Wrath of Khan let me rock you, let me rock you Wrath of Khan!
Star Trek II goes where no sequel has gone before. It’s a film that bridges and honors the past of the franchise while also driving it headlong into the future.
The trailer for Star Trek II is a little lackluster. The narrator is not entirely enthusiastic, at least compared to the dialog from Ricardo Montalban and William Shatner. It takes a few moments to realize that this is for a Star Trek film, but as soon as the Enterprise appears it’s unmistakable. Apparently Captain Kirk stranded a man named Khan on a planet and left him for dead. But now he’s returned to seek his revenge on the Captain and his crew.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In the 23rd Century, Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley) is commanding a ship, which is soon revealed to be a simulator called the Kobayashi Maru test. She enters the neutral zone to save a ship and is attacked by three Klingon ships which cause “explosions” on the bridge killing Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and several others. The lights come on and Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) enters with a large, ancient text, (a gift from Spock) and dismisses the trainees from this “no-win” scenario. He reminds Saavik that “how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life,” words that will come back to him later in the film. McCoy visits Kirk at his apartment for his birthday and the two discuss getting older. Kirk feels like this is all a game for the young now.
Meanwhile, the USS Reliant is investigating barren planetoids for a scientific experiment run by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch). Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) and Lt. Chekov (Walter Koenig) beam down to the wind-swept desert planet of Ceti Alpha VI to investigate a possible life form–which would cancel the planned test. There they discover a derelict freighter and her crew. They meet Khan (Riccardo Montalban) and his crew on the S.S. Botany Bay, surprised that he is alive. Khan sees an opportunity to use the two of them to get off the planet and inflict revenge on Kirk for stranding him on the planet, and he places two worms in their ears that ease their compliance to his suggestions.
Back at the Starfleet spacedock, Kirk inspects the recent upgrades to the USS Enterprise and joins Captain Spock and the rest of the crew, including navigator Sulu (George Takei) and communications specialist Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) for the shakedown cruise. Chekov calls on Dr. Marcus and her son, David (Merritt Butrick), in space laboratory Regula I on their plans to pick up the Genesis device. Carol calls Kirk frustrated that Starfleet would take this from her, so he asks Spock to detour the ship to investigate. They are attacked by Khan in the Reliant and it’s only the fact that Kirk knows something about the Federation vessels that Khan doesn’t which allows them to escape.
The two ships limp off after the attack. Kirk, McCoy and Saavik beam down to Regula I to investigate but find only dead scientists and a locked crate with Chekov and Terrell inside. Kirk realizes that Carol and David must have taken Genesis with them down to the planet below so Khan wouldn’t take it. Beaming down, they find a cave full of vegetation and life that was the second phase of the Genesis tests. The device injects a matrix into a dead planet or moon and can create new life in just six hours. Terrel and Chekov turn on the crew, still under the effects of the Ceti eels. Terrell fights the pain and blasts himself with a phaser, while Chekov passes out, the eel oozing out of his ear.
Kirk calls Khan, taunting him that he has once again failed to kill him. Khan says he’s more than happy to strand them on the barren moon. Fortunately Kirk and Spock have worked out a code that allows Khan to believe that it will be 6 days, rather than hours, before Enterprise is operational again. David also finds out that Kirk is his father and that Carol had asked Kirk to stay away from him. Kirk explains to Saavik how he “beat” the no-win test; by reprogramming the computer to allow him to win, meaning he has never actually faced a no-win scenario. They beam back to the Enterprise and retreat from Khan who is striking back at them. The Reliant chases them into the Mutara Nebula where shields and visual sensors don’t properly work.
Kirk gets the upper hand, realizing that Khan is focused on a two-dimensional battle. He blasts the Reliant, damaging it critically and killing most of the crew. Khan makes his final act to trigger the Genesis device, knowing that the Enterprise won’t be able to escape in time. It’s true, the warp core is damaged by radiation during the battle. Spock realizes what is wrong and enters the dilithium chamber, against a warning from Scotty (James Doohan). Fixing the crystals, the Enterprise escapes as the Genesis device explodes creating a new planetoid out of the dust in the nebula. Kirk races to see his friend dying of radiation poisoning, but Spock reminds him that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. A funeral is held, and Spock’s body is ejected onto the Genesis planetoid, as the crew look forward to new adventures that await them.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” – Spock and Kirk
History in the Making
Star Trek II in most cases, saved the entire Star Trek franchise from vanishing into thin air. The origins of the franchise are well known. Originally airing as a television series from 1966 through 1969, the ratings were not what NBC was hoping for and planned to cancel it after the second season. A successful letter writing campaign organized and executed by the fans of the show was enough for the series to survive an additional 24 episodes before finally getting cancelled. The actors and crew moved on but the fans continued to be interested in the possibility of “more.” And so, ten years after leaving television, Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit movie screens. Partly a reaction to fan interest, and partly a reaction to the new popularity of sci-fi films after Star Wars, the film hit many like a lead balloon. While it was very much like the original television series, it was thought by some to be overly long, slow, and too intellectual. It had none of the action and excitement that George Lucas had brought to the cinema. It seemed like it would be the one last hurrah for Kirk and the crew.
