Spock: “The needs of the many …”
Kirk: “…outweigh the needs of the few.”
Spock: “Or the one.”
An exchange between Spock and James T. Kirk onboard the Enterprise
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan was a radical departure from its predecessor Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is what Paramount Pictures wanted. Even though Star Trek: The Motion Picture made money it was perceived as a failure. Many people complained that it was dull and pretentious. In other words, they wanted action! And that is what director Nicholas Meyer delivered with Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, only he added a human element that elevated the film to classic status.
This film is the most personal Star Trek film out of the many that have come out. Its main characters go through some intense and heartfelt emotional journeys and are changed forever. Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner in his best performance as Kirk) faces the prospect of middle age and looking back at his life. His best friend Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) faces his mortality with a sense of bravery and nobility that touched audiences’ heart in a way that would have been more lasting if his fate had been final. On the other side of the coin, the main villain Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) is wracked with bitterness and hate over his lot in life and in the end this anger consumes him.
In the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” Khan was part of a group genetically enhanced despots from Earth’s violent past found hibernating by Kirk and his crew. After briefly capturing the Enterprise, Kirk defeats him and exiles him and the other superhumans to an uninhabited planet.
In between that episode and the film, the planet. Ceti Alpha V, underwent an environmental disaster that made it practically unlivable. Think of Tatooine on its worst day with blistering sandstorms. Most of Khan’s people didn’t survive, including his wife. Now, Khan is a seething cauldron of fury out to annihilate the one he blames for his predicament: James T. Kirk.
Even though the film is a sequel to “Space Seed” it skillfully brings viewers up to speed with only a few lines of exposition regarding Khan, who is portrayed magnificently by Montalban. The actor originated the role of Khan in “Space Seed” and made a solid impression in that episode but by the time that the first Star Trek sequel came around, Montalban was more known for his role in the show Fantasy Island. His performance as Khan demonstrated the true nature of his acting prowess thanks to his bringing to the role a sense of regal eloquence, animalistic charisma, and maligned fury.
The film opens with the Enterprise, commanded by a young Vulcan named Saavik (Kristie Alley in her first role), being attacked by Klingon ships and losing the battle with main characters like Spock being killed. But it was a simulation at Starfleet Academy. Some time has passed between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and this film. One noticeable difference is that the Starfleet uniforms are now bright red jackets with black pants giving its personnel a more militaristic look. The filmmakers wanted to convey a sense of naval conditions with this film since they saw it as a retake of Horatio Hornblower. In fact, the feel of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan feels more grounded, less lofty than in the first film. Sets look more cramped and a bit more lived in although not as severe as with Star Warsor Alien. A good eye will spot a No Smoking sign on the set, which alarmed some fans who hoped that the awful habit would’ve been gone by the 23rd century.
The actual Enterprise is now training vessel commanded by Spock for young cadets and officers, including Spock’s protogé Saavik. Kirk is no longer commanding a starship and feels like a relic, in spite of the fact that it’s his birthday. Gifts from Spock and Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) do little to cheer him up, prompting McCoy to urge him to do something with himself and stop living in the past.
Around this time, the starship Reliant approach the barren Ceti Alpha V, which is to be used as a testbed for the Genesis science experiment. Kirk’s former lover Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and her son David (Merritt Butrick) have developed the Genesis Device, which can initiate rapid terraforming on inhospitable worlds for colonization. The Reliant’s captain Clark Terrel (Paul Winfield) and first officer, the former Enterprise navigator Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) beam down to the planet investigate life signs only to find Khan and his people marooned there. After capturing the two men, Khan and his genetic superhumans gain control of the ship and set out on a mission of vengeance.
Kirk joins Spock onboard the Enterprise with his original crewmates to assist with a training cruise for Starfleet cadets. They receive a call from Dr. Marcus wanting to know why Kirk is taking the Genesis Device. What she and Kirk don’t realize is that Khan is trying to lure Kirk by manipulating a brainwashed Chekov into stating that Admiral Kirk wants the Device. Kirk takes the bait and orders the Enterprise to head out to Marcus’ science station Regula I, which orbits an asteroid the station is named after, and investigate. In a preemptive move, Spock relinquishes command of the Enterprise to his friend because as he famously said, “Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.”
Shortly thereafter, the excitement begins as Kirk and company on the Enterprise encounter the starship Reliant, which isn’t answering any hails. Kirk makes a critical error in not taking precaution on time and Khan with his people onboard the Reliant catches Kirk with his guard down. One of the greatest space ship battles on the silver screen ensues as the Reliant starts slicing into the Enterprise with finely tuned phaser shots that leave ugly scars on the hull. In a strange turn of events, film wise, this is the only time that Kirk and Khan face each other and its by viewscreen not in person. In the original script there was a scene where the two men physically battled each other but was cut for time and cost reasons. The filmmakers missed a golden opportunity in not having a face-to-face encounter between these two. Imagine how chewed up the scenes would’ve been!
