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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Paramount Pictures, 1982; see also 1982 in film) is the second feature film based on the popular Star Trek science fiction television series. It is often referred to as ST2:TWOK or TWOK. It is widely regarded by fans as the best film of the series.


Extended synopsis

In the Star Trek TV series episode "Space Seed", the Enterprise encountered Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban) and his followers in cryogenic freeze aboard a "sleeper ship" named S.S. Botany Bay. The Enterprise crew revived Khan, who examinations revealed was genetically engineered as both physically and mentally superior to mere man. When the senior officers discovered that Khan was the same tyrant who escaped in the late 20th century, Khan was imprisoned in his "guest" quarters. He subsequently escaped from confinement and revived his followers, other "supermen" who helped him control a quarter of the Earth until the 1990s. They were joined by an Enterprise officer, Lt. Marla McGivers, who fell in love with Khan and helped them seize control of the Enterprise. Once defeated, Captain Kirk exiled them to the unhospitable but survivable Ceti Alpha Five, where they could build their own civilization, rather than their talents going to waste in a Federation penal colony.

Fifteen years later, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) was spending his birthday reviewing a training exercise. (Some fans speculate that it was his 50th, possibly since Shatner was 50 when filming began in November 1981. However, nothing from canon Trek hints at any age. Also, for such a milestone, wouldn't one's friends give grander gifts?) As expected, Lt. Saavik lost the "no-win" Kobayashi Maru Scenario, "a test of character" every cadet is expected to fail. Questioning over her failure, Kirk assured her with the advice that "A no-win situation is something every commander may face."

Outside the training room, Kirk thanked Spock for the antique copy of "A Tale of Two Cities" that Spock had given him as a gift. Spock returned to the Enterprise to prepare for Kirk's inspection, and Kirk returned to his San Francisco apartment. Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) arrived, bringing illegal Romulan ale for refreshment, and antique reading glasses as a gift; the latter were also practical, since Kirk was allergic to the usual medication. In front of his guest, Kirk resumed brooding. The somber "party" prompted McCoy to demand why they were treating his birthday like a funeral. He charged that "This isn't about age, and you know it," implying that Kirk is using his birthday as a pretense. The truth is that Kirk regrets no longer commanding a starship, and he is unsatisfied with his admiral duties.

Meanwhile, the starship Reliant believed they found a suitable test planet for Project Genesis. Over subspace communications, Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch ) emphasized that the planet had to be completely lifeless: "There can't be so much as a microbe, or the show's off." Captain Clark Terrell and first officer Commander Pavel Chekov beamed down to the planet to confirm, but lifeless it was not. They discovered cargo containers with signs of human habitation, but no people. When Chekov discovered a seatbelt with "Botany Bay" as an inscription, he grew terrified. Realizing who was on the planet, he told Terrell they had to leave immediately -- but Khan and his followers were outside and captured them. Khan's history was briefly laid out in an exchange with Chekov, who he remembered (see below, "Space Seed" actually was before Walter Koenig joined the cast). When Khan said that Kirk marooned them "here," Chekov accused him of lying, because they were left on Ceti Alpha Five. Khan angrily burst out, "This is Ceti Alpha Five!" He explained, "Ceti Alpha Six exploded, six months after we were left here. The shock shifted Ceti Alpha Five's orbit such that it went from inhospitable to nearly unsurvivable. Khan realized the Reliant mistook the planet was Ceti Alpha Six, but when he questioned Terrell and Chekov about their mission, they were silent. Khan then used the slug-like young of "Ceti Alpha Five's only remaining indigenous inhabitant" to gain control over Terrell and Chekov; they burrowed through the ear canal to the brain, leaving them in a highly suggestive state. Khan nodded with satisfaction: "That's better. Now tell me, why are you here; and tell me where I may find...James Kirk."

As Kirk inspected the trainee crew on the Enterprise, a garbled and enigmagic message came from Carol Marcus at Regula One. When communications became completely jammed, he assumed command from Captain Spock to take the Enterprise to Regula to investigate. On the way, they encountered the Reliant, which was unresponsive to hails. Saavik started to quote General Order Twelve, but Spock interrupted her: "Lieutenant, the Admiral is well aware of the regulations." The Enterprise continued with shields down as it continued hailing. The Reliant finally responded, claiming that its chambers coil was overloading its comm system. When Spock saw that their coil emissions were normal, Kirk ordered the shields to be raised. It was too late: the Reliant was already locking phasers, and it fired on strategic areas of the Enterprise, causing severe damage. The crippled ship was then hailed to discuss terms of surrender. On visual, a smug Khan could hardly contain his glee as he declared he was avenging himself on Kirk. Kirk offered to surrender himself and beam over, if Khan would let the Enterprise and its crew go. Khan accepted if Kirk also turned over all they had on Genesis, a good sign since it meant Khan didn't find any Genesis data at the Regula station. Kirk stalled, claiming difficulty in retrieving the data. This bought a few moments that they used to lower Reliant's shields with its own transponder code. The Enterprise used its last bit of phaser power for precise shots that damaged the Reliant and forced its retreat.

