Fortunately there was no Star Trek movie this past summer. J.J. Abrams was too busy throwing lens flares on Star Wars characters. Part of me still thinks the fit will work out, given that Abrams’ two rounds with the inhabitants of the Starship Enterprise were attempts to bring Star Wars’ shoot-em-up immediacy to the stalwart science fiction franchise.
Meanwhile, Roberto Orci, a dyed-in-the-red-uniform fan of Trek is proposed to be the heir of Paramount’s space-borne cash cow. Yet all this will come to naught — NAUGHT, I say — because nothing will ever top the majesty of the second Trek film, The Wrath Of Khan. In the past ten years it has become fashionable to trash the movie, but the arguments for it will always stand taller than those against it. Leaving aside the very real probability that, without Khan‘s becoming a huge story of redemption for all involved, the series would finally have died a thorough death, there are other reasons why the flick endures. Here are just five of them.
5. Smart Women Caught In The Act Of Being Smart – In the movie, we find Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) is working on the Genesis Project with her son because she is a scientist and believes in the potential of science. She is not building this because she is trying to prove something to Admiral James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner), the baby-daddy. For all of the praise lavished upon the series in its time as a cult phenomenon, the one thing that seldom is brought up is just how awful women are treated in the pre-TWOK canon. White, brown, green, hot pink, it don’t mean a thing. They’re all on deck for being boarded by Kirk, aren’t they? Some of that tendency was changed by the first movie, but the character of “Ilia” was a bit of a cypher, propped up to become victim/conduit of V’Ger, the Voyager satellite who had become much more on it’s trip back home.
Marcus was, at one point, another to fall for Kirk’s charms, but being apart from him seemed to do her much good. That’s probably the subtitle for the whole series, isn’t it? If you stay in too close a proximity to Kirk, you’re bound to get screwed. Sorry, but it’s true and you know it.
Contrast that with the revisionist version of the Khan story in Star Trek: Into Darkness where the character of Carol Marcus is played by the admittedly gorgeous Alice Eve. Yet she is never given a chance to be as strong or as smart as the character seems to require. She gets a few moments of being techno-proficient, and before you know it, the clothes are teleported as if by magic. Nobody who knew of this character via The Wrath Of Khan would buy into the idea that, even at their horniest, she’d give Kirk a peek so soon. Score one for the “antique” version over the slick, modern version.
4. ILM – Speaking of slick, the effects in Khan while looking perhaps a little dated now were positively mindblowing in its time. Depending on how much budget each film had, the quality of the effects would rise and fall considerably between installments. The original film’s effects weren’t that bad either, mind you, but the filmmakers’ visions clearly weren’t matched by the output. It was a spectacle for 1979, but perhaps only for 1979.
Khan’s effects presented space as a colorful, cotton-candy world of pulsating nebula, sleek starcraft and grungy starcraft alike, and even when the scenes aren’t 100% credible, suspension-of-disbelief has no difficulty in pulling you through. That is thanks to George Lucas’ effects house Industrial Light & Magic jumping in to give the effort a more visceral, dynamic feel. It also is because writer/director Nicholas Meyer was aiming for a more action-driven story rather than a stately ooh-and-ahh peep at space and travel. He would take a lot of guff for breaking with creator Gene Roddenberry’s strict ideas, and he would suffer some fan wrath of his own, but in most of these decisions he was proven right.
3. Connection To The Source – And yet, one of the most right decisions was to be utterly beholden to the show and to bring back one of its biggest baddies. When a property jumps from the TV to the big screen, most often it is as a reboot or remake. Rarely do actors of one transfer to the other, and even less often are anything but the barest of threads carried over. Therefore, you have the crew of the Enterprise, played by the original actors, be-bopping out in space, and that should be it. Let’s forget the rest of the show ever existed and move on.
The brilliance of Khan is that you probably don’t need to know about the episode that spawned it, “Space Seed,” but there is a connection to this wider story arc that pulls it all together. This is the kind of universe-building that the Marvel movies are attempting to do, not so much in the comic books but between Marvel’s in-house films. It should be noted that they fail when it comes to honoring the legacy of the books and movies that came before, but that the TV shows based on Marvel properties previous to this newest wave weren’t hotcakes anyway, so nuts to that (sorry, Bill Bixby apologists). With these connections forged, fans of the TV show felt the movies actually meant something to them. Those experiencing the movies for the first time were compelled to regard the show as more than just raw material.
