The second Star Trek movie was a first: the first good Star Trek film. The initial installment of the big screen franchise Star Trek: The Motion Picture was, shall we say, regrettable. Audiences rewarded it at the box office. They ate it up after a decade of no Star Trek at all (a dry spell not since duplicated). However, once the initial thrill of seeing Star Trek on the big screen wore off, they quickly realized its flaws.
So did the Paramount studio suits.
They knew that the franchise could not afford another lousy film. Fans would not be so forgiving a second time. So they went to work. Producer Harve Bennett watched all seventy-nine episodes of the original series for inspiration, trying to find out what made the best episodes work. He found it. It was the characters.
Sure, the sci-fi setting of everything was necessary, but that was there in all of the episodes even the lousy ones. What really made the good ones click was vivid, dramatic characters. Ones we care about. In dramatic, character-driven situations.
To force the familiar Enterprise crew into such situations, Bennett picked the best of the original series villains: Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban). He stood above the crowd of crass, original series Klingon captains, Star Fleet officers gone bad, and assorted alien malefactors. He was something different. Strong. Mysterious. Charismatic. A product of late 20th-century genetic engineering, he even had a connection with out own age. In the Star Trek universe, he was a dictator who ruled a third of late-20th century Earth before being driven into space.
And he had a grudge against Captain Kirk (William Shatner).
The original series episode in which he appeared Space Seed ended with the characters wondering what would become of Khan and his followers. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we found out.
Things did not go well for them. After Kirk marooned Khan and his crew of genetically engineered supermen on a planet, a neighboring world blew up, throwing them into catastrophe and killing Khan’s wife. He blamed Kirk for his ill fortune and, at the earliest opportunity, sprang forward into space to seek his revenge.
As we meet Khan, he is in fighting form. He is the most memorable villain of the Star Trek series (dwarfing Shinzon from Star Trek Nemesis). Ricardo Montalban turns in a superb performance, not only dramatically but also physically. He so conveys the impression of a superb, superhuman specimen that some have suggested that the aging actor was wearing a big, plastic chest during the film. He wasn’t. Montalban was really that buff.
As the story begins, Kirk has little idea what is to befall him. Indeed, he isn’t even captain of the Enterprise any more, having been promoted to the admiralty.
He doesn’t like it.
He is reviewing the Enterprise’s new, trainee crew, under the command of Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy). He’s watching younger people preparing to boldly go where he is no longer allowed to go. As an admiral, he’s too important.
One of the young people is Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley), a half-Vulcan, half-Romulan officer who has command material written all over her and might replace Spock. Another is Kirk’s own, long lost son, David Marcus (Merrit Butrick). Their presence serves to underscore the fact that Kirk is not only too important for such missions. He’s also getting old.
This was another conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers. In the first Star Trek movie they had tried to pretend that the characters had not significantly aged since the original series. But with the passage of time (fifteen years since Star Trek first debuted), the cast was aging, and it was no longer possible to hide the fact. The filmmakers decided to confront the fact head on and acknowledge that the audience would surely realize: Captain Kirk and his crew are no longer young.
The Wrath of Khan forces Kirk to confront the feelings of all who realize that their youth is behind them and that they are closer to rather than farther from death. He isn’t adapting well to this realization. He does not wish to go gentle into that good night. Unfortunately, there is no science-fiction solution to the problem for him. No immortality.
But in a deliberate irony, there is a source of new life in the movie: the mysterious Project Genesis. This project is the occasion of the single anti-religious remark in the film, in which one character remarks, According to myth the Earth was created in six days. Now watch out! here comes Genesis. We’ll do it for you in six minutes! Designed to solve the cosmic problems of population and food supply by creating new, habitable planets from old, dead ones Project Genesis is both a powerful tool and a dangerous weapon.
What would happen if it fell into the wrong hands?
Any number of things. Including some that we see in this film.
Overall, the movie is taut and inventive. It puts the characters through their paces while providing interesting solutions to the problems they encounter. If some of these solutions can be predicted, that does not rob them of their emotional impact. After all, we’ve known these characters for years since the original series.
And one of the most beloved will not make it out alive.
But will this loss be irretrievable? This is science fiction. Even with Project Genesis in operation, will there be no life from death?
The film does not tell us, but it does provide hope. After a dark climax, the film pulls out a positive ending that strongly points to the future of the franchise.
With the release of Star Trek III, audiences found out whether their hope paid off.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.