Rated PG. Again, we're looking at pre-PG-13 era of film. I don't mind watching Star Trek movies in front of my kids for the most part. They're mostly pretty harmless. In fact, I'd consider them probably more harmless than Star Wars movies. But Star Trek II is actually kind of gross at times. There's the ear things with Chekhov. That thing gave me nightmares when I was a kid. Today, it looks a little goofy, but practical effects always get me. Also, Khan gets a little gory and a guy is burned alive. But again...PG.
DIRECTOR: Nicholas Meyer
I got the Star Trek movies on Blu-Ray for Christmas! Don't worry, I rewatched Star Trek: The Motion Picture before watching Star Trek II. I do have standards. But these Blu-Rays are amazing. I have owned the Star Trek movies in so many formats at this point that I actually held off on these for a while. I had to get them as a gift to justify it, but I'm so glad I got them. I got the "Stardate Collection", which comes in a rad box. This box is out of print, but I asked for this version because it looks fancy. Yup. You can judge me all day. I give you permission. But this also gives me an excuse to rewatch these movies that I've seen a billion times. I haven't watched them since I started dating my wife. That's a decade ago. It doesn't matter. I remembered every moment of The Wrath of Khan.
The Wrath of Khan is considered the pinnacle of Star Trek. It is the one that a lot of people have seen and it is great. But it isn't actually my favorite in the series. It's so weird watching The Wrath of Khan immediately after finishing The Motion Picture. They are such different animals that I almost don't consider one to be a sequel of the other. But I kind of want to take it a step further than that. I almost consider Star Trek II on to not really be an extension of the TV show. I know the canonical answer. Jim Kirk is Jim Kirk...shy of Kelvinverse extensions. This is an older version of the same guy we saw on the TV show. But it seems like everyone is a drastically different person from the people we saw in the Original Series. A lot of these choices have to be coming from the actors themselves. After all, they aren't kids anymore. As the actor ages, I suppose it's smart that the characters age as well. But I think a good chunk of this comes from the mind of Nicholas Meyer, whom I hold in high regard. There's a certain terribleness that Nicholas Meyer brought into the world in his shaping of Roddenberry's universe. The original Star Trek was so pure and wild that it was probably unsustainable. What Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan does for Star Trek is that it grounds the whole thing. We still watch stories of strange new worlds, but in a way that seems to be an extension of what we can possibly understand. Science fiction seems to reflect the culture of the present. Writing science fiction in the sixties is drastically different from writing science fiction in the eighties. It should be. Perhaps Roddenberry was just too pure for us, but Star Trek II is the militarization of Starfleet. I'm bummed by this, but it really works. Like, it REALLY works. Gene Roddenberry's dream was to show how evolved humanity had become, focusing on exploration for exploration's sake. But that also is kind of toxic for engaging storytelling. The characters on Star Trek: The Original Series were too perfect. Their moral compasses were too optimistic. Nicholas Meyer militarizing the whole thing makes consequences for actions. I mean, that's the premise of the entire movie. Captain Kirk, in his optimistic youth, simply assumed that everyone would be fine on Ceti Alpha V. While Khan is a psychopath and a great villain, he's right about Kirk's blind optimism.
Kirk had a duty of care. Assuming everything will be fine is kind of the attitude of the old show. I will defend the old show to the death. I really like it. But there are a ton of episodes where the episodic format could be criminally problematic. The Federation, despite the Prime Directive, overthrows governments and religions all in the name of being evolved. That's dangerous. There's a reason that change is slow. Things need to develop in their own ways, their own pace. People need to take ownership. I know that Khan is an exceptional individual, but guards are in prisons for a reason. I just did a whole podcast on this by accident. Not to spoil next week's episode, but our discussion of Star Trek: Discovery breaks down the environmental shift from the original series to Star Trek II. Oddly enough, I do clearly see Khan as the villain and Kirk as the hero in this movie. But if I'm thinking critically, Khan has reason to be angry. I don't know if he is driven to be revenge angry. I mean, his wife did die because of Kirk's choice. The way I understand it, the only ones who really survive are those who are genetically manipulated to survive. It's Khan's mania that makes him an interesting villain. He has motive to enact revenge on Kirk, but the other members of Khan's crew don't hold the same obsession. They have the Reliant and are pleased to move on with their lives. It has to be assumed that there are many years ahead of them. After all, I don't remember children on the Botany Bay. (It's been a while. I can't guarantee that they weren't on board.) I know that the revenge tail has been told too many times, but The Wrath of Khan kind of nails it perfectly. If you didn't have all of the Genesis stuff, this movie would be insanely simple. It would be a starship v. starship thing. It's odd, because the Genesis stuff doesn't interest me all that much. It kind of feels like Star Trek related padding. Rather, the insanity of Khan is what drives this story and I love it. Ricardo Montalban is suitably goofy. I don't know why I'm so forgiving of his performance. Maybe because it makes him a larger than life villain that makes up for not living up to some of his characteristics.
