Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
This is it! This is arguably the greatest Star Trek movie of the franchise. This is the film that turned me into a Trekkie. One of the greatest movies of my childhood, instrumental in shaping the kind of person I am today. Now I know that some people say we should use the term Trekker instead of trekkie. Well, I say, you get to choose what you’re going to call yourself, and I’m a Trekkie, and I choose to be called a Trekkie. I’ve watched every episode of the Original Series, the Next Generation, and Depp Space Nine. I’ve seen every Star Trek film multiple times, I’ve seen Start Trek II and IV over 100 times each. I can recite Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home verbatim. Yes, senior year of college, I memorized Star Trek IV. I read the expanded universe novels. I go to the Star Trek conventions. I’ve had my picture taken with cast members at Science Fiction conventions. I am a hard core fan, and I call myself a Trekkie!
Now let’s talk about the movie that turned me into a Trekkie. This film.
There are films that are so good, so consuming, and so emotionally resonant, that it is an injustice to say that I simply “watched” a movie. I lived them! Star Wars is one that comes to mind. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pulp Fiction, and Godfather are others. I experience the full depth of these worlds and at the end of the film I woke up from a narrative dream. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is one of those films.
I remember watching this movie at home in 1983 on HBO, 14 years old (somehow I missed it in the theaters) and being completely engrossed. I remember cheering with Kirk as he dismantled the U.S.S. Reliant’s shields from the Enterprise console. I remember being on the edge of my seat when the Enterprise entered the Mutara Nebula with Kahn in hot pursuit. I remember choking in disbelief when Spock sacrificed himself for his crew. I remember eagerly awaiting Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, uncertain if our beloved Vulcan would (or could) return.
Even at the age of 13, I recognized that THIS was the answer to the problem of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Whereas the last film was dry and slow, and the characters didn’t have any chemistry, this movie was all chemistry. This was the Spock, Kirk, and McCoy that I remembered and loved. And there’s something I realized NOW that I didn’t realize back then. I’ll say it… This was BETTER than the Spock, Kirk, and McCoy that I loved from the TV show. Because honestly, while I watched Star Trek: The Original Series as a kid, in retrospect, I didn’t really become a Trekkie until I saw THIS movie.
First off, right away, I liked the uniforms much better. The dark red military uniforms looked both tough and cool, they also looked futuristic, and they gave the wearer a certain officer’s dignity. It’s no wonder that this look would define the look of the Star Trek films for next 5 movies, and also define the movie era of Star Trek in the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager
I loved Kirstie Alley as Lt. Saavik when I first saw Wrath of Khan. She was sexy and intriguing as the new Vulcan, more than able to hold her own against the veteran cast. However, I developed difficulty watching her in the 1990’s. She had become so ingrained as Cheers’ hilarious Rebecca Howe and the mother in Look Who’s Talking, it was difficult to imagine her in a serious role, much less as a Vulcan. Now, almost 20 years removed from both those roles, I can appreciate her again as our logical and emotionless alien.
I also loved Richardo Montalban. I was an avid fan of Fantasy Island and I watched it every week, I remember it was on right after Love Boat (which I also watched as a kid), so I thought of Montalban as Mr. Roark, the kindly host in the white suit. I was a teen, so I hadn’t actually seen the Space Seeds episode, so it was hard to wrap my mind around the fact of Mr. Roark being a psychopath. It helped that he looked very different. However, about twenty minutes into his performance, I was hooked. He was Kahn. It is to his acting credit AND the power of this role that when you say the name Ricardo Montalban, you think Kahn first, THEN Mr. Roark, and third… of course, you think “rich Corinthian leather!”
Since then, I have seen this movie over a hundred times. It is on my short list of movies that I can watch a hundred times, and still be entertained. When I saw it this time around, I was surprised how young everyone looked. I remember thinking how old Kirk looked at the time, but now, 30 years later, compared to the overweight lovable ham he has become today, he seems young and thin and powerful here.
However, as much as I love this movie… I have to admit…. Objectively, this movie has not stood the test of time in terms of special effects. I can still watch this movie and completely enjoy it, but it’s my nostalgia that’s allowing me to. I tried to introduce this movie to my wife, and she thought it was a joke. Now keep in mind, she’s a Star Trek fan. She was a fan of the Next Generation AND loved the 2009 JJ Abrams Star trek.
After the critical and box-office disappointment of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was made on a then record budget of $46 million. Interestingly, Gene Roddenberry DID write his own sequel. In it, the Klingons use the Guardians of Forever to go back in time and corrupt the time line by preventing to assassination of John F Kennedy. The crew of the Enterprise go back in time to restore the original time line, presumable by allowing JFK to get killed. I don’t know, sounds like a movie version of the City on the Edge of Forever.
