On this day, 8th September 1966, the first episode of Star Trek (1966 to 1969), “The Man Trap” (Daniels, 1966), first aired. Since then, Star Trek has become a massive cultural phenomenon that still endures to this day, spawning numerous continuations, spin-offs, and ancillary media to become perhaps the most influential science-fiction franchise of all time. Accordingly, the 8th of September has been deemed “Star Trek Day” and is thus the perfect excuse to dedicate some more time to, and celebrate, this massive sci-fi franchise.
Released: 4 June 1982
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $12 million
Stars: William Shatner, Ricardo Montalbán, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Kirstie Alley, Bibi Besch, and Merritt Butrick
In the midst of dealing with a mid-life crisis, Admiral James T. Kirk (Shatner) and the crew of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise face their greatest threat yet when the genetically engineered tyrant Khan Noonien Singh (Montalbán) escapes from a fifteen-year exile to exact revenge on Kirk and acquire a powerful terraforming device named “Genesis”.
Although Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979) grossed nearly $140 million, Paramount were disappointed that it didn’t perform better and Star Trek’s first big-screen outing was met with mixed to negative reviews. Paramount placed the blame for The Motion Picture’s failure on Star Trek-creator Gene Roddenberry’s many rewrites and, after rejecting his idea for a time travel plot for the sequel, removed him from the follow-up’s production and left him with the purely ceremonial position of “Executive Consultant”. Thus, it fell to Harve Bennett to put together the idea for the sequel, which would be much more focused on themes of old age and friendship. After familiarising himself with the television show, Harve settled on the character of Kahn (who first appeared in the episode “Space Seed” (Daniels, 1967)) as the natural choice for a compelling villain. The script went through numerous revisions, the most significant of which coming after the script was leaked; while many of the sets and models from The Motion Picture were repurposed and reused, the Starfleet uniforms underwent a dramatic redesign to fit the film’s more nautical atmosphere. Although Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’s $97 million worldwide gross actually meant that it made less than its predecessor, it also cost a lot less to make and was received far better as critics praised the character interactions, Montalbán’s performance, and Mister Spock’s (Nimoy) poignant send-off. The film went on to be incredibly influential and is widely considered to be one of the best Star Trek movies.
The film famously opens with what can retroactively be seen as one of the most layered and blatant pieces of foreshadowing in all of cinema; Vulcan newcomer Lieutenant Saavik (Alley) commands the Enterprise in the infamous Kobayashi Maru, a purposely-unwinnable scenario design to teach Starfleet recruits that they will inevitably face a no-win situation when out in the field. Opting to cross the Neutral Zone and thus provoke conflict with the warmongering Klingons, Saavik’s decision sees the death of the entire bridge crew and the destruction of the Enterprise. When James T. Kirk, still an admiral like in the last film, ends the simulation to provide his feedback, he explains to Saavik that it was more a test of character to see how she (and the other trainees) cope in the face of mortal danger, but also cynically states to Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Kelley) that “galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young”.
Immediately, then, we’re introduced to a couple of themes that become increasingly important: the first is that Kirk, despite all of his close calls and adventures, has never truly faced his own death (we later learn that, while he’s the only Starfleet officer to have ever bested Kobayashi Maru, he did so by cheating since he doesn’t believe in a no-win situation) and that Kirk is struggling with his feelings of inadequacy and redundancy. Indeed, the film begins on Kirk’s birthday, an event that Bones likens more to a funeral than a celebration; Kirk is despondent to learn that his eyesight isn’t what it once was and that he now requires glasses to read and feels too old and worn out to be where he belongs (i.e. at the command of a starship). Bones candidly calls Kirk out and encourages him to get back his command before it’s too late; Kirk’s reluctance to entertain the notion is soon rendered mute, however, when he is ordered by Starfleet Command to reassume command of the Enterprise to answer a distress call from the Regula I space station (as always, the Enterprise is the closest ship in range). Unlike in the first film, where Kirk muscled his way back into a position of command when he was unsuitable for the role and floundered with the ship’s new capabilities, here he is initially willing to allow Spock to remain as the ship’s captain but it’s clear that Kirk feels a spark of his old self once he sits back in his chair.
