NOTE: Though I take great pains in most of my reviews and essays to avoid giving away plot details, I do include specifics in the longer essays on “My 100 Favorite Movies,” and this piece contains significant spoilers.
I used to think of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982) as
a guilty pleasure. After all, it is a modest-budget, early-‘80s movie
adaptation of a cheesy ‘60s TV show. It was shot hastily on a handful of cheap
sets with a cast of actors who were never considered great thespians—the
leading man William Shatner is, in fact, infamous for being a showboating
ham. The film tells a simple,
melodramatic adventure story full of literary pretensions and operatic levels
of emotion. However, over subsequent
decades and dozens of screenings I’ve come to realize what an empirically
remarkable film The Wrath of Kahn is. Unlike so many sci-fi movies made in the wake
of Star Wars (1977), it emphasizes
characters over special effects, and because audiences grew up with the Starship Enterprise crew (and, importantly, with
the actors who play them) a heightened connection existed that was unique to
this time and this picture. The filmmakers took full advantage of the unprecedented
dramatic opportunities inherent in this unusually strong bond between viewer
and subject to explore fundamental themes about life and death. Since the story
requires almost no exposition about its characters’ interpersonal histories,
intriguing ideas about how we define ourselves through our friends and our
adversaries are examined in a perceptive yet deceptively casual way. The film ultimately
evokes feelings of loss in ways not available to movies prior to this one,
and (because of the ubiquity and requirements of contemporary franchised entertainment) not possible for later pictures to achieve. While very much a
product of its own particular time and circumstances, Kahn nevertheless
still has impact today, not just as a rousing sci-fi adventure, but also as a
surprisingly consequential meditation on aging and mortality.
Beyond these enduring
strengths, the film superbly demonstrates how production and budget limitations
can often foster creativity and reap great returns. Made in a much-disparaged era when the film
industry was dominated by unimaginative corporate CEOs and a cabal of powerful
super-agents, Wrath of Kahn
exemplifies how the cynical, bottom-line driven Hollywood machine of the 1980s could
actually empower writers, producers, and directors to create a revolutionary
new work and to reinvigorate dormant material. Made from a well-known and well-loved preexisting
property, Kahn had a creative team bold
enough and free enough to violate the expectations and demands expressed by
legions of obsessive fans, and even by its creator. The result turned out considerably better
than any of those delirious devotees could have imagined. The Wrath of Kahn is widely regarded as superior to its predecessor
in every measurable way. The rarest of
sequels, it not only tops the film it follows, but almost completely eclipses
it. Both a critical and financial
success, the movie became the definitive linchpin in one of the most durable
and beloved series in American and international pop culture. Within the colossal
Star Trek universe (which includes six
television series, more than a dozen feature films, and countless novels,
comics, and video games), this movie alone stands on its own as an iconic
masterwork of popular entertainment.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn came out at a time of great abundance in sci-fi and fantasy films. The summer of 1982 saw the releases of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Blade Runner, The Thing, Tron, Conan the Barbarian, and many more all appearing within a few weeks of each other. I used to think that much of my love of Kahn derived from the fact that I was the ideal age for it when it first hit theaters, but this assumption doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Kahn succeeds in part because its appeal is not limited to any one narrow demographic. After all, in 1982 I was too young to have any familiarity with the original Star Trek TV series. Surely the prime audience members for Kahn were people who grew up watching the TV show over and over again in syndicated reruns as teenagers in the 1970s. Those folks had the deepest love for the program, its characters, and its progressive values, but also embraced the show for its endearingly dated, campy qualities. Or perhaps the most receptive fans of this film were baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s and who watched the Star Trek series when it originally aired. Those viewers were the unironic true believers who initially fell under the program’s idealistic spell. Kahn also held tremendous appeal for the WWII generation who grew up watching Errol Flynn swashbucklers like The Sea Hawk and reading the exploits of C.S. Forester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower. This modest-scale adventure movie is as much a throwback to those old-school naval thrillers as it is an exemplar of futuristic sci-fi entertainment.
While possessing knowledge of and affection for the Star Trek series increases a viewer’s enjoyment of The Wrath of Kahn tenfold, you need not have any familiarity with the original TV show—nor have seen the preceding movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture—to appreciate this film. Kahn is not a traditional sequel, nor is it a modern “reboot.” It is more of a do-over, a midcourse correction, or a skillful wiping of the slate where almost everything of value and importance is retained. It’s as if a studio owned the rights to a popular novel, spent several years and countless millions working with the author on a big screen adaptation, and then, despite the relative financial success of the final product, decided to forget about that version and make an entirely new film from the same book. And this “second time around,” they fared infinitely better. In the case of Kahn, the studio spent a fraction of the time and money they had on their first try, and they shut out the beloved original author in favor of two inexperienced upstarts. Thinking about the project in these terms, it seems the picture should have been a disaster: a sub-par sequel made on the cheap by a studio that simply wanted to squeeze every last penny out of a property it owned. Instead, The Wrath of Kahn is a shining example of how great art (or at least great entertainment) frequently gets produced by a committee rather than an auteur, and how savvy filmmakers utilize set-backs, restrictions, and other production circumstances to enhance and augment their visions.
The Wrath of Kahn is the picture that secured both the enduring legacy and the perpetual future of the Star Trek franchise. Understanding the history of the TV series that led up to this seminal movie makes it easier to see why the film struck such a responsive chord in the collective conscious of the Western world. The television show we now think of as a staple of 1960s American culture barely made it on the air and remained on shaky ground for its entire three-season run. The first pilot episode that writer/producer Gene Roddenberry delivered to NBC went over-budget and was rejected by the network for being too cerebral. However, in an unprecedented move, the network agreed to finance a second pilot, providing a number of significant changes were made. Roddenberry adhered to most of the network demands in his second pilot, scripted with writer Samuel A. Peeples. He replaced the brooding, world-weary Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) with the dynamic, physical, and charismatic Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Roddenberry made other changes that delivered an action-adventure story more akin to the cosmic Western he had originally pitched to the network. He removed the female first officer (Majel Barrett), since the network objected to a woman in a power position. But Roddenberry did not give up on his pointy-eared alien character Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), whom the network claimed looked too satanic for American TV. Rather than eliminate Mr. Spock, he combined qualities of his alien science officer with aspects of his now-eliminated female first officer, who had possessed a superior, logical mind but lacked basic human emotions. It was the first of many near-death experiences and narrow escapes that Spock would have, both on screen and off.