The Enterprise limped its way to Regula One. (In the Director's Cut, after Peter Preston's death, Kirk said they escaped only because he knew something about starships that Khan didn't.) Kirk, McCoy and Saavik beamed onto the station and found the staff brutally murdered, all memory banks erased, and Terrell and Chekov in stunned shock. Discovering that something was beamed into the center of the Regula planetoid (which the station orbited), Kirk called the Enterprise and received a very grave damage report. He instructed Spock that if the landing party didn't signal within an hour, the Enterprise crew must restore what power they could and head for the nearest starbase. The five beamed to those coordinates and discovered three survivors, including Carol and David Marcus.

Terrell and Chekov suddenly pulled out their phasers, ordered them all not to move, and called the Reliant. Khan ordered Terrell to kill Kirk, but Terrell struggled with the order. After vaporizing the third Regula staff member, he turned his phaser on himself. Chekov collapsed as the mind-controlling slug exited his body. Kirk then challenged Khan to come down to kill him, but Khan simply beamed up Genesis, with the famous line that marooning Kirk is worse than killing him. So that she could have some time to talk privately with Kirk, Carol suggested to her son that he show McCoy and Saavik the "Genesis cave," with food "enough for a lifetime, if necessary." Her subsequent dialogue with Kirk revealed she was his old love, and that David was their son. She held custody because she wanted him with her, "not chasing around the universe like his father." David, grew up resenting his father, possibly for the mere fact that Kirk was too occupied with command. When David said, "Mother, he killed everyone we left behind" (believing the worst in his father), he apparently recognized Kirk, but Kirk didn't realize the young man was his son. Kirk asked Carol, "Is that David?" with such surprise that he probably hadn't seen David in years, perhaps not since birth.

Saavik and McCoy were amazed when David showed them how the Genesis planet transformed the interior of the Regula planetoid into a life-rich environment. But, now unable to hail the Enterprise, they worried for the ship and crew more than for themselves. After relating the tale of how he was the only cadet to beat the Kobayashi Maru, Kirk surprised everyone by contacting Spock: their exchange before beaming down was a ruse to trick Khan, who they knew was intercepting any transmissions. Spock beamed the party aboard, and Kirk began thinking of how they could escape the Reliant, which was not as badly damaged and still had more firepower.

Kirk managed to outwit and outmaneuver Khan in the nearby Mutara Nebula. With the Reliant disabled and about to be boarded, Khan set the Genesis Device to detonate. The Enterprise had lost warp power since the first battle, and on limited impulse it had no chance to escape. Spock, unnoticed in the desperation, went down to Engineering. He was about to enter the reactor room when McCoy stopped him, saying "No human can tolerate the radiation that's in there!" Spock replied that McCoy himself knows he isn't human; he then distracted McCoy and nerve-pinched him, apologizing that he has "no time to discuss this logically." Spock entered the room and successfully made repairs amidst heavy radiation streams. On the bridge, a cadet noticed the mains were back on line. Sulu engaged the warp engines, and they narrowly escaped the gigantic blast.

The final victory over Khan came at a tragic price: even Spock's half-Vulcan body couldn't withstand all the radiation. At the very emotional funeral, Kirk eulogized his old friend, and Spock's body, encapsulated in a photon torpedo, was launched onto the newly formed Genesis planet. Afterward, David came to his father's quarters to make peace: "I'm proud, very proud, to be your son." The final scene shows Kirk, McCoy, Carol and David on the bridge, watching the Genesis planet as the Enterprise heads to Ceti Alpha Five to rescue the Reliant crew.


The Wrath of Khan is in some ways a story of Kirk's mid-life crisis. Unsure of his place in the world, unable to break out of his rut as an Admiral, it takes his encounter with Khan and his assumption of responsibility for an untried crew to show him where he truly belongs. Unfortunately, the price is high.

