Movies That Hate You: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Several years after the V’Ger Incident, the USS Enterprise has been retired from active service and acts as a training vessel.  Admiral Kirk and Captain Spock have been busy training a new crew, led by Academy Graduate Lt. Saavik.  After a Kobayashi Maru test for the cadets, Spock readies the Enterprise for its next voyage, while Kirk has a solemn celebration of his birthday.

Across the Federation, the USS Reliant reaches a planet that may satisfy the requirements of a civilian project.  The captain and the first officer beam down and find Khan Singh, a genetically engineered superman who was defeated by Kirk 15 years previous.  Khan enslaves Captain Terrell and Commander Chekov using an Eel that can brainwash its victims.

Admiral Kirk boards the Enterprise and witnesses its launch, and is involved in a typical training exercise when Kirk receives a message from Dr. Marcus.  The transmission is jammed, leading Kirk to call Starfleet for instructions.  Starfleet orders Enterprise to investigate the situation and Kirk takes command.

En route, Enterprise encounters Reliant.  Before the crew realizes something is wrong, Reliant attacks Enterprise and cripples her.  Reeling from the attack, Kirk is contacted by the commander of the ship and finds that Khan has returned and has taken over.  Using a secret computer control code, Kirk lowers Reliant’s shields and damages Reliant, forcing a retreat.

Enterprise limps to Regula 1, their original destination.  Kirk, Saavik, and McCoy investigate the station, and find that the crew has been killed.  They also find Terrell and Chekov, who tell of how they were captured by Khan.  They all beam down to Regula and find the Civilian Project named Genesis.  After a violent confrontation, Kirk is reunited with Carol Marcus and her son David.  The reunion is cut short by Terrell and Chekov, who are still brainwashed.  The Eels, however, wreak havoc and Terrell kills himself.  Chekov collapses, and Kirk kills the Eel.  Even with this temporary setback, Khan takes Genesis and threatens to bury Kirk in a phaser barrage.

Kirk and company, however, bided their time and beamed aboard Enterprise, which was recharging its power cells.  They head for the Mutara Nebula, which would even the odds against a lesser damaged Reliant.  Inside the Nebula, the two ships battle it out, and a maneuver that exploited Khan’s inexperience leads to his defeat.  Khan activates the Genesis device, which has the ability to recreate a planet according to its programming.  Enterprise limps away, its warp drive inoperative.  While the crew awaits death, Spock heads for engineering and disables Dr. McCoy.  Spock repairs the main energizers, and Enterprise escapes.  Unfortunately, Spock received fatal radiation burns and dies shortly thereafter.

They hold a funeral in his honor, and Kirk reconciles with his son.  The mission now completed, Enterprise heads for home.

Review and Analysis:

This movie is a prime example of how everything can go so right and so wrong at precisely the same time.  While The Wrath of Khan follows a standard Hollywood blockbuster formula, the actors make this movie into the classic that it has become, especially among Trek fans.

The Good:

A film crew does its homework, and the result is a more fleshed out character.

There is a simple theme and structure to this movie.  It centers on Admiral Kirk and his having to face up to the mistakes of his past.  Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer did their homework on Trek, because they took the A Story (Khan’s desire for revenge, ala Moby Dick) from “Space Seed” and the B Story (Kirk reunites with former flame Carol Marcus and their son David) from a conversation Kirk had with his friend Lt. Cmdr. Gary Mitchell back in the season premier “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”  Kirk’s behavior as an instructor during the Kobayashi Maru was also derived from Mitchell’s conversation in the same episode.

That "little blonde technician" that Mitchell sent Kirk's way - that Kirk almost married - is now a respected scientist on the verge of a revolutionary breakthrough.

The best part about this is that there is no prior knowledge that is necessary for moviegoers to enjoy this particular Star Trek movie, which indicates that the scriptwriter has done his job.

The Bad:

This guy is supposed to be from the East Indies. Sure doesn't look the part, though.

This film, however, is a continuation of the same gigantic Star Trek racefail that plagued the Original Series, in particular the episode “Space Seed,” which this movie is a direct sequel to.  Khan Noonien Singh, the principal evil in this film, is supposed to be of Indian (the country of India, not the North American First Nations version) descent.  In typical Hollywood fashion, however, they do not cast someone of Indian descent.  In fact, they don’t cast anyone from anywhere near the region.  They go thousands of miles away and case Ricardo Montalban (perhaps best known as Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island) and proceed to cake him in makeup to make him loosely resemble someone from India.

Ricardo has a very charismatic screen presence and makes for a compelling character, but the brownfacing drops the scores down quite a bit.

The Ugly:

Spends the whole movie manning the phones. She is the only main cast member on the bridge without a line during the Genesis countdown sequence near the end.

Aside from the brownfacing of Khan, Uhura had nothing to do in this film.  On top of it all, everyone seems to interrupt her while she is doing her job – Lt. Saavik, Admiral Kirk, even the Simulation Computer.  Much like her role in The Motion Picture, you would be hard-pressed to find what Uhura actually does other than act as the ship’s telephone operator.  This was the problem with Uhura during the original series, and it continues throughout the Star Trek movie franchise.  Two movies in, and it does not look like it is going to get better anytime soon.

Why is it that no one talks about Scotty's loss? Or the fact that he keeps the ship together during the entire time Enterprise is attacked? Right, because this is all about Spock and his Mary-Sue-ism here.