The combining of personality traits into a half human, half alien scientist ruled by logic, reason, and curiosity made for one of television’s most recognizable and beloved figures. Spock’s ongoing endeavor to fully understand and relate to human beings, as well as his own internal struggle to suppress his human emotions as he tries to live up to his Vulcan heritage and indeed attempt to “pass” for a full-blooded member of the Vulcan race, ironically made him the most universally “human” character on the show. While the charming, virile, and classically attractive Captain Kirk embodied the traditional characteristics of most American leading men, Mr. Spock was a more relatable reflection of most viewer’s own life experiences. Though superior to normal men in regards to his strength and intelligence, Spock was less an idolized hero like Kirk, and more of a complex individual who had to deal with conflicts and challenges that most viewers could connect with.
Spock was the most visible representation of “the other” in an uncommonly diverse cast for the 1960s. Much to the network’s chagrin, Roddenberry populated the Enterprise crew with people of many races and ethnicities: the black communications officer Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the Asian helmsman Mr. Sulu (George Takei), and, by the second season, the Russian navigator Ensign Chekov (Walter Koenig). This casting felt less like liberal tokenism and more like a simple, honest (and accurate) depiction of what the future would look like. But while Roddenberry envisioned a time when racial prejudice no longer existed between the people of the Earth, a deeply ingrained fear and mistrust of unfamiliar cultures was still part of many of his characters’ psychology. Mr. Spock often suffered the indignities and slander of xenophobia, not only from his fellow crewmen but also from his fellow Vulcans, his family, and even himself.
Unlike the minorities directly represented on the show, Mr. Spock was metaphorical mirror for people who felt outside the norm in their society. Therefore it wasn’t just awkward, brainy, young men who recognized aspects of themselves in him. People on the then-little-understood autism spectrum, most famously the activist and professor of animal science Temple Grandin, found much to relate to in the unusual way Spock processed the world around him. Queer people, who had virtually no positive representation on TV or in movies at the time, found a depiction of their experiences in much of how Spock behaved and how he was viewed and treated by those around him. At a time when Jewish characters were almost completely absent from TV screens, Spock—an intellectual foreigner with distinctive facial features—could be seen as a kind of surrogate Jew. According to his autobiography, Nimoy brought much of his own experience growing up as a Jewish kid in predominantly Irish Catholic Boston to the role. In episodes that invented and explored the Vulcan culture, Nimoy was frequently called on to come up with the various rituals of the Vulcan people, for which he drew upon his own religious traditions. The famous “live long and prosper” salute in which Vulcans hold up one hand with their fingers separated into a V, actually the shape of the Jewish letter “Shin,” was inspired by a benediction ritual Nimoy saw as a child in his synagogue. And from an even broader perspective of the immigrant experience, Spock’s “half-breed” status aligned him not only with any people of a mixed-race heritage but anyone from a non-Western culture who now lived in the Western world. Indeed anyone who has felt like an outsider for any reason or who doesn’t totally fit in with their peers (and that includes nearly all of us at some point in our lives) could appreciate Mr. Spock and feel empowered by his victories.
The TV series, which ran for
just 79 episodes between 1966 and 1969, captured the hearts and minds of sci-fi
fans but never scored high Nielson ratings. It was often short on money and
under constant threat of cancelation. By the end of the second season it seemed
unlikely that the program would last beyond its initial 55 episodes. But in
another unprecedented move in TV history, Roddenberry secretly funded an effort
with Star Trek fans to persuade tens
of thousands of viewers to write letters to NBC asking the company not to
cancel the show. With the help of science-fiction convention organizers, a
well-ordered campaign was launched to save Star
Trek. The effort drew attention to itself as well as to the show and the
network. It was a public relations boon and a primitive way of measuring Star Trek’s demographics. Letters flowed
in not just from nerdy kids but also from scientists, teachers, doctors, lawyers,
and other professionals, making the Star
Trek audience attractive to sponsors. The network renewed the series to
much ballyhoo, but it slashed the budget and moved it to an undesirable
timeslot. These downgrades were demoralizing for Roddenberry, who disengaged
from the program. He contributed only a couple of scripts to the third season,
overseeing it from a hands-off position.
While the show’s final year is its most uneven—with a heavy reliance on formulaic teleplays—it still boasts some of its finest entries. In several instances, just as would be the case with The Wrath of Kahn, the lack of a lavish budget engendered superior results. For example, the initial intention for the episode, "Specter of the Gun," in which Captain Kirk and his landing party are brought to an alien re-creation of the OK Corral, was for the show to be shot on the Western sets of Paramount’s backlot. Due to the budget cuts, the scenes were shot on the same flimsy soundstage that usually housed the unconvincing otherworldly exteriors of the planets visited by the crew. In the case of this episode, however, the minimalist, impressionistic, half-built setting served the script brilliantly.
Despite a handful of such opportune occurrences in Season Three, by its end ratings were down again, and enthusiasm for the show had waned. Another letter-writing campaign was waged, to no avail. The cast disbanded, and Roddenberry continued to pursue other projects. But this last season secured enough episodes for Star Trek to go into syndication, where it truly became a phenomenon. Local TV stations began running it five to seven days a week in the late afternoons and early evenings. Young people discovered the show in this format and watched it loyally every day. Unlike most programs in syndicated reruns, Star Trek’s popularity grew exponentially, attracting a vastly larger audience than it enjoyed in primetime. Viewers relished watching the same 79 shows over and over again and looked forward to their favorite episodes coming back around. Fans delighted in the many idiosyncratic irregularities and flaws that contributed to its campy reputation every bit as much as they admired the complex themes, thought-provoking political subtext, and frequently excellent writing that made the show special.
