Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is considered by many fans to be the best of the franchise’s cinematic efforts. As a matter of personal taste, I respectfully disagree, but am not will to argue the point too harshly. It is a great movie period, not just within Trek or science fiction in general. I am going to give it due praise, so do not start tossing stones yet for my heresy.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a financial success, but a critical failure. the general assumption is TWoK was greenlit as a way of cheaply milking the franchise before the public’s interest waned. Paramount decide to get rid of the biggest problem from the first film--Gene Roddenberry--and put up a minimal amount of financing in order to do so.
Roddenberry was reduced to cashing the checks when Paramount brought in Harve Bennett to executive produce the film. Bennett’s previous experience had been on television, but that was a plus here. Bennett watched every episode of the original series, took all the elements from them fans liked, and crafted the overall theme. The idea of Starfleet wearing identical military uniforms and starship battles mirroring submarine warfare was his doing, although they were the first of many changes Roddenberry, with his peacenik sensibilities, did not like. Bennett also selected Khan, the antithesis of Kirk, as the villain.
But the best move Bennett made was to hire Nicholas Meyer to write the script. I will concede it is the most literate and well crafted of the franchise. I will get more into the contrasting story themes and literarily allusions as I dissect the film below.
As I said, Paramount granted a miniscule budget in order to pump TWoK out--a laughably absurd $ 11 million or about the same amount of money it would take to get Sandra Bullock these days. Even then, it was a paltry sum, but fortunately for paramount, the movie made back its entire budget in the first weekend and went on to be a big hit during a year crowded with blockbusters.
The only real problem was getting Leonard Nimoy back. Nimoy had sued Paramount in the ’70’s and his presence in TMP was a way to settle the suit. He did not want to come back for any sequels because he believed they would be of declining quality. Considering the small budget and general make a quick buck feel, who could blame him? But he was lured back by Bennett with the prospect of a heroic death scene for Spock. Nimoy could not resist. It was a way for him to have closure for his character while allowing the franchise to continue without him.
The problem is word leaked out Spock was going to die. The general assumption is an angry Roddenberry leaked the news himself--he would go one to do that with some TNG elements, too--hoping fan anger could generate change. It did, butit only altered spock’s death to a more meaningful part of the movie.
Not that fan emotions were not played. The first sequence of the film is young officers being guided by Spock through the Kubayashi maru--the no win situation. The bridge crew is killed by attacking Klingons, including Spock, before it is revealed to be a training scenario. Kirk enters the simulation to both lament that the young officers had not handled certain death well because of their inexperienced youth and that traveling through space is a job forth young.
Hence we have the first of two themes running through the film--aging. The characters’ aging is not swept under the rug as it will be in several other sequels. In fact, it is embraced theatergoing old and facing the infirmities that come along with it. It is Kirk’s fiftieth birthday and he is feeling it. McCoy brings up the one continued theme from TMP--that Kirk has a need to captain the Enterprise to keep himself from fading away. In TMP, he forced his way in. here, he denies himself because he is just to freaking old to go gallivanting around the galaxy anymore.
Aging is the first running theme. The second is introduced shortly after we meet the crew of the Reliant. The ship is on a survey mission to find an inhospitable world to use Genesis, a device which can terraform a dead planet into an inhabitable in just a few minutes. They discover a planet suitable, save for a structure on the surface. As is the Starfleet custom, the captain and first officer beam down to investigate, because you definitely want to risk your senior officers on such a mission. To get us emotionally involved, the first officer is Chekov. He is under the command of Terrall, played by Paul Winfield.
They enter the structure and quickly discover it is a makeshift home. Chekov discovers abely with the words Botany Bay and suddenly realizes where he is. The two beat a hasty retreat, but are captured by Khan and hismen.
I have to mention the gross continuity error here. Chekov knows all about Khan andKhan recognizes him in spite of the fact Chekov wasnot on the series in the episode featuring khan. Fans rationalize Chekov must have been a low ranking officer who had not joined the bridge crew yet I will go along with that.
Khan explains the hell heand his men have faced. A nearby planet exploded yearsago, rendering his world nearly uninhabitable. An alien parasite killed hiswife sometime ago, as well. He blames all his calamities on Kirk, who has consumed all his thoughts.
Here we have the second running theme--revenge. A lot of hay is made over TWoK paralleling Moby Dick, but I think that is exaggerated. For onething, only the last quarter of the novel is about revenge. The first three-fourths is about the business of whaling, whale anatomy, and, if you buy into modern literary thought, a thinly veiled homosexual allegory between Ahab and Queequeg. Yes, Ahab is considered the archetype of the revenge obsessed man. Pretty much any modern story featuring revenge will have theme established by his behavior. But the allusions are brought up by khan himself. He sees himself as Ahab and Kirk as the great white whale.
