On June 4th, 1982 all of Star Trek Culminated in what may be the greatest Science Fiction movie of all time- Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan!
It stormed into theaters and held audiences in the palm of its hand for 113 completely brilliant minutes.
Fans were enraptured by the amazing story that features brilliant exposition and a natural flow of action that make this a highly watchable gem. Every Sci-Fi fan needs to see and appreciate this great movie. Few can watch this and not feel the emotion of the great scenes. Solidly acted and well directed the movie is Star Trek’s best story and a triumph for the often troubled franchise.
Wrath of Khan is on most every Sci Fi Movie Top 10 List fighting it out with Empire Strikes Back for the number one slot in several categories. Any list ranking it lower than Third Best SciFi movie of All Time should be disregarded out of hand! It’s as good as Stanley Kubrik’s sci-fi movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Recently covered by amazing critic The Critical Drinker and guest Nerdrotic in a brilliant podcast I’ve pasted at the end of this article; I have some reactions to what they said in here but its not built off the podcast. So while this post does react to some of what they bought up, it was actually mostly finished about a couple of weeks ago and I’ve just been redrafting. So while I recommend and, as I said, will link the cast for you at the end of the post, this is my account of how the movie got made.
I picked it all this up from a lifetime of following Star Trek and tried to source it all, please correct me if you find a mistake. On certain aspects of the Final Frontier I do have expert knowledge, but if I cant find something I will mention that its more rumor. Comments are as always, enabled. Back and forth discussions with you the reader have helped for better Star Trek posts every time, and I will fix any errors I confirm. None of this was ever secret and it will check out.
For this post I’ve scoured through all the internet has to say and what I recall and I have compiled all the best of it here!
Making A Perfect Movie
Making a Perfect Movie isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen by mistake, obviously. Wrath of Khan may just be a perfect sci-fi movie. This is it’s voyage.
After a traumatizing and even sort of bad experience all around for writers, financial backers, cast and fans with Star Trek The Motion Picture, we get what could be described as “The perfect Star Trek Movie.” The second Installment of the series, Wrath of Khan is the best Star Trek movie. This is ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ of the first Trek movies franchise.
Why is it so perfectly brilliant? Lets explore!
One Last Chance
The first movie was a confusing, kind of boring mess. It was a hybrid compromise that started as a TV pilot and fails its way up to feature film by sucking up a lot of money and getting sidetracked a lot.
It’s the Phantom Menace of the first crews Star Trek movies. You could make a case it’s actually pretty good, but you really need to know how that thing was conceived and what it became to understand how that story made it on to the Big Screen.
The would be TV pilot was just so expensive the idea of doing something like this on TV weekly slowly started seeming a bad idea. There was a need to recoup the money and the fastest path was simply turn the TV pilot a mediocre movie.
With a new ending soldered on to make it more Movie-like, the first movie is released and makes a tidy sum. Its kind of boring it’s a bit confusing, lacks humor and is overall a fans only recycled Original Series episode re-do on a grand scale.
No one was really crazy about the first movie. But something the studio had counted on happened anyway – people still showed up in droves despite bad reveiews because they loved the characters and they loved Star Trek.
Leaving the theater as a kid all my cousin and I talked was how awesome seeing the crew was and how cool the ship looked. We surely made reference to the story being just like an episode (The Changeling). It was that obvious I could tell even then. Then we were back to how great it was just seeing Scotty, Uhura and so on. It was a success in spite of itself.
By the time they start gearing up for sequel Paramount was fed up and felt it was time for this franchise to make a profit in a timely manner with a good film. They weren’t really opposed to another movie with some cerebral elements and a kind of a deep story though.
The idea Star Trek stories should be a bit brainy was sort of baked in to its culture still. The difference was this time the mission needed to feature action and adventure as well as a smart storyline. The other driving force was for the production to remain under control and on budget.
Somehow they make that happen. In a stunning tale of the tape they make Wrath of Khan for a mere 11 million, this movies dirt cheap compared to its predecessor.
