Captain Kirk is the Great White Whale of the Galaxy: #22, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan


1982

Director:  Nicholas Meyer

Cast:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Bibi Besch, Ricardo Montalban, Kirstie Alley, Merritt Butrick

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class A (3/7, hot whitish star).  No ifs, ands or buts…this is far and away the best of Star Trek’s (the original series) voyages into the theater.  It’s got a villain from the series, the heroic death of a beloved character, a terrifying weapon, and plenty of character interaction between the big three, with enough for the “secondary” characters to do.  To top it off, the effects still look good, and it boasts one of the best space battles in cinematic history (something it managed to do without losing the capital ship-feel of the series).  What keeps it from being a Class O or Class B?  It does have some scripting problems, and the story feels a little too pat…

Introduction

Fair warning before we get moving, here:  I’m one of those people who can tell you about the destruction of the Enterprise, Enterprise A, Enterprise C, and Enterprise D (as far as I know, in the original series continuity, as opposed to reboot continuity, no one knows what happened to the B, though it has been on the big screen).  In other words, I’m something of a fan, and I have a good memory, and…oh hell.  Truth is I’m a Star Trek fanatic and I love the series.  So take my review with a grain of salt.

I will not spend a lot of time here explaining the basics of the Star Trek franchise—it’s sufficiently popular, and this is a science fiction blog, for me to assume you’ve got some idea about the basics of the series.  This movie, the second installment of the franchise, comes cold on the heels of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is generally perceived as something of a flop and which was not well-received critically.

There are the big four characters, of course: Captain Kirk (William Shatner), the half-Vulcan Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the irascible Dr. McCoy (Deforest Kelly), and of course the Enterprise itself.  But once you have them, for the most part you have Star Trek.  Star Trek II offers plenty for all four to do, with actual character development and movement tied to the film’s themes of aging, life and what it means to face death…

Star Trek II didn’t stop there, though, bringing back the entire slate of “secondary” characters and giving most of them fun things to do on-screen, as well as bringing back an intensely-drawn and performed villain from the series, and coupling it with new characters, a tightly plotted and thematically superior story, and a set of re-imagined visuals which breathed new life into the franchise.

In almost every way, Star Trek II surpassed its predecessor, and critical and commercial reception was very positive—perhaps the only thing that saved the franchise, in fact, and paved the way for four more TOS films and four more series.  The movie broke box office records for the opening weekend, and went on to become the sixth-highest grossing film of 1982.  Fan response was overwhelmingly positive, and the film has a 92% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy is getting old, and he’s lost all his girls.  Boy’s enemy lures boy into a trap.  Boy and boy’s enemy manage to hurt each other’s rides.  Boy’s enemy withdraws.  Boy meets girl again.  Girl has some surprises in store for Boy, including his son.  Boy’s enemy steals the other surpise, a terraforming device which is also a terrible weapon, and seemingly maroons Boy, Girl and Boy’s posse.  Boy has a trick left, and takes his posse back to his ride.  Boy and boy’s enemy face off in a climactic battle.  Boy wins.  Boy’s enemy activates the weapon.  Boy’s friend sacrifices his life to fix Boy’s ride.  Boy and his posse escape destruction.  The day is saved!

Setup:  Unless you’re either young or completely immune to popular culture, you know who Captain Kirk, his science officer and second in command Spock, and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the Enterprise’s Chief Medical Officer, are.  You probably also know the key others:  Scotty the engineer, Sulu the helmsman, Chekov the weapons dude, and Uhura the communication chick.  What you may not remember is episode #22 from the series’ first season, “Space Seed.”  You can get by without the backstory—the movie does a pretty good job of explication—but it’s always nice to have it…

In “Space Seed,” the Enterprise encounters the Botany Bay, a ship drifting with a crew in suspended animation.  That crew turns out to be Khan Noonien Singh and his followers.  Khan is a genetically engineered superman—bred to be a soldier—who, during the Eugenics Wars on Earth, went from soldier to brutal tyrant who controlled about a quarter of the Earth.  He tries to take over the Enterprise and relaunch his conquest of humanity, but is foiled by Kirk.  Kirk maroons Khan and his followers, including a member of his crew who fell in love with Khan, on Ceti Alpha V, where both Kirk and Khan hope that Khan will develop a new and vibrant society.  Khan views Ceti Alpha V as a challenge and looks forward to it, while Kirk has saved the Federation from a potentially grave threat.

