80s Bits: Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Welcome back to 80s Bits, the weekly column in which we explore the best and worst of the Decade of Shame. With guest writers, hidden gems and more, it’s truly, truly, truly outrageous. 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The Star Trek film franchise did not get off to a terrific start. Despite some solid box office receipts, executives and the public alike could not help but feel disappointed by Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Although it ambitiously tried to raise the Star Trek series from high camp to high art, many audiences found the film alienating and too abstract to support the length of the piece. They missed the clear antagonists present in the original Star Trek series, and the guns-blazing Captain Kirk at the helm of the Enterprise.  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan aimed to correct this.

It has been several years since the events of the first film, and Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is facing his advancing years and the future of his career for the first time. Longing for the adventures of the past, Kirk jumps at the chance to take the Enterprise on a training cruise with a group of new recruits. However, plans change when a space station researching the top-secret Genesis Project is attacked by one of Kirk’s old enemies, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán). So Kirk and crew head off to save the day against the odds once again.

From the opening scenes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it is evident that the first of many sequels is not going to be the same beige exercise as the first theatrical outing. Opening with a training exercise that sees all of the major characters “killed” off, the scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. The screenwriters have literally gone back to basics, taking plot threads from the 1967 episode “Space Seed” in which Khan is first introduced. This move could have pushed non-fans even further away, but the connection becomes almost irrelevant as the film hurtles action scene after action scene at us, the battling wits of Khan and Kirk at the centre of it all. This formula worked so well in the original series, and the “Captain versus Foe” motif would be used again in later films (including Star Trek: Nemesis and the most recent reworking of Star Trek). The rivalry takes on Shakespearean proportions, or more accurately an Ahab/Moby Dick relationship that is referenced a number of times through the film. It makes for nothing less than a thrill-a-minute roller coaster, punctuated by some brilliantly timed pieces of humour and drama.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

What was particularly bold about this film, is that it didn’t try and ignore the fact that the cast was aging. Instead, it embraced it and made it central to the narrative. Much of the humour from this and subsequent Star Trek films comes from the aging cast, and this instantly gives audiences a connection with the twenty-third century crew. The Kirk/Bones (DeForest Kelly)/Spock (Leonard Nimoy) mixture of close friendship and grumpy indignation is there from the start, and like Star Trek: The Motion Picture it manages to take aim at some of The Big Questions on the nature of existence. This time, it manages to do it with a permanently arched eyebrow. The age of the original cast was parodied over the next few decades, but Star Trek proved they were in on the gag from the start.

While some may make an argument for the later Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a winning combination of comedy and action, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan stands out from the original set of films as the best. It not only began a near-perfect story arc that would end with the aforementioned Voyage Home, but it set the template for future Trek films to come. By doing so, it ensured the future of a franchise that continues to this day. Star Trek: The Motion Picture may be credited with kick-starting the Star Trek movie franchise, but it is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that made them work. Of all the Trek films we have ever known, this was the most…human.

NB: This review was presented in a similar format on DVDBits for the Blu-ray release in May 2009.