With a myriad of Star Trek series currently in rotation and on demand via streaming services, as well as another film in the ‘Kelvin’ timeline in pre-production at the moment, it seems hard to think back to those times before Trek had become an almost ubiquitous, all-powerful franchise.
Yet things could have been so very different, were it not for a particular set of circumstances which ultimately secured its future. Although Star Trek: The Motion Picture managed to breathe new life into what was a dormant TV property, and it did great numbers at the box office, the rather hefty budget of $44 million gave Paramount Pictures pause for thought when it came to considering making a sequel, which was by no means guaranteed.
The studio clearly believed the programme’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was not the right man to take things forward and ensure its long-term success on the big screen. Given the fact that his proposed story for a possible follow-up to The Motion Picture – which saw the Enterprise crew going back in time to ensure Klingons failed to corrupt the timeline with their plan to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy – was rejected by execs, he was unceremoniously shunted off to a powerless ‘executive consultant’ position.
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With Roddenberry out of the picture, it fell to a new creative team to try and put together a second Star Trek movie, but there were some initial teething troubles, with a number of scripts from different writers being put forward, yet none of them really being that suitable. Producer Harve Bennett had watched all of the original 79 episodes, and he believed the character of Khan (Ricardo Montalban) – from ‘Space Seed’ (1967) – was ripe for revisiting.
As the film had already been booked in by the studio for a June 1982 release in the domestic American market, time was running out to get the sequel into production. Enter one Nicholas Meyer, a novice director with only one credit under his belt – 1979’s Time After Time, which he also wrote. He took the parts that he liked from all the previous scripts, and managed to blend them all together, turning in a screenplay in only twelve days for what he was planning to call ‘The Undiscovered Country’.
Ironically, Meyer – who had never even seen a single episode of Star Trek before taking on the challenge of writing as well as directing this follow-up – managed to not only deliver us what is widely regarded to be perhaps the very best entry in the run of feature films in the franchise, but has also ended up broadening the horizons of what Trek could be, as well as effectively defining the shape of Trek right up to the present day. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan has certainly cast a long and enduring shadow, in the best possible ways.
The Motion Picture was a case of the ‘putting the band back together’ story, reuniting the cast and characters for the first time since 1969. At the climax, it seemed that they would be boldly going on to many more adventures. Meyer, however, gave us a time jump, using the opportunity to show us some progression. In the original TV series, everything was neatly wrapped up within 50 minutes, with a big reset button being effectively pressed at the end of every instalment, and never much in the way of personal development.
With all 79 episodes having been stuck in a perpetual rerun loop on US television since the end of the 1960s, age had not wearied the crew of the USS Enterprise on the small screen. For Meyer, he saw this as an opportunity to allow them to not only age, but also to address issues of mortality and loss. The James T. Kirk who we see here no longer has the vitality and cockiness evidenced in his time as ship’s Captain during the five-year mission: here, Kirk is experiencing a midlife crisis, stuck behind a desk at Starfleet Command, and in danger of becoming part of his collection of antiques.
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In the original script, Kirk’s age was given as 49, although it was not actually mentioned on screen, at William Shatner’s insistence. It allowed Kirk time for reflection, as well as some vulnerability, as he reluctantly accepts he needs the vintage spectacles Dr. McCoy gave him as a birthday present. Having cheated at Starfleet Academy’s Kobayashi Maru simulator test as a cadet, and come to believe there was no such thing as a ‘no-win scenario’, Kirk had to confront that possibility for the first time, as well as have to face the consequences of choices he made decades earlier.
One of these was coming face-to-face with the son who he had never known, Dr. David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), after having split with the boy’s mother – Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) – some time previously. Seeing a notorious lothario like Kirk having offspring feels a little like chickens coming home to roost, as well as making him confront his lifestyle choices from when he was a young man, and recognise his responsibilities. The Kirk we see at the end of the movie is a changed man from the one we encounter at the beginning of The Wrath Of Khan.
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At the beginning of the film, Kirk proclaims that “galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young”, and we have the first acknowledgment that the original Enterprise crew will not be able to continue forever, opening up the possibility of there being future generations to take over. Whereas The Motion Picture was about re-establishing the status quo, The Wrath Of Khan feels very much as though it was written as the end of an era. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is a Captain in his own right, and he has a young half-Vulcan, half-Romulan protege in Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley).
The Enterprise is being used as a training vessel for cadets at the Academy, and the ship’s established crew have started to go their separate ways. Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) is first officer on the USS Reliant when the movie begins, and – in a deleted piece of dialogue – Sulu (George Takei) was about to become Captain of the USS Excelsior. Although we now know there were many more sequels with the original series crew, at the time it would have been an ideal ending to their story, had the studio made the decision not to greenlight any more Star Trek movies.
Whereas the threat in The Motion Picture was rather more on the existential side, here it was brutal, direct and visceral, in the shape of the bitter and vengeful Khan Noonien Singh, the genetically-enhanced superhuman who blamed Kirk for the death of his beloved wife. Montalban at points turns in a big performance, but one which was still pitched perfectly against a mostly-restrained Shatner, with both having their standout moments of leaving no scenery unchewed, yet still managing to be credible and believable.
Not only did Montalban’s Khan arguably set the benchmark for Star Trek villains, The Wrath Of Khan has also provided something of a template for future movies in the series. The one which most closely follows this is Star Trek: Nemesis, in which the Enterprise is threatened with destruction from a doomsday device which is counting down to detonation, and ends up with the self-sacrifice of one of the crew. Star Trek Into Darkness even goes as far as introducing an alternative version of Khan, and it directly inverts some moments from The Wrath Of Khan, although to much less effect, and at risk of tainting the original source material.
The legacy of The Wrath Of Khan can be seen in things like Star Trek: Picard, which has shown us older versions of The Next Generation crew, as well as throwing in an Easter egg of a folder marked with ‘Project Khan’ in the Season 2 finale. Nicholas Meyer has talked about the possibility of making a Khan prequel mini-series for Paramount+, and in the latest entry to the canon – prequel show Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – one of the Enterprise’s crew under Captain Pike is named La’an Noonien-Singh, which indicates a connection of some kind to Khan, but has yet to be explored.
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Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan helped give rise to the cliche – arguably now disproven, due to the ‘Kelvin’ reboot series – of the even-numbered Star Trek films being the good ones. It certainly has one of the most enduring footprints out of all the films in popular culture, from Shatner’s oft-imitated cry of Khan’s name in things like The Big Bang Theory, to a 2019 newspaper headline using the movie’s title in reference to London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
After four decades, the popularity of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan shows no signs of abating, and the film would seem to have aged somewhat better than the vintage Romulan Ale used to toast Kirk’s birthday. As Spock says upon presenting Kirk with a copy of A Tale Of Two Cities as a gift, in an epithet which befits the movie: “Surely, the best of times”.
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan was released in the UK on 16th July 1982.