In 1972 the first official Star Trek convention was held, drawing thousands of fans with encyclopedic knowledge of the show, its characters, and the history of its fictional universe. These folks came to be known as "Trekkies," though most of them consider that a derogatory term and prefer the moniker of “Trekkers.” The legions of young fans led Paramount to create a half-hour animated Star Trek series, which lasted for two seasons. The Trekkie influence was felt outside entertainment circles when another letter writing campaign convinced President Gerald Ford to name NASA’s first Space Shuttle the Enterprise after the show’s iconic spaceship. In 1976 Roddenberry and most of the Star Trek cast reunited when the U.S. Enterprise was christened. By the mid-‘70s, the show’s signature opening credits with William Shatner’s narration about his crew’s five-year mission aboard the starship Enterprise had entered the popular consciousness on an international basis.
Still, Star Trek might have remained a minor cult classic were it not for the unexpected and groundbreaking success of George Lucas’ sci-fi/fantasy/adventure film Star Wars in 1977. Far more than Star Trek, Star Wars legitimized science fiction in the collective minds of Hollywood and worldwide pop culture. Yet the initial impact Star Wars had on Star Trek was to kill plans for a potential Trek movie. Paramount Pictures, which owned Star Trek, had toyed with the idea of bringing the show back as a feature film for several years. The studio commissioned scripts from Roddenberry as well as from many preeminent sci-fi writers, including Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, and the team of Chris Bryant and Allan Scott. Though dozens of treatments and screenplays were duly generated, none received a green light to go into production. When Star Wars came out in ‘77, Paramount executives gave up on the Star Trek feature idea, foolishly believing there was no possibility that two big movies of this ilk could both become hits. It is difficult (and rather wistfully nostalgic) to think back on a time when sequels were not considered worthy prospects, sci-fi and fantasy were dismissed as third-rate genres, and the notion of making a film from a TV show was almost unheard of.
Fortunately, Star Trek skirted permanent demise once again because Paramount planned to launch a fourth television network to rival NBC, CBS, and ABC. Studio CEO Barry Diller believed that a second Star Trek TV show, with a built-in audience of devoted fans, could serve as the foundation for Paramount’s new TV service. Roddenberry, burned by the experiences of so many failed attempts to get a feature film off the ground, was nonetheless excited by the offer of complete creative control and an ample budget. He planned to bring back as much of the original cast and production staff as he could, to the program he christened Star Trek: Phase II.
Most of the cast, who had not found success post-Star Trek, were eager to sign on. The one major exception was Leonard Nimoy. The man behind and between Spock’s famous pointy ears developed a prickly relationship with the show’s creator because of Roddenberry’s recurring screenings of a 16mm Star Trek blooper reel at the various Trekkie conventions. Nimoy, always the most serious actor in the series, felt that showing outtakes in public was a breach of trust between a producer and his cast. Though Nimoy did voice Mr. Spock in the Star Trek animated series, he seemed to have a negative, or at least ambivalent, attitude towards the famous character at this time, an impression he reinforced with the title of his autobiography, I Am Not Spock (1975). Nimoy’s post-Trek career had flourished more than most of his fellow cast members. He played prominent roles on television (Mission: Impossible and Columbo), in film (the Yul Brynner western Catlow and Philip Kaufman's remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and on the Broadway stage (Peter Shaffer’s Equus). Therefore Spock was never part of Phase II. In his place Roddenberry created a new character, a full-blooded alien who also hailed from the logic-ruled planet Vulcan.
With cast and crew signed and a dozen scripts in various stages of completion, the plug got pulled on Star Trek: Phase II just two weeks before its first shooting day. The astounding financial, critical, and popular triumph of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—released exactly six months after Star Wars—proved to Paramount’s executives that Lucas’s film hadn’t been a fluke and that the appetite for big-budget, highbrow sci-fi movies could sustain more than one major success. They decided to restructure Phase II’s pilot episode, "In Thy Image," into the feature film that eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Produced by Roddenberry and directed by Academy-Award winning filmmaker Robert Wise (equally famous for epics like West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Hindenburg as he was for sci-fi and horror like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, and The Andromeda Strain), Star Trek: The Motion Picture suffered a string of missteps as it was made and wound up as one of the most bloated productions of the 1970s. After dozens of screenplays and revisions, the final shooting draft—penned by Harold Livingston with story credit going to "In Thy Image" writer Alan Dean Foster—was not especially groundbreaking nor imaginative. In fact, it seemed little more than an expanded version of “The Changeling,” an episode from the original Star Trek’s second season by frequent Trek writer, producer, and director John Meredyth Lucas.
Many of the concepts and characters developed for Phase II were folded into The Motion Picture, including the brash, young first officer of the Starship Enterprise, Willard Decker (Stephen Collins), and the beautiful, bald, celibate, alien navigator Lieutenant Ilia (Persis Khambatta), who share a chaste romantic history. But the major coup of the production was the return of Mr. Spock. Nimoy, opposed to returning to television, agreed to reprise the role for a big screen feature and, once again, Mr. Spock escaped demise.
Despite the potential of a fully reunited cast and all the work put into developing Decker and Ilia for the new TV show, Star Trek: The Motion Picture focuses almost none of its 138-minute running time on its characters nor their interpersonal dynamics. Instead, Paramount, Roddenberry, Wise, Livingston, and everyone else involved lavished time, money, and attention on the film’s special effects. With the production dragging on, Paramount brass again got worried. This time they feared they were going to miss out on the window of sci-fi popularity and that their Star Trek picture would end up as the last in a spate of the expensive fantasy movies that every studio was now rushing into cinemas on the heels of Star Wars and Close Encounters. Believing that special effects were the key to success, they hired Douglas Trumbull, the principal designer behind Close Encounters and Stanley Kubrick’s landmark sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. With the entry of Trumbull and the subsequent discarding of all effects produced for the new TV show and during the first year of production on the feature, expenses grew an additional 10 million dollars above the already swollen budget. Trumbull hired John Dykstra, the man who developed the motion control system that gave birth to the space-shots in Star Wars, to help him complete his work, since Paramount was now locked into a Christmas release and needed its breathtaking visuals completed quickly.