With Paramount Studios being on the hook financially for a sequel, they opted to pass on Gene Rodenberry’s submitted script and instead look internally, selecting producer Harve Bennett to lead the production. Bennett, who came from a TV background (like Rodenberry) with the successful Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman series’ from the 70s, looked to make the film less boring than its predecessor and also less expensively. Hiring Nicholas Meyer, writer of the Sherlock Holmes film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and writer/director of the time travel film Time After Time, Paramount found someone that wasn’t familiar at all with Star Trek, and as such, the best person to direct the follow up. Without the reverence for the franchise origins, Meyer was able to take the core elements of the franchise but also infuse it with the new blood, shepherding the series into the modern era. The Wrath of Khan represents another in a series of popular second entries in film series that have captivated audiences more than the original, for various reasons. Along with The Empire Strikes Back and The Road Warrior, Star Trek II breathed new life and energy into the franchise and saved it from an early retirement.
The film continued the use of great special effects, enlisting Industrial Light and Magic to depict the shots of the Enterprise and Reliant duking it out in space, like a futuristic version of Run Silent, Run Deep. Unlike The Motion Picture, the effects here were used sparingly, instead choosing to focus on the characters. To underscore the dramatic tension (no pun intended), James Horner (previously with Battle Beyond the Stars and Wolfen) was hired to compose the incredible martial soundtrack. Eschewing the more romantic Jerry Goldsmith style of the previous film, and producing a more modern score, full of brass (literally), Horner struck a tone that created a soundtrack that was more evident and holistic than most other sci-fi films of the time. A final element that helped make the film memorable is the death of one of the core characters in the series. The death of Spock was something that surprised many people, but also allowed an actor who was ready to hang up the part an “out.” Much like the freezing of Han Solo in carbonite, which was rumored as a ruse in case Harrison Ford decided not to return in the third Star Wars film, Leonard Nimoy had a chance to say goodbye to the character. What he learned was how deeply this character was loved by and affected his fans. Ultimately, as with many serialized stories, Spock’s death would be reversed and his character would reappear throughout the franchise until Nimoy’s death in 2015.
Fans of modern Star Trek, from The Next Generation all the way through Discovery, owe much to the elements introduced in The Wrath Of Khan. While The Original Series had its share of action-packed episodes, like “Balance of Terror,” “Spectre of the Gun,” and “Arena” the average episode was a little more introspective and cerebral in comparison. The common elements would always be the trinity of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, as well as Kirk’s virility and machismo. By the time production for this film rolled around, William Shatner was 50 years old. Not exactly the same playboy type of character. Showing the aging protagonist still up for the same adventures as they had before, but facing new challenges due to the fact that they are no longer as young as they used to be helped create some reality into the franchise. The franchise couldn’t logically have Kirk doing the exact same things he had done 15 years before, and that conceit created even stronger moments where Kirk became a mentor to another generation.
Things that fans probably point to the most about Star Trek II is the film’s stance that Starfleet is more of a military arm of the Federation. The original five year mission of the Enterprise was consciously more about “seeking new life and new civilizations” rather than as a space navy vessel patrolling the borders. But in the 1980s climate of overt militarism and patriotic fervor, the idea that the crew of the ship all wear similar, military inspired costumes, and that certain military style protocols would be in place on the ship seemed obvious. It was also a great visual onscreen, if only for getting rid of those horrendous suits from The Motion Picture. Star Trek II featured ship on ship combat, which while not a first for the series, was displayed here with modern special effects and a cinematic flare. The film took the best elements from The Original Series, and dialed them up while playing down or ignoring others. This may not have been Gene Rodenberry’s actual ideal for a second film in his franchise, but Bennett and Meyer knew what audiences were looking for.
Additionally Star Trek II continued the long standing tradition of linking the series to classic literature. The Original Series leaned heavily on Shakespeare, in episodes such as “The Conscience of the King” and “Catspaw,” while also referencing historical elements, whether that is ancient Rome, Nazi Germany, or some strange biblical parable. In bringing Khan back from “The Space Seed” episode, it was a chance to lean once again on certain famous 20th Century literature. Partly due to the fact that Khan was a genetic superman from 1997, and partly because the lines that were quoted were so cool being spouted by Ricardo Montalban. “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens and Melville’s “Moby Dick” were the two titles that were referenced here the most. Interestingly there is no mention of Sherlock Holmes, a standard reference during The Next Generation series, which is strange considering the fact that Meyer’s previous work was a new story based on the detective. These allusions to other literature help elevate the story thematically, while also being accurate to the characters of the film.
