This is the second of our series of looking back to past Trek films and seeing what they can teach us about how to make Trek work again on the big screen.
In the wake of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP), which did solid business but was very expensive, Trek’s future remained uncertain. At one point there was even a rumor (reported in the New York Times) that Trek would return to the small screen with a new series involving all the leads. In the end Paramount decided to keep going with feature films, but make some big personnel changes. They bought out Roddenberry’s remaining interest in the Trek property, and handed the reins over to veteran TV producer Harve Bennett (best known for producing The Mod Squad, The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman). Bennett tells the story about how Gulf+Western CEO Charles Bluhdorn gave him marching orders “to make a movie that isn’t boring for less than 45 f—ing million dollars.” Coming from the low budget world of TV, Bennett assured Bluhdorn he could make 3 movies for that amount, and he just about did. Bennett then set off to learn everything about Trek and got to work on what would be the first of a trilogy of successful Trek films.
Bennett hired Jack Sowards to write the script and began a process of several drafts, none of which seemed to be just right. It was at thispoint that Bennett brought in Nicholas Meyer, author of the Holmes meets Freud pastiche ‘The Seven-Per-Cent Solution’ and writer-director of Time After Time, about a time-traveling H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper. Meyer, who had never watched Star Trek, signed on as the director and also became an uncredited screenwriter. Bennett and Meyer picked the pieces they liked from each of the drafts (like Khan, Kobayashi Maru, and Kirk’s son) and then Meyer put the pieces together into a new script and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (TWOK) was on it’s way.
Moby-Dick… In Space!
The film opens with a bang, literally. We are quickly reintroduced to most of the Trek crew, along with a new face: the Vulcan Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley, in her first major performance). Intercepting a distress call from the freighter Kobayashi Maru, the Enterprise has a run-in with the Klingons that kills everyone and leaves the ship a shambles…only to be revealed as a simulation under the supervision of Admiral Kirk. Considering that news of Spock’s death had already leaked out to fans, the Kobayashi Maru simulation was a brilliant red herring on Meyer’s part, allowing fans to breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the rest of the movie (or so they think).
We then get down to the film’s central message, about our mortality, by way of aging and death. Admiral Kirk is having a bit of a midlife crisis; he’s back behind a desk again, the Enterprise is a training ship full of raw young cadets, he needs reading glasses, and it’s his birthday. McCoy, as in the Original Series, plays the role of Kirk’s conscience. McCoy encourages Kirk to get back his command, a marked change from TMP, where Kirk’s obsession with getting back the center seat caused McCoy to question his command fitness. Meanwhile, out in space, the starship Reliant is surveying planets for Project Genesis, a powerful new way of terraforming planets. Due to an error in planet counting, Commander Chekov runs into Kirk’s old nemesis (from the 1st season episode ‘Space Seed’), the genetically enhanced and now exiled Khan Noonien Singh.
What follows is a full realization of Gene Roddenberry’s line about Trek being Horatio Hornblower in space. From the very nautical-looking uniforms to the cramped yet lived-in feel of the sets, to two excellently staged battle sequences that are more Run Silent, Run Deep than Star Wars, this is probably the most militaristic vision of Star Trek to date. While that would seem to be in opposition with Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic vision of the future, Meyer makes it work because the surroundings are just window-dressing. What matters is that Meyer’s take on the characters, especially Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, is closer to their TOS portrayals. Spock and McCoy bicker, Kirk shows a bit of his old action-hero self in a tightly shot knife fight with his son David (Merritt Butrick), and there’s appropriately timed witty banter throughout the film. The characters are more at ease with each other than they were in the previous movie, and Spock in particular seems to have grown from where we left him in TMP, having made inner peace with his Vulcan and human halves. And the reintroduction of Khan brilliantly ties in to the Original Series and gives this new film the focus lacking in the previous outing. Ricardo Montalban just tears up the scenery,inspiring Robert Ebert to say of TWOK:
His performance is so strong that he helps illustrate a general principle involving not only Star Trek but Star Wars and all the epic serials, especially the James Bond movies: Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.
The introduction of Khan also brings up another lesson for Star Trek XI, that of ‘continuity’. Although Khan claims he remembers Checkov, Chekov didn’t join the show until the season after ‘Space Seed’. Trek fans are notorious sticklers for this sort of thing, yet in the case of Star Trek II they seem to give Meyer a pass (explaining it away by saying Chekov was below decks or something). And, of course, regular film goers didn’t need to have seen ‘Space Seed’ to understand Khan’s hatred for Kirk, nor would they care about the whole Chekov not meeting Khan thing. The lesson here is that if a film gets the big things right like character and excitement, apparent ‘continuity errors’ like this are irrelevant. If the film is good but Kirk meets Spock before the Enterprise, or Mc Coy is on board for the first mission (and not Dr Piper), fans will find a way to deal with it just like they did with Chekov and Khan meeting (and the rest of the world will never know the difference).
The film is full of anachronisms and literary allusions, including “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Moby-Dick,” “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” and Admiral Kirk’s glasses, none of which detract from the story. They work in part because it’s the first time they’re being used in this fashion, and also because Meyer seems to be holding back a bit (compared to his scripts for “The Voyage Home” and “The Undiscovered Country”). Kirk wearing his glasses says as much about his midlife crisis as any line of dialogue in the film, and Montalban’s delivery of his final lines (the dying words of Melville’s Captain Ahab) completely sells what might have been utterly ridiculous coming from another actor.
