In 1982 the Star Trek franchise was, for the second and not the last time, in a problematic state. The original series had been axed more than a decade earlier, two years before its original ‘five-year mission’ was complete, while attempts to revive the show on TV had failed and Star Trek: The Motion Picture had missed the mark somewhat trying to ape 2001 A Space Odyssey but landing in a world newly taken over by the mega-blockbuster that was Star Wars.
So, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn faced some bigger challenges than one might expect; first of all it was relegated to a lower budget, then followed issues with the original TV series cast, at least two of whom were disillusioned with the whole franchise and then there was the fact that the founding father of Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was all but removed from the production.
It’s no secret that despite all this the The Wrath of Khan went on to become arguably the most well-regarded of all the Star Trek movies, to the extent that the ‘second’ of the new run of films (Star Trek Into Darkness) all but replicates it, with far less success.
I’ve seen the film many times but this viewing was a little different as I was watching the recently released director’s cut which adds in new elements from Nicholas Meyer’s original vision for the movie, though, for a film made in many ways by committee and as part of a franchise, a director’s cut is a slightly odd idea.
The over arching story and style remain unchanged of course, and its in this that the film really triumphs. While all the actors seem to be delivering their best – even William Shatner’s ‘unique’ delivery style is played in such a way that it feels true, while Leonard Nimoy continues to prove why he became the go-to face of the franchise in more recent years.
It is Ricardo Montalban though who is the highlight. Despite being best known now as a TV actor his performance comes with a gravitas that gives it a Shakespearean flair. This is backed up by the script that draws on classic themes, to the extent of directly lifting lines from Moby Dick. This all sounds like it could be quite ridiculous I admit, but something about Montalban’s performance is pitch perfect and plays off Shatner excellently.
As a whole the film focusses on the main trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy well, far more than The Motion Picture, and this is where it’s story comes to life. While Khan is an excellent catalyst it is this trio, particularly Kirk and Spock, where a lot of the real emotional drama lies and there’s good reason why so much of their interaction here is so memorable with a few pieces having entered the general public consciousness more than anything else from the ongoing Trek canon.
Having been made on a comparative shoestring in the early 1980s there are a few moments where the special effects have dated but, for the most part, they stack up well. Having been created by ILM between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi this isn’t too surprising but is good to see none the less and the use of detailed models clearly helps.
The additions from the director’s cut really serve to add a bit more depth and texture to a few of the ideas that crop up in the drama. These come in the form of old age and death most specifically and, to be honest, the additions are a little heavy-handed but do emphasise the point the director wanted to make, though they are far from essential and the ending, added on originally against the director’s wishes, remains intact.
Beyond that the film remains a stand out, not just as a Star Trek movie but in general, as it romps along like a fast paced adventure, but includes enough of the classic tropes of Trek to keep it clearly part of the same universe and style. While future films in the series may have come close to this combination none have yet surpassed it and I’d be surprised if any ever do manage to capture just what The Wrath of Khan brings to the screen.