This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.
In many respects, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan represents the franchise’s first true “reboot.”
There have been various points in the history of the franchise when the show has undergone a reinvention of some description, a radical shift from what it was into what it would be. The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation represented such a dramatic update, a shift turn-around from the show’s first troubled two seasons. The third and fifth seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did something similar. Star Trek: Enterprise tried to affect some radical shift, but only managed to accomplish it in the third season. JJ Abrams’ recent summer blockbuster represented its own dramatic alteration to what Star Trek was or could be.
However, The Wrath of Khan represents the show’s first massive shift, the first point at which the franchise effectively evolved into something markedly different from what it had been before.
Released in the wake of the success of Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had proved a financial success for the studio. However, the popular consensus on the film was less than flattering. Paramount decided to move ahead with a sequel, but a sequel that would be produced on a much tighter budget than Robert Wise’s bold cinematic science-fiction epic. They also wanted a very different type of film, and a very different type of Star Trek.
Robert Wise did not return to the sequel. Paramount made a very conscious decision to side-line Gene Roddenberry, who had been one of the driving creative forces behind the transition from the small screen to the silver screen. Given that his plot ideas for the sequel included gems like “Spock shoots JFK”, perhaps shuffling Roddenberry as far from influence as humanly possible was a shrewd decision, as the studio pushed him into a generic (and neutered) “consultant” role.
Instead, the studio turned to Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer. Bennett, in particularly, ran into a lot of trouble with Roddenberry’s consultations:
When Bennett sat down to watch a sampling of original Star Trek episodes, he began receiving the infamous “Roddenberry memos.” Rarely did they speak face to face. Instead, after exchanging awkward greetings in parking lots, Roddenberry would fire off memo after memo to Bennett, who responded politely in writing. Over the next few weeks, the memos became increasing bitter and confrontational. “Gene cast me immediately as an interloper,” Bennett reflected in Joel Engel’s unauthorized biography of Gene Roddenberry. “There wasn’t a single issue… that was not resisted in memo by Gene… He thought I was trying to do a revisionist Star Trek, whereas I perceived it as trying to replicate what had worked in the show, and thereby pay homage to the founder.”
Bennett tried to craft a story affectionately drawing on the show’s history, even sitting down to watch every episode to identify possible threads that might feed into the sequel. Khan is the most obvious example of this, but the role of Carol Marcus was originally intended to be given to Janice Wallace, a supporting character from The Deadly Years, who – playing into the story’s themes – had a thing for older men.
In many respects, the situation with The Wrath of Khan is quite similar to the set-up for the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Much like Robert Orci and Damon Lindelof drew on the franchise’s history, Bennett tried to maintain the connections to the past. And much like JJ Abrams brought his influences in from outside the franchise, director Nicholas Meyer approached the movie from the outside looking in:
I had the haziest notion of what Star Trek was, because I didn’t really watch the show on television. I finally latched on to the idea that Captain Kirk and friends were really an outer-space series of novels that I had loved as a kid, by C.S. Forrester, called ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower.’ So I said, ‘OK, this is ‘Hornblower’ in outer space; I’ve got it.’ When I wrote the script in 12 days it was very, very, very Navy, or, as my late wife used to say, ‘Nautical but nice.’
It’s a nice way of making the franchise relatable, and Meyer’s touch ensures that The Wrath of Khan feels quite distinct from a lot of the earlier Star Trek. This is evident from the movie’s snappy pace, but also bleeds through to the finer design touches.
Indeed, the movie would represent a shift away from the look of the television show and even The Motion Picture. There was a stronger emphasis on Starfleet as a military, right down to the uniforms:
I decided that this was going to be ‘Hornblower’ in outer space, so I said, ‘Okay, if this is going to be the Navy, let’s have them look like the Navy; they shouldn’t be walking around in pyjamas.’ Which seemed to me to be what the uniforms in the first movie and the TV show looked like.
That military influence pervades the film. The ship’s torpedo room, the repurposed Klingon bridge from The Motion Picture, is used a number of times and The Wrath of Khan hinges on the intricacies of ship-to-ship combat in a way not seen since Balance of Terror.