The thematic elements of Star Trek II are some of the most endearing things about the film. Themes such as growing older, sacrifice and revenge are timeless and common ideals that people deal with whether in the 1980s or here in the 21st Century. The film starts and ends with Kirk coming to terms with the fact that he’s not a young Captain running around the galaxy. The film reminds viewers at multiple points of this fact, or perhaps it was reminding Shatner himself. McCoy provides Kirk with a pair of reading glasses for his birthday (which they’re celebrating like a funeral) due to his allergy for the drug that would allow him to not need glasses. Later he must pull out the bifocals to read the control panel when Khan attacks the Enterprise for the first time. He’s wary of the “kids” that are running the ship, and feels that the adventure aspect of the job is really a game for the young. But his age also brings something new: wisdom. Kirk knows something of Khan from his previous encounter. He understands how the Federation ships work and can use that to his advantage over his enemy. And he has the long term relationships with his original crew that imply trust and confidence.
It’s this trust and understanding that leads to the most heartbreaking moment in the film: Spock’s sacrifice. As his voice over at the end of the film intimates, he truly has gone where “no man has gone before,” at least in this series. Sacrifice and noble sacrifice are strong themes in science fiction. Whether it’s Spock saving the ship and crew, the Terminator killing himself in a vat of molten metal, or Yondu giving up his life to save his adopted son, the emotional climax of a story well told can bring tears to even the most hardened heart. To kill off such a beloved character was not to be taken lightly. Supposedly this was an element that the filmmakers struggled with. “Killing” off Spock in the first five minutes of the movie caught many off guard, before he was “resurrected” at the conclusion of the simulation. An early element of foreshadowing, along with McCoy’s line, “aren’t you dead?” Kirk takes the lines from “A Tale of Two Cities,” the books which Spock gave to him on his birthday, and read it at his funeral, “it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” This line along with the previous quote from Kirk about dealing with “death is at least as important as how we deal with life,” show Kirk’s acceptance of not only his friends’ sacrifice, but of his own age and his place in the galaxy.
But the strongest and most memorable theme was the vengeance of Khan. His single-mindedness in the hunt for Kirk is one of the best moments in sci-fi film, even if he is supposed to have superior intellect. He’s human, and he’s driven by his passions. And, it’s another homage to literary notions, mirroring Ahab’s mania in hunting for the white whale in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” To drive this comparison even further home, Khan quotes Melville at least twice. His first, paraphrased, moment indicates that he’ll “chase him ’round the moons of Nibia and ’round the Antares Maelstrom and ’round perdition’s flames before I give him up!” And then of course Khan’s final words, “to the last, I will grapple with thee… from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!” Were it not for the acting (over-acting?) of Ricardo Montalban, these lines could have come off as wooden or hollow. But his inflection and vitriol make them some of the most memorable and quotable lines in the entire franchise. Star Trek II also introduced many to the proverb, here explained as a Klingon proverb, that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” All the tales of revenge in various stories are proven right here, as Khan’s goal to kill Kirk only is successful in killing himself and those he loves.
The Science in The Fiction
Star Trek as a property has always been more into the future of technology rather than the space opera style of technology for technology’s sake. The communicators were an extension of walkie-talkie technology (which would later inspire cell phones), while the medical equipment was a thoughtful extension of where the modern 60s technology might lead some day. Star Trek II creates something a little less thoughtful, but much more memorable in the Genesis device. This small, torpedo sized structure contains the “Genesis matrix” which is able to create life from lifelessness. A technology that as McCoy points out could be used for destruction rather than creation. Certainly another element in the thematic divide between life and death presented in this film. While there is no real-world analog for something like this, one might look at the use of stem cells in research and healing, that are used to regenerate diseased cells. Not as dramatic as wholesale replication of plants and animals, but something that helps people live.
In a real-world context, there was technology that Star Trek II helped push the bounds of. The sample reel of the Genesis device in action was the first computer generated segment in film history. I talked about Looker the other week, and how it used a computer to model Susan Dey’s face on screen, as sort of a middle area between a wire frame model and the actresses own visage. Here, a 60 second sequence, created entirely in a computer, showcased the birth of a planet and its ecosystem by the Genesis device. The Lucasfilm Computer Group, which would eventually morph into the company Pixar, was responsible for this moment in film history. Of course, the use of CGI would grow rapidly through the late 80s, creating realistic water, and human forms by the end of the decade.
The Final Frontier
Nicholas Meyer would not return for several years to the franchise. He was the writer for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (aka Star Trek 4: Save the Whales, as I often joke) and the writer and director for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. This, among things like story and acting, led to the fan outcry that even numbered Star Trek films are better than odd numbered films. Leonard Nimoy would return as well. He reportedly regretted his decision to leave the franchise, and as such plot elements were put into the final cut of the film that could allow him to return one day. He would direct the next two films in the franchise, as well as return as Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. He would also make appearances in all the films with the original cast (through 1991s Star Trek VI) as well as appear in the future TV project The Next Generation and the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, his last film appearance.
Star Trek II stands as one of the most favorable films in the franchise for providing both action and character moments. As with the best of Star Trek, it addresses the human condition in an entertaining and thoughtful way allowing audiences to learn and prosper by the wisdom being passed from this modern day parable. Its ideals would inspire other films, create villains of equal stature that were comparable to the hero in every way, and show that the human spirit is strongest in the best of times and the worst of times.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.