RE:View Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan (Part 1)

RE:View Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan (Part 1)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan opened with the Star Trek fanfare from the OG series.  It was as if they were telling the audience right off the bat.  We’re sorry about last time, we swear we aren’t going to fuck it up again. Promise!

Most sequels follow in the footsteps of a massively successful first movie.  This film on the other hand was born from the ashes of Star Trek the Motion Picture.  While STMP isn’t the best movie in the series, it is pretty far from the worst.  If you have a chance to see Robert Wise’s Director’s Cut, it’s definitely worth a look.

It was however horrifically expensive to make.  It cost $35 million and back in 1979 that was a studio-breaking amount of money.  Worse still Paramount had been forced to put out a blind bid to the exhibitors.  The theaters coughed up $30 million to show it but if Star Trek didn’t make its release date, they were going to hit Paramount with a lawsuit that would bankrupt the studio.  

Paramount took all the major decisions out of Roddenberry’s hands and just barely made their December release date.  They eventually earned out at $85 million but there had been plenty of stomach ulcers on the executive floor.

This left the executives with some decisions that needed to be made.  Having seen through the glamour of “Gene Roddenberry, Super Genius” they had to decide what do with the Star Trek IP. And more importantly, who to give it to.

Expenses needed to be locked down tight.  It had been a frightening couple of years for Hollywood.  Star Wars the Empire Strikes Back had terrified executives at 20th Century Fox when its budget spiraled out of control, although at $200 million box office it had proven itself to have been worth it.  But Heaven’s Gate on the other hand, had bankrupted United Artists. 

Institutional investors were very nervous, and no company likes that.

They needed somebody who would deliver the movie within budget and damn it on time.  Six Million Dollar Man producer Harve Bennet had a good track record for doing exactly that, so he was handed the keys to the Enterprise.

First things first Bennet would need were a writer and a producer.

He picked Jack Sowards as his scribbler. Wrath of Khan is Sowards only theatrical release, everything else he ever wrote was for TV.  Obvious choice so far as Bennet was concerned, he knew Sowards could deliver the magic combination of good and fast.  He didn’t have a deep bench of work so far as science fiction was concerned, it was mostly cop shows and westerns.  His only other Star Trek credit is for a single episode of STNG, where he got to personally experience the horror of working for Gene Roddenberry at that time in his life when it is universally agreed that he was at his worst.

Bennet’s go-to guy as a producer was Robert Sallin, this was also his only Star Trek credit. 

These three musketeers received their marching orders from Paramount. Then, since none of them knew anything about Star Trek, they sat down for the three-day task of going through the entire series. 

There was one episode that really stood out to all three men. Space Seed, written by Gene L. Coon (naturally).  It was about a world conquering gene-engineered super-soldier. The ending of the episode had an implied sequel.  After Khan was defeated and exiled along with his men and treacherous girlfriend, Kirk wonders what kind of world they would find when they came back?

Khan was an intriguing choice of villain instead of one of Kirk’s Klingon or Romulan enemies.  Admittedly all of his opponents were single-serving antagonists.  There had been some plans to make Captain Koloth a recurring enemy, but William Campbell’s schedule never worked out.  Consequently, Khan was as good a choice as anyone else.

And there were some unique advantages to him.  He was physically stronger and more intelligent than Kirk.  His backstory as an established conqueror made him more dangerous than the average bear if he ever got loose.  And he would be played by Ricardo Montalban, who had done some impressive film work as a lead actor in the late forties, he had a known screen presence. 

Next, they needed to get the band back together again. 

Bennet and company’s film was kind of a soft reboot and retcon.  They didn’t actually say that none of the events of Star Trek the Motion Picture had happened, but they made absolutely no reference to them either.  

The characters of the Big Three were drastically different than what they should have been if they had experienced those incidents.  Spock, McCoy, and especially Kirk were in much different places at the start of Wrath of Khan than they should have been after STMP.

The first two films present a fascinating confliction of approaches to Kirk’s mid-life struggle.  The first one, written by Roddenberry, used Kirk as a self-insert reflection of his own mid-life crisis.  Kirk was a mirror image of Roddenberry’s decade of toil, frustration, and failure after Star Trek was canceled.  That was a Kirk that was desperate to wind the clock back to his glory days.

Wrath of Khan, on the other hand, presented a much more mature James Kirk.  He was struggling with his arrival in his fifties, but rather than turn back the clock, he was trying to accept it and find his way to a new identity, “Galloping across the cosmos is a game for the young Doctor.”  But it was proving very hard for him.  A man with a family can make that transition more easily than one who is isolated, let alone a man who is isolated by high military rank.  I’ve seen that one.

The people closest to him have been calling him, “Sir,” not “Jim,” for better than fifteen years now.  The only exceptions are his two best friends.  Bones private birthday drink with Kirk did nothing but accentuate Kirk’s isolation. The glasses were a nice way to drive home the unavoidable transitions that Kirk was going through.  He would not be going one on one with a Gorn ever again.

