It was the best of times…
June 4th, 1982 was the North American premiere date of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (TWOK); and I still remember eagerly missing a day of school in anticipation of the sequel to 1979’s “The Motion Picture” (TMP). This was from a kid who only a year earlier made the ‘Perfect Attendance Club’ in 8th grade (damn you, Star Trek! Sending me on a path of juvenile delinquency... hehe). TMP, while a personal favorite of mine, was not terribly well-received critically. The arguments against it were that it was slow, plodding, put too much emphasis on visual FX, and (most importantly) it lacked the character and repartee that marked the best episodes of the Star Trek TV series. Despite my love of TMP, I freely acknowledge that these were all valid arguments that are hard to refute.
TWOK would change all of that.
***** STARSHIP-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD! *****
I remember my mother reluctantly taking my Trekkie-sister and I to the 2-screen theater at the ass end of nowhere (somewhere in an asphalt-laden niche of San Bernardino; the theater has long since been demolished). And we got there about 25 or so minutes before the first screening of the day had ended, so we bought our tickets and quietly (shhh!) entered the theater early. As Kirk said in “The Search For Spock” two years later: “The word is ‘no’, I am therefore going anyway…” (hehe)
We had to answer the question that had been on every Trekkie’s mind that year… was Spock REALLY going to die? The rumors were mixed.
I remember a phone-in poll conducted on NBC’s “Entertainment Tonight”, asking fans if they thought Spock should die or not. Not surprisingly, the responses were overwhelmingly in favor of Spock surviving Khan’s wrath (TWOK was formerly titled “The Vengeance of Khan” but it got a last minute name change to avoid confusion with Lucas’ forthcoming Star Wars sequel “Revenge of the Jedi”… also retitled “Return of the Jedi” and released a year later).
Anyway, we snuck in on the last 25 or so minutes of the movie, and it was clear this Star Trek movie was notably different from TMP in just about every way.
The bridge of the USS Enterprise was, more or less, the same set seen in TMP but filled with a lot more blinking lights and activity. There were also ‘NO SMOKING’ signs and fire extinguishers (WTF!?). These were little things we’d never seen on the starship before. They also made that futuristic control center seem, for better and worse, a bit more… 20th century.
The crew’s new uniforms, wine-colored jackets and quilted turtleneck collared undershirts, looked a lot more… costume-y as well. Almost like something one would wear in a futuristic U-boat. Handsome, yes, but I hadn’t fully warmed up to them just yet…
The scene we walked in on had the Enterprise entering the “Mutara nebula” to do battle with Khan aboard his commandeered USS Reliant (an odd-duck of a vessel; it looked like the Enterprise if she were built during tight Starfleet budget cuts…).
We also get glimpses of what appear to be crewmen manually pulling up grates to load torpedoes into chutes. Granted, it’s a bit of action that looked really cool onscreen, but a part of me wondered ‘what the hell is going on here?’ On the TV show, they used to just push buttons to fire torpedoes. That was it. So the sight of young spacefaring sailors pulling up grates and loading weaponry into chutes reminded me more of the kind of action you’d see in a World War 2 naval flick.
The whole vibe of TWOK seemed very military, almost disturbingly so (especially when you walk in on the middle of it, as we did) but it was also curiously anachronistic. Yes, it was recognizably Star Trek, but with an odd, almost steampunk feel to it at times. TWOK’s version of the 23rd century saw a much more manual starship Enterprise compared to the sleeker “Hilton-in-Space” I remembered from TMP.
Anyway, moving on…
The battle between Enterprise and Reliant is underway. The colors within the Mutara nebula are a gorgeous, swirling, murky mix of blues, reds and purples. Flashes of energy are reminiscent of a stormy sea. The scene brings to mind a naval destroyer and submarine playing cat-and-mouse on a stormy ocean at night. At the climax of the battle, Kirk’s Enterprise sneaks up behind Khan’s Reliant and proceeds to blows the hell out of it.
Ricardo Montalban’s Khan looking like (as a film critic of the time said) “a deranged Bea Arthur” (that one still cracks me up) appears to be badly injured and in a final act of ‘F–k You’ to Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise? He arms ‘the Genesis device’ (mind you, we walked in near the end of the movie, so we had no idea exactly what the Genesis device did, but I knew it wouldn’t be a good thing…).
