From the very first moments of the title credits, The Wrath of Khan promises to be the Star Trek motion picture that, um, Star Trek: The Motion Picture never was. The Motion Picture was released a couple of years after a certain other space science fiction film with the word "Star" in the title, (and many, many terrible copies) and allegedly wanted to remind filmgoers that there was more than one type of science fiction movie, being the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the '70s. The Wrath of Khan is, right from the beginning, much more user-friendly. Its title sequence may evoke the Star Wars-type crowd-pleaser, with its starry screen, and James Horner's combination of the classic series theme tune and a new, jaunty, adventurous and hummable melody, but that's not a terrible thing. Perhaps, by 1982, the bad Star Wars knock-offs had begun to die out somewhat, or perhaps the producers were less concerned about VERY MUCH NOT BEING LIKE STAR WARS, NO SIR. This new score sets the tone for the film, and does not disappoint.
My main criticism of The Motion Picture was the under-use of the series' beloved characters. The Wrath of Khan brings them right back, recognisable but not unchanged. After deciding that the robotic life was not for him, Mr Spock has mellowed. The inner conflict between his human and Vulcan side seems to have been resolved, and he has become more relaxed and likeable. We see him express concern for his captain's wellbeing, and speaking frankly and unsentimentally about the importance of their friendship. He even gives Kirk a birthday present: a beautiful copy of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. And though he and Dr. "Bones" McCoy still have their heated arguments, the edge of cruelty that so often came into their rivalry of head and heart before, has gone.
Captain - sorry, Admiral - Kirk, too, has changed. It is his birthday, and it is making him feel gloomy - perhaps one of the Big Ones, probably fifty. Also, he has apparently had a bad perm. Still, it takes very little in the way of plot manoeuvres before he has once more commandeered his beloved Enterprise, full of new recruits, and is heading off into an epic adventure. Soon, he is reunited with two people from his past: old flame Carol Marcus (plus son who also has very, very curly hair. Hmmm...) and Kirk's old enemy and rival to the title of Largest Ham In The Galaxy: Khan Noonian Singh. Or, as he's better known:
|"Do you know the old Klingon proverb that tells us |
revenge is a dish that is best served cold?
It is very cold... in space."
Chances are, you know the answer to that one. Even before I watched Star Trek, I knew how the Enterprise would be saved, and at what cost. But that did not stop the ending from being any more heartbreaking. The moment at which I saw the look of understanding and decision cross Spock's face, I flashed back to another moment in fiction. I remembered that horrified dawning realisation of what a very different character was planning, the very first time I read... now which book was it Spock bought Kirk for his birthday?
Now, William Shatner has certainly earned his reputation for overacting, which perhaps makes Kirk's reaction to Spock's sacrifice all the more devastating. Even being prepared, even knowing that the next film is called The Search for Spock, does not protect the viewer's heart from being ripped out by the friends' farewell, unable to reach each other, divided by a pane of glass. And Kirk's utter brokenness at being unable to do anything for his friend would bring a Vulcan to tears. (See Saavik in the funeral scene.)
Thankfully, I know that the story is not over for everyone's favourite "pointy-eared hobgoblin," but at the time, when The Wrath of Khan could have marked the end of Star Trek, what a downer-ending that would have been. I must think myself fortunate that I have come to Star Trek late in the game, because to leave it on that note must have been unendurable.