While I’ve seen “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” more times than I would probably have chosen to, thanks to it being one of the few sci-fi titles available when VHS rental was starting to be a thing, any opportunity to watch “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” is always a delight.
When Admiral Kirk’s old nemesis Khan manages to escape exile, he sets his sights on conquering the galaxy, but not before he’s taken his revenge on the ship and crew who defeated him years before.
Following the commercial success of the first “Star Trek” movie, Paramount were keen to press ahead with a sequel, with some caveats: it had to be cheaper to make than the first motion picture and it also had to be more action-oriented. With Rodenberry unceremoniously ‘promoted’ out of harm’s way to the role of Executive Consultant, it was down to incoming producer Harve Bennett to deliver on the studio’s wishes. Not being familiar with the series, the first thing he did was sit down and watch all 79 episodes of the original series. Smart move. The next thing he did, though, was a stroke of genius which changed the Star Trek movies forever: he hired Nicholas Meyer.
As they were nearing the production deadline, Bennett and his writers were knocking around a bunch of ideas for a potential sequel but none of them were hitting the spot. Meyer was brought in to help wrangle the story and suggested the unusual approach of making a list of everything everyone liked: it could be a character, a scene, a line of dialogue to see what emerged. A mere twelve days later, what emerged was a script so perfectly balanced; it set a benchmark for Star Trek movies that’s yet to be bested.
It goes without saying that “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” joins the rarefied pantheon of sequels which are better than the original, an achievement all the more impressive when you understand the genesis (zing!) of the movie. Taking its cue directly from the problems plaguing “The Motion Picture”, “Star Trek II” is steeped in character and rich with themes and motifs that relate directly to the human element. The liberal use of literary quotes and paraphrasing, particularly of Melville and Dickens, in the dialogue gives the whole film a classy intelligence without once coming off as elitist or snobby. The production design is far better too, with the mishmash of beige jumpsuit uniforms replaced by the iconic burgundy double-breasted asymmetric jacket and turtleneck which came to define this era of Trek. Meyer also schools his more illustrious predecessor in clever lighting of the existing sets, not only vastly improving the look of the Enterprise interiors but also ensuring that the bridge of the USS Reliant looks sufficiently different despite using the exact same sets.
There’s a thrifty vein of recycling throughout the production as footage is reused from “The Motion Picture”, especially in the early scenes but even here, Meyer can’t resist making a few subtle jibes at the glacial pacing of Trek’s first cinematic outing. By reusing some Enterprise shots, Meyer is able to use his special effects budget to deliver the tense skirmishes between the two starships and, of course, the ground-breaking CGI of the Genesis device demonstration film. Lacking today’s flashy modern technology, Meyer reimagines starship combat as space-bound naval warfare and although by today’s standards relatively few shots are actually fired, each blast has weight and consequence and both ships take a battering. More than the X-wing dogfighting of “Star Wars”, it was the brutal, attritional strike and counter-strike of “The Wrath Of Khan” that indelibly defined space combat for my younger self and it remains one of my favourite battle scenes to this day.
Of course, one of TWOK’s most famous elements is the grand, sacrificial finale which sees the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. In today’s spoiler-saturated internet age, it’s hard to believe the film would have managed to pack such a surprising emotional punch at the end, but again Meyer deserves the plaudits here due to his audacious toying with the audience. Aware that rumours of the death of Spock had indeed leaked during the development of the film, Meyer created a lasting piece of Star Trek lore: the Kobayashi Maru test. The unwinnable scenario sees Spock apparently die onscreen within ten minutes of the film’s opening, only to turn out to be a massive fake-out. With audiences’ expectations subverted, the rest of the story is free to unfold with its sucker punch ending safely teed up.
The script is undeniably sensational, the dialogue razor-sharp and the cast are clearly relishing it. The film is chock full of quotable phrases and memorable moments, such as the now legendary ear-invading Ceti Eels. The chemistry between the Enterprise bridge crew, so noticeably absent in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is back in full effect, and the introduction of new character Saavik (Kirstie Alley) is far less intrusive than Decker or Ilia were. There’s more to do this time out for the crew, especially Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan and Koenig although once again Nichelle Nichols is short-changed but the whole film is dominated by the two central figures at the heart of the conflict: Kirk and Khan. Both William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban (reprising the role of Khan) are magnificent, creating and developing a combustive on-screen chemistry, all the more impressive given they don’t physically share any scenes at all. Shatner’s performance as Kirk during Spock’s funeral is some of his very best work and shows just how good an actor he can be given the right material. Meyer also opts to embrace the reality of the ageing cast, weaving it into and throughout the story and giving the characters quieter moments to reflect on life, death, past decisions and regrets. There’s poetry to the whole structure of the script which has rarely if ever been bettered, inside or outside the world of Star Trek. Literally every moment enriches the story or sets up a necessary and satisfying payoff.
“Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan” also marked the first major film score by a young composer called James Horner, who lends the whole affair a nautical, swashbuckling air, thick with character themes and motifs. It fits the film well and, of course, brings back the famous fanfare which preceded the TV series. Horner would not only go on to score the next “Star Trek” film but would bring a very similar sense of militaristic bombast to James Cameron’s “Aliens” four years later.
A virtually unalloyed triumph, “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” takes a whole host of ideas and even some genre clichés which should bog it down but don’t (long lost son?) and blends them seamlessly into a thrilling, tense game of interstellar cat and mouse. It kicks off Trek’s biggest trilogy as the repercussions of the Genesis device carry over into the next film and delivers one of sci-fi’s most heart-breaking moments. It is cinematic “Star Trek” at its very finest but also ended up being a curse as we’ll see in later chapters of Craggus’ Trek Trek where successive movies try with varying degrees of desperation to recapture the “Wrath Of Khan” lightning in a bottle.