Friday, September 6, 2019

Squid Flicks: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Title: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Original Release: 1982
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Image result for star trek the wrath of khan
via Wikipedia
While the first Star Trek feature film raked in nine figures at the box office, production came in way over budget.  A sequel was inevitable but Gene Roddenberry was forced out of creative control.  Whether that was the correct choice or not, the resulting movie was outstanding.  The Wrath of Khan is widely regarded as the finest Trek film of all.  I will go a step further: this is the best installment for the original characters period, television series included.  It's not a slam dunk winner but it's definitely in the conversation.  More on that in a bit.

There will be spoilers.  I think at 37 years, we're past the statute of limitations.

While leading a training mission, Admiral Kirk receives a message from Carol Marcus (Bibi Bisch), lead scientist on Project Genesis, a technology capable of generating life on a barren planet.  She is also, we learn, his ex-girlfriend and a significant one at that.  She is royally pissed off with him at the moment.  Kirk has no idea why but we, the audience, do.  Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán), an old nemesis from TOS episode "Space Seed," has kidnapped Chekov and his current captain, Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield).  Khan is using his captives to manipulate Marcus into believing Starfleet is coming for her tech.  Kirk leads his Enterprise crew to go sort matters out with Marcus, not realizing he's walking into Khan's trap.

So, why is this movie the best one?  In order to address that, we have to acknowledge the narrative elephant in the room: Spock dies.  It is probably the most poignant moment in the entire franchise.  Many of the tech crew, including the cinematographer, were in tears during filming of the scene.  It's such a big deal that one easily forgets the other major bomb drop: James T. Kirk has a child!  Carol raised their son David (Merritt Butrick), now an adult scientist working by her side, on her own.  Those two elements alone put The Wrath of Khan in exclusive company among Star Trek's most significant stories.  But they're not the only reasons.

Placing Khan above the first movie is relatively straight forward.  In addition to shifting creative control, Paramount Pictures insisted on a smaller budget for the sequel.  The special effects aren't nearly as slick and the sets and overall production quality feel more like a television show than an early '80s sci-fi cinema classic.  As a result, it's more like Star Trek and that's a wonderful thing.  Less is more.  21st century filmmakers, take note!

More importantly, the script is several strata above the first one.  Give due credit to the editors as well.  This material is significantly kinder to Kirk.  He still has to make a case to lead the Enterprise as the job is beneath his official rank but he does so with reluctance rather than arrogance.  A story doesn't always require a likeable protagonist to be compelling - see Don Draper, Mad Men - but a Star Trek story does.  The hero can have flaws, and Kirk certainly does.  Who better than your best friends, your ex-girlfriend and your adult son to lay them out plainly for you?  But we have to root for his success.  I wanted to see Kirk get his comeuppance in the first movie.  In the second, I long to see his redemption.  Big difference.

Ricardo Montalbán deserves mad props as well.  Even with the death of Spock to compete with, Khan nearly steals the show.  Kirk is always at his best when sparring with a nemesis.  Khan is not my all-time favorite.  I prefer Mark Lenard's Romulan commander in "Balance of Terror."  But Montalbán's presence far outweighs his screen time.  And those pecs are real, folks.  Mr. Roarke was buff!
Image result for khan noonien singh
via Memory Beta
The emotional impact of The Wrath of Khan depends on investment in character and a significant debt is owed to stories past.  "City on the Edge of Forever," "Mirror, Mirror" and "Balance of Terror" are all strong consensus contenders for best TOS episode.  I'd throw my personal favorite "Journey to Babel" in there, too, especially for Spock development.  "Space Seed" ain't half-bad either.  Khan brings together so much of the best of Trek.  Indeed, there are strains of "Balance of Terror" in the submarine-like battle between Kirk and Khan.  I would never be one to downplay the importance of the journey and the combined effect of Spock's death and David's forgiveness are only enhanced by what has come before.  Nonetheless, the terrible and delicious feeling of "where on earth do we go from here?" at the end of Khan is new and exclusive territory for the overall Trek saga.  It's not a "Vader is Luke's father" level cliffhanger but it's still damn good.

Story notes
  • Much has been made over the years of a perceived continuity error.  Khan instantly recognizes Chekov (Walter Koenig) upon encountering him at the beginning of the movie.  The problem: Koenig didn't join the Trek cast until Season 2 of TOS and "Space Seed" is a Season 1 episode.  Out-of-canon efforts have been made to rectify the contradiction.  The novel To Reign in Hell establishes Chekov as a security officer at the time of the episode.  Koenig's own explanation is the funniest: Chekov was an off-camera character who stayed in the bathroom too long while Khan was waiting.