More than that, though, there’s a very clear friction between Starfleet and the Federation here. The line between the two organisations hadn’t been properly delineated at this point. Indeed, they were often interchangeable during the original show’s run. The Wrath of Khan doesn’t feature any alien adversaries. The only Klingons who appear are represented in a simulation at the start of the film. Instead, all the conflict in the movie stems from humans taking on humans.
Khan, a human genetically bred to rule, is the most obvious example. However, it’s also obvious that Marcus has a major difficulty working with Starfleet, despite feeling comfortable enough to appeal to the Federation for “funding” – which, in a post-scarcity economy, probably means logistical assistance. When Chekov claims to be arriving to take Genesis into custody, Carol Marcus protests, “But Genesis is a civilian project, under my control–“
The tension works both ways. When Terrell and Chekov don’t seem too pleased to be answering to civilian oversight. Forced to investigate life signs, Terrell half-heartedly suggests, “Maybe it’s something we can transplant.” Chekov sighs, “You know what she’ll say.” He makes it sound like he’s talking about a nagging wife. Marcus’ response to Chekov is less than patient. “Now let me get this straight. Something you can transplant?” It doesn’t seem like a healthy working relationship, even before Khan starts meddling.
When the Reliant arrives to confiscate the research, it seems like David and the other scientists had been expecting something like this. David goes into full Oliver Stone mode, offering, “Mistake? We’re all alone here. They waited until everyone was on leave to do this.” He clarifies, “Reliant is supposed to be at our disposal, not vice-versa.” A colleague responds, “It seems clear that Starfleet never intended that.”
Even if Carol herself tries to calm everybody down by reminding them that “Starfleet has kept the peace for a hundred years”, she still can only timidly respond, “I that know, but…” David’s cynicism is quite palpable, and it suggests that the scientists and the military officials haven’t always got along. “I’ve tried to tell you before. Scientists have always been pawns of the military.” It works both ways – it’s telling that Kirk’s security briefing doesn’t include up-to-date information on the cavern. We know that that phase is planned, but it seems that nobody told Starfleet it was complete.
In many ways, The Wrath of Khan feels more like a deconstruction of Star Trek than a celebration of it, a rather cynical exploration of the nuance of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future. All the stuff here feels perfectly logical and in-character, but the situation shifts so that things become more ambiguous. Starfleet might be keeping the peace, but it’s also a military organisation, and that means keeping secrets. High-ranking heroes like Spock and McCoy are kept out of the loop on “Genesis”, which is literally playing God.
The arrogance of the scheme is monumental. McCoy rather pointedly accuses Jim, “Are you by any chance in favour of these experiments?” Even Spock concedes, “I don’t dispute that in the wrong hands–“ McCoy cuts across him, “Would you like to tell me whose are the right hands, my cold-blooded friend?” This is the Federation literally remaking worlds in their own image. It’s no coincidence that it conforms to a human ideal of Eden.
In a way, this is a logical extension of the ending to quite a few episodes of the original television show. In stories like The Return of the Archons or A Taste of Armageddon, Kirk would take it upon himself to decide that a particular society doesn’t conform to his own cultural values, and would then go on to destroy that way of life to replace it with something closer to his own worldview. David Gerrold conceded as much in The World of Star Trek, accepting Roddenberry’s utopia was very American-centric.
In the commentary on The Wrath of Khan, Meyer himself reaches a similar conclusion:
Roddenberry had his own utopian vision about he perfectibility of man, and I never really believed that. And I don’t think the show demonstrates that. I think it is about gunboat diplomacy. In the final analysis, the Enterprise fires. They’re always shooting and bringing civilization, and coming to worlds where they don’t approve of tyrannical enterprises – no pun intended – and they substitute their own quote-unquote enlightened version of how society is supposed to work, which is essentially American.
The Wrath of Khan feels like a long overdue criticism of that sort of complacency.
And it starts with Kirk. The original show was pretty fantastic, but it never really developed its characters too far. You never got a sense that Kirk evolved or grew over the course of the series. The Motion Picture did a slightly better job, conceding that Kirk could be manipulative and arrogant, and willing to do whatever it took to get his own way. The Wrath of Khan starts from that point and just expands its criticisms. It represents the first time that we actually see Kirk change over the course of a story, and the first time that his actions have profound negative long-term consequences.
