The Wrath of Khan in Review
Captain Spock of the USS Enterprise is killed along with his crew and their new trainees in a thrilling opening to the second Star Trek film, making an immediate change of pace from its predecessor in 1979. Fortunately for fans, the loss of our familiar heroes like Bones, Sulu, and Uhura doesn’t last long, as Admiral James T. Kirk turns the lights on to reveal that it was all a simulation in the form of the Kobayashi Maru scenario. This was a new thing in 1982 but has cast a long shadow over the franchise since, even passing into popular culture as a term for a lose-lose situation.
Before long, we learn that Kirk is pondering on mortality as his birthday approaches (we’re never told what age he’ll be, though). The cast have mentioned in interviews that this film allowed them to play the characters people remember from the series, which they felt wasn’t the case in the previous film. That’s a little unfair on The Motion Picture, but it’s certainly true that, as this film progresses, the regular TV characters – and especially the Big Three: Kirk, Spock and Bones – fit far more comfortably in their established ways. That said, however, they also move on and develop, in a way they didn’t in the previous film.
Kirk is dealing with mortality, Spock faces his own, and of course both of them in their ways get to deal with parenthood of a sort, as Spock is kind of raising Saavik as his apprentice, and Kirk meeting his son, who (getting back to the story) is the offspring of the scientist in charge of the Genesis Project, a plan to turn uninhabited worlds into class-M planets. TOS regulars Chekov and Kyle are aboard the USS Reliant – which was the first non-Constitution-class Federation starship seen in the franchise – searching for such worlds when they accidentally stumble upon Khan Noonien Singh and the survivors of his genetically enhanced supermen. Khan, seeing the value of Genesis, immediately sets out for revenge.
As will become typical, the Enterprise, with her crew of cadets and instructors, is the only ship in the area, and goes to investigate, only to be attacked by the Reliant. While the Enterprise is damaged, Kirk reunites with Chekov and the Reliant’s Captain Terrell, and soon chief scientist Carol Marcus and their son David in a hollow moon with a garden of Eden inside. Terrell and Chekov are controlled by Khan via ear-gounging brain parasites, and steal Genesis, leading to a duel between the two ships before Khan can trigger the device – but victory comes at the cost of Spock’s life…
This movie is a big change from The Motion Picture on many different levels. It has less wonder and beauty, yes, but the characterisation is much improved, it’s more tense and thrilling, and ultimately more rewarding. It may be less original and less Trek-ish to be a straightforward good versus evil story rather than a tale of seeking out new life and new civilisations. It very much is about going where this ship and crew have been before, and facing up to the consequences of having done so.
The visual effects by ILM may have been far more tightly budgeted than those of its predessor, and so are on a far smaller scale, even to the extent of including some reused footage from that film, yet this neither hampers nor detracts from them in any way. In fact, if anything, using them to enhance the character drama and conflict, as well as focusing on fewer of them, makes them even more effective.
This doesn’t give us the long travelling show that was V’Ger, this gives us short and snappy starship combat, yet also beauty in the pastel dynamic swirls of the Mutara Nebula and the pearlescent swooping ships. Bluntly, the visual effects here are better than those in the previous movie; and, except for the groundbreaking CG Genesis sequence, they still hold up as thrilling beauty today.
Sadly, Jerry Goldsmith was beyond the music budget, so instead James Horner makes his debut in the franchise with a majestic seafaring score that blends the tones of far horizons and creepy desert woodwinds with a surprising amount of passages from his earlier Battle Beyond the Stars score (later to be reused in Krull and Aliens).
Cinematography is spot-on, and shot compositions are fine, but the movie’s strength is in how the script’s dramatic character conflicts are so engaging and so well played that they totally drown out the slightly dated materials of the sets, and make it totally unnoticeable that the two antagonists never actually meet. In fact, the same sets were used for Enterprise and Reliant, with Kirk’s jolly crew filming, then the Khan and his band of Chippendales (seriously). These cost-cutting measures don’t make a damn bit of difference, because the story, the themes of mortality and replacement, the consequences of character and actions, and the performances keep the attention off such things.
Yes, we all know this stuff now from IMDb and books and commentaries on the discs, but in 1982 it’d take repeated viewings to realise. Then again, in 1982 nobody had those things. There was just the memories of the most recent repeat of “Space Seed”, James Blish’s novelisations, and the teasing of Vonda N McIntyre’s excellent novelisation. Despite that, the movie captivated and thrilled the audience.
The Wrath of Khan was a hit that saved the franchise in 1982, and its qualities all have stood the test of time, holding up perfectly well today, whether it be the story, subtext, or even effects. It’s still a classic, and always will be.
David A McIntee is a writer and historian who has written for properties such as Doctor Who, Star Wars, Final Destination, and Stargate, as well as having written several adventures in the Star Trek franchise for Pocket Books. He has contributed many pieces to the magazines Star Trek Explorer (née Star Trek Magazine) and Star Trek Communicator, as well as having written nonfiction books about Star Trek: Voyager.