Film Classics: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

Looking at some all-time favourites…

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“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…”

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Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year: 1982

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Kirstie Alley, Bibi Besch, Meritt Butrick, Paul Winfield, Ricardo Montalban

Directed by:  Nicholas Meyer / written by:  Jack B. Sowards (uncredited: Nicholas Meyer)

What’s it about?

Whilst Admiral Kirk oversees a training cruise aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, Commander Chekov, serving as first officer of the U.S.S. Reliant discovers Khan – the genetically engineered tyrant who once tried to kill Kirk and now seeks revenge against the former starship captain for ‘marooning’ Khan and his people on a now desolate planet…

In review: why it’s a classic

Surely the best of all the Star Trek films to date, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan restored much of the spirit of the original Star Trek television series that was felt to be absent from the more effects and concept-driven (but highly imaginative) Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Despite his diminished involvement, The Wrath of Khan is true to creator Gene Rodenberry’s intention that Star Trek be a way of telling entertaining and thought -provoking science fiction tales whilst also acting as a vehicle for stories exploring the human condition.

Directed by Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time), who, uncredited, also extensively rewrote the film’s screenplay, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the first of the classic Trek films to be produced by Harve Bennet after Paramount Pictures’ reduction of Gene Rodenberry’s role to that of ‘Executive Consultant,’ following their dissatisfaction with The Motion Picture.  The result is a film that takes a slightly more risky approach to the world of Star Trek and its characters without betraying the core tenets of the series or going against what fans would know or expect from Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew.

A sequel to the classic Star Trek episode “Space Seed”, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan sees the return of genetically engineered antagonist Khan (Ricardo Montalben), bitter after being left on Ceti Alpha V to establish a new home with his people, subsequently decimated when the neighbouring planet exploded and laying waste to the ecology of their world – with no contact from Kirk to check on the progress of Khan and his brethren.  Stumbled upon by the U.S.S. Reliant’s captain (played by The Terminator’s Paul Winfield) and first officer, former Enterprise crewman Commander Chekov (Walter Koenig), whilst they search for a test site for ‘Project Genesis’ – a scientific breakthrough in terraforming – Khan seizes the Reliant and sets out on a relentless quest for vengeance against Kirk.  With the Enterprise on a cadet training cruise under Admiral Kirk’s supervision, a distress signal from the Regula I space laboratory instigates an emergency – placing Kirk in command and drawing him into confrontation with the enraged Khan who now not only seeks retribution against Kirk but plans to obtain the Genesis device for himself.

With a story that, like all good science fiction, taps into human concerns as it explores themes such as heroism and loss, The Wrath of Khan is made even greater by featuring a formidable and intelligent adversary who, like all good antagonists doesn’t see himself as the ‘villain’.  The late Ricardo Montalben was a memorable guest star in “Space Seed” and with his reprisal of Khan he effortlessly takes things to the next level with a scintillating and intense portrayal of the character.  The threat of Khan is enhanced with a touch of horror in the form of the mind influencing Ceti eels which he uses to bend Chekov and his captain to his will – the unnerving scenes of the creatures slithering into their ear holes providing the most unsettling moment in any Star Trek film.

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Khan (Ricardo Montalben) embarks on a relentless quest for vengeance (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