Fast forward some years and a disaster later, and the stage is set for these two enemies to find one another again.

Impressions

The visuals in this film are pretty impressive by my standards, even now, though to many the effects seem dated.  It’s worth noting that the effects were not the emphasis of the film.  Nevertheless, the old model technique holds up well here, in part due to a slower and more majestic type of space combat.  The Enterprise and Khan’s stolen Reliant are not nimble fighters, or even destroyers; they are massive capital ships with a slower, stately movement which brings to mind the sailing vessels of the 17th and 18th centuries, complete with devastating broadsides as the ships maneuver into range.  For filming purposes, the models were stationary while the cameras moved, and all of the damage to the two ships was simulated, as the models were very expensive.  The Reliant, by the way, was the first Federation starship shown on film or television which was not a Constitution-class vessel—it became the basis for the Miranda class vessels seen in The Next Generation.

The nebula effect, where the final battle between Khan and Kirk takes place was beautifully realized.  I have no idea, of course, what the inside of a nebula might look like, though I suspect that they aren’t anywhere near as exciting as most science fiction makes them out to be.  However, the visuals were amazing.  They were created using a tank of water with injections of latex and ammonia, along with colored lighting.

While the look of the Enterprise itself is unchanged from the first movie—in fact, the Enterprise model is the same one in both movies—the look of the crew and their uniforms and the ship interiors is a bit different.  Harve Bennett, the producer who took over Star Trek II, wanted a more nautical feel, and he feared that the television series’ uniforms would appear dated.  Other nautical touches include a boatswain’s call and a ship’s bell, giving the movie a distinct look and feel which would be retained for the movies into The Next Generation‘s forays onto the big screen.

Musically, the movie faced a bit of a challenge:  how do you follow up Star Trek‘s Jerry Goldsmith score while keeping your budget low?  Paramount solved the problem by bringing in a 28 year old composer, James Horner, who composed a terrific orchestral score without reference to the music of the first film.  Instead, it uses the iconic sound of the original series, translated to a full orchestra, to open the movie, which then segues into a motif which, during the course of the movie, becomes Kirk’s theme.  The Enterprise, Khan and Spock also get themes of their own—the Enterprise a softer version of Kirk’s theme and Khan a stirring percussive bass theme.

The actors do a fine job in this movie.  The true standout is Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh—he’s not just a super-intelligent and super-strong would-be conqueror in this movie; he’s a hate-filled avatar of vengeance, and Montalban’s scenery-chewing performance probably makes the film (and accounts for the Online Film Critics’ Society’s designation of Khan as the tenth greatest movie villain of all time).  Montalban takes some relatively bad lines, such as “Revenge is a dish best served cold.  And it is very, very cold in space” and turns them into signature aspects of his character.  His performance is even more impressive when you realize that he never appeared in the same shot with Shatner, and his halves of the conversations between the two men—performed over starship viewscreens or communicators—were actually run with a script girl.

The big three—Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley—also turn in above-average performances and really seemed to understand exactly what was going on thematically in the story.  Shatner’s often-lampooned over-acting is absent here, instead replaced by a warmly human (and vulnerable) performance.  Nimoy’s got Spock down pat, and Kelley’s Bones just seemed to get better with age.  James Doohan, as Scotty, turns in an impassioned performance which showcases more of the actor’s range than is commonly visible.  Walter Koenig’s Chekov shines as well, though as Reliant’s first officer he’s got more screen time than many of the “secondary” characters.

The other notable performances come from new-comers to the Star Trek universe.  Bibi Besch gives an absolutely delightful performance as Carol Marcus, the scientist in charge of the Genesis Project—and a former girlfriend of Kirk’s, who “forgot” to tell Kirk about their son.  She projects intelligence paired with beauty, and she has a serenity and a presence which implies that she is a formidable person and leader in her own right.  Kirstie Alley, in her first film role as Spock’s protege Lieutenant Savik, gives something of a mixed performance—though apparently that’s not really her fault.  Savik was supposed to be of mixed Vulcan and Romulan heritage, and quite young—and hence given to displays of emotion.  Unfortunately, none of that background made it onto the screen, which leaves the viewer with the impression that Alley’s Savik is pretty emotional for a Vulcan.  On the other hand, viewed as a character with imperfect emotional control, someone who aspires to Vulcan logic and lack of passion but isn’t there yet, Alley’s performance is nicely nuanced.  It’s a pity that the movie didn’t make that clear, because otherwise Savik’s emotions are rather puzzling.