It’s telling that the two biggest screw-ups leading into The Wrath of Khan occurred long ago. Kirk hooked up with Carol Marcus, and got her pregnant. She ran away and raised his son. The Wrath of Khan brings Kirk face-to-face with that son for the first time. As Glenn Greenberg astutely points out, the scene that plays out on screen is markedly different from the version in the script. The script is more explicit about Kirk’s lack of interest or involvement, suggesting Kirk was completely unaware.
“Is that true?” Kirk asks after she reveals that he’s David’s father. “Why didn’t you tell me?” We discover that Carol told David his father was “a Professor.” There’s a lot more ambiguity and the suggestion is that Kirk didn’t even realise that he had a son. (Which prompts something of a nightmare for the franchise – given Kirk’s fondness for romantic hook-ups, how many Davids are running around there, unknown? Okay, the fact that Kirk’s love interests tend to die at the end of the episode somewhat cancels that thought out, but still…)
The movie version of the scene plays out slightly differently from the script. Kirk knows who David is, asking for him by name – even if he can’t identify his face. The suggestion is that Kirk’s lack of involvement in David’s life was driven by respect for Carol as much as ignorance. “I did what you wanted,” Kirk admits, “I stayed away… why didn’t you tell him?” While it’s not quite as damning as his complete ignorance and lack of follow-up, it still means that Kirk put her in a position where he got her pregnant and she didn’t feel she could rely on him to be a good (or even functional) father. “Were we together?” she demands. “Were we going to be?”
To be fair, The Wrath of Khan does present a more reckless version of Kirk’s youth than the early Star Trek episodes. According to stories like Where No Man Has Gone Before or Shore Leave, Kirk was apparently quite the nerd during his early years. That never quite synched up perfectly with the version of the character played by William Shatner, and the hints of a wild and reckless youth here fit much more comfortably. “Listen, kiddo,” Carol tells her son, “Jim Kirk was many things, but he was never a Boy Scout!”
It’s worth noting that The Wrath of Khan plays as fast and as loose with continuity as JJ Abrams’ reboot, demonstrating that the Star Trek canon was never quite as sacrosanct as various fans want to believe. This was a show which couldn’t decide who was paying Kirk’s wages for most of the first season, let alone that he didn’t actually receive any wages. The most obvious other continuity goof here is the suggestion that Khan remembers Chekov from Space Seed (“I never forget a face!”), despite the fact that Chekov wasn’t actually a part of the cast at the time.
It’s a hole that various sources have tried to explain. Walter Koenig famously jokes that Chekov once held up a toilet when Khan really needed to go, leading to a life-long vendetta. Writer Greg Cox in Reign in Hell suggested Chekov was an off-screen security guard. It really doesn’t matter, except that it underscores Meyer’s attitude towards continuity. On the movie’s informative commentary track, he frequently cites Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who made quite a few internal mistakes in his Sherlock Holmes stories.
Doyle himself famously defended his right to make those sorts of mistakes. “It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and I have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter if I hold my readers?” Meyer subscribes to the same philosophy. If it makes for a better story, there’s no need to be beholden to every line of dialogue or every piece of fine print ever. It’s an approach quite similar to Abrams’ reboot.
Indeed, The Wrath of Khan has several glaring plot holes, but Meyer smartly decides to keep the plot moving fast enough that they never distract too much from the storyline. How exactly does the Kobyashi Maru work, for example? If you know you can’t beat it, then it’s not really an accurate assessment of your response to a no-win scenario. That means the results are going to be completely skewed, as those taking the test expect to fail. Any commander engaging in a rescue expecting to fail probably shouldn’t be sitting in the big seat, so it’s hardly insightful.
In fact, even knowing that only one person in the history of the Academy ever beat it, leads you to expect that various cadets would be expecting to lose. Similarly, it’s very hard to give feedback unless you explain the test, and it’s very hard to keep a secret after you’ve told even a room full of people let alone an entire class. Think about how quickly the details of Star Trek: Into Darkness leaked. It’s hard to imagine how the Kobyashi Maru could possibly function in the Academy. But it’s a great introduction, a solid development of the movie’s theme and clever hook. So Meyer gets us to buy it.
