I don’t like it.
Yeah, I said it. As far as I’m concerned, the consensus-best Star Trek EVER is a bunch of *ridiculously* overrated tat. But honestly, you must have expected this by now. Was there really ever any suspense over how I was going to read this? Surely, there was no way I was ever going to taken in by Star Trek going whole hog into Horatio Hornblower naval pomp and circumstance? Not after everything I’ve yelled and screamed about here for the past year. I think it’s a mistake, I think it gets Star Trek’s philosophy utterly wrong, I honestly don’t think its a particularly captivating movie in its own right and I can’t in good conscience recommend it. So there. You can all close the book or the browser tab or whatever, as I’m sure my yay or nay on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is what you’ve been waiting breathlessly all this time to find out about.
Anyone still here? Good. Then we can continue.
The first, most obvious problem I have with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is in fact bringing Khan back in the first place. “Space Seed” was an utterly abhorrent episode that posited Star Trek’s utopian future would be built on the back of Philosopher Kings and enlightened despots who benevolently oppress us while they squabble over turf by manipulating catastrophic gang wars and indulging in extravagant, overblown dick measuring contests. It also made the passionate claim that women gain their inner strength through submissiveness and subservience and that rape culture is the natural hierarchy of humanity. And Khan himself was a spectacularly racist amalgamation of generically “exotic” nonwhite, nonwestern motifs the script bewilderingly seems to think will add to his “charm”. Charm, incidentally, is the one thing Khan wasn’t hurting for simply because the show hired Ricardo Montalbán to play him, who was an amazing stage presence and the one likable thing in that whole dreadful hour.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan does at least manage to be better than “Space Seed” as it drops pretty much all of the symbolism and themes Khan was originally written with in mind, bringing him back simply to exert gravity as a powerful antagonist, which is a role he’s perfectly suited for. No, Khan does work here, which is more than can be said for any of his other appearances in Star Trek, but the problem this movie has is that, by virtue of being so obviously a sequel (something I’ll talk more about later on) and because it was so phenomenally well received, this retroactively makes “Space Seed” seem like it was actually a good idea to any generation of Trekker who grew up with this movie, and in doing so renders both stories completely untouchable. And *that* has done provable harm to Star Trek’s legacy, because any version of Star Trek that takes “Space Seed” as the definitive display of its philosophy is a Star Trek that’s inherently wrongheaded and toxic.
I’m not going to talk about the plot or anything like that: Everyone knows it by heart, even the plot holes, of which there are about a billion. No, the chronology doesn’t make any sense. No, it’s never explained why the most seasoned crew in the fleet is running cadet training simulations when the last time we saw them they were gearing up for a new five-year mission (though the expanded universe helps out a lot here: You’re frankly spoiled for choice when it comes to stories set between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). No, Chekov shouldn’t know who Khan is. And no, Khan’s behaviour in regards to both Kirk and Marla McGivers doesn’t make an ounce of sense. The thing is though, none of this actually matters because it’s very clear this movie is meant to be a retcon in everything but name.
In spite of the fact it did make money, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was considered a critical failure, and Gene Roddenberry (rightfully) got the blame for it and was kicked upstairs basically permanently, to be replaced with a guy famous for getting paid to write Sherlock Holmes fanfic. Bringing in Nicholas Meyer is the biggest creative shift the franchise has experienced since Gene Coon came on as executive producer, and it would make sense this film would want to distance itself from its predecessor any way it could. You can see this everywhere in Wrath of Khan, from the tone and obvious naval epic influence to its loose attitude to continuity: This is a movie that’s more interested in Star Trek as a cultural object than it is in any kind of established Star Trek universe. Even the aging and death themes tie into this, with Wrath of Khan feeling very much like an attempt to pass the torch to a possible new kind of Star Trek (Saavik is the key character here, as she’s obviously the protagonist and obviously The New Spock).
What Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan really wants is to be a new big screen debut for the franchise, to the point it even (likely unintentionally) recycles beat-for-beat a lot of the key scenes from “In Thy Image” that were left out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, such as McCoy trying to coax Kirk to get back in the captain’s chair, and then an emergency forcing him to. Seriously, fuse Decker with Chapel and then replace them with Saavik and Admiral Nogura with Spock (and strip out absolutely all of Alan Dean Foster’s utopian themes) and you’ve got essentially the same setup. One way to read this movie then is an alternate version of where Star Trek Phase II would have tried to go had it been made, which is basically the only thing that could possibly excuse the fact that practically the whole first half of the damn movie is stock footage from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
(And yet that said, Wrath of Khan is *also*, bewilderingly and paradoxically, the most continuity-heavy Star Trek has been yet: It requires the audience to know, for example, who Khan is and how Vulcans work. There is very little exposition of any kind here. As much as it’s trying to reboot the series, it also remains firmly committed to the idea of an established canon and pleasing longtime Trekkers, and that’s going to prove to be catastrophic to its overall effectiveness.)
