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Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

story by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards
screenplay by Jack B. Sowards
directed by Nicholas Meyer, music by James Horner
feature film, 116 minutes

This film seems to have become something of a legend in the world of Star Trek, and many would regard it as the pinnacle of the franchise's feature film output. Yes, it is good. But I'm not certain I'd rank it quite so high. This is not a film with a particularly grand central concept at its core. Its core is a rather simple and frankly uninspiring tale of vengeance, springboarding as something of a sequel to a first season episode of the TV show known as "Space Seed".

What actually makes this film excellent is the collection of more or less random gems of philosophy that were used to flesh out the story, and some of the performances, style, direction, special effects, and cinematic techniques that brought those brilliant little side-gems to life. Indeed, we pretty much need to plow through the plot mechanically here for a while, and only when we get to the "final fix" at the climax of the show do the philosophical layers really resonate to the degree that we can begin to tackle the themes one by one and explore their depths.

Initial Integrity

The opening is a little unusual for a Star Trek feature, at first. Many of our familiar characters are already on the bridge, doing their usual thing.... only they're taking their orders from a young upstart Vulcan woman. Where's Kirk, you may wonder? He gets his grand entrance soon enough, have no fear. But perhaps it was a better way to go to NOT spend all that much time introducing the others with special scenes. Jumping straight into their midst was a good way to go, and before the film is done, we will see the cast charm and well-tested dynamics of this group performing full-on, and generally succeeding much better at it than in the previous film. Good stuff.

But despite this good move, one of the expected benefits goes a bit to waste.... Specifically, the main plot is not all that much quicker than its predecessor. It still takes most of the first half of the running time to get these guys into space, assembled on the Enterprise, and properly launched off towards the adventure at hand. (And if you go through the novelization, this set-up section takes much longer still.) It's a bit strange, that. During this section, many optical shots from the previous film were re-used - perhaps a fair trade-off if indeed it allowed more of the budgeted time, money, and effort to go into new shots for the later battle sequences.

Chekov gets a bit of a highlight here - he's apparently now at the rank of Commander, and posted as the first officer on the U.S.S. Reliant. Impressive. An extensive sequence covers the Reliant's mission, including some of their communication with the scientists aboard space station Regula One, and a lengthy encounter with the lead villains on a planet's surface. It's quite a long time to keep the camera away from our main body of heroes, so I think including a regular such as Chekov among these people was a good move.

And he's not alone here either - sharp-eyed fans may also spot John Winston reprising his role as Kyle from seasons one and two of the TV series. Back then, he was the transporter chief (prominent in episodes such as "Tomorrow is Yesterday" (episode 21) (his debut actually) and "Mirror, Mirror" (episode 39) (where he receives an extra bit of discipline). Today, he's manning Reliant's communications console, now with a bit of a beard. Cool. I trust he survived via rescue from the planet's surface at the end of this tale.

On the planet, Ricardo Montalban makes his entrance as Khan, a role he previously played in "Space Seed" in 1967. This movie does a pretty good job of sticking with the established continuity of the TV series, and recapping everything that you need to know, both the events that were in the episode, and all that has happened between then and the beginning of this movie. But not everything is quite airtight. Khan's ship, the "Botany Bay" was cut adrift in space in the middle of the adventure, and it seems unlikely that Kirk would have gone back for it and made sure it was marooned on the planet along with Khan and company. The less technology they might have at their disposal in their "imprisonment", the better, you'd think. Also "Space Seed" occurred before Chekov joined the show, so it is strange that he would recognize the Botany Bay, or that Khan would never forget a face that he supposedly never met. Perhaps we are to believe that Chekov was already on board the ship in the lower decks during episode 24, and he did meet Khan, and then only got promoted to bridge duty in time for episode 30 at the beginning of second season.

Montalban's performance as Khan is superb on both occasions, but I think I have a slight preference for the earlier performance in 1967 - just because it seems a bit more self-evident how the character thinks and has come into being. His charisma and his power to articulate a good argument and convince is a bit more evident. Even though his values are twisted, the sharp intellect comes through a bit better in "Space Seed". Granted, "Wrath of Khan" is a different story, with his psyche a bit more worn, and there's nothing wrong with that. But the controlled Khan had some qualities, and an extra hint of compassion, that I miss here.

It's also a bit of a wonder that these earwig creatures burrowing under the sands of the planet are apparently still quite plentiful, and yet Reliant seemed to not detect them, nor did it detect the rest of whatever ecosystem was sustaining them. It seems that life is too resilient to be totally wiped out even by the cataclysmic disaster that this planet suffered, having been abundant with life previously. Indeed, though a massive evolutionary upheaval is at hand, life in some form continues. Which then begs the question - How well equipped is the U.S.S. Reliant to determine whether a planet has life on it or not?

