“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”
June 4, 1982: After the commercial and critical oddity that was 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, those of us who were all into the Trek were worried what this sequel might bring. Would it be like the first movie (which was boring as all hell compared to Kirk drop-kicking and karate-chopping a big green lizard), or the TV series we still loved? The TV commercials certainly seemed to imply the latter, with lots of phasers firing and starships blowing the shit out of each other, William Shatner snarling into the camera and Ricardo Montalban flexing his pecs at us. This movie definitely looked like it was going to kick things up a notch. Or three.
Though it doesn’t seem to happen a lot these days, on this occasion? The trailers for this one got it right.
40 years after its release, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains the choice of many fans as being among the best – if not the best – of the Star Trek theatrical films. Pretty much every movie that’s come since is compared to Khan, usually with respect to each successive sequel’s choice of villain. Kruge, Sybok, Chang, Soran, Ru’Afo, Shinzon, Nero, “John Harrison,” or Krall? None of those pansies – even the 2013 redo attempt – hold a candle to Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh, the genetically-engineered mighty man who came to the Final Frontier by way of a 20th century sleeper ship back in the classic first season Star Trek episode “Space Seed.”
Khan and his crew, marooned by Captain Kirk on the remote plant Ceti Alpha V at the end of that episode, are left to their own devices, but a planetary catastrophe soon after their arrival forced them into a constant struggle for simple survival. By the time another starship arrives, the U.S.S. Reliant commanded by Captain Clark Terrell and with former Enterprise crewman Pavel Chekov serving as its first officer, Khan’s pretty much gone ’round the bend. Seizing control of the Reliant by means of one of those cool movie critters that turn people into obedient zombies, Khan sets off to unleash BLOODY VENGEANCE on the man responsible for his downfall: James T. Kirk.
Oh, it’s on now.
Directed by Nicholas Meyer from a story by veteran TV producer Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards (who also wrote the original screenplay, which Meyer then rewrote….in 12 days), Star Trek II hits almost every right note and avoids the pitfalls which tripped up its theatrical predecessor. The humor as well as the friendships and camaraderie shared by Kirk and his crew–all but absent from the first film–are here to lend perfect balance to the drama and tension driving most of the story. Even the color palette is warmer this time around, from the red paint on the Enterprise doors to the crew uniforms, which now look more like something of a natural progression from those of the original series.
Montalban, reprising his role from “Space Seed,” pulls out all the stops as the maniacal Khan, obsessed with avenging himself upon Admiral James T. Kirk. Strong efforts from supporting actors Bibi Besch, Merritt Butrick, Paul Winfield and Kirstie Alley in her first film role round out a solid performance by the main cast (wild-eyed “KHAAAAAN!” bit from William Shatner notwithstanding). Though some footage of the Enterprise is lifted from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there are plenty of new space scenes to satisfy the Trekkie tech heads among us. James Horner’s musical score, shifting with ease between quiet contemplation and rousing action, is a bow tying up the whole sweet package.
As originally scripted, the film brings with it the death of Spock, who sacrifices himself in order to save the Enterprise from certain destruction. This was done to honor a request from actor Leonard Nimoy, who had decided Star Trek II would be his last performance of his most popular character. However, as the story goes, he also held out for the opportunity to direct the next Star Trek film (should there be one). What’s fuzzy is where along that timeline he came to terms with continuing to portray Spock on screen, as we all know what happened with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Unlike Star Trek: The Motion Picture, there was very little in the way of merchandise tying into the new film. Chief among the paltry offerings was the novelization of the movie’s script, written by Vonda N. McIntyre. In those days, the novelization for a feature film might show up in stores weeks ahead of the movie’s release. Such was the case with Star Trek II, and I obtained my copy thanks to my sister who was looking out for me one Saturday in May 1982 when she went shopping with our mother. Thanks to her, I had in my hands the story for the film well ahead of its release date, and yet…..I somehow resisted the urge to read the book before seeing the movie with my pals on Release Day.
As it happens, I ended up seeing it a bunch of times that summer. Then I read the book, and as tended to happen back in those days, I ended up reading it a few times over the ensuing years.
If this film had failed, it arguably could’ve been the death knell for Kirk and the Enterprise gang. Instead, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a critical and commercial success, ensuring the aforementioned sequel and bringing with it a fresh new energy to what we now call “the Star Trek franchise.” It paved the way for future sequels and the eventual television spin-offs, along with merchandising and other licensing ventures that continue to this day.
“I feel young.”
Shit, I feel old.
Happy 40th Anniversary, Star Trek II. Surely, the best of times.