As they have unfolded on parallel big screen paths over the same four decades, Star Trek and Star Wars have competed for affections from the same pool of science fiction fans, often challenging said audience to pledge its troth to one or the other. It’s rather like what Quentin Tarantino cannily observed in Pulp Fiction about the twin phenomena of Elvis Presley and the Beatles: you can like them each to a certain degree but nobody likes both equally; in the end you’re either an Elvis person or a Beatles person. From the perspective of the care and feeding of movie franchises, Trek and Wars are also case studies in how a series can evolve for the better beyond the participation of its creator. We saw with Star Trek: The Motion Picture how the stoic and lyrical story that Gene Roddenberry wanted to tell ten years on from Star Trek‘s more colorful television inception was out of step with the fast-paced space battles that had enraptured the world in Star Wars. A decade after Roddenberry’s passing we bore witness to George Lucas failing to understand what his audience wanted from Star Wars as well. The Force Awakens clearly saw tremendous benefit from having Lucas hand over the reins, and bearing witness a Star Trek person would nod, smile and ask wryly, “where have I seen this movie before?”
Star Trek: The Motion Picture made enough money for its studio to greenlight a sequel, but with a caveat: factoring in the costs of the abortive attempts at a TV series relaunch that preceded it, the final budget came in at $45 million ($149 million in 2016 dollars), which for that era was demonstrably insane. (By comparison, Star Wars in 1977 cost $9 million which is a paltry $35 million today when adjusted for inflation.) It’s said that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan, but in this case, paternity was assigned, Maury Povich-style, to one Eugene Wesley Roddenberry. It was determined by Paramount Pictures that Roddenberry would be removed from any future Star Trek movie and that responsibility for the series itself would be transferred to the more budget-conscious television division.
Going forward, Roddenberry received a token screen credit of “Executive Consultant” and retained the right to comment on aspects of production, but for all intents and purposes he was a figurehead with any significant influence stripped away. Harve Bennett, a veteran TV producer with credits like The Mod Squad and The Six Million Dollar Man, would take over the center seat, famously winning himself the job by speaking truth to power and telling then-studio head Charles Bluhdorn that TMP was really boring and that yes, he could absolutely make a better movie for less than $45 million. Bennett watched all 79 episodes of the original series and found himself intrigued by a genetically-engineered villain from a first-season episode who had been left by Captain Kirk to fend for himself on a distant planet. Thus were planted the first “space seeds” of what would become Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
There was another wrinkle to be dealt with as well in that Leonard Nimoy had been a reluctant draftee to the previous film and showed even less inclination to sign on for the second. Nimoy harbored a great animosity towards Roddenberry and the studio stemming from unpaid royalties for use of his image in officially licensed products over the years, and while this had largely been settled to his satisfaction prior to the commencement of production on TMP, he, like many fans, had found the movie a frustrating creative experience. Bennett’s pitch to get the author of I Am Not Spock to sign on was to give him a great death scene, modeled after Janet Leigh’s in Psycho: it would occur about half an hour into the movie and act as a shocking but memorable punch to the gut for the audience, raising the stakes of the final battle to come. That would both limit the amount of time Nimoy would have to spend on set and give him a final, merciful out from a role he was ready to move on from. Nimoy was amenable, and production could commence with the entire cast intact.
Now, it was just a matter of coming up with a story.
Roddenberry’s original proposal for the sequel was a time travel adventure that would see the Enterprise crew going back in time to prevent a malicious alien intelligence from interfering with the JFK assassination and thus corrupting human history. After what was certainly a polite Hollywood “thanks but no thanks,” Bennett forged ahead on his own course instead, soliciting different writers to flesh it out into screenplay form. What resulted was something of a mishmash: one particular and no doubt peculiar draft involved the Enterprise crew going up against a superpowered alien man and woman from another dimension – think Captain Kirk vs. General Zod and Ursa from Superman II. At one point there were five different versions of the same story floating about and nobody among the higher-ups was happy with any of them. That’s when Nicholas Meyer came to Bennett’s attention.