But that’s not the major issue here. On the Memory Alpha wiki, there is a *lengthy* section in the article for this movie called “Analysis”, dedicated to exploring Wrath of Khan‘s apparently extremely heady and complex themes such as “Age”, “Vengeance” and “Death”. This is the only Star Trek work that is given such an in-depth treatment, so obviously Trekkers, at least the Trekkers who edit Memory Alpha, think this movie is more intelligent and sophisticated than any other Star Trek, a prospect that I find gravely concerning, as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the most childishly obtuse and obvious this franchise has been since Gene Roddenberry was running it in 1966.
This movie reads like a high school English essay with the characters blatantly reciting the CliffNotes of the movie’s Major Themes. It has absolutely all of the overblown and silly Big Important Speeches people accuse The Dark Knight of having, and is no more subtle when it comes to blocking and visual symbolism. I was particularly impressed with the cut in the cargo container, made as dramatically and noticeable as possible, to Khan’s literature collection, which contains such obscure rarities like King Lear, Paradise Lost and Moby-Dick, helpfully reminding us precisely what he’s supposed to symbolize and how we’re supposed to read him just in case any of the audience had fallen asleep or happened to actually be Vulcans.
Roderick Long will want me to mention that, since this movie is basically “Star Trek Does Moby-Dick (Again)”, there’s a useful redemptive reading of that book courtesy of Trotskyist and post-colonialist writer C.L.R. James we can apply that basically sees Starbuck and Ahab as representing two sides of capitalism, with the former symbolizing prudence and the latter symbolizing obsessive totalitarianism. James has a famous quote here, stating that
“For generations people believed that the men opposed to rights of ownership, production for the market, domination of money, etc. were socialists, communists, radicals of some sort united by the fact that they all thought in terms of the reorganization of society by the workers, the great majority of the oppressed, the exploited, the disinherited…Nobody, not a single soul, thought that in the managers, the superintendents, the executives, the administrators would arise such loathing and bitterness against the society of free enterprise, the market and democracy, that they would try to reorganize it to suit themselves, and, if need be, destroy civilization in the process.”
This is what James sees Ahab as: Someone who, while a product of the capitalistic system, embodies its worst excesses and resents the way it prevents him from attaining absolute control. And furthermore, someone whose extremist sense of individuality alienates him from his peers and causes him to see them as machine parts instead of human beings. And it is possible to apply at least part of that reading to what happens to Khan here, as his blind hatred for Kirk and desire for vengeance drives away his loyal crew (as symbolized by that one random guy who says a few lines and then dies pointlessly) and is ultimately his downfall.
The thing is, doing that is, to be very charitable, putting far more thought into the motif then the people writing this movie did, who very obviously did *not* intend to write a polemic against capitalism but rather wanted to reference Moby-Dick because it’s a Big Important Western Literary Thing that makes them look highbrow and intellectual. It would certainly redeem a lot about Khan as a character to have him fill the role James feels Ahab plays in the original, but I simply don’t see any evidence this story in particular is anything other than a hollow recitation of Moby-Dick done simply because Moby-Dick was a naval epic and Star Trek is the Space Navy again now. Add to that the use of “Amazing Grace” at Spock’s funeral (unfortunately, Meyer and his team did not have the benefit of time travel and were thus unaware that Spock was fond of that poem, as we learned in “Come What May”), Kirk constantly flashing A Tale of Two Cities as if it’s cash and he’s a high roller at a dance club, not to mention *Genesis* itself, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan becomes a truly insufferable paean to Great White Western Culture as filtered through the lens of a New York State Regents Exam.
The other thing about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that is looks astonishingly cheap. I don’t just mean it looks like it had a smaller budget than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which it did and is understandable because that movie’s budget was obscene and ridiculous and it still looked like crap when it wasn’t doing things with V’Ger. I mean this movie doesn’t actually even look like a proper Hollywood blockbuster, which is…puzzling, to put it mildly, considering this was Paramount’s marquee release in 1982 and meant to compete with The Empire Strikes Back and Blade Runner. There’s simply no excuse for the overabundance of stock footage here: I don’t care if your budget was slashed, you make a movie of this scale and get Industrial Light and Magic to do the effects and you can’t get a single new shot of the Enterprise model until three quarters of the way in? Especially when you’ve somehow managed to make the drydock scenes look *even worse* than they did in Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
(And really, I don’t mean “admirably and promisingly amateurish” or “pleasingly theatrical”, I mean “cheap”. All of the interior starship scenes are shot on what are visibly the exact same sets with no effort made to distinguish them, which is distracting and sad, and that William Shatner and Ricardo Montalbán never actually get to act off one another because Khan only appears in what are obviously pre-recorded segments is absolutely ridiculous and basically the antithesis of theatre.)
It’s not that I expect or want Star Trek to look like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I do expect it to actually *try* with whatever resources it has. You don’t have to have a ludicrous budget to look imaginative and inspiring: Doctor Who can do it. Raumpatrouille Orion is a bloody masterclass at it. Once we get further into the 1980s, I’ll start talking about a show that absolutely revolutionized doing world-class science fiction on an Ed Wood budget. Even the Original Series *itself* wasn’t terrible at this: It didn’t start to look cash-starved until invisible one-way exploding spaceships started showing up and we began to do episodes about empty Enterprise stage sets. This though, looks and feels like every bit of the drab, grey and uninspired military affair it is.
