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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (IDW, 2009) #1-3 (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.

Due to bad timing, the Star Trek comic book license was between publishers when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released into cinemas in 1982. As the license transitioned between Marvel and DC, the movie adaptation got lost in the shuffle. As a result, the film was the only classic Star Trek film without a contemporary comic book adaptation. It remained that way for over a quarter of a century.

However, on the release of JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek, current license holder IDW decided to release an omnibus of the classic movie adaptations as a tie-in. In doing so, they discovered a Wrath-of-Khan-sized hole in the collection, and so set about filling it with a three-issue miniseries that could be included in the omnibus for completeness’ sake.

Stationary orbit...

Stationary orbit…

It is somewhat ironic that The Wrath of Khan should be the film that did not receive a comic book adaptation. After all, it is the Star Trek film that casts the longest shadow, and arguably the film that made the greatest impact among both the fanbase and general audiences. In fact, it seems like even the Star Trek films have been trying to adapt The Wrath of Khan. Two of the four films featuring the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation (Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Nemesis) feel like retreads of The Wrath of Khan, to say nothing of JJ Abrams’ two rebooted films.

The Wrath of Khan is a collection of iconic Star Trek moments. It has been weirdly fetishised by the franchise. Star Trek: Enterprise dove into a continuity-heavy season with a three-issue tribute to the film’s continuity and even iconography. Khan’s dialogue is frequently alluded to and acknowledged, even out of context. (“It is very cold on Breen,” Gul Dukat notes in Return to Grace, jealously nipping at the heels of the franchise’s most popular bad guy.) The climax of Star Trek Into Darkness goes for broke trying to emulate the big set pieces from The Wrath of Khan, right down to a death-that-isn’t-death-saving-the-ship.

Khan you dig it?

Khan you dig it?

So The Wrath of Khan really is a pretty massive piece of Star Trek, and the fact that it was never adapted into comic book form is particularly striking. Given the heightened drama of the film, the glorious melodrama of Moby Dick in space, one imagines that the story would have leant itself to the medium. Watching the film, you can practically block out the comic book adaptation. A dramatic full-page splash here, insets alongside ship-to-ship combat there. The only thing that could make The Wrath of Khan more gloriously pulpy would be some over-the-top narration trying to get inside Kirk’s head.

However, the importance of The Wrath of Khan plays it against it here. The Wrath of Khan is now a sacred text of Star Trek fandom. While a looser and more playful adaptation might have been possible when the film was originally released, the movie has become so firmly entrenched in the collective consciousness that even casual fans can drop quotes here and there. The Wrath of Khan has becomes fossilised in the quarter-century since its original release; it is set in stone. There is no room for improvisation or manipulation, no opportunity to tinker with the story to make it better fit the medium.

Everyone's dead, Dave...

Everyone’s dead, Dave…

There’s also the sense that this adaptation is an exercise in completionism from IDW. In an interview with Newsarama, author Andy Schmidt effectively conceded that the comic was written to plug a gap:

I’ve read the reason behind adaptation this is to make up for it being the only Star Trek movie not adapted to comic books. Was this an idea generated at IDW to do this, or something the film people brought up? 

I actually brought it up in a meeting. With the new movie coming out, I suggested we publish a collecting of all the adaptations. Then when I did the research, I discovered, for interesting reasons, that the second film was never adapted. So I brought that up at the meeting and they agreed to let me do it.

As such, there was always going to be a rote and conservative quality to the adaptation. The Wrath of Khan isn’t being released because it’s a good idea or because there’s something to be said; it’s being released because IDW wants the full set.

Explosive action!

Explosive action!

To be fair, this is par for the course. Ever since they secured the Star Trek license, there has been something very completionist about IDW’s attitude to the franchise – a “gotta catch ’em all” attitude towards important moments of continuity in the history of the franchise. This is most notable in the company’s fixation on the end of the five-year mission from the classic Star Trek. Miniseries like Year Four, The Enterprise Experiment or even Mission’s End exist to offer some sense of closure to the show – to satisfy fans perplexed at how they only got three seasons of a five-year mission.

