STAR TREK II : THE WRATH OF KHAN
Directed by Nicholas Meyer
Written by Jack B. Sowards, with Harve Bennett,
Nicholas Meyer and Samuel A. Peeples
Released: 4th June, 1982
Starships featured: USS Enterprise NCC-1701,
USS Reliant NCC-1864, SS Botany Bay (wreck)
Planets visited: Earth, Ceti Alpha 5,
I dropped the ball on this one. About a year ago, Suz and I watched through the Trek films and I was going to write up my thoughts on each. I managed to get as far as writing a piece on The Motion Picture, then somehow forgot to carry on with it. However, we are know watching the series again, starting with The Wrath of Khan, so I'm having another stab.
The Wrath of Khan has a glowing reputation among fans, and while it's not the flawless classic some see it as, it's a good candidate for the strongest of the original run of Star Trek films. It's a very different beast to The Motion Picture, ditching much of the high concept philosophical science fiction in favour of a personal story of vengeance in a military setting.
The Motion Picture had been a very successful failure. It had made a lot of money in the box office, but had cost an enormous amount to make, badly affecting the profits. Paramount were eager to make more Star Trek films but wanted to avoid the mistakes of the first movie, and above all, wanted to keep costs under control. Gene Roddenberry was sidelined, to the chagrin of some members of the cast, and the indifference of others. Various people worked on the script, with Nicholas Meyer fulfilling the final version, without accepting a writer's credit. Khan looked back to the successes of the original series in several ways. It evoked some of the swashbuckling, heroic style of Kirk's mission of discovery. It continued the series and its predecessor's themes of friendship, particularly between the central trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. The series had been about progress, with episode such as “The Ultimate Computer” and “Dagger of the Mind” showed that this was a future in which both technological and social progress were ongoing, but that this was not without its dangers. Most of all, though, it was a direct sequel to a popular episode of the original.
“Space Seed” was an interesting episode, hinting at a dark and turbulent near future for humanity that would give way to a more inclusive and positive society. There was a feeling that the upstanding people of the Federation didn't like to talk about the unpleasant truths of their past. So when that past turned up on their doorstep, they were ill-equipped to deal with it. Khan Noonien Singh was a megalomaniac, but was a man of such conviction and charisma that he swayed people to his cause and had the utmost confidence in his attempt to take power. Kirk's eventual treatment of him – dumping him and his followers on a habitable but uncompromising planet to start their own world – was both generous and hugely insulting for a character like Khan. In the episode, Kirk and his crew wondered what might grow from the seed they just planted. Nothing good, it turned out. In a distinctly grim turn of events, the planet on which Khan was marooned was devastated when its sister planet exploded only six months later, and Kirk, of course, never bothered to check up on them.
While any Trek fan had already seen “Space Seed” a dozen times when the film came out, there would have been plenty of people who went to see it with no idea who this Khan character was, or why he was so angry. This didn't matter. Skilful exposition combined with Ricardo Montalban's scenery-chewing but passionate performance sells it perfectly. Not only did Kirk defeat Khan, a man utterly convinced of his own superiority, but he condemned him to hell. His wife was killed by monstrous creatures (Madlyn Rue was to return as Marla McGivers, but the onset of MS prevented this, and her absence does provide Khan with even more reason to hate Kirk). Khan has spent the last fifteen years nursing his hatred for Kirk, wanting only to best him and have his revenge.
This is what makes the film so effective. Even though they're never in the same room together, there's a bristling fire between Kirk and Khan that's felt across the vacuum of space. Kirk's sheer horror at seeing that Khan is behind the attacks on Federation people belies the fact that he was never set up as an archvillain or nemesis in the first place. You believe in the relationship here because these two have history, even if it's not quite the history we saw on TV way back when. (This is exactly the reason that the near remake Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't work. It relies on viewers knowing that Kirk and Khan have history in another version of events, where they're really complete strangers to one another.)
It's a far more personal story than The Motion Picture. Meyer made the wise decision to stop ignoring the age of the cast and instead make it part of the story. This is long after Kirk's second wind onboard the refit Enterprise. He's a ground-based admiral again and bored out of his wits. He feels old, he's eyesight's failing him. He's got a full-grown son out there who we'd never even heard of before, and is forced into a reunion with him and his mother. Brilliantly, the guy absolutely hates Kirk, in spite of, or likely because of, his gigantic hero status. To add insult to agedness, the Enterprise, previously portrayed as newly revamped and top of the range, has been relegated to a training vessel. Spock seems content to captain the ship – he was always more suited to be a teacher than a commander – but there's clearly some discontent buried there.