Even with all the behind-the-camera talent and a post-production period that lasted a full year after principle photography wrapped, the final result betrays the botched quality of a movie not given sufficient time in the editing room. Sequences drag on for ages longer than is acceptable in any kind of film other than a travelogue or nature documentary. An early scene of Captain Kirk and the chief engineer Mr. Scott traveling to the Enterprise in a shuttle pod consists of 45 indulgently long effects shots. These ponderous five minutes set the tone for the entire picture—inviting audiences to gaze rapturously at long slow pans of the Starship Enterprise in all its big-screen glory, rather than focusing us on the impending threat humanity faces from a planet-destroying space-cloud heading for the Earth. The sequence, like so many others in the movie, is impressive but excessive. It puts scenery before plot and character.
The film also isn’t helped by
the fact that the cast, now a decade older than when the show ended, looks
silly in their newly designed costumes that resemble bland pajamas. Close-ups
often appear to be shot through softening filters to deemphasize the actors’
ages. Worst of all, the humor and interpersonal relationships that made the
show so popular in reruns is simply not present in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. By many accounts, Robert Wise
couldn’t remember the difference between the Japanese helmsman Mr. Sulu (George
Takei) and the Russian navigator Mr. Chekov (Walter Koenig), and one can hardly
blame him since they are written as virtually interchangeable bit players in
The film was released to great fanfare and embraced not only by die-hard Trekkers but also by a general public eager to see a big-screen adaptation of a beloved program. Bringing back a defunct TV series as a movie was still a novel concept in 1979. Small features had been spun off from British TV shows, like Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Steptoe and Son (1972), but Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a first in terms of repurposing a nostalgic piece of American popular culture and turning it into a blockbuster. The film became the fifth highest grossing picture of 1979, coming in right under the equally bloated, but far more prestigious Apocalypse Now. Yet the studio’s expectations were not met. The movie went so over budget it would have had to make three times its unprecedented final cost to be considered a true success. Critics were not kind, with the film receiving tepid reviews at best. Many writers, who were clearly admirers of the original show, struggled to find something positive to say, but the inevitable derogatory nickname, Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture, appeared in print, mocking the film’s lethargic nature.
It’s a testament to the public’s powerful desire to see the program remain alive that the dull, overlong, and disappointing first Star Trek film did not sink Paramount Pictures the way Heaven’s Gate (1980) all but destroyed United Artists just one year later. General audiences continued to buy tickets even after the bad reviews and poor word of mouth, and Trekkies returned to the cinemas again and again, convincing themselves that the film must contain deeper meanings and values than they initially thought. Seeing how devoted the Star Trek fan base was, Paramount considered making a sequel. But they were not about to lavish the kind of money on any future Star Trek movie that they had on the first one (and indeed they didn’t, until 25 years later with the J.J. Abrams’ reboot).
The reasons for Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s uneven results are easy to trace, with plenty of blame to go around, but Paramount held Roddenberry entirely responsible. They were convinced that his ponderous story ideas, obsessive and endless rewrites, and inability to solve problems as a producer had sabotaged the project. Though they were interested in making another Star Trek movie, they were determined not to work with him again. Roddenberry wrote the first draft of a sequel in which the Enterprise crew goes back in time to correct history after their alien rivals the Klingons time-travel to the 1960s and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But the regime at Paramount, now run by uber-executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, removed Roddenberry from the creative process entirely, giving him the largely ceremonial title of Executive Consultant. They assigned the project to a dependable television producer with no theatrical film experience named Harve Bennett, and they instructed him to make a much better and much cheaper Star Trek movie.
When he was assigned the job of producing a sequel, Bennett had never seen an episode of the original series, though he had seen the movie, which he considered incredibly dull. Wisely wanting to understand what instilled such passion in its fans, Star Trek’s new producer began the daunting task of keeping the property afloat by watching every installment of the original program in broadcast order. After viewing all 79 episodes, it was clear to Bennett that the best ones were those in which the amusing and relatable character dynamics took center stage, while intellectual conceits were relegated to background subtext. He resolved to prioritize elements accordingly in the next movie, reversing Roddenberry’s approach that favored conceptual ideas over interpersonal interactions. Indeed Bennett responded most strongly to elements brought to the show by two of its most unsung creative forces, D.C. Fontana and Gene L. Coon. Fontana was Roddenberry’s former secretary who became Star Trek’s Story Editor after scripting many of the first season’s best installments under various pen names. Intimately involved with the series from its inception to its demise, Fontana is credited for emphasizing the signature relationships—particularly the triangular bond between the volatile Captain Kirk, the cerebral science officer Mr. Spock, and the emotional ship’s doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Coon was a writer/producer Roddenberry brought on midway through the first year of production. He created the villainous Klingons and was responsible for injecting much-appreciated humor into the show. Bennett was unaware that he would soon be joining Fontana and Coon in an exclusive “club” of creative personnel who are as responsible for the quality and longevity of the series as Roddenberry and the cast.
The second main impression Bennett came away with after his marathon of screenings was his belief that the best shows featured strong, traditional villains who presented a credible and understandable challenge to Kirk, Spock, and the others. His favorite villain was Khan Noonien Singh, who appeared in the 22nd episode "Space Seed," written by Carey Wilber and Gene L. Coon. The dashing Mexican leading man Ricardo Montalbán played the sinister Khan, a genetically engineered superhuman warlord, cryogenically frozen from a period in history when Earth was almost destroyed by a global eugenics war. In “Space Seed,” Kirk and his crew discover Khan’s derelict ship and unfreeze the intellectual but savage leader and his group of devoted supermen. Khan attempts to take over the Enterprise and kill its captain, but Kirk and Spock eventually prevail. Rather than kill Khan and his followers, Kirk exiles them to a desolate, uninhabited world. Khan accepts his fate, and Kirk’s challenge to tame the harsh planet, by referring to John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost.” Kirk understands the literary reference to Lucifer’s claim as he is cast out of God’s kingdom, that, “It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.” Mr. Spock ends the episode by saying that it would be interesting to return to the planet in a hundred years to see what had grown from the seed Kirk planted. For Bennett, that final statement seemed an ideal place to start his Star Trek sequel. Bennett devised a treatment for Star Trek II and commissioned several writers—including Samuel A. Peeples, the author of Trek’s second pilot—to draft a screenplay. Jack B. Sowards, an avid Trek fan, wrote a number of drafts that Bennett liked, but none of the scripts felt consequential enough for a feature.