Paramount turned him down. Paramount blamed Roddenberry for going over-budget and forced out Gene Roddenberry by “kicking him upstairs” (as Shatner would later refer to it) and giving him an honorary title. They installed experienced producer Harve Bennett to take over as executive producer.
He watched Star Trek the Motion picture and thought it was really boring. There is pretty established lore regarding the meeting between Harve Bennet and the producers of Paramount, which at the time included Jeff Katzenberg and Michael Eisner. They asked Bennet if he could make a better movie than the first one. Bennet responded “yes”. Then one of the producers asked, “Can you make it for less than forty freaking dollars”. And Harve Bennet reportedly answered, ‘Where I come from, I can make five movies for that.”
Harve Bennett had never seen an episode of Star Trek. Therefore, he watched every episode back to back. He essentially binge-watched the entire Original series and became somewhat of a Star Trek expert. He became convinced that the problem with the first movie was the lack of a good villain.
Harve Bennet chose Kahn Noonian Singh form the episode “Space Seeds” to be the villain. In the original script titled “Star Trek II: The War of the Generations” captain Kirk re-assembles the Enterprise crew to investigate a rebellion on a distant planet. Kahn has taken over this planet and the rebels turn out to be led by a man named David, who turns out to be Kirk’s son. Kirk and his son join forces to overthrow Kahn, who is in possession of the Federation’s ultimate weapon…, the Omega System. You can see the hint of what would become Wrath of Kahn.
One addition Bennet made was… Harve Bennett was an old Navy man and wanted to bring a sense of military to the series. He envisioned Starfleet, not as an extension of NASA, but as an extension of the U.S. Navy. After all, Kirk was a Captain, and now an Admiral, and all the ranks were form the Navy. It was a logical choice.
Bennett’s art director Michael Minor suggested that the “Omega System” seemed to dark and screenwriter (and Trek fan) Jack Sowards suggested “The Genesis Device” which was designed to terraform planets but could be corrupted by Kahn to be a weapon. Bennett loved this and stated to Sowards “You just saved Star Trek”.
However, Harve Bennet was not entirely satisfied with the screenplay, and felt that something was missing.
He then hired Nicholas Meyer to fine-tune the screenplay. Nicholas Meyer had also never seen an episode of Star Trek. Hard to believe that since he would BECOME the Star Trek film franchise. He, too, watched all the episodes.
Whereas Harve Bennet saw the flaw in the first Star Trek to be a lack of a good villain, Meyer saw another problem. He thought that the first movie took itself way too seriously. In his own words, “Does it have to be so sanctified?” He felt that this self-importance caused the first movie to feel too wooden. He thought that the way to make a better Star Trek movie was NOT to make a Star Trek movie, but to make a movie about the human condition using the Star Trek characters and the Star Trek Universe. In his own words, he said, “The chief contribution I brought to Star Trek II was a healthy disrespect” for Star Trek.
He envisioned Star Trek II as being a swashbuckling science fiction pirate movie. He described his script as “Horatio Hornblower in outer space. He also thought that Star Trek should be about the human drama, and wanted the characters to seem flawed.
He wrote the new draft of the screenplay in 12 days for no pay and no screen credit. This is why, despite the fact that the Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn you see on screen is the version Meyer wrote, there is no mention of him in the writing credits. This impressed the producers and the actors, and he was promoted to director. He loved Harve Bennet’s idea of Starfleet being the Navy in Space. Meyers also envisioned an even MORE Navy-based look of Starfleet, and his influence can be seen in the film. Old grey uniforms from Star Trek: The Motion Picture were dyed red and retooled to look like Navy uniforms. Meyer also added MORE military protocol to the language. Gene Roddenberry objected, but his objections were ignored by Paramount. He included Navy customs, Navy protocol, and wanted the uniforms to look more military. Of course, Roddenberry hated this idea. But producers loved it. And you know who else loved it… everyone else in the world.
It was brilliant, and the look defined Star Trek for the next 5 films, and arguably the all the series thereafter.
Fans already know much of the lore surrounding the film.
How Leonard Nimoy only agreed to play Spock on the condition that his character would die. This is apparently for real. At this time, Nimoy had a troubled relationship with the character, and had a difficult relationship with Gene Roddenberry. He had just written a book called “I am NOT Spock”, and wanted to be done with the Spock. To entice him, the producers offered him a death scene. Nimoy believed Star Trek to be dead, and thought Star Trek II would be the last Star Trek movie and in his own words, “Want his character to go out in a blaze of glory.”
During filming of this film, information about Spock’s death was leaked, and Starlog magazine published a story about Spock’s death in the upcoming movie. Fans were outraged. Keep in mind, this was in the age BEFORE the internet, when there was very few movie leaks. But Starlog even published a poll, whether Paramount should kill of Spock or not.