Similarly, the Reliant’s mistake makes the ship grossly incompetent. Given the ship can cross light-years in minutes, you imagine that the arrival in a given solar system would involve something as simple as counting the planets. Khan explains that the planet’s orbit has shifted, but that sort of gravitational shift must leave fairly basic evidence. For one thing, one of the planets is not there any more. It’s necessary to get the plot moving, but it’s hardly the most robust plot device. Still, Meyer moves things along so quickly we don’t really notice too much.
Which brings us to Khan, Kirk’s other past failure coming back to haunt him. It’s quite clear – as implied at the end of Space Seed – that Kirk never actually told Starfleet that he’d found a former genocidal tyrant and stranded him on a distant planet. Although Chekov realises what is happening quickly, Terrell has no idea what is going on. You’d imagine “this sector contains a genocidal mad man” would be high on the list of the system’s notable features if Kirk had flagged the matter to Starfleet.
Terrell explicitly doesn’t know who Khan is, and it’s implied that Chekov only knows because he was on the Enterprise. It seems that Khan is a bit of a dirty little secret, something kept among the Enterprise crew, not even casually discussed with outsiders. Khan seems particularly offended by this. “Do you mean he never told you the tale? To amuse your captain? No?” Had Kirk followed procedures and turned Khan over as a war criminal, none of this film would have happened.
Spock’s death at the climax, is on Kirk. As is the death of David Marcus in the next film. If Kirk hadn’t played god by unilaterally deciding to dump a bunch of supermen on a strange planet, the whole plot would have played out differently. Again, Kirk’s monumental arrogance is at play here. If he had even bothered to check up on Khan, he could have at least mitigated the damage. However, his complete indifference seems to infuriate Khan. “Admiral Kirk never bothered to check on our progress.”
The Wrath of Khan is a story about growing old, and the way that the past comes back to haunt us. It’s strangely poignant, as Kirk celebrates his birthday on Earth. “I know of your fondness for antiques,” Spock remarks, without acknowledging Kirk’s fear of becoming one. We get a quick glimpse at his quarters here, and they are suitably old-fashioned, like Kirk himself. McCoy presents him with a pair of reading glasses. “For most patients of your age, I generally administer Retnax V,” McCoy explains. Kirk, responds, “I’m allergic to Retnax V.” He can’t even grow old in a modern way, he ages in the old-fashioned manner.
There’s a sense that his arrogance and ego are driven by a need to prove he is still worth something. Like his commandeering of the ship in The Motion Picture, Kirk isn’t being entirely selfless in revisiting the Enterprise. “Get back your command,” McCoy urges. “Get it back before you turn into part of this collection. Before you really do grow old.” Kirk’s insecurity is obvious. He rushes the ship out, without waiting for the necessary checks.
It’s interesting to contrast Kirk with Spock. Spock seems strangely comfortable with himself here. Spock seems at ease. He does not perceive Kirk’s presence on the ship to be a threat. He isn’t yearned for space adventures. He’s satisfied commanding a cadet cruise. This seems quite fitting with what we know of Spock as a character. In episodes like The Galileo Seven, for example, Spock never really demonstrated an interest in advancement or command. Despite his rigid logic, Spock was always flexible – he could be a science officer, a teacher or an ambassador. He was whatever the situation needed him to be. He surrenders command immediately to Kirk.
Kirk was never that flexible, and part of the reason that The Wrath of Khan works so well is because it gives Kirk a character arc. he realises his flaws. He finally grows up, demonstrating that it’s never too late to learn. The pivotal scene comes long after he has vanquished Khan, as he concedes that he has been at least as lucky as he has been skilful. “I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity… I know nothing.” That might be the single greatest “Kirk” moment in the franchise.
Khan works well here for a number of reasons. Most obviously, Ricardo Montalban is pretty amazing. Shatner generally ups his game when confronted with a strong co-star, and giving him a direct antagonist is a shrewd move. The two never share the same set, but they play well off one another, and The Wrath of Khan does a rather wonderful job comparing and contrasting the duo. Khan’s animal charisma in Space Seed resonated with Kirk’s “alpha male” stylings. Here, we’re presented with two very similar men who grew old separately. One was lucky; the other was not.
Like Kirk, Khan is a man of ego. After he has disabled the Enterprise, he stops to gloat. “Surely I have made my meaning plain. I mean to avenge myself upon you, Admiral. I’ve deprived your ship of power and when I swing round I mean to deprive you of your life. But I wanted you to know first who it was who had beaten you.” He’s prone to monologuing and boasting, allowing Kirk to exploit his relative unfamiliarity with the twenty-third century.
