When I was little, Star Trek was my older brother’s thing. I mean, Star Wars had lightsabers in an exciting battle between good and evil whereas Star Trek had phasers in a philosophical, character-driven exploration of space.
Since the franchise is so rooted in philosophy and literature that its own geekiness goes beyond mine, I’m still more of a Warsie, but my affinity for Star Trek and its meaning grew as I grew, even to the point where I can agree on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan‘s status as the quintessential Star Trek movie.
Heck, since its predecessor Star Trek: The Motion Picture—released ten years after the Original Series was cancelled after three seasons—is so rife with 2001-style tediousness, a number of Trekkies like to call this the true first movie. So, forget the logicless plotting and hyperactive action of NuTrek and get ready for real Star Trek!
Although Wrath of Khan introduces James T. Kirk, former captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, during his time as admiral, we get a perfect sense of his history with his crew and his ship, even if you haven’t seen the Original Series. While celebrating his birthday, which he’s, as Dr. McCoy puts it, treating like his own funeral, he’s pining for the days where he could lead cadets into the final frontier as he’s now only able to oversee those in training.
Of course, some aspects of his past he finds desirable while others are soon coming back to haunt him, such as his former womanizing ways and especially the marooning of the titular Khan Noonien Singh, a superhuman with a Captain Ahab complex so blatant that he literally quotes Moby Dick!
It’s in this conflict with Khan where Kirk proves how spiffy he still is, where William Shatner (Kirk) and Ricardo Montalban (Khan) try to prove who’s the bigger ham—and without even meeting in person onscreen—, where we get riveting starship showdowns enhanced by James Horner’s musical score, and where fans of Star Trek Into Darkness will realize how much their movie is a post-9/11 Wrath of Khan.
Bringing in a villain with a personal motive also makes for more cinematic storytelling than a TV-type “discover a new planet with new species” plot, though Wrath of Khan puts a twist on the latter by being less about discovering planets and more about creating them…with this surface-level glorification of playing God being counteracted by the planet-creating device’s potential to destroy living worlds.
And just as the TV series uses space exploration as a device to explore the human condition, we get thought-provoking tidbits like, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” and “How we face death is at least as important has how we face life.” And indeed, Kirk must face death, just not in a way he would have expected.
And that’s what Wrath of Khan does so well: it makes me feel oh-so smart for liking it, but it also entertains me enough to be able to pop it in on a sick day. Plus, considering how bizarre the actual Original Series can be, it’s nice to have its overall spirit condensed into a package as sweet as this.