Twenty-five years ago today, William Shatner spewed Admiral James T. Kirk’s frustration and rage against his gloating nemesis Khan across the cold lengths of an uncaring universe in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”.
And pop culture (especially SF) hasn’t been the same since. How many times has that shout been lampooned over the years? How many times have we, as science fiction fans, borrowed that bellow to vent our own frustration and rage on a cold and uncaring universe? Or better still, how many times have we used that yell as the basis for comparison of all other impassioned verbal explosions? I know Kirk’s outburst was the measuring stick I used against Darth Vader’s feeble “Nooooooo!” at the end of “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”. James Earl Jones could’ve taken a few lessons from Shatner on that one. Probably the only time in the history of the universe that anyone would say that James Earl Jones could take a lesson from William Shatner, but there it is.
All kidding aside, overall, TWOK was a great movie for a number of reasons.
Sure there’s the infamous gossip around Shatner’s scene-stealing antics and overacting, and sure, we as an audience have to wonder why it’s always the Enterprise that’s the only Starfleet vessel close enough to deal with any given emergency, but this film had a lot going for it.
Let’s start with what were great special effects for it’s day. Say what you will about modern special effects advances with photo-real computer animation, some of those old model-based films had a look and texture that was real enough, if only for the moment, to move the story along. The initial space battle where Khan’s Reliant surprise attacks Enterprise still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
The cinematography was truly masterful when it came to underscoring the punch of certain plot points too. One of the best-shot scenes in a prolonged action sequence in western cinema had to be when Spock hacked Reliant’s main computer, ordering it to lower its shields; panic hits Khan and his crew; as Khan orders his minions to raise the shields the camera does a quick pan across the control panel to highlight the confusion of the supermen when dealing with an unexpected emergency with unfamiliar equipment, before cutting back to Khan before Kirk orders Enterprise to start blazing away. It would have been adequate to simply go with a close-up of Ricardo Montalban and rely on his acting to show us panic. It was brilliant to actually show us his point of view and the impossibility of figuring out how to work the controls amidst the surprise.
TWOK had a strong, focused plot too, with subplots that complemented each other. (Something that can’t be said for all Trek films) It presented themes of revenge, obsession, coming to terms with unexpected family, coming to terms with midlife crisis and self-worth, the implications of enormous power. There was an obvious, strong "Moby Dick" metaphor at work (Melville being one of the holy trinity for Star Trek – in addition to Twain and Shakespeare) and there were allusions to Dickens among others.
And the writers forced us an audience to deal with something quite rare for heroic action movies – especially installments in serials – the death of a major character. A Red Shirt here and there, that’s to be expected. Killing off a secondary character? That helps move the plot along. But killing Spock, a primary character and audience favourite, was a gutsy move that took TWOK a bit beyond the typical summer popcorn fare it would have been otherwise. It was an emotional punch that forced the audience to grow up a bit, and James T. Kirk to grow up a lot. Sure, in the words of Monty Python’s “The Holy Grail” Spock “got better”, but at the time this death was a serious event that was handled deftly and with thought by the writing team.
Ultimately, it’s this maturity to the plot that allows it to stand the test of time. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve watched “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, but these days it tends to be about once a year, and I still enjoy it. The same can’t be said of other installments in the franchise.