Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Director: Nicholas Meyer
“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Even though I loved Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), the sequel The Wrath of Khan is a more inspiring return to the magic of the original series, despite Star Trek’s original creator Gene Roddenberry being essentially forced out of the creative process due to lackluster critical response to the first film. A reluctant Leonard Nimoy was also lured back to the franchise with promises that Spock would die at the end of the new film, but early news of Spock’s death leaked to the public and it sparked a frenzy of righteous anger among fans. Notably, this was the film that introduced a young 28-year old composer named James Horner, and he predictably delivers a brilliant musical score, one of many great compositions to come.
The Wrath of Khan forces the audience to juxtapose the malaise of old age, the feeling of listlessness as in the case of Captain Kirk, with the birth of new life, rediscovered love, the creation of life ex nihilo, and the discovery of Kirk’s long-lost son. For background to the movie, we hearken back to the 1967 classic Star Trek episode “Space Seed” in which the Enterprise discovers a ship cast adrift in deep space where a group of mysterious people have been kept alive for hundreds of years in suspended animation. Once awakened from cryo-sleep, the group explains who they truly are –they are led by Khan Noonien Singh, or simply “Khan,” a hyper-intelligent super-human created in a 20th century genetic engineering experiment. However, the experiment went awry –the new humans became vicious tyrants and caused the Eugenic Wars of the 1990s. Khan and his compatriots were then imprisoned but they escaped and placed themselves in suspended animation, waiting for the right time to be awakened in the future. This is the situation in which the Enterprise finds their derelict ship in “Space Seed” and they unknowingly welcome these tyrants aboard. After a fight with Khan over control of the Enterprise, at the end of “Space Seed,” Kirk holds a hearing and exiles the group to a remote and desolate planet, Ceti Alpha V. Khan reluctantly agrees, citing John Milton’s Paradise Lost and his desire to “tame a world.” As the mission ends, Spock wonders what the planet would look like 100 years later under Khan’s rule.
With this backstory in mind, The Wrath of Khan picks up where the first film ended. It opens with an amusing simulation of a Klingon attack on a starship headed by a young a diligent Vulcan lieutenant named Saavik (played by Kirstie Alley). She announces the captain’s log: 8130.3 –the Enterprise is currently on a training mission to Gamma Hydra, Sections 14 and 15, coordinates 22-87-4, where it sets a parabolic course to avoid entering the Neutral Zone. However, an urgent communication suddenly comes in from the Kobayashi Maru (a third class neutronic fuel carrier with a crew of 81 and 300 passengers) located 19 periods out of Altair VI (Altair VI was the original destination of the Enterprise in the episode “Amok Time” before Spock commandeered the ship and redirected to Vulcan). The Kobayashi Maru has struck a gravitic mine and has lost all power. Their hull is penetrated and they have sustained many casualties (the communication begins cutting in and out)… their position is Gamma Hydra, section 10 (inside the Neutral Zone)… their life support systems are now failing… Captain Saavik decides to risk entering the Neutral Zone and rescue the Kobayashi Maru but they are attacked by three Klingon cruisers. Explosions begin erupting and this seems to be the end of the Enterprise! However, the lights come on and this whole situation is merely revealed to be a training exercise crafted by Starfleet to be a no-win scenario. We later learn that Captain Kirk is the only person to have beaten the “Kobayashi Maru” no-win simulation (albeit after three tries) because he rewired the program (he does not believe in no-win scenarios).
“Klingons don’t take prisoners.”
Here we see the beloved original crew members of the Enterprise reunited once again –William Shatner is now Admiral Kirk, Leonard Nimoy is now Captain Spock, DeForest Kelley plays Dr. Leonard McCoy, Nichelle Nichols is Lt. Uhura, and James Doohan is Montgomery Scott. It is Admiral Kirk’s birthday, and he receives a predictably stiff congratulations from Spock at his San Francisco home, this is followed by a gift of Romulan ale from “Bones” (a.k.a. Dr. McCoy). The two discuss Kirk’s age and whether or not he should return again to helm a starship again before he grows too old –the scene is starkly similar to the interaction between Captain Pike and Dr. Haskins in the unaired pilot “The Cage.”
Meanwhile, another starship (the Reliant) is on a mission to discover a lifeless planet as part of the “Genesis Mission” –a Starfleet project to launch a device capable of reordering dead matter (a project to create life from lifelessness by restructuring molecular structure at the sub-atomic level into life-generating matter of equal mass) in order to create new habitable worlds for humans. Crew members of the Reliant include first officer and former Enterprise crewmen, Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) and captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield). Chekov enters the log entry: stardate 8130.4. The Reliant has arrived at the remote planet of Ceti Alpha VI, a place with a limited atmosphere filled with craylon gas, sand, high winds, and incapable of supporting life forms. Chekov notices one minor energy flux recorded on one dynoscanner, but suggests it’s probably just a particle of pre-animate matter caught in the matrix. They discuss it with Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), lead scientist on the project who is stationed at space laboratory Regula I. She reminds them that there cannot be so much as a microbe on the planet for the Genesis Project to be a success. Thus, Chekov and captain Terrell beam down to the remote planet “garden spot” on Ceti Alpha VI to investigate the energy flux (they don life support suits). Here, they find a windswept, sandy planet where visibility is low –but then they discover abandoned cargo carriers which to appear to have been lived in. After rummaging through things, they find a checkers board, strange sand creatures kept in a terrarium, and a bookshelf with texts like Melville’s Moby Dick, Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost. Chekov spots an seat bet bearing the name “S.S. Botany Bay” and he tries to urgently persuade captain Terrell to quickly flee, but before they can do anything they are captured by none other than the fearsome Khan Noonien Singh and his men (Khan reprised by Ricardo Montalbán, who famously played the role in the original episode “Space Seed” more than 15 years prior). Khan explains that six months after he was initially exiled to Ceti Alpha V, the nearby planet of Ceti Alpha VI combusted laying waste to Ceti Alpha V killing many of his people, including his wife (presumably Marla McGivers, played by Madlyn Rhue, who was featured in the original episode “Space Seed”). They only managed to survive thanks to their genetically engineered intellect. Then Khan introduces the two Reliant crewmen to the only remaining indigenous creature on Ceti Alpha V, a vile sand insect which killed twenty of his men including his wife. He implants these creatures into the ears of Chekov and captain Terrell in order to control their minds (the young creatures insert themselves through the ears and wrap themselves around the cerebral cortex which leads to madness and eventually death), and thus Khan gains entry to the Reliant where he soon learns of the powerful Genesis Project. The Reliant then heads for Regula I in three days time, though it is not scheduled to arrive for another three months. Upon inquiry from Dr. Marcus, Chekov, now under the rule of Khan, claims the order came from Admiral James T. Kirk.
