Space…the sheer amount of space that has happened since I last wrote something, I tell you! And to focus on a universally highly regarded sequel as Star Trek II? Could I take a more softball approach? I mean there’s no controversy here. The Wrath of Khan, or TWOK as the real geeks call it, is an obvious high point in the Star Trek film series.
It isn’t like arguing the merits of Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment or Friday the 13th Part II or other sequels that I’ve already gandered at wholeheartedly. This isn’t some obscure made for TV cash-in sequel or a budgetless Euro-production that merely bought franchise title rights for their otherwise unassociated thud of a movie. TWOK is usually held in the highest of regards by not just Trek fans, but also critics as well as normal, non-Vulcan ear wearing public. What could I possibly offer in this arena?
All right, fine. I’ll come clean. I want to look at TWOK through the eyes of a non-Trek fan. Since having that eye operation proved to be cost prohibitive and involuntary eye donors are frowned upon, I decided to use myself and my own not-that-much-of-a-Trek-fan eyes instead.
Oh and you’ve had 40 years to see this movie. I’m going to spoil it because it tasks me. It tasks me. You’ve been warned.
The Sequel: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Original Movie: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Key Cast/Production Staff Returning from 1st Installment:
|William Shatner||Admiral James T. Kirk|
|Leonard Nimoy||Captain Spock|
|DeForest Kelley||Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy|
|James Doohan||Commander Montgomery Scott|
|George Takei||Commander Hikaru Sulu|
|Nichelle Nichols||Commander Nyota Uhura|
|Walter Koenig||Commander Pavel Chekov|
To Start With:
“I know that none of you were expecting this. I’m sorry. I’m going to have to ask you to grow up a little bit sooner than you expected.”
Paramount did it! Well, sorta. After the titanic success of Star Wars, the studio finally managed to shake the development hell that surrounded Star Trek. Giving up on the idea of bringing the series back to the small screen, the decision was made to translate Star Trek into a film instead. Star Trek: The Motion Picture debuted in 1979 and it was indeed successful, regardless of the rushed nature of getting the damn thing done for the premiere.
However, given the sizeable budget, it wasn’t as successful as Paramount had hoped it could have been. I’m sure a Paramount number-cruncher looked at the cash that was being made hand over fist with their two Friday the 13ths and said, “Can we make a Star Trek movie that costs about $156.88? And if we did, could possibly it be in the woods…with some topless girls?” A Trek sequel was greenlit with the caveat that the budget couldn’t be outrageous. (Also, Jason Voorhees had to be in it. However, by the third draft that idea was abandoned. After all, Jason…in space? Like that would ever happen! How ridiculous!)
Harve Bennett, the producer brought on board to keep the budget aspect tighter than the tightest outfits ever worn by any female ensign on the Star Trek TV series, decided to pore over the original show for ideas. (Well, ideas beyond that tight skirt thing.) Bennett noticed two things: 1) that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy represented a nice triumvirate of balanced characters and 2) there’s something about that charming, menacing, handsome, and ripped character known as Khan from the episode “Space Seed”…
The Star Trek cast was a lock for returning to the roles that made them famous. (Not as famous as unnamed Star Trek cast members who also starred in T.J. Hooker, but famous, nonetheless.) Of course, I would be far beyond the limits of remiss if I failed to mention the one cast member who was a holdout in coming back. That’s right, everyone’s favorite: Walter Koenig. However, after being reminded that no one knew who he was outside of Star Trek, Koenig relented and begged to come back under one condition: they had to kill off Spock. Everyone surprisingly agreed.
Hiring the marvelous Nicholas Meyer to direct as well as rewrite the script, having an already established group of seasoned Trek actors, and dealing with a budget that wouldn’t make the good folks at Gulf & Western blanch, Harve Bennett successfully guided Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan into theaters filled with the best appreciative audiences that 1982 had to offer.
Now like I said, I am not a Trekkerite by any stretch of the imagination. Yet even in my non-Romulan ale drinking ways, I knew that TWOK was quite a big deal in the Star Trek universe. TWOK was The Empire Strikes Back of Star Trek. It was The Godfather Part II of Star Trek. It was the Critters 2: The Main Course of Star Trek, but I digress as you hopefully get the point that I’m relentlessly hammering home.
But what is it about TWOK overall? Does it all work after all these years? This year marks the 40th Anniversary of when it first arrived in theaters. The combined age of the principal cast back then was 793 years ago, give or take a century. (Only the addition of Kirstie Alley brought the median age of the cast down to 85 years old.) Given TWOK’s age, is the film therefore considered creaky or did it age like a fine wine? What about that Shatner fellow? Is he chewing scenery like an acting piranha? Well, let’s take a closer looksee at what that space seed brought forth two score ago…
Anything Done Better than the Original?
“Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical.”
Now, I do enjoy Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I do! I like both the theatrical release and the Director’s Edition that came out in 2001. I can put the film on just for background noise if I’m doing something else and not miss a beat. But that’s part of the problem with TMP: the glacial pace of that film. Yes, I would love to see those grand shots of the Enterprise too, but after a while, even Kirk said, “Scotty, can you get this heap moving a bit faster? I’d like to explore strange new worlds while they still are!”
TWOK is fast and furious in comparison. The film just moves and stays on task for the most part. The editing is quicker, the pace just keeps this thing humming. We aren’t moving at breakneck speed, but the warp factor is increased considerably when compared to the impulse power of the first film. (See what I did there? It might even be Trek-science accurate too!)
Also, there’s more characterization and bit more humor in this film compared to the relatively straight-faced seriousness of TMP. It isn’t a laugh riot by any means. (Shatner would save being a laugh riot for Airplane II: The Sequel, also released in 1982…by Paramount…coincidence?) But I cannot help but have an enjoyable laugh every single time I see Kirk smugly say, “I don’t like to lose”, before biting that piece of apple.
Also, at the risk of offending half of Spock, there’s more humanity in this story compared to the stiff and computery V’ger laden TMP. Kirk’s worried about aging, Scotty’s nephew is killed, McCoy and Spock argue about the Genesis device, and Khan’s motivations for revenge are very real and understandable.
Speaking of Khan, God bless Ricardo Montalban. He is a villain among villains. Montalban is clearly enjoying his role, while giving it every single bit of presence that he can. Khan is intelligent, strong, cunning, ruthless, and clever enough to give Kirk a run for his money. Only Khan’s ego and inexperience in certain areas bring about his downfall, but despite this, Khan is a delight. And certainly, Khan is a step above the random Klingon/Romulan of the week that usually fenced with the crew of the Enterprise. When Harve Bennett went back to the well of the TV series and drew up Khan from the depths, he chose magnificently. And Montalban was fantastic, making Khan truly his.
Anything as Good as the Original?
“Damn it Jim, what the hell is the matter with you? Other people have birthdays, why are we treating yours like a funeral?”
Jerry Goldsmith composed incredible music for TMP. The main theme of that film later became the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Goldsmith also came back to do Trek scoring on Star Trek V, First Contact, Insurrection, Nemesis, and composed the theme for Star Trek: Voyager. Goldsmith’s legacy is secure as one of the greatest film composers of all time.
It would be a hard act for any composer to follow Goldsmith, especially given the budget cuts to the sequel. Yet, James Horner did a magnificent job. From his opening titles to his theme for Spock to the final battle in the Mutara Nebula, Horner is firing on all cylinders. I wish his themes existed in other Trek properties beyond TWOK and Star Trek III.
Now, the more cynical amongst us, myself included to a certain extent, would just say that Horner basically used the same motifs in a slew of films. His scores for Battle Beyond the Stars and Aliens and Krull and others have similarities to TWOK. I can forgive this because frankly, if I’m stuck watching Krull, I’d rather think about Khan any day of the week.
Nicholas Meyer must be praised for his direction and writing as well. Robert Wise was an experienced editor and director before he helmed TMP. Meyer was neither when he did TWOK, however, he knew story and plot structure. After getting over his unfamiliarity with the world of Trek, Meyer latched on and delivered quite the film. It wasn’t knee deep with Treknobabble; TWOK was a story about aging, about death, about life, about revenge. Meyer executed it brilliantly. It is no coincidence that any following Trek adventures that had Meyer’s involvement were a step above the rest as well.
And some positive words must be said about the cast. Bibi Besch as new character Dr. Carol Marcus is intelligent, personable, strong, and a welcome addition. Kirstie Alley as Saavik is every bit of the full Vulcan that she should be. I have nothing but good things to say about Robin Curtis, but I would have liked to see Alley return as Saavik for Trek III.
Out of our veteran Trek cast, George Takei and Nichelle Nichols are given a bit of a short shrift. However, Walter Koenig has a bit more to do as a brainwashed minion of Khan. James Doohan’s Scotty has some welcome dramatic moments. And DeForest Kelley’s McCoy is a curmudgeony delight through and through.
