Kirstie Alley made Star Trek better
Known for comedy later in her career, Kirstie Alley’s contribution to science fiction was transformative.
Kirstie Alley, famous for her hilarious comedy skills in Cheers, Look Who’s Talking and Desperate Housewives, has died at the age of 71. Her controversial political views in the 21st century were a disappointment to many of her biggest fans, but the legacy of her work as a unique and talented actress endures. And for science fiction fans, she also changed the Star Trek franchise for the better. Here’s why Alley was dynamite in 1982’s The Wrath of Khan, and how that film launched her entire career.
In 1981, as Kirstie Alley was in her final round of auditions to play Saavik in Star Trek II, her parents were in a car accident. Her mother was killed instantly and her father was hospitalized. Director Nicholas Meyer believed in Alley and specifically waited to make a final decision on casting, despite the fact that this huge tragedy delayed the entire process. As she revealed in 1982 to People Magazine, she considered dropping the film altogether but was encouraged to keep going by her sister and brother. Eventually, Alley gave her agent an ultimatum: “You call Paramount and tell them my mother is dead, my father is dying. And if they want to see me, I’ll see them Wednesday... This is the greatest tragedy of my life. But if I get Star Trek, that will be my happiest day.”
Director Nicholas Meyer pushed Paramount to wait, and Alley got the part.
Alley had been a Star Trek fan as a child and told Meyer that she liked her prosthetic Vulcan ears so much that she even slept with them on. When Alley watched the 1960s series as a young girl, she had imagined herself as “Spock’s daughter.”
In The Wrath of Khan, Alley’s character, Saavik, does almost come across as Spock’s child. As a young woman who is new to Starfleet, Saavik is presented to the audience as a kind of inversion of Spock. Instead of being super-logical, this Saavik is a bit hotheaded, and even says “damn” in the now-famous opening scene in which the Enterprise is seemingly overwhelmed by Klingons. In dialogue cut from the final film, we learn Saavik is half-Vulcan and half-Romulan, which partially explains her impulsiveness. (This detail was included in all the press material at the time and is explored in both the novelization and various subsequent Trek books and comics.) As she later said, “I owe my career to a casting agent that I looked half Vulcan and half Romulan.”
As Saavik, Alley opens what is often considered to be the best Star Trek movie of all time, and when Spock dies at the end of the film, she sheds a single tear, letting us know the new resident Vulcan on the Enterprise is a little bit more like us. And because The Wrath of Khan is essentially a film about aging and legacy, Saavik is, in some ways, the most important character. As Kirk, Spock, and Bones contemplate getting older, Saavik is clearly introduced to the audience as the next generation. She’s in the captain’s chair at the start of the film, and if you squint, you could imagine an alternate universe in which we got to see Saavik get her own starship. Without Kirstie Alley’s performance as Saavik in The Wrath of Khan, none of the emotional beats work. She’s the voice of the younger generation, questioning Kirk and Spock’s methods, but also letting a casual viewer fall in love with these characters through her eyes.
Much has been written and said about why Kirstie Alley didn’t return for Star Trek III, and was instead, replaced by Robin Curtis. The most common explanation is that her agent pushed for an amount of money that Paramount couldn’t afford and that Search for Spock director Leonard Nimoy worried would put the film over budget. In 2016, at the Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, Alley admitted on stage that to this day, she felt like the details and exact reasons for her being recast were murky.
In The Search for Spock, Curtis’ version of Saavik took the character in a new direction, which was decidedly more Vulcan-like. Everything about Robin Curtis’ version of the character is wonderful, but Kirstie Alley’s version is, for some fans, still a bit more rock and roll. In The Wrath of Khan, Alley plays Saavik as young and naive, but she’s not innocent. You get the sense from Alley’s performance that Saavik is as dangerous as she is competent.
Because The Wrath of Khan was her first big break, the success of the movie obviously launched her career into warp speed. But sci-fi fans and Trek diehards benefited, too. Thanks to Alley’s layered and brilliant performance, the expansive world of Star Trek made room for a kind of person we’d never seen before. And, in many ways, Trek has never given us a character like Alley’s Saavik again.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is streaming on HBO Max.