My Favourite Films #18: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

It’s amazing how things from your childhood stick with you. There’s a scene early on in this flick where two supporting characters have these mind controlling bugs called Ceti Eels put into their ears, I saw this movie on TV when I was about 5 and it really stuck with me and creeped me out. Things crawling into my ears remains in the top 20 of my fears.

wok pos

I watched this as a kid because my Dad loved the original Star Trek, and I became a sci-fi geek fairly early thanks to the influence of kid-friendly shows like Thunderbirds and The Secret World of Alex Mack. Back in the mid-late 90s, BBC were really into putting sci-fi on in the early evenings and I used to watch Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999 and all the Star Trek series.

I love Star Trek, I’m not quite a full blown trekkie, but I enjoy most of the series (apart from Enterprise, boy did that suck) and the movies too.

The movies are a mixed bag, the first one is atrocious and a few of them are duds, but there are a couple which are lots of fun, and this one is probably my favourite.

I always dug the original series’ core trio, with Kirk being in the centre and advised by the logical and rational Spock and the more emotional McCoy. The three played off each other wonderfully and crafted this wonderful set of contrasting characters, who developed genuine affection for each other despite their differences. This is one of the things I felt was missing in the reboot of the franchise, with McCoy not being used enough.

This movie follows on from the awful first one and is far simpler and action packed.

The movie picks up a character from one of the show’s episodes, the genetically engineered superhuman Khan (Ricardo Montalban) who was exiled by Kirk (William Shatner) to an unpopulated planet. It transpires that Khan’s new home was later destroyed by cosmic events and with several of his followers dead has vowed revenge on Kirk.

A chance to achieve this arises when one of the Enterprise’s old crew, Chekov (Walter Koenig), now serving aboard the Reliant arrives on the planet which has shifted orbit and is unrecognizable. Chekov and his captain have the eels implanted and reveal to Khan that they are looking for an uninhabited planet to test the Genesis project on, a scientific discovery which can reorganize matter to create habitable environments. Or if misused can result in mass devastation.

Kirk, meanwhile, is starting to feel old as he adapts to his new role as an Admiral and prepares for a training mission aboard the Enterprise with a new generation of Starfleet personnel, but a few of his old crew, including Spock (Leonard Nimoy), now Captain of the ship. “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is also aboard and advises Kirk to avoid getting stuck behind a desk and get a new command.

They receive a distress call from the Genesis Project, headed up by an old flame of Kirk’s Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and her son David (Merritt Butrick). Ambushed en route by Khan, who now commands the Reliant they find themselves too late to save many of the scientists and Khan obtains the Genesis Drive.

The ships face off together and Kirk outsmarts Khan to win the day, but both ships are badly damaged. Severely injured, Khan plans to activate the Genesis Drive, destroying Kirk with his last action. The Enterprise’s engines are broken and they are unable to get out of range, until Spock goes to the engine room and restores the warp drive, exposing himself to massive quantities of radiation in the process. The Enterprise escapes and the Genesis Drive destroys the Reliant and establishes new life on the planet below.

Kirk realizes that Spock is absent from the bridge and rushes to the engine room, where he arrives to bid farewell to his friend.

It’s the end of the movie that really makes it for me. I’ve seen the flick about a half dozen times and it still always chokes me up when Kirk twigs what’s happened. Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley have great chemistry with each other and capture the different relationships between the trio well, and the finale, where Spock gives his last words to Kirk is wonderfully simple and moving.

Gets me every time.
Gets me every time.

The funeral scene, where Kirk delivers a eulogy is equally powerful, thanks to Shatner’s performance. Shatner is criticized a lot, but his cocky Kirk persona works here as the crack in his voice makes it all the clearer how much the loss has effected the usually cool officer.

But the ending only works because the rest of the film is so well done. Many films will bump off a major character to no real emotional impact, but this film has the advantage of having Spock already being dear to audiences and does a wonderful job of building a real relationship between the characters. Spock might be logical and painfully reserved, but there’s also a sly sense of humour throughout, especially in the bedgrudging friendship between himself and McCoy.

Kelley is largely the comic relief, but as ever he serves the role of the emotional, instinctive, human aspect of the trio. I’ve always seen the central trio as being like how the human mind works. Spock is the common sense, rational side and McCoy is the raging emotions, and Kirk is the decision making part which has to weigh up the advise from either side. Whenever I have to make a head vs heart decision I always see Spock as my head and McCoy as my heart.

The Original Series and film's strongest asset- the central trio
The Original Series and film’s strongest asset- the central trio

There are some nice touches throughout, including the introduction of the Kobayashi Maru test idea, which has a wonderful pay off and introduces the theme of facing up to death and the “no-win scenario”. And the script is rather wonderful, giving the characters space to move and with a nice vein of humour throughout.

It also benefits from a strong villain, with Montalban hamming it up to amusing effect, he has a menacing aura about him and his snarled Melville quotes are a delight. His mad quest for vengeance is all consuming and this zeal is all the motivation you need for the character, and the keeping it simple idea works wonders here.

Also, Kirstie Alley is foxy as hell as a Vulcan.

wok alley

Some of it is predictable, and the “KHAAAN!” moment is rather hokey, but there’s a real sense of fun to the proceedings and it’s just a real treat to spend time in the presence of such lovable characters again. And I think that’s how you can tell how good a movie is, because I connect to it so much emotionally that I’m willing to set aside little quibbles.

Humour, character development and a massive emotional punch, this is the benchmark for all Trek movies. And also, it always makes me want to watch the third movie, even though I know that it’s not really that good.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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