But let’s take a moment to bask in the glow of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. One could say that these two men are Spock and Kirk. They always will be Spock and Kirk. They’ve earned that stereotyped accolade in spades. Nimoy’s delivery, his presence, his ultimate sacrifice; Spock is a cornerstone of not just Star Trek, but also the culture. And be damned if you don’t tear up when you see Spock perish every single time you watch this film. Such a great actor.
Likewise, Shatner is James T. Kirk. To be blunt, Shatner has gotten a lot of shit thrown at him over the years about his delivery, his hamfisted approach at times, his hairline, his everything. And yet, he became an icon amidst the criticism. Kirk is assumed to be a boorish, shoot from the hip, womanizing jerk of a character, but none of these are true of Shatner’s Kirk. He is in command of his ship, he makes calculated decisions after conferring with his command crew, he keeps his cool under incredible pressure.
Shatner wears Kirk with such incredible skill and ease, especially when given the superior material in TWOK to work with. All Shatner impressionists overaccentuate the character quirks, but ultimately fail to portray Shatner’s ability to convey the strengths and weaknesses of Kirk so convincingly.
Anything Not-So-Good as the Original?
“You’ve managed to kill just about everyone else, but like a poor marksman, you keep missing the target!”
This is nitpicking, but when compared to TMP, TWOK seems like a grand TV movie at times and not a large-scale motion picture. I know part of this is budgetary since TMP had a much larger canvass with some of the best special effects for that time. The result is that TMP just feels like an epic. Granted, an epic without that complex of a plot, but an epic, nevertheless.
TWOK has a better story, but as it is more intimate, it doesn’t need such a wide palette. To that end though, the scope seems a bit more limited. Maybe it is a film stock kind of thing, perhaps a cinematography issue, but the film feels smaller in comparison to TMP.
Oh, and even though TMP didn’t have enough story to justify the length of the film, the plot is simple while the effects are complex. In comparison, TWOK’s story is better overall, but I do have one glaring plot issue that should have been addressed with an easy switcheroo. When a Starfleet expedition stumbles upon Khan, he recognizes Chekov but not Captain Terrell. This should make sense since Terrell wasn’t on the Enterprise with Kirk on the original show.
But Chekov wasn’t on the Enterprise with Kirk and the gang at the time of “Space Seed” either. Walter Koenig wasn’t part of the cast yet. So how in the name of Perdition’s flames did Khan know Chekov?! And this is such an easy fix if they just would have had Sulu be the one with Terrell instead. Then have Saavik be a newly minted navigator and Chekov takes his old seat on the Enterprise bridge. Literally, nothing story wise would have been lost, except that Koenig would have been out of a slightly meatier part. This is something that was so easy to fix and yet it wasn’t! WHY??? Argh.
And why does it bother me since I’m not a Trek fan? I guess because I’m a fan of cohesive plotting within a franchise universe. And I don’t care about whatever novelization tries to fix this error either. For Trek, I have about enough patience for an original cast flick now and then. I ain’t readin’ too!
Anything Far Worse than the Original?
“Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.”
For whatever reason, when the special edition DVDs for the Trek films came out, it was decided that TWOK would get a Director’s Cut. Fine, good. I’m all for seeing more of this film. Then it came out on blu ray, which was fine, but then it came out in blu ray again in yet another Director’s Cut. The only real difference between the Director’s Cuts was removing a brief Kirk/Spock exchange about Kirk’s son. However, the decision was made to keep the scene that dialogue was in and just cut the lines out in the sound mix.
And why? What was wrong with the dialogue?! Kirk mentions to Spock that the young man who beamed aboard with them was his son. Spock replies, “Fascinating.” And given what Kirk and Spock need to do at that moment in the plot, yes, Kirk talking about his son is superfluous. However, Spock’s disinterested delivery back to Kirk is warranted and is a treat. So this means that there are technically three different cuts of this film. Why was something included in one version of the Director’s Cut but not the other? Can editing stop at some point? Do I need to own three different versions of the movie, Paramount, you bloodsuckers?
Also, not having Kirk and Khan face off in person is a huge problem with TWOK. It just becomes the battle of the screens. At least Kirk and Co. were able to confront V’Ger in person by getting out of the Enterprise to meet face to virtual face. Yet in TWOK, Shatner never squares off against Montalban in the same scene once. Even Chekov was able to meet up Khan. Of course, the fight choreography wasn’t the greatest with Kirk and Khan fought in “Space Seed”, but dammit I wanted to watch these two advanced middle-aged men square off against each other!