Khan, as great as he is, doesn't really live up to his reputation. Part of that comes from the fact that Kirk is a Mary Sue. The entire story actually is a commentary about how Kirk is a Mary Sue. Kirk literally beats the unbeatable scenario by cheating. Kirk, as a character, is a cheat, but a fun cheat. So we have this unstoppable force meeting this unmovable object. Khan is meant to be smarter, stronger, and faster than Kirk. The closest fallibility that Kirk has is that he's aging. It's weird how Kirk makes it through Star Trek: Generations and they address how old he is in Part II. But a lot of what we get is that Khan has a B+ plan to sneak up on Kirk, which works because it is a surprise. That's really the only impressive part. He does go to Regula I and slaughters everyone, but we never actually see that savage brilliance in action. As much as I love Star Trek II, it is an exercise in "tell, don't show." It's a bummer. I simply believe that Khan is a threat. He is equally matched with Kirk, not a force to be reckoned with. Part of that comes from his inexperience with space travel. But a lot of his plan is on the fly and that kind of excuses him.
I don't know about the Carol and David Marcus element of the story. Since this movie is about consequences, Kirk's reputation as a womanizer comes to him as an old man. He has a child that he never raised. The movie does a solid job of defending his character in this situation, which I find odd. I still kind of view Kirk as a creep for not raising his kid. But the movie firmly establishes that Carol Marcus wanted nothing to do with Kirk and insisted that he stay away. I don't love David. I'm spoiling the next movie, but we never really get to know David as a compelling character. Attaching David to an adult Kirk is an odd choice considering so much surrounds Kirk's obsession with aging. He has apparently carried this secret with him for decades and it is interesting that he's also dealing with his negligence of fatherhood. It seems tangentially related, but it seems like these are two different issues that he's addressing simultaneously. There's something there that really needs to be addressed and I don't know if I have my finger on it. It's mostly because David is a milksop. (I just decided to stop mincing words.) He's just so blah and Kirk is so interesting.
MORE SPOILERS: Considering the fate of Spock in this movie, I find it interesting that Spock is actually not the center of attention in this movie. I think of the first film. Spock is so front and center of the first film that it seems necessary to attach his big story to that one. The Wrath of Khan forever transforms the views on Spock. Spock has this major revelation at the end of this film and it is teased once or twice before hand. While "The needs of the many..." quote is interesting and a motif, it is hardly the center of the plot. Spock's decision at the end stresses his dual nature of both Vulcan and human. He logically knows that the ship and its crew are more important than his own fears. But he does what he does out of love. He's a captain at this point. He literally could order someone to their death, but he chooses not to. The speech at the end confirms Kirk's weirdly xenophobic comment about being the "most human" is confirmed in that speech. Honestly, Spock's death should have come as a surprise. You'd think that a movie that leads to Leonard Nimoy leaving the franchise (ha!) would focus more on Nimoy. I do like Spock's change between part 1 and 2. Spock is cold in The Motion Picture. He's still very Vulcan, but approachable so. I think that Nicholas Meyer has a very different view of the Vulcans than the rest of the series has offered. Kirstie Alley's Saavik curses, for goodness sake. It is interesting that the 2009 version of Star Trek has Spock inventing the Kobiyashi Maru. That now feels very retconned because Spock took the test at one point. He knows the independent scenarios. Regardless, I like Spock in this one, despite the fact that it isn't his show. I don't think I've ever seen such movie that ignores much of its ensemble.
Star Trek II is great. It really is. I might have a hard time selling it to non-sci-fi fans, but it has a lot of legs. It's a space battle with levels. (Pun intended). It's not the Kirk I know, but I like Jim Kirk in this and following movies. It has no exploration and almost isn't Star Trek. But if this is what defines the cinematic Star Trek, it is a really fun movie. It transplants what characters we have grown attached to and gives them a world where everything doesn't work as planned. That's a pretty worthy watch.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.