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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

[This review includes big honking spoilers.]

Spock: "I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?"

The Wrath of Khan is a favorite of many fans, and it deserves to be. It is exactly what a big Star Trek movie should have been, and finally was.

Why is this movie so good? Bunches of reasons. Like an exciting story that had personal significance to the main characters, terrific writing, an outstanding villain, and the intensely moving death of the most beloved character in the series. I can't get through this movie without crying, and I've seen it a dozen times.

Birthdays, old age, death and loss, passing the torch to the next generation, it was courageous of the franchise to make these things the center of the movie, instead of ignoring the fact that it was fifteen years after the series and the cast was getting older. The Wrath of Khan is beautifully bookended by the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario at the beginning, basically the arrogance of youth believing that they will never die, and a no-win real life situation at the end for Kirk when he loses Spock, his closest friend, the other half of himself.

When you watch the movie knowing the ending, you can see Spock's death coming. There are so many references to dying. The first thing Kirk says to Spock is, "Aren't you dead?" And we can see on Spock's face the moment he realizes what must happen in order to save the ship. He just gets up and goes to his death without a word to anyone, a very Spock-like thing to do. He even has to trick McCoy in order to carry out his plan, which for me, makes it even harder to take. The way he stands and straightens his uniform, those final moments where he and Kirk are separated by glass, it always gets to me. It was an exceptional death for an exceptional character. I can remember when I first saw it, I was absolutely devastated. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were at their best in that scene.

And yet, there is the obvious hint that it's not over for Spock. There was the way he touched the unconscious McCoy's face and said, "Remember," a deliberate call-back to "Requiem for Methuselah." The pod containing his body was lying on the grass of a vibrant new world that hadn't existed an hour before. They just couldn't bear to write Spock out completely, could they? (Not that I'm criticizing. I couldn't, either.)

As Kirk faced aging and death, pretty much for the first time, there was the complementary plot of passing the torch to the next generation. It was believable that Kirk would have had a child somewhere along the line, and it delighted me that his ex-amour was the most brilliant scientist in the Federation. David Marcus felt like he could have been Kirk's son, and I liked that Kirk did exactly as Carol had requested -- he stayed out of David's life and let Carol raise him alone. In an obvious parallel, Spock was mentoring his young protege, the competent, professional and often amusing regulation-quoting Lieutenant Saavik. The feminist in me can't help pointing out, with the exception of the comments about her hairstyle in the turbolift, Saavik could have easily been played by a man without changing a single other detail.

All this, and I haven't even gotten to one of the best things about this movie – and that's Ricardo Montalban reprising his character Khan from the original series episode "Space Seed."  His performance was so strong and so intense (and his chest so amazing) that there has yet to be a Star Trek villain that can top him.

And the supporting cast was terrific: DeForest Kelley was a delight as McCoy. James Doohan did a fine job with a wonderful dramatic scene when he lost his nephew. Bibi Besch did well in the key role of Carol Marcus, Merritt Butrick as David Marcus was pretty much perfect, and we also got Paul Winfield as the unfortunate Captain Terrell and future television star Kirstie Alley in her acting debut as Saavik. And yes, Chekov recognized Khan but Chekov wasn't in "Space Seed." I honestly don't care, since it wasn't important to the plot, and Walter Koenig's performance as Chekov in this movie is probably his best. (I only started liking Walter Koenig after his villainously wonderful continuing role in Babylon 5.)

Unlike Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Wrath of Khan never stops moving. The space battles are terrific, the gimmick with the prefix code and the scenes in the Mutara Nebula all work, the musical score is outstanding, and best of all, the effects still hold up. (Although the close-ups of the ears during the Botany Bay scenes don't. Ah, well.)

I love this movie. The Wrath of Khan and the two movies that completed the trilogy are the pinnacle of original Star Trek, incorporating the best aspects of the original series. They're wonderful. In my not so humble opinion.

Bits and pieces:

— Stardate 8130.3 to 8141.6. The Reliant, space station Regula 1, Ceti Alpha 5 (not 6), and the Mutara nebula.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was set two and a half years after the end of the series, but here it was established that it had been 15 years since "Space Seed". Khan mentioned his "beloved wife," which would have been Lt. Marla McGivers.

