comfortable with his place in the universe. Presumably, Nimoy used Spock’s character arc in The Motion Picture as the foundation for this revised approach. It was in The Motion Picture that Spock finally recognized the value of his human half and embraced it. Nimoy’s performance in Star Trek II is a natural extension of that character development, and it’s wonderful. Spock’s role in this film is not quite as prominent as it was in The Motion Picture—there’s no real character arc for him, but he does introduce one of the main themes of the story and brings that theme to its ultimate culmination in the closing minutes.
As Dr. McCoy, DeForest Kelley has more to do here than he did the first time around—and once again, he’s one of the best things in the movie. He’s cranky, sarcastic, brutally honest, irreverent, and someone you can absolutely count on in a crisis. He’s also responsible for some of the film’s funniest moments—one of which Kelley supposedly ad-libbed on the spot. (Kirk is about to beam down into a hazardous area with McCoy and Saavik. Spock says, “Jim… be careful.” McCoy fires back at him, “We will!”)
Speaking of Saavik, casting Kirstie Alley to play her was a great move on Meyer’s part. She’s totally believable as a Vulcan/Romulan hybrid who’s not quite in control of her emotions, and she’s incredibly sexy. This was Alley’s movie debut, and she made quite an impression. Hell, if Nimoy decided never to come back as Spock after this, I think I could have lived with Alley’s Saavik as his permanent replacement.
Bibi Besch’s Dr. Carol Marcus and Merritt Butrick as her son David are welcome new additions to the Star Trek universe. You can totally understand why Kirk would have once fallen for Carol, and David looks and acts exactly like what you’d expect from their offspring. (Sadly, both Besch and Butrick are no longer with us. I particularly would have liked to see Besch again as Carol, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t in the cards.)
Paul Winfield is quite memorable as Captain Clark Terrell of the U.S.S. Reliant—a relatively small role, but an important one. In his small amount of screen time, Winfield gives us a character who manages to come off as likable, slightly mischievous, noble, and, ultimately, tragic. You can’t help but feel sorry for this guy. (Alas, Winfield too is no longer with us.)
In terms of the regular supporting cast, the only one who really gets to shine this time out is Walter Koenig as Chekov. This is Koenig’s meatiest, most important role in a Star Trek movie (though he does have some great stuff in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), and he carries himself well. He’s got very good chemistry with Winfield and Montalban. (NOTE: The special edition Director’s Cut, only available on DVD and the version that I watched with Maddie, features some additional footage with Scotty that gives James Doohan a chance to stretch his acting muscles more than usual and establishes that Cadet Peter Preston, Scotty’s young assistant in the engineering section, is also his nephew.)
I also have to mention the score by James Horner. As disappointed as I was initially that composer Jerry Goldsmith did not return, Horner’s music for Star Trek II is nothing short of triumphant. It won me over immediately and I still adore it to this day. Particularly impressive is how Horner brings back Alexander Courage’s iconic “Star Trek Fanfare” from the original TV series and weaves it throughout the movie, marrying it organically to his own compositions.
And in addition to a new musical score, the film also introduced new Starfleet uniforms–another change I accepted wholeheartedly. They were quite a departure from anything that had come before, but they looked fantastic and I felt they fit in well with the Star Trek universe. With some minor modifications here and there, these uniforms were used for the remainder of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. (I do have to admit, though, that I liked the outfits from the first movie a lot and was bummed out when I first learned they were being dropped!)
And how about that ending, huh? In all seriousness, I believe that the death of Spock is one of the best death scenes ever filmed. It hits all the right emotional and dramatic beats. This was a death that was heroic, noble, powerful, and deeply moving. (Which puts it in sharp contrast with Kirk’s death in 1994’s Star Trek Generations, written and produced by key members of the Next Generation team.) In fact, Spock’s death was so well done that director Bryan Singer lifted it almost verbatim for the climax of X-Men 2.
There were rumors leading up to the June 4, 1982 release of the film that Spock was going to die, so I knew it was at least a possibility. (I didn’t think they’d actually go through with it, though!) In that regard, I had a distinct advantage over Maddie, who totally didn’t see it coming. Like I said, I did everything I could to keep her from finding out about it ahead of time, so that her reaction would be natural, genuine, and influenced by nothing but the film itself.
