On Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

In a previous post, I spoke about my liking of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and now I continue with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Production for the film was hardly an easy ride though as Den of Geek‘s article, “The Difficult Journey of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” indicates:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture may have done well at the box office (it still stands as the second most profitable Trek film made), but it hardly became the critical darling that was hoped for. The languid pace, the focus on two new and largely mishandled characters, and prolonged special effects sequences took their toll on the audience.

Despite its success, there was some doubt as to whether a sequel would follow. The new wave of sci-fi was waning, partly due to The Motion Picture, and partly because of the lukewarm critical response to The Empire Strikes Back (no, I’m serious – contemporary reviews weren’t kind at all). But Hollywood loves a dead horse to flog, and with approximately 450,000 hours of special effects footage shot for The Motion Picture, costumes that could be changed with some offcuts of velour and a few pots of dye, 4000 square feet of sets, and the opportunity to cut corners at every turn, there was a chance to recoup some “losses.” If you call making three times the budget “losses.” To put it in perspective, Star Trek Into Darkness earned back nearly triple its budget and was considered a rousing financial success.

Paramount’s first decision was to fire Gene Roddenberry, convinced that his constant script rewrites were the root of all the franchise’s troubles (an argument that reared its head again during the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation). In his place came Harve Bennett, showrunner of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. His brief was to make a film that cost less than the two protagonists of those shows, which he did, bringing in the budget at just under two Steve Austins. Of course, the low spend was largely due to the excesses of its predecessor – the sets were reused, special effects models already built, and special effects sequences replayed wholesale in an effort to save money. The box should carry the disclaimer “film consists of up to 83% new footage.” Other cuts were made too – most notably in Bennett not actually paying anyone to write a script.

Bennett himself wrote the first treatment, which manages to feature all the plot points from the finished film without resembling it in any way, shape or form. Kirk’s arch enemy Khan has stolen a Federation super weapon and is using it to stage a coup on a distant planet, with the help of Kirk’s son, no less. A few tweaks were made – changing the super weapon to a terraforming device, introducing Spock’s death, ditching Khan entirely, introducing another Vulcan called Saavik – but crucially no one involved was happy with the end product. The writers’ strike of 1981 didn’t help either.

From the start, there was a desire to have more continuity with the series, a more tangible antagonist, and more focus on adventure, and Khan ticked all of those boxes. However, no one managed to crack incorporating increasingly disparate story elements into one cohesive whole. Less than two weeks before Industrial Light and Magic were due to start storyboarding there was no finished script. Enter Nicholas Meyer.

At this point, Nicholas Meyer had one of those wonderful careers that sounded entirely made up. Famous for writing a best-selling Sherlock Holmes pastiche (titled after Holmes’ cocaine addiction), he entered Hollywood by adapting the novel into a screenplay himself, where he was criticised for taking too many liberties with not only his own novel but with Holmes in general. Naturally, he was nominated for an Oscar.

His other notable credit was Time After Time, an awarding-winning romantic drama where Jack The Ripper steals HG Wells’ time machine, only to become so disillusioned at how bleak the future has become that he starts to kill again. Amongst all of this, the man had never seen an episode of Star Trek. Naturally, when he managed to amalgamate all the disparate ideas thrown around into a working script, in a week, without being paid or even asked, nobody but Gene Roddenberry objected to him being given the director’s chair. Roddenberry was told to shut up, thus ending his involvement in the film franchise for good.

Meyer envisaged the story as “Hornblower in space,” which was (unbeknown to him at the time) Roddenberry’s inspiration for Kirk. He collated each of the story elements, broke them down into their component ideas, then wrote the script from the ground using the themes he had identified (and with one eye on the cost). Kirk would be struggling with ageing and obsolescence, Spock would become the teacher, and Khan would be so consumed by revenge that he stops caring about the people he wants revenge for; the crucial twist being that he knows it but simply doesn’t care because he, like Kirk, can’t imagine being defeated. Thematically it’s rich, but on the character level rather than the highbrow philosophy of its immediate predecessor.