Acting notes
  • For Kirstie Alley, the role of Saavik was a dream come true.  She was a devoted Trekkie as a child, going to bed wearing Vulcan ears.  To be sure, she earned greater long-term fame as Rebecca Howe on Cheers but the Trek gig was a meaningful breakthrough.
Image result for saavik
via Memory Alpha
Food notes
  • Early in the story, Bones brings Kirk a bottle of Romulan ale as a birthday gift, the first canon appearance for the beverage or at least the first to be named as such.  There are blue drinks on the Romulan table in TOS's "The Enterprise Incident."   Naturally, there have been real-world attempts to produce and market the drink, including this recipe.

Literary notes
  • This latest rewatch has sparked my interest in the two 19th-century classics quoted in the dialogue: Melville's Moby Dick invoked by Khan and Dickens' Tale of Two Cities by Kirk.

Music notes
  • James Horner has composed well over 100 film scores and Khan was his big breakthrough.  He is probably the most successful score composer of the era not named John Williams.  His work is more conventional than Jerry Goldsmith's so this is actually one area where I give The Motion Picture the edge.  Still, Khan's music is effective, particularly the homage to the original series in the opening credits and the strains of "Amazing Grace" at the end.

  • How do you make the saga's most emotionally poignant moment even more heartbreaking?  You put Scotty on bagpipes.  

Upcoming events
  • Like The Motion PictureThe Wrath of Khan may also be coming to a big screen near you, though with a more glamorous presentation.  William Shatner himself is touring with the film, including promises of audience Q&A.  He'll be at the Flynn in Burlington in January.   I doubt we'll go as tickets aren't cheap but I'll be grateful for a report back if anyone else sees him.  We went to a similar John Cleese-led presentation of Holy Grail a couple years ago and enjoyed it immensely.

I grant George Costanza the last word:


  1. My sister might like that, have a lovely weekend ☺

  2. I rode with this post all the way through, remembering each scene. those were his real pecs? When Spock died, there was a roar of "NOOO" is the theater, along with mine.

    "Can I cook?.." from Carole Marcus still rings in my mind. We loved that movie. We have watched all the movies and episodes several times.

    1. Yeah, my Trek posts are likely to be long for a while. I'm finding I have a lot to say

      I'm pretty sure that by the time I got around to watching the movie the first time, #3 was already on video, too. So, I knew there was a resurrection coming. Still, the scene and aftermath are handled beautifully. It's a great moment for the entire genre, really.

  3. I'm sure I need to go back and re-watch all of this (and I intend to; I just haven't had the time (I can't even keep up with Rebels!)), but I was not impressed with Kahn when it came out. Or any time I've seen it since.

    1. Well, obviously I disagree with you. To me, Khan simply feels more like Trek than the first movie did. I can understand preferring the story of the first. But the production feels like it's trying too hard to be something else.

  4. I eventually read both books, and they were well worth it. Don't tell Andrew, but I mostly agree with his assessment. But I've gotten hooked on the score, and the death scene is sort of better than the whole movie. My favorite scene in Search for Spock is the word-for-word revisiting of it. Surely the best of times (in a very odd way).

    1. Again, obviously I feel differently.

      The death of Spock... it's easy to forget the rest of the movie after that, really.

  5. yes, you well written review make me to re-watch the movie....

    thank you for attachment of two videos.

  6. Funny how Chekov never met Khan except in the Botany Bay container on the barren sand heap. Yet when they meet face to face for the first time what does Khan say? I never forget a face, Mr Chekov isn't it? So how did Khan know...

    1. Right? I think Koenig's explanation is awesome: he was the guy who took too long in the bathroom while Khan was waiting.

  7. Poor Chekov gets that ugly bug in his ear..I remember being grossed out. I also felt Ricardo Montalban deserved an Oscar Nom for his portrayal of Khan. My ex didn't like the 2nd one at all because of battle scenes but he is a devout trekker and one who hates intimacy. This film is very intimate that bring out more than human aspects and less the science. I love all the episodes you mentioned with Balance of Terror being my favourite

    1. The ear bug truly is revolting!

      I suppose it all depends what you want out of a story. I would say the first movie is intimate in its way with the Decker/Ilia tale but perhaps that's a less threatening intimacy?