— The Genesis presentation was exceptional. Best commercial ever. I'd buy it.

— I loved the way they used the rare book and the antique glasses as a reminder of the fact that Kirk was getting older. I also loved the level of detail in the furnishings in Kirk's apartment, as well as the huge mosaic IDIC in Spock's quarters.

— The ear thingies were the Alien chestburster of their time. Ick.

— Khan's use of the lines from Moby Dick were set up by the mini-library aboard the Botany Bay: Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, Dante's Inferno. And all books relevant to what happened to the Botany Bay.

— Kyle from the original series was a crew member on Reliant.

— Although the theatrical version is fine, I prefer the director's cut. It includes just a few little extra scenes, but one in particular – the introduction of Midshipman Preston as Scotty's nephew – makes a difference.

— Even the costumes were great. I particularly liked the white flap on Kirk's uniform stained with Peter Preston's blood; it was a striking visual.

— The Genesis cave scene is wonderful. But I've always wondered: where did the light come from?


Kirk: "A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face. Has that never occurred to you?"
Saavik: "No, sir. It has not."
Kirk: "And how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?"
Saavik: "As I indicated, Admiral, that thought had not occurred to me."
Kirk: "Well, now you have something new to think about. Carry on."

Dr. McCoy: "Admiral, wouldn't it be easier to just put an experienced crew back on the ship?"
Kirk: "Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor."
Uhura: "Now what is that supposed to mean?"

David: "Remember that overgrown boy scout you used to hang around with? That's exactly the kind of guy..."
Carol: "Listen, kiddo. Jim Kirk was many things, but he was never a boy scout."

Kirk: "Mr. Scott, you old space dog. You're well?"
Scotty: "Oh, I had a wee bout, sir, but, Doctor McCoy pulled me through."
Kirk: "Wee bout of what?"
McCoy: "Shore leave, Admiral."

(Kirk tensely watches as Saavik takes Enterprise out of space dock.)
McCoy: "Would you like a tranquilizer?"

Kirk: "I would not presume to debate you."
Spock: "That is wise. Were I to invoke logic, however, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
Kirk: "Or the one."
Spock: "You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours."

Khan: "I'll chase him around the Antares maelstrom and round Nibia and round Perdition's Flame before I give him up!"

Spock: "As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create."
McCoy: "Not anymore. Now we can do both at the same time. According to myth, the Earth was created in six days. Now watch out, here comes Genesis! We'll do it for you in six minutes!"
Spock: "Really, Dr. McCoy. You must learn to govern your passions. They will be your undoing."

Khan: "Let them eat static."

Khan: "Ah, Kirk, my old friend. Do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It is very cold in space."

Spock: "Jim, be careful."
McCoy: "We will!"


Carol: "Can I cook, or can't I?"

Saavik: "On the test, sir... will you tell me what you did? I would really like to know."
McCoy: "Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario." (gestures at Kirk)
Saavik: "How?"
Kirk: "I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship."
Saavik: "What?"
David: "He cheated."
Kirk: "I changed the conditions of the test. Got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose."
Saavik: "Then you never faced that situation... faced death."
Kirk: "I don't believe in the no-win scenario."

Khan: "To the last, I will grapple with thee. From Hell's heart, I stab at thee! For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!"
Montalban makes these lines from Moby Dick work. How many actors could pull off lines like this?

McCoy: "He's not really dead as long as we remember him."
Kirk: "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. A far better resting place that I go to than I have ever known."
Carol: "Is that a poem?"
Kirk: "No. Something Spock was trying to tell me, on my birthday."
McCoy: "You okay, Jim? How do you feel?"
Kirk: "Young. I feel young."

It isn't necessary to have seen "Space Seed" or Star Trek: The Motion Picture to follow this movie. In fact, it isn't really necessary to have seen the original series to follow this movie. And you don't even need to watch Star Trek III and IV. Although I assume every Star Trek fan pretty much has.

Four out of four no-win scenarios,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. The FX may have aged, but those ear worms still make me shiver.