One of the sadder slippages that this film makes concerns Starfleet in general. Note that in the previous film, Starfleet was nearly a stand-in for NASA - its personnel were the engineers, the astronauts, and the scientists. Now in this film, Starfleet is the military first and foremost, and everyone wears the exact same colour uniform, duty permitting. Scientists are portrayed separately on a space station as civilians, and have no means of defending themselves. On the plus side, there are some very sharp arguments here concerning old patterns of interaction between military and civilian/scientific interests.

However, I think we have to acknowledge the brilliance of making one of the main sci-fi plot devices into a tool of creation first and foremost, with its destructive capabilities relegated to an unfortunate side-effect. It gives our characters some much more uplifting and grand subject matter to discuss, and Spock and McCoy dig in to give us a prime example of some of their old debating skills and the enjoyable humour-twinged drama that it often produces. Terrific stuff.

Of course, we've got a whole article looking at the Genesis Project, terraforming in general, and how it all stacks up against Starfleet's Prime Directive, coming up in sequence after our look at film 3. Keep reading ahead for that.

What's In... vs. What's Out

Of course, we MUST acknowledge that some aspects of this film are quite simply absolutely brilliant, and some of that seems to have been honed at a late stage as director Nicholas Meyer took the script, deleting, adding, and rearranging what was there prior to shooting.

Notice what IS here: A primary field of conflict that will be played out like submarine battles, chases, and cat-and-mouse games. Sometimes it is a stretch to think it will be done like this in space, but what we get here still works, much as the TV series had already proven back in episode 9: "Balance of Terror". The model miniatures and optical effects will be a huge part of the excitement, as had been the case in then-recent early Star Wars films.

That's all kind of obvious. But in particular because most people believe that Khan was such a great villain, and subsequently so many storytellers want to create their own über-tough villain in subsequent Trek films and episodes, and elsewhere, and Khan has generated such a great long line of imitators in his wake, I really want to draw a great fat circle around my next point and hammer it home to a huge extent:

Notice what is MISSING here: A great sequence of ugly events has been left off-screen. Khan and his crew left the Reliant and boarded the Regula 1 Space Station. There was torture, and tension, and violence, and as many casualties as possible. It was no doubt very ugly and disturbing. But this is actually one of the more forgettable parts of the story - and it is easy to forget about when we don't see it. Instead, we see a few bodies in the distance, and hear Captain Terrell give a very brief description of the events in the midst of many other things. It's easy for this to not really register on many members of the audience, particularly the younger ones, and I believe all that is actually a GOOD thing.

Additionally, I do remember encountering the scenes of those events, occurring in present time, in the novelization, at which point I stopped, perplexed, thinking, "I don't remember this!" It suggests that such unnecessary bits were present in the original script, before Meyer had a go at it, before the cast and crew were very enamoured or comfortable with the film. Those events did still happen. We just don't waste any time torturing ourselves with viewing them; instead we put all our time and energy to better things. Other entries in the Star Trek universe that could take note include "The Empath", "Chain of Command", and dozens of episodes of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and particularly many later episodes of Scott Bakula's series "Enterprise".

If you really want to imitate the so-called best of Star Trek, leave out the torture as best you can.

Decisive Solution

As this film proceeds, more and more dots are connected between the various philosophical gems hidden in otherwise average looking scenes, and a very intricate web of artistic genius begins to take shape. Quite a number of these bonus concepts are threaded through the story's "final fix", where they come to a head. If you need to avoid major spoilers, stop reading now.

First I must point out that I am no great fan of the concept of sacrifice; I think too many people leap to it and swoon over it far too quickly and easily without even properly considering better alternatives, and that especially includes storytellers. Sacrifice translates as the "lose-win" model outlined in Stephen Covey's 4th Habit of Highly Effective People, a model that is far from ideal. However, out of all those myriads of other tales indulging in this model, I have to hold up "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" as the single greatest story ever to tackle an event of sacrifice and make it sensible, believable, and palatable. Even the tale of Jesus in the Bible can't top Star Trek II. It does not get any better than this, ladies and gentlemen. And it will do us well to examine deeply how this adventure got everything so exactly right.

One of the most important reasons most sacrifice moments fail is that we don't have a believable mechanism to allow a critical BENEFIT to depend upon it. And by contrast, "The Wrath of Khan" is rock solid on this point. As with the Genesis device, the Enterprise's engine is both a means of beneficial propulsion and of deadly poisoning as a side-effect, when it's damaged. If just one poor soul braves the deadly environment TO FIX THE ENGINE, it could save everyone on the ship. If he doesn't, he'll die anyway, along with everyone else. The more general concept of sacrifice is projected backwards throughout the film, in all the various speeches concerning "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" and future films will toy with the concept again moving forward.

