In the wake of Leonard Nimoy’s death two weeks ago, the Internet’s primary reaction has been posting his character’s funeral scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a film that will turn 33 in June. Ten Trek movies later, the film remains the franchise’s cinematic icon and a general cultural touchstone, with the latest J.J. Abrams reboots being longform and rather masturbatory references to the film. It was met with immediate success, but it’s worth looking at why the film has stayed so close to the public consciousness.
A film 20 years in the making
The whole thing started in 1964, when Gene Roddenberry put a pilot together that would spawn one of the most progressive television series of all time. The Cage was not well received, but producers commissioned a second pilot because they thought they’d like the series concept from a less high-minded script. Two years later, Roddenberry got his series, but its run was cut short. Star Trek’s fans were enthusiastic and numerous, but they apparently didn’t actually watch the show, as ratings lead NBC to try and cancel the series partway through season two. It was saved by a historic letter-writing campaign, but would only last one more year. It was the Firefly of the ’60s.
Despite its cancellation, the series’ popularity persisted, to the degree that one of the first space shuttles was called The Enterprise after another letter-writing campaign to President Ford. In 1975, Roddenberry began work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It wasn’t well received, but the sequel was a turning point that renewed the franchise.
Wrath of Khan had big action and a strong antagonist, which subsequent movies have tried to replicate, but also had something else that grounded it much more firmly in the original series, something that has been hit-or-miss in the 10 films since.
Everyone dances with the Grim Reaper
Star Trek was never about special effects — the first season averaged less than $200,000 budget per episode, with subsequent seasons costing less and less. What it was about was modern day life, as all good science fiction is. From dealing with addiction in This Side of Paradise to racism in Let This be Your Last Battlefield, big concepts abounded in the series, and that’s continued with sequel series, but not necessarily with movies. In the films’ haste to replicate Wrath of Khan, they left out the secret ingredient — those same big concepts that make the series so timeless.
On the surface, Wrath of Khan is a bottle story about an intense showdown between two classic characters. But what it’s really about is death. In the first act, Kirk (William Shatner) is seen proctoring the Kobayashi Maru, a test for Starfleet captain prospects in which they must maintain control of their crew in the face of certain death. Kirk faces his own version of this test in the form of Khan (Ricardo Montalbán), who has him dead to rights for most of act two. Over the course of the film, Kirk reveals that he did not pass the test — instead, he hacked the simulation to win the mission in a more traditional sense. It’s emphasized over and over again that this is a character who has never accepted that he is going to die.
Khan forces him to do so, first at face value then through the death of a dear friend. It puts him in a different situation than he’s ever been in and really deconstructs the character. In this film, Jim Kirk finally faces the consequences of being Jim Kirk, and he comes out an even more iconic character for it.
Impact on the next movies
Subsequent franchise films almost all seem to be trying to recreate the Wrath of Khan scenario to some degree, with a captain wrestling against a villain that has the upper hand, often with a main character dying. Or, you know, something bad happening to Data. The best movies follow it and also retain the thought provoking big ideas — think 1996’s First Contact, which shows a different, revenge-crazed side of Picard and forces the audience to really examine the character.
The recent, extremely popular Abrams reboots have taken this idea a step in the wrong direction, lifting plot elements from Wrath of Khan but not storytelling techniques. The reboot series revolves around a new love-hate relationship between Spock and Kirk, with McCoy relegated to a background character and Uhura moved forward for sexual tension. The Kobayashi Maru, whose first cannon appearance was in Khan, features prominently in the first movie, and Khan himself features prominently in the second. They even bring the weird mind control slugs back — on Nero’s mining ship, of all places. They fully jump the shark at the end of the second film with this nonsense.
Just like DC will never top The Dark Knight with movies that are trying to imitate it, no Star Trek film will ever top Wrath of Khan as long as it’s trying to remind people of it. Thirty years later, the mainstream memory of the entire franchise revolves around the film, and that doesn’t look like it’s about to change.