Kirk was well-known for bending and breaking rules for expediency; in fact, in Star Trek VI, Klingon General Chang accused him of being a "career-minded opportunist" because of how often Kirk disobeyed orders. Kirk chose to ignore a Starfleet regulations in the first battle with Khan, and he paid for it dearly, both in the deaths of novice crew members, and ultimately in Spock's supreme sacrifice that saved the ship from Khan's final gambit. Spock's death is one of the most powerful in the history of Star Trek, and Shatner gave the performance of his life in both the death scene and at Spock's funeral.

Ultimately the film is about life, death and rebirths, and the relationships between two generations: Kirk with David, his son; Scotty with Peter Preston, his nephew; Spock with Saavik, his protege; and Khan with Joachim, one of his henchmen. (Some fans believe Joachim was Khan's son with the deceased Marla McGivers.)

Unable to see past his hatred, unable to conceive what life he might still have ahead of him, Khan took his crew on a mission of death and, ultimately, suicide. Kirk, by contrast, refused to give in to hate, and through his love for his friends he found a new life for himself. He was also able to bridge the gulf between himself and his son, and his rapproachment with David in many ways best represents the emotional core of the film.

We also see Kirk's friendship with Spock and McCoy portrayed in greater depth than ever before. McCoy is someone Kirk can talk to and work through things with, but Spock, despite being an alien, provides incisive insights of which McCoy is incapable.

During the film, Khan quotes extensively from Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, while Kirk quotes from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Each character in some ways follows the path of the protagonist of their respective books.


The film is notable for being the first major role for Kirstie Alley, who played Lt. Saavik. Although she appears only briefly in Star Trek, the character of Saavik, and in particular Alley's portrayal of her, resonated with fans. Valeris in "Star Trek VI" was originally supposed to be Saavik, but fans would never have accepted that she consciously betrayed the Federation.

It was much more action-oriented than its predecessor, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but Star Trek II was much less costly to make with its more modest special effects budget. It re-used many models from the first film, including the three Klingon battle cruisers in each movie's opening scene. (No small criticism of Star Trek: Generations is that it reused footage of an exploding Klingon bird-of-prey, but this is nothing new.) Nonetheless, Star Trek II owes its success to being primarily a character vehicle.

After the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, producer Gene Roddenberry wrote his own sequel, involving the crew of the Enterprise traveling back through time to assassinate John F. Kennedy and set a corrupted time line right. This sequel was turned down by Paramount executives, who blamed the failure of the first movie on the constant rewrites demanded by Roddenberry. He was ultimately removed from the production, reduced to an advisory position.

The film was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who later directed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (a phrase from William Shakespeare). According to Meyer, "The Undiscovered Country" was a working title for "The Wrath of Khan." It was replaced, without his knowledge, by studio executives. (He later re-used it, for the sixth Star Trek film, which he again directed.)

The film's story is a rewrite of three separate scripts: "The Omega Device" by Jack Sowards , involving the theft of the Federation's ultimate weapon; a script featuring Saavik by Samuel Peeples ; and a script featuring Khan by Harve Bennett. Director Meyer wrote a new script using plots and characters from the other three.

During filming, rumors abounded among fans that Spock would die. Meyer didn't want this expectation to overshadow the rest of the film, so he scripted Spock's "death" in the first scene - the character pretending to be injured in a training exercise, and slumping against a wall - so as to mislead viewers into being surprised at the film's ending. After the first scene, as Kirk and Spock left the training facility, Kirk quipped, "Aren't you dead?" Originally, Spock's death was supposed to be permanent, as Nimoy no longer wished to appear in future sequels. But as Nimoy has said, he changed his mind during filming, hence the mind-meld with McCoy before he goes to certain death, and Kirk's musing that he must return to Genesis.

The grandly elegant music, also considered by many fans as the best of the series, was scored by James Horner. There is widespread praise for his "Krull" work, which borrowed several themes from the "Wrath of Khan" score.


Khan's recognition of Chekov is a retcon, since "Space Seed" was produced before the character of Chekov was added to the TV series. A humorous story Walter Koenig likes to tell at conventions about Khan's recognition of Chekov: While Khan still had free reign of the Enterprise, he entered one of the ship's bathrooms. After waiting for Chekov to leave the only stall, and leaving Khan with no toilet paper, Khan exclaims "I will never forget your face, Mister Chekov!"

External links

Star Trek

Television series
Original Series | Animated Series | Phase Two | Next Generation | Deep Space Nine | Voyager | Enterprise
The Motion Picture | II: The Wrath of Khan | III: The Search for Spock | IV: The Voyage Home
V: The Final Frontier | VI: The Undiscovered Country | Generations | First Contact | Insurrection | Nemesis

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45