Less is More
The acting from the leads in this film is superb. Meyer did what Robert Wise could not, and that was to extract a moving, energetic performance from William Shatner. Shatner’s performance harkens back to his early days as Kirk, when he was actually acting, not just playing William Shatner in a spacesuit. Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, as always, are a joy to watch playing off each other, and Nimoy’s death scene is incredibly poignant. And then there’s Ricardo Montalban, who delivers a memorable, scene-chewing performance that thankfully never goes over the top. Of the other guest stars, Kirstie Alley performance is the most interesting, because at times she’s a decidedly un-Vulcan Vulcan, and it’s sort of a kick watching Spock (who, for so long struggled with his human half) teach her about humanity.
The Wrath of Khan was made for around $12 million, and it shows in the special effects and production design. All of the effects shots of the Enterprise during the first half of the film are recycled from TMP, and the film more or less takes place in two rooms — the bridges of the Enterprise and the Reliant — with the latter merely being a redressed version of the first. The exterior of Spacelab Regula One is the office complex from TMP turned upside-down, and its interior is cobbled together from cast-off set pieces from “Star Trek: Phase II” and various consoles rented from Modern Props with lots of blinky lights. And the matte paintings making up the Genesis Cave are just a bit short of convincing (especially the one marred by a horrid polar motion lighting gag to represent a waterfall). In the end, The Wrath of Khan is more like the TV show in that it uses the characters to drive the point of the story home, rather than relying on visual spectacle. Because Bennett and Meyer didn’t have $30 million to blow on huge sets and elaborate special effects, they had to make do with what was available to them: the story and the actors.
Although they weren’t breaking the bank, TWOK did set many standards for the film series. The newuniforms, while a bit marching band-like, were a far sight better than the loungewear our heroes wore in TMP. The film also gave us the new ‘Miranda Class’ Reliant, a model would continue to pop up during The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. The team did drop a bit of cash on a cool CGI animation of Genesis Device in action (one of the first times CGI was used in a film), which also got reused in the next film. Lastly we get a big, brassy score from James Horner, who was still establishing himself in Hollywood at the time. While perhaps not as memorable as Jerry Goldsmith’s work on TMP, Horner’s score does its job well, kicking the adventure up a notch at just the right moments.
After the first Trek film wasn’t as successful as Paramount had hoped, there was a bit of trepidation as Star Trek II drew closer to its release date. Their fears were quickly allayed when the film set an opening weekend record of $14.3 million dollars, going on to earn nearly $80 million domestically (almost the same as TMP for less than half the budget). Additionally, fans, casual viewers, and critics were overwhelmingly positive in their response. New York Times critic Janet Maslin drew attention to the marked differences between the first two films, complimenting the return of the TV show’s sense of derring-do, gamesmanship and fun, as well as Shatner’s dry sense of humor. The film immediately led to a trilogy of films (ST II, ST III and ST IV), making the 80s the most successful time in the franchise’s history and convincing the studio the time was finally right to bring Trek back to the small screen (in the form of Star Trek: The Next Generation). Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan truly brought Trek back from a period of uncertainty not unlike today.
The critical and business success of TWOK set a new direction that would last for the rest of the film franchise. This resulted in Trek movies losing the sense of awe and wonder we got in TMP, and certainly ended further attempts at ‘pure’ 2001-like science fiction. Instead, they became kind of a comfort food, reuniting the fans every two years with their favorite characters, kind of like a class reunion on the big screen. What’s different here is that whereas later incarnations of Trek would be timid in how they dealt with their characters, TWOK dares to threaten the status quo in a way even Roddenberry’s ambitious first Trek film wouldn’t. TMP ends with our guest stars being the ones to merge with V’Ger, whereas TWOK dares to kill off the single most beloved character in the franchise. Yes, the ending shot with the torpedo tube on the planet leaves things a bit open-ended (though in Meyer’s defense, that was Harve Bennett’s decision, not his).
One more thing…
As discussed TWOK shows how the keys to Trek success are a focus on characters, tying into Trek’s past without being dogmatic and ratcheting up the drama. But there’s one final lesson to be learned, but not for J.J. Abrams. In a New York Times interview that ran shortly after the film hit theaters in June 1982, Nicholas Meyer explained his way of dealing with fan pressure during the making of the film:
Robert Bresson was the one who said, ‘My job is not to find out what the public wants and give it to them; my job is to make the public want what I want.’ There’s no way of saying this without sounding arrogant, but there’s only one person I have to please when I’m working, and that’s me. It is impossible to second-guess millions of people whom you have never met.
This lesson is for us. Fans tend to get an inflated sense of self-importance, particularly when they’ve invested a great deal of time, money, and passion in something like Trek. A sense of ownership begins to develop, along with the belief that whoever is running the franchise is obligated to pursue our personal idea of what Star Trek should be. In the end, our hue and cry about prequels and recasting classic characters and abandoning the post-TNG era won’t matter a bit. If you only give people what they want and expect then how can you give them a sense of surprise and wonder. Abrams and his team will make the movie they want to make, and hopefully (like The Wrath of Khan) it will blow us all away.
One last note, Abrams has stated that (like many fans) The Wrath of Khan is his favorite Trek film, so he may be on the right track.
images courtesy of TrekCore.com…click to see their entire collection of TWOK images