With the Genesis device armed, the crippled Enterprise won’t clear the pending detonation in time. So, Mr. Spock quietly exits the bridge (like Clark Kent searching for a phone booth), makes his way to the radiation-leaking engine room, nimbly subdues an intervening Dr. McCoy, fixes the ship and saves the day…. but the radiation overwhelms and kills him (!). The question was answered: Spock really does die in the movie after all! The question of Spock’s death in the summer of ’82 was the cinematic equivalent of TV’s “Who Shot J.R.?” We’d just spoiled the rest of the movie for ourselves in that moment, but we’d also scratched a nagging itch. Now it was time to enjoy the rest of the movie, before it started over (sneaky of us, I know…).
We saw the dying Spock stand up, straighten his jacket (which got a nervous chuckle from the audience), and say his final poignant farewells to Kirk from behind radiation-proof glass. This scene brought the house down. So help me, I still get a teensy bit misty-eyed watching this scene even 35 years later (and through all the various media on which I’ve owned it; VHS, CED videodisc, laserdisc, DVD and now blu ray…).
After Spock’s heartbreaking death scene, a part of me was hoping there wouldn’t be any kind of Star Trek-style, last minute resurrection (as we saw with Scotty in “The Changeling” or Chekov in “Spectre of the Gun”). Such a cheat would’ve completely undermined Spock’s sacrifice, and arguably, ruin the movie. So while I didn’t relish seeing my favorite character in all of television dying in front of my eyes, his death was perfectly played. Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner deliver career-best performances in this movie.
At this point, I didn’t want Spock’s showstopper of a death scene to be cheapened by a deus ex machina-style resurrection two scenes later (yes, I’m looking at YOU, “Star Trek Into Darkness”… you and your stupid, magic ‘Khan-blood’)
Director (and uncredited cowriter) Nicholas Meyer was right; you can’t cheat your audience. Characters die, just like all other people. Even in science fiction fantasies.
I’d experienced ‘real-life’ death a few times at that point in my life (I was 15 then, and had already lost an older brother and a friend). But seeing an iconic character dying on the big screen was kind of new for me, and curiously reaffirming. Not to sound masochistic, but there was an odd comfort knowing that loss was a universal thing. It didn’t just happen in real life… it even happened to beloved, iconic characters in science fiction as well. And not just to those poor guys in red shirts, either (though, in fairness, Spock was wearing a red jacket in the movie…).
Spock’s subsequent funeral was probably the most moving scene I’d experienced in a sci-fi film at that point (and yes, that included Han Solo being dipped into carbonite, because I knew Han was going to be okay by the next movie…). Many people in the audience that day were pulling out their hankies and sniffling. Lots of eye wipes, too (including my own, as I recall). At that point, I’d only seen the last 25 or so minutes of this movie and it already generated more raw emotion and tears than the entire Star Trek franchise had that date.
Then came the movie’s coda; Spock’s casket (a repurposed photon torpedo casing) apparently soft-lands on the newly formed planet “Genesis” (which, as Kirk notes in his final captain’s log, may indeed be ‘life from death’). We also hear Spock’s voice delivering the “Space… the final frontier” speech. Kirk always delivered the “Space…” speech before in the original series, but now it was Spock (?). Curiouser and curiouser. “Life from death…” Hmmm. I had the sense that Spock wasn’t really dead just yet. This made me vaguely happy but it also left me feeling a little bit… cheated.
My then-15 year old self had just expelled a lot of teenage-angst over seeing my beloved hero die onscreen, and now I was feeling a bit suckered. This wasn’t so much ‘death’ as it was a means for assuring that I’d line up for the sequel two years later (which I, of course, did).
Oh well. I guess that’s what happens when art and commerce collide, right? You can kill the goose that laid the golden eggs, then look for a way to keep those eggs coming.
So TWOK ended, but of course, we stayed put for the next full showing. Actually, as I recall, we migrated to better seats when the previous audience members left theirs. Ushers didn’t give a flying damn in those days (they still don’t really, but that’s another subject…).
