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.”