Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khanrecommended viewing

Nicholas Meyer
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Ricardo Montalban

So I had just seen the 2009 Star Trek movie when I’m killing time in Best Buy and see that now they’ve packaged the second through fourth Star Trek movies [i.e. the ones I like] in one low-priced package. And I’m like “Damn them! WHY must they tempt me this way?” Yeah, I resisted a day, but went back to buy them, by that time in a frenzy to watch The Wrath of Khan that night. [I have since ended up buying the blu-ray set of all the movies, making my buying the original boxed set a total waste of money!]

This is I think fairly unanimously considered to be the best Star Trek film with the original cast, and with good reason. We open with Kirstie Alley—before she was widely reviled, but with inability to act firmly in place—as the captain of a starship. She is ordered to enter the neutral zone [where no ship is supposed to go—it’s like the DMZ between Koreas] to save the Kobyashi Maru. THIS is where this whole test, and piece of Kirk history, referenced so heavily in the JJ Abrams film, came from. Alley, as Saavik, gets her ship blown up, then the wall opens, Kirk comes in, and the whole thing is revealed as just a training simulation. Already in here, however, I am loving how very low-tech the whole thing is—shields are represented by a line of LED lights around an acetate of the ship, and several displays on the bridge are just meaningless spacey wave patterns. It really is closer to classic 50s sci-fi than modern CGI anything. At this point I said to myself “HOLY shit I really want to watch the original series!” [and I since have started, and LOVE IT].

So Spock mentions Kirk, now an Admiral and having an Earthbound desk job, coming along on a training mission, but Kirk shuts him down with a curt “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.” Turns out it’s Kirk’s 50th birthday, which Spock says is “Surely the best of times.” Then Bones comes over to Kirk’s pad [Kirk’s AWESOME pad, complete with “modern”-circa-1982 furniture and INFINITY MIRROR!!!] where he tells Kirk that he’s drying up and getting hemorrhoids and vaguely starting to get that nursing home smell, and he should get his command back. Kirk remains tetchy, but recall that he’s going up to the Enterprise for that training mission or whatnot.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in space, Chekov and Blacula [no, just some African-American captain that looks like Blacula] are scouting dead planets for reasons that will become clear later, but encounter some life readings, and go down to check it out. They find a double-wide trailer with some Schlitz still in the fridge, then Chekov recognizes the name SS Botany Bay, and realizes they better get outta Dodge. Too late, there’s a pissed-off Arab outside. It’s Ricardo Montalban [yes, Fantasy Island’s Ricardo Montalban!] and I liked the way he was decked out like a futuristic Arab sheik. Here’s the lowdown: in the episode Space Seed from the original series, Khan, also played by Montalban, messed with Kirk and co, trying to take over the ship, and Kirk left him and his followers on this nice balmy planet with abundant fresh fruits and vegetables and several Starbucks locations. But after he left, the planet next to them blew up, making their planet into a big desert, which steamed Khan up pretty bad, especially since Kirk never checked back—never even sent a card. But then Khan realizes that they didn’t expect to find him, and throws his mind-control bugs in Chekov and Blacula’s ears. These things live in the crevices of some sand-armadillo thing and crawl up into your ear, burrow into your brain, and wrap around your brain stem—and caused shocked WTF?’s from me and my 14-year-old friends when this movie first came out.

So now Kirk and company are in a shuttle approaching the Enterprise in dry dock, using recycled footage from the first film—and not just a LITTLE BIT of recycled footage either—whole, long sequences that anyone going to see this movie would have already seen. The other problem is that somehow the footage is so clear that one loses the sense of vastness they’re going for and it really looks like you’re three feet away from an eight-foot model. Which is exactly the case. So Kirk inspects the engine room in order to provide us with some visual exposition, since an important scene will be set here later, then goes up onto the bridge, which really looks like a Days Inn lobby. Take a look in the elevator, and you’ll see that the walls are lined with an extremely common present-day packing material. It puts one in mind that they really got the bright white look of the bridge in the new film exactly right [to my mind, at least].

So over on this space station is the comely Dr. Markus and her son David, both scientists working on the genesis project. Chekov and company swing by and ask for the whole thing to be beamed over to them, which makes Markus and co. pretty steamed. They send a garbled message to Kirk, which causes them to go check it out, meaning that Kirk assumes command. We are supposed to understand that the ship is manned by rookies, by the way, but that never really becomes apparent in any real way.

Oh, sorry, now I see that it was actually Spock who has the infinity mirror, which only makes sense. He also has several Enya CDs. In here we have some baldly expositional dialogue for those who have just joined us: Kirk says: “You’re about to remind me that logic dictates your actions?” Spock replies: “I would not remind you of something you know so well.” In here I had the random thought that I would LOVE to see Glenda Jackson play Spock. That would be AMAZING. So blah, blah, genesis, and McCoy is all like “What’s the genesis project?” so they all go watch a short expository film. This, by the way, was the longest computer-animated sequence of any film up to that time and let me tell you, as a 14-year-old, it BLEW MY MIND. Genesis goes to a dead planet and whoosh, suddenly there are mountains and plants and lakes and oceans and whole ecosystems. Don’t think too hard about how all that might work. Anyway, as Bones is about to tell us, this could be a big-ass weapon in the wrong hands, as it wipes out whatever life is already there in creating new life. My God, man!

By the way, earlier we have seen that Khan keeps a copy of Moby Dick on his bookshelf, and the way the film is trying to cast him as Ahab—obsessed with revenge—becomes apparent, when his blond hunk second in command makes an impassioned, Starbuck-like plea for Khan to abandon his insane mission before he kills them all. That’s Moby Dick Starbuck and not Galactica Starbuck, by the way.

