People tend to forget how much was riding on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when it was released in 1982. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was considered to be a big bore and not really indicative of the television series. The powers that be wanted to make sure that the next film would not repeat the previous one’s mistakes. So, they removed series creator Gene Roddenberry and replaced him with veteran T.V. producer Harve Bennett. He proceeded to watch the entire run of the original series and decided to dust off a classic villain and give Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) a decidedly personal stake in this new mission.
Early on in the film there are two crucial exchanges between Kirk and his two closest friends. In observance of his birthday, Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) gives Kirk a copy of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities (Spock refers to Kirk’s fondness for collecting antiques) and the latter quotes the famous opening passage, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to which Spock replies, in reference to this day, “Surely the best of times?” This bit beautifully encapsulates the film as a whole, featuring the crew of the Enterprise at their best and at their lowest. Wrath of Khan is often regarded as the strongest film of the franchise – “Surely the best of times,” indeed.
The second important exchange happens between Kirk and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley). The latter gives the former 400-year-old reading glasses and we get a glimpse at his living quarters – full of the antiques Spock alluded to in the previous scene. Kirk is surrounded by reminders of the past and is staring down yet another birthday. “It’s about you flying a goddamn computer console when you want to be out there hopping galaxies,” McCoy tells him. He encourages Kirk to take command of a starship again before he gets too old.
I love these early scenes because they not only allow us to get reacquainted with Kirk and co., featuring quiet, human moments that give us insight into Kirk and his friendships with Spock and McCoy, but they also establish the themes of friendship and mortality that will feature prominently later on. The opening scenes with Kirk confiding in Spock and McCoy are like revisiting old friends you haven’t seen in a while and there is something enjoyable and reassuring about seeing these veteran actors dusting off and slipping so easily back into their iconic characters. There is a shorthand and a familiarity between these characters because the actors have so much experience playing them.
Most contemporary films would do away with scenes like this, viewing them as extraneous and unnecessary, but on the contrary they are vital to getting us invested in Kirk’s dilemma of getting old and becoming obsolete vs. going back out there and mixing it up in outer space once again. “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young,” Kirk says early on and it is the film’s central theme as it pits two aging enemies against each other. The film openly acknowledges the age of the cast, in particular Kirk, who comes face to face with his own mortality. The film even starts off on a playfully cheeky note as the entire Enterprise bridge crew are killed off in a battle simulation.
Before Kirk makes a decision, fate intervenes and forces his hand. Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) and his crew manage to escape the desolate planet prison that Kirk banished him to many years ago and decide to exact revenge on his most hated enemy. He kidnaps two key crew-members from the U.S.S. Reliant (while also marooning its crew and commandeering the ship) and steals Project Genesis, a device that will take a lifeless planet and bring it violently back to life. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), an old ex-flame, and her son David (Merritt Butrick) – that resulted from their brief union – are the primary architects of Project Genesis. They send out a distress call, which Kirk and the crew of largely inexperienced cadets on the Enterprise intercepts, unaware that Khan has set a trap for them.
I also like how this film is steeped in classic literature, from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Spock gives Kirk a copy of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The book’s famous opening lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is cited and its hero dies to save his friend, sly foreshadowing to the end of Wrath of Khan. On two occasions, Khan paraphrases Ahab in Moby Dick, most memorably in that classic scene where he conveys his passion for wreaking vengeance on Kirk: “I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.” I appreciate a science fiction film that isn’t content to merely throw around technical jargon, but also allude to classic literature, both thematically and quoted by its characters. It makes sense because characters like Kirk and Khan are mythological in nature themselves.
The scene where we first meet Khan gives Ricardo Montalban a chance to savor the moment as he relishes every word like a fine meal, giving the dialogue a unique spin as only he can. Khan is an aggrieved villain with an axe to grind – years of hatred for Kirk. He has the cunning intelligence to devise a trap in which to ensnare his old foe. Montalban’s take on Khan is a deliciously evil one and there is no doubt that he is more than a formidable match for Shatner’s Kirk. Khan isn’t out to rule the galaxy. No, this is a personal vendetta against Kirk and he’ll stop at nothing to get his revenge. Khan is on a mission of vengeance, plain and simple, and after hearing him recount the hardships he and his people endured it is hard not to – I wouldn’t say sympathize, but understand what motivates him. He’s seen his wife and 19 of his people die. He’s had years to brood over what happened and what he’d do to Kirk if given the chance. Once he gets control of the Reliant, Khan strikes back, hurting the Enterprise crew in a way so that Kirk gets a taste of what he’s been through and this makes their battle a very personal one with a lot at stake for both men.
The Wrath of Khan may be William Shatner’s finest moment in the Star Trek franchise as Kirk wrestles with his own mortality and must confront and conquer his self-doubts. He also must deal with an old nemesis, which makes the battle personal for him as well. Shatner does a nice job conveying these initial doubts about getting back into the Captain’s chair, then his joy at being back in a mission, then anger as he is tricked by Khan, and finally grief of the toll the battle takes on him and his friends. The veteran actor has to convey a wide-range of emotions and does so with his usual dramatic flair. Even better, we get to see who can overact more, Shatner or Montalban, as they take turns chewing up the scenery with melodramatic gusto complete with some great, spirited exchanges and some insanely quotable dialogue. It’s not just what is said but how it’s said that makes it so memorable. They are both acting hams, fond of … dramatic … pauses and sudden outbursts of emotion, but both clearly bring the best out of each other. Part of the enjoyment that comes from this film is watching these two go at it, holding nothing back, just like their characters.
The veteran cast from the show inhabits their roles with the ease and confidence that comes from years of practice. It helps that the main cast portray characters with detailed backstories thanks to the T.V. series and so there is all of that baggage for them to draw on, not to mention their complete familiarity with their respective roles. All Kirk and McCoy have to do is exchange a knowing look between each other to suggest more than any dialogue could. The screenplay draws on the Enterprise crew’s long-time camaraderie by raising the emotional stakes, making this mission a very personal one for Kirk and whose outcome will not only impact him, but also his mates. The nature of friendship is explored in Kirk’s yin to Spock’s yang. They complement each other because together they provide the right mix of instinct and logic. This balance is in flux in The Wrath of Khan when Spock reminds Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” to which Kirk adds, “or the one.” These are words that will gain importance at the film’s climax as they come back to haunt the characters.
In The Wrath of Khan, Kirk is forced to face two people from his past – one hostile and one he used to be romantically involved with – both of whom will dramatically change his life in unexpected ways. Only by defeating Khan can Kirk overcome the doubts that plagued him at the beginning of the film. Kirk is a man of action who relies heavily on his instincts. Engaging a like-minded adversary like Khan reawakens these tendencies where they had been inactive after the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Director Nicholas Meyer keeps the film moving at a decent pace, but knows when to let things breath for nice, character-driven moments that provide important motivations for future actions later on in the film. There’s a reason why The Wrath of Khan is considered the best film with the most compelling story in the series: it pits the Enterprise crew against a truly formidable opponent, features thrilling spacecraft battles, and has an incredibly moving finale. Surely the best of times.