With our butts now planted in better seats? We were all set to watch TWOK again; unbroken and in proper sequence…
Right off, I loved the scene in the movie with Kirk and McCoy getting together for Kirk’s 50th birthday in Kirk’s gorgeous, high rise man-cave in San Francisco. The scene was all about character. This wasn’t about anything science-fiction-ish; it was just two old friends talking. Kirk was hitting the big five-oh, and not loving it. Having turned 50 myself recently, I find myself relating to that scene far more than I used to…
Earlier in the film, Spock gave Kirk a hardback of “A Tale of Two Cities” as a birthday gift because of Kirk’s ‘fondness for antiques.’ And now McCoy was giving Kirk the gift of antique reading glasses because that’s what the troika did best in the classic TV series. Spock always gave the captain guidance and information (in this case, a book), while McCoy took care of the captain’s heart and body (and now his eyes). These characters complement each other. Spock was mind, McCoy was heart and Kirk was the soul. Kirk, Spock and McCoy were truly back in this movie in a way they hadn’t quite been in the more cerebral previous film.
Oh, and on a side note? I really loved Kirk’s high-rise bachelor pad in TWOK. That view of the Bay! I secretly wished that my own first apartment would look even vaguely like it… and of course, my first ‘bachelor pad’ was nothing of the kind: it was a tiny, one-bedroom, low-rent hotbox (no central A/C) overlooking a carport and a dumpster. Oh well… one could dream, right? Hey, at least the rent was cheap…
Anyway, back to the movie (once again, showing my talent for digression)…
With all of the fuss made that year over Spock’s death, one could almost forget that the movie was called “The Wrath of Khan.” Khan’s story in TWOK picks up 15 years after he and his genetic supermen were exiled to the planet Ceti Alpha V at the end of the episode, “Space Seed.” During that time, the neighboring planet exploded and had cataclysmic consequences on Khan’s settlement and his people; turning their once rugged but still-habitable world into an endless vista of wind and sandstorms.
The late Ricardo Montalban (a bit miscast as a North Indian Sikh) really gave the movie his all. The scene where he slowly (and very theatrically) removes his desert headgear before a pair of captive Starfleet officers is truly chilling. The late James Horner’s music in the scene almost echoes the sound of a throbbing pulse and a nauseated stomach. Horner’s music throughout the film is terrific. Not quite as original as Jerry Goldsmith’s TMP score perhaps, but the oscillation between boldly nautical and pulse-pounding suspense is nicely navigated. It’s the perfect score for this chapter of Star Trek.
Then came the scene that NOBODY prepared me for; the infamous eel-to-ear scene! Khan drops tiny, slug-like larvae into the spacesuit helmets of Commander Chekov (Walter Koenig, who screams like nobody’s business) and Capt. Terrell (played by the late, talented character actor Paul Winfield). We see icky closeups of the young eels actually boring into the ears of the two men! Granted the prosthetic, oversized ears used for the scene look a bit less-than-realistic today, but in 1982? They more than got the job done. As I recall, there were plenty of shrieks and much squirming in the audience that day in June of 1982…
This movie was rated PG (parental guidance suggested) but something tells me that if the PG-13 rating existed in 1982? This film would’ve been a prime candidate.
Another innovative scene was the Project Genesis ‘demo tape’ which we, the audience, watch in the first-person along with Kirk, Spock and McCoy in the movie. The tape is only a minute or so long, but it illustrates the Genesis device’s fantastic terraforming potential. Within a minute or so, we see a full transformation of a dead moon into a lush garden planet. The entire demo is rendered in CGI (computer generated imagery). No big deal today… however this was made in Nineteen-flipping-Eighty Two! CGI was embryonic at this point. Most movie FX at that time were done with the more ‘traditional’ techniques of opticals, animation, blue screens, miniatures and motion-control cameras (computer motion control was only a few years old then, as well).
