Re-Watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Screenplay by: Jack B. Sowards
Story by: Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards
Produced by: Robert Sallin
Directed by: Nicholas Meyer

Release date: June 4, 1982
Stardate: 8130.3

Mission Summary

The U.S.S. Reliant makes an unexpected discovery on a scientific mission to the Ceti Alpha system: the genetically-engineered superman Khan Noonien Singh and the surviving crew of the S.S. Botany Bay, who has been cooling his heels on the inhospitable fifth planet for the last fifteen years. Khan’s somewhat pissed that his old friend James Kirk never called or wrote since marooning them there, so he takes over Reliant and begins plotting his revenge, which mostly revolves around a) inserting gross, brain-controlling slugs into Captain Terrell and Commander Chekov’s ears, b) stealing the Genesis Device, an experimental probe that can terraform a dead planet within days (what could possibly go wrong?), and b) killing Kirk. A person has to dream big, and galactic overachiever Khan is reaching for the stars.

Admiral Kirk, temporarily back in command of Enterprise, fends off an ambush from Reliant and reconnects with an old flame, Dr. Carol Marcus, one of the inventors of Genesis. He also reunites with his son, David, an angry and impetuous young man. They’re the only surviving members of the Genesis science team, but at least the Device is safely hidden in an asteroid… until Khan beams it away from right in front of them. Khaaaaaaaaaaaan!!!

Enterprise and Reliant, both crippled, have a final, fateful showdown in the turbulent but beautiful Mutara Nebula, playing a game of cat-and-mouse. Kirk’s superior combat strategy and knowledge of starships trump Khan’s supposedly superior intellect. In his final moments of life, the wrathful tyrant quotes Moby Dick and triggers the Genesis Device, which sets off an explosive chain reaction that threatens to engulf Enterprise. Captain Spock sacrifices his life to restore warp power, enabling his ship to escape to safety. Kirk and the crew bid a somber farewell to their fallen friend. They fire his photon casket into space, and it finds a resting place nestled in the rapidly growing flora of the brand new Genesis planet.


I hate to be unoriginal, but like many Star Trek fans, this is my favorite of the films–my second favorite being First Contact, which is also heavy on Melville. I’ve probably seen Star Trek II more than any of the other movies, and many other films–even once on the big screen in a movie theater, which isn’t notable except that it originally released when I was four years old–and while I may not find something new to appreciate on repeat viewings, every time I see it I am amazed at how great it is. This isn’t just great Star Trek, it’s great science fiction. It’s a great film, period.

Nearly every one of TMP’s flaws has been improved upon in TWoK. It’s more lively and colorful, for one thing; these movie-era Starfleet jackets are my favorite uniforms in the entire franchise. And it certainly makes up for the lack of action in its predecessor–this is a quintessential adventure movie, and quintessential Star Trek. More importantly, the events of TWoK matter a great deal to the characters we’re already invested in, especially Kirk and Spock. They aren’t out to save the universe, or even a world–they’re trying to save their friends and family, and stop one madman who is only out for revenge. This time, it’s personal.

The relationships among the crew are reinstated as we remembered them in the series. The interactions of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are excellent; they effortlessly fall into their patterns from the original series with what is simultaneously an extra layer of maturity and humor bred by familiarity. Although some new important characters are introduced, mainly the Drs. Marcus and Saavik, we’re interested in them because of their close connections to Kirk and Spock, who we do care about. And, of course, most viewers were already very familiar with Khan Noonien Singh, who provided a direct link back to one of the most memorable episodes of the original series–another draw for fans who might have been underwhelmed by the franchise’s first foray into film.

Star Trek II obviously is preoccupied with death (at least, they keep talking about it), especially as it relates to getting older and looking back on the life you have lived; Kirk’s past catches up to him, not only with Khan’s reappearance, but with the realization that he has a son he never knew about. Though Saavik suggests that Kirk has never faced death, as a Starfleet captain, of course he’s faced it plenty of times. Rather, Kirk has never faced the consequences of his actions in a personal, significant way. He doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario because when he breaks the rules, he gets a commendation instead of punishment; every scenario has been a “Kirk-wins” scenario, until now. TWoK forces him to deal with his mistakes for the first time and offer him an opportunity to make up for them.