    Everything the first movie got wrong this one got right. Its moves along at a brisk pace. The crew go up against a proper villain, not a vague threat. And best of all it acknowledges and embraces the fact that these characters have aged. So many science fiction adventure films are about dashing young heroes, its refreshing to have one where the hero is going through a mid-life crisis.

    Looking forward to your review of Search for Spock, Billie. it was the first film I ever saw and the one that kicked off not just my love of Trek but sci-fi as well.

  2. Mark -- The Search for Spock is the first movie you ever saw? How about that.

    I honestly don't remember the first movie I ever saw, although it was books by Edgar Rice Burroughs that started me on sci-fi.

  3. Yeah, this movie rocks. Montalban *is* Khan. The script is excellent. I wish he had lived long enough to see Into Darkness -- he might have enjoyed the reboot of his character and story (it would have been fun to see him play this role in his prime). Or maybe it's better that he didn't see it and instead remembers things as they were, since most folks agree this is the best Trek movie and in general just a good movie -- even 30 years later.

    As for one of the best sic-fi movies ever, I don't think it's quite in the league with Bladerunner or Alien, but it's in the neighborhood of Empire Strikes Back, T2, Planet of the Apes, and Matrix. And it's fun to watch, similar to ET, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park.

    It's fun to think about the best sic-fi ever, and no one ever agrees, but Khan should be in the top ten, for sure.

    the first sci-fi movie I ever saw was 2001, and I was just a kid, and I'm not sure I got it all. I definitely got some of it, since my dad worked at NASA and we were totally into space travel. I watched it again when I grew up and enjoyed it more. At the time, it was awesome, but I watched it recently and it didn't age as well (too slow, I suppose), which is a bummer.

    1. 2001 probably was the first SF movie that I saw, almost certainly in terms of theatrical showings. On its theatrical release, Dad wanted to see 2001 but Mom wasn't interested. So, as the oldest kid, my Dad took me to a matinee showing. I was 6 1/2 and I definitely didn't understand all of it (my favorite part at the time was the cave men fighting over the water hole.)

      I find myself wondering whether recent (relative to your post, anyway) viewing was in a theater or on a TV. I've seen it both ways as an adult, and I've found it to be one of the most extreme examples of "plays differently in a theater than on TV". In a theater, I find it still kinda mesmerizing. On a TV, I find it slow as hell. Something about the scale (and possibly the level of detail visible) really changes the way that all of the space (and spaceship) scenes feel to me.

    2. Anonymous, did you mean to post this comment on my review of 2001? Nice comment. I still enjoy it on TV and don't find it boring at all, but I know a lot of people do.

  4. Yes, this one rocks. Still my favorite Trek movie, and probably always will be. Ties to the original series, epic space battles, effects that still hold up - the scene of the Enterprise rising up out of the nebula, right behind Reliant, is a scene seared into my memory. I've watched this movie at least two dozen times, and I love it each time. Great review, Billie - can't wait for the rest.

  5. I honestly don't remember when I first saw this movie, but it still gives me chills whenever the first strings start to play the theme. I can make it through to when Kirk's voice cracks during the eulogy, but I always shed a tear at that point.

    From beginning to end, this is such a wonderfully written, tightly plotted, marvelously acted movie. It is on my top ten list, and will remain there.

    Thank you for the lovely review.

  6. I agree with all the good stuff everyone has said. One quote that always makes me smile is when they realize that the scientists aboard Regula 1 have transported somewhere and Kirk believes they have gone deep into Regula. He says they are going to go where they went and Scotty says something like...
    "Go where? What if they went nowhere?" and Kirk replies,
    "Well, this will be your chance to get away from it all."
    That quote always makes me smile.

  7. Sorry... of course it wasn't Scotty who said, "... what if they went nowhere?"... it was McCoy.

  8. Good point about how this movie respects the history of the TV series, but it isn't necessary to know it to appreciate this movie. This movie can stand on its own. (Wish the reboot would have have learned this lesson. Too many moments in that movie that only existed to reference this one.)

    As far as Chekov, the usual No-Prize response is that he was still on the ship, but not yet part of the bridge rotation. (Or he only worked the owl shift.) The funnier response, which might have been made by Koenig himself, was that Chekov was hogging the bathroom stall when Khan really had to go, so Khan made it a point to never forget his face.

