Star Trek II is usually considered the best of the classic movie series. (I think that distinction goes to The Undiscovered Country, however this is a close contender and both were directed by Nicholas Meyer.) Like most Trek, there are some truly great moments while the not-so-great ones are pretty few-and-far between. Along the lines of “silly” I draw your attention to the Kobayashi Maru test which has become legendary in Trek lore, but talk about immersive role playing! I can’t imagine military men playing it out and acting like they are being blasted to death. McCoy even makes a comment about his “performance”. Somehow that seems so unlikely. Noticeably absent is any women appearing in bathrobes or revealing outfits. The closest we get to that is Saavik’s off-duty clothing but there’s nothing untoward about it (barring Kirk’s appraising look). In fact, the dialogue generated about her hair during that scene is used solely for comic effect. Possibly the weirdest moment for me is watching Kirk shoot a slug that has just come out of Chekov’s ear. Talk about a dangerously close shot near the man’s head! If Chekov twitched…
There is also an arc that started in the first movie and continues here. Spock’s realization about logic in Star Trek: The Motion Picture actually opens the path for what goes on for the characters in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There’s a friendship that has become more pronounced than ever before and that may be one of the strongest elements of the second movie in the franchise. While the bond had always been there, it was intensified in the first movie when Spock returns from the mind meld with V’Ger and continues on a trajectory in this one. Now, that doesn’t change the fact that some of the other relationships need work. In The Motion Picture, Kirk replaced Decker on the Enterprise. While it’s not said during the movie, Decker is supposed to be the son of Commodore Decker, who died in The Doomsday Machine. In this movie, a young ensign, Peter Preston, dies. Scotty is distraught and even gets an apology from McCoy. Why? I’ve read that this is supposed to be his nephew. Is any of that stated? No. If relationships are so important, one might expect these things to get mentioned from time to time. (Then again, look at the strained relationship between David and Jim. David seems to have very little knowledge of who his father is, but at the end of the movie, David says he’s proud to be Kirk’s son. When did that happen? Did Carol sit down and have a chinwag with him about Jim? Did he get his hands on dad’s military record??)
There are a few other oddities present in this movie too. Upon finding Chekov, Khan says that he remembers him, but Khan was a product of Season One; Chekov was introduced in Season Two. (Sure, he may have been on board; we have no proof he was not there, but it’s another oddity about the relationships in this movie!) And then there’s Carol Marcus and David. David is Jim’s son. With all the women Kirk messed around with, was Carol always a part of his past? I mean, do the math. In other odd-news: Khan says something about a Klingon proverb which made me wonder: how does he know that? When did he get his hands on Klingon reading material? Even if he had time on the Reliant, do they keep Klingon books of proverbs around? And was it logical for Saavik to cry at Spock’s funeral especially considering she barely knew him?
The big two elements worthy of serious examination are focused around friends and enemies. A hero is only as good as the villain and Khan is a fantastic villain. The dialogue between Kirk and Khan is not far from the level of Sherlock and Moriarty. When Khan hurts Kirk, the audience feels it. When Kirk gets the upper hand, we applaud. I love the dialogue when Kirk angrily grabs the communicator, “Khan, bloodsucker….” And it’s one of the most memorable scenes in Trek history as he screams that echoing “Khan…” across the planet! But Khan’s second in command recognizes that Khan is unhinged. He sees the reality of the situation: they could have been free, but Khan is driven by hate and spite. These two things destroy people. If this is a cautionary tale, the lesson is not to allow hate and spite to drive you. Or to quote a different franchise, “let it go!”
On the other end of the spectrum, we have friendship. “I am also your friend.” Spock and Kirk share a special bond; they are brothers. When Kirk has to take command of the Enterprise, Spock stands down gracefully and with the knowledge that he is giving his friend that which he most desires; a fact made clear by the birthday celebrations earlier in the movie. Kirk has to come to terms with aging and losing those things in life that he loves, and Spock gives that back to him. In the end, it costs him his life. This is also where we become familiar with the phrase: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” This movie exemplifies that belief, but is it always true? “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” This is an important message and will continue to be important as the movie series goes on. As David points out, “good words are where ideas begin.” If that isn’t Star Trek in a nutshell, I don’t know what is!
