Star Trek: The Motion Picture‘s spiralling production costs and lukewarm reviews must have left a cold feeling in pit of the Paramount brass’ collective stomachs. Fortunately the box office returns were good enough to justify at least thinking about a sequel. If nothing else, it would help amortize the production costs of the first film across more than one movie.
To keep costs in check, they assigned the film to their television production division. To direct, they hired Nicholas Meyer, whose only other directorial credit to date was the well-received thriller, Time After Time. Both decisions proved fortuitous. Literate, focused and not awed by the Star Trek legacy, Meyer proved to be just the hand to keep the film on course.
The other brilliant strategy was to mine the original series for possible story lines. The open ending of the episode “Space Seed” intrigued writer/producer Harve Bennett. Ricardo Montalban‘s Khan remains the gold standard by which all other Star Trek heavies are measured.
The story finds Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) on the verge of retirement, leading a training cruise with a young, untested crew. Meanwhile, his former navigator, Chekhov (Walter Koenig), is second-in-command of the ship leading the search for a test site for the Genesis Project, an “instant terraforming” machine with potential to be perverted into a weapon of mass destruction. Chekov and his captain (Paul Winfield) stumble upon some of the people Kirk has managed to piss off over the years, genetic superman Khan Noonian Singh (Montalban) and his fanatical followers. Khan’s people seize their ship and he uses it to pursue two targets: revenge against Kirk and the Genesis project. After ambushing Kirk, he takes off after the space station that houses the Genesis laboratory.
That puts the scientists who developed Genesis in the crosshairs, including Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), the team leader and an old flame of Kirk’s, and their son, David (Merritt Butrick), who doesn’t trust Starfleet or Kirk.
Unlike the sedentary first film, dubbed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture by some, The Wrath of Kahn charges forward at a breakneck pace. For all of its action, however, Nicholas Meyer is able to allow many of the characters the kind of human moments that separates this kind of thoughtful science fiction from the brainless action fare that is often regurgitated by Hollywood. More impressive, Meyer is also able to extract a reasonably subtle and nuanced performance from William Shatner. According to the commentary on the most recent DVD, he did this by shooting take after take until Shatner was just too tired to overact.
In the end, Star Trek II is a film about mortality, age and making the best use of our lives. It remains the best film to use the Star Trek mythos by a wide margin.