Kirk obviously pays a heavy price for abandoning Khan on a hostile planet to die, but interestingly, I don’t see him suffer any remorse for the egregious oversight. Granted, there isn’t much opportunity for Kirk to offer a heartfelt mea culpa to his old nemesis–and Khan doesn’t seem all that deserving of an apology given his aggressive actions before Chekov can even get a word out–but Kirk just never seems to regret failing to check up on old Ceti Alpha V. It wouldn’t have helped the situation any, but I would have liked to see some acknowledgment that he kinda screwed that up. Instead, Kirk just treats Khan as another problem to solve. He’s a puzzle, not a person, and Kirk manipulates him like a chess piece.

The film also succeeds by directly addressing the age of the cast, picking up on some of the implications of the first film–these people are getting old!–but leveraging it as part of the characters’ arcs, which also helps to make them more relatable and… human. Kirk doesn’t like where his life has led him, but he doesn’t know what he really wants to do about it, or if he should do anything. He starts out unusually maudlin about his birthday, and even a little bitter, but when the film ends, he tells McCoy that he feels young again. Carol Marcus promised that seeing the Genesis cave would affect him this way, but it also has something to do with personally cheating death once more, and not wanting Spock’s ultimate sacrifice to be in vain. And the understanding that just because you’re older doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference.

It’s fitting that just as Spock’s death coincides with the birth of the Genesis Planet, Kirk’s loss is balanced by his new relationship with David. Not a fair trade, Spock for a whiny brat with bad hair, but it’s something at least. To steal some of the thunder from the next film, he has turned “death into a fighting chance to live.” Spock’s sacrifice enables him to approach his own life with a renewed sense of purpose.

Whereas the first film had a scattering of memorable images, I realized while rewatching TWoK that the entire film is a series of scenes and moments that I remember and love, especially when Kirk notices Spock’s empty chair and immediately understands what his friend has done, and we see that realization, the raw emotion of it. For all the jokes and accusations about Shatner’s acting talents, he owns these movies, and he fills this one in particular with a rare gravitas. His final scene with Spock gets me every time. And it gave me a chill the first time I noticed the foreshadowing in the simulator at the beginning of the film, when Spock pretends to die and Kirk asks him, “Aren’t you dead?” I think this was primarily meant as a tongue-in-cheek way of addressing rumors that Spock would die in the film, but it’s much too deliberate and more affecting when we know his fate.

My absolute favorite moment of the movie: After Spock has saved the ship, he unsteadily climbs to his feet in the antimatter chamber and straightens his tunic. Even blind and dying, he faces his death with quiet, proper dignity–just as he lived his life.

The space combat between Reliant and Enterprise is also one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in a science fiction film. When phasers rake along Enterprise‘s side, I almost feel the wound myself–a testament to how iconic that starship is. (It’s so shocking, I didn’t even mind that they recycled the exact same effect shot later in the film.) Despite the fact that it’s kind of slow, as action scenes go, the cat-and-mouse game is fraught with tension, and it’s one of the first ship battles that takes advantage of the third dimension, sort of.

If Kirk was somewhat bumbling in the last film, he’s on the top of his game here, nearly always a step ahead of Khan. In fact, Khan’s downfall is what plagued Kirk in the last film–irrelevancy. As competent, strong, and brilliant as the engineered super genius is, he’s been out of the loop for too long, and Kirk just knows more about ships than he does. Holed away on Ceti Alpha V, the universe has passed him by, but he’s so bent on revenge, he doesn’t get the same opportunity Kirk did to catch up and find his place in the brave new world.

Lest this turn into a gushfest, because I can’t say enough good things about TWoK, I did notice some cracks in the facade–that’s part of the job when doing these re-watches. This time around, I wondered how much of Khan’s plan was actually worked out from the start. He wants revenge on Kirk and tries to draw him out… or does he just want the Genesis device? Kirk’s appearance almost seems like happenstance–Chekov seems to pull his name out of nowhere under the suggestion of the Ceti eel. (Those eels, by the way, are still truly horrific, and this is the first time I noticed that the specimen that escapes from Chekov’s ear is fully grown. Yecch!) Would Kirk have come to the station if Carol hadn’t called him, and if they hadn’t had the relationship they did? Kirk isn’t even supposed to be there that day! He’s usually behind a desk, not in command of Enterprise. Of course Khan wants revenge on Kirk, so the simple plot seems to flow naturally, but I’m not sure all the dots are connected as well as one would assume.