I’ve really become sensitive to the jibes McCoy sends Spock’s way. “You green-blooded, inhuman…” is just too much at this point. We ignore it as a playful jape between friends but imagine if we said something similar to a friend of another color or background here on Earth? McCoy does elicit the funniest line in the movie though: when asked if they are beaming down to nowhere, Jim says, “Then this’ll be your big chance to get away from it all.” The music is fantastic (and will be repeated in Aliens when James Horner reuses some identical sequences!) But the elephant in the room is Spock’s death. What a finale. What a gut wrenching blow as a life-long Trek fan to watch Spock say goodbye. However, I can’t help but wonder if Kirk was asking for a Scrooge-like visit from his dead friend when, during the eulogy, he calls Spock “human”? Surely he knew that would not be appreciated! Ok, in all seriousness, I was shattered when I first saw this and didn’t have the benefit of jumping right into the next movie. I am not so limited now… ML
The view from across the pond:
In Turnabout Intruder, the final episode of the original series of Star Trek, we learnt that astonishingly the “world of starship captains doesn’t admit women”. The Wrath of Khan goes some way towards rectifying that mistake, showing us a female captain right at the start of the film. It turns out she’s only in training for the captain’s chair, but it still feels like Trek is growing up a lot with this series of movies. They’ve certainly found some uniforms that look good at last, although they’re not ideal if you don’t like the colour red. Another way Trek seems to be growing up here is this is the first time we have seen copious amounts of blood and horror themes. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing. Up until this point, Trek has been viewable as a family show, but this was released as a PG-13 in the USA, so the target audience is teens and adults. I’m not sure if we really needed to see gross things like the creature going in and out of Chekov’s ear, and that didn’t make a huge amount of sense either. It was awfully convenient that it gave up and crawled back out again, rather than growing larger and driving him insane, as Khan suggested it would. But this is part of a bigger picture of a particular variety of sci-fi The Wrath of Khan fits into. It’s a kind of sci-fi that’s designed to make teenagers go “wow, that’s cool”. I think that’s why it’s popular: if you see this for the first time as a teenager it’ll grab you. If you’re older on first viewing and have grown up a bit, you’ll probably wonder why there’s such a difference in the reputation of the first two films, being as the first one actually has some aspects that engage the brain, and the second really doesn’t.
Making this film a sequel to one of the original episodes seems an odd decision, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. Khan is described as “a criminal” and “a product of late 20th Century genetic engineering”. We also know that he’s an old enemy of Kirk, and that’s all we really need to know for the story to function. You don’t actually need to have seen the original episode at all. You might think that’s a good thing, but it’s also a sign of a very simple storyline. An old enemy returns, tries to get revenge by stealing a super-weapon, Kirk fights a couple of space battles with him, and that’s about it. Everything else is window dressing. But this film is a huge triumph of style over substance, and by that I mean the style of the writing, visuals and acting, over the substance of a straightforward villain-comes-back story.
I suppose this was bound to happen to Kirk eventually. Khan complains that he “never bothered to check on our progress”, but to be fair Kirk screwed up many a life on his travels. He can’t possibly find the time to go checking on everyone whose destinies he reshaped. Their battles do produce some great moments, though. Kirk outwitting supposed genius Khan and transmitting the code to lower the Reliant shields is much more fun than it has any right to be, when you stop and think that this is simply somebody winning a fight by hacking a computer. Even better is their second battle, with Khan guilty of “two dimensional thinking”. Most sci-fi is actually guilty of that, treating space as a two-dimensional battlefield, so seeing one ship rise up from below to attack another is really unusual in sci-fi and quite the visual treat.