Okay, so now the best sequence in the entire movie—and arguably all the films put together. The Reliant, taken over by Khan, comes up to the Enterprise and says “Yo, whassup!?” Theoretically the Reliant would have about 300 crew members, and where did they go, one might ask, but let’s not. Since the Reliant is a Federation ship the Enterprise doesn’t raise her shields, and in here the music and direction are working really well to create rising tension. Then—Khan fires on the Enterprise! They get a big gash along the side, then Khan hails them—and Kirk realizes who he’s facing. Khan demands that they surrender, and Kirk acquiesces. When Shatner sat down in his chair post-surrender and allows a scared, bewildered expression to cross his face for a moment is when it occurred to me—wait a minute, Shatner is actually delivering a performance here! He’s really acting! Which is a little hard to imagine after the undercurrent of self-parody that has crept into his work over the past few years.

So the really good part continues as Khan demands the information about the Genesis device and Kirk says he’ll get it—but is actually figuring out a way to lower Khan’s shields. Kirk is precious as he turns as tells Khan “It’s coming through now,” as they’re patching into Khan’s console and lowering his shields. They get them down, Khan satisfyingly freaks, and Kirk blasts him! After the long drawn-out torpor of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, seeing starships have a big battle was quite refreshing. Anyway, both ships, heavily damaged, now limp off to regroup.

Then Scotty brings a charred cadet to the bridge, all sad. In a deleted scene, it was revealed that this little fella was Scotty’s nephew, which would explain his being all poopy about it, as it’s a little out of the blue here. The cadet is played by Ike Eisenmann of the original Witch Mountain movies, by the way.

Kirk and buddies beam down to a cavern deep within the planet, where they meet Carol Marcus and her son David, who takes a dim view of Kirk. Turns out, guess what? David is Kirk’s SON! Only this plot development doesn’t really go much of anywhere. Chekov and the other captain are there, and they both struggle to overcome their mind-control bugs. The other captain chooses suicide over harming precious Kirk! And somehow Chekov is just able to overcome and eject his mind-control bug through strength of will. Ya see, when you want something bad enough, you don’t let mind-control bugs get in your way. But then Khan beams out the Genesis device and announces that he’s going to leave Kirk and pals in the middle of the planet to die. Classic dialogue ensues as Khan hisses that Kirk will be “Buried aliiiiiive… Burrrried Alahhhhhiiiiiivvveee!” and Kirk looks like he’s about to pop out a brick before delivering his legendary “KHHHHAAAAAANNNNNN! KHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNN!” Sorry, you HAVE to love this. If you don’t, get the fuck out.

They go to this cavern that has been transformed into a lush garden paradise by the genesis device, say a few “My God’s,” and Saavik starts quizzing Kirk for the umpteenth time on how he passed the Kobyashi Maru, and he finally reveals that he cheated. Then he calls up Spock and they’re all transported handily off the planet. They had the power to go back all along! Which, when you think about it, makes Kirk’s impassioned “Khhaaaan!” just a big piece of acting, as he knew he’d get off in a few hours anyway. Ah well, it’s so awesome that one doesn’t mind.

On the Enterprise, Kirk heads into a nearby nebula and calls Khan up to taunt him, saying “I am laughing at your superior intellect.” They go in, spook around for a bit, then Kirk blows the shit out of Khan’s ship, the blond makes another impassioned plea not to pursue this insane mission, and Khan ignites the genesis device. Now the Enterprise has to get the hell out of there—except no warp drive. But—where’s Spock? He went down to sacrifice himself to save the ship, which he does, and then has a touching death scene with Kirk, and buys it. Apparently Leonard Nimoy did NOT want to come back as Spock for Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, and that would have been a good call, based on what a majestic turd that thing was, and the only way they could get him back for this movie was to promise him that he would die and that would be that. But they snuck in a few hints that he would be back again [like a quickie mind-download into McCoy] and he had such a good experience on this film that he decided to stay with the series. Anyway, he’s dead, his coffin is on the surface [apparently they shot the coffin on the genesis planet in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park], and Kirk says he “feels young.” The end!

As I said, it’s by far the best of the movies. It has a good story that doesn’t feel like it was just cooked up because we HAVE to have a story, and that story organically calls for a lot of action and warfare. It also has some very clever little twists and reversals, and works best when its showing these two minds trying to outwit each other. It also has its own little themes, which is kind of more than we could hope for. Kirk feels old. He bitterly wants to just settle back behind a desk and be left alone, although not really. Through the movie he has to face up to the actions of his youth, and the primary device of the film is one all about regeneration and new life where things were barren and dead. In contrast to Khan’s planet, which WAS lush but was rendered barren. Then there’s the whole Moby Dick aspect, on top of the established chemistry and camaraderie of the crew, and a viewer has something to hold onto, instead of it just being a rote, shallow adventure. And suddenly the whole series seems vital and interesting again, which seems like a miracle after the thudding turd that was the first movie. And the success of this movie did enable the series to continue for another four movies, after plans were in place for this to be the last of them. You can read a vast amount of fairly interesting material on this movie on its Wikipedia page.

So that’s it! If you liked the new, Abrams version, this [or the original series] is what you want to get next. Do not attempt to watch The Motion Picture. If you were into sci-fi and grew up in that time period, of course this movie is already in your canon of classics. If only they could have all been like this….

Should you watch it: 

Yes! It’s the best of the movies and is of much higher quality than any of the others.