No-one is doubting that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a great film, but in the years that have passed since its release in 1982 it has become weighed down by its place in popular culture and its status as part of the Star Trek universe. It’s so widely parodied in shows like The Simpsons and poorly homaged in Star Trek: Into Darkness that it’s easy to forget that, as well as being probably the best of the 13 big screen Star Trek films, it’s also a damn fine piece of cinematic science fiction. It’s no exaggeration to say that it saved the Star Trek film franchise after the mixed reception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and it was the continued success of the film series that gave Paramount the confidence to back Star Trek: The Next Generation. The rest is history.
It was clear from the start that Gene Roddenberry had big plans for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He wanted it to be an awe-inspiring masterpiece in the style of 2001: A Space Odyssey, casting off the TV limitations of the Original Series and blossoming into an epic visual poem of ideas and possibilities. The clues are all there: the original tag-line for the film was ‘A 23rd Century Odyssey’ and the scene of the machine Ilea punching her way through a steel door is a direct homage to Solaris. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a better film than it is given credit for, but for all its grand ambition, it fundamentally fails in its intent to change the face of science fiction cinema. What it proves is that Star Trek doesn’t really fit into that mould and to try and cram it in is to create something that works less well than it should.
Enter Harve Bennett, former TV producer of series like The Six Million Dollar Man; an unlikely saviour for the Star Trek franchise, but Bennett knew that the stately pace of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was never going to cut it on the big screen. He also accepted that it was foolishness to brush aside Star Trek’s past and came up with the idea of introducing a villain from the TV series. If Star Trek II were being made today, a boardroom full of studio execs would be tearing their hair out over whether any potential audience would remember the character of Khan, who appeared only once in the Original Series episode Space Seed. But ultimately, it didn’t matter whether you remembered him or not – the film told you that he was a character from Kirk’s past and that was enough. I was 12 when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hit UK cinemas and I’d seen every episode of Star Trek on the BBC several times, but I couldn’t pin down Khan when I first heard about the sequel. Did this prevent me from understanding or enjoying the film? Of course not; we are not simpletons to be spoon-fed information, our minds are fully capable of filling in the gaps.
Bennett hired Nicholas Meyer, writer and director of Time After Time, to direct and together they created the most authentic portrayal of Starfleet to date. What they present on the screen is completely convincing as a peace-time military organisation, from the uniforms to the running of the Enterprise to the forms of address, in a way that the lounge suits and comfy chairs of Star Trek: The Motion Picture never could. Roddenberry’s Utopian ideals were very laudable, but they were dramatic suicide; a problem which would later return to dog the early episodes of The Next Generation. Star Trek is ultimately an adventure series and to fuel an adventure you need conflict. Captain Kirk’s Holmes never really had a Moriarty, so Bennett and Meyer essentially created one, elevating Khan from one-off villain of the week to Kirk’s nemesis.
Presenting the main characters, in particular Kirk, Spock and Khan, as if to be understood by someone who had never seen Star Trek before in their life proves to be the film’s masterstroke. It is the perfect amalgam of the show’s history and the presentation of it as though it were mere back story that allows Wrath of Khan to stand on its own two feet. Everything that you need to know about Kirk and Khan’s history is given to you in the script; you can approach it blind to the TV series and still understand that Kirk is an ageing ship’s Captain eager to get back in command of a vessel and Khan is an embittered adversary from his past. Die-hard fans of Star Trek may argue that a knowledge of the series is essential, but it is not. Does The Hunt for Red October fail because we don’t have a detailed assessment of Captain Ramius’ history with the Soviet Navy? Of course not.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan takes two powerful science fiction concepts – genetic engineering and terraforming – and presents them within the context of what is essentially a military thriller. It eschews a lot of the conventions of big screen science fiction; for example, Kirk and Khan never meet in person, they have a couple of heated conversations over the communicator but they never physically interact. Their conflict is predominantly a tactical one; sure, there are phasers and photon torpedoes, but in the main it’s a battle of wits. Each of the protagonists knows the weaknesses of their enemy and uses them against him. Khan knows that Kirk will always respond to those in peril and uses that to draw him to Regula One, whereas Kirk knows that the sure-fire way to provoke a reaction from Khan is to question his superiority. The moment that Kirk tells Khan “I’m laughing at the superior intellect,” and Khan reacts is the pivotal moment of the narrative; from then on, you know that Khan will fail.
The death of Spock is the other big pop-culture punch of Wrath of Khan. It feeds into both of the next two films, but taken out of context it also works as a dramatic climax for the film. Many stand-alone films or books, particularly those with an ensemble cast, will see the death of one the major characters to add to the drama. The fact that we expect Star Trek to carry on after Wrath of Khan means that we never really anticipate the loss of a major character, but we shouldn’t let the film’s broader context spoil the impact of this very powerful scene. Yes, he comes back. Many times in fact, but we didn’t know that in 1982. Leonard Nimoy had grumbled for a long time about quitting Spock and if Paramount had denied him his chance to direct, he might never have come back for the third film. To take it in the context of this film alone, this might very well be the final end of Spock.
If you ask a lot of science fiction fans these days which is their favourite Star Trek film, a lot of them will avoid saying Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan because it’s become almost too much of a cliché, too much of an easy answer. But there’s a reason why this film is head and shoulders above the others in terms of popularity – because it’s damn good! And not just a good Star Trek film; a good science fiction film. The two don’t go hand in hand either; Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is a good Star Trek film, but not so hot as a science fiction film. In fact, it’s more of an adventure comedy. If science fiction is about ideas and people and speculation, then Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan should certainly be regarded as not just a damn good science fiction film, but a bloody great one!