The Genesis tape footage was created by a then-unheard-of company called Pixar. Yes, that Pixar. Pixar was bleeding edge in the days when computer graphics were just on the cusp of changing movie visual effects forever. Even at 35 years old, the Genesis tape is still a pretty decent piece of animation. And any lapses in technique now could be explained by the fact that it’s supposed to be a simulation and not a depiction of a ‘real’ event within the film. Pixar (and its parent company Disney) have revolutionized animation since. Seeing some of Pixar’s earliest footage in this movie is not just a cool piece of animation; it’s a piece of movie history.
We also learn during the course of the movie that Kirk’s randy, somewhat notorious, womanizing past has caught up with him; a former lover, Dr. Carol Marcus, presents Kirk with an adult son (and fellow scientist). In fact, they are the creators of the super-terraforming Genesis device. So not only was Admiral James T. Kirk having a bit of a midlife crisis, he was also an absentee dad (!). This was a new idea in 1982; an iconic television womanizer’s past decisions were coming back to haunt him. This movie was truly going where no Star Trek had gone before…
Having seen TWOK 1.5 times that June day in 1982, I left the theater elated. While not exactly filled with the kind of awe that TMP gave me three years before, TWOK left me with a deeper, more soul-satisfying feeling. The characters I’d fallen in love with on the original series were truly back, and in some ways, they felt more human than ever. Kirk hit middle age, had an adult son and needed reading glasses! Spock sacrificed himself to save his shipmates! McCoy, as usual, had all the best lines (“Other people have birthdays, why are we treating yours like a funeral?” “We will.”). Even Scotty was given more dimension than usual. There was humanity, warmth and a vibrancy throughout the fabric of this film that was a bit lacking in the cooler, more cerebral TMP.
As the old buttons and bumper stickers used to say, “Star Trek Lives!”
No Khan Dos.
But even a near-perfect film has its flaws, and perhaps the biggest beef I have with TWOK (then and now) would be an ongoing one throughout much of Star Trek; a near-criminal underuse of some of its colorful supporting characters.
A new Vulcan lieutenant named Saavik (then-newcomer Kirstie Alley) comes aboard as a protege of Mr. Spock, and is given a lot of nice little moments which sometimes feel a bit stolen (however unintentionally) from the regular cast members. Alley’s Saavik is an interesting character, and the actress plays it coolly but with undercurrent; almost like a Hitchcock movie heroine. It is unfortunate that she chose (for whatever reasons) not to reprise the role in two of the sequels.
Chief engineer “Scotty” (the late James Doohan) is given a few nice moments (including a tearful scene in sickbay at his dying cadet nephew’s side), but Commanders Sulu (George Takei) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) are virtually ignored throughout most of the movie, and are treated as little more than mobile, occasionally speaking props.
This deficiency would be addressed somewhat in later films, but in TWOK (as in TMP), it is nothing short of a slap in the face to these two terrific characters (and beloved performers). It’s a true shame. As Takei has since proven (by becoming an online/social media superstar today) there was an awful lot of charisma, charm and humor under that unflappable exterior he wore in most of Star Trek…
TWOK was produced by the late Harve Bennett, a longtime, prolific TV producer who’d also worked on the “Six Million Dollar Man” and “Bionic Woman” TV shows, as well as the miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man” (TV’s first ever miniseries). Bennett had a knack for thrift and knew how to bring in a show on schedule and on budget. He could run a feature film like a tidy, efficient television production (there are a few scenes in TWOK that actually use stock footage of the Enterprise from the first movie).
Lacking the luxe and grandeur of TMP, TWOK’s somewhat reduced scope and focus on characters make it feel more like a slick television movie (especially today, as the television medium has come to surpass most feature films for quality, character-driven material). But since Star Trek started out on the small screen? This new focus felt more like a homecoming. Despite some entertaining feature films, Star Trek was always an episodic creature of television at its heart. Bennett instinctively understood this (as a man of television himself), and would stick around to produce several successful, yet modestly budgeted Star Trek movies. He would also write (and cowrite) the screenplays for Star Treks III and IV. Whatever the man was paid, it was a bargain. Harve Bennett is one of the true unsung heroes of Star Trek.