The big problem is that this is simply not good enough for a marquee Hollywood blockbuster, which by its very nature needs to have an element of spectacle about it. But this brings us to an interesting revelation: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan isn’t actually a marquee Hollywood blockbuster in spirit, even if in practice it was supposed to be: It’s a B-movie. Granted, just about nobody involved is treating it as anything *other* than a B-movie (just look at the acting, especially in the big emotional moments, in particular William Shatner and DeForest Kelley), but the fact is that’s what this is. And this is interesting, because it *also* wants to be a deathly serious war epic and a story about aging. And this genre and that narrative structure have never really overlapped before. But while it has the trappings of a B-movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan lacks the art house enthusiasm of something like Eraserhead, the niche appeal of a horror movie or the the campy escapist fun of any of the cult classics. It is, somewhat tragically, a B-movie that doesn’t realise it’s a B-movie.
Yeah, OK, I’ll briefly talk about Spock’s death.
I mean, there’s not a whole lot to say about it, aside from the acknowledged clever double feint of having him die in the simulation early on to cover up for the fact the initial draft of the story leaked. Leonard Nimoy wanted to retire from Star Trek again, which is something of a hobby of his, and wouldn’t do the movie unless Spock was killed off. So he was. It was, understandably, a big emotional moment for fandom and one of the most memorable images from the franchise’s history. No need to go over that again. A few things that stick out to me about this scene that I don’t think are commented on a lot: One, everything leading up to the actual death scene is completely laughable and ridiculous: Spock just gets up, as if he got a cue from off camera and then heads down to the irradiated engineering deck as if to say “Welp. Guess it’s time to die now”, where he proceeds to just wreck all of the shit in sight with no particular method or purpose while DeForest Kelley and James Doohan try their absolute hardest to give the single most hilarious, overblown and impossible-to-take-seriously tragic monologue in history.
The other thing about this scene though, is that it’s an absolute perfect microcosm for this movie’s ambition…and its shortcomings. Because killing off Spock happens to be incredibly symbolic, considering he is the most iconic aspect of the Original Series story and arguably the character who symbolizes it the best, both diegetically and extradiegetically. Those comparisons I made to “In Thy Image” above? Those musings about how this could have laid the groundwork for a new Star Trek? That was precisely the point. Not only was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan meant to be the “new” Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it was also meant to be the *last* Star Trek Motion Picture. Those aging motifs may have the relative subtlety of your average blunderbuss, but Meyer put them in for a reason: This is very clearly and explicitly an attempt to end Star Trek as a mass market Soda Pop Art franchise. In many ways we’re back in the territory of Star Trek: The New Voyages: The new status quo is established with Saavik, The New Spock (and really, The New Kirk as well), ready to take charge of a new generation of Star Trek, which is to be left in the capable hands of the fans to take wherever they want her to go.
How many times has Star Trek tried to kill itself off by now? Like, five or six, by my count already? How do you think that was going to take? There’s no way Paramount was going to let its primary cash cow disappear, and so we get a stonking great sequel hook where Spock’s casket lands on the Genesis planet and every single bloody character makes unbelievably unsubtle comments about “new life”. Yeah, no, contrary to popular belief it’s not the next movie that zombifies the Star Trek film franchise, it’s this one. Even *without* knowing the next movie is called Star Trek III: The Search for Spock its impossible *not* to assume a sequel is going to be imminent looking at the last shots of this movie. It’s as obvious as anything else this movie does, and Harve Bennett, who wrote the initial draft of the script, is on record saying Paramount immediately contracted him to write Star Trek III before this film was even released. The studio simply couldn’t leave it alone, so Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan ends up feeling utterly pointless on top of everything else that’s unsatisfying about it.
Is this a better movie than Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Well, I suppose so, simply by virtue of it having things like actual scripted dialogue instead of making the actors recite flight training manuals and pacing that resembles something human beings might film rather than primeval stone-giants. And, much of the acting is well done and suitable for the setting: Special props must go to Kirstie Alley and Bibi Besch, both of whom give absolute first-rate performances and the latter of whom perfectly embodies what James T. Kirk’s wife would be-Someone every bit as commanding and driven as he is. But, when the smoke clears and Khan gets his final Epic Villain Monologue, the fact Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a B-movie that doesn’t want to admit it’s a B-movie and that Trekkers actually think this is an erudite and sophisticated cinematic masterpiece say it all for me. This movie is every bit as self-absorbed and pretentiously middlebrow as its predecessor, it just doesn’t *look* like it anymore.
In many ways, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan really is the definitive Star Trek movie: It’s a solidly executed translation of the blunt, ham-fisted moralizing and blatant militarism that characterized the early Original Series to film. Perhaps that’s why this movie is as beloved as it is. And why I can’t stand it.