Star Trek has always had a reputation for tackling head-on issues that we all face that other entertainment franchises offer an escape from. I have my own pet theory as to why the second Star Trek feature film has withstood the test of time so well that it is still the benchmark by which all of the other films in the series are compared… In true head-on Trek fashion, it helps us deal with the one reality that even Hollywood cannot offer us an escape from the fact that we are all getting older and will eventually die.
So far, 2015 has been a terrible year for Star Trek’s artists who have brought us such joy. We have lost Leonard Nimoy, Harve Bennett, Grace Lee Whitney, Maurice Hurley, and James Horner. Three of the names I’ve just mentioned were directly involved in the creation of this film and helped make it the classic that it is, and my intention for this review is to remember them one by one.
We begin with the man who began this particular adventure and organised the team that would make the magic happen. That man was Harve Bennett. Bennett was brought on board by Paramount after critics had undeservedly underrated Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the studio reacted by “promoting” Roddenberry to an Executive Consultant position that would essentially get him out of the way of the second film’s development. One can understand Roddenberry’s resentment. After all, Star Trek was his kid, and after being divorced by the kid’s “mom”, Paramount, “step-dad” Bennett was brought in and was now being praised for bringing up the kid even better than its “real father” did. (Reconciliation would occur 5 years later, however, when Paramount approached Roddenberry to develop a new Star Trek show as series creator. The result would be Star Trek: The Next Generation, another beloved incarnation of the franchise. But that’s another story for another review.)
Bennett, however, was more than deserving of the praise he would eventually receive over this film. He and co-writer Jack B. Sowards would come up with several ideas that would make their way into the film, such as Kirk’s son, the return of Khan, the character of Saavik, and the Omega Device (later renamed Genesis). After no less than five attempts to come up with a satisfactory story for the film, however, Bennett was beginning to despair that he would not be able to come up with a good story himself nor find anyone who could. Being a humble man, Bennett searched high and low for someone who could bring his and Sowards’s ideas into a cohesive narrative. He caught a break when a friend of his recommended a man by the name of Nicholas Meyer.
Bennett became excited. He had seen and loved The Seven Per Cent Solution (for which Meyer had written the screenplay based on his own novel) and was quick to recruit the young and talented author/director. Bennett did exactly what a good leader should do; he hired the very best people possible and let them do great work. Meyer not only got all of Bennett and Sowards’s ideas woven into a great narrative (borrowing heavily from Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, and A Tale of Two Cities), but he did so in only twelve days and without any modifications to his contract that would get him a much-deserved writing credit.
Meyer was only the beginning of assembling the great team that would assemble this great film. In addition to all of the other Star Trek regular actors, Bennett would undergo a couple of major coups in the casting process. The first was the magnificent Ricardo Montalban to reprise what Bennett thought was the greatest villain in the original series. The second… our beloved Vulcan actor Leonard Nimoy, who after a falling out with Paramount and Roddenberry (over a Heineken billboard of all things), was frankly not interested in doing anything more with Star Trek. Bennett was able to entice him into coming back with something almost irresistible to Nimoy…a spectacular death for Spock.
Believing that the Star Trek franchise was running out of steam after the critical reaction to the first film, Nimoy responded to Bennett’s respect for him and thought that ending his tenure as this iconic character, and Star Trek in general, with a blaze of glory, was the way to go.
He agreed to appear in the film and gave it his all. Nimoy’s performance as Spock in this film provided William Shatner’s Kirk with the rock of calm and serenity that the latter character so desperately needed in this film and for which fans fondly remember the character for.
I’ve always found it interesting that this is a Spock that is more comfortable in his own skin than ever before, having acknowledged and finally accepted his human half in the previous film. Kirk’s character is going through the opposite dynamic of the previous film. In both cases, he is going through a mid-life crisis that only assuming command of the Enterprise again can resolve. However, where in the first film he pushes himself into the center seat at the expense of her rightful captain and then has to learn to let go and take responsibility, in this film he starts out as trying to let go and move on from starship command and his friends, Spock and McCoy, are both pushing him back into the center seat. Spock, now being the rightful captain in question, takes advantage of a possible crisis to evoke regulations and give Kirk no choice but to accept his first and best destiny.
The adventure that follows is exactly the swift, quick kick in the seat of the pants that so many of us who face mid-life crisis need. Khan, representing what we can easily become if we let those feelings of life passing us by getting to us- an embittered old man- tries to take out his frustrations on Kirk…in an extremely deadly way. Along the way, we see the son that Kirk never got to raise, Kirk screaming “KHAAANN!!” in a rage, and then finally expressing even deeper feelings when his voice isn’t much higher than a whisper.
“There’s a man out there I haven’t seen in fifteen years, who’s trying to kill me. You’ve shown me a son that would be happy to help him. My son. My life that could have been…but wasn’t. What am I feeling? Old…worn out.”
Kirk may be feeling old, but this moment in the film never gets old for me, because it speaks to us and reflects how we often feel… at any age.
The battle that follows is, of course, riveting and exciting, but more to the point is the way it ends, with Spock showing us his own solution to the “no-win” scenario, a metaphor for something we all feel as we face life. We learn that earlier in his life, Kirk got around the “no-win” scenario by cheating, or rather changing the conditions of the scenario. This time, he is not being given that option. Spock sacrifices himself for the ship and all of his friends and in doing so gives Kirk what he needs: the opportunity to change and grow further and actually ponder the meaning of his own words, “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” Kirk’s arc closes out with the words, “I feel young”; indicating that growth is exactly what he intends to do with the second half of his life.
After experiencing and acting out these strong character dynamics, Nimoy was starting to have second thoughts about leaving the franchise. Here was a film that offered the character banter that he was craving to play again but never expected that he would. And the film’s themes of death and rebirth had shown that this wasn’t the end of Star Trek at all. In fact…this was shaping up to be a new beginning.
So, Bennett made the wise decision to leave the door open for Spock’s possible return. In doing so, he ensured that the franchise’s future would indeed be a bright one. But where would all of this great drama and action be without the right musical score?
The right music can make all of the difference in how well a film plays with the audience. There was no denying that Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the first film was appropriately epic. Even that film’s harshest critics will admit that TMP at least had that (along with a great visual atmosphere) going for it. But with Goldsmith not available (or not affordable, given the minuscule budget of this film), who could possibly replace this vital component?
Director Meyer found the answer in a young composer named James Horner, who was working his way up from B-movie fare such as Battle Beyond the Stars. Although Horner’s new main title theme would take some getting used to at first, the score for the film was suitably triumphant when our heroes were in a good place and creepy and doom threatening when they were in a not-so-good place. Horner’s main title theme for the film, however, would withstand the test of time and become one of the most beloved in the franchise, and his work would only get better in the next film.
With all of these wonderful artists and team-players now gone (along with half of the film’s cast), the theme of how we face death being at least as important as how we face life becomes even more poignant than ever, even for those of us who were children when this film was released in 1982. Our favourite artists may be growing old and leaving us one by one, but that only means that we must step up to the plate and continue living for the sake of their memory and our future. Look at the generation of kids growing up around us, and realise that life will continue long after we are gone, and we must give them something to remember as Bennett, Nimoy, Horner, and all of their colleagues had given us.
On a scale of one to ten, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is undeniably a 10! It’s more than just a submarine-inspired riveting space adventure; it’s a story that will continue to resonate with us all through life.
» Video media: YouTube (Videos link directly to sources) Images: CBS/Paramount, “Special Thanks” to David Klawitter, (Featured Image and Poster Art are shown under exclusive rights granted by the artist)