The movie actually follows Paradise Lost more closely. Kirk strands Khan to hell--which implies Kirk is God, sp please no William Shatner ego jokes-- and Khan is Lucifer. Khan use the alien parasite that killed his wife to control Terrel and Chekov to find out all about Genesis. Note Paradise Lost is about the Biblical story of Genesis and how it Creation was corrupted by Lucifer.
Khan forces Chekov to help him steal Genesis under “orders” from Kirk. The scientists--Carol and David Marcus among them--contact the real Kirk to get to the bottom of things. Obviously, he did not take Genesis, so Kirk wants to head to the research station and find out what is going on. He takes command from Spock, who justifies it with the line, ’The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.’ That phrase will come back later.
At the station, the Enterprise is attacked by the Reliant at a point in which our two running themes converge. Khan is not satisfied with simply escaping from his exile and stealing Genesis, both of which make him an extremely dangerous man. He needs for Kirk to know he has had his revenge. Likewise, Kirk has gone in by the seat of his pants, recklessly getting his ship severely attacked and a number of his crew killed. Both men’s flaws have cost them dearly.
I need to mention the awkwardness of the next scene. The Enterprise is crippled, but the Reliant is damaged enough that Khan needs to getaway or risk being destroyed, in a counter attack. Khan’s fleeing gives Kirk a chance to review the casualties. The emphasis is on Scotty’s nephew, who is fatally wounded with radiation burns. He is essentially a red shirt, but much time is devoted to his death. It is likely Spock was supposed to die here originally. Note that Spock is on screen a grand total of four minutes before his climatic sacrifice.
Thinking Khan is gone, Kirk and an away team beam down to the research station. They find everyone dead except Carol and David. Genesis has been stolen. He does not realize Khan is listening in to everything. He taunts Kirk that has destroyed the Enterprise, stranding him there as he had been stranded. Khan’s plan elicit’s the most famous line in all of Trek.
Contrast the famous “Kaaaannnn!!” with Kirk’s next reaction. Shatner is often blasted for being a ham actor--deservedly so--but he does not always get the credit he deserves when he does it right. Kirk sits dejected and pours his heart out to Carol in barely more than a whisper. All the things he has done in the last few hours have been wrong. He has lost hisship, killed a number of his crew, been beaten by an enemy he had long since forgotten, and now his estrangement with his son brought back to slap him in the face. He is too old to captain a starship. It isa very effective moment which makes the often heroic Kirk look small.
Nevertheless, the Enterprise is repaired, and rescues Kirk before Khan can destroy it. They go off in pursuit. It is an exciting, stalking naval battle between two severely damaged ships. Kirk gains the advantage because khan is thinking two dimensionally. It is a problem that occurred quite often a television trek. Ships often met face to face, but they could travel in all dimensions: up, under, etc. The Enterprise sneaks under and then behind the Reliant to score a direct hit, killing everyone but Khan. The Enterprise is crippled in the attack, so Khan decides to blow up Genesis in a suicide move that will take Kirk with him.
This is when Spock sacrifices himself to save the ship. By doing one thing or another to the war core, the ship can move safely away before Genesis explodes, destroying the Reliant, but creating a new planet in its wake. Kirk rushes to engineering to see Spock, but he cannot rescue him because of the radiation. They talk aboit the unsinkable scenario and that spock sacrificed himself because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.
Spock is given a memorable funeral send off. So good, you do not think about his family not being there, which isa point that will come up in the next film.
This film was supposed to end on the downer note of Spock’s death because the story was a Greek tragedy. But Nimoy started having second thoughts during filming. The idea that Spock implanted his essence in McCoy and the scenes with the coffin on the Genesis planet were added asa way to bring Spock back. For better or worse, that was the plot of the next film.
Do not get me wrong. I like TWoK. I just do not think it is the standard by which all other trek films should be measured. There is a habit even now of comparing all subsequent films to it. The film should stand on its own and it does so well. But it is not complete. We have not fully settled the matter of Kirk’s need to captain the Enterprise or regain his sense of self. He has not really dealt with his relationship with David. There are still strings left to be tied and they will not all be tied cleanly. So as far as the big picture is concerned, some things will be lacking. The film takes a hot as far as I am concerned because of it. But not much of one.
Rating: **** (out of 5)