More noise than signal

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Following on, rather loosely, from the Series episode Space Seed – loosely enough that it’s only barely worth watching as an adjuct to the film, I discovered -this 1982 effort sees Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry punted upstairs after the less than stellar box office reaction to the first film.

Executive producer Harve Bennett developed the original outline, with the script drafted by Jack B. Sowards and polished off by director Nicholas Meyer and it is, famously, Moby Dick in space. well, to a degree. Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh and his squad of fellow genetically enhanced superhumans were banished to the hostile but habitable world of Ceti Alpha V after failing to take over the enterprise, and promptly forgotten about for fifteen years. In the intervening time, neighbouring planet Ceti Alpha VI exploded, the fallout from which renders their new home practically uninhabitable, leading to the death of many of Khan’s people.

Not that Kirk knows it, who’s busy training Starfleet’s next generation of officers. No, not those ones, but Kirstie Alley’s Lieutenant Saavik, first seen commanding a simulated Enterprise in the Kobayashi Maru test, which has itself garnered some pop culture renown. Rehashing a theme from the first film, Kirk doesn’t seem too happy behind a desk, and is advised by his close friends to get back out in command of a ship.

Khan and co are also looking to get out there, and off the rock they’ve been left on, and seize the opportunity when the USS Reliant and Pavel Chekov arrive, looking for barren worlds to test the remarkable new Genesis device on. Beaming to the surface the the Reliant’s captain for an inspection, they’re captured and implanted with a suspiciously narratively convenient mind control worm thing, which is another one of those things that I found terrifying as a child, but find astonishingly naff now.

Now in control of the Reliant, Kahn learns that the Genesis device is of nearly inconceivable power, with the intended function of turning a barren rock into a verdant planet in a matter of moments. Khan realises it could also double as a handy planet-killer weapon, and heads off to the research station building it, the Regula I, where Kirk’s former lover, Dr. Carol Marcus, and their son, David are busy working on it – not that Kirk knows he’s the father.

Kirk and a crew of rookies are out on a training mission when the distress call comes in from Regula I, so he assumes command and heads out being, as usual, the only ship in range to do anything about it, but they are blindsided by the Reliant and severely damaged. While they manage to save the Marcuses and Chekov, and inflict retaliatory damage on the Reliant, Khan gets away with the Genesis device, so Kirk and co must patch up the ship and give chase through a dangerous, but playing-field levelling nebula.

Cue a game of cat and mouse that Kirk ultimately wins, but at a terrible cost, as Spock sacrifices himself to repair a warp core malfunction and dies from radiation exposure in what’s still a remarkably poignant scene, even if we know in retrospect that it’s not a death that’s going to last for very long.

There is, of course, the old canard that only the even numbered instalments in the series are worthy of your attention. In what’s as good a reflection as any of my mellowing from sharp, angular, cynical Gen-Xer to fat, happy auld man, I’ve gone from thinking that Wrath of Khan is the only film worth watching in the series to at least finding something to appreciate in all of them. That said, it’s pretty clear that Wrath is the best of them, by a distance.

As mentioned it’s borrowing some of the themes from the first film, such as Kirk’s fear of becoming obsolete and questioning his purpose, but Wrath of Kahn actually pays something more than lip service to them. Dropping a mystery son from nowhere is perhaps a cheap trick to forcibly develop Kirk’s character, but it works, and the camaraderie with the rest of the cast remains believable and enjoyable.

Of course, the main draw of the Wrath of Khan is right there in the title – Khan is a great foil for Kirk, resourceful, capable and driven – indeed if he hadn’t been driven a little too close to the edge of sanity by his ordeals, you’d have to put your money on him beating Kirk and ruling the Galaxy. Crucially, his grudge against Kirk is pretty much entirely justified – perhaps not wholly against Kirk, true, but certainly the Starfleet he represents.

While $11 million isn’t exactly a shoestring, it’s clear that there’s been a concerted effort to drive costs down after the original’s zany budget, and I think for the most part smart decisions have been made. The effects were, I believe, taking some flack back in ’82 for being a touch sub-par, but time’s a great leveller on that score.

The heart of Star Trek was never about the effects work, however. It’s about the humanity, and that’s what shines through in the battle between Kirk and Kahn that’s just as enjoyable watching now for the umpteenth time as it was in the first instance. I approve this message, and if you’re only going to watch one of these films, it should be this one.