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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan by Vonda N. McIntyre (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins and other interesting objects. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Gene Roddenberry novelised Star Trek: The Motion Picture. While there’s some lingering discussion about whether Roddenberry actually wrote the novelisation, the book reads like the work of a screenwriter turning his hand to prose. It’s more of a manifesto than a novel – an excuse for Roddenberry to expand on his utopian vision for the franchise.

In contrast, Vonda N. McIntyre was hired to write the novelisation of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Unlike Roddenberry, McIntyre was an experienced and professional novelist. She had been writing since the mid-seventies, and had a wealth of experience in both media tie-ins and her own original work. In fact, McIntyre wrote The Entropy Effect, the book published directly after the publication of The Motion Picture, and only the second Star Trek book published by Pocket Books.

All of this is a very round-about way of explaining that The Wrath of Khan is very much an adaptation in a way that The Motion Picture simply was not.


Adapting a feature film is an artform that doesn’t get enough recognition. There are a unique set of skills that make an author perfectly suited to translate a story from one medium to another. On top of an understanding of both mediums, there’s also a flexibility required to work with a story dictated by another author; there’s also the fact that – due to deadlines and logistics – the author rarely a chance to watch the finished movie before sitting down to adapt it.

Indeed, it’s quite possible they may be working from an earlier version of the script, or are unaware of changes made during shooting. For example, in this book, McIntyre writes with the assumption that Kirk was unaware of David Marcus’ existence. This fits with early drafts of the script that even include some of the same dialogue. However, at some stage, the scene was changed to imply that Kirk knew but had been asked to keep a respectful distance. So that is an understandable point of divergence. McIntyre recalls that the movie’s name changed so late that novels had already been printed using the old title.

That said, this meant that tie-in novels were occasionally a gold-mine for concepts that would otherwise have been lost in the shuffle. In the case of The Wrath of Khan, for example, the movie makes no reference to Saavik being half-Romulan. It’s possible to watch the film and think that Saavik is entirely Vulcan. For many fans, McIntyre’s novelisation would have been the first time the possibility had been suggested. (And it’s worth noting that later stories featuring Saavik – like The Pandora Principle or Untold Voyages – take this version of Saavik’s history as a jumping off point for their own approach to the character.)

The best tie-in writers appreciate that they are doing more than merely documenting the story as already told. A story flows differently on the page than it does on the screen, and the best writers are able to account for that – to calibrate for the medium in question. McIntyre’s novelisation of The Wrath of Khan is undoubtedly a different beast from the film. However, that’s not a bad thing. It’s recognisably the same story, occupied by the same characters, underscoring the same things. It is just viewed through a different prism.

And McIntyre has a very interesting way of viewing The Wrath of Khan. This might not necessarily be McIntyre’s story, but this is McIntyre’s book – and the author bleeds through into the text in a number of ways. Most obviously, she throws in continuity references to tie the novel to The Entropy Effect, her earlier Star Trek tie-in. There’s an extended discussion of the supporting character Mandela Flynn from that novel.

McIntyre’s fondness for Sulu shines through. She gave the character his first name, Hikaru, even if it wasn’t used on screen until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Here, she is sure to include the reference to Sulu’s promotion that never made it into the final cut of the film. In a delightful bit of irony, Sulu is grateful to Kirk for the support he offered. “Thank you, Admiral. You had a lot to do with it. I appreciate the encouragement you’ve given me all these years.” Off screen, George Takei blames William Shatner for the fact that the scene never made it into the film.

(It is worth acknowledging that her attempts to capture James Doohan’s accent are… a little strange. Any number of authors will inevitably find their own way of translating Doohan’s Scottish accent to prose. Here, however, Scotty occasionally sounds like he’s trying to speak Ye Olde English. “That sister o’ thine has only just missed being thrown in the brig more times than thy computer can count!” he proclaims. “I’d not take thy sister as a model, mister, if ye know what’s good for ye!”)

There are also the sort of playful and esoteric sequences that one expects from a Star Trek novel in the eighties – back when there was some creative freedom on the book line, and authors were not chained to a particular editorial vision. There’s an extended sequence discussing successful twenty-third century video games, and minor characters fascinated by Lewis Carroll. McIntyre even has David Marcus explicitly acknowledge a possible (and transparent) function for Saavik in the ensemble.

“Mr. Spock’s daughter, right?” he asks. Even if it’s not literally true, it’s close enough to the character’s possible future use, and definitely what a lot of fans would be thinking on watching the film or reading the book. (She is a half-Vulcan character introduced in the story killing off the franchise’s iconic half-Vulcan.) It also acknowledges that she is something of a counterpart to David himself, as the next generation (so to speak) of the Star Trek cast. It’s a nice self-aware reference that is more playful and cheeky than anything that would have made it to screen.

