RE:View – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

RE:View – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

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. Michael Eisner hated spending money on the best of days and $35 large nearly gave him a heart attack. 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 C-suite floor.

This left the executives with some decisions that needed to be made.  Having seen through the glamour of “Gene Roddenberry, Creative Genius” they had to decide what do with the clearly valuable 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.  After, the success of The Godfather (1972), there had been a craze among the Moguls to greenlight anything so long as the director had a beard a script. This worked surprising well at first. Godfather II, Jaws, The Deer Hunter, and of course Star Wars. The problem with indulging visionaries is that their visions tend to expand when well fed.

Star Wars the Empire Strikes Back had terrified executives at 20th Century Fox when its budget spiraled out of control. Intially budgeted at $18 million, the second Star Wars movie came in at over $30 million. 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.

Michael Eisener needed somebody who could 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 Star Trek: The Next Generation, 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 the Great Bird of the Galaxy 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 binging 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 Kirk’s 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 Star Trek the Motion Picture.

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.

The Wrath of Khan, on the other hand, presented a much more mature James Kirk.  He was struggling with arriving 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 closest 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 where three senior professors would grill you for hours to determine if you were worthy of degree or a worthless dumb ass.

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.

Star Trek the Motion Picture 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 STMP 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. This Spock was a Juxtaposition to Kirk, he had accepted his life’s changes with grace.

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 CA IV, then CA V changes its order of precedence but not if the sixth planet in the system goes boom.  Ceti Alpha V 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 CA VI’s destruction alter CA V’s orbit?

I was 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). The name of the picture was The Wrath of Khan, this was not a spoiler. 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 Ricardo Montalbán could act.

Montalbán 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 actors’ directors in that decade. Star Trek II would not have been what it was without him.

And Meyer did it within budget. 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 the 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. 

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!

The theme of the movie was mortality and renewal. So starting by killing the original crew, really drove that nail in. Especially Spock (more on that later). 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 was killed 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 battle creates both action and drama.  In some ways, a major ship-to-ship action is more like fighting 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, or at least surviving, 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.  

The juxtaposition of the two battles proved that Meyer really was a cut above as a director. When the enterprise was ambushed at the start of the second act, the crew had been in White State. They had been on a training cruise expecting nothing and when they got hit they panicked. At the start of the third act they are clearly in Red State, they are ready, indeed after their humiliation, eager for a fight with the Reliant. They were the new crew of the Enterprise and had a reputation to live up to just by being assigned to a storied ship. Showing the midshipmen girding themselves for a toe to toe slugging match escalated the tension and tension needed to be carried over to the next scene.

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, 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, (Scheduling conflict.  Montalbán was still shooting Fantasy Island in 1982).

The Death of Spock. 

Roddenberry still had an office on the Paramount lot, and he was 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. 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.

In the years since the original series ended. Kirk and Spock had taken their place as one of the all-time great fictional bromances.  It was up there with Frodo and Samwise, Holmes and Watson, Lone Ranger and Tanto.  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 Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan the best of the Star Trek movies.  When the enraged Spock fans saw it, they went, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it could be like that.

The funeral provides a denouement demonstrating that life will move on in the face of death whether you want it to or not so you should accept it as a gift. Kirk’s son coming to grips with his relationship to his father gave him the family relationship he needed to move on to next phase of his life. The implied resumption is his relationship with Carol Marcus while watching a sunrise on a new world showed that Kirk had succeeded at moving forward with his life.

This ended the best of the Star Trek movies.

And now we reach the big question:

Does it hold up?

Without question, it does. It was a film that knew what it was trying to be and what it had to be. The characters were all established and the actors were well-seasoned and knew each other’s shorthand. The action story and the character driven story complimented each other perfectly. This is the Star Trek movie that people who don’t like Star Trek admit is great cinema.

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 have ended the original Star Trek universe.

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