Speaking of Spock, a few things have changed for the loyal Vulcan; first, he’s now the captain of the Enterprise and is directly training the ship’s new crew. Saavik, being a Vulcan, is something of a protégé of his and he seems far more comfortable and less conflicted in his loyalties to Vulcan and Starfleet. Ever the logical pragmatist, he remains on the Enterprise while Kirk and the others beam onto Regula I but is the only one smart enough to recognise a flaw in Khan’s attack patterns that helps Kirk turn the tide against his foe during their climatic space battle. McCoy gets a little more play as he accompanies Kirk to the space station, while Hikaru Sulu (Takei) and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) don’t really get all that much to do beyond their standard roles as helmsman and communications officer, respectively. Similarly, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (James Doohan) spends the majority of the film battling to re-route power and keep the Enterprise from falling apart from the engineering room, but expresses heartbreak at the toll Khan’s attack has taken on the ship.
Surprisingly, it’s Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) who gets a fair amount of screen time in the film’s early going; now a first officer aboard the Reliant, Chekov is the one who picks up signs of life on a planet he (and the rest of the Reliant) believe to be Ceti Alpha VI and, since Doctor Carol Marcus’ (Besch) terraforming Genesis device requires a completely lifeless planet for its deployment, he accompanies Reliant captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) to the surface of the barren, chaotic world that is ravaged by tumultuous sandstorms. Considering that Chekov wasn’t actually seen in “Space Seed”, it’s something of a blunder that he first recognises the wreckage of the Botany Bay and then the man himself (in hindsight, maybe swapping Chekov for Sulu would have eliminated this mistake), but it allows the under-rated Russian officer to play a pivotal role in the film’s early going by helping to exposit information on Khan both to the audience and the Kirk. As for Carol, she’s one of Kirk’s many former flames now devoted to the unlimited potential of the Genesis device, which promises to create life from death and turn barren worlds and moons into lush, hospitable environments. Her son, David (Butrick), is equally instrumental in Genesis’ construction but is wary of Starfleet; he fears that they (or someone else) may try to appropriate the device as a weapon and is initially antagonistic towards Kirk since he has no idea of his true parentage.
David’s fears become all too real when Khan learns of the device from Chekov and Terrell; an enigmatic and charismatic villain, Khan is both eloquent, charming, and loquacious while being absolutely out of his mind. Sadistic and cruel, he delights in lording his physical and intellectual superiority over others and uses any means at his disposal (from disturbing, mind-controlling eels to commandeering the Reliant for his own uses) to achieve his goals. Gifted with genetically engineered strength and intellect, Khan is eager to relive his glory days from over two centuries ago and believes that he is destined for conquest and power. His men, especially Joachim (Judson Scott), have sworn to live and die at is command and obey his orders without question; however, Khan’s obsession with besting Kirk blinds him to all other concerns. Indeed, Joachim plays Devil’s advocate by suggesting that escaping their exile is proof enough of Khan’s superiority and that they should take the chance to flee unopposed into the galaxy but Khan adamantly refuses to deviate from his obsession with avenging himself upon Kirk. Believing that Kirk is testing him, and consumed by his fanatical desire to make Kirk pay for outsmarting him and unintentionally causing the death of his wife, Khan initially plots not to kill his foe, but to hurt him and leave Kirk as helpless as Khan as his crew were on Ceti Alpha V.
One of the many ways that Star Trek II excels and set the standard for subsequent Original Series movies is in the greater focus on the amusing and complex friendship between Kirk, Bones, and Spock. Each of them share a degree of banter and familiarity that makes for a very relatable and realistic relationship between the three; while they maintain a degree of professionalism in the line of duty, Bones isn’t afraid to call Kirk out in front of other officers and Spock is duty-bound to point out any logical observations even when they imply a greater threat to the crew. Additionally, the banter between the crotchety Bones and the impassive Spock makes for some entertaining exchanges between the two, and also gives Bones an opportunity to speak out against the destructive and moral implications of the Genesis device (indeed, it’s somewhat odd that Starfleet would allow such a device to be created since Carol is effectively playing God and potentially creating a weapon of mass destruction). Of course, it’s Spock who shines the most of the three; he willingly insists on handing over the Enterprise to Kirk (since, as a Vulcan, he “has no ego to bruise”) and, like Bones, submits his opinion that Kirk made a mistake in accepting his promotion since it’s his best destiny to command a starship. Finally, Spock showcases a great deal of emotion throughout the film; he is clearly protective and proud of his trainees, expresses grief at the losses suffered from Khan’s attack, bends the rules to deliver exaggerated repair times to Kirk, and surprisingly declares his affection and appreciation for the captain in a touching scene between the two.
