Guest Review: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”

Star Trek, both the TV series and the series of movies, had its share of nasty villains. Everyone probably has their favorite. Although some may take the side of Lord Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, or the renegade Klingon General Chang (Christopher Plummer) in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, or possibly even the unrelenting space probe from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, my own vote is for Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh, the adversary of Kirk and crew in The Original Series episode “Space Seed” and his return in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Although, a close second is Chang.)

Coincidentally, both The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country were directed by the same man, Nicholas Meyer.On most lists ranking the Star Trek oeuvre, these two are in the top 5, variously in different positions, depending on the ranker, but still. (BTW, my personal list has them at 1 and 2) I think it is a tribute to the director as much as the cast that these two are so highly revered. And, an interesting point, Meyer had never seen even one episode of the TV series before being tagged to direct.

You read that right. Meyer was not a complete neophyte to the science fiction realm (he had directed Time After Time just a couple of years before), but he had no previous connection of any type with the Star Trek universe before accepting the role at the helm of the second Star Trek movie. Which makes at least his success with his first Star Trek venture all that more impressive in my mind. And to elicit a performance by Ricardo Montalban as one of the most despicable villains in movie history is equally impressive.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

If you have never seen the Star Trek episode “Space Seed”, which introduced the world to Khan Noonien Singh, it might be interesting to watch it first, but it is by no means necessary. I admit that before I saw this movie, I myself had never watched the classic episode. There is enough in the feature movie to give you an indication of the background of the enmity that Khan holds towards Captain Kirk, however, so it’s not necessary to watch the TV episode.

The beginning of the film introduces us to the “Kobiyashi Maru” scenario, a classic “no-win” scenario designed to test the abilities of potential captains of starships. The training mission in this instance is being used to evaluates Saavik (Kirstie Alley), a Vulcan candidate for the position. The scenario, which involves a Federation starship, the “Kobiyashi Maru”, supposedly stranded in the Neutral Zone and under attack by Klingons, tests the character and resolve of potential candidates. (Note: At this point in the history of the Star Trek universe timeline, the Federation and Klingons are still warring enemies, unlike later years when they became allies).

In the meantime, on a mission for Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and her scientist crew, Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) and the Captain of the USS Reliant, Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) are trying to find a planet completely devoid of life. In this mission they are investigating Ceti Alpha VI, which shows to be lifeless, but has an indication there might be some living matter on the surface. It turns out the planet is inhabited by the refugees from the Botany Bay, a starship from the 20th century which had been discovered floating in space 15 years earlier.

The starship was occupied by a race of genetically enhanced supermen who had tried to take over the Enterprise but had been defeated and sent into exile on an nearby planet, Ceti Alpha V. In the 15 years since their marooning the neighboring planet Ceti Alpha VI had exploded and altered the orbit of Ceti Alpha V, rendering it a wasteland. At this point, if you are a nitpicker like me, you may wonder just how thorough the Federations star charts are if they can’t detect the change in the orbits of the planets they are mapping, but then if they could do that, this movie would have been very different indeed…

Side note: When Khan comes upon Chekov and Terrell in his home/cargo hold, he claims he never forgets a face and recognizes Chekov. But Chekov (Walter Koenig) was not shown on the Original SEries episode “Space Seed”. In fact Chekov did not even appear in one episode of the first season. The character Chekov was only added as an afterthought because of criticism from Russia that a crew that was supposedly a model for world peace on Earth didn’t have a Russian crew member.

Khan (Ricardo Montalban), and his outcasts end up capturing Chekov and Terrell and taking over the Reliant, essentially marooning the real crew on the outcast planet in the process. Khan’s obsession with revenge on Kirk is paralleled to Ahab’s obsession with finding and destroying Moby Dick. And just so you don’t miss the significance, the director of the movie placed copies of Moby Dick and Milton’s Paradise Lost on the bookshelves of Khan’s living quarters on the planet.

As a part of the plot, Dr Marcus and her crew are involved in finding a planet on which they can use an invention called the “Genesis Project” which will convert a lifeless planet into one that is hospitable. This would, as established in the movie, turn an already inhabited planet into a new planet, in the process destroying the life already existing on the planet. You can see the possibilities if an unscrupulous person gets the Genesis project and uses it as a weapon…which is exactly what happens.

Khan and his cohorts use Carol Marcus to entice the crew and Admiral Kirk to the space station. When Kirk and crew arrive, the space station is virtually deserted. There are a couple of dead bodies, but the rest are nowhere to be found. It turns out that the deceased ones remained behind to help ensure the escape of the prominent scientists to the interior of the dead planet nearby. Of course, the interior is part of the phase of research to develop the Genesis project. But when Kirk and McCoy and Saavik beam down to the planet, two things happen. First it appears they may be stranded for some time, because Khan and his comrades on the Reliant disabled the Enterprise. Second, Khan now has possession of the Genesis.

But, it turns out, Kirk has a few tricks up his sleeve. He fooled Khan into believing the Enterprise was in worse condition than it was. And he also taunts Khan and his “superior intellect”, thus causing Khan, who has been more than amply shown to be as obsessive about Kirk as Ahab was about Moby Dick, to give chase after the Enterprise. An epic battle ensues.

And of course, Khan, even in his ultimate defeat is still determined to kill Kirk, even as he himself is dying. And since the Enterprise is only slightly less crippled than Kirk has led Khan to believe, Khan just might succeed in taking Kirk and the Enterprise with him. Unless Spock has something to say about it…

Montalban, as Khan, makes Captain Ahab from the Moby Dick story look positively like the paragon of mental stability. His obsession with revenge on Kirk, which in reality he brought upon himself (although he’d never admit it) is another link in the chain of great villainy. (I once based an RPG character I played on Khan, and I must say, I think I did a pretty good job of it, but without Montalban’s inspiring performance, I doubt I could have pulled it off. I’m just not that evil in real life…)

One final note: Star Trek Into Darkness reinvented Khan through the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch (of Sherlock and Doctor Strange fame). Having seen both, I admit a prejudice for Montalban. Cumberbatch was good, but I had 25 years to grow to love Montalban’s Khan before Cumberbatch appeared on the scene.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films. This post originally ran last summer and is being reprinted as part of our ongoing tenth anniversary celebrations.