Of all the films in the Star Trek franchise, THE WRATH OF KHAN from 1982 is usually cited as the best. There are plenty of reasons why that is the case, but there is a strange logic at work here. Current wisdom dictates that, in order to be successful, a film franchise based on a pre-existing property like a TV show needs to steer clear of anything requiring more than a cursory knowledge of the source material, so as to attract a bigger audience.
Yet STAR TREK II did precisely the opposite; it delved back in to the series mythology, resurrecting a half-forgotten villain of the week. It focused on the characters as much as the science-fiction story, and still delivered a smart, emotional sequel that resonates with viewers over thirty years later. How could this be? Wasn’t it a risky strategy to court the fans rather than an indifferent wider public?
Perhaps not. The first film, 1979’s portentously titled THE MOTION PICTURE, launched Star Trek on the big screen with an all new, if not entirely original, story, which should have served to welcome hardcore Trekkies and newcomers alike. Unfortunately for studio Paramount, their ambitious attempt to refloat the Trek boat in the wake of the runaway success of STAR WARS failed to inspire new fans and alienated many longtime supporters. The warmth and wit of the show was missing; everybody wore their Very Serious faces throughout, including director Robert Wise who was aiming to match Kubrick’s 2001 in scale and scope. While ambitious and suitably epic, it felt coldly remote.
So it is unsurprising that for the follow up, the filmmakers took onboard the criticism levelled at the first outing and returned to the show’s roots, with Trek’s heart and soul – the core relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy – back in place. In fact, incoming director Nicholas Meyer went further than that: he returned to Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of the show as ‘Horatio Hornblower in space’. C.S Forester’s fictional hero of the Napoleonic Wars was a key influence on the programme and its lead character, sharing some familiar traits with the captain of the Enterprise: quick-thinking, intelligence, loyalty and resourcefulness (although Hornblower was usually on less certain ground when it came to women – something that was never a problem for the all-American Kirk).
WRATH OF KHAN is really one of the most thrilling games of Battleships ever filmed – two evenly matched vessels firing lethal broadsides at each other, both captains battling to outwit the other, and best of all, a nail biting game of submarine hide and seek. It all just happens to be set in deep space. Compare that to the frequent scenes of open-mouthed staring in what was snidely dubbed ‘The Motionless Picture’ and it becomes clear which was the more faithful to the original concept of Trek. James Horner’s rousing score perfectly complements the onscreen action, evoking old-fashioned swashbucklers and adventure on the high seas; it remains arguably the finest of his career.
Khan is the embodiment of Kirk’s youthful transgressions in a film all about old wounds and no-win scenarios
But as good as it is, the action isn’t the main reason why KHAN is so compelling. It is Meyer’s willingness to deepen the characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, using the story’s Moby Dick-inspired plot as a means to reflect on age, death and obsession. Kirk’s rapid rise through the ranks of Starfleet has led to a severe bout of mid-life crisis: he’s now an Admiral, but without a ship of his own, he has lost his sense of purpose. All those fistfights in the sand with baddie aliens back on the TV show are a distant memory. This Kirk is weighed down with doubts and regrets; the glory days of old have become a millstone around his neck, the devil-may-care triumphs and brushes with death have come back to haunt him. It’s a clever move, breaking the cartoonish image the character had acquired since the show went off air and, through William Shatner’s sympathetic performance, lends him real emotional depth – more than he ever had on television.
Yet these are still the characters everyone remembers: Spock delivering his usual pearls of wisdom, McCoy berating Spock for not thinking in human terms, Kirk breaking through rules and protocols to get the job done. Kirk’s leadership, Spock’s logic and McCoy’s humanism are the triangular core of Trek. The film wastes no time reintroducing them – we know who they are and how they work. Even Khan’s first scene in the film, masked and cloaked in a sandstorm like a sort of demonic Lawrence of Arabia, requires no knowledge of the ‘Space Seed’ episode in which he first appeared.
The decision to bring back Khan (deliciously reprised by Ricardo Montalban) works brilliantly in the context of Kirk’s mid-life crisis: he is another ghost from Kirk’s youth coming back to haunt him. Kirk’s lenient, even arrogant, decision to exile Khan fifteen years earlier proves to be costly in the extreme. The captain’s cavalier approach to life has serious repercussions further down the line (as does the revelation that he has a son, David, with old flame Carol Marcus). Khan is the embodiment of Kirk’s youthful transgressions in a film all about old wounds and no-win scenarios; unlike the simulated Kobayashi Maru test, the spectre of death is now all too real. Yet Spock’s sacrifice in the bittersweet conclusion suggests that life goes on, no matter what, and perhaps some mistakes can be rectified if given a chance.
Khan’s Ahab-like obsession with defeating Kirk and propensity to quote classic literature (“…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee!”) as a way of demonstrating his superior intelligence lends him a lovely Basil Rathbone-esque quality that makes him more than a match for the pragmatic Kirk. The clash between the two worked so well that later sequels blatantly tried to copy the formula, some quite slavishly, with varying degrees of success. Kirk faced off against a Klingon general who shared his own scepticism about a tentative peace process in Meyer’s STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, a robustly entertaining send-off for the original crew. The Next Generation’s Captain Picard had to deal with bad guys from his own past not once but twice: the Borg in 1996’s FIRST CONTACT, another spin on the Moby Dick theme where the captain became Ahab rather than the villain, and then a clone of himself in 2002’s unloved NEMESIS.
Seeing THE WRATH OF KHAN on the big screen (shown as part of Cambridge Arts Picturehouse’s SciScreen season in larger-than-life 70mm) re-enforces what a superbly engineered slice of genre entertainment it is: lean and well paced, exciting and moving, erudite and grown-up, with moments of humour and horror. It gets just about everything right. No wonder so many follow-ups were so in thrall to it.