The setup for the OG cast made more sense this time around.  They are now senior officers and the only reason this collection of Commanders were doing junior officers’ work was that they were pulling time at the Academy as instructors on training duty.  

Admittedly, Starfleet Academy’s duties and functions had never been entirely nailed down.  Training new officers, of course, but the Academy (apparently) was in charge of research and development operations as well. 

That could have been intriguing if they had put more thought into it.  A university’s duties and functions to its society used to be quite different, military training, intelligence gathering, plus planning the occasional assassination.  Higher education used to be much different as a whole.  You’d be assigned an adviser who would guide you as to which lectures would best benefit your education.  There would be no quizzes, no end-of-term test, no “binge and purge learning.”  Your only measure of if you learned anything was the examination at the end of your time at the university.

Anyway, Kirk’s position at Starfleet Academy was never made clear, but he obviously had one.  Among his duties was apparently being a very senior manager on Project Genesis. 

Most of the actors were up for getting another paycheck, including Shatner. The big hold out was, again, Leonard Nimoy.  His relationship with Spock had become at best, contentious.  Nimoy was arguably a better character actor than anyone else on the original Star Trek cast.  But he was hopelessly typecast as that one character.  He felt, rightfully so, that Spock had been a millstone around his career’s neck.  On top of that, Paramount had made a fortune using Spock’s image and he got nothing for it.

The STMP hadn’t been much of an improvement so far as he was concerned. Because of how long he held out before signing, Roddenberry hadn’t really written much of anything for Spock.  Bad enough to be dragged back into playing Spock but the character didn’t even feel like Spock.

After Star Trek the Motion Picture he wanted out.  However, Robert Sallin knew how to appeal to an actor and offered Nimoy that most prized of things, a magnificent death scene.  That was the carrot, the stick was that Spock’s part had actually been written this time and was integral to the movie, “so if you don’t play him, we will be forced to recast Spock.”  That last was unthinkable to Leonard Nimoy so he was back again for what he thought would be the last time.  The thing was, with Gene Roddenberry nowhere to be found, AND a decent script, he discovered he genuinely enjoyed playing Spock again.

Beginning the next voyage of the Enterprise as a training mission also opened the door for younger replacement characters.  Since Spock was going to die at the end of the movie a new Vulcan would be needed. Spock’s apprentice, the half Vulcan/half Romulan Saavik, was clearly supposed to be his successor. Although, nothing ever came of that. The first of the replacements, Peter Preston, was dead before the film was half over.  David was killed by the middle of Star Trek III.  And much to everyone’s shock, at the end of filming Nimoy, announced that he wanted to stay with the franchise.  Consequently, Saavik’s last appearance was at the start of Star Trek IV. 

Before the first act closed they needed to introduce the villain. 

They came up with a not very science fictiony setup.  Six months after the abandonment of Khan and his fellow super soldiers on Ceti Alpha V, Ceti Alpha VI exploded altering the orbit of CA V rendering it virtually uninhabitable.  

Since the legal system of the Federation was whatever the writers needed it to be on any given week. I’ll have to give a pass on Kirk having the lawful authority to sentence civilians to eternal exile.

However, if planet Ceti Alpha VI explodes then Ceti Alpha V would become… Ceti Alpha V

That was clumsy.  If you blow up AC IV, then AC V changes its order of precedence but not if the sixth planet in the system goes boom.  It would still be the fifth planet in the Ceti Alpha system.  Then there is the little question of how did a planet just explode?  Did it wander into a JJ Abrams movie?  Plus, there is the problem of how did AC VI’s destruction alter AC V’s orbit?

I am also a little surprised they didn’t put in any foreshadowing at all. 

Some mention of the fifth planet of the Ceti Alpha system being under quarantine and Chekhov not being able to talk about it, (which would be understandable as he wasn’t in that episode).

Never mind, it was science magic for a low information general audience. 

And it did get us one of the best reveals in movie history when Khan takes off his helmet. There wasn’t a hint of the kindly Mister Roarke in that ice-cold, arrogant face. He had been playing that cheesy TV part for so long people had forgotten the man could actually act.

Ricardo Montalban was initially resistant to returning to Star Trek.  It had been fifteen years since he had played the part.  Not to mention that Fantasy Island was still in production, so shooting and then promoting a movie on top of an eight-month TV shooting schedule was going to be exhausting.  However, while he was hemming and hawing, he asked who was directing? When he heard it was Nicholas Meyer he instantly said, “I’ll do it.”

Nicholas Meyer had been a writer but his first directing job was the classic Time and Time.  He was in demand as a director in the Eighties although after Star Trek VI he went back to writing.  I don’t know if that was his choice or not.  Regardless, he was one of the best actor’s directors in that decade. 

Star Trek II would not have been what it was without him.

(Continued Part II)

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