The engine fix isn't just fiction either. You can see the same problem crop up in the film K19, starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, based on the true story of a Russian submarine. Interesting that they had one extra unpleasant option to throw into their mix - the possibility of shamefully surrendering to their nearby American enemies. Apparently, the Fukushima meltdown of several years ago also had some elderly workers contemplating action similar to Spock's actions here. This mechanism has some real resonance.

Additionally, the timing of all the required bits and beats could not be better. So many other tales of sacrificial decisions try to debate the merits of such a choice in the moment when the choice has to be made - and this actually drains believability out of the concept at a rapid pace. If you have time to debate it, you have time to think of better ideas, not to mention multiple brains at work to do the thinking, and as such it becomes increasingly implausible that better ideas do not prevail.

Here in "The Wrath of Khan", when the moment comes, there is no time, and there is no debate. Spock hears the others realize and define what the situation is, and then he just moves and acts. McCoy momentarily gets in his way, and with the neatest, quickest sidestep, he re-iterates "I have no time to discuss this..."

In actual fact, rather brilliantly, we have already had as much discussion as we require prior to this. The film's brilliance has been in posing the debate over hypothetical situations in advance of this moment. The entire Kobayashi Maru test has been serving as set-up for this moment, moving the debate to other times and other scenes where the pressure is off, and therefore we can dig into that debate with more character and charisma and really make a philosophical meal out of it.

And in Kirk's solution to the Kobayashi Maru, we actually see my preferred take on things. In fact, how can anyone not prefer Kirk's solution? Dare to break your thinking outside of the box, and attack the very set-up of situations that appear to be "unwinnable". Those people pushing no-win dilemmas onto others have problems in their own heads that need to be addressed, which Kirk tackles brilliantly. And thankfully, there are enough sensible thinkers amongst the top brass at Starfleet that they could recognize that Kirk's tenacity and originality deserve to be rewarded and celebrated. Hey, this is the very kind of guy you want on your side getting the good jobs done against impossible odds. It speaks to the ideal model at the heart of the fourth of Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - to never lose sight of the win-win solution.

So what do we think of Spock's solution? Well, not bad. In the moment, he saw only one way out, and felt he hadn't time to seek out another solution which is highly important. Someone had to brave death, and Spock was not about to order anyone else to do it, since he had all the technical skills himself. And for him, the sacrifice and death was a side effect he'd gladly avoid if possible - the real focus is on the benefit, on fixing the engine.

It is though a bit unfortunate that the film doesn't really rebut David's framing of Kirk's solution as "cheating", as though there is some sort of karmic tallying system in place trying to make us buy and pay our way out of our problems. Surviving and succeeding are normal and natural goals, not a cheat against death. It's sad that this framing stands, but it is not completely unbalanced in its presentation here. The post-climax scene where David comes to have a talk with Kirk in his quarters contains a lot of balancing comments, perhaps not going as far as I might have ideally liked, but offering resolution for some of the other issues of the film, chiefly where father and son can come to appreciate each other and look forward to a better, more full relationship with each other. They acknowledge the greater importance of how one deals with life. This is a good scene, possibly not given the full amount of acknowledgement that it deserves, in wrapping up so many of the film's themes and subplots.

Feeling Young

Also emerging more fully at the conclusion is the film's major theme of youth, age, and change. It's been a bit bizarre in its set-up, in suggesting that the Enterprise should suddenly have one great influx of new cadets and recruits all in one shot. More realistically, crew rotation would be a constant turnover, with established junior officers from elsewhere on the ship being promoted up to bridge positions and other prominent roles. In that sense, I think the franchise brought this theme out much too soon, with our TV regulars still appearing quite youthful themselves (and in fact in many cases managing to look more youthful here than they did in the previous film). Hindsight suggests the aging theme would have been more appropriate if confined to films 6 and 7, instead of being strung out along all of films 2 through 7, but then everytime they did one of these classic-era films, they thought it would be the last one.

It really is Kirk's character that benefits somewhat from the examination of youth vs. age, particularly as we discover how subjective it all is in the end. How you look at life, and how well you accept change, can determine whether or not you feel young or old. And that's another really nice message to have layered into the film.

