Kirk, as he turns 50 with a desk job at Starfleet HQ, is feeling old and obsolete. But an inspection cruise on the Enterprise — with a training crew under Captain Spock’s command — is just the trick to break up the monotony. Meanwhile, Chekov is first officer of the U.S.S. Reliant, a ship working to find a planetoid with no life to test the experimental Genesis Device. Designed by one of Jimbo’s old flames, Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and Jimbo’s estranged son, David (Merritt Butrick) the device would create “life from lifelessness” on (ideally) a lifeless planetary body. Chekov and Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) beam down to investigate some anomalous readings on Ceti Alpha VI, a candidate for the experiment, and run into our old buddy Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) and what’s left of his crazy group of 20th-century genetic superpeople who love to play checkers, apparently. Turns out Chekov and Terrell really beamed down to Ceti Alpha V (d’oh!) where Kirk marooned Khan 15 years earlier (in “Space Seed“), and Ceti Alpha VI, unfortunately, had exploded a while back (double d’oh!), rendering Khan’s Ceti Alpha V a barren wasteland. Khan puts creatures into Chekov and Terrell’s ears to make them more susceptible to suggestion (I would have tried vodka with Chekov, but whatevs) and heads to Space Lab Regula 1, where the the Marcuses are building the Genesis Device. After failing to find Genesis at the station, Khan uses the Reliant to severely cripple the Enterprise, which was drawn there when Carol contacted Kirk for help. Kirk, Bones and sexy Vulcan Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley) beam to the space station and find Chekov and Terrell, and then beam to a nearby planetoid and find the Marcuses and the Genesis Device. But Chekov and Terrell are still under Khan’s control, and Khan captures the Genesis Device. After fooling Khan into thinking the Enterprise left the landing party behind, Kirk draws the Reliant into a nearby nebula and beats Khan in an epic battle. With nothing left to lose, Khan sets Genesis to detonate, knowing the Enterprise can’t escape its blast on impulse. In the final moments, Spock sacrifices himself — after mind-melding with an unconscious McCoy — and fixes the Enterprise’s warp drive, allowing the ship to escape. In a heartfelt scene near the end of the film, Kirk and Co. put Spock’s body in a torpedo tube and fire it toward the newly created Genesis Planet (created by the explosion) never to be seen again …
Why it’s important
Well, where to begin?
“The Wrath of Khan” is not only the best of the Trek movies — it’s the most consequential. “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” centers around Kirk’s renegade actions to return to the Genesis Planet to recover Spock’s body and bring it to Vulcan. His body, reborn by the Genesis effect, is reunited late in the film with his “katra,” which he left in McCoy during the aforementioned mind-meld. “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”, centers around Kirk and Co. returning to Earth to face the music — until they are forced to travel back in time to 20th-century Earth to recover two humpback whales to save the planet from an alien probe in the 23rd century. The success of that mission sends a demoted Kirk and Co. to the Enterprise-A, which replaced the original Enterprise that was destroyed in “The Search for Spock”. It’s on the new ship that the final two TOS movies take place. More on the dominoes when we review the next few films.
In a more real-world sense, “Wrath of Khan” proved that Trek movies could be critically acclaimed, whereas “The Motion Picture” proved that they could make money.
What doesn’t hold up
“The Wrath of Khan” is a very good movie, but it does have its share of flaws. The biggest is the essential “redo” from “The Motion Picture”. Kirk retaking the Enterprise due to a threat where the untested ship/crew is the only one in range is a rather annoying trope that also appeared in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” and “Star Trek: Generations”. But it’s especially pronounced in this movie, because one could watch it and not really even know that the events of “The Motion Picture” happened. It’s quite odd, really. As noted in our previous review, “The Motion Picture” stands out as the quasi-estranged uncle of the film franchise.
There also are a lot of issues with the story’s logic. How did the Reliant not, you know, notice that the Ceti Alpha system consisted of one fewer planet than it had 15 years earlier? Wouldn’t Chekov have been on higher alert being in the system in the first place? “Keptin, ve should awoid Ceti Alpha V … ”
There’s also the issue of Khan’s followers — aside from the one dude (Judson Scott) who talks ALL the time — acting essentially as extras. Would a group of genetic supermen/superwomen have nothing to say to their leader, whose actions are borderline insane? The same thing sort of happened in “Space Seed,” but that made more sense because the other genetic superpeople weren’t awake for much of the episode (and Khan’s actions weren’t nearly as crazy). In this film, Khan is more of a cult leader than a leader of presumably equal genetically engineered humans. Interestingly, we see this again in “Star Trek: Enterprise” when another group of genetically engineered superhumans pops up. Maybe it has something to do with a built-in hierarchy when it comes to the way the superhumans were created?
Lastly, it appears that only Spock, Saavik and Scotty are full-time crewmembers on the Enterprise as this movie begins, as McCoy, Sulu and Uhura seem to be on board because of the inspection (they arrive with Kirk). So, what, exactly are they doing with their lives/careers? And why did they participate in the initial Kobayashi Maru test for Saavik at the beginning of the film — other than to try to trick us, the audience, into thinking it was real?
OK, OK. I know I’m being pretty hard on what is a very good movie. The acting here is better than in any other Trek film and the plot (as intricate as it is —can you tell writing the summary was a bear?) works extraordinarily well.
What people remember most from “Wrath of Khan” is Spock’s death scene, which was just perfectly handled by Shatner and Nimoy. Montalban brought his A-game as well, and the scenes with Kirk and the Marcuses are really quite effective. Plus, the film has one of Trek’s most original sci-fi concepts in the Genesis Device, which is sort of a linchpin for the film.
Coming next week …
Klingon bastards … you play prominently into our next review. Klingon bastards …