This past Saturday we went back in time with Star Trek and watched the entire saga of Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), starting with 1967’s “Space Seed” and wrapping up with 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
In “Space Seed”, Capt. James Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the Enterprise (with Sulu and Chekov conspicuously absent) come upon the ancient Earth ship Botany Bay floating in space. Upon boarding, they trigger a life support system that brings its human passengers out of suspended animation. Chief among them is Khan, hostile refugee from 1990’s Earth. The 1990’s are characterized by Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) as a time of great conflict, known as the Eugenics War, in which humankind tried to achieve racial purity by breeding genetically engineered supermen. These “supermen” went on to enslave the world and start wars amongst each other, but before they were over thrown, Khan and his cohorts escaped the planet.
Khan is of a militaristic mind and possesses a warrior spirit, and immediately starts plotting to steal the Enterprise. He enlists a romantically attracted Lt. Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue) to help him achieve these ends. In the end, he battles mano-e-mano against Capt. Kirk, who bests him despite his genetic superiority. Kirk and co., instead of sending Khan and his people to prison, offer them an entire planet to tame – Ceti Alpha V. The episode ends with Spock wondering aloud what they would find if they were to re-visit Ceti Alpha V in the future… “what fruit will have sprung from the seed you planted here today?”
That question must’ve leapt out at producer Harve Bennett when he was given the greenlight for a sequel to 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. One of the most expensive movies ever produced at the time, ST: TMP was a financial success but audiences complained at its highbrow sci-fi plotline. For the second movie, series creator (now consulting producer Gene Roddenberry) and producer Bennett desired to come up with something more adventurous and exciting. Bennett watched every episode of the original series in order to prepare, and found the ending of “Space Seed” to naturally lend itself to further exploration.
Fifteen years after “Space Seed”, the crew of the starship Reliant, including Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Capt. Tyrell (Paul Winfield) are seeking a planet on which to test the Genesis Device. The device in question has been cooked up by a team of scientists on the spacelab Regula One, headed by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) who we learn later was an old flame (a serious one, apparently) of James T. Kirk. Chekov and Tyrell beam down to the surface of Ceti Alpha VI and discover that it is actually Ceti Alpha V, and that Khan and the remainder of his cohorts are still alive and burning with a desire for revenge. Ceti Alpha VI exploded six months after they were marooned by Kirk, turning Ceti Alpha V into a desert planet. Khan’s wife, Lt. McGivers, was killed by an alien slug – a beastie with wormlike young that crawl into their victim’s ears, rendering them susceptible to suggestion. Khan deposits the creatures into Chekov and Tyrell in a squirm inducing scene, thus learning the secrets of the Genesis Device and the whereabouts of (now) Admiral Kirk.
Kirk is suffering through a midlife crisis. His new position has grounded him to desk work, yet he still longs to get behind the helm of a starship – even though he fears he may be past his prime as a captain. During an inspection cruise the Enterprise, now captained by Mr. Spock and manned by a crew of trainees, is ordered to investigate a loss of communication with Regula One.
This leads to one of the great confrontations in movie history as Kirk meets Khan, in the hijacked Reliant, once more. Fending off certain death only by possessing a technical detail that Khan does not know, Kirk retreats to the planet Regula to find Carol Marcus, and discovers his estranged son, David (Merritt Butrick), is with her. Meanwhile, above the planet, Reliant and Enterprise prepare to engage each other again – leading to a spectacular cat and mouse showdown inside the Mutara Nebula.
Spock's final sacrificed caused quite a stir at the time of release, for back in the early 80’s a series of sequels was not a guaranteed phenomena. In 1982, Spock’s death felt permanent. His death also contributes to the greater theme of the film – of facing death and one’s own mortality. The film starts with the trainee crew taking the no-win Kobyashi Maru simulator test, whose purpose is to remind cadets that how we deal with death illuminates our human condition as much as how we deal with life.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is put together like a Swiss watch. The camera placement, editing, the writing (courtesy screenwriter Jack B. Sowards) and the direction, by Nicholas Meyer are impeccable. I would also argue that this movie features the best performance William Shatner has ever given. And let’s not forget Ricardo Montalban, who at the time was starring in the television series Fantasy Island, who clearly knew that he had been offered a great part here and plays it with venomous relish.
Director Meyer previously helmed Time After Time, a fanciful thriller that has H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) following Jack the Ripper (David Warner) from 1880’s London to modern day San Fransisco via his time machine. He later went on to write and direct the final “original series” Star Trek movie, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The “Kobyashi Maru test” is referenced in the movie Dog Soldiers as a no-win scenario… but it was the name of a ship in both The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart and the American remake of Godzilla.