Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan retrospective review

Is this the best Star Trek film to date? At least for another week, it might just be...

Star Trek Part Two: The Enterprise Saves JFK. Or at least that’s what it would’ve been called had the late Gene Rodenberry had his way. Thankfully, Paramount rejected the concept and producer Harve Bennett brought us a film that, for many Trek fans has yet to be bettered – Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. After the long slow, crawl that was The Motion Picture, some might say, that from a critical sense, Star Trek was lucky to get a sequel. As bad as TMP was, it made money. And money talks, so the inevitable sequel was born.

Serving as a both a warning to the dangers of genetic engineering and follow up to The Original Series episode, Space Seed (and no, that episode wasn’t about GM crops) The Wrath Of Khan (or TWOK as I’ll call it) is a great action packed movie, with some real emotional kick behind it. Opening with an unfamiliar face in the centre seat, the Enterprise is on a mission near the Klingon neutral zone when an emergency signal has the ship trying to rescue a stranded vessel, The Kobayahsi Maru, when it’s suddenly outnumbered and out-gunned by three Klingon warships. The battle is soon over, and with the bridge crew laying either dead or injured, all seems lost.

Thankfully then this isn’t the Enterprise, but Starfleet training simulator. Chekov meanwhile, has transferred to a new Starship, and is looking for a suitable planet to launch the ‘Genesis Device’, a new tool allowing for the rapid colonisation of uninhabitable worlds. While on the planet, Chekov and his captain, find Khan, desperate for vengeance and in a scene that instilled a life-long fear of earwigs in me, soon has control of Chekov, Captain Terrell and their ship.

Kirk is celebrating his birthday, and is starting to feel his age, a somewhat misunderstood gift from Spock further darkening his mood: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Message, Spock?” McCoy’s visit to the Captain allows DeForest Kelley a chance to shine, and underlines the strength of the Kirk/McCoy friendship. McCoy is his oldest friend and sometimes it takes those closest to you to tell you what you already knew.

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The Enterprise launches with little more than a ‘boat full of children’ as Kirk puts it, on a routine training cruise, when he receives a call from an old flame, Dr Carol Marcus, asking why he gave the order to take Genesis. The message is cut off, and in rushing to his friends’ aid, he’s thrown straight into a vicious battle with a waiting Khan.

For the first time I can recall in Star Trek, our favourite captain (Kirk /Picard/ Sisko / Janeway /Archer debate aside) is caught out, and Khan gets the upper hand, the Enterprise is badly damaged, limping to space station Regula I, only to find it deserted.

Kirk, Saavik and McCoy find Dr Marcus and her team safe and well inside Regula, where we learn just how powerful the Genesis device is, and that Kirk has a son. Khan’s at it again though, and has used Kirk to lead him to Genesis, and now finally has the chance to kill the great man, except Terrell and Chekov can’t do it, and Terrell takes his own life, and Khan steals Genesis.

One of the key themes in the film is Kirk’s refusal to believe in the no-win scenario, and when he explains his solution to the Kobayahsi Maru to Saavik, it reinforces Kirk as a hero, as a man who will not allow himself to be beaten. Returning to the Enterprise the crew have precious little time to repair their wounded vessel as the film nears its climactic battle, as Reliant and Enterprise face off in the Mutara Nebula.

The ships look fantastic in the eerie purples and blues of the nebula, creating a heightened sense of tension, aping the submarine combat of the likes of Das Boot, and further emphasising the nautical feel of the picture, all brilliantly punctuated by James Horner’s excellent score.

Kirk, ever the master tactician, has Khan on the ropes, and like Kirk, he too refuses to be beaten. Knowing the Enterprise is near crippled, Khan sets the Genesis device to detonate in a last effort to avenge himself against Kirk and his crew. For the first time in his illustrious career, the captain of the Enterprise finally finds himself in the no-win scenario. In the heat of the battle, no-one notices Spock leave the bridge, and once in Engineering, sacrifices himself. Restarting the ships engines he saves the ship and his friends (good job they didn’t hit a wormhole like in The Motion Picture, huh? That would’ve been embarrassing) and Kirk finally has to face death.

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From the ashes of the death of one of his closest friends, Kirk is reborn, and sees that his life is far from over, and despite the death of one of the series most famous characters, the film ends on a high, with what Star Trek is all about: hope and optimism for the future.

So what is it that makes TWOK such a stand out entry in the franchise? Well, for one, it’s the performances delivered by the three main leads. Within the first ten minutes of the film we have everything that makes Star Trek great, namely the three central characters being brought right to the fore. The scene with Kirk and McCoy on Kirk’s birthday is superb. Kirk is struggling to deal with the fact that his youth is behind him, and he is no longer in command of his beloved USS Enterprise, with the pride of Starfleet being reduced to little more than a training vessel. Kirk feels old, and that like his ship, his best years are behind him.

McCoy, as always, is the voice of Kirk’s passion and emotions, and tells the Captain what he already knew: get back the ship. The actors are given some great scenes to work with, and director Nicholas Meyer gets a subtle, thoughtful performance from Shatner and it works brilliantly.

Without a doubt, the quality of TWOK speaks for itself, despite Meyer having never seen an episode of the original series, he and producer Harve Bennet had a much better feel for the source material. Meyer always described Kirk as Hornblower in space, and he’s right. These starships are the naval ships of the 18th and 19th century, transposed through time and space to the 23rd century. This was a theme Meyer explored further in his second Trek feature film, The Undiscovered Country (which was this film’s original title).

The small details in this film really make all the difference: Kirk being piped aboard the Enterprise, the crew inspection, all the little details missing from TMP. TWOK fleshes out the Trek universe into a living, breathing world. The interaction between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is first rate, these are the characters we loved on TV, they’re right at the heart of the story, as they should be, and not at the expense of the still excellent special effects.

Add in a very strong storyline with a broad appeal, tackling very human motivations, such as Khan seeking revenge, the idea of growing old and dealing with death, rather than the typical Trek/sci-fi fare of time travel, aliens, robots etc. and you’ve got the perfect recipe for success.

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If you’ve not seen it, I can recommend it whole heartedly, a cracking piece of action cinema, with a truly great performance from William Shatner, pitched against a classic bad guy in the late Ricardo Montalban. What more could you want from a movie, eh? My only regret is having never seen it on the big screen!


5 out of 5