Since we spend a great deal of time onboard the Enterprise, Reliant, and Regula I, it’s a good job that the sets look so good; though similar (or, in many cases, practically identical) to the first film, they’re shot and presented in a way that’s far more pleasing to the eye. In the first film, everything seemed too panoramic and brightly lit for such bland and uninspiring locations. Here, though, the bridge is seeped in an almost ominous darkness that allows the blinking lights and glowing consoles to really pop out and separates it from the more colourful Reliant and Regula I. Since I grew up watching science-fiction films of this era, I’ve always had a fondness for the impractical anachronisms of early-Star Trek; they hadn’t completely abandoned actual buttons and levers and the technology looked far less futuristic as a result, giving everything a tangible reality that helps to sell the illusion. At the same time, Star Trek II feels much more like a big-budget version of the show with its sets and environments; the first film felt like it was trying too hard to be different and change things up for the cinema screen, but Star Trek II hits the right balance between familiar and cinematic. It also helps that the Starfleet uniforms look far better in this film; no longer the bland, dull, uninspiring grey and beige attire seen in the first film, the crew are decked out in a striking maroon red ensemble that (despite the old-fashioned bell bottoms) would become the standard for the remainder of the Original Series films. The deviation more towards a naval/military look for the uniforms also helps Khan and his men stand out even more; having been marooned on a desolate planet for fifteen years, they’re decked out in shredded clothing that gives them the appearance of primitive savages that not only betrays their cunning and guile but also makes for a stark contrast once they seize control of the Reliant for themselves.
Of course, it’s 1982 so some of the film’s special effects still look a little dodgy; while they’re far better overall compared to the last film, some shots of space and planets like Ceti Alpha VI don’t hold up as well as others but that’s to be expected and I’m hardly going to knock the film for the technology of the time. Plus, one of the biggest complaints I had about the first film was the lack of any actual, exciting space battles and Star Trek II more than makes up for that once Khan takes control of the Reliant; since Kirk has no reason to suspect that his old foe is controlling the ship, he and the Enterprise are taken completely off-guard when the Reliant opens fire on them, crippling the Enterprise and causing a number of deaths. Both ships, and space stations like Regula I, are of course represented by extremely impressive model shots; the Enterprise and Reliant circle and engage each other like humongous warships adrift at sea, which is only fitting given the film’s thematic parallels to Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (Melville, 1851), and Kirk and Khan more than make up for their lack of actual screen time together through an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse between their two ships and their respective captains. However, if you need further proof of the superiority of this film over the original, you need look no further than Kirk’s arrival on the Enterprise for inspection and the ship’s departure from the space dock; in the first film, this took about two ice ages but, here, it’s just a quick sequence for us to marvel at the depiction of the Enterprise before the plot gets underway.
Kirk is stunned when Carol sends a garbled transmission accusing him of trying to steal her work; like Spock and Bones, he’s fascinated by the implications of Genesis but is clearly torn between reuniting with Carol as their relationship fell apart when she distanced not only herself from him and his spacefaring adventures but also her son. The film implies that Kirk knew that he had a son out there in the galaxy all this time, but he’s seen to be more than startled to find David on Regula; David is initially antagonistic towards Kirk because he believes Kirk is responsible for the death and chaos wrought by Khan, which stems from a deep-rooted distrust for Starfleet and their military. Seeing how much David hates him deeply hurts Kirk, who sees in the boy a life he could have had if he hadn’t been busy chasing around the galaxy. However, when Khan leaves them marooned in the centre of the planet, the two begin to bond and David’s mere presence and existence has a rejuvenating effect on Kirk, who finally has a lasting legacy to leave behind. I always felt like David got dealt a raw deal in the Star Trek films; he really had the potential to breathe new life into Kirk’s character and to potentially lead to a new generation of Starfleet officers taking command of the Enterprise but was unfortunately robbed of any of this by being unceremoniously killed off in the very next film simply to foster additional animosity between Kirk and his foe.