Having recently made the H.G. Wells/Jack the Ripper time travel fantasy Time After Time, Meyer was introduced to Bennett by a mutual friend, and as Bennett explained the ongoing scripting difficulties, Meyer made a bold suggestion. Let’s look at every single draft, he said, and let’s make a list of everything we like, whether it’s a character, an event, or even a section of dialogue. Meyer then proposed to take all those elements and weave them into a coherent screenplay. Bennett explained the tremendous time crunch facing them: in order to maintain the movie’s release date, the effects house (George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) needed the script in twelve days. No problem, said Meyer, I can write this in twelve days. Bennett was skeptical but gave him the job, and indeed, twelve days later, Meyer finished his draft, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (a reference to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech). A few tweaks to satisfy the actors aside, the twelve-day wonder was very much what we ended up seeing on the screen – apart from the title, which became The Vengeance of Khan until it was reported that the third Star Wars movie was to be called Revenge of the Jedi.
We all know how that turned out.
Moody and restless on the occasion of his birthday, and much like Sherlock Holmes in the absence of a new case (a deliberate allusion made by Meyer, who had written a Holmes novel), Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is watching a new generation of Starfleet cadets, led by the bright young half-Vulcan Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley, in her first movie) usurp the place of his much older crew at the forefront of space exploration. Those crew have largely gone their separate ways: Spock (Nimoy) is now captain of the Enterprise and serving as an instructor to the cadets, and Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) is first officer on the starship U.S.S. Reliant, which is searching a distant sector for a suitable lifeless planet on which to test the mysterious Genesis Project. Apparently unable to read their star maps properly, Chekov and his new captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) stumble into the clutches of the exiled Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban), who had been left on what had originally been a lush and fertile world subsequently transformed by natural disaster into a wasteland, costing him the lives of many of his people, including his wife. Khan uses the mind-controlling properties of a native eel to bend Chekov and Terrell to his will, commandeers the Reliant and sets a course to intercept the man he blames for his ruin: James T. Kirk. But first, he wants the Genesis Project for himself.
Genesis, it turns out, is like its Biblical namesake a “weapon of mass creation,” which can terraform a lifeless planet into an Earth equivalent in a matter of hours. It is being developed by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick) and an elite team of scientists at Regula One, a space laboratory above a lifeless planetoid. When an oddly monotone Chekov demands that Genesis be transferred to the Reliant, a suspicious Marcus calls her old flame James Kirk. The transmission is jammed and Kirk assumes command of an Enterprise filled with a skeleton crew of green cadets to find out what’s going on. They are intercepted by Khan, who gets the upper hand with a surprise attack, cripples the Enterprise (killing Scotty’s young nephew Peter in the process) and demands all information relating to Genesis. Kirk’s superior knowledge of starship operations allows him to deal a desperate return blow, and the Enterprise limps to Regula to find the scientists murdered, Chekov and Terrell stuffed inside storage lockers, and Genesis gone. However, the transporter was left on, suggesting that someone escaped, beaming deep into the planetoid. Inside the Genesis cave, an oasis of life beneath the surface of the dead world, Kirk meets up with Carol and David, who is revealed as his estranged son. Another betrayal looms as Chekov and Terrell suddenly turn on Kirk and company, revealing themselves still under the control of Khan. Terrell kills himself to avoid murdering a fellow officer, Chekov is freed, and Khan steals Genesis from under their noses. Kirk is at his lowest – defeated, outmatched, and feeling old and worn out.
But thanks to some efficient repair work by Spock and Scotty, the Enterprise is patched up, rescues its commander and steals away to hide in a nebula where shields, visual readouts and weapons locks won’t work, and where they will be more of a match for Khan and the Reliant. As the ships battle to a stalemate, Spock observes that Khan’s lack of experience shows in his two-dimensional perception of space. Kirk orders the Enterprise to drop out of sight, only to rise again behind Reliant and deliver a punishing and fatal blow. Khan will not be denied his wrath, however, and activates the Genesis countdown, knowing that the Enterprise won’t be able to outrun the blast without its warp drive. Spock, mindful that logic demands that the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few, subjects himself to a lethal dose of radiation in order to repair the engines and allow the Enterprise to escape, as the Genesis detonation gives life to a new planet inside the nebula. Kirk, who has made a career of cheating death, is brought face to face with it as he must say goodbye to his dearest friend. Yet in sacrifice there is redemption to be found, as he makes peace with his son, and gazing upon the sunrise as it breaks over the Genesis planet, finds himself feeling young. And with Leonard Nimoy narrating the famous “space, the final frontier” lines, the camera lifts our hopes as it sweeps through a Garden of Eden to find Spock’s coffin lying safe and sound, a hint that in the future, perhaps nothing is as final as it seems.