I mentioned above that this is a very simple story with some window dressing, but the window dressing is actually pretty damn good. At long last, Trek is a series that is capable of delivering a real emotional kick, with the fate of Spock and also Kirk’s mid-life crisis of sorts. Both McCoy and Spock prove themselves to be good friends to Kirk, steering him in the direction of being captain of the Enterprise again. When Spock says “it was a mistake for you to accept promotion”, he’s spot on, and Kirk eventually comes to learn the error of his ways. Mind you, it’s a bit absurd to see a man of his age acting as if he’s in his dotage. He’s hardly a pensioner, is he, and yet for two films he has been written as if he thinks he’s an old man. The other captain, Terrell, doesn’t appear to be all that far off Kirk’s age.
McCoy visiting Kirk’s bachelor pad was a great scene, but otherwise it’s unfortunately the same old McCoy. He hangs around on the bridge for no reason, he directs his xenophobia towards Spock as usual (“You green-blooded, inhuman…”), and I had really hoped the movies would have grown beyond that. Oh, and who walks into a room backwards? McCoy, that’s who.
There is also an attempt to pad out the paper-thin storyline with an emotional storyline where Kirk meets his son, but that falls flat. It’s not really surprising Kirk has a son he hasn’t met. The way he carried on during the original series, he’s probably got loads. But the two of them get very little screen time together, so their eventual hug and words of pride don’t feel earned. It also doesn’t help that David has about as much charisma as one of those ear worms.
The ending manages to find hope in sadness, with Kirk’s newfound enthusiasm for life, and a hint of a miracle perhaps about to happen with Spock’s coffin landing on a planet where life is born from death. And it can’t end there, surely, with the great man’s funeral spoiled by the sound of bagpipes, the worst musical instrument ever invented. It wouldn’t be logical… RP
Just recently I watched the Star Trek Continues episode The Holiest Thing where we learn how Carol and David first came to be in Kirk’s life. I find that The Wrath Of Khan speaks a lot about how love and loss can shape a person’s ego and Khan (Ricardo Montalban at his best) shows us the darkest potential in that regard.
This one proves how a Star Trek movie can be a good career move for an actor, like Kristie Alley and Paul Winfield, and many other famous and talented actors would get to shine in more Trek movies. As for Spock’s death scene, knowing of course that it’s not the end for Spock, it may not impact me now as much as Adric’s death did on Doctor Who: Earthshock. But it’s still remains a very special moment for Spock and Kirk thanks to Nimoy’s and Shatner’s acting.
Thank you both for your reviews.
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If Star Trek II has one flaw IMO, it’s the fact that Kirk never has an introspective moment at any time where he might have pondered if Khan’s desire for revenge was justified. He should have had a scene on the order of, “I never meant for anything like that to happen to him and McGivers. I thought they’d one day build something prosperous. We should have checked on their progress.” Instead, Kirk is operating from ignorance about what had happened to Khan throughout the entire movie.
I’ve sometimes wondered if Ricardo Montalban’s preparation for the role in re-watching “Space Seed” a number of times may have triggered a subliminal recollection of an episode of “Bonanza” he’d done with Madlyn Rhue even before “Space Seed” where the two are a married Indian couple, and when Rhue is murdered by a bigot halfway through, it sends him into a rage seeking revenge.
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To be completely honest, I will always see Kirk as MY captain. I started watching Trek at such a young age, and so far before TNG and the others started, that there was nothing else for it. However, having rewatched the series as an adult, I am disappointed by how flawed Kirk is as a hero. He often operates out of ignorance or bigotry (esp where the Klingons are concerned!)
I agree it would have been a better movie with that small addition. Alas, we were not so lucky. I often think it’s a shame when writers don’t acknowledge the value of a little introspection. It’s something I admired about VI, when Kirk ponders if he hasn’t gotten too old and rigid.
I never saw Bonanza. I think it’s a show that takes place on earth with only humans? No… not my thing! 🙂 ML
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