Between Bennett’s efficient producing talents and director Nicholas Meyer’s character-driven focus, the Star Trek franchise was in good hands with these men. Meyer would do an uncredited rewrite (nee: overhaul) on TWOK’s screenplay, as well as cowriting 1986’s “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (aka ‘the one with the whales’) and directing “The Undiscovered Country” (1991), a very underrated entry in the franchise. Meyer was also director of another fantasy favorite of mine, 1979’s “Time After Time.”
Meyer has also said in many interviews that his original cut of TWOK did NOT feature the coda sequence with the shot of Spock’s casket landed safely on the Genesis planet. That sequence was inserted post de facto as by Bennett and co-producer Bob Sallin. In Meyer’s original test-screening cut, Spock was just… dead. That was that. And while I understand and appreciate that dramatically (I’m not terribly fond of cinematic cheats either)? I can’t say that killing off Spock just as the movies began to find their footing would’ve been a smart move either. Despite my usual disdain for characters miraculously returning to life in sci-fi films, Spock’s implicit resurrection in the coda of TWOK might just be an exception to that rule. The movie needed to end on hope, not a funeral. After all, the Genesis project was supposed to be ‘life from lifelessness’…
To this day, TWOK is often cited in fan polls as the best movie of the Star Trek franchise but I hate to base my own likes or dislikes on fan consensus, or to list them in arbitrary rankings. To me, the best ST movie is the one I’m in the mood for at any given moment. So I prefer to acknowledge TWOK for its own merits and for putting the ST franchise on a path towards success that it has more or less continued to enjoy 35 years hence.
The Khan Jobs.
If there is a downside to TWOK’s success, it’s that the movie’s been used far too often as a template for the Star Trek sequels and spinoffs. Even today, 35 years later, most of the movies in the Star Trek canon have involved a crazed madman trying to get ahold of a super-weapon or super-ship to exact revenge of some sort. This is not to say that the following examples are bad ST movies (I enjoyed most of them very much, in fact); it’s just that they tend to recycle many of the same story elements of TWOK.
To my point:
“Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” (1984). Klingons seek to steal the secrets of the Genesis device (just like Khan and his followers) and use it to undermine peace with the Federation (just as Khan would use it for conquest of all who opposed him, including Kirk). The wonderfully eccentric character actor Christopher Lloyd plays the cunning Commander Kruge in a role that is not-too-different from Khan, minus the revenge factor.
“Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989). Spock’s crazed half-brother (and religious zealot) Sybok uses a form of Vulcan mind control (just like Khan’s eels) to gain control of the Enterprise (much as Khan gained control of the Reliant) and takes the ship to the center of the galaxy (through a ‘great barrier’ not unlike the ‘Mutara nebula’) to unite with no less than “God” himself in a vain attempt to gain God’s favor (much as Khan sought the biblically-named “Genesis” device for his own power). Sybock’s ragged followers also look and dress in ragged desert gear just like Khan’s marooned supermen on Ceti Alpha V.
“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991). A mad, Shakespeare-quoting Klingon general (like the Melville-quoting Khan) named Chang (played by the memorable Christopher Plummer) gains control of a “new weapon, a Klingon bird-of-prey that can fire when cloaked.” This new weapon threatens peace and stability between the space superpowers, much as the Genesis device did. Spock uses a forced mind-meld (mind-rape?) to extract needed information out of co-conspirator/traitor Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattral); much as Khan used mind-controlling slugs to forcibly gain information out of Chekov and his captain. Once again, the climax of the film is a ship-to-ship space battle as the Enterprise is heavily damaged by the cunning Klingon’s invisible ship, much as the genetic superman Khan used his own cunning (and ‘superior intellect’) to severely cripple the Enterprise in TWOK. As the film is cowritten and directed by TWOK’s Meyer, the similarities are a bit less surprising perhaps.
“Star Trek: Generations” (1994). Different generation, similar story template. Once again, a madman (“Soran,” played by the wily Malcolm McDowell; star of Nicholas Meyer’s “Time After Time”) gains control of a superweapon (in this case, a warhead full of ‘trilithium’) in an attempt to blow up a sun and alter gravity in order to shift the course of an energy ribbon called “the nexus” that allow him access to it. The ‘ribbon’ is, in fact, a portal to an eternal and personal virtual paradise. Soran lost his wife and children to the Borg a century before (just as Khan had lost his “beloved wife” Marla McGivers), and is now fixated on getting back to a fantasy version of them for all eternity; no matter the cost to the ‘real’ world. Like Khan with Genesis, Soran would use his super-weapon to try to reshape the universe to his own ends.