For a child of the sixties and seventies, there are a number of interesting casting details in this movie.  Scotty’s nephew is played by Ike Eisenmann, who played Tony in Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel Escape From Witch Mountain, as well as a number of ABC’s after-school specials (“you can do it, Duffy Moon!”).  Kirk’s son is played by Merritt Butrick, and he appeared on the short-lived but quite memorable television series Square Pegs.  Finally, Judson Scott, who plays Joachim, a young right-hand man to Khan, appeared in the short-lived science fiction series The Phoenix.

There are two major thematic elements in the film.  First, there’s Kirk’s concern with the aging process, which is paired with his refusal and inability to face his own, or anyone else’s, mortality.  Then there’s Khan’s crazed obsession with revenge, with the obvious and intentional parallels with Moby Dick.  Both themes are well-developed and help to give the movie a great deal of emotional intensity and complexity.  The themes also intersect nicely, with Khan doubling as a symbol and harbinger of death, thereby bringing the two themes into close proximity.

The aging theme is significantly advanced by a wonderful scene early in the movie between Bones and Kirk, and Bones’ birthday present of authentic eyeglasses (to accompany aged Romulan ale) becomes a prop which carries through the film (Spock gives Kirk a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, which might be regarded as a foreshadowing of Spock’s self-sacrifice).  Death, of course, is tied into the aging theme as well, and Starfleet’s training exercise—the Kobayashi Maru simulation—is designed to teach young officers how to face and deal with the “no-win situation” in which death is inevitable.  Of course Kirk cheated the exercise by changing the simulation’s programming, and he is forced to confront death head-on when, at the end of the movie, Spock’s sacrifice saves the ship but kills him.  The death of an engineering ensign, a favorite of Scotty’s, presages Spock’s death, and Khan himself is a symbol of death and destruction as well.  Death and aging are woven into the movie from its beginning.

Khan’s obsession with revenge upon Kirk is much like Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, the great white whale which cost him his leg.  Indeed, a copy of Moby Dick is prominently displayed in the ruined Botany Bay, where Khan makes his home on the ruined Ceti Alpha V.  As if that weren’t enough, Khan’s death speech is a near-word-for-word duplicate of Ahab’s impassioned speech at the end of Moby Dick.  Khan explicitly rejects the idea that, with both Reliant and Genesis, he can simply leave the crippled Enterprise behind and claim victory.  Instead, for the sake of vengeance, he pursues the crippled Enterprise into a nebula which eliminates his advantages of functioning shields, sensors and warp drive—leading to the death of his entire crew.

The ending of the film doesn’t feel like a doom-and-gloom, death-comes-for-us-all-in-the-end kind of ending, however.  Instead, the death and aging theme hits the rebirth element which was lurking in the background all the while.  The film leaves you with a rather uplifting message in which Kirk states “I feel young” while gazing out on the brand new world brimming with new life where a dangerous nebula had been.  The transformation from aging and death to birth and renewal comes from Spock’s heroic act of self-sacrifice.  That self-sacrifice is his own answer to the no-win scenario, and so it is a stirring affirmation of the human spirit in the face of death, as well as a triumph over that very no-win situation.  Spock’s death also forces Kirk to confront death—and thereby to grow and develop as a person.

One of the other aspects of the movie which keeps the aging process from being a wholly bad thing is the way in which age and experience trump youth and a lack of experience every time.  The knowledgeable and experienced Kirk manages to force the Reliant to drop its shields from the Enterprise’s bridge, and Khan, who’s never commanded a starship before, can’t get them raised again.  Kirk and Spock concoct a code on the fly which deceives their enemies.  Spock suggests that they lure the Reliant into a nearby nebula, where the less-damaged Reliant will lose its advantages.  Kirk’s superior knowledge and experience of tactics gives the advantage there to the Enterprise, and even the killing blow is dealt by Chekov, a weapons specialist, instead of Sulu, who—as a helmsman rather than a weapons officer—isn’t quite capable of finishing the kill before Chekov returns to duty.

