By Matthew E. Milliken
March 4, 2015
Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, died Friday morning. That sad occasion prompted me to mull the first time I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which many (including me) consider to be the best of all the Star Trek films.
The Star Trek universe is largely a positive place, especially as depicted in the original TV series, which aired from 1966 through 1969. Yes, conflict exists, but in general, Star Trek was a much more family-friendly milieu than that depicted in landmark 1970s science-fiction entertainment such as Alien, Outland, Capricorn One, Saturn 3 or even Star Wars. (Granted, George Lucas’s universe is pretty PG-friendly. But there’s very little in early Star Trek that approaches the seediness that the first Star Wars film displayed in the scenes at the Mos Eisley cantina and the Death Star trash compactor.)
Star Trek II takes a very different approach from earlier Trek. In many ways, the film — written by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards and directed by Nicholas Meyer — is a rehearsal of mortality. In the opening scene, the Enterprise is brutally attacked by Klingons while on a rescue mission; Spock, chief communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), helmsman Sulu (George Takei) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are killed before the ship’s master, a fresh-faced female Vulcan named Saavik (Kirstie Alley) gives the order to abandon ship.
This turns out to be a simulation. In fact, Spock is captain of the Enterprise, which is preparing to depart from Starfleet Academy on a training mission for Saavik and other advanced cadets. Kirk, an admiral (as in the first Star Trek movie, from 1979) and an academy instructor, is sulking his way through a midlife crisis; although it’s his birthday, he brushes off banter from his longtime crew and friends.
That night, as Kirk (William Shatner) broods by himself in his apartment, McCoy appears with a gift: A pair of antique spectacles that will improve the adventurer’s failing eyesight. Indicating Kirk’s home, which is filled with antiques, the good doctor urges his comrade to return to commanding a starship before he really does grow old — “before you turn into part of this collection,” Bones says.
Juxtaposed with these scenes are snippets of another voyage involving another starship, another captain, another crew. U.S.S. Reliant, commanded by Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield), has been engaged in a long search for a lifeless planet that meets very specific criteria. The vessel is seconded to Project Genesis, a classified research initiative. The Genesis team, which is based on the remote space station Regula One, needs a barren world so it can test a technology that in theory will be capable of terraforming planets nearly at will.
Due to reasons (as the kids say), Terrell and his first officer, former Enterprise ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), are captured by Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically engineered tyrant whom Kirk marooned with his band of loyalists years ago in “Space Seed,” an episode of the original Star Trek TV series. Khan infects his prisoners with hideous eels. These parasites infiltrate the brains of their victims, rendering them, as Khan says, “extremely susceptible to suggestion. Later, as they grow, follows madness and death.”
Khan commandeers Reliant, which he uses to assault Regula One before staging a deadly sneak attack on the Enterprise. (Kirk, who was traveling on board as an observer, has taken command of his old starship.) The casualties include Midshipman Peter Preston (Ike Eisenmann), nephew of Chief Engineer Scott (James Doohan).
Kirk and Khan’s grudge match continues. The villain outsmarts the hero at nearly every turn. The death toll grows. One character commits suicide onscreen. Kirk, McCoy and Saavik find Chekov, but the reunion becomes agonizing — the eel that has taken over the officer’s brain threatens to end his life.
Kirk also discovers that he has an adult son — David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), a scientist whose mother (and boss) is Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), the head of Project Genesis. David rebuffs his dad, expressing relentless hostility to all things military; Carol greets her old lover more amiably, but Kirk is hurt that she never told him about their child.
“Were we together?” Carol Marcus asks Kirk, not unkindly. “Where we going to be? You had your world and I had mine. I wanted him in mine, not chasing through the universe with his father.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was released on June 4, 1982. Advance word on the feature was good. (I remember reading a positive cover story about the movie in Time or Newsweek while killing time in the waiting room of some well-appointed doctor’s office in Manhattan.) I went to see the picture on a Saturday; my neighbor, M., took me, along with her two daughters, who were a little older than me.
Let me tell you: This movie freaked me out. The worst parts of all were the bits with the eels. Here were grown men — Men in uniforms! Men in spacesuits! Men trained to carry ray guns, men trusted to command starships! — cringing in terror and cravenly submitting to the evil whims of a cruel villain. (Khan bolsters the humiliation by requiring Terrell to address him as “your excellency.”)
I found all this extremely dismaying. Terror, pain, humiliation, death — this was everything that I thought entertainment shouldn’t be. Moreover, it was everything that I hoped adulthood wouldn’t be.
Around the time that the parasitic eel was crawling out of Chekov’s ear, to the consternation of Kirk, crew and spectators, I mumbled something urgent to M. We walked out to the lobby. I told M. that I was unhappy and wanted to leave. It was hard for me to meet her eyes.
I honestly don’t remember what M. said. It was probably something along the lines of, “Let’s just go back and watch some more of the movie, and if you still feel like you really need to leave, maybe we’ll go then.”
Somewhat reluctantly, I trudged back into the theater and tried to screw up my courage. After all, I didn’t want to embarrass myself by looking like a baby in front of M. and her two daughters, did I? Fortunately, most of the roughest patches of the movie were behind us by that point.
Most, but not all. Ultimately, one of the characters makes a tremendous sacrifice. There’s a moving funeral scene. Kirk’s victory feels pyrrhic — he’s bereft of a close friend; he still feels old and broken down.
It was midafternoon when we left the theater — after the movie was finished. The sky was overcast, which matched my mood perfectly. Over the rest of the day, I thought about the film that I’d seen. Some of its parts had been so exciting, so great!
But there was all that pain and suffering and carnage. And one of the heroes had died and been committed to the grave. I was really torn.
Still, I was glad that M. had encouraged me to tough it out and watch the rest of the movie. So chalk one up for perseverance.
We’ll miss you, Leonard Nimoy. Thanks for living long and prospering.