How 'The Wrath of Khan' changed Star Trek forever

·Contributor
·6 min read
American actors DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy and Canadian William Shatner on the set of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, directed by Nicholas Meyer. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. (Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Forty years ago, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released and became an instant classic among the science fiction franchise’s fanbase.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of The USS Enterprise faced off against Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a man driven mad with the need for vengeance who commandeers the starship Reliant in order to kill Kirk.

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A breathtaking movie decades on, we look into why the second movie in the franchise — returning to UK cinemas this weekend — changed Star Trek forever.

'To the last, I grapple with thee…'

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 4: From left: Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh and Judson Scott as Joachim in the movie,
Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (CBS via Getty Images)

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a very clear inspiration for the story, both literally through quotes and in Khan’s parallels with Captain Ahab. Director Nicholas Meyer also wove naval elements into the visuals of the movie, something that hadn’t been done as directly before.

From the uniform redesign, to the climactic battle which is ship vs ship rather than the two men facing off. Kirk and Khan never meet face to face in the movie — the bridges of the Enterprise and the Reliant (Khan’s commandeered ship) were the same set redressed — with Shatner and Montalban shooting their scenes months apart. What was a cost-cutting measure actually adds to the naval feel, with two captains cursing each other from across the expanse.

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 16: Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh (a genetically engineered human from the 20th century) and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode,
Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, Space Seed. (CBS via Getty Images)

Montalban made Khan one of the most memorable villains in the franchise’s history. A returning character from the series (1967 episode Space Seed), he blames Kirk for personal tragedy and views Kirk’s heroics from a skewed perspective.

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He is undoubtedly the driving force of the film and, given the first film Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) lacked any clear antagonist, set a trend for the Enterprise to face off against a singular nemesis.

'I have been, and always shall be, your friend'

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 4: From left: William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock in the movie,
William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (CBS via Getty Images)

Aside from the title character, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) plays an integral part in the story. Always at Kirk’s side throughout the series, their friendship had never been explored as thoroughly as it had in this film.

Early in the film, Spock gives a typically frank assessment of Kirk’s malaise, finding the life away from a starship unfulfilling.

However, he follows this up with reassurance: “you are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours”. One of the film’s themes is growing older, offering a chance to examine these two characters that were synonymous with each other.

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 4: William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock in the movie,
William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (CBS via Getty Images)

Nimoy would echo the above quote in the finale, as Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise crew. In a scene of heart-breaking intimacy, he says goodbye to Kirk separated by glass.

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Spock’s death was included because Nimoy was reluctant to return, and would only do so if it were to say goodbye. Ironically, the scene was so effective that popular demand convinced him to come back in 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

'I don’t like to lose'

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 4: From left: Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock, Merritt Butrick as Dr. David Marcus and William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk in the movie,
Leonard Nimoy as Captain Spock, Merritt Butrick as Dr. David Marcus and William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk. (CBS via Getty Images)

This focus on others also gave Admiral Kirk his strongest arc yet. In the series, he seemed infallible, a heroic captain who always knew what to do. Here, entering his fifties, the youthful explorer became a man grappling with his past.

It’s a look at the mindset of a man who, to his own admission, doesn’t like to lose (symbolised at the beginning by the Kobayashi Maru simulation, an unwinnable test for Starfleet recruits that Kirk recalls cheating on in order to win).

The film then introduces this unbeatable hero to circumstances in which he has no recourse. He meets David (Merritt Butrick), the son he never knew he had, who despises him for who he is. “My life that could have been… and wasn’t” Kirk laments.

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 4: Merritt Butrick as Dr. David Marcus and William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk in the movie,
Merritt Butrick as Dr. David Marcus and William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk. (CBS via Getty Images)

“How do I feel? Old. Worn out.” It’s a striking moment for a man who had seemed immortal for so many years. His impulsiveness and daring had come at the cost of those closest to him. With Spock’s death, this film became Kirk’s personal Kobayashi Maru.

A wonderful performance from Shatner would inspire many other films to look at the personal regrets of captains. Kirk’s prejudices were portrayed in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), while his successor Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) would face familial regret in 1994's Star Trek: Generations and past trauma in 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact.

The Wrath of Khan was one of the first Star Trek stories to add depth and humanity to the spectacle.

Where no-one has gone before…

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 4: From left: Walter Koenig as Commander Pavel Chekov, James Doohan as Commander Montgomery
The crew of the Enterprise bid farewell to Spock in The Wrath of Khan. (CBS via Getty Images)

While less financially successful than its predecessor, The Wrath of Khan is far more influential. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is remembered as a muddled affair that hasn’t lasted the test of time. The Wrath of Khan, by contrast, was a fast paced, swashbuckling adventure that set the bar for Starfleet movies.

It could be argued that elements of Khan’s plot have been echoed in films ever since, particularly deaths of beloved characters (Kirk in 1996’s Generations, Data in 2001’s Nemesis, and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness was practically a Wrath of Khan remake).

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Numerous fan surveys and critical polls consistently place it as the best Star Trek film ever made, and four decades on audiences still flock to cinemas to prove that point.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan returns to UK cinemas from 2 September, and is available to stream on Paramount+. Watch a new trailer below.