But the biggest problem that I have with TWOK is the addition of Kirk’s son David. Nothing against the late Merritt Buttrick in the role, but the part is largely unnecessary. You could shove over the lion’s share of dialogue to Carol Marcus instead and eliminate the role entirely without skipping a beat. In fact, looking ahead to Trek III, it would have had more believable emotional resonance for Kirk if Carol Marcus ended up being killed in that film instead of David. That’s because there is a clear and real connection between Kirk and Carol. That relationship shows some real roots because both actors are bringing their best and there’s a clear chemistry between the two.
By contrast, the connection between Kirk and David is forced to say the least. Even in their one scene alone together, it is painfully obvious that Shatner and Buttrick don’t really gel. It feels contrived because it is. Another rewrite wiping out the David character entirely would be just fine with me.
“I’ve done far worse than kill you. I’ve hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left her; marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet…buried alive. Buried alive!”
Oh, dear Lord, yes there were follow-up installments. Far too many to list here. In fact, the internet is already jammed with so much Trek-ish dissertations, I might bring the whole thing crashing down if I dare to add one more plank to the tottering Jenga-like Interwebnets.
In the interests of time, I shall skip all the ancillary Star Trek TV shows and the like that followed in the intervening decades and just mention those films with original cast members in them with very brief notes following.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984): The one where they go looking for Spock, even though he died. Christopher Lloyd has Kirk’s son killed. Enterprise self-destructs. John Laroquette is a Klingon. “I…have had…enough of…YOU!!”
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986): The one that your mom loved because it was funny and had the whales in it. They time travel back to 1986 because Doc Brown was in Trek III and then Back to the Future. Nuclear “wessels” “No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.”
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989): The one where they let Shatner direct only because Nimoy already did. There’s a laughing Vulcan. Kirk and Co. meet “God”. Effects budget was $16.87. David Warner is wasted. Uhura sings and dances provocatively. “What does God need with a starship?”
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991): The one where everyone’s old and there’s a murder mystery. Sherlock Holmes is apparently a Vulcan. David Warner gets wasted. Kim Cattrall is also a Vulcan. (The fetching Kirstie Alley and then the buxom Cattrall were both Vulcans? I’m the wrong species for sure.) Christopher Plummer is quite good. “If I were human, I believe my response would be ‘Go to hell.’ If I were human.”
Star Trek VII: Generations (1994): The one with the Next Generation cast where Kirk dies. Malcolm McDowall is there. Kirk dies. Cameron from Ferris Bueller is a captain now. Oh, and Kirk dies, but even as corpse, he still has more personality than 78% of the Next Gen cast. Did I mention that Kirk dies? “It was…fun.”
“Really, Dr. McCoy. You must learn to govern your passions; they will be your undoing.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is certainly worth your time. My inconsequential quibbles aside, it stands as a rather tight adventure story. In fact, if you leave science fiction behind and just treat it like a submarine battle in space, it works just as well. TWOK is a sequel that rises above sequel status, with some ranking it as the best Trek film. And if it doesn’t surpass the original film outright, it holds its own alongside it and that is quite an achievement.
For me, TWOK started my enjoyment of William Shatner’s career and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m the rare Shat fan: one that isn’t really a Trekkie. For instance, I was one of the few that didn’t wear anything Starfleet related when I had a chance to meet him for seven seconds after a screening of…Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan!
While meeting Shatner was a treat, it isn’t the main reason why TWOK still resonates with me lo these many years later. My dearly departed father loved the original cast Trek movies. I never remember him watching the show, just the first six Trek movies. He even dragged the whole family’s non-Trek lovin’ arses to the theater to see parts V and VI of the Star Trek in theaters.
Yet Dad was never a Trekster. Not even close. He wasn’t a Shatner or Nimoy fan per se. He never cared for The Next Generation and the other Trek shows. He didn’t even really like science fiction all that much. But he loved those first six Star Trek movies. He taped them from TV, he bought the movies on VHS, and then upgraded to the DVDs.
Now his interests proved to be my interests as well. I never became a full bore Trekologist but I still enjoy those first six Trek films. Something about that cast and those familiar faces. That Kirk/Spock/McCoy foundation was quite strong so I can understand why he loved that series so much, with TWOK being one of his favorites. And even though my dad has been gone for over a decade now, I see my son heartily enjoying Khan vs Kirk. Just seeing that brings a warm smile. After all, as Dr. McCoy reminds me, my father’s not really dead, as long we remember him. And when I watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it reminds me of him.
“Ah, Kirk, my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It is very cold in space.”