Other crewmembers have moved on. They all come back for this last hurrah, but they have their own careers. McCoy seems on the verge of quitting again. Chekov is doing well, first officer on the Reliant, before running into Khan in a spectacular gaffe. (No, I'm not talking about he and Khan recognising each other when they never met onscreen before. Khan was on the Enterprise for a long time and Chekov was clearly working in the lower decks before he got his bridge posting.) Somehow, the crew of the science vessel Reliant mistake Ceti Alpha 5 for the extinct Ceti Alpha 6 – were they counting backwards or something? And the sheer bad luck to land right on top of Khan's camp, given the entire planet to choose from.
The Motion Picture stands alone as a largely disconnected part of the Trek story, while The Wrath of Khan's influence has been felt in the franchise for years to come. The visual changes for the film included a complete redesign of the Starfleet uniforms, discarding the futuristic pyjama look of TMP and the primary colours of the original in favour of layered, deep read and cream uniforms that evoke a naval feel. These remained the uniforms for the rest of the 23rd century-set films, and with modifications, turned up in early 24th century sequences on The Next Generation – an easy shorthand for the past of that show. We finally got an entirely new starship design in the Reliant, recognisably from the same lineage as the Enterprise but distinct, and one that would continue to show up in future productions as a reliable workhorse ship. The Kobayashi Maru, the legendarily unwinnable test that Kirk beat as a cadet, was central to the storyline of the 2009 Star Trek movie, and the list of influences this film had on Star Trek Into Darkness is too long to list.
Khan and his post-apocalyptic followers' look was deeply eighties and wouldn't be replicated except much later in the series Enterprise three-part homage in its final season. Khan and his wars of conquest – subtly altered backstory going from true eugenics to the more futuristic genetic engineering – have been only carefully touched upon in most versions of Star Trek since, largely because they were encroaching the period in which it what supposed to happen. Once we were past that into the 21st century, Enterprise and Into Darkness used it for retro-flavoured inspiration. The Ceti eels – nasty little creatures that burrow into the brain – became a childhood nightmare. They may look fake now, but I was convinced as a small boy that the bug crawling into someone's ear was completely real. The monsters were referenced by the very similar “Centaurian slug” in the 2009 movie and would even appear as a fried snack in an episode of Star Trek: Discovery.
Surprisingly, for all that this film was set up to be about Kirk and Khan, in the end it was all about Spock. Nimoy had tried to pull out of Trek before and was only convinced to return for this if he would receive a heroic death scene. Fan reaction to this news – leaked early in the production process – was predictably negative, and it was pushed back to the very end of the story. It's hard to see how it could have worked better early on; the final moments between Kirk and Spock remain an emotionally galling scene and one of the most memorable moments of the whole franchise. Even as filming was being completed, however, plans were set in motion for a return, and a hasty reshoot saw Spock's coffin land on the newly created Genesis planet, a world of “life from lifelessness.” It must have been blatantly obvious to anyone watching that he was coming back; they just had to convince Nimoy...
The Wrath of Khan can be viewed as the first part of a trilogy that continues with The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, charting Kirk's spiritual renewal and Spock's journey to death and back. The second and third parts had not been conceived, however, when the film was released, and it's easy to see that there was some intention to revamp the franchise with a new, younger cast. Merrit Butrick as David Marcus, Kirk's son, and Kirstie Alley as Spock's protege Saavik, both look set up as potential replacements as central characters. Indeed, they combine elements of both characters, with David being Kirk's offspring but a scientist like Spock, while Saavik is a Vulcan learning to understand her emotions but also set up as command material. There was always the possibility of romance between the two as well, something that carries over to the sequel. Saavik in particular strikes as an interesting character; she speaks like a Vulcan but isn't styled like one, openly cries at Spock's funeral and is far more emotional than we might expect a Vulcan to be. Indeed, according to the original treatment she was intended to be half-Romulan, although this was cut from the final film.
The Wrath of Khan is far from perfect and by today's standards is a languidly paced adventure. There are moments that risk becoming boring, although it never drops to the pace of its predecessor, and it maintains a strong storyline throughout. It's helped by a stirring score, entertaining performances, and effects sequences that still impress all these years on. It's the first time that the Trek universe felt real and lived in, and this would help set the remaining original cast films apart from the rest of the franchise as it moved into the more clinical 24th century. And, of course, it has perhaps Shatner's greatest single moment as Kirk. Really, though, you have to get it right. It's not enough to just shout “Khaaaan!” with as many vowels as possible. It's all in the build up. You've got to channel that suppressed Kirk rage. Get your chin to wobble a bit. That's how you sell it.