I have other questions! How does David know what Kirk said to Saavik during the Kobayashi Maru, about how you deal with death being at least as important as how you deal with life? Why did they spend all that time and money refitting Enterprise, only to turn it into a training vessel for cadets? And for the love of Heisenberg, how can they speak during transport?

But these flaws are oh so minor, especially in contrast to the gaping problems in the first film. I wondered if fans would love this film so much if we hadn’t suffered through TMP first, but I think the answer is an unqualified yes. TWoK isn’t perfect, but it’s damn near close.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 7

Torie Atkinson:

“Old age is always wakeful; as if, the longer linked with life, the less man has to do with aught that looks like death.” – Moby Dick

The Motion Picture failed in part because it expected all of the characters to simply pick up where they left off, exploring the universe and saving the planet. Everyone had moved up a little, a token gesture of the lost decades, but no one had really grown. Spock seemed to be wrestling with the same identity issues he had before; Kirk was bristly to others but right, and sure of himself; Bones was cranky and picked up some disco fever on his long journey through the 70s. Everyone had their trademark lines and did the things they were expected to do. Though time had passed for us, these characters were trapped in amber.

Wrath of Khan dared to acknowledge that years had been spent. Kirk has grown clumsy. He’s rusty on command but refuses to acknowledge his weaknesses and secretly he feels useless in a world full of young people. Spock has come to terms with his dual heritage, rejecting the Kolinahr and embracing the human part of him. They are not the men (and woman) who went gallivanting around the galaxy: they’re civil servants contemplating retirement and wondering what mark, if any, they left on the world. And they’ve grown old: Kirk most of all, even if he can’t bear to admit it.

The most obvious adversary in the film is Khan, but I think the real enemy here is the past: nostalgia for another time, and resentment at the present for failing to live up to expectation. Kirk’s apartment is full of antiques. He needs reading glasses. He reads old books and relives old stories, and even his own history feels distant and unreal. Kirk tells McCoy that “galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.” I suppose it’s heavy-handed but it feels authentic, and the willingness to admit those fears is what makes the film so strong. The passion that drove him as a young man is all but gone in a world of stagnant bureaucracy. He can never go back to the life that made him so happy, so what usefulness can he be now? Why bother with anything?

Wrath of Khan works because its thematic core was ancient even to the ancient Greeks: hubris. Kirk refuses to believe in the no-win scenario. He wins by cheating. He thinks he knows better–better than the rules, better than his peers, and better than his enemies. What I found interesting on this re-watch is just how phony Kirk can be. The one moment where you think you see him exhibiting some actual, sincere emotion–the “Khaaaaan!” heard ’round the world–is actually fake.  Think about it: he screams that after he’s given the coded message to Spock, and before he reveals his back-up plan to the other people in his party. It’s a show for Khan, to make him think he’s won. It’s a cheat, just like everything else. That kind of bravado finally has a price, and it’s one that his closest friend winds up having to pay.

Actions and behaviors finally have consequences, and for the first time we really get to see some of the natural ends of Star Trek’s philosophy. What Wrath of Khan did was very brave: it asked not what happened 50 minutes later, but 15 years later. What becomes of all those aliens and all those worlds that Kirk has turned upside down? And what happens to his friends and to his crew when his philosophy won’t allow surrender? While Kirk has more or less forgotten the Khan Noonien Singh episode in his life, Khan is sure that his own story is the stuff of legend. He’s surprised no one has told Chekov’s captain “the tale” of Kirk’s victory over Khan, and is enraged at the truth. History forgets, even if men cannot.