The most vital ingredient that made Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn a great film and secured the future of the series for decades to come was the entry of director Nicholas Meyer. Meyer was an ambitious filmmaker without much of a track record, having directed only one picture—the moderately successful sci-fi romance Time After Time (1979), starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. Meyer was better known for writing the best-selling novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution; a Sherlock Holmes adventure in which Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective receives treatment for his cocaine addiction from Sigmund Freud. Meyer’s own adaptation of his novel for the film version, directed by Herbert Ross, was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1976, so he was not a total unknown in Hollywood. But, like Bennett, Meyer had never seen a single complete Star Trek broadcast. A mutual friend at Paramount introduced Mayer and Bennett, and the two got along instantly. Bennett screened Star Trek: The Motion Picture for Meyer, as well as the handful of original episodes that he felt represented the show’s best qualities. Meyer then asked to read all of the rejected scripts written up to that point for Star Trek II. With a production start-date looming, Meyer suggested that he and Bennett go through the existing material and make a list of everything they liked. They compiled an inventory of storylines, scenes, characters, and lines of dialogue from all the previous drafts to serve as the basis of a new screenplay.
They both responded well to
several specific elements among the materials they reviewed: the characters of
Khan and a young female Vulcan character named Lt. Saviik; a plot twist that has Kirk
meeting his estranged son; and an idea for a terraforming tool called the
"Genesis Device." The concept for the latter had originated in one of
Jack B. Sowards’ scripts in which Star
Trek’s United Federation of Planets develops an ultimate weapon called the "Omega
system” to defend against enemies like the Klingons. Bennett deemed the weapon
too aggressive for the peaceful Federation, and changed it to a man-made system
for transforming barren moons into planets capable of sustaining life. This scientific instrument would ultimately
be known as the “Genesis Device.” Designed for the peaceful purposes of solving
over-population and food supply issues, it could easily be perverted into a
doomsday weapon of planet-wide destruction if it fell into the wrong hands. The
idea of this device is the kind of fascinating, plausible, and chilling science
fiction notion that comes around once in a generation. This one narrative
concept alone is enough to place Star
Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,
alongside Frankenstein, 20,000 Leagues
Under the Sea, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of
the Apes, Star Wars, Alien, Blade
Runner, and The Thing in the
cannon of preeminent, intellectually substantial pictures found in this
crowded, often silly and simpleminded movie genre.
Meyer brought a great deal more to the table than just the ability to piece together the best parts of several mediocre screenplays. Because he was fairly ignorant about Star Trek when he started, he possessed an outsider’s perspective on the proposed material—what he’s described as a healthy disregard for the show. He responded to what he discovered about the series by working on the new picture, instead of being mired in nostalgia for what had come before. One thing he noticed immediately while watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture in conjunction with the TV shows was that there was no acknowledgement in the first film that the crew had aged a decade. He believed the movie’s creaky, stilted nature stemmed directly from the fact that it starred mostly by-now middle-aged actors pretending to be younger than they were.
Meyer also rejected many of Roddenberry’s dictates about the world of Star Trek. Being a more Earthbound individual than Roddenberry, Meyer had trouble relating to the hifalutin, cosmic, and idealistic aspects of the show. He viewed Star Trek in the mold of a classic naval adventure. He responded far more to the seafaring, Captain Horatio Hornblower influence on the program than to the Western elements of Wagon Train and High Noon, or the utopic, scientific conceptualism of fantasy novels, all of which were equally influential on the series. As he rewrote the final screenplay, Meyer enhanced the material’s nautical characteristics. He fashioned the plot along the lines of historical “gun-boat diplomacy” narratives, ranging from British navy exploits during the Napoleonic Wars to American submarine engagements during WWII.
This naval orientation not
only affected the script, but also the film’s look, sound, and overall tone.
Meyer had the costumes radically redesigned from the futuristic space pajamas
of the first movie into uniforms that recalled dark navy dress tunics. Naval
protocol was peppered into the screenplay, and Meyer attempted to bring to the
foreground the anonymous crew members who worked in the bowels of the ship.
When Captain Kirk first steps onto the Enterprise
in Wrath of Kahn, Meyer goes so far
as to have a crewmen blow a Boson’s whistle. He also insisted that the sound of
the spaceship’s engines be heard at all times, even during external shots.
Though it would not be scientifically accurate to hear vehicles maneuvering
around in the vacuum of space, Meyer believed hearing engine noise was critical
in giving the audience a sensory connection to the setting, even in scenes that
catapulted viewers into unfamiliar environments. The ships’ weapon systems were also
constructed to more closely resemble those of submarines. The Enterprise of the TV show used photon
torpedoes as one of its main weapons, and Meyer literalized these armaments by
writing in a sequence where gunners physically load the projectiles into
traditional looking torpedo bays as the starship makes ready for an attack.
Though the concept is utterly anachronistic, it exemplifies how Meyer grounded
the sci-fi world of Star Trek with
homegrown details most moviegoers could recognize and respond to.