Also like the Admiral, Khan is trapped by who he is. His nature is written into his DNA, and is inescapable. Just as Kirk could never live behind the safety of a desk, Khan is unable to retreat while he has the advantage. His faithful servant even acknowledges that Khan has effectively won as soon as he claimed the Reliant. “We’re all with you, sir, but consider this: we are free. We have a ship and the means to go where we will. We have escaped permanent exile on Ceti Alpha V. You have proved your superior intellect, and defeated the plans of Admiral Kirk. You do not need to defeat him again.” It’s a very logical point.
And this cuts to the heart of Montalban’s Khan. The character responds with a literary reference about how he must hunt down Kirk for the perceived wrong. “He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him. I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.” Despite the flowery language, the wit and the use of classic literature, Khan is conceding that he has his limitations, even as he is unable to deny those flaws.
As in Space Seed, Khan still a savage man who tries to conceal his primal and brutal instincts with a mask of sophistication and civilisation. He is nothing more than a thug, despite his ability to rationalise and justify his actions. He may be physically superior, but he is still hindered by base desires and insecurities. Like Kirk, he is phenomenal human being, but also a deeply flawed one. Given that so much of Khan is determined from his genetically-altered DNA, this lends the character a sense of grand tragedy.
The Wrath of Khan is a science-fiction classic, one of those rare pieces of Star Trek that transcends the genre and the franchise. It’s a roaring space opera, but it’s also a reflection on the realities of growing old, and dealing with the consequences of a reckless youth. It manages to balance a character-driven story with relentless and compelling action set pieces. It’s a fantastic piece of work, and there’s no denying that it helped shape what Star Trek could be.
The movie was a lasting influence on the adventures that followed. Sometimes that influence was direct. Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Nemesis and the reboot all owe a conscious debt to The Wrath of Khan. However, the film did something far more substantial than simply provide a list of iconic scenes and set pieces for future Star Trek projects to emulate to varying degrees of success.
The Wrath of Khan proved that Star Trek could be something dynamic, something which changed, something which became radically different. While the production values on The Motion Picture demonstrated the show could look much improved on the big screen, it was still a very familiar production. (Too familiar for fans who affectionately labelled it “Where Nomad Had Gone Before.”) The Wrath of Khan was something very different, and something very fresh, and something unlike what Star Trek had been before.
As with Jim Kirk, it seems even old dogs can learn new tricks.
Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture
- Supplemental: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor by John Byrne
- Supplemental: Ex Machina by Christopher L. Bennett
- Supplemental: Crucible – Spock: The Fire and the Rose by David R. George III
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
- Supplemental: Space Seed
- Supplemental: Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh by Greg Cox
- Supplemental: Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #7-8 – Saavik’s Story
- Supplemental: The Pandora Principle by Carolyn Clowes
- Supplemental: Myriad Universes – Echoes and Refractions: The Chimes at Midnight by Geoff Trowbridge
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
- Supplemental: The Klingons: Starfleet Intelligence Manual (FASA)
- Supplemental: Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #28 – The Last Word
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
- Supplemental: Star Trek Special #1 (DC Comics, 1994) – The Needs of the One
- Supplemental: Unspoken Truth by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Supplemental: Music of the Spheres by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
- Supplemental: The Ashes of Eden by William Shatner et al (DC Comics)
- Supplemental: Dwellers in the Crucible by Margaret Wander Bonanno
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
- Supplemental: In the Name of Honour by Dayton Ward
- Supplemental: Star Trek Special #2 (DC Comics, 1994) – A Question of Loyalty
- Supplemental: Excelsior – Forged in Fire by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels
- Supplemental: Shadows on the Sun by Michael Jan Friedman
- Supplemental: Cast no Shadow by James Swallow
- Epilogue: Star Trek: Generations
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Arthur Conan Doyle, gene roddenberry, Harve Bennett, james t. kirk, khan, kirk, Leonard McCoy, Motion Picture - Star Trek, Nicholas Meyer, Reliant, Robert Wise, spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek Original Series, star trek: deep space nine, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Starfleet, StarTrek, vulcan, Wrath of Khan