It’s worth mentioning that the development process of this movie was unusually long and convoluted, and may have contributed to some of the plot elements which made their way onto the big screen.  Basically, Paramount was decidedly unhappy with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  They spent a lot of money and started an enormous marketing campaign, which included toys, a novel, a comic book, and happy meals, among other things, and that film’s lackluster critical and commercial response nearly killed the franchise.

Any rational view of Star Trek: The Motion Picture would have to conclude that it was a commercial success.  It broke the box office records for the weekend opening gross, for example.  However, the process of bringing it to the screen took over four years, numerous script re-writes, and a diversion into the idea of an updated television series featuring a second five-year mission (called Star Trek Phase II).  During that development process, the cost of the project tripled.  And in light of the massive success of Star Wars, the big shots at Paramount can perhaps be excused for being disappointed with the performance of Star Trek I.  Some of the negative critical reception focused on the first movie’s emphasis on special effects and lack of story.

Paramount essentially fired Roddenberry (under the guise of moving him up in the hierarchy) and brought in Harve Bennett to script and write the sequel, and they reduced the size of the budget enormously.  A new director, a new producer, an emphasis on cutting costs…and the result is a movie which is visually very different from its predecessors, and which emphasizes themes foreign to the upbeat and optimistic (if seldom light-hearted) original series or its successor The Next Generation.  Take it how you will—and I do love the optimistic view of the future in Roddenberry’s vision—but you would probably have a hard time getting anyone to seriously contend that this is not the best of the Star Trek movies.

The death of Spock, one of the key elements of the movie, actually came about because the promise of a good death scene was the only way Paramount could lure Leonard Nimoy into doing another Star Trek movie.  Nimoy had no interest in the proposed Phase II series, and wanted Spock to go out in a blaze of glory—he apparently felt that the series was done.  Paramount and Bennett hedged their bets, however, by bringing in Savik, another Vulcan, and the Genesis conceit gave Paramount an easy way to reset the board if that proved necessary.

With all that good stuff, you might be wondering at this point what on earth I have against the movie.  You may recall I mentioned some scripting issues, and they are definitely there.  I’ve already mentioned the stilted and in some cases truly terrible dialogue the script puts in Khan’s mouth, and only Montalban’s performance avoided that trap.  And the finished movie’s failure to identify Savik as half-Vulcan is pretty close to unforgivable; Savik openly cries during the course of the film, something no Vulcan would ever do.  Chekhov recognizes Khan when he encounters him, but Chekov wasn’t on the show (and presumably not serving on the Enterprise) when Kirk first encounters Khan.  Khan’s taking of the Reliant is not shown on-screen, and you don’t find out what happened to its crew (marooned on Ceti Alpha V) until several scenes later, when it is mentioned in a throw-away line.  The Kobayashi Maru simulation, which is perhaps the emotional core of the film, is something Kirk cheated when he took it—but we subsequently discover that he only cheated on his third try.  That implies, of course, that Kirk did face death and the no-win situation the first and second times he took the test, thereby neatly eviscerating the film’s primary theme.  There are minor things like this peppered throughout the script, and they do detract a bit from the movie.

Wrap-up

Still and all, The Wrath of Khan is a wonderful ride.  It has plenty of surprises the first time you see it, but retains its emotional power when you see the film a second (or third or…) time.  For the most part, Star Trek II gets everything right, and it’s well worth taking a look if you enjoy science fiction, Star Trek, or character-driven adventure movies.

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4 Responses to “Captain Kirk is the Great White Whale of the Galaxy: #22, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”

  1. Mark of the Wretched Excess Crew here. Love this film bunches, warts and all. I will quibble with you, however, on the issue of Kirk never facing death because he cheated at the Kobayashi Maru: he may have experienced failure there, but he didn’t accept it, even after two tries. He learned nothing of the lesson he was supposed to learn, and instread found a way to not fail, effectively cheating death the way he does again and again in his career as a Starship captain.

    • Heh…you’re right, of course, about the third-time’s-the-charm thing on the Kobyashi Maru scenario…I’m guilty of hyperbole there!

  2. […] Captain Kirk is the Great White Whale of the Galaxy: #22, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (top50sf.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] Captain Kirk is the Great White Whale of the Galaxy: #22, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (top50sf.wordpress.com) […]

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