James Horner’s evocative score enhances the film’s nautical attributes tremendously. The studio selected the young composer because he was cheap. Horner’s minimal credits at that point included ultra-low budget fair like Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and the crime/horror film Wolfen (1981). Meyer encouraged Horner to go in the opposite direction from the grand, ethereal music that Academy Award winning symphonist Jerry Goldsmith had created for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Meyer wanted a rousing adventure score that evoked the sea and the swashbuckling fare of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Horner delivered one of the most compelling and frequently imitated scores of the 1980s. His music not only contributes to the tone, mood, and energy of the movie, it enhances the film’s action and suspense sequences while subtly emphasizing its emotional qualities. Because of the score, Kahn seems like more of an epic extravaganza than it actually is. So effective was Horner’s music that the dramatic countdown cue that comes at the climax was used in countless trailers and was emulated in dozens of action films that followed. James Cameron even lifted this memorable cue directly out of the Wrath of Kahn soundtrack and inserted it twice into his own Horner-scored film, Aliens (1986), when the composer couldn’t deliver anything that could top what he’d written for Kahn. The cue works as well, if not better, in Aliens—another unexpectedly remarkable sequel that could give Star Trek II a run for its money in terms of greatness and ability to secure a movie franchise’s longevity.
Roddenberry objected to Meyer playing up Star Trek’s military aspects. He claimed that the show’s Untied Federation of Planets, as he created it, was not an extension of the US or British navy but more of a cosmic UN. Meyer questioned this logic, asking if the Federation wasn’t molded on the Navy, why did it have all these Admirals, Captains, and Ensigns? Since Meyer was not a sci-fi aficionado, he balked at many of the preconceived ideas about Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe—for example, the rule that there were no books in the twenty-third century, and that all reading must be done on computer screens. As a novelist and avid reader, Mayer simply could not relate to a future without the printed word, and he stubbornly found ways to put books in characters’ hands and interject literary quotes at every possible moment. The precedent for these erudite references was set by the very episode used as the primary jumping off point for Star Trek II, since Khan quotes Milton at the end of “Space Seed.”
Meyer’s scholarly and naval particulars are important components in making Star Trek II superior to the film it followed. The Wrath of Kahn is more of a traditional adventure movie than a conceptual sci-fi film. But it is not a mindless rollercoaster ride that values stunts, explosions, and battle scenes over narrative nuance and sharp dialogue. It features plenty of action sequences, yet they never diminish the importance of heady exchanges of dialogue among distinctive personalities. Instead of countless shots of actors staring at screens, marveling at grand special effects, we get shots of characters reacting to dramatic or mysterious images that propel the story forward and excite the viewer on a visceral level. In part because of its limited budget, most of the tension and exhilaration in the film is generated through suspense rather than physicality. We react to what is inferred as much as to what is explicitly shown.
Just as powerful is how the movie’s imaginative sci-fi concepts are integral to the main storyline and themes. Meyer brilliantly folds the idea of the Genesis Device into the plotline of Kirk’s reunion with his estranged son, by making Kirk’s ex-lover the scientist who invents the Genesis Process and their son one of the chief engineers developing it. The director plays up the aging of the cast by populating the Enterprise with a crew of young trainees, like Lt. Savvik, and by essentially bringing Kirk and the others “out of retirement” to oversee this mission. But the heart of the film is the story of how Kahn escapes his planetary exile by stealing a Federation ship and setting out to avenge himself upon Kirk. The protagonist and antagonist couldn’t be more clearly defined. Yet, since the Genesis Device has the power to destroy worlds as well as create them, the stakes are appreciably higher than just whether or not Kahn will defeat Kirk and capture the Enterprise. The fates of entire worlds hang in the balance.
Studio executives were nervous about hiring Ricardo Montalbán to reprise his role as Khan because, at the time, the actor was starring in the popular TV show Fantasy Island. Even Montalbán was concerned that audiences accustomed to seeing him every week as the debonair host of the mystical Fantasy Island might not accept him as the bloodthirsty Kahn. But in the context of the film, this credibility question is never an issue. While many considered Montalbán little more than an aging, B-grade Latin lover type, Meyer viewed him as a Shakespearian-caliber actor on par with Lawrence Oliver, Richard Burton, or at least Orson Welles. He encouraged Montalbán to give Kahn a controlled, quiet intensity that only hinted at the explosive rage that lurked beneath. Of course, when it came time for Kahn to blow his top, Meyer was equally happy to invite the actor to play these scenes loudly and broadly. It is this range of expression that makes the performance so memorable. Montalbán’s unselfconscious, full-bodied portrayal of the titular character renders Kahn one of the greatest villains in cinema history, and makes Star Trek II one of the most quotable non-comedic films of the ‘80s.
Meyer brought out the best in
the original cast members and perfectly integrated them with the new actors
introduced into the Star Trek
universe for this movie—Paul Winfield, Bibi Besch, Merritt Butrick, and the
then unknown Kirstie Alley. Meyer discovered the impish Alley at an audition
and instantly cast her as the emotionless Saavik, a character quite unlike the
comedic roles she would later become famous for. The only actor who seems
miscast is Ike Eisenmann, the former child star best known for playing Tony in
the Disney live-action minor classic, Escape
to Witch Mountain (1975). Eisenmann plays Mr. Scott’s nephew, a young
ensign assigned to the engine room, and his acting style still feels more in
tune with his earnest, overly eager Disney heritage than the heavier,
melodramatically sober style of Wrath of
Kahn. Fortunately, most of Eisenmann’s screen time was cut out of the theatrical version
of the film as well as from most subsequent releases.
Perhaps Meyer’s most impressive directorial feat was his ability to craft the career-best performance of Star Trek’s leading man, William Shatner. As much as Meyer guided Montalbán into a nuanced, if operatic, performance, he also successfully toned down the overly theatrical tendencies of Shatner. Under Meyer’s direction, Shatner was able to embrace Kirk’s middle-age characteristics rather than try to hide them and to give the familiar Captain (now an Admiral) a world-weary dimension that’s intriguing, endearing, and thematically appropriate.
Its deliberate pacing and classical, melodramatic approach set The Wrath of Kahn apart from all other entries in the Star Trek film series. Though the movie features solid action sequences and plenty of humor, these are secondary components. What matters most in The Wrath of Kahn is the drama, created by characters in meaningful, high-stakes conflict. Subsequent sequels got lighter and lighter in tone. Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home, also written by Bennett and Meyer, is an outright comedy that values its fish-out-of-water laughs far more than its space-opera intensity. Interestingly, the comical Voyage Home was the Trek film that appealed to the broadest audience and reached the largest crossover viewership, but that picture could never have happened without Wrath of Kahn reestablishing the series. And, while The Voyage Home is a marvelously enjoyable movie, it lacks the gravitas and timelessness of Kahn.