Therefore, the directors cleverly faked his death early in the movie. In the opening Kobyoshi Maru scene to throw off viewers. Spock dies, and it turns out it was only a simulation. At one point early in the film, Kirk turns to Spock and says, “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” Very clever, and it worked. The fans thought, “Oh, this is what they meant by Spock dying.” Fans were assured, and later in the film… the death scene still had tremendous impact.
When this film premiered the first screening of this film was too sad and depressing, so the director inserted a sequence showing that Spock’s casket had soft landed on planet Genesis, giving the viewers a sense of hope. This movie completely scored at the premiere. Apparently, there was not a dry eye in the theater. This film had transcended the tiny niche of the TV series “Star Trek”, and had just become an excellent movie-going experience. Studios knew they had a success.
After the movie premiered, Leonard Nimoy, who is a fairly shrewd businessman, saw the potential of a successful franchise, and realized that THIS film was going to cause the rebirth of Star Trek. Maybe he thought he made a mistake, I don’t know. But he wanted to be on board. He met with producers with a crazy idea to direct the next film, Star Trek III.
In retrospect, we wonder why the actors, like Nimoy, did not like Star Trek or Spock. After all, didn’t the series make them millionaires? Well, not YET. Now keep in mind, after Star Trek the Original Series was off the air, and Star Trek was slowly becoming this international phenomenon, the actors really weren’t reaping any of the benefits from it. Star Trek conventions were just beginning to form as a concept, and one of the conflicts between Nimoy and Roddenberry was that Rodenberry was selling out-takes of Star Trek at these conventions, and pocketing the money. Furthermore, people were using images of Spock in advertisements without any of the money going to any of the cast. The most infamous was one where Spock, drawn as an obvious Leonard Nimoy caricature has droopy ears, but when he drinks a Heineken, his ears spring up. None of the money went to Nimoy. I can see why he’d be bitter. All of the cast at this time, were fairly hungry actors desperately trying to get work. William Shatner speaks of a time when he was living in his van while trying to go from convention to convention just to try to make a buck to support his kids. Fairly desperate times. Now Nimoy has the vision, he understands that Star Trek now has wings, and he’s going to be a multi-millionaire, and a super-celebrity. It will change his attitude about Star Trek.
For those that are interested, I recommend two books, I am Spock (1995) by Leonard Nimoy and Star Trek Memories (1993) by William Shatner. They are really good reads, and if you get the audiobook, they are both read by Nimoy and Shatner themselves. Very cool!
Another addition to the Star Trek cast was the Vulcan Lt Saavik played by Kirstie Alley. Actually, the director, Nick Meyer’s first choice to play Saavik was Kim Cattrall, of Sex and the City fame. She was unavailable to they gave it to Kirstie Alley. IN fact, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (also directed by Nick Meyer, she signed on to play Lt Saavik, in the original script, she is Lt Saavik. Kim Cattrall didn’t want to be the third actress to play a character and asked if she could be a new character. Nick Meyer agreed, and Lt Valeris was born. A small part of me wonders what the movies would be like if she, or Kirstie Alley for that matter, could have played Lt Saavik in all the movies, Star Trek II, III, IV, and VI. I think it would have been cool.
Incidentally, when Kirk and Scotty meet up, Scotty says, “I had a week bout earlier”. And McCoy tells Kirk, “Of sick leave.” I had no idea what this meant. I thought it was a throw-away line. I just found out that this is a reference to a heart attack that the Scotty actor James Doohan had a few weeks earlier. So it’s sort of an in-joke break-the-fourth wall reference.
The film was both a critical and commercial success. Made on a modest budget of $14 million, it grossed $78 million in the U.S. and $97 million worldwide. It was a critical darling, and still holds an outstanding 90% on Rotten tomatoes. It is regarded as the film that saved the Star Trek franchise.
Think of this. By 1981, there was no TV series. There was one failed movie. There were only a few fringe fans. After Star Trek II, we got a whole slew of movies, four more televisions shows, hundreds if not thousands of books, and really the birth of a marketing juggernaut. If you think about it, along with Star Wars (and now maybe…maybe in a distant third Batman), there is no other entertainment franchise as successful as Star Trek. And it began HERE… with THIS movie.
An interesting bit of trivia. Back in 1983, most VHS and Betamax movies were priced at over $80 - $100 and were marketed to video rental stores. Consumers didn’t own movies, you rented them. Paramount Studios tried a new strategy that was unconventional and considered very risky at the time. They priced the movie at $39.95 and marketed it to the individual consumer. You would BUY this movie. Very radical! It was a huge success, and Paramount sold more than twice their projected target. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan began, the now accepted practice, of selling VHS (now DVD) movies directly to the consumer.