Part of the pacing problem for The Motion Picture had been the effects, specifically the time it took to create them not allowing the director to properly edit the film. To alleviate this, the effects were outsourced to Industrial Light and Magic, the hottest effects company going. Even the credits sequence proved to be the most ambitious around, requiring more computer power than existed at the time. Ironically, the opening credits would be the most expensive ever made, at least until Central Television had to outsource the CGI credits of Bullseye due to the entire UK not only owning not enough computers. By the way, I suspect that fact is entirely true.

Anyway. The cumbersome large model on wires approach was shelved for Star Trek’s motion control, and new models were built with usability and cost in mind, rather than screen presence. The only thing not cut back on was the aforementioned CGI. The large terraforming sequence could only be done in animation, and much like the sequence in the finished film it was presented as an advert for the skills of Lucasfilm Computer Imaging. And like in the film, the CGI video succeeded in its marketing purpose. The clip impressed a young Steve Jobs enough to part with $5 million to buy out the division, which renamed itself Pixar.

Effects progressing nicely, the last cost cutting measure was to ditch the expensive Jerry Goldsmith and replace him with… anyone cheap. James Horner had caught the eye (well, ear) of Paramount with a demo tape (for those of you too young to remember, a demo tape is what aspiring musicians used to make instead of dicking around on Garageband. And for those of you too old to know, Garageband is the equivalent of playing along to the Bossa Nova preset on your Casio keyboard). The full score was written in just four weeks, and far from being a rushed job, it was so influential that parts of it were being used for various projects throughout the 80s (largely due to Horner reusing the entire score again for Aliens). Listen to the scene where Al shoots Karl at the end of Die Hard, and tell me it doesn’t sound like Khan is about to swoop in on the Reliant. Hell, listen to any action movie trailer from the late ’80s and try to imagine anything other than Ricardo Montalban’s mesmerising chest.

Behind the scenes sorted, the last sticking point was the cast.

Leonard Nimoy was hardly keen to do The Motion Picture, his abrupt entrance in the movie a result of a last minute rewrite when Nimoy’s unpaid royalty dispute was finally resolved. However, Nimoy signed on for the sequel on one condition (which we shall discuss later). The rest of the cast returned, along with the late Ricardo Montalban reprising his role as Khan. The only major newcomer was Saavik, originally male and probably inspired by Star Trek: Phase II’s Xon, but finally played by a then unknown Kirstie Alley.

The film itself had no right to be as good as it turned out. Yet even from the start it’s a remarkably confident movie. It begins with everyone dying, no less. Considering Spock’s death being widely publicized before the film, this was a masterstroke. It sets the possible stakes while simultaneously subverting them, introduces the new character of Saavik, and sets up the theme. Kirk then enters, backlit and looking every bit the 18th century swashbuckler, before the lights go up and the artifice is revealed – these are cadets, on a training exercise, and Kirk is looking decidedly middle aged. Middle aged, and lacking a purpose. It was a theme touched upon in The Motion Picture, but here it is again, with gusto.

The other side of the equation is Khan, who faces a similar but twisted fate. Still very much a leader, his power has diminished by most of his followers (and his wife) dying and the survivors poking around their dying planet, fending off insanity eels and picking sand out of their bumcracks. In his isolation, Khan has become pickled with rage and his purpose is so clear it’s nearly killing him – get revenge.

Although Kirk and Khan are enemies, they never actually meet. This was partly a product of different filming schedules, but it also points to the battles being largely internal. Kirk is experienced, but rusty. He makes mistakes. And importantly, he has never experienced defeat. On the other hand, Khan is sharp and ready, but inexperienced. He gains the upper hand and has the entire galaxy as a playground, but gives it up when goaded by Kirk.

Through all this, character comes to the fore. Usually in Star Trek the plot happens and characters react to it. Here, everything that happens flows naturally from the characters. Whether it be McCoy’s advice to Kirk setting up the theme or Saavik undertaking Spock’s entire character arc in about 90 minutes, David’s strained relationship with his newfound father or Khan’s descent into madness, the grander action scenes and special effects are driven by character, rather than the other way round.