All goals for the concept seem to have been met in a great final product.
This movie is pure Action and Adventure at the Final Frontier, but also smart and respectful of the material. Instead of being a mere reprise of an episode, it’s a bolder concept. It’s a sequel to the beloved episode “Space Seed.”
As episodes of the original series go Space Seed’s tied with several others for “Best Ever”. Its a top 5 at the very least. It has an awesome villain, played by Ricardo Montalbon, some Starfleet turncoats thrown in and a compelling story that defied any sci-fi fan to look away.
In a show that could sometimes be corny and just dumb fun in some flubbed episodes it was well conceived and brilliantly acted. Stand out broadcast TV excellence.
Failure Analysis and a New Look
We had the bad first movie lighting the way to “How Not To Make A Star Trek Movie”. It’s fair to say that “Failure Analysis” is the biggest contributor to this movies success.
The bad first movie was a clear road map to a film people would actually enjoy. In a moment more like Seinfeld, we get “Opposite Day” where they just make a movie that avoids the pitfalls of Star Trek The Motion Picture, aka Star Trek TMP.
The movie would be serious, but human and action packed. A more military and orderly Starfleet is the first thing we see.
The costumes completely depart from all past uniforms and now have 19th century British Royal Navy feel while still looking futuristic.
This was actually a big part of setting the more serious tone. All future uniforms seem for this crew will be more or less the same.
Phazers and notably communicators are more like they were in the show than the first movie. Things looks look tactile and real.
Then there was a bigger problem to deal with…
Axing the Creator
Originally, series creator Gene Roddenberry was on the project. He shocked and scared people with his idea for the second movie!
Paramount was appalled by a JFK Assassination script with Time Travel courtesy of the Guardian of Forever. It even sounds bad. This was just too shocking and far out to even seriously consider for the studio and that could have been it for Star Trek. No one was going to tolerate another bad, slow, overly important movie. And Kennedy’s assassination was still in most living memories. There’s proably even legal implications along the lines of Defamation.
That was it for Gene Roddenberry as a writer for this or any other Star Trek movie, ever. Paramount had been severely strained under the bloated budget and failed story of Roddenberry’s first Star Trek movie. “45 MILLION DOLLARS!” is just burned into the minds of the Paramount People.
They decide Gene’s a TV genius and to set him to work on what he’s best at – a Star Trek TV Show.
So here’s how I see it going down – Gene Roddenberry was called into the Paramount office for a friendly chat. The Cuban cigars and good booze are probably out. It’s a set up!
They tell him he’s a genius, they give him an unexpected Golden Hand Shake and then THE KNIVES COME OUT and they FIRE HIS ASS for the mockery of a sham that Star Trek :The Motion Picture had been AND the shockingly bad idea for a sequel.
We can only imagine the scene. Paramount is horrified and out of patience. The unacceptable sequel idea was beyond the last straw.
What could have been said? Maybe it was; “We saved this franchise at great financial risk and we all got raked over the coals because lot’s of people thought that movie was so bad! You got the smell on you Gene! You can’t write this one.
“Hey, hey, hey….its not all bad news. Go to the awesome office we gave you (on the far side of the lot) and write more TV stuff that we’ll get out there when the times right. Here’s a check in advance for the show. Did we mention we think you’re a genius? Meanwhile, DON’T WRITE OR TALK ABOUT THIS SEQUEL!”
Star Trek The Motion Picture was proof to the studio that Gene was no movie maker. The fact we get The Next Generation from him on the small screen is proof they were probably right. He makes one of the best TV shows ever that’s hands down the best Live Action Sci-Fi series.
He still manages to sort of haunt the production and the Paramount people blame him for some plot leaks. I don’t believe it. I guess possible he got trashed and revealed he hated it with the heat of a thousand suns, but I don’t think he wanted Paramount any more mad at him then they were. Next step was probably a Hit-Man! Besides he has a new agenda- to dream up Jean-Luc Picard and the Next Generation where he could have total control!
Besides Gene wants the movie to be a hit despite any bruising to his ego.
Someone new was needed to be what we would now call a Showrunner for the franchise. Preferably someone not so taken with the franchise they gushed too much and produced another mediocre movie.
Things would be different this time. A deadline is imposed and a small piece of the profits from TMP are allocated to a movie. First order of business, someone not named Gener Roddenberry to create this one.
Enter non Star Trek fan Harve Bennett. His genius in thie production starts a three movie arc of movies that could rightly be called a trilogy sandwiched into the other Trek movies.
Paramount was NOT going through another creative genius melting down on them. In accordance with this, upon hire, Bennett was warned strongly about not blowing tons of cash or ending up with a meandering, mediocre movie. Bennett absorbs it and is sure he can do the movie for about one-fifth the money of the original.
This is what the studio wants to hear. Bennett really works out. He cared about making a good movie that respected the fans who saved the flawed first movie from failing is spite of its problems.
Research is Key
Bennett goes and watches the entire series and the first movie. His take-away? The show had some truly great stories and there were a few very good episodes to build on. The movie however, was really boring and he figured out why. This was probably harder than you’d think because so much is bad and wrong in TMP.
Bennett narrows the first movies biggest problem down to one major issue-The movie had no real villain. The Bad Guy is an Evil Cloud.
The monster is even rehabilitated instead of killed too. In fact at the end the Genocidal and murderous V’ger entity is sort of given one more victim and exonerated. This thing was a threat and Starfleet’s solution is a bit bizarre, but hey it did veer away from Earth and never enter lore again, so okay. Minimal damage.
The plus side is there’s No In-Universe damage from the first movie. Anyone who doesn’t appreciate this just watch Last Jedi and imagine trying to come back from that. You’ll get it. This franchise’s mistakes had limited implications.
It didn’t break a bunch of Star Trek rules and was in direct sequence to the events of the show. At the end of the day it did no harm and showed people what not to do story-wise. It was merely one of the less exciting adventures for the ship. The whole Planet Destroying Probe concept will be back in a couple of movies anyway with a new dangerous entity.
Things weren’t like they were for the Star Wars franchise after the Last Jedi at all. Final Frontier was still intact. In fact things that hurt the experience of watching the first movie clear the way for the sequel by sweeping away characters never meant for the big screen.
Bennett decides that more time will have passed for the crew than had elapsed in real life and now the series is 15 years in the past just like in real life. So the actors are the age their characters supposed to be (at least the human ones). No ones trying to hard to hide their age, they look the part at this point. Theyre known and beloved, they can hit 40 and 50. In fact he works this in to the movie.
The ageing of Kirk and the other characters gets due attention and enters into their motivations as characters. The actors had to love it. They could look like themselves outside Leonard Nimoy. He’s somewhat made up for the character but still gets to age. Spock really is about 100 anyway.
Bennett’s next good choice is that his movie will have a strong villain and have ties to an actual episode or two. He also became familiar with the characters and ends up writing for them as good as anyone ever had.
The episode Space Seed was the best path and its obvious when you watch it. Some rumors say that Harry Mudd would be the one who blundered into Khan. It would not have worked better. The opening is fantastic and Khan is immediately frightening and familiar.
While its not a huge issue Chekov is not in the episode for Khan to recognize, but Chekov and Captain Tyrel of the Reliant get to have the first, amazing encounter with Khan.
It’s still one of the most amazing villain scenes in Sci-Fi History. They just play it like Chekov was there but we just don’t see him in the episode and its no problem. It’s even believable.
And that’s the right move. Ricardo Montalban is a force on the small screen and starring in a huge show, Fantasy Island. Bennett was aware and was lucky Ricardo could fit the movie into his schedule. For Ricardo Montalban’s part, he considered the role a career high both times he plays it.
He menaces and kills crew members, partly destroys the Enterprise and is just brilliant vile and mean. He’s a real adversary. They’ve tangled with him before and he’s had 15 years to grind an axe while using his genius IQ to come up with all sorts of revenge plans on Admiral Kirk. The crew knows he’s fully capable of beating them. He’s got as much gravitas as Kirk and his command of military tactics is pretty up to speed, even if two dimensional.
Mostly relegated to relatable Native Americans in Bonanza and other shows for the entire 60s, Ricardo got better and more successful with age. This movie is a home run for Ricardo. No one in Trek has achieved his status as a bad guy. It’s probable he’s always going be their best bad guy.
Physically impressive for a roughly 60 year old man (playing a 200 year old man) , they say those are his real muscles, I suppose its true.
Whether they are or not they put together an excellent look for Khan and it manages to be pretty authentic. He looks threatening, he’s got some wild hair and his worn out clothes are perfect. The partially destroyed Starfleet logo he wears around his neck is clearly an albatross-like burden symbolizing his desire to destroy, well everything, but the Enterprise more than anything else. I want one.
Khan and his crew easily could have degenerated into Road Warrior bad guys had so much detail not gone into their costumes. They work well.
In this episode Khan makes a bid to take the Enterprise but instead Kirk turns the tables and, after a hearing, he convinces Khan to agree to exile on an Earth-like planet with his genetic freak cohort and Starfleet traitor Marla McGyvers, ships historian and girlfriend of Khan. So spared prison Khan to his own devices on an unexplored sort of earth-like planet.
Space Seed shows us a worthy adversary. It takes un-frozen Khan maybe a weekend to get up to speed for the 200 hundred years hes been out of it and of course he keeps to himself that he used to be a slightly less mean Hitler type.
The best scenes are verbal cat and mouse games when McCoy, Kirk and Spock work in tandem against Khan to get him to slip up and admit, through a fit of anger, that yeah, he’s that Hitler-ish guy they had suspected he was.
Khan is the greatest foe this crew will ever face. Both times.
He really pushes Starfleet people around. He’s a super genius and he’s like 5 times stronger than the average human. In his time, the 1990s, he had been a semi-benevolent (so he believed) dictator who was forced to flee into space in a pre-warp speed ship. This requires they hibernate, much like in Alien. So of course they need to wake him up and leave the other genetic freaks in cold storage while they figure out what the deal is with these 200 year old popsicles.
Khan successfully takes the ship and is going to kill everyone in reverse rank order. Slowly and painfully, of course. Only his new girlfriend returning to the Starfleet side, briefly stops him. She saves Kirk and the captain foils Khans plan.
Very quickly Khan takes control of the movie and everyone’s destiny in a big way and doesn’t let go. Intellectual Vanity and a huge reservoir of anger are his greatest assets and greatest flaws at the same time.
He gets up to speed quick on everything thats happened since he’d been marooned 15 years earlier. He’s so well written, right down to his angry incredulity on learning Kirk is now an admiral. Ricardo delivers in every way.
Khan also learns all about far too powerful “Project Genesis.” A high minded but ultimately very flawed Terra-Forming Miracle Device. Also, it makes any ship with it into an immediate Death Star! It absolutely destroys a ‘dead’ planet and remakes it. Good thing its safe on Space-station Regula One where some scientists are playing god…. and cards.
The Musical Score
The series retains the great Jerry Goldsmith and the musical score is perfect. Give it a listen, its great. He’d been with Star Trek from Day 1 and his powerful music has been all but a character to this point. It helps move the narrative along and theres some leit motif thrown in, where individual characters and ships have their own themes.
Red Hot Writer
If JJ Abrams were actually good he’d be Lawrence Kasdan in the early 80s. Writing Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi and an intriguing Sherlock Holmes movie called The Seven Percent Solution that shows Holmes struggling with addiction.
So he knew how to use and treat existing characters. This would is a key skill jumping into a franchise. They just bagged their show runner, so they played it safe and paid for a top knotch screenwriter.
His script is a masterpiece.
So get together a drink or a soda, relax and rent and watch the Best Sci Fi Movie of All Time, certified by me. Put on Star Trek 2- The Wrath of Khan!