  9. You know what sucks? The Blu-Ray, which I have, doesn't have the Director's Cut. I've never been able to see those extended scenes. :(

    This is my second favorite Star Trek movie, but by barely. In fact, it sometimes does waffle between TUC being my favorite Star Trek movie and this one being my favorite.

    This is not only a perfect Star Trek movie, but it's also a darn good sci-fi movie, and in a year that had really darn good sci-fi movies! Everything in this movie just fires on all cylinders! It's funny, it's dramatic, it's suspenseful. It tackles big issues, such as aging, life, death, friendship. This is not a nice, fluffy movie!

    I personally like the new emphasis to military that Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett gave to the series, starting with this one. Those maroon uniforms look sharp. I like the submarine warfare between the Reliant and the Enterprise.

    And, oh, the ending!

    Actually, Spock was supposed to stay dead. Did you know? About halfway through filming, Leonard Nimoy said he was having a really good time filming (something that didn't happen on TMP) and he suddenly realized that this movie was good enough to keep Star Trek alive, and he said that he would love to come back, if there was a way to bring Spock back. After a not-good reaction with a test audience, the "Remember" scene and the very ending scene of Spock's coffin on the Genesis Planet were pick-up shots, to give audiences hope.

    Gene Roddenberry hated everything about this movie. It's believed that he was the source of the leak that Spock would be dying.

    I first saw this movie two years after it came out. I was 6 years old. Mom was a Trekkie, and she rented it. While I know that I must have seen the episodes prior to watching this movie (because I knew who the characters were), this movie is the definitive thing in my mind with Star Trek. Nothing comes prior to me watching this movie. I remember crying at Spock's death. But, I also knew from that moment that I was a Trekkie too.

    Like you, I've watched TWoK many times since then, and Spock's death is so moving to me. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy completely rocked that scene. I just watched the Blu-Ray a couple weeks ago, and I still tear up at that scene.

    Love, love, love this movie!


  10. This is one of my four favourite movies of all time. I first saw it when I was really little, but somehow the themes of ageing, death etc still struck a chord. It's that good.

    I'm also obsessed with how great the structure of this movie is, but that's basically a film studies essay...

  11. This is the one. I totally blame this movie. Before this movie came out, I had watched Star Trek and I liked it but I did not love it. This is where that changed. Darn you Wrath of Khaaaaaaaaaaaan!!

    Star Trek reruns ran on our local independent station at 6pm each night. Right before this movie came out, they instead ran a special that Leonard Nimoy hosted where they showed the episode Space Seed and in-between commercial breaks they showed clips for Wrath of Khan and Nimoy gave anticdotes about the show. How they came up with the Vulcan neck pinch or how the Vulcan hand salute was from a Jewish blessing, etc. I was hooked as I watched Space Seed and clips for the movie and knowing that the two would be tied together.

    Of course my best friend saw it before me and totally spoiled the whole thing including Spock's death.

    I used to have a VCR tape that I'd recorded Superman 2, Star Wars (at the time it was not necessary to refer to it as Episode 4 or A New Hope), and Wrath of Khan. I used to watch those 3 movies, hit rewind, watch them again, hit rewind to the point that there was I time that I could quote all 3 movies in their entirety. Ahhh, good times.

    Just recently, I showed my daughters Space Seed and Star Treks 2, 3 and 4. (I also showed them the 3 tribble episodes) Gotta get them hooked too.

  12. When I saw Walter Koenig in B5, a show I am still a bit bitter that it ended too early, I was shocked at the difference between lovable, if somewhat goofy, Chekov, and his vicious psi cop bastard there!

    This too I saw in the theater, although was 12 at the time, so was better able to handle the ear bug scene, although my mom was not so happy with it!

    It is indeed one of the best films I have ever seen and I highly recommend it to not just Star Trek fans, but anyone who likes solid movies with a great cast and brilliant story.

    Spock's death is critical and pivotal to this movie, and they handled it so very well, but man, 12 year old me did not like that at all!

    I do not have this on DVD/Blu-Ray but I should pick it up one of these days. It's just that dang good!

    On a side note, I sent an email about guest reviews with my 2 game reviews linked from BGG. I have some classic stuff I'd love to post about if it works out!


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