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Perhaps the most amazing thing about 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is that the movie’s director, Nicholas Meyer, had never seen an episode of the original series or even heard of the characters. Meyer would later say that the “chief contribution I brought to Star Trek II was a healthy disrespect.” That disrespect ended up revitalizing the franchise for decades to come.
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Meyer was brought in after a series of creative dead-ends. Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, had run through ideas ranging from the crew of the Enterprise stopping the assassination of JFK to planetary rebellions to Doomsday weapons to killing off Spock in a sudden surprise. Star Trek needed fresh blood.
The plot eventually began to coalesce around an old enemy — Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered human who appeared in a single episode of the 1960s series who had once run an empire on Earth in the 20th century. The Doomsday weapon was changed into the Genesis device, and Spock’s death was kept, but done twice: once at the end, and a fake-out during the Kobayashi Maru trial at the beginning of the movie.
Despite memorable performances all around from the Enterprise bridge crew, Ricardo Montalban truly steals the show as Khan. He has a threatening air of regality to him that makes you believe he used to run an empire and is ready to reclaim it. Khan's early scenes with Chekov and Terrell are pure bliss, mind-controlling his minions into his every whim — you can tell he just couldn’t be happier.
Scene-stealing aside, Khan works because of the same relationship that drove the show: Shatner and Nimoy, Kirk and Spock. Meyer has said that Shatner was protective of the character’s initial run, the peak of 1960s masculinity. Characters like that got frozen in amber and remembered as icons, and peeking into their new life could poke holes in the legend.
This is where Meyer’s disrespect comes into action. Without prior Kirk hero-worship, he was able to put Shatner into an older role. In Khan, he has taken a promotion to admiral and regrets it with every step. Viewers get to see his swanky apartment, and his two sides, McCoy and Spock, both come together to agree on one thing: Kirk needs to get back to the captain’s chair.
Other versions of Star Trek have captured this sentiment as well, including the later film Star Trek Generations. While Star Trek is the product of an entire crew, the stories generally revolve around the captain’s journey. Seeing how Kirk adapts to failures to stop