Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan represents the Trek phenomenon in its purest form. It stands at the crossroads between the original television show and the larger franchise it spawned. Sure, we had the regrettable Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but considering that that earlier film literally took forty-five minutes just to get the Enterprise out of space dock, we’ve all pretty much accepted it as a mulligan. Khan had the real juice: an epic clash against a villain worthy of the title featuring the characters we knew and loved in a one-of-a-kind scenario. It laid the cheese on thick, but not at the expense of the drama, nor the onscreen figures.
It also took the novel approach of treating the far future like the Napoleonic high seas, with an attendant shift in the film’s look and feel. Starfleet uniforms thus become a dignified wine color, with recognizable naval traditions appearing onboard ship. The sinister Khan (Ricardo Montalban) and his minions resemble nothing so much as marooned pirates, commandeering a ship and taking on the fleet’s stalwart hero James T. Kirk (the one and only William Shatner) in a battle royale. The device helped downplay the excessive effects that hampered The Motion Picture, as well as allowing the characters to finally be themselves on the big screen.
That included one of the few times where Trek acknowledges its protagonists’ advancing age. While Khan hounds the U.S.S. Enterprise from without, Kirk himself turns within to take stock of the life he’s led. There are regrets there: mistakes he made, pain he caused others, and a son (Merritt Burtick) to whom he’s an absolute stranger. He can’t go on being the cowboy he once was, and all those years spent banging space chicks on backwater asteroids created a hefty bill come due. The conceit turned the inherent ridiculousness of an increasingly old cast into a potent dramatic tool.
Then, of course, there’s the death of Spock (Leonard Nimoy): the high point of the entire franchise and a moment that still leaves Trekkies wiping tears from their eyes. Director Nicholas Meyer dovetails the Vulcan’s supreme sacrifice with the film’s themes of regrets and rebirth, while Nimoy aids him with a dignified final speech: simple, understated and wrenchingly beautiful. Shatner adds to it with his heartfelt eulogy, reining in the scenery chewing for one of the finest film moments he’s ever produced. The filmmakers brought Spock back in the next film, of course, and yet the tactic doesn’t feel cheap or arbitrary thanks to the sensitive handling here.
Star Trek II pulls off that feat while still soaking gloriously in the franchise’s sillier elements. At its best, it delivers these beloved characters with a marvelous twinkle in their eyes. At its worst, it’s still fantastic: rampaging melodrama amped up to the max and topped with the most glorious hamfest cinema has yet witnessed. Who can say no to the lurching choreography as the ships trade broadsides, Khan’s brazen misquoting of Moby Dick, or Shatner – toupee aquiver – bellowing the line that defined his career? Such camp pleasures have always been a part of Star Trek, and Wrath of Khan wouldn’t be half as good a movie without them.
Beyond its sterling stand-alone qualities, it also marks an important shift in the franchise, a tipping point between the growing cult following of the original series and the mainstream success it achieved with the movies. Meyer deserves a lot of credit for that. He entered the project utterly indifferent to Star Trek, then became a fan as he worked: a mixture that granted him insight into the movie needs without feeling reverently attached to unnecessary elements. He displayed a unique knack for the ship-to-ship combat, with slow elegant movements in an era when noisy Star Wars dogfights were the norm. He and the screenwriters also accentuated the crew’s marvelous camaraderie in ways that an outsider could quickly grasp. Long-time Trekkies got the great characters they loved, while newcomers felt welcome at the party. He even managed to slip in a little philosophy of the sort that the TV series used to thrive on, such as when Bones (DeForest Kelley) and Spock debate the frankenstienian implications of the film’s Genesis device.
The combination makes Star Trek II the franchise’s perfect embodiment. Old and new, gripping drama and sublime camp, good guys and bad guys all converge to form an unassailable peak. As terrific as the 2009 reboot was and as impressive as The Next Generation could be, they still couldn’t approach Khan for the total package. If you watch it and still can’t understand where the Trekkies are coming from, there’s just no hope for you. “To boldly go” never went quite so boldly as it did here.