The victory at the end is riddled with sadness. Spock has little to do for much of the film except mentor Saavik and spout the odd bit of exposition, but because it’s Nimoy playing off long term companions it works. Which makes the ending all the more devastating. The stage is set for Khan to win a Pyrrhic Victory by detonating the Genesis Device in range of the Enterprise. Crippled from the earlier battle, Kirk can only watch helplessly as the Enterprise limps away under the meagre power of the radiation riddled engines. The logical (but distinctly inhuman) thing to do would be to send someone to their death in an attempt to fix the engines, but Spock realises he is the only one who could survive long enough and has the necessary skills to do it. So while everyone’s back is turned, Spock decides the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and saves the ship, at the cost of his life.

Spock’s death was unavoidable. Nimoy was tired of the franchise, and suspecting Khan might be the last outing for Trek, he wanted to go out with a bang. Had he not been granted his wish, Spock would simply not have appeared.

Unfortunately, Spock’s death was widely reported after his contract negotiations were over, so to throw the viewers off the opening scene where the entire crew gets killed was added as a decoy. All this served to fuel a desire for more Trek. A combination of sharp writing, superb characterisation and a strong villain was enough to secure rave reviews (and a box office gross of eight times its budget), but the final teaser – Spock’s mysterious message to McCoy and the final shot of the coffin in its new resting place – sent people over the edge.

A sequel was not only assured, but what came about was a franchise. No Khan – no Next Generation. No Deep Space 9. No Voyager. Wait, that last one isn’t so bad. It also set the mould for nearly every subsequent film – an action adventure plot and a charismatic villain. In some ways that has been a blessing and a curse. After all, twenty years on and Star Trek is still turning to the same film for ideas, without anywhere near the same success.

It’s important to recognize this significance of this scene from this film…

…with this scene from Star Trek Into Darkness.

According to the Den of Geek retrospective review:

Star Trek Part Two: The Enterprise Saves JFK. Or at least that’s what it would’ve been called had the late Gene Rodenberry had his way. Thankfully, Paramount rejected the concept and producer Harve Bennett brought us a film that, for many Trek fans has yet to be bettered – Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. After the long slow, crawl that was The Motion Picture, some might say, that from a critical sense, Star Trek was lucky to get a sequel. As bad as TMP was, it made money. And money talks, so the inevitable sequel was born.

Serving as a both a warning to the dangers of genetic engineering and follow up to The Original Series episode, Space Seed (and no, that episode wasn’t about GM crops) The Wrath Of Khan (or TWOK as I’ll call it) is a great action packed movie, with some real emotional kick behind it. Opening with an unfamiliar face in the centre seat, the Enterprise is on a mission near the Klingon neutral zone when an emergency signal has the ship trying to rescue a stranded vessel, The Kobayahsi Maru, when it’s suddenly outnumbered and out-gunned by three Klingon warships. The battle is soon over, and with the bridge crew laying either dead or injured, all seems lost.

Thankfully then this isn’t the Enterprise, but Starfleet training simulator. Chekov meanwhile, has transferred to a new Starship, and is looking for a suitable planet to launch the ‘Genesis Device’, a new tool allowing for the rapid colonisation of uninhabitable worlds. While on the planet, Chekov and his captain, find Khan, desperate for vengeance and in a scene that instilled a life-long fear of earwigs in me, soon has control of Chekov, Captain Terrell and their ship.

Kirk is celebrating his birthday, and is starting to feel his age, a somewhat misunderstood gift from Spock further darkening his mood: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Message, Spock?” McCoy’s visit to the Captain allows DeForest Kelley a chance to shine, and underlines the strength of the Kirk/McCoy friendship. McCoy is his oldest friend and sometimes it takes those closest to you to tell you what you already knew.

The Enterprise launches with little more than a ‘boat full of children’ as Kirk puts it, on a routine training cruise, when he receives a call from an old flame, Dr Carol Marcus, asking why he gave the order to take Genesis. The message is cut off, and in rushing to his friends’ aid, he’s thrown straight into a vicious battle with a waiting Khan.

For the first time I can recall in Star Trek, our favourite captain (Kirk /Picard/ Sisko / Janeway /Archer debate aside) is caught out, and Khan gets the upper hand, the Enterprise is badly damaged, limping to space station Regula I, only to find it deserted.

