STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN: I Will Punch You Through Impersonal Technology

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – Directed by Nicholas Meyer – Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig, Kirstie Alley, and Ricardo Montalban.

These are not the Voyages of the Starship Enterprise. These are the Voyages of Kirk, Spock, and the People Who Push Buttons.

I really wanted to call this reaction “Everybody Hates Sulu” because it drives me crazy that these Star Trek movies keep introducing new characters and ignoring old ones. Sulu does nothing in WRATH OF KHAN. Nothing. Uhura answers the phone. Scotty gets to cry and play the bagpipes. Bones apparently forgot that Spock recognized the value of his human side at the end of Trek 1: TMP.

Chekov, at least, gets to do something. Sure, that thing is to have a vicious slug baby inserted into his ear, attach itself to the brain stem, and be mind-controlled by a nutbag, but at least he has lines that do more than repeat whatever Kirk says.

It has to drive these actors absolutely bonkers that they get scraps while major screen time is eaten alive by new members of the crew. In TMP, it was Decker and Ilia. In TREK 2, it’s Lieutenant Saavik, played by Kirstie Alley.

To put it another way – the cast that’s been with the show since it was on TV has screen time that could have been theirs given to three unknowns. It’s not like a producer said to George Takei, “Yeah, sorry that Sulu doesn’t even get to leave his station this time around, but we’ve signed Burt Reynolds and Linda Evans!” No, Takei has to step aside for Kirstie Alley before she got fa- famous for being on Cheers.

So what is it? Do the producers think these “other” characters are useless? Do they think the actors aren’t any good? At least the character of Saavik returns (according to IMDB and my hazy memories of youth), even if there’s another actor playing the role. It just seems like a wasted opportunity; were Star Trek fans okay with this? Are they okay with this? It just seems weird to me. If you’re going to have them, use them. If you’re not going to use them, cut them.

WRATH OF KHAN does manage to be a mostly enjoyable, but ultimately frustrating movie. We are all victims/champions of our experiences, tampered by the context of where we are in a given moment. Well, my given moment for watching KHAN for the first time in twenty-plus years was right after watching REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS. In that show (which is told in four parts, making the length of the entire serial a little less than KHAN), I praised writer Ben Aaronovitch for not only giving all of his characters something to do but for making each of them feel like wholly realized people. They’re not just there to advance the plot. They don’t simply act like supporting characters in someone else’s story.

The same can’t be said for KHAN. Other than Kirk and Spock, everyone here exists either as interchangeable automatons or simply to fuel the development of Kirk and Spock (and really, it’s just Kirk), and not their own selves.

In TMP, Bones was his own character; he may have served the role of Kirk’s conscience, but he was forced out of retirement to resume his duties. He was cranky about it but concerned for his friend. In KHAN, however, he’s simply “Kirk’s doctor” (and also his friend – people keep having to tell Kirk, “I’m also your friend”), who doesn’t challenge Kirk as much as administer to him. He argues with Spock, but they seem like the same arguments from last time – arguments that looked put to bed at the film’s end.

Chekov gets to do something, but when you spend the film being mind-controlled, you’re not really being developed. Still, at least he doesn’t look like a desperate hanger-on who has nothing to do except wait for the Enterprise to call him back for a new mission. Of course, his reward for all of this once he recovers is to get sent back to his station to resume his old duties and we don’t hear from him again.

New crewman Saavik gets a little development – she’s in training under Captain Spock and trying to pass the Kobayashi Maru test – but really, her role here is to be Not Kirk. Kirk plays by his own rules while Saavik plays by the book. Did we really need that reminder?

I suppose we have to talk about Kirk now.

I like the idea that the movie is interested in showing the effects of age, but I don’t see how this jibes with TMP. In TMP, Kirk was an aggressive, usurped king looking for any opportunity to reclaim his throne, but here he’s this bored, desk officer. Worse, we find out he gladly took this assignment. What? The guy who crushed people and bullied people to get his place back in a starship left TMP and then took a desk assignment? Why? Because V’ger wasn’t a villain you could punch? Because the universe is a less swinging place? Because Decker got the girl and robbed you of your mojo? Because your big fight ended up in Earth orbit so what’s the point?

Continuity isn’t everything, of course, but this version of Kirk is dreadfully boring at the start of the film and doesn’t improve all that much, either. Kirk allows the Enterprise to get attacked by the Khan-controlled Reliant because he doesn’t throw up his shields. He’s cautious to the nth degree; if the Reliant is simply suffering some kind of communications malfunction then they’re not gonna be offended by the Enterprise tossing its shields up.

This cautious, almost passive Kirk could work. Here’s a guy who needs reading glasses, who’s a collector of historical items, and who’s past keeps coming back at him, first in the form of Khan and then in the forms of an ex-lover and their son. There’s so little traction to any of this, however, that it makes you wonder why it was included. They just end up feeling like interesting factoids instead of real aspects of Kirk’s character.

And I hate – I mean, hate – action-adventure movies where the main character doesn’t want to action-adventure. Kirk has to be talked into commanding a starship? Should I just hit the eject button and go watch Tomb Raider? Because Lara Croft is all about action-adventuring and she’s got better legs.

I haven’t even hit my biggest problem with the movie, yet, but let’s switch to the positive.

The first half of this movie kicks all sorts of buttocks. It feels big and real and the exact opposite of the sterile TMP. We’ve got Chekov and Captain Terrell (of the Reliant) investigating a dead planet so Kirk’s ex-lover scientist lady can find a suitable place to test out the Genesis Machine (which rearranges matter to make like from non-life).

Doesn’t sending captains to strange planets seem a bit daft?

Seriously, why doesn’t the Federation create a position called “Expendably Heroic” or “Exploration Honcho” or “Red Shirt Prime” to send planetside in these events. Why does the captain of the freaking ship beam down to a potentially hostile planet? You know why? Because the show needs something else for the captain to do, and I’ll accept it because it’s a convention of the show, but it’s still stupid. You know what, #2, I’m taking that story idea as my own. I’m gonna write a novel about that guy or gal officer whose job it is to go do the dangerous but cool stuff and no one expects him to be around for more than 3 missions. I’m sure someone’s already done this, but mine will be cooler.

Chekov and Terrell get captured by Khan, who puts the eel-slug things in their brains and controls them in an attempt to get back at Kirk.

It’s all excellently played out on screen. Even better, these early scenes of Chekov are played against Kirk’s signs of age, so you have an almost has-been about to be confronted by a Big Bad out of his past that he dropped off and forgot about.

Ricardo Montalban is outstanding as the hyperbolic Khan. He’s the perfect foil for Shatner because both of them overact everything, so the characters’ hatred for each other is assisted by the overwrought drama Montalban and Shatner bring to the role.

Which is why it’s incredibly disappointing that the film starts to go downhill once Kirk and Khan make contact. They make their reunion when the Reliant pretends to be malfunctioning so it can get in close and blast away at the Enterprise. It’s a good sequence (although the ships move with all the quickness and grace of a Spanish Galleon, making it look like a sea battle more than a space battle) and ends with Kirk outsmarting the super genius opponent.

You know what happens after that?

Khan dreams of getting Kirk, and says, “Kiiiiirk” a lot in a low whisper.

Kirk gets mad at Khan for killing people and screams, “KHAAAAN” a lot.

You know what ruins all of this, though?

Kirk and Khan never meet.

Never. Not once. They just scream at each other through consoles and communicators and then fire torpedoes and blasters at one another.

How can they not meet? How can this movie conclude without Kirk and Khan having a throwdown? It’s just dumb and it robs the audience of the scene they most want to see. And why is it the scene they most want to see? Because the movie has spent so much of its time building up this Kirk/Khan rivalry that you don’t only want to see it, you need to see it.

But we don’t. We just get Kirk and Khan firing spit balls at each other from the bridges of their respective ships.

It’s stupid. I just really, honestly can’t believe this is how it played out. How can they not put Kirk and Khan IN THE SAME SCENE?

Gah. Bah. Meh. Thhhpppttt.

Spock dies saving the ship by taking a radiation bath. I mean, really, he comes back so I can’t get too worked up over it. It’s a nice death that ends, once again, with someone telling Kirk they are his friend. (Is Kirk one of those people that will hate you for a week if you don’t text him back within three minutes?)

Khan quotes from Moby-Dick but just like Ahab, it’s a futile rant at a force you can’t kill. It fits with the nautical theme they’re employing throughout the ship and Kirk’s apartment, but it comes off as more cute than purposeful. The new uniforms are a definite improvement, however, and at least the Enterprise now feels lived in instead of lifeless.

So we’ve got an incredible first-half and a mediocre second. Spock’s death even has the film end on a decided down note; showing that sometimes even characters we like can die is important, but when it happens like this … total downer.

KHAN is definitely worth watching but I’d be lying if I said the second-half of the film was anything but a disappointment; simply put, it does not live up to the standards of the truly incredible first half, it robs us of the scene we most want to see, and it fails to treat the characters as anything more than mouths to advance the plot.

I thought I was going to like this one much more than I did. It’s probably better than Tomb Raider, though.