Musically, this film scores a big hit by giving fledgling master composer James Horner the early big break that he so deserved. The end result is a musical sound quite similar to his prior work on "Battle Beyond the Stars" (and possibly by direct request), although it is much more refined here. I have mixed feelings about the film's main theme, which works fantastically through the body of the picture, but perhaps doesn't get as good an arrangement as might have been possible during the opening titles. The film's action music is absolutely excellent and filled with thematic bits and excellent sound from unusual instrument choices. Plus, Spock gets a very sweet, haunting, wistful theme that easily burns itself into your brain after having seen the film. And of course, the "blaster beam" is back again, after having also been prominent in "Star Trek 1" and "Battle Beyond the Stars". This is a very excellent score, and from here on, James Horner would be one of the top choice names for film scoring in Hollywood.

Somehow it always seems to escape my memory that Kirstie Alley makes her screen debut in this film playing Spock's emotionless Vulcan protégée Saavik, and it somewhat jolts me to see her in the role. She does play it well, but somehow I remember her better from other roles where more of her own personality came through. And perhaps I somewhat blotted her out of my memory when she abandoned this role to another actress in subsequent films, which I think was a shame. Interestingly, in this film Saavik seems to be the character who asks most of the questions that pull philosophical ideas out of the others, and she is often seen listening to the answers and weighing them in her thoughts. It's a good role, and well written. An interesting tidbit that comes through in the novelizations is that, though she passes herself off as a full-Vulcan in her official Starfleet papers, she actually has a significant streak of Romulan in her heritage - something never mentioned on screen.

Also appearing here is Judson Scott as Khan's right-hand lieutenant Joachim. It's a great shame and puzzling oddity that he doesn't have any sort of credit anywhere in the film. He deserves to be right up there in the opening titles alongside Bibi Besch, Merritt Butrick, and Paul Winfield. Ricardo Montalban spends more time acting opposite Judson Scott than anyone else, and Scott proves to be an excellent, on-the-money foil for him in scene after scene. Scott of course had plenty of experience guest starring on more television shows than you could shake a fist at. It's a great pity that he wasn't in "Space Seed" as well - there's a Joachin there, but he's played by another actor and has very few lines at all.

Well, this is it, the great Star Trek film that paved the way from the giant high-concept sci-fi of the first Trek Motion Picture to many more episodic adventures for Star Trek on the silver screen. It's a real case of taking something that's partly mediocre and working it so well that it becomes absolutely stunning and unmatched for decades thereafter (while also doing quite well at the box office also). Great art so often struggles to achieve as much as this film did. Hats off to a real classic!

Read the next Star Trek review: "Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock"

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan is available in various incarnations on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the desired disc format and location nearest you for pricing and availability:

Director's Cut 2-disc DVD Special Collector's Edition


DVD Canada


DVD Features include:

  • Director's cut with additional scenes (116 min.)
  • Audio commentary by director Nicholas Meyer.
  • Text commentary by scenic artist Mike Okuda.
  • "The Captain's Log" making-of retrospective (27 min.) with Meyer, co-writer Harve Bennett,
    William Shatner (Captain Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), and Ricardo Montalban (Khan).
  • "Designing Khan" (the film, not the man) (24 min.)
  • "The Visual Effects of..." (18 min.)
    with ILM supervisor Ken Ralston.
  • Original interviews (11 min.), with Shatner, Nimoy,
    Montalban, and DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy).
  • ST Universe: Novel Approach (29 min.)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)
  • Storyboard archives (still menus)
Theatrical version 1-disc Blu-ray

Blu-ray U.S.

Blu-ray Canada

Blu-ray U.K.

Blu-ray Features include:

  • original 1982 theatrical cut
  • Commentary by Nicholas Meyer and Manny Coto
  • James Horner: Composing Genesis HD
  • Collecting Star Trek's Movie Relics HD
  • A Tribute to Ricardo Montalban HD
  • SCISEC 2: The Mystery Behind Ceti Alpha 6 HD
  • Library Computer (Blu-ray Exclusive)
  • Star Trek I.Q. (BD-Live)
  • Farewell
  • Theatrical Trailer HD

Most featurettes from the 2-disc DVD are included.
A re-jigged version of the original solo audio
commentary by Meyer may be included on some
post-2009 editions of the movie in some regions,
but remember this was recorded for a different
version of the film with a different length.

Or, get all 6 original crew feature films on Blu-ray at once with an exclusive bonus disc.

The First Six
Feature Films


Summit Six-Pack
Blu-ray U.S.

Summit Six-Pack
Blu-ray Canada

Summit Six-Pack
Blu-ray U.K.

Also includes exclusive bonus 7th disc, with
"The Captain's Summit" discussion (HD, 70 min.) between
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy,
Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Article written by Martin Izsak. Comments on this article are welcome. You may contact the author from this page:

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Read the next Star Trek review: "Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock"

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