Kirk manages to retaliate and inflict some serious damage to the Reliant, forcing Khan to break off his attack and flee. The Enterprise crew lick their wounds and their ship continues on its course after some repairs. After arriving at Regula I, Kirk, McCoy and Saavik beamed aboard the orbital station and find it abandoned, except for Chekov and Terrell. They learn that the station’s transporter logs indicate it was used to beam people inside the Regula asteroid. They all use the same coordinates to beam down inside the asteroid which is a hollowed out station. Kirk is then attacked by David but Carol quickly intervenes and an awkward family reunion begins as Kirk sees his son David for the first time in who knows how long. Yes, Kirk is a deadbeat dad, he stayed away from his son at Carol’s request.
Before this reunion could deviate into the stuff seen on daytime talk shows, Khan initiates his next plan . He orders the brainwashed Terrell and Chekov into retrieving the Genesis Device that was located in the asteroid station and have it beamed to the Reliant. Terrell is then ordered to kill Kirk but shoots himself dead rather than kill Kirk while Chekov is subdued. But Khan gets what he wanted. He steals the Genesis Device and he leaves Kirk and the others marooned in the asteroid. However, Spock is able to retrieve the landing party and soon after Kirk and Khan via their ships have a final confrontation in a nearby nebula.
The final battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant was suspenseful and thrilling. A cosmic game of cat and mouse is played by the two starships, which are nearly blinded since the multicolored nebula’s gases interferes with their sensors. The two ships blast away at each other and maneuver around like submarines. Sure the science buffs often complain that the battles weren’t realistic but who cares? It was exciting! Whereas the first film had little action, this one has enough for at least two films.
But Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan isn’t some mindless action fest, it had emotion at its core. More than anything, Star Trek II centered rightly on two men, growing older, looking back at their lives and how they faced their circumstances.
Khan failed to learn from his experiences thanks to his wounded pride and that proved to be his downfall. He had many opportunities to get his punches in and just walk away from his vendetta but he couldn’t let go of his hatred. Khan often refused to listen to reason –even his lieutenant urged him to just take the Genesis Device and forget about Kirk. In the end these intense emotions destroys him.
James T. Kirk was essentially undergoing a midlife crisis in this film. He was burned out, bored and felt that his best days were behind him. But by the end of the film, he was a changed man and you could feel it. Many like to make fun of William Shatner’s acting but here he is excellent as his alter ego. As usual, Kirk is bombastic but also humbled, such as when he was forced to use his eyeglasses during a battle, and Shatner showed some nuance with his role. Credit for that goes to Meyer who directed him well. He played Kirk lightheartedly at the right moments and emotionally fragile as he comes to grips with the time he lost with his son and, of course, the death of his best friend. Despite his loss, Kirk realizes what he has gained–a relationship with David and a hopeful outlook on what lies ahead. This new viewpoint and the experience will help Kirk deal with the dilemmas that he will face in the future films.
It’s not really a spoiler at this point to mention that Spock dies heroically while saving the Enterprise. That is because anyone can see that he appears in future Star Trek films. But back then, his death was quite poignant to people not used to science fiction/comic book deaths. Nowadays, a character death wouldn’t be a big deal since plot devices like cloning and time travel are used to undo deaths. Frankly it cheapens the death in the first place and robs it of its impact. Even at the end of Star Trek II there are hints that Spock isn’t quite gone. Regardless of the plot point’s legacy, the final scenes between Kirk and Spock are very touching and the two actors are able to emote the bond that the two characters have for each other.
Most fans consider this to be the best Star Trek film and for good reason. What it lacked in the theme of exploration, it excelled with thrilling action that was underlined by sincere character examinations. That too was one of the core elements of the original show. Another element was the impact of technology. In this case, that is the Genesis Device, a benevolent instrument to ease human suffering is to be used as the ultimate WMD by Khan. It’s a theme further explored in the next film.
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan isn’t flawless. Its budgetary constraints do show but aren’t a detriment, after all it was originally supposed to be a TV movie pilot. One thing that bothered me was the use of stock footage. There are some shots of the Enterprise that was used in the first film, it’s not a big deal. So it’s understandable, and the producers wisely saved what money they had for the big action scenes.
James Horner’s score isn’t as good as Jerry Goldsmith’s was in the first film although he gives it a good shot. The riveting music during the battle scenes are a nice homage to the kind of music heard in the original show’s fight scenes. His main theme gives the impression of sailing ships, which is what he and Nicholas Meyer wanted to evoke but it still falls short of Goldsmith’s iconic theme. Another drawback is that sometimes the film feels pompous and a bit over the top with the stilted, literary dialogue and quoting. That was a trademark of the original show and while it works perfectly whenever Khan talks, Meyer pushed the limit.
Credit should also be extended to producer Harve Bennett. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that he saved Star Trek. Bennett understood what worked with Star Trek and how to make an exciting film. This particular Star Trek film had to deliver or else there wouldn’t be any more films. The first sequel had to not only fill seats in theaters but please fans and it accomplished that goal. Above all everyone involved made sure that in this film character was the driving force.