Kirk, Saavik and McCoy find Dr Marcus and her team safe and well inside Regula, where we learn just how powerful the Genesis device is, and that Kirk has a son. Khan’s at it again though, and has used Kirk to lead him to Genesis, and now finally has the chance to kill the great man, except Terrell and Chekov can’t do it, and Terrell takes his own life, and Khan steals Genesis.

One of the key themes in the film is Kirk’s refusal to believe in the no-win scenario, and when he explains his solution to the Kobayahsi Maru to Saavik, it reinforces Kirk as a hero, as a man who will not allow himself to be beaten. Returning to the Enterprise the crew have precious little time to repair their wounded vessel as the film nears its climactic battle, as Reliant and Enterprise face off in the Mutara Nebula.

The ships look fantastic in the eerie purples and blues of the nebula, creating a heightened sense of tension, aping the submarine combat of the likes of Das Boot, and further emphasising the nautical feel of the picture, all brilliantly punctuated by James Horner’s excellent score.

Kirk, ever the master tactician, has Khan on the ropes, and like Kirk, he too refuses to be beaten. Knowing the Enterprise is near crippled, Khan sets the Genesis device to detonate in a last effort to avenge himself against Kirk and his crew. For the first time in his illustrious career, the captain of the Enterprise finally finds himself in the no-win scenario. In the heat of the battle, no-one notices Spock leave the bridge, and once in Engineering, sacrifices himself. Restarting the ships engines he saves the ship and his friends (good job they didn’t hit a wormhole like in The Motion Picture, huh? That would’ve been embarrassing) and Kirk finally has to face death.

From the ashes of the death of one of his closest friends, Kirk is reborn, and sees that his life is far from over, and despite the death of one of the series most famous characters, the film ends on a high, with what Star Trek is all about: hope and optimism for the future.

So what is it that makes TWOK such a stand out entry in the franchise? Well, for one, it’s the performances delivered by the three main leads. Within the first ten minutes of the film we have everything that makes Star Trek great, namely the three central characters being brought right to the fore. The scene with Kirk and McCoy on Kirk’s birthday is superb. Kirk is struggling to deal with the fact that his youth is behind him, and he is no longer in command of his beloved USS Enterprise, with the pride of Starfleet being reduced to little more than a training vessel. Kirk feels old, and that like his ship, his best years are behind him.

McCoy, as always, is the voice of Kirk’s passion and emotions, and tells the Captain what he already knew: get back the ship. The actors are given some great scenes to work with, and director Nicholas Meyer gets a subtle, thoughtful performance from Shatner and it works brilliantly.

Without a doubt, the quality of TWOK speaks for itself, despite Meyer having never seen an episode of the original series, he and producer Harve Bennet had a much better feel for the source material. Meyer always described Kirk as Hornblower in space, and he’s right. These starships are the naval ships of the 18th and 19th century, transposed through time and space to the 23rd century. This was a theme Meyer explored further in his second Trek feature film, The Undiscovered Country (which was this film’s original title).

The small details in this film really make all the difference: Kirk being piped aboard the Enterprise, the crew inspection, all the little details missing from TMP. TWOK fleshes out the Trek universe into a living, breathing world. The interaction between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is first rate, these are the characters we loved on TV, they’re right at the heart of the story, as they should be, and not at the expense of the still excellent special effects.

Add in a very strong storyline with a broad appeal, tackling very human motivations, such as Khan seeking revenge, the idea of growing old and dealing with death, rather than the typical Trek/sci-fi fare of time travel, aliens, robots etc. and you’ve got the perfect recipe for success.

If you’ve not seen it, I can recommend it whole heartedly, a cracking piece of action cinema, with a truly great performance from William Shatner, pitched against a classic bad guy in the late Ricardo Montalban. What more could you want from a movie, eh? My only regret is having never seen it on the big screen!

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4 thoughts on “On Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

  1. Pingback: On Star Trek III: The Search for Spock | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home | The Progressive Democrat

  3. Pingback: On Star Trek V: The Final Frontier | The Progressive Democrat

  4. Pingback: On Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country | The Progressive Democrat

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