It’s very much an exercise in box ticking, something that exists because there was a gap where there really shouldn’t be a gap. So there’s no real excitement or energy to the long-delayed comic book adaptation of The Wrath of Khan. Andy Schmidt doesn’t really have anything particularly novel to say about The Wrath of Khan, he’s just editing down a beloved movie so it can fit within three issues and slot in comfortably between Marvel’s adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and DC’s adaptation of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Spock's dead tired of people asking him that...

Spock’s dead tired of people asking him that…

So there are very few changes to the source material. There’s some quick shots of McCoy doing something to Chekov as the Ceti Eel escapes from his ear canal. There are a few trimmed lines of dialogue here or there, tidied up so they can fit in word balloons. A few unnecessary plot beats are tidied away. The most significant alteration that I noticed was that Kirk (rather than Spock) deduces that Khan is manoeuvring in two-dimensional space almost immediately. In the film, this comes after one attack in the nebula, so it makes sense. In the comic, there seems to be little basis for the supposition, save that it was made in the film.

There are also some very strange choices. Schmidt has clearly committed to offering a faithful adaptation of the classic movie, and to play up the iconography of the film. We get the opening training exercise and the closing conversation between Kirk and Spock. Schmidt is not being subversive or cheeky here, he’s not playing with audience expectations or offering something novel. He’s doing a straight up adaptation of the movie.

The situation just blew up in everybody's face...

The situation just blew up in everybody’s face…

However, there’s a sense that the comic is afraid to bask in the campy glory of the source material, unwilling to embrace the cheesy charm of the more over-the-top moments. So, for example, the reveal of Khan and his supermen on Ceti Alpha V gets a splash page, underscoring just how threatening they are. However, Kirk’s “Khan!” – arguably the biggest moment of the film, the most loved and the most parodied – is consigned to the bottom right-hand corner of a page. Kirk doesn’t even get a spare exclamation mark.

It feels like a poor choice. If you are going to do this sort of reverential adaptation of a beloved film, you might as well bask in what everybody loves about it. You may as well play up what makes the story fun and exciting, rather than simply trying to fit as much of the movie into three issues as humanly possible. It’s a scene that could have been fun and exciting, but instead, the movie glosses over the high-impact aspects of the film to focus on fidelity to the text itself.

Into the wild purple yonder...

Into the wild purple yonder…

The Wrath of Khan feels like a wasted opportunity, and an unfortunate example of the completionist urges in Star Trek fandom.

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for these reviews! They’re just in time, as a local theater played a 1982 35mm print of Wrath of Khan over the past weekend. So I’ve got Khan on the brain!

    • Our own IFI did a screening recently. (Also, Amazon are doing a fire sale on the blu rays, prompting rumours that there’s a remastered blu ray release coming soon. The completely unsourced rumour is that the CBS team aren’t moving from the remastering of TNG to the remastering of DS9, but maybe to the movies – even though there are all sorts of ownership rules and rights issues that make it hard to believe.)

      That said, as much as I love Khan, I’m a little sad that its thirty-second anniversary rather overshadowed the recent thirtieth anniversary of The Search for Spock. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who loves that movie almost as much as I do Khan.

      • I recently watched Search for Spock for the first time in about a decade. (Though I consider myself a Star Trek fan, the re-watch is a rare event. It’s an ‘art-is-ephemeral’ thing.) And I was BLOWN AWAY.

        The story moved at such a rapid pace, I was actually sat up, on the edge of my seat for the entire film. Also, I am a sucker for the 80s’ version of the future. I love all the tech. And the design (which featured Spacedock, the Excelsior, and the Klingon Bird-of-Prey for the first time each) was just stellar.

        I love STIII.

      • And Styles. I am irrationally fond of Styles. It’s a tiny, thankless role, but James B. Sikking is absolutely wonderful. And his swagger stick is awesome.

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