The Difficult Journey of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

An untried director, budget cuts, a star killed in the first scene. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan didn't have the makings of a classic.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture may have done well at the box office (it still stands as the second most profitable Trek film made), but it hardly became the critical darling that was hoped for. The languid pace, the focus on two new and largely mishandled characters, and prolonged special effects sequences took their toll on the audience.

Despite its success, there was some doubt as to whether a sequel would follow. The new wave of sci-fi was waning, partly due to The Motion Picture, and partly because of the lukewarm critical response to The Empire Strikes Back (no, I’m serious – contemporary reviews weren’t kind at all). But Hollywood loves a dead horse to flog, and with approximately 450,000 hours of special effects footage shot for The Motion Picture, costumes that could be changed with some offcuts of velour and a few pots of dye, 4000 square feet of sets, and the opportunity to cut corners at every turn, there was a chance to recoup some “losses.” If you call making three times the budget “losses.” To put it in perspective, Star Trek Into Darkness earned back nearly triple its budget and was considered a rousing financial success.

Paramount’s first decision was to fire Gene Roddenberry, convinced that his constant script rewrites were the root of all the franchise’s troubles (an argument that reared its head again during the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation). In his place came Harve Bennett, showrunner of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. His brief was to make a film that cost less than the two protagonists of those shows, which he did, bringing in the budget at just under two Steve Austins. Of course, the low spend was largely due to the excesses of its predecessor – the sets were reused, special effects models already built, and special effects sequences replayed wholesale in an effort to save money. The box should carry the disclaimer “film consists of up to 83% new footage.” Other cuts were made too – most notably in Bennett not actually paying anyone to write a script.

Bennett himself wrote the first treatment, which manages to feature all the plot points from the finished film without resembling it in any way, shape or form. Kirk’s arch enemy Khan has stolen a Federation super weapon and is using it to stage a coup on a distant planet, with the help of Kirk’s son, no less. A few tweaks were made – changing the super weapon to a terraforming device, introducing Spock’s death, ditching Khan entirely, introducing another Vulcan called Saavik – but crucially no one involved was happy with the end product. The writers’ strike of 1981 didn’t help either.

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From the start, there was a desire to have more continuity with the series, a more tangible antagonist, and more focus on adventure, and Khan ticked all of those boxes. However, no one managed to crack incorporating increasingly disparate story elements into one cohesive whole. Less than two weeks before Industrial Light and Magic were due to start storyboarding there was no finished script. Enter Nicholas Meyer.

At this point, Nicholas Meyer had one of those wonderful careers that sounded entirely made up. Famous for writing a best-selling Sherlock Holmes pastiche (titled after Holmes’ cocaine addiction), he entered Hollywood by adapting the novel into a screenplay himself, where he was criticised for taking too many liberties with not only his own novel but with Holmes in general. Naturally, he was nominated for an Oscar.

His other notable credit was Time After Time, an awarding-winning romantic drama where Jack the Ripper steals HG Wells’ time machine, only to become so disillusioned at how bleak the future has become that he starts to kill again. Amongst all of this, the man had never seen an episode of Star Trek. Naturally, when he managed to amalgamate all the disparate ideas thrown around into a working script, in a week, without being paid or even asked, nobody but Gene Roddenberry objected to him being given the director’s chair. Roddenberry was told to shut up, essentially ending his involvement in the film franchise for good.

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Meyer envisaged the story as “Hornblower in space,” which was (unbeknown to him at the time) Roddenberry’s inspiration for Kirk. He collated each of the story elements, broke them down into their component ideas, then wrote the script from the ground up using the themes he had identified (and with one eye on the cost). Kirk would be struggling with ageing and obsolescence, Spock would become the teacher, and Khan would be so consumed by revenge that he stops caring about the people he wants revenge for; the crucial twist being that he knows it but simply doesn’t care because he, like Kirk, can’t imagine being defeated. Thematically it’s rich, but on the character level rather than the highbrow philosophy of its immediate predecessor.

Part of the pacing problem for The Motion Picture had been the effects, specifically the time it took to create them didn’t allow the director to properly edit the film. To alleviate this, the effects were outsourced to Industrial Light and Magic, the hottest effects company going. Even the credits sequence proved to be the most ambitious around, requiring more computer power than existed at the time. Ironically, the opening credits would be the most expensive ever made.

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Anyway. The cumbersome large model on wires approach was shelved for Star Trek’s motion control, and new models were built with usability and cost in mind, rather than screen presence. The only thing not cut back on was the aforementioned CGI. The large terraforming sequence could only be done in animation, and much like the sequence in the finished film it was presented as an advertisement for the skills of Lucasfilm Computer Imaging. And like in the film, the CGI video succeeded in its marketing purpose. The clip impressed a young Steve Jobs enough to part with $5 million to buy out the division, which renamed itself Pixar.