The Wrath of Khan is infused with literary reverence – Khan’s obsessive pursuit of revenge not unlike that of Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab (accentuated by quotes from Herman Melville’s novel) – as well as morals and ethics as it deals with Project Genesis, a powerful form of technology that could prove to be destructive in the wrong hands.  It also boasts some strong characterisation, from Kirk’s crisis as he regrets accepting promotion out of the captain’s chair whilst pondering a life that could have been as a father and husband (his son David and former partner Carol, played by Merrit Butrick and Bibi Besch respectively, the creators of Genesis), to Spock’s (spoiler!) sacrifice for “the needs of the many” and Khan’s anguish at the loss of his wife and the plight of his people adding to the drama.  Nicholas Meyer, though unfamiliar with Star Trek, brings all the creative elements suitably into play and encourages terrific performances from the cast, especially William Shatner (as Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (as Spock) – who share several wonderful scenes which highlight the unwavering bond of friendship between their respective characters – and, again, the superb Ricardo Montalban –as well as maintaining the tension and excitement during the film’s space battle sequences.  It’s also worth noting the increased role afforded to Walter Koenig in comparison to The Motion Picture and Kirstie Alley (future star of classic sitcom Cheers) makes her big screen debut in a fan favourite turn as Spock’s young Vulcan protégé, the equally logical and analytical Lieutenant Saavik.

Meyer also brings his love of all thing nautical to the fore (the Naval-esque orientated depiction of Starfleet, whilst more militaristic, provides an identifiable portrayal of the organisation) with the climactic nebula-bound battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant a fitting homage to tense World War II submarine thrillers such as Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep.  James Horner’s rousing, exciting and emotional music score is the icing on the cake that together with all of the other elements not only make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan a fine piece of science fiction film entertainment that resonates on a human level but represents the franchise at its cinematic best.

Standout moment

The Enterprise crippled by Khan’s surprise attack, Kirk uses his experience and ingenuity to gain the upper hand, utilising the Reliant’s command code sequence to lower its defences…

Geek fact!

Amongst the crew of the Reliant is Commander Kyle, a popular supporting character from the original series, with John Winston reprising the role.

If you like this then watch…

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country : Nicholas Meyer returns to co-write and direct the original crew’s final outing in a gripping “whodunit?” that utilises the science fiction backdrop to comment on issues of the time – namely the collapse of the Berlin wall and with it, the Cold War.

Star Trek Into Darkness : though divisive, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek sequel revisits The Wrath of Khan as Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the Enterprise face high stakes against a new iteration of Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Amongst all the contemporary blockbuster excitement are faithful homages to the franchise’s roots and commentary on issues such as terrorism and military intervention.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

6 thoughts on “Film Classics: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

  1. This is (personally) the best of the Star Trek franchise both past and present! From its relaxed opening of Admiral Kirk doing what he loathes…”I hate Inspections” before being caught with his pants down by the most worthy ‘baddy’ that is Khan!
    There is no evil that can match the sheer bitter revenge that flows through Khans blood – has Kirk finally met his match??

    Some of my favourite points that make this film so genuine however is through the characterisation. Kirk being told by Spock that it was a mistake to accept his promotion, the up and coming Saavik with her quotes on Starfleet protocol, before the final price that the crew must endeavor in order to escape Khan’s claws!

    Ultimately an excellent film portrayed brilliantly by a strong, passionate (and not too old) cast that has some of the most memorable quotes of the Star Trek franchise! “Khaaaaaan!!!”

    A must see for any fellow film buff who is yet to explore the (film) galaxy!

    • Thanks for your thoughts Alex! It’s clear that you get what is so great about the film and Star Trek in general, as we’ve pointed out the strong characterisation (not to mention that iconic cast) is one of the key elements to it’s success and something I’ve always loved about the original (and still best!) series along with Gene Rodenberry’s vision of a better tomorrow.

      Glad they didn’t go with one of the film’s original titles though – “Wrath” is much more villainous than “Revenge” of Khan!

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  3. This is definitely a gem of 80’s film, of science fiction-action, and of Star Trek.

    Another quality making it a classic is the fact one need have no prior exposure to anything Star Trek to get sucked into the drama & action.

    It’s simply a great film for fan & newb alike; a real feat given how fastidious Trekker standards can be. : D

    • True, I never thought actually thought about how accessible Wrath of Khan is – but if you are a fan and you’ve seen the original series episode “Space Seed” it adds just that little extra layer to the overall enjoyment. Good to hear your thoughts – thanks very much for reading the post and taking the time to comment!

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