The element that most significantly transforms Star Trek II from a simple entry in a successful film franchise to a seminal picture in the annals of cinema is the fate of Mr. Spock. Like so many of the best creative choices in Hollywood lore, this narrative line derived from an inventive solution to an production requirement, rather than an ingenious concept by a writer or director. Nimoy was not interested in making an open-ended commitment to playing Mr. Spock in an ongoing series of movies. It seemed to the studio, and to Bennett, that to get Nimoy back they would have to offer him something special, such as the opportunity to kill the character off with a memorable death scene. Bennett envisioned bumping Spock off in the film’s first act, shocking the audience in the same vein as Janet Leigh's early demise in Psycho. Nimoy liked the idea of creating a dramatic exit for Spock and signed on for this final appearance—having no clue he would end up continuing to play the role for another thirty years, right up until he passed away in 2015.
Roddenberry resented the minimal hand he was given in the development and production of the second Star Trek film. His was an advisory role, but his notes were rarely listened to. He knew he could not make a big stink in public or he would risk getting permanently shut out of the process all together, but that didn’t keep him from making his displeasure known to certain key members of the Trekker community. Soon many devotees heard the rumors that Paramount had turned their beloved series over to two men who were not even fans of the show and that these guys were taking Roddenberry’s creation in a militaristic direction.
When word leaked out that Mr. Spock was going to be killed, Trekkies hit the roof. Yet another letter-writing campaign was waged in which Trekkers warned Paramount that if it murdered their favorite Vulcan, they would boycott the movie. This campaign was decades before the Internet and social media, but it represents an early occurrence of the now-common practice of fans attempting to influence the outcome of an entertainment property they are deeply invested in. Fortunately, this type of external interference was still extremely primitive, and Bennett and Meyer were able to stay several steps ahead of their anxious audience. They hit upon a clever opening sequence in which the young officer-in-training Saavik completes her schooling with an exercise called the "Kobayashi Maru.” The test is a character evaluation where potential commanders face a no-win situation and the destruction of their ship. In the film’s opening moments, Meyer and Bennett managed to kill, not only Spock, but also most of the Enterprise bridge crew before Kirk calls a halt to the test, and the entire scene is revealed to be a training simulation. The writers cleverly presented the image of a dead Mr. Spock in the first five minutes and moved his actual demise to the picture’s climax. When the cast made the rounds of the talk show interview circuit to promote the movie, they remained playfully coy about whether or not Spock died. Therefore, by the time Spock’s death actually occurred, viewers were so wrapped up in the film’s narrative drama, they had forgotten all the behind-the-scenes rumors and were almost as unprepared for the dramatic farewell as if they’d had no preconceived notion of it at all.
Preserving the surprise of Spock’s death was critical because the loss of this character is what makes Star Trek II so unique in film history. Hollywood has told powerful stories about mortality since the dawn of cinema—from the first Best Picture winner Wings in 1927 to the multi-Oscar winning Terms of Endearment released the year after Wrath of Kahn—but never had a fictional death been collectively felt the way Spock’s final moments hit audiences. Spock is not someone we meet at the beginning of the movie. For many viewers, he was a character they grew up with, a part of their culture, an esteemed figure they had spent countless afternoons and evenings watching and relating to. Spock was not an abstract personality in a novel, pictured differently in the imaginations of innumerable readers. He was embodied by the same actor and had the same notable features and mannerisms for every member of the audience.
The death of Spock was a devastating loss that is difficult for contemporary moviegoers to grasp. Movie death (especially in sci-fi and fantasy) doesn’t possess the same impact today that it did in 1982. Back then, the notion that a cherished fictional character might come back from the dead at some later point, in a later production, was the stuff of daytime soap operas and comic books. The possibility that, only a year or so later, we would see a dearly departed character from a serious film alive and well and continuing on in the next installment was almost inconceivable. That kind of naivety is almost as incomprehensible to viewers born after 1980 as is a time when everyone in America had less than five TV channels to choose from and we all watched the same handful of programs. Entertainment is now so littered with protagonists who die and come back to life—from Buffy in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, to Ellen Ripley in the Alien series, to the ensemble cast of Lost, to nearly every superhero franchise of the new millennium—that the idea has become a cliché. At Kahn’s time in film history, however, most audiences simply didn’t consider such unfathomable possibilities as life after death for beloved fictional characters played by the original actors.
For his part, Leonard Nimoy found shooting the second film so much more enjoyable than working on Star Trek: The Motion Picture that he suddenly wasn’t so sure he wanted to hang up his prosthetic ears. Bennett sensed this change of heart. According to both men, before shooting the famous death scene, the producer quietly approached the actor and asked if there might be something Spock could do that would not minimize the power of his sacrifice but that could leave open the possibility that the character might someday return. As he often did on the TV show, Nimoy invented on the spot a simple Vulcan tradition that would accomplish exactly what was required. To the viewers of Star Trek II, it still seemed like we would never see Mr. Spock alive again. To Bennett, Nimoy, and the team that would create Star Trek III, a door was opened which would become the jumping off point of the next installment in the series, enabling Spock’s return. This is the kind of magical thinking available to sci-fi and fantasy that more serious dramas rarely have access to.
Meyer objected strongly to
this late-in-the-game script change. He felt opening the door for Spock’s
reincarnation would diminish the power of the death scene. His instincts were
absolutely sound. He was thinking about the integrity of the stand-alone film
he was making, whereas Bennett was concerned with the long-term survival of the
franchise, and Nimoy was invested in the ultimate fate of his character.
Amazingly, the end result does not feel like a compromise. The moment that
creates the potential rebirth of Spock takes less than two seconds of screen
time. It passes virtually unnoticed in
The Wrath of Kahn, yet it lays the groundwork for the dramatic, comedic,
and engaging first act of the next sequel.