With the effects progressing nicely, the last cost cutting measure was to ditch the expensive Jerry Goldsmith and replace him with… anyone cheap. James Horner had caught the eye (well, ear) of Paramount with a demo tape. The full score was written in just four weeks, and far from being a rushed job, it was so influential that parts of it were being used for various projects throughout the ’80s (largely due to Horner reusing the entire score again for Aliens). Listen to the scene where Al shoots Karl at the end of Die Hard, and tell me it doesn’t sound like Khan is about to swoop in on the Reliant. Hell, listen to any action movie trailer from the late ’80s and try to imagine anything other than Ricardo Montalban’s mesmerising chest.

The final sticking point was the cast.

Leonard Nimoy wasn’t keen to do The Motion Picture, his abrupt entrance in the movie a result of a last minute rewrite when Nimoy’s unpaid royalty dispute was finally resolved. However, Nimoy signed on for the sequel on one condition (which we shall discuss later). The rest of the cast returned, along with the late Ricardo Montalban reprising his role as Khan. The only major newcomer was Saavik, originally male and probably inspired by Star Trek: Phase II’s Xon, but finally played by a then unknown Kirstie Alley.

The film itself had no right to be as good as it turned out. Yet even from the start it’s a remarkably confident movie. It begins with everyone dying, no less. Considering Spock’s death being widely publicized before the film, this was a masterstroke. It sets the possible stakes while simultaneously subverting them, introduces the new character of Saavik, and sets up the theme. Kirk then enters, backlit and looking every bit the 18th century swashbuckler, before the lights go up and the artifice is revealed – these are cadets, on a training exercise, and Kirk is looking decidedly middle aged. Middle aged, and lacking a purpose. It was a theme touched upon in The Motion Picture, but here it is again, with gusto.

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The other side of the equation is Khan, who faces a similar but twisted fate. Still very much a leader, his power has diminished by most of his followers (and his wife) dying and the survivors poking around their dying planet, fending off insanity eels and picking sand out of their asses. In his isolation, Khan has become pickled with rage and his purpose is so clear it’s nearly killing him – get revenge.

Although Kirk and Khan are enemies, they never actually meet. This was partly a product of different filming schedules, but it also points to the battles being largely internal. Kirk is experienced, but rusty. He makes mistakes. And importantly, he has never experienced defeat. On the other hand, Khan is sharp and ready, but inexperienced. He gains the upper hand and has the entire galaxy as a playground, but gives it up when goaded by Kirk.

Through all this, character comes to the fore. Usually in Star Trek the plot happens and characters react to it. Here, everything that happens flows naturally from the characters. Whether it be McCoy’s advice to Kirk setting up the theme or Saavik undertaking Spock’s entire character arc in about 90 minutes, David’s strained relationship with his newfound father or Khan’s descent into madness, the grander action scenes and special effects are driven by character, rather than the other way round.

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The victory at the end is riddled with sadness. Spock has little to do for much of the film except mentor Saavik and spout the odd bit of exposition, but because it’s Nimoy playing off long term companions it works. Which makes the ending all the more devastating. The stage is set for Khan to win a Pyrrhic Victory by detonating the Genesis Device in range of the Enterprise. Crippled from the earlier battle, Kirk can only watch helplessly as the Enterprise limps away under the meager power of the radiation riddled engines. The logical (but distinctly inhuman) thing to do would be to send someone to their death in an attempt to fix the engines, but Spock realizes he is the only one who could survive long enough and has the necessary skills to do it. So while everyone’s back is turned, Spock decides the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and saves the ship, at the cost of his life.

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Spock’s death was unavoidable. Nimoy was tired of the franchise, and suspecting Khan might be the last outing for Trek, he wanted to go out with a bang. Had he not been granted his wish, Spock would simply not have appeared.

Unfortunately, Spock’s death was widely reported after his contract negotiations were over, so to throw the viewers off the opening scene where the entire crew gets killed was added as a decoy. All this served to fuel a desire for more Trek. A combination of sharp writing, superb characterisation and a strong villain was enough to secure rave reviews (and a box office gross of eight times its budget), but the final teaser – Spock’s mysterious message to McCoy and the final shot of the coffin in its new resting place – sent people over the edge.

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A sequel was not only assured, but what came about was a franchise. No Khan – no Next Generation. No Deep Space 9. No Voyager. It also set the pace for nearly every subsequent film – an action adventure plot and a charismatic villain. In some ways that has been a blessing and a curse. After all, all these years later and Star Trek is still turning to the same film for ideas, without anywhere near the same success.