McIntyre also allows herself to drift on tangents, meditating on the themes of the story. There’s a sense, reading her adaptation of The Wrath of Khan, that McIntyre is distinctly uncomfortable with the militarism of the Nicholas Meyer films. The Federation itself is only mentioned fleetingly in the film – twice during Carol Marcus’ Genesis pitch. As far as The Wrath of Khan is concerned, Starfleet is the centre of the Star Trek universe. (Which makes sense, given Meyer imagined the film as “Horatio Hornblower in Space.”)

However, McIntyre makes a number of early asides that seem to suggest this is not the ideal approach to take to Star Trek. At one point, Kirk asks Saavik about her membership of Starfleet, and whether Starfleet officers should be deemed “more valuable” than civilians. Saavik responds:

A just society—and if I am not mistaken, the Federation considers itself to be just—employs a military for one reason alone: to protect its civilians. If we decide to judge that some civilians are ‘worth’ protecting, and some are not, if we decide we are too important to be risked, then we destroy our own purpose. We cease to be the servants of our society. We become its tyrants!

At another point, Saavik reflects on her history as a survivor of a failed Romulan colony. There’s a reference to how the Romulan military is “indistinguishable from the Romulan government.” Give how Romulans provide a dark mirror of the Federation, it seems like a none-too-subtle jab, a reminder that Starfleet is not the be all and end all of the Star Trek universe.

Of course, this in keeping with Roddenberry’s approach to Star Trek, particularly around this point in the franchise’s life-cycle. McIntyre includes several references to Roddenberry-esque concepts in the novel. The staff on Regula I includes two Deltans – explicitly acknowledged by McIntyre’s novel, despite the film’s attempts to conceal this by putting hair on them.

The Star Trek universe as presented here is pointedly secular. McCoy qualifies one of his most iconic lines from the film, “One of our myths said Earth was created in six days, now, watch out! Here comes Genesis! We’ll do it for you in six minutes!” At another point, Chekov wryly identifies Khan’s copy of the Bible as “mythology.”

Yet, McIntyre’s vision of Star Trek remains very much her own. This isn’t merely an attempt to filter The Wrath of Khan through Roddenberry’s utopian ideals. For example, McIntyre doesn’t present the Federation as a moneyless economy. There are references to companies and to money and to purchasing items and materials. McIntyre’s vision of the future appears quite close to our own world, at least as far as references go.

So McIntyre’s version of The Wrath of Khan is distinct from that presented on screen. Taking advantage of the extra space afforded a novelist, McIntyre examines the story from the edges. In many respects, Saavik is the central character of the novelisation. While the character fades to the background for extended portions of the film, the novel is always acutely aware of the half-Vulcan who is introduced as “aesthetically elegant in the spare, understated, esoterically powerful manner of a Japanese brush-painting.”

The novel expands Saavik’s back story, introducing readers to the concept of Hellguard and the dilemma concerning the character’s parentage. Those themes still inform writers working on the character – they are an essential aspect of Margaret Wander Bonanno’s Unspoken Truth, written decades after the release of both the film and the novel of The Wrath of Khan. Saavik feels like more than a potential replacement for Spock should Leonard Nimoy follow through on his initial promise that this would be his last turn in the role. She feels like a real and vital character.

McIntyre works hard to develop other characters who skirted around the outside of The Wrath of Khan. There’s a sense that McIntyre is intentionally focusing on the younger characters caught in this titanic struggle between two old war horses. Scotty’s nephew is a primary character for the first half of the novel, getting a relationship with Saavik as well and highlighting that the script is filled with younger counterparts to our leads. Although such a shift in focus could not have worked on film, it helps ensure that his inevitable death packs a far greater punch.

Similarly, McIntyre spends a little more time on Regula I. She develops the scientists not surnamed “Marcus” into their own characters. She also stays with the action on Regula I during Khan’s torture of the scientists. This does two things. For one, it helps affirm that heroism in the Star Trek universe is not confined to those wearing Starfleet uniforms; the scientists were something of an after-thought in the film, her we are invited to witness their integrity and determination. It also allows us to get a much firmer grip on Khan’s insanity.

In keeping with the focus on younger supporting characters, Khan’s side of the conflict is primarily explored through Joachim. Joachim develops from a minor supporting character in the film into a character with his own internal world. This isn’t a bad thing. Without Ricardo Montalban’s (or Benedict Cumberbatch’s) impressive charisma and screen presence, Khan can seem like a generic raving revenge-obsessed lunatic.

McIntyre’s version of Khan seems much more sadistic and psychotic than the one glimpsed on the screen, partially due to the expansion of the Regula I scene. Joachim is a much more sympathetic character, and he allows us to get a glimpse of Khan as he existed before he was driven mad by grief. Like Peter, Joachim is a young man who swore his life to something he thought greater than himself, unaware of how randomly he would die in service of that oath.

McIntyre’s version of The Wrath of Khan is very different from the version that appeared on screen, but different in a way that acknowledges the differences between a prose novel and a big-budget blockbuster. It’s a more skilful adaptation than The Motion Picture, one that doesn’t seek to replace the movie-watching experience so much as complement it. It’s a fantastic piece of work.

2 Responses

  1. Good review, thanks for sharing such an classic film knowledge ……

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