Unlike modern movie franchises, which often baffle new viewers with
lengthy sequences that make no sense unless you are fully indoctrinated in the
events and backstories that occurred in previous films (and novels, comics, TV
shows, etc.), the moment in Kahn that
plants the seed that ultimately grew into Star
Trek III: The Search for Spock is a practically imperceptible blip in the
drama we’re engaged in. True, it
requires a spectacular suspension of disbelief to accept that all of Spock’s
consciousness could be “downloaded” into another person’s mind in a couple of seconds
of contact. But because the specifics of the procedure are concealed between
movies, rather than explained as part of either film’s narrative arc, we focus
on the inherent drama of the individual stories instead of the contrivances
used to connect them.
When The Wrath of Kahn hit theaters, audiences ate it up and critics
lavished praise on the film. Writing for
the New York Times, Janet Maslin
opened her review with the resounding statement, “Now That’s More Like It!” Even those who swore they would boycott the picture
if the filmmakers killed Mr. Spock couldn’t contain their curiosity, and once
the story began, they were instantly won over. Bennett and Meyer gave fans what they actually wanted—a first rate picture that supercharged the series
for decades to come—rather than what they thought
they wanted—a movie that adhered to their preconceived notions. Today,
enthusiasts of preexisting properties often become deeply involved in, and
vocally critical of, movies based on material they love. Filmmakers have to
deal with an onslaught of criticism even before a single frame of footage is
shot or a single word of screenplay is typed. Fanatical audiences don’t want creative
interpretations; they want cinematic renderings that remain utterly faithful to
what they’ve already experienced. Therefore, the potential for creating
something fresh and unique is virtually negated, and the artistic need for
making the film is often questionable. The
Wrath of Kahn worked because Bennett and Meyer were given a relatively free
hand in taking the Star Trek series
in a bold new direction. While fans tried to impose dictates on the creative
team, the only thing that ultimately mattered to everyone was that the movie be
The one stipulation imposed on the filmmakers by the studio was that not a lot of money be spent on it. This restriction was not daunting for a television producer and a former novelist, neither of whom had ever made a mid-budget feature before. Wrath of Kahn was shot entirely on a couple of small sound stages on relatively simple sets. The impressive special effects were primarily produced by George Lucas’s effects house, Industrial Light & Magic, which was just coming into its own as an independent force in the industry. In addition to the exciting space shots, ILM created the first extended computer-generated sequence in film history: the demonstration video designed to convince the Federation to fund the Genesis Project. This CGI tour-de-force, which visualizes a dead moon hit by the Genesis Device that then zooms in on the planetary surface, depicting how the lifeless rock is transformed into a lush, Earthlike planet, is still as stunning as any of the millions of CGI “flyovers” produced for movies ever since.
The one moment that does betray the movie’s limted budget is when Kirk, McCoy, and the others set foot in the Genesis Cave. Here, what is meant to be an endless vista of unlimited, exotic vegetation appears as little more than a midsize interior set and a few subpar matte paintings. But it really doesn’t matter. Those brief seconds do not spoil the illusion that the filmmakers and their cast create with the rest of this riveting picture. Indeed the Trek actors come to life in this movie in a way that was unimaginable after Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Credit for this reanimation rests entirely with Meyer as the director and the final writer of the screenplay. Meyer not only gave the supporting characters actual scenes to play—especially Mr. Chekov, who initially discovers Kahn and gets a disturbing creature dropped into his ear that turns him into Kahn’s pawn—but the director found new dimensions in the leading characters by allowing them to feel their advanced age and reflect on their history together.
Nearly every choice that contributed to Star Trek II enhanced its rich, surprisingly deep subtext. Some choices were intentional, and some were happy accidents. Just as each external circumstance and creative decision made by the production team on Star Trek: The Motion Picture led to a muddled and unsatisfying outcome, all the stars aligned for Wrath of Kahn. While the primary intention was not to make a film about mortality, the final result was one of the best cinematic explorations of that subject. The themes arose organically out of necessity and a visionary response to production problems and opportunities. The death of Spock was a contractually obligated term needed to secure Nimoy’s participation. Kirk and McCoy’s preoccupation with aging came about because of Meyer’s desire not to pretend that his cast members hadn’t entered middle age. The narrative’s tendency to dwell on the past rather than the future arose from the assemblage of many desired storylines, the principal ones referring back to an episode from the old TV show and illuminating Kirk’s youth in which he met the mother of his son. All these elements naturally aligned themselves with Meyer’s old-fashioned approach to melodramatic adventure stories and with his heavy reliance on referencing and quoting directly from classic literary texts. Underlying everything is the concept of the Genesis Device, which is all about rebirth—the spiritual stage that follows death.
Meyer’s title for the film was Star Trek II: The Undiscovered Country, a reference to Shakespeare’s “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, where in Hamlet refers to death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” This title would have been a poetically fitting, though ultimately an ironic choice since Spock would indeed return in the next movie. But The Wrath of Kahn, the title that the studio imposed without consulting Meyer, gets right to the essence of the plot rather than alluding to its subtext. If viewers remember only one thing from Star Trek II, it’s Kahn. Both Montalbán’s depiction of the character—who belongs alongside Noah Cross, Darth Vader, Harry Lime, Eve Harrington, Hannibal Lecter, Hans Landa, The Terminator, and The Wicked Witch of the West in any list of cinema’s greatest villains—and Shatner’s now-classic utterance of his name, “K-A-A-A-A-A-H-N!” are iconic.
Meyer would use the subtitle The Undiscovered Country when he returned to write and direct Star Trek VI, the last picture to star the complete original cast. All six of these features are enjoyable, but only The Wrath of Kahn belongs in a list of great films. It not only delivered the movie that fans of the original series longed for, it drew a surprisingly large non-Trek audience as well. Many who dismissed the dated TV show became, if not full-fledged Trekkies, certainly watchers of the later incarnations. Star Trek II expanded the fan base, guaranteeing additional sequels and an open-ended future that ranks with the most durable series in cinema history. More important than that, it's just a damn good picture.