With the most recent Star Trek movie coming to video November 17, I felt it would be fitting to revisit what most people (myself included) think is the best of all the Trek films, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. If you’re curious about what I think of J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the franchise, check out the episode of my podcast in which me and my cohost, Lisa Soloway, review the new Trek and compare it to The Wrath of Khan. In short, I thought the new film was a lot of fun and incredibly well cast, but I was seriously weirded out by the whole “alternate timeline” plot, and ultimately felt it was a weak concept upon which to reboot the series. While I do understand why the filmmakers made that choice, I still feel like it was a cheat from a writing standpoint. But what the hell, the movie is undeniably a fun ride, and I admit I’m just nitpicking because I love Star Trek so much.
In a sense, Star Trek II was itself a reboot of the franchise, as many people didn’t like its predecessor, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (personally, I’ve always loved it, as stated in a previous column). It’s interesting to note that director Nicholas Meyer, like J.J. Abrams, didn’t come on board as a fan of Star Trek — he’d reportedly never even seen a single episode of the 1960s TV series. Up to that point Meyer was best known for writing and directing the excellent Time After Time (1979) and writing both the novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and the screenplay for the 1976 film adaptation.
The running joke for many years among Star Trek fans was that only the even-numbered movies were good. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Meyer worked on all of them (the ones featuring the original TV series’ cast, that is — the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast starred in four films of their own from 1994 to 2002): Star Trek II as director and uncredited cowriter, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) as cowriter, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) as director and cowriter.
One thing Meyer insisted on for Star Trek II was putting more of an emphasis on the military aspect of Starfleet, with the crew uniforms of Star Trek: The Motion Picture redesigned for a more naval look. Another strong Meyer influence was the notion that people will still be reading classic literature in the 23rd century: in addition to Khan (Ricardo Montalban) quoting from Melville’s Moby Dick, we see Kirk (William Shatner) reading A Tale of Two Cities (a birthday gift from Spock) — with reading glasses, no less (a birthday gift from McCoy). In Star Trek VI even the Klingons can quote Hamlet — in their own language, in fact.
The bottom line is that Star Trek II is great science fiction, which is of course what us Star Trek geeks crave above all else. Project Genesis, a powerful terraforming device that’s able to create life where it previously didn’t exist — after a massive explosion, however — is great stuff. It also makes for some terrific banter between Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and McCoy (DeForest Kelley), like when the latter passionately wonders, “What if this thing were used where life already exists?” To which Spock matter-of-factly replies, “It would destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.” The ongoing ethical debate on Project Genesis and how it could be perverted as a terrible weapon is, as Spock would say, “fascinating.”
Another major reason for the film’s success is Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh, a highly intelligent, formidable Star Trek villain who quotes from Moby Dick right to the very end (“To the last I will grapple with thee”). Khan first appeared in the 1967 Star Trek episode “Space Seed,” where he was ultimately exiled — by Kirk — to the planet Ceti Alpha V after he and several of his followers tried to take over the Enterprise.
The cat-and-mouse game between Kirk and Khan is one of the most entertaining aspects of Star Trek II. In one sequence Khan has commandeered the Starfleet vessel Reliant for his first attack on the Enterprise, but Kirk and Spock use the Reliant’s prefix codes to take control of the ship’s command console, as seen in the clip below:
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In the excellent Mutara Nebula sequence, Meyer resists the temptation for a fast-paced Star Wars-type space battle and instead presents a more methodical Navy-like skirmish (in keeping with the spirit of the TV series), right down to Kirk and Spock using submarine tactics to defeat Khan.
The death of Spock (oops, sorry for the spoiler) was devastating for me when I first saw the film, even though I’d been given some hints that it was coming. A brilliant little moment of humor is injected when Spock staggers to his feet and takes a moment to straighten his uniform; in fact it’s choreographed so perfectly by Nimoy that for a split second I thought rumors of Spock’s death had been greatly exaggerated. But after a couple lines of dialogue and that incredible shot where you see Spock reflected in the glass over Kirk’s face, it became clear he really was going to die. And even though Star Trek II offered the slightest hint of hope at the end, with the tiniest possibility of Spock coming back, to this day I can’t watch his death scene and Kirk’s ensuing eulogy without tearing up, despite the knowledge that Spock returned from the dead in the next sequel (oops, sorry for the spoiler).
What can I say, except that I’m a geek. Now excuse me while I put the odd-numbered Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) into the Blu-ray player.