While Kirk has been busy with promotions and a career, Khan has spent those years tending a flame fed by vengeance, anger, and hatred. He isn’t living 15 years ago, he’s living 200 years ago. Age has hardened him, focused his interests into obsessions, and made him too proud and too inflexible. Stagnant and trapped in his own memories he provides not just the perfect villain for Kirk but the perfect counterpoint. Fixation on the past is a doomed ideology from the start, and it’s a lesson Kirk has to learn by the end. Khan’s followers, who are all mysteriously hipster-aged, try to provide the voice of reason. Joachim repeatedly restrains Khan from letting his emotions get the better of his tactics. He urges his leader to let the obsession go: they have everything they want already, after all. But the path to a fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, and by the end Khan’s selfish quest for revenge kills not just himself but each and every one of his own men.

This movie’s Spock is the man that Kirk used to be.  While in Kirk’s mind there are now only closed doors and paths long closed off, Spock sees possibilities in all things. Where Kirk looks around fearfully at the bridge full of recruits, Spock invites Saavik to test out her skills and take the ship out of dock. Spock  trusts their judgment and acknowledges the limitations of his own. Both Khan and Spock die, but where Khan lets his own interests prevail, Spock’s selflessness allows the Enterprise’s crew to live and create a future–and to see creation itself in the form of the Genesis device. I like to imagine that after all is said and done, Kirk puts away some of his antiques and hangs up the IDIC curtain instead.

I think the most lasting legacy of this film, though, isn’t the Melville, or even the silly scream: it’s the Kobayashi Maru. Spock’s “solution” is actually the second sacrifice of the film (the first is Terell) and the third of the movies so far (remember Decker?). It’s brilliant. It canonizes not just Kirk’s somewhat wild character, but the legitimacy of his occasional fears and regrets about the burdens of being a captain. They picked up this thread in TNG’s “Thine Own Self,” in which the A-plot is largely unmemorable but the B-plot is about Counselor Troi trying to qualify for command by taking the Bridge Officer’s Test. In the test, the antimatter is leaking and can’t be repaired because the area is deadly. She tries everything to get it contained and back online, but repeatedly fails the test, killing everyone on board. By the nth time she’s attempted it, she realizes the solution: she must order Geordi to make the repairs, knowing he will not survive. Command means putting the needs of the many first, even if it means sending your crewman to his death–NOT waiting for them to sacrifice themselves. Terrell knows this, and he commits suicide rather than harm fellow Starfleet officers. Kirk should know it, too, and all of his men almost die because he had forgotten.

In many ways, Khan is formulaic and derivative. Pride, vengeance, death, rebirth: the movie is like a greatest hits collection of themes. It hits the notes you expect, but it does so with gusto, and there are no half-measures. Good cliches, when done well, feel timeless. They make all of us feel young.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 6

Background Information

Despite the obscene expense of making the first Star Trek film, its relative box office success made it a fargone conclusion that there would be a follow-up, albeit with a much smaller budget (only about $11 million, compared to TMP’s estimated $35 million). Once the sequel was announced, rumors began to circulate, one of the most common ones being that Spock would die–an obvious concern for most fans, who feared this indicated the new film would be a complete departure from the series they loved. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

If anything, the second film would be even more faithful to the original show, most notably thanks to its director, Nicholas Meyer, who had made his name with the well-received science fiction film, Time After Time. His approach would be to make the new film “Captain Horatio Hornblower in outer space,” which matched Gene Roddenberry’s first vision for Star Trek. Roddenberry himself was forced out for making a mess of Star Trek: The Motion Picture with his constant rewrites, and Harve Bennett (The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) stepped up as executive producer.

Bennett also was keen to retain the spirit of Star Trek. To find a focus for the new film, he rewatched every episode (who does that?) and finally settled on Khan from “Space Seed” as his villain, the perfect nemesis for Kirk. The script, credited to the relative unknown Jack B. Sowards, was a collaborative effort, though his first draft contained many elements that appeared in the final script. Sowards came up with the central conceit that convinced Leonard Nimoy to return: Spock’s planned death. Art Director Michael Minor, who also created the Melkot for the episode “Spectre of the Gun,” contributed the notion of the Genesis Device: a tool designed to create a paradise, which also had the potential to be a devastating superweapon.

Director Nicholas Meyer wove together key events and ideas from all the different drafts and wrote the script in twelve days, though he remains an uncredited writer. He was intent on making the film more than an adventure story, instilling it with deeper themes and meaning, which often characterized the best hours of the television series. He also felt that it needed to have a sense of respectful humor to offset its more serious elements.

