Trekking With Tim, Day Two: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Editor Tim Ryan finds much to love in the second Trek installment.

by | April 24, 2009 | Comments

Day Two: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

My feeling is that movie adaptations should be able to appeal to both diehards and non-fans alike. They should maintain the spirit of their source material, but should not be slavishly devoted to it. Most importantly, they should work on their own terms; if you know nothing about the book, TV series, or original film that is being adapted, the film should still create a stand-alone experience.

This is a roundabout way of getting to the point: I really enjoyed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This second film feels like the birth of a movie franchise, not simply an extension of a popular TV show. Compared to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Khan is more exciting, it’s better acted, the special effects are more convincing, and, most importantly, the characters are better realized. This is hardly a minority opinion, since Khan is regularly cited as the best of the series. Still, it’s a good movie any way you slice it.

Khan begins with a tense moment, as the Enterprise, captained by the Vulcan Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley) is attacked by Klingon vessels. It’s blasted to smithereens, but fear not! It was all a training session. As the bridge doors slide open to reveal Admiral Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise gang — a shot that kinda reminded me of Orson Welles’ introduction in The Third Man — I was immediately drawn in: Khan started off not only with a bang, but also a droll, loose sense of humor that was missing from ST:TMP.


The next sequence is even better. Bones drops by Kirk’s quarters on his birthday, bringing a nice bottle of Romulan ale (which will be my all-purpose euphemism for spirits for years to come). But Kirk’s in no mood for celebration; he’s semi-retired, antsy but resigned to his advanced age (“Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor,” he tells Bones earlier). “Other people have birthdays,” says McCoy. “Why are we treating yours like a funeral? Jim, I’m your doctor and I’m your friend. Get back your command…. before you really do grow old.”

It’s a touching moment, because it underscores the fact that these two characters (and the actors playing them) have known each other for a long time. It’s well-acted, and it resounds whether you know the series history or not. It’s rare that movies, much less franchises, revolve around aging protagonists, and rarer still that the small moments in big-budget films can carry such offhand weight. Notice later, after Kirk has been coaxed back onto the Enterprise‘s crew, how different his trek to the ship feels. In the first film, there’s a slow, magisterial pace to the scene. In Khan, there’s a similarly-framed sequence, but it’s played a little lighter; Kirk bemusedly mutters, in anticipation of what awaits when the crew gets to the ship, “I hate inspections.” It’s a sly reminder that, even on the Enterprise, the mundane aspects of your job can still get on your nerves.

Back to the plot. While searching for a testing ground for the life-creating Genesis Device on the barren planet of Ceti Alpha VI, USS Reliant crewmembers Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Cpt. Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) quickly realize they’re not alone. In fact, they’ve been surrounded by the henchmen of Khan (Ricardo Montalban), who has some unfinished business with Kirk. Seems Khan is still steamed that Kirk exiled him and his fellow super-humans to this barren planet, which became unlivable after a nearby planet exploded and wrecked its ecosystem, causing the death of Khan’s wife and peeps. (The back story of all this beef can be traced to ST:TOS episode Space Seed — thanks, Wikipedia!) Thus, hell-bent on vengeance, Khan injects some exceptionally disgusting mind-controlling worms into the ears of Chekov and Terrell, and uses them to assume control of the Reliant (I’m still squirming thinking about that scene).


Thus, Khan is off to a promising start. First, it’s clear that more care has been invested in the characters than Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Second, Khan is a pretty imposing villain; he’s jacked, and his hair makes him look like Rutger Hauer’s more cerebral older brother. (Unfortunately, it appears his getup is not fashioned out of soft Corinthian leather.) And you don’t need to know a lick of Star Trek history to be drawn into the film’s central conflict.

Fortunately, Khan throws even more wrinkles at us. The Enterprise picks up a jumbled message from Space Station Regula I, the headquarters of the Genesis project. It turns out that the head of the operation, Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), also has a history with Kirk, though it’s of a slightly less antagonistic nature than that of Khan, if you catch my drift (that’s the crazy thing about the galaxy: you’re always bumping into people you know). Kirk re-assumes command of the ship in order to investigate, but gets bum-rushed by Khan, who really wants to get his hands on the Genesis Device. (I’d like to note that I find it hilarious that every time the Enterprise is zapped by another ship, sparks, smoke, and crewmembers fly everywhere. This seems to happen even when the bridge is left unscathed.)

After a tense standoff, the Enterprise is able to slip away to Regula 1, where everyone working on the Genesis Project is dead. Everyone, that is, except for Marcus and her son David (Merritt Butrick). You get zero points for guessing whether David is Kirk’s flesh and blood. Anyway, Khan, with the help of the still-brainwashed Chekov and Terrell, steals the Genesis Device, but is unable to use them to kill Kirk. It’s a good thing, too, for who but Shatner could scream the movie’s definitive line of dialogue (“KHHHHAAAAANNNNN!”) with such panache?


When the dust clears, David and Kirk have a strangely moving reunion, and if it’s a few notches beneath the big climactic reveal in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s still poignant; it’s gotta get lonely sometimes, galloping around the cosmos without a family to come home to.

Kirk gets back to the ship, setting up a final confrontation with Khan. After delivering a cosmic beat-down to Khan’s ship, Khan sets off the Genesis Device, and in doing so, all matter in the nearby vicinity will be catastrophically rearranged. Because of heavy damage to the Enterprise, it can’t use warp drive to escape the apocalyptic potential effects of the device. With the fate of the ship hanging in the balance, Spock heads for the engineering section of the ship and, taking one for the team, exposes himself to fatal radiation in order to restore the ship’s warp drive. Through a clear wall, Spock explains his motivations to a grieving Kirk and Bones: “It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh [the needs of] … the one.” Now, I know there are folks out there who write fan fiction about the passion between Kirk and Spock. I know some refer to their relationship as the original bromance. Whatever. I found this scene incredibly poignant. And during Spock’s funeral, in which Kirk says he’s the most human life form he’s met in the whole galaxy, it was getting a little dusty in my house. (It might be that I have a thing for bagpipes.) It’s these final scenes that hammer home what’s particularly special about Khan: the movie understands the bonds between these iconic characters, as well as their motivations, and I feel like that’s what draws people to the Star Trek universe in the first place.


Don’t worry, I didn’t grieve for long; because the next flick is subtitled The Search for Spock, I figure I’ll be seeing my favorite new Vulcan again pretty soon. Perhaps on Monday.