And while I’m on the subject of Spock’s death, another mark of this film’s greatness is that despite the profound sadness of its conclusion, it nevertheless manages to sign off on a hopeful, thoroughly tantalizing note—one that quite literally ensured the future of Star Trek.
I could go on and on about this movie, as you can probably imagine by now, but it’s time for Maddie to weigh in…
MADDIE: “This was better than the first one! There was more action.
“The battle scenes were exciting. I liked the special effects—they made everything look real.
“The music in this one sounded a lot like the music from the TV show.
“I think the new uniforms are better than the ones from The Motion Picture.
“I wish Kirk’s hair looked like it did on the TV show.
“I think Kirk is better as a captain than as an admiral. Spock was right to tell him that.
“It was a big surprise when I found out that Kirk had a son. They barely knew each other. At the end, they don’t even really know how to hug each other! Their hug was very loose and awkward.
“I liked learning that Kirk cheated to beat the Kobayashi Maru test and got a commendation for original thinking. And I really liked when Kirk said, ‘I don’t like to lose’ and bit into the apple!
“Khan got old! And he got meaner! He was more violent. He was really thinking about himself and he wanted to get Kirk so bad that he would do anything. He was really insane in this one. It made me wonder why Kirk never checked up on Khan and his people after leaving them on that planet.
“I thought we were going to see Marla McGivers (Khan’s love interest from “Space Seed”) again. I was surprised to find out that she died.
“I was surprised that Chekov was on a different ship. I liked how he started saying, ‘We’ve got to get out of here!’ once he saw the belt buckle that said, ‘S.S. Botany Bay.’ He knew what that meant!
“Those little eels that Khan had—very gross! My ears hurt because Chekov and Captain Terrell were screaming at the top of their lungs when the eels crawled into their ears!
“McCoy hasn’t changed one bit. He’s still his old funny, frustrated self. He had so many funny lines! ‘Who’s been holding up the damned elevator?’ ‘Well, I’ve got Sickbay ready—now will someone please tell me what’s going on?’ ‘Are you out of your Vulcan mind?’ ‘You green-blooded, inhuman…!’
“Saavik was very close to Spock. I hope to see her in the next movie. It seemed like she had a lot more to learn and that she would be a good part of the crew. When she was doing the Kobayashi Maru test, I thought she did a very good job for a first-timer. And I liked her reaction when she found out that Kirk had cheated on the test.
“I think Carol Marcus is the blond girl that Gary Mitchell set Kirk up with when they were at the Academy together. Kirk almost married her! (NOTE: This was all mentioned in the TV episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”) It was nice to finally see her. I’d like to know more about her and her son David.
“I liked seeing Scotty’s nephew, but I’m sorry I won’t get to see him in the next movie because he died in the battle. But I thought it was very weird that he didn’t have a Scottish accent!”
“I liked how Spock got promoted to captain of the Enterprise. He was more human in this one. He told Kirk that he would always be Kirk’s friend.
“What happened to Spock at the end was very, very sad. I felt, if he dies, the whole show goes with him! It was very sad when Spock said, ‘Live long and prosper’ to Kirk and put his hand on the glass. What Kirk said at the funeral was very touching—but I didn’t hear all of it because I was crying so hard.
“If it was Dr. McCoy who died, I’d be crying for days!
“If Genesis makes dead things alive, maybe Spock has a chance of coming back. I’d like the next movie to show them finding Spock alive and everything’s normal again. But I think that having Spock do the ‘Space, the final frontier’ thing instead of Kirk at the end of the movie is like a final farewell from Spock.
“The only bad thing about this movie—I wanted to see them in battle with the Klingons!
“The Wrath of Khan had nothing to do with The Motion Picture—Decker, Ilia, and V’Ger weren’t mentioned once. But I hope that the next movie has a lot to do with The Wrath of Khan.”
COMING SOON: The next movie!
© All content copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2011.