And the choice of who should be the bad guy in this film is inspired on many levels. It could have been Harry Mudd. It could have been the mirror-world Trek crew. But in a true sense it had to be Khan.
2. Ricardo Freaking Montalban – Khan Noonien Singh is “possibly a Sikh,” as interpreted by a character in “Space Seed” and there should be no reason why the Mexican born Ricardo Montalban would work in the role other than, for 1960s TV he was exotic, Khan was exotic, and shut up it is close enough. That they kept Montalban for the film when they could have cast someone else of actual Indian descent (could you imagine a Sexy Beast performance from Ben Kingsley as Khan?) shows how committed to the bit the filmmakers were. That was enough. Didn’t have to explain why Khan exhibited so much of the tendencies of a South American or Spaniard. Khan was the empty room and Montalban filled that room from corner to corner, and more than occasionally gnawed on the furniture, but that’s part of the fun. He is a Shakespearean-sized enemy. He doesn’t have the capacity for restraint. He like his pecs big and his explosions bigger, and director Meyer said in the film’s audio commentary that’s all Montalban. No prosthetics. With that in mind, even though it was clear Khan was advancing in age, he still looked threatening, imposing, and very dangerous.
In other words, no one was better at Khan than Montalban because Khan was Montalban. It is almost unfair that Benedict Cumberbatch had to assume the role in Into Darkness because, as fine an actor as he is, he isn’t Ricardo freaking Montalban.
1. Going For It – “If Spock dies, you die,” is one of the threats that was aimed at writer-director Nicholas Meyer when word leaked that ST2‘s primary plot hinged on the death of beloved pointy-eared Vulcan, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). It is somehow gratifying to know that violence-threatening nerds were as present and wildly out-of-touch with priorities in the ’80s as they are now. Even more, in the face of death threats, Meyer continued on, even tacking a mock-Spock-death onto the front of the film as either a red herring or as an act of mockery. You can choose the motivation you prefer.
Movies of all kinds have an irritating tendency to kill off characters in the final act, only they’re not dead, and tears turn to joy. It is a manipulation that has gone from being effective to being insulting to the audience. In the grand scheme of things, Spock’s demise is one of these, but for this film there would be not last-second pop-ups with the laughing “victim” pointing and shouting, “Fooled you, I’m alive!” (Disney pulls this stunt with criminal regularity.) In that moment, things were very real and deeply emotional, wringing out performances from William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy few would have considered possible.
Hyperventilating Trekkers weren’t the only obstacles Meyer scaled. From its earliest conception, creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned a sort of H.G. Wellesian future where humanity got smarter, stronger, and more in control of the tendencies of empire. For the 1960’s, having a spaceship flying around discovering and observing, and they flying away with great big aloha smiles and waving made a kind of sense to the Flower Power Generation. By the ’80s, the handwriting was on the wall. If you have massive technology and you are an explorer, you are not passively moving through town. You are building alliances, you are exhibiting might, and your intentions albeit good are also intimidating. Roddenberry berated the sort of “gunboat diplomacy” Meyer was moving toward.
And far be it for me to disagree with the author on his own work, but Roddenberry was out of his times by the era of Wrath Of Khan. The Enterprise is a ship, and the crew is military. This change was occurring right under Roddenberry’s nose during the course of the original series, as he had placed a rebel that defied authority in charge of this peaceful, exploratory mission. How is that not some harbinger of what was coming? Meyer didn’t make that part up, but he certainly picked up on it, and brought that plot thread to its logical conclusion.
Man is never going to be peaceful by nature. He is always going to have to struggle to live up to egalitarian goals, to reckon the needs of the many over those of the few, or the one. By denying that essential conflict, in a few episodes of the TV show, the expedition’s intentions were reduced to that of hippies on a road trip, freaking out the stiffs. The Wrath Of Khan had the guts to go for it and say, no, this is how we really are. We can strive to be more, but it won’t come naturally and it won’t be easy.