“On earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince with power over millions.”
Dr. Carol Marcus, a former lover of Admiral Kirk (perhaps she is the blonde woman alluded to in the episode “Where No Man Has Gone For”). As a scientist, her son David (Merritt Buttrick) compares her to Newton, Einstein, and Surak (Surak was the legendary Vulcan scientist and philosopher first introduced in the episode “The Savage Curtain”). She attempts to contact Kirk about the strange communication from the Reliant, but her own communication is cut short, apparently jammed at the source.
Meanwhile, Kirk and his old crewmen have been welcomed aboard the Enterprise for a training voyage. The Enterprise is now helmed by Captain Spock and his first officer, Lt. Saavik. But following the concerning message from Dr. Marcus, Kirk assumes emergency control of the Enterprise and heads for space laboratory Regula I. However, en route, the Enterprise is intercepted and attacked by the Reliant which has been secretly hijacked by Khan. In the course of the surprise attack, we see desperate scenes of desperate lower-level crewmen attempting to breathe and flee the explosions. The Enterprise is greatly damaged and, to Kirk’s horror, he discovers the leader of the Reliant is his old nemesis, Khan. Thanks to some quick thinking by Spock and Kirk, they are able to manually drop the shields of the Reliant using she ship’s prefix code (“16309”) and they fire phasers upon the Reliant, destroying their warp and photon capabilities. Once auxiliary power is restored, the Enterprise escapes and heads for the Regula I science laboratory station. They arrive to find it ransacked, with the bodies of its staff murdered, their throats slit, and their bodies strung up. However, a few managed to survive including Chekov and Captain Terrell (the rest of the Reliant crew were marooned on Ceti Alpha V). Kirk and crew venture onward into the station to secure the Genesis Device. They recover Dr. Marcus and her son David (who also is revealed to be Kirk’s son) while Khan attempts to turn Captain Terrell and Chekov against Kirk using the creatures inside their brains, but Terrell manages to kill himself instead which releases Chekov from the creature’s coil. Khan then beams the Genesis device aboard the Reliant and he abandons Kirk et al in the bowels of Regula I. But as it turns out, Spock saves the day by telling lies over the communication wires, knowing that Khan would be listening, and he retrieves his fellow crewmen and brings them back onto the Enterprise. Both ships –the Enterprise and the Reliant– race into the nearby “Mutara Nebula” which leads to a legendary space battle, and ultimately the Enterprise mortally wounds the Reliant. With his dying breath, Khan echoes Captain Ahab in Moby Dick as he activates the Genesis Device which promises to reorganize all living matter within the region. The Enterprise does not have warp drive capacity so Spock decides to sacrifice his life in order to repair the ship, risking severe radiation poisoning –he is initially prevented from entering the engine room by Dr. McCoy but Spock disables him with the Vulcan nerve pinch and performs a quick mind meld with Bones muttering the word “remember” before proceeding to his certain death. Thanks to his sacrifice, the Enterprise narrowly escapes the detonation of the Genesis Device. At the close of the film, Spock tragically dies of radiation poisoning inside the warp chamber (“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”). He gives Kirk the Vulcan hand salute —“live long and prosper”— and then collapses. He is given an honorable burial as his coffin is jettisoned from the Enterprise (against a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace”) onto a newly created habitable planet spontaneously generated by the detonation of the Genesis device.
“I have been…and always shall be… your friend.”
“Wrath” or “revenge” is a central theme in the film. It is the same same motivation found in Homer’s Iliad which inspires Achilles to withhold his aid to fellow Achaeans in the Trojan War. Khan is blinded by his own rage, and ultimately his desire for revenge is what prevents the loss of the Genesis Device. The idea of ‘blowback’ is also a significant theme in the film –a hero can either live long enough to face his past demons, like Kirk facing Khan, or he can end his life for the sake of his friends, like Spock. Self-sacrifice and friendship, logic and passion, old age and new life, all play an important role in the film, the greatest of the Star Trek movies. In the end, Kirk finally regains his feeling of youthful enchantment again, despite the loss of Spock, he tearfully acknowledges: “I feel young.”
My favourite Star Trek movie of all time, and one of my favourite episodes of the Classic TV Show too. This one ticks all the boxes, and Nicholas Meyer’s idea of using the Naval theme throughout is brilliant. The remake/rehash by J. J Abrams, Star Trek: Into Darkness, doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
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Although Into Darkness is the only one from Abrams’ Treks that I enjoyed, I can certainly agree that The Wrath Of Khan will always be substantially better.
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