The result was what many fans consider to be the finest Star Trek film to date. The movie grossed nearly $14.5 million in its opening weekend, which was surpassed by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom two years later. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ultimately earned $97 million worldwide.

Best Line: MCCOY: He’s not really dead, as long as we remember him.

Other Favorite Quotes: MCCOY: Get back your command. Get it back before you turn into part of this collection.

SPOCK: Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.

MCCOY: According to myth, the Earth was created in six days. Now, watch out! Here comes Genesis, we’ll do it for you in six minutes.

KHAN: Do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish best served cold? It is very cold in space.

KIRK: I don’t believe in a no-win scenario.

SPOCK: I have been, and always shall be… your friend.

KIRK: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.

Trivia: The first theatrical film print of the movie credited it only as Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. The number was added in later prints.

The original title was The Undiscovered Country, which was changed to The Vengeance of Khan. A perceived conflict with the planned title for the second Star Wars film, Revenge of the Jedi, necessitated the change to The Wrath of Khan.

Though Khan recognizes Chekov immediately, the two never appear together onscreen in “Space Seed,” because Walter Koenig had not yet joined the cast. Meyer was aware of the continuity error but didn’t care about it. Supposedly Koenig picked up on the error right away, but didn’t speak a word of it lest they swap out his character for someone else.

Ricardo Montalban reviewed the episode “Space Seed” to prepare himself for his return to the character he had originated. He was drawn to reprising the role because he realized how significant Khan was to the events of the film–even when he isn’t onscreen, the other characters were always talking about him.

Kirk and Khan never meet face-to-face in this film. All their communication is via viewscreens and communicators.

Because of its limited budget, many models and effects shots from the first film were reused. Original effects were created by Industrial Light and Magic.

This is the first appearance of a Starfleet vessel in a configuration other than the Constitution class: the Miranda class.

This is the only Kirk-era Star Trek film to show a ship firing phasers. All the other films show photon torpedoes.

Actress Madlyn Rhue was unable to reprise her role as Marla McGivers because she was confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis.

The Enterprise models and sets from the first movie were reused, but the Bridge set was repainted in warmer colors. The set also doubled as the Bridge of the Reliant. The Klingon Bridge from the first film was redressed into the torpedo room.

Space station Regula I was the same station used in TMP, upside down.

In keeping with his nautical theme, Meyer redesigned the uniforms to evoke the Navy, with heavy influence from costumes for the film The Prisoner of Zenda. The pajamas from the first movie were redyed and used for junior cadets and enlisted crew. The vertical quilting (trapunto) on the turtlenecks beneath the dark red uniform jackets required an antique machine that was no longer being made, and had only one needle for the entire wardrobe department.

The Genesis Effect animation sequence was the first use of particle effects in a motion picture, which are now commonly used.

This film marks Marc Okrand’s first association with Star Trek, devising the Vulcan language, which was dubbed over the English lines Nimoy and Allie originally recorded.

Fans speculate that Dr. Carol Marcus was “the little blonde technician” Mitchell mentions in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

Kim Cattrall was Meyer’s first choice for the role of Saavik. She eventually got to play a similar role in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Lt. Saavik was intended to have Vulcan/Romulan heritage, explaining her displays of emotion throughout the film.

Yes, Montalban’s chest is real. The costume was designed specifically to show off his physique.

This movie establishes that Star Trek takes place in the 23rd century.

The shot of Spock’s coffin on Genesis was included at the last minute, surprising even Nimoy when he saw the completed film at its premiere. Similarly, Spock’s mind meld with McCoy was added late in production, and Nimoy came up with the line, “Remember.”

The extended edition of the film includes a scene where Scotty reveals that the dead cadet he carries is his nephew. This scene appeared in some television broadcasts of the movie and was restored for the director’s cut on DVD.

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About Eugene Myers & Torie Atkinson

EUGENE MYERS has published short fiction in a variety of print and online zines as E.C. Myers. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid. When he isn’t watching Star Trek, he reads and writes young fiction. His first novel, Fair Coin, is forthcoming from Pyr. TORIE ATKINSON is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.