Gosh, where to begin in the critical analysis portion? There is so much going on here that you could probably write a dozen posts about this movie alone. (It took me three paragraphs to summarize the plot and it still feels like I left so much stuff out.) It remains the yardstick by which every subsequent Star Trek movie is compared, and whenever a new Trek dares to crib from it in the hopes of recapturing lightning in a bottle (as seen in the plots of Nemesis and Into Darkness, specifically) the results are invariably inferior. In The Wrath of Khan, every element is firing on all cylinders: the literate, classical dialogue (the go-to Star Trek movie when looking to quote the franchise in its entirety), the gradual tightening of the tension in Meyer’s efficient direction, the seething and layered intellectual fury of Montalban’s performance, the welcome spark of the renewed interplay between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the seamless integration of new characters that we actually come to care about (Saavik, David and Carol), a then-unknown James Horner’s majestic nautical-flavored score. It is a singular example, oft forgot in the modern age of CGI spectacle, that a movie is not necessarily made great by throwing an unlimited supply of money at it. Forced by the studio into re-using leftover sets and costumes and even into recycling a few effects shots, Meyer compensated by giving the script the scope of an epic instead, using the characters to examine relatable issues like life, death and the inevitability of aging (rare in Hollywood films because movie stars hate acknowledging that they’re getting older). The result is so engrossing that it feels much grander in scale than it actually is: shot entirely on soundstages with roughly 80% of the movie taking place on either the Enterprise bridge or a redressed version of it. You don’t notice any of that though, because you’re clinging to your seat wondering if Kirk and company are going to make it out of this one alive.
Montalban and Shatner make for perfect adversaries – ironic given that they never share the screen – and neither gave a better performance anywhere else. I’ve noted before how Meyer lamented Montalban’s underuse by the industry given his sublime talent, and he’s so good here at playing the villain he could have easily been the Alan Rickman or Gary Oldman of his day. One of my pet peeves about younger actors playing bad guys is that they lack the life experience that lends a performer the gravitas in order to pull off true, unnerving malevolence, and fall into the trap of the emo tantrum instead. With Montalban, aged 61 at the time of filming, you can see the years of hatred etched into Khan’s soul roiling behind sinister eyes as paraphrased Captain Ahab drips off his tongue like ambrosial acid. Khan is quite simply terrifying, and no Star Trek villain actor since has been able to equal his work (I’ll wager most average people can’t even remember the names of the other villains across the series, let alone who played them.) Shatner is great too, and proves (as he largely failed to do in the previous entry) that he can carry a movie as its leading man, delivering a performance that stands somewhat in opposition to how William Shatner is generally perceived: there is effective understatement and nuance and quiet in James T. Kirk when we first see him rudderless and lamenting the life that feels like it is slipping away. The return of Khan awakens the hero inside him, and the movie becomes his journey to reclaim the best part of himself – the unflappable, indefatigable, larger-than-life starship commander – as well as finally embrace his “first, best destiny” as a father and a leader. The evolution in Kirk is as much of a joy to watch unfold as anything else about the movie, and although the death of Spock is deeply saddening, it is that last necessary step for Kirk to grow up.
To that most controversial aspect of the movie – that in hindsight really does seem the proverbial tempest in the teapot – Gene Roddenberry, who as I noted earlier was sidelined during the production, is alleged to have been responsible for leaking Spock’s impending screen death, resulting in a flurry of angry letters and threats to the production team from upset fans. At that point, the script had Spock dying in Khan’s initial attack on the Enterprise in the first act in keeping with the intent to create a homage to Psycho. With the Vulcan’s fate and the movie’s biggest surprise now lamentably public knowledge, Bennett and Meyer decided to move his demise to the end of the movie and add a fake-out to the opening scene, where Spock appears to be killed four minutes into the movie in what turns out to be a harmless training simulation. That way, first-time audiences would shake their heads for making such a fuss over nothing, only to be tremendously moved when Spock eventually sacrificed himself for real in the climax. Meyer said in hindsight that he owed Roddenberry a strange thanks for forcing them into a better movie. But that was to be Roddenberry’s only contribution of any substance. Like George Lucas thirty-three years later, he would sit idly on the sidelines and watch others take what he had created to new and unexpectedly greater heights. There is a degree of tragedy in that.
In summary: Points for pretty much everything. A few marks off because the wonderful George Takei (Sulu) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) don’t have very much to do, but that’s a minor quibble. This is, without hyperbole, simply Star Trek‘s finest cinematic hour.
Next time: Spock comes back, on the other side of the camera, and the bloom comes a little bit off the rose as the “odd number” curse starts to take shape.
Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.