Star Trek, eh? While I’ve never been what you might call a devoted fan, I do have some affection for the original TV show. The series staples – William Shatner’s orotund pronouncements on the nature of man, the constantly recycled plots about God-like yet childishly irresponsible beings, the blithe, “we know what’s best” human intervention in alien affairs – it’s all cheerful enough nonsense. The considerably more po-faced Next Generation, with its insipid characters spouting pseudo-scientific gobbledygook while forming “meaningful” relationships with each other, is where I beam myself away to more interesting horizons. As for the films, well they’ve always been pretty much hit and miss, with rather more ticks in the “miss” column than in the “hit” column. The Wrath of Khan is the one film where they struck upon just the right formula. The pretensions to “serious” science fiction in Star Trek: The Motion Picture were ditched in favour of a rollicking space action yarn. And let’s face it – that’s the way it should be. As much as I love 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek is not really a suitable franchise to try and re-capture the atmosphere of Kubrick’s magnum opus. If you’re going to have ray guns, warp drives and pointy eared aliens spouting catch phrases, then you belong firmly in the space opera camp.
“Camp” being the operative word, since Star Trek has always been a little well… fruity. Apart from the militantly heterosexual Captain Kirk, most of the other characters appear to swing for both teams at the very least. The constant bickering between McCoy and Spock smacks of unresolved sexual tension. Spock’s emotional blockage is in fact repressed homoerotic longing. Whenever a character cries “Beam me up!” what he really means is, “Take me up the wrong’un, Scotty!” The entire crew of the Starship Enterprise is really a sort of gay navy, exploring the frontiers of outer space (read: exploring the frontier between hetero and homo sexual mores). No wonder Captain Kirk, the lone swordsman on deck, would seek solace in steamy liaisons with green-skinned alien babes.
Ahem… But we were talking about the movie. After the disappointing box office receipts for the bloated Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount Pictures went with a drastically reduced budget for the sequel. But it’s a definite case of less equals more in this instance, since all extraneous fat has been trimmed to produce a lean, taut tightrope walk of a movie. The staid contemplation of The Motion Picture – in which it often feels like you’re staring out of a starship window and into space for an interminable length of time – is replaced by a fast paced adventure story with plenty of conflict, more closely aligned with the brash, pioneering character of the original series. James Horner’s musical score sounds like it’s been heavily influenced by John William’s work on Star Wars and Superman two or three years earlier, helping to capture that Saturday matinee, spirit of high adventure feel.
One of the reasons Star Trek II works is because it has a great villain, played with lip-smacking relish by Ricardo Montalban. Now Montalban is an undeniably cool guy. Even being saddled with an over-excitable French midget for a sidekick in Fantasy Island could not detract from his savoir-faire. Star Trek’s costume designers, no doubt bitterly envious over Montalban’s natural élan, have done their level best to cripple his style, giving him an outfit that was apparently designed to showcase his bulbous man-boobs. Somehow, this fails to detract from the Montalban aura. You’ve got to hand it to the guy. He even looked cool shilling “Nativity Jewellery” – made with stones “taken from the actual birthplace of Jesus Christ” – on those late night TV infomercials back in the 90’s.
The movie does a great job of establishing Khan’s rabid hatred of Captain Kirk, so even if you haven’t seen the TV episode in which the rivals first hook up, you’ll catch up on current events pretty quick. The big literary allusion here is to Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, with Khan’s fanatic obsession with Kirk driving himself and his crew perilously close to self destruction. All trimmings aside, Star Trek II essentially boils down to an elaborate duel of wits and wills between Khan and Kirk, with Khan’s genetically enhanced physical and mental faculties a deadly match for Kirk’s improvisational flair. It’s the classic Germany vs. Holland ’74 World Cup final if you like, only with a different winner emerging at the end of it.
Eddie Murphy once remarked that “Captain Kirk has got to be the coolest white man on the planet” – and while that might not be strictly true – you’ve got to admit that the guy has a certain charisma. Shatner’s acting was always on the hammy side, but Star Trek wouldn’t be Star Trek without at least a couple of instances of scenery chewing from His Kirkage of Jamestown. In The Wrath of Khan, the great man’s moment arrives about two thirds into the running time, when, taken to the uttermost by his rival’s evil machinations, Kirk grimaces to the heavens, strangles his vocal chords and screams “Khhhhaaaaaannnnnn!!!” It’s almost as good as when Shatner narrates the Byrd’s Mr. Tambourine Man on his astonishing debut album release, The Transformed Man.
Even accepting Star Trek’s quintessentially low rent nature, there’s still at least one scene in The Wrath of Khan that transcends all pulpy sci-fi origins to arrive at a category of near-greatness. When Chekov and Captain Terrell arrive to explore the desolate, seemingly uninhabited planet of Ceti Alpha VI, a palpable atmosphere of encroaching menace is established. They are set upon by Khan and his rag tag band of followers – marooned on the planet by Kirk 15 years earlier – in a surprisingly startling sequence. But it’s the sheer nastiness of Khan’s subsequent actions – implanting vile indigenous creepy crawlies into the ears of the hapless Star Fleet officers – that sets the scene apart. It’s a genuinely ghastly moment that could’ve graced any first rate horror movie. Everything, from Khan’s account of his wife’s horrible fate, to his plucking of the baby creatures out from under the carapace of the fully grown adult with a pair of tweezers, is calculated for maximum effect. The camera leers unflinchingly as the foul slugs inch their way up inside the space helmets and into the ears of their victims. It’s almost on a par with the chest-bursting scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
But perhaps what is most pleasantly surprising about The Wrath of Khan is that – opposed to almost any other space action film one could think of – the story is driven by character motivation rather than special effects set pieces. You actually get a sense of purpose underlying the space battles and chase sequences. The action occurs because of the story, rather than the story becoming a flimsy excuse to put some action up on the screen. Hence, the action sequences carry weight and consequence. You can buy into the Kirk / Khan rivalry. It works. In some sense Khan’s actions are even justified. Hey, wouldn’t you be pissed after being marooned on a desolate planet inhabited only by vicious, mind melting slugs for 15 years? It’s for these reasons that The Wrath of Khan still holds up so well after all this time amid the endlessly crappy parade of Star Trek sequels and spin-offs. It’s why the movie still makes for satisfying and entertaining viewing, even for those of us who wouldn’t know a Romulan from a Robin Reliant.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – 8/10