Although Khan appears to be victorious and takes control of Genesis, Kirk is able to outwit him and then taunt him into taking the Reliant into a dangerous nebula. With their experience in navigating and battling in three-dimensional space, the Enterprise is finally able to land a crippling blow to the Reliant that mortally wounds Khan and kills his crew; forced into his own no-win situation, Khan refuses to give up and activates the Genesis device, determined to take his hated enemy with him. As the Enterprise has no hope of escaping the blast without their warp drive, Spock takes it upon himself to enter the engine room and restore power to the ship, incapacitating Bones and subsequently ignoring the doctor and Scotty’s warnings of the lethal radiation leaking from the core. Thus, the film comes full circle as Kirk is forced to look death in the face; separated by a pane of transparent glass, Kirk is helpless to help his dying friend, who delivers a heartful goodbye in which he reaffirms his affection for his captain and asks him not to grieve before succumbing to radiation poisoning. In the aftermath, Kirk is deeply affected by Spock’s noble sacrifice, delivering an emotional eulogy in which he pays tribute to Spock’s humanity and bravery, but finds his zest for life and adventure reinvigorated from the entire experience; finally being forced to face death has made Kirk all the stronger, and he has new reason to keep going in the form of David…and to hope, since Spock’s body is jettisoned down to the surface of the lush and vibrant world that formed from the Genesis device.
There’s a reason Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is so beloved among Star Trek fans; its themes of life, death, and rebirth are as prominent now as they were when it first released and it delivers both as a fantastic Star Trek film and an engaging and poignant sci-fi film. This makes it a far better introduction to the film series, and the franchise in general, than the first film thanks to it dropping the slow, introspective pacing of its predecessor in favour of an emotionally charged, intense showdown between Kirk and one of his most influential and persistent foes. Although Khan and Kirk sadly never meet in person in the film, it’s hardly a negative as there’s something far more powerful in them trading threats and taunts through the viewscreen and matching their wits against each other in space combat. Arguably, Ricardo Montalbán’s performance as Khan has never been surpassed in subsequent Original Series films and he makes an immediate and lasting impression even without knowledge of his prior appearance in the show. Furthermore, Kirk’s vulnerability and relatability as a character makes him far more layered and human than in the first film (where he was a condescending egomaniac) and even the series (where he was a charming and arrogant womaniser); seeing him feeling the effects of his advanced age and losing his zest for life is incredibly significant to grounding the film in relatable themes and it’s a nice change of pace to see him both face his worst nightmare and gain a son in his quest to reignite his enthusiasm. Of course, Star Trek II earns its reputation through Spock’s emotional sacrifice alone; although this was immediately undone in the very next film, it doesn’t detract from the character’s touching end and went a long way to adding actual stakes to the Enterprise’s conflicts beyond disposable “red shirts”. Honestly, if you only watch one Original Series film, it’s got to be this one; Kirk and the crew would go on to have a few more film outings, a couple of which were pretty decent, but it’s hard to deny that this is the best of their six dedicated cinematic outings and it’s just as great now as it was when I first watched it as a kid.
Where does Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan rate for you amongst the other Star Trek films? What did you think to Khan’s dramatic return to the series; were you familiar with his previous appearance or, like me, were you introduced to him here? Were you a fan of the film’s themes of age, the inevitability of death, and the allusions to Moby-Dick? What did you think to the cat and mouse game between Kirk and Khan and would have have liked to see them face off in person? How did Spock’s death affect you at the time and do you think he should have stayed dead? Which Star Trek captain, crew, show, or movie is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating Star Trek Day today? No matter what you think, sign up to leave your thoughts down below or leave a comment on my social media.
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