Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Khan Noonien Singh escapes the planet he was marooned on by James T Kirk 15 years earlier, he seeks his revenge…

For the first time in this film series, we hear Star Trek’s famous narration. It’s voiced by Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and appears at the end of the movie. The wording is: “Space, the final frontier. These are the continuing voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before…”

Regulars: As the film begins, Kirk is training recruits rather than commanding a starship because “galloping round the cosmos is a game for the young.” It’s also his birthday: another reminder that he’s getting on a bit. Ghosts from his past – his ex, his son, a former foe – dominate the story. Spock gives Kirk a copy of A Tale of Two Cities for his birthday, then counsels him to take command when the crisis begins. We also see Spock meditating in his quarters. At the climax, he risks – and loses – his life to save the Enterprise from a reactor overload. Dr McCoy gives Kirk some reading glasses and a bottle of Romulan ale as presents, and has a classic squabble about morality with Spock (“You green-blooded, inhuman–”). Chekov is now first officer on the starship Reliant, which is searching for a test site for the Genesis project. When they stumble across Khan and his followers, Chekov seems to remember the events of Space Seed (the TV episode that introduced Khan) even though it was made before actor Walter Koenig joined the show. Along with his new captain, Chekov is captured by Khan and forced to help him. During a battle, Scotty is so cut up by the severe injuries to a colleague that he carries the burnt body up to the bridge; he later plays the bagpipes (!) at Spock’s funeral. Sulu and Uhura are still basically just background characters who get the odd line of perfunctory dialogue. The Enterprise has a new crewmember, though – Vulcan officer Saavik, played by Kirstie Alley. She’s uptight, naïve, inexperienced and quotes regulations. (When Alley was in Cheers a few years later, she was an enormous adolescent crush of mine.)

Guest stars: Bibi Besch plays Carol Marcus, a Genesis scientist and old flame of Kirk’s. Their son, David, is played by Merritt Butrick. Carol has some nice scenes with Kirk, but David is very bland. Paul Winfield off of The Terminator appears as Terrell, the captain of the Reliant. The main guest star is Ricardo Montalban, who reprises Khan from the TV series. He’s a raving loon with a giant intellect and superhuman strength who likes showing off his tits.

Best bits:

* James Horner’s music, especially the opening theme.

* The first shot of Saavik: she spins round in the captain’s chair to face the camera. Sex. On. A. Stick.

* The Kobayashi Maru training session, with its apparent injuries/deaths to regular characters. The reveal it’s a simulation comes with an arch, backlit shot of Kirk striding in.

* “Aren’t you dead?” Kirk jokes to Spock early on – a deliberate foreshadowing.

* Kirk’s flat, with its view of San Francisco Bay and maritime antiques on the walls.

* The surface of Ceti Alpha V (Khan’s planet) – disorientating sandstorms, hazy sun, weird rocks: all achieved on a sound stage.

* The little slug thing going inside Chekov’s ear. Urgh. (It’s even more unsettling when it later crawls out.)

* Saavik observes that Kirk is “so… human.” Spock replies: “Nobody’s perfect.”

* A cute circular camera move arcing around the Genesis scientists as the have an argument.

* The fact that Khan puts on a Starfleet jacket when he takes over the Reliant.

* The Genesis demonstration film – some groundbreaking special effects.

* The Reliant attacking the Enterprise, and then Kirk realizing Khan’s on board.

* The horror-movie shock of McCoy bumping into a corpse hanging from the ceiling.

* The twist that Chekov and Terrell are still under Khan’s thrall.


* Kirk admitting he cheated at the Kobayashi Maru test, which is immediately followed by the revelation that he’s done a similar thing with Khan’s trap.

* The two ships in the nebula cloud. Unable to see each other, they stalk silently like submarines. Very tense stuff.

* “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?!”

* Spock’s death scene.

* The shot of Spock’s coffin in a newly grown jungle on the Genesis planet: a teaser for the next movie…

TV tie-in: Space Seed from the original TV show’s opening season is a good little episode. The Enterprise crew find a ship containing cryogenically frozen people. Their leader, Khan Noonien Singh, awakens and attempts to take over with the help of an Enterprise crewmember, Marla, who’s fallen under his spell. Marla goes off with Khan to an empty planet at the end of the episode. By the time of The Wrath of Khan, however, she’s died. Cutely, Space Seed concludes with Spock wondering what the planet would be like if they returned to it many years in the future…

Review: There’s so much more life, energy and depth to this than there was in The Motion Picture. It’s just in a different class. Famously, Spock’s sacrifice at the end packs a real punch (even when you know full well he’s coming back!). William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are both excellent in their characters’ final moment together. And the fact that the key dialogue from this scene – “The needs of the many,” etc – has been seeded earlier in the film is a great example of how smart the script it. For a kick-off, rather than the first film’s simplistic story, this has a great ‘movie’ plot. The Genesis project both ignites Khan’s journey and is vital to his actions, while there are plenty of character insights, which are always integral. There’s the running theme of Kirk’s age, for example. He has a birthday, feels over-the-hill, meets his son, and loses his best friend. The entire film is about his past catching up with him. It might be strange that Kirk and Khan never actually meet, aside from one chat over a vid-screen, but it’s also great to have a proper villain. Meanwhile, the look of the film is simply wonderful. The slick Starfleet sets and costumes, the grotty cargo container on Ceti Alpha V, Khan and his Mad Max-style gang – these designs are always plausible, interesting and full of telling details that imply back-story. This film is engaging, witty, dramatic and never dull.

Ten no-win scenarios out of 10.

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