RE:View Star Trek – The Wrath of Khan (Part 2)The Dark Herald
Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan cost a third of what Star Trek the Motion Picture did. And it doesn’t show all that much.
The sets from STMP were recycled, although Nicholas Meyer hated the restrictions the bridge imposed on his cinematography. The pajama uniforms, however, got ditched in favor of a sweater and jacket combination with bloused trousers and boots, that had a much more nautical flavor than futurist fashions that Roddenberry had so heavily favored. It gave Starfleet a recognizably more military air. Kirk’s apartment was loaded with naval antiques. Meyer was pushing the Horatio Hornblower vibe hard, going so far as to make the cast watch the 1951 movie.
One place that the budget did show was in the reuse of special effects footage from STMP. The Klingon attack from the first movie was inserted, as well as the Enterprise leaving spacedock. The Enterprise model itself was recycled. And the Outpost Epsilon 9 model got flipped and turned into Space Lab Regula 1. However, it was decided that to avoid confusion, the enemy ship would need to be an entirely different design from Enterprise.
It accidentally ended up being more different than planned. When Harve Bennet looked at the design concept, he got the orientation wrong. He was looking at it upside down. He gave a few notes to the effect that he liked the downward position of the warp nacelles. The effects team basically shrugged and said, “well if the boss likes it, the boss likes it.” They then added the rollbar and torpedo pod on top for symmetry and the USS Reliant was born. It was a serendipitous accident, the position of the nacelles gave the Reliant a much more sinister, low-slung, assassin-like profile.
Kirk’s taking command of the Enterprise felt slightly more appropriate this time around. It was well established in the original series that an ability command is nowhere to be found in Spock’s numerous gifts. Since the rest of the crew were barely trained midshipmen, leaving the senior officers at their respective duty stations made sense. Besides, Spock was a full Captain, they were all Commanders and below. The new situation where Kirk takes command of the Enterprise is appropriately out of the box. The circumstances were unique. Although it did repeat the scenario of “the Enterprise is the only ship in position to make the intercept.” This would eventually become such a lazy cliché, even Shatner made fun of it in Star Trek V.
The Genesis device was an interesting concept, but it was also a canon-breaking contrivance up there with the Holdo Maneuver (one they had to reverse in Star Trek III). Regardless, the Cold War had heated up and nuclear Armageddon was somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind, so an ultimate weapon trope was introduced and at least it wasn’t blowing up a planet for a change. JJ Abrams wept.
We get a bit of foreshadowing with Carol and David Marcus before the second act begins. The fundamental problem of David Marcus was that he came across as obnoxious, spoiled, and exceptionally self-righteous. In other words, David was a Boomer. Also, David wasn’t well thought out. He worked as a juxtaposition to Kirk in the midst of his midlife crisis, but once that was resolved there was no real use for a civilian scientist in Star Trek. In that world, if you aren’t in a Starfleet uniform what is the point of you? I think it says everything about the character that when he died in the next movie, you only felt bad for Kirk.
The initial battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant was the first real challenge to the tropes Star Wars had created. Star Wars was all about fighter-on-fighter action. Wrath of Khan went in the opposite direction and created a duel between dreadnaughts. *
A dreadnaught fight creates both action and drama. In some ways, a major ship-to-ship action is more like battling a force of nature than a mortal enemy. In the TV show, Enterprise frequently got into scraps, but the damage was kind of remote. It was just a report of who and what got hurt. In Wrath of Khan, there was enough of a budget to show how severely Enterprise was hit during Reliant’s first salvos. The injured engineers having to sit on the floor because there were no beds available in sickbay, showed the cost of the battle. The death of Scotty’s bright young nephew put a human face on the losses. And Enterprise winning the first battle through the use of Reliant’s IP address was a nice innovation.
There was a lot more blood in this film than had ever been shown on Star Trek before. Although, the Reguala one massacre didn’t make a lot of sense if Khan had mind-control bugs at his disposal. However, he might not have wanted to bring those things along on the off chance they got loose, so I’ll give that a pass too.
Not checking the last known address on the station’s transporter is less understandable but sometimes you have to ignore a plot hole so the rest of the movie can happen. There may have been a better-contrived explanation but keeping it from boring the audience to tears while the movie lectured them, would have been difficult if not impossible.
So, they beam down to the planet. Kirk bitch slaps his son, then says hello to him. Khan gets the Genesis torpedo, but Kirk gets Chekov back.
Now we move on to the Genesis Cavern. And Kirk has his talk with Carol. I think that this scene is more important than is generally believed. It’s an image of comprehensive and all-embracing renewal and of new life. It is the start of Kirk’s finally coming to grips with his middle-age crisis.
This is also the scene where Saavik finds out that Kirk cheated on the Kobayashi Maru test. That he did so because he rejects the possibility of the no-win scenario. But he is about to find out that there is one no-win scenario he can’t beat. **
This film is probably William Shatner’s best performance. Yes, the “KHAAAAAAN” line was over the top, but he didn’t write it. It’s the subtleties of his work that carried the movie. Kirk’s scenes of quiet desperation were the things that gave layers to the character we never saw on TV or in the first movie.
The climax begins. The team beams back to the Enterprise and the final battle with Khan is underway. Instead of a ship-to-ship fight, we now switch to something reminiscent of single combat between a submarine and a destroyer. It was an intriguing choice, the combat was all about tension, suspense, and then the surprise attack.
Kirk wins the battle, but Khan decides that Kirk’s victory will be a pyrrhic one and activates the Genesis device. Montalbán gets a great send-off with Captain Ahab’s speech. When I viewed the film for this RE:View, I took note of the fact that Kirk and Khan never had a face-to-face meeting.*** Montalbán and Shatner carried off the conflict between these now-legendary adversaries without ever once being in the same room.
The Death of Spock.
Roddenberry still had an office on the Paramount lot, and he was still getting CC reports on how Wrath of Khan was progressing. And he hated all of it. There were individual items that he was mad about because they reversed his creative policy decisions, like Starfleet being more military and the world looking more lived in. Apparently, he was furious about the guy vacuuming the hall at Starfleet Academy for some damn reason. He detested the new uniforms. He was incensed that his vision of a more evolved and bluntly communistic humanity had been shoved aside. But mostly his pride was hurt because he’d been pushed off the project and it was moving along just grandly without him. In truth, Star Trek was doing much better without him. No one missed the Great Bird of the Galaxy in the least.
Consequently, he leaked the Death of Spock to try and ruin the film. Which resulted in a barrage of unhinged death threats to everyone involved in the movie. Including one to Leonard Nimoy’s daughter.
This was why Nicholas Meyer opened the film with the Kobayashi Maru scene in which Spock is killed but not really. It allowed him to claim that that was just a misunderstanding by some nobody who saw one of the dailies but otherwise didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. Points to Meyer for that one.
Since the original series ended. Kirk and Spock had taken their place as one of the all-time great fictional friendships. It was up there with Frodo and Samwise, Holmes and Watson, Batman and Robin. You couldn’t mention the one without automatically thinking of the other. And a world where there is one, but not the other was unthinkable.
The death scene absolutely made the movie. Without it, Wrath of Kahn would have just been another adventure flick. Khan dies, Kirk wins again, yay #TeamEnterprise. But when Spock sacrificed himself to save the ship and crew, Kirk was forced to pay the unbearable price of losing one of the very few people in his life he genuinely loved.
It also worked as the final resolution of Kirk’s change of life.
There are deaths that are a major turning point in anyone’s life. The death of your parents is an irrevocable change, the person who held your hand as a child will never hold it again. But the death of a close friend from your youth will drive home with a sledgehammer that that part of your life has ended. It takes your identity as a young man with your friend to the grave with him. And you have to move on.
Kirk slumped down the deck next to the body of his closest friend is what made the Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan the best of the Star Trek movies.
The funeral provides a brief denouement demonstrating that life will move on in the face of death whether you want it to or not so you may as well enjoy it.
This ended the best of the Star Trek movies.
I’m not saying the rest of the movies were bad. Some were, some weren’t. But in my opinion, the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would have been the perfect place to end the original Star Trek universe.
Okay, I’m done here.
*Yes pedants, I know perfectly well that neither starship is classed as a dreadnaught. I was just hoping you could get my point without having to prove you are the smartest boy in the classroom.
**Until the sequel anyway. All of the Darklings are well aware of my opinion about resurrecting dead characters.
***Scheduling conflict. Montalbán was still shooting Fantasy Island in 1982.