The year is 1982. It has been thirteen years since the original Star Trek has gone off the air. Three years ago, Star Trek: The Motion Picture hit and while it was a financial success, it was grossly over-budgeted ($46 million) and criticized for being too long, too boring, and too god damn weird.
So they slashed the budget down to a quarter of the previous film and removed Gene Roddenberry from the lead creative role. Instead, they made Harve Bennett, a new Paramount producer who had never seen an episode of the original series, the figurehead in getting a second Star Trek movie off of the ground. What we have here is a perfect storm of things that should create a terrible movie.
So it’s no small miracle that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is not only good, but is easily the best Trek movie that’s ever graced the screen. Bennett threw out a lot of the esoteric trappings of the first film and the team brought on board, including director Nicholas Meyer, were also unfamiliar with the Trek universe. Gone were the kitschy 60s/70s outfits (many of the costumes from The Motion Picture were altered and dyed to make the new uniforms). Also gone were the abstract threats. Pulling out a villain from seemingly random in the original run of the show, Wrath of Khan was going to be as direct and reductionist a sequel to the show as was possible.
This new look of the concept of Star Trek recast the Federation as a much more military organization. The uniforms were more naval. The ships more complex and more delicate. The Enterprise became cramped and bustling, crawling with incidental crewman running a myriad of tasks. What Wrath of Khan did was turn Star Trek into a naval warfare movie in space.
I imagine most people are already familiar with the basic plot of Wrath of Khan. Khan Noonian Singh (a chesty, magnificently hammy Ricardo Montalban), a genetically altered egomaniacal superman from Earth’s distant past, has been marooned on a planet for 15 years after a run in with Kirk and company during the original run of the show. The USS Reliant, looking for a barren planet to test a new terraforming device (sprearheaded by an old flame of Kirk’s and his heretofore unknown son), encounter Khan and his crew of survivors who quickly proceed to capture the Reliant and use it to exact revenge on Kirk.
What happens next is a series of intricate cat and mouse submarine battles cast in a sci-fi setting, great Shakespearean scenery chewing by one of film’s greatest sci-fi villains, and a great personal sacrifice by one of the most enduring pop culture characters. It’s great stuff, full of high drama and brilliant character beats, serious but not ponderous, clever by not showy, the textbook case of less is more.
What other movie has the gall to cast its two opposing leads in a situation that never brings them face to face? Kirk and Khan taunt and challenge and curse each other from across the reaches of space but never share a single scene. What other movie has the restraint to limit itself to the quiet predatory climax in an obscuring nebula? Both ships blindly gliding by each other in silence, one mistake away from annihilation? Wrath of Khanis as tense as any thriller, cast in a familiar franchise turned into something vital and exciting by fresh talent and fresh ideas.
But you know all this, so let’s start at the beginning, where the truly special ideas in Wrath of Khan lie. From the start we’re introduced to a younger group of Starfleet cadets, competent and ready, in a training simulation of the infamous no-win Kobayashi Maru scenario. Saavik (Kirstie Alley before she became a lazy tabloid joke) is being groomed as Spock’s protegee, commanding the Enterprise in this simulation, causing everyone aboard to die by her actions.
James Kirk, now an admiral and instructor, chides Saavik about her approach to the scenario. Kirk is, to date, the only cadet who ever defeated the test, meant to train cadets the reality of sacrifice when command leads you to no sure victory. Kirk’s legacy is already well established as the man who has cheated death countless times, a man who doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.
Yet we open on a Kirk in darkness. He’s bored and aging at the academy. He accepts gifts from his closest friends begrudgingly on his 50th birthday. To Kirk, all this is a defeat, a quiet retreat from the adventure he always considered his right. Which is why when the Enterprise receives a distress call while on a training mission, Kirk takes control of the ship and steers her towards the science outpost where Khan lays in wait.
What the film so carefully does is lay open the truth that Kirk isn’t quite the man he used to be. He’s not as fast, but he’s not as rash. Confronted with a son he didn’t know he had, he’s left to wonder just how many opportunities his lifestyle has made him forsake. As much as command is about making the decisions day to day, it is about the decisions left at the wayside.
It is when all hope is lost that Kirk reveals to Saavik how he beat the Kobayashi Maru–he reprogrammed the scenario to allow him to win. Saavik protests that it was cheating, Kirk retorts with the fact that he got a commendation for creative thinking. And in the depths of the battle between Kirk and Khan, spanning across space between two men wrapped up in their own legacy, Kirk cheats his way to victory again.
But this time he doesn’t escape cleanly, as the victory costs him the life of Spock. For Kirk, who had the galaxy as his plaything for decades, the realities of the choices, the realities of life looming behind all the adventures, come crashing down around him. When asked after Spock’s burial among the stars how he feels Kirk replies “I feel … young.” It is the risk and the finality that provides the spark of life, not the adventure itself.
What Wrath of Khan manages to do is to humanize what was quickly becoming remote and abstract. Star Trek was never about the aliens or the adventure so much as it was about what it means to be human. At the best of times it remembers its better self, and brings that to the forefront, and becomes something more than the fandom or the slightly silly space western it was originally conceived as. That is what makes Wrath of Khan so singular, and so special.