“Star Trek: Nemesis” (2002). Picard encounters a formerly-exiled, genetically-engineered nemesis (sound familiar?) who is a younger clone of himself created by the Romulans (not too unlike Kirk discovering his own, young, hotheaded son). The clone “Shinzon” (played by a young Tom Hardy, who looks absolutely nothing like Sir Patrick Stewart) leads a group of liberated ‘ragtag followers’ (ex-slaves/miners from Romulus’ poor sister world, Remus) who, like Khan’s own ragtag supermen, acquire a powerful starship with yet another universe-ending ‘super-weapon aboard (a ‘thalaron’ device, very much like TWOK’s Genesis…again). Oh, and Data (the unemotional android officer, Next Gen’s “Spock”-like character) sacrifices himself to save his shipmates (!). There is a somber wake for Data afterward in Picard’s quarters (shades of Spock’s own funeral). And a final scene between Picard and the newfound “Soong-type” android named B-4 which suggest Data’s memories live on inside of the doppelganger (much as Spock’s ‘katra’ lived on inside of Dr. McCoy after his death in TWOK). “Nemesis” is one of the worst offenders, as it feels largely like a beat-for-beat Next Gen remake of TWOK.
“Star Trek” (2009). Another Khan-nabe. This time the big bad is a tattooed Romulan miner named Nero and his ragtag tattooed followers (not too unlike the Remans in the previous film, who were already similar to Khan’s gang in TWOK), who accidentally travel back to to Kirk’s 23rd century seeking ‘red matter’; a substance which creates artificial black holes; almost an inverse of Genesis’ terraforming power. They use their new power to plot revenge on the Federation for ‘allowing’ their planet Romulus to die in an unexpectedly rapid supernova (much as Khan sought revenge on Kirk for ‘allowing’ his planet’s ecology to collapse, following its sister world’s unexpected demise). Luckily, this TWOK ‘borrower’ is largely redeemed by a fresh-faced & charming new cast (in a soft reboot of the original series), the always-welcome presence of Leonard Nimoy and a very different cinematic style than its predecessors. But by this point? The ‘ragged bad guy and his followers seeking a super-weapon for revenge‘ template is so overused it’s practically belching black smoke…
“Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013). 2002’s Nemesis was one of the worst TWOK-ripoff offenders… but STID is the worst offender. Not so much in story, but with literal, line-for-line, scene-for-scene, cut-and-pasted moments from TWOK (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” “Ship… out of danger?” “Khaaaaannn!!”). And yes, the villain this time is indeed a rebooted Khan Noonian Singh (played by a game but very miscast Benedict Cumberbatch). Once again, a Federation starship is pitted against a renegade Federation starship (much like the Reliant vs. Enterprise in TWOK). Khan wants to rule the universe and free his people (who are kept on ice, but not exiled). And in the single worst offense of them all, Kirk (not Spock) dies while entering a radiation-flooded section of the engine room in a last-ditch attempt to get the engines online and save the ship. His final scene with Spock (once again, through radiation-proof clear glass) is so literal and clumsy a ripoff that my wife and I actually groaned in our seats when we watched this one for the first time. This one was so bad it hurts…
TWOK reenergized Star Trek with action, energy and (best of all) lots of the sort of character interplay that marked some of the best episodes of the TV series. This was Star Trek firing on all thrusters again.
And while TWOK was the movie that got the ST franchise back on the warp trail to continued and ongoing cinematic/television vitality over the past 35 years, it’s success also led to a stagnancy in the cinematic ST universe; as too many of the movies since have tried to do some variation on TWOK’s formula.
Here’s hoping the producers and creative talents behind the forthcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” remember that Star Trek offered many other kinds of stories beyond ragged bad guys with super-weapons seeking revenge.
At any rate, here’s wishing this iconic Star Trek movie a happy 35th birthday…. surely, the best of times.