I recently watched all six of the Star Trek films featuring the original cast. That experience confirmed what I had long suspected: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan may be the best sequel to follow a mediocre first film. To be fair, Star Trek: The Motion Picture wasn’t as bad as I remembered—but it’s a lumbering journey to “where no man has gone before.” There’s too much stately footage of the starship Enterprise and the new characters (weakly played by Stephen Collins and Indian actress Persis Khambata) lack interest. Despite critical drubbing and much Trekkie criticism, the film was a box office smash and so Paramount gave the green light for a sequel.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was ousted from the project and the reins were handed over to producer Harve Bennett. A non-Trekkie, Bennett watched every episode of the TV series and determined that the first film lacked two ingredients: (1) a dynamic villain and (2) an emphasis on the on the “triangle” of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy.
The Wrath of Khan resurrects one of the series’ most memorable bad guys, the supergenius Khan (Ricardo Montalban), who attempted to take over the Enterprise in the TV episode “Space Seed.” After being thwarted by Kirk and crew, Khan and his followers were marooned on an unpopulated planet and given the opportunity to start again. Alas, in The Wrath of Khan, we learn that the destruction of a neighboring planet has turned Khan’s world in a deadly desert and that Khan’s wife has perished as a result. When a starship on a scientific mission inadvertently provides Khan with a means to escape, the mad man seeks his vengeance on Kirk.
The coincidental aspects of the story are a bit hard to swallow, but co-writer/director Nicholas Meyer zips the plot along so speedily that one has little time to notice. I really like how he crosscuts from Kirk to Khan to the Genesis team as they all converge on the same location.
The Kirk-Spock friendship forms the heart of the film (McCoy is used primarily for comic relief). Their closing scene together is the best in all Trek films and also provides the most memorable line of dialogue: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one.”
With its back-to-basics approach, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan laid the groundwork for the rest of the Trek films and pretty much saved the Star Trek franchise. It also forms a trilogy with the Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (their plots are connected, whereas the last two films are stand-alone adventures).
In addition to Wrath of Khan, writer-director Nicholas Meyer was also involved in the next two best series entries in the series: The Voyage Home (an amusing time travel adventure) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (an effective mix of politics, sci fi, and mystery). Meyer, whose filmography is surprisingly short, also directed another time travel tale: the classic Time After Time.