Also getting dumped on in this film, James Doohan as Scotty.  They give him a nephew who is on his first training voyage…and then turn him into a Redshirt.  While the focus was supposed to be on Spock’s Mary Sue-like heroism once again, Scotty’s efforts to keep the ship running go completely unnoticed.  It isn’t until the final attack by the Reliant and Scotty finally collapses from exhaustion that anyone really notices his condition.

A black man with a gun in Science Fiction usually dies. Winfield, unfortunately, has held many guns in science fiction.

Captain Terrell dies a pretty pointless death on Regula.  And Roddenberry’s progeny Rick Berman brings back the actor (Paul Winfield) for a guest spot on Star Trek: The Next Generation as the alien captain in the episode “Darmok.”  Where he is killed again.

Was it Takei's limited range that kept him from being Eel'd by Khan earlier in the film?

Looking at the dialog from the movie, it seems as if the Enterprise crewmember that was supposed to be with Terrell in the beginning was going to be Sulu.  However, several rewrites later, Sulu ends up being promoted to Captain to take over the USS Excelsior (which was how Sulu knew about what the Excelsior was equipped with in The Search for Spock), and Chekov was slated as a replacement.  In many circles, Khan’s recollection of Chekov makes little sense, since we do not see Chekov at all during the original Episode.

Making even less sense, however is the planet being renamed.  In “Space Seed,” the planet Kirk leaves Khan on is called Alpha Ceti V.  The Wrath of Khan renames the planet to Ceti Alpha V.  While Reliant’s crew could blame the name change on a bureaucratic screwup, Khan calling his home by the same name is…disconcerting.

The Voice of Reason:

After Khan drops off Chekov and Terrell at Regula I, Khan wants to intercept Enterprise, but Joachim advises Khan to take the ship and go elsewhere.  But Khan, by this point in time, has allowed his grief over the death of his wife (Lt. Marla McGivers, “Space Seed”) to consume him and push aside his wisdom.  I suppose that if Khan had listened to Joachim, they would have gone to some distant planet and that would have changed how the movie plays out.

The Enterprise would have reached Regula 1, found Chekov and Terrell inside the station, then down to the planet to find Carol and David Marcus.  But the Eels would have still swollen inside their heads, but Terrell would still have been alive.  Kirk may or may not have pursued Khan in the Reliant, but now the terms of the battle would have been dictated by the more powerful Enterprise.  Genesis would not have been tested at the time, but perhaps the debate would have stopped the Genesis Experiment before it reached Stage 3.  This is, of course, contingent upon the discovery of Proto-matter in the Genesis torpedo, which would have made it into an even larger scandal, and the Marcus family would have had to abandon the experiment in disgrace, possibly taking Admiral Kirk’s career with it.

What a Difference an Actor Can Make:

An actor of Montalban's caliber will mask nearly every problem you could have with the character he plays the first few times around.

Ricardo Montalban and Hayden Christensen had the same kind of role:  The death of a loved one makes the character descend into madness.  There is no question of Montalban’s screen presence, charisma, and nuance when playing Khan.  For most non-Trek fans, Khan Singh is perhaps Montalban’s second most well-known screen role other than as Mr. Rourke on Fantasy Island. Because of this charisma and talent, the fact that he is a man of color playing a sadistic villain is ignored by most people.  For others, the brownfacing is not even in the equation.  When the role is played by a very good actor/actress and they give it their best effort, things that would normally raise red flags are ignored or handwaved the first time around.

Contrast, Hayden’s Anakin Skywalker manages to undo the “cool” factor that David Prowse’s stature and James Earl Jones’ voice provided to Darth Vader for the Star Wars franchise.  While poor scripting by George Lucas does not help matters, Hayden’s limited ability and lack of charisma exacerbate the faults of the story.

The George Takei/William Shatner Fight, Round 3:

Much has been made of the feud that George Takei and William Shatner have had over the decades.  The big feud really takes off because of the events of this movie.

Some of the early drafts of the movie had Hikaru Sulu being promoted to the rank of Captain, with him also taking command of the USS Excelsior.  But before that happens, Sulu would take this final assignment aboard the Enterprise as a personal favor to Admiral Kirk.  Takei’s parts of the scene were already filmed, but Shatner expressed concerns that if Takei is promoted to Captain and given command of his own ship, Takei’s part within the movie as it pertains to the rest of the cast would be diminished severely.  The production staff, apparently with their own concerns, came to some of the same conclusions as Shatner, and scrapped the idea.  George Takei has never forgiven Shatner for this, even in 2010.

In Conclusion:

The Wrath of Khan is the most well-known of the Star Trek films, as well as the most celebrated.  Every film in the franchise from that point on had its villain compared to Khan, but the contrast of how substandard the villainy in Star Trek had become was not apparent until Generations on forwards.

As is the case in science fiction, there are few women in TWOK, and no women of color other than Nichelle as Uhura.  Uhura herself is nothing more than a background character that just happens to be in the second tier cast – she is not much more than a glorified extra.  Although McCoy provides some early moments of moral discourse with Kirk and Spock in separate scenes, he is pretty much a forgotten character in the grand scheme of things later on.  James Doohan got dumped on as a character and his grief was just ignored.  George Takei gets stuck in the background and is stuck piloting the ship.

Ricardo Montalban steals the entire movie, and Merritt Butrick and Bibi Besch manage to humanize Kirk.  Surprisingly, Shatner turns in a decent performance, although he is best known for his outburst.

Ignore the giant racefail and the issues surrounding Nichelle Nichols and Paul Winfield if you want to enjoy this movie.

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6 Responses to Movies That Hate You: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

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