When it’s on: Wednesday, 15 August (6.50 pm)
A top drawer day of fare on Film4 (you also get Passport to Pimlico, One Million Years B.C. and Rosemary’s Baby) is topped off with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to some extent the saviour of the entire Trek franchise and a cracking slice of science fiction adventure. Star Trek: the Motion Picture has been covered elsewhere on these pages. Whilst I’m more of an admirer than many, it’s still a slow moving entry that I find myself making excuses for and, whilst it made its money, everyone involved appeared to know it. What followed was a return to the drawing board, the diminishing of Gene Roddenberry’s influence and recruiting a hot young writer-director.
Step forward Nicholas Meyer. His first directorial effort, Time after Time, is kind of a forgotten classic but well received at the time, and he researched his Trek assignment by watching the entire original series, mining hours of material for inspiration. Picking up on an episode from the first season called Space Seed, Meyer and Harve Bennett knit their screenplay on the question of what happened next to Khan Singh and his Botany Bay crew after their exile on Ceti Alpha V following his attempt to take over the Enterprise. Hot vengeance is the answer, especially after the planet suffers an environmental disaster that makes it virtually inhospitable.
What makes The Wrath of Khan so good isn’t the sudden upturn in action that takes place following the philosophy heavy first instalment. In fact, surprisingly little happens, certainly in terms of physical violence as much of the confrontation between Kirk (William Shatner) and Khan (Ricardo Montalban) takes place across the decks of two opposing Federation starships, the Enterprise and the vastly superior craft taken over by the latter. Instead of the fisticuffs a ‘hands on’ captain like Kirk might have involved himself in previously, the tension comes from the mens’ mutual enmity. Khan’s stronger in every way, but the Captain has his wits and the suspense rises in his attempts to outsmart his enemy.
It’s really interesting because Bennett and Meyer used the plot as an attempt to retell Moby Dick, a resurfacing metaphor in the Star Trek series and flowing through this picture, even feeding Khan lines straight from Captain Ahab. That makes Kirk the whale, the indomitable object of Khan’s wrath and a worthy foe.
Other themes include middle age, the script embracing the crew’s advancing years by referring often to Kirk’s use of spectacles and the past life that finds him a father. But there’s new life also, the prospects offered by Project Genesis, which can turn dead rocks in space into life-supporting worlds within a matter of hours. One of the film’s best special effects is the simulation of Genesis at work, the camera flying gracefully through mountain peaks that have sprung up all around it.
The film also carries a great joke at the expense of the audience. Leonard Nimoy had made it very clear this would be his last outing as Mr Spock, the eternal effort by certain actors to be known for something other than a signature role. With everyone expecting a plot that contrived to kill him off, Spock meets his maker in the opening moments as Kirstie Alley’s youthful captain attempts to resolve an impossible scenario, only for the moment of his death to be revealed as acting his part in a training exercise. Viewers could breathe again, though of course Spock gets his grand send-off later… or does he? The training exercise turned out to be so popular, linked as it was to a no-win situation only Kirk had beaten, that it would resurface in J J Abrams’s 2009 update, complete with a cheeky young not-yet-Captain showing how he beat the system.
The Wrath of Khan was a considerable box office success, the tension coupled with Montalban’s natural charisma (he owns the screen in all his scenes) belying a production that cost around a quarter of the original film’s budget and recycled images and props from the Motion Picture. The less than lavish special effects were a source of criticism at the time but have aged surprisingly well, whilst the chemistry between the characters and the film’s pace remain great sources of strength.
Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: ****