Whatever else The Motion Picture had been, it was a relative failure, one that disappointed fans and general audiences, but it was success enough to have demanded a sequel, and so work was quickly begun to figure out how exactly to follow it up. Even that was proving difficult, however, until Nicholas Meyer sauntered in and changed everything. When the finished product was delivered to theaters in 1982, Star Trek had delivered the word, and the word was “good.”
Gene Roddenberry, who had fought so hard to retain his role as the frontrunner of his creation, was cast aside once again, this time by Harve Bennett, but without Meyer, it’s doubtful that anyone today would remember Bennett’s name. But it’s Khan (Ricardo Montalban) who truly makes his mark in this film, his first appearance since “Space Seed,” as the only man alive capable of matching wits with Jim Kirk. To do it, he must affect a resurrection of his own, creeping from the wreckage of the planet he was condemned to when he first attempted revenge on a galaxy that had rebuffed his efforts to rule it, twice.
The great irony of Wrath of Khan is that, as far as the character of Kirk is concerned, it is much the same movie as The Motion Picture. Again our lead character is reflecting on a life that seems to have passed him by, and only extreme circumstances are able to rouse him from his despondency. The difference this time is that he is engaged directly and personally, first by an enemy both he and the audience knows, and then by the revelation that he has a son, a direct consequence of what had always been implied but never acknowledged, that Kirk is a cad. Yet even in that he is shown with a greater sense of responsibility than was evident in the earlier film. In essence, Wrath of Khan is a story of personal redemption through unimaginable tragedy.
But audiences have long embraced the film, if not in rebuke of The Motion Picture, then as something far more familiar and engaging, not to mention better resembling the popular success of the Star Wars films at that time still one away from completing their trilogy. (One might even cynically suggest that the character of David Marcus, portrayed by blond-haired Merritt Butrick, was inspired by Luke Skywalker, who had just learned of his own controversial parentage.)
Wrath of Khan, until the wide success of Star Trek last year (and even then it’s debatable), has been considered the measuring stick of every film in the franchise, the source of unfavorable comparisons in almost every regard.
Yet I have had a long and tortured relationship with it. Maybe it’s because in 1982, I was two years old, and that even when I saw the Star Trek films, I found The Motion Picture and The Search for Spock more memorable, The Voyage Home more famous (it did gross more). In fact, I don’t even remember the first time I saw it. You could say its reputation is my first memory, and that’s a long road to cross. I became more annoyed by all the insistence of its brilliance than anything. You could say for me, Wrath of Khan was like literature being taught by any teacher who cares more about their lecture plans than actually getting their point across. It spoils the class and a love for literature. For me, Wrath of Khan stood like an albatross in the annals of Star Trek lore.
So I kept at it. The first thing I noticed when I began my efforts was that Khan behaved more like a spoiled idiot than a genius, a survivor with a huge ego but nothing to back it up. I had never seen “Space Seed” (or it had likewise sank into the obscure regions of my memory), so I had nothing of the warm feelings to recall upon seeing this epic villain again. All I had was my impression of him. It wasn’t a fault of Montalban. No, he was suitably impressive. But there was no depth in the writing of his character. It was all broad strokes (which is what I still struggle with when I consider There Will Be Blood, the closest analogy to Wrath of Khan that I can think of), and none of it added up.
Yet the sacrifice his threat necessitates loses nothing from this. One way or another, Spock’s death is staged in appropriately iconic circumstances, the final moments with Kirk, saying goodbye, the utter poetic brilliance of it. My mother, who helped introduce me to Star Trek, having watched the original series when it aired the first time around, probably thinks only about this film as the one where Spock dies. She’s an emotional viewer, and this scene works, probably just as well if you’ve never seen Star Trek before. In that sense, Wrath of Khan clearly and easily earns a place in cinema history, franchise lore.
Yet clearly this is just rather grim icing on the cake for most fans, who revere everything about the film, as if it’s somehow become sacred material (as the thing that revived an unabashed interest in Star Trek, it probably is). How is that possible, I dare ask?
Khan’s obsession with vengeance, his blind need to hurt Kirk as Kirk hurt him, speaks far beyond the confines of the story. It’s a primal event, the kind a good story can always build around, amplify into something greater and more significant than it actually is. It’s not really about Khan at all, but as a figurehead, he’s unavoidable, and therefore entirely perfect.
The fact that Khan and Kirk never directly confront each other might as well be a subliminal message that this is essentially true, that Khan himself is not all that necessary, but rather what he brings about, a rallying point.
A far more significant character is introduced in the film, Saavik (Kirstie Alley), the first regular Vulcan addition to the franchise since Sarek, who serves almost to link the old and the new, as Star Trek had been attempting to do since everyone realized there was still a chance it could be salvaged. Like a new incarnation of Xon, she’s someone that could be adopted by this crew, a surrogate Spock, the next generation, a sign of fresh life that felt entirely welcome. While Saavik herself wouldn’t last much longer than two additional films (and be the first major character to be recast in franchise lore), she was a major if understated symbol of what Wrath of Khan accomplished.
Eventually I came to accept this film as the entertaining, engaging story it is. Though I will probably never consider it the standard-bearer of the movies, I can see how it might have seemed like it at the time. From a perspective that saw the franchise develop firsthand, it’s like the second coming of the original series, just when it seemed like that was no longer possible, even though Star Trek had finally staged its comeback. Without it, there might never have been another film, or another series; with it, everything else must necessarily be refracted through its lens, even if that vision might in time become distorted.
Perhaps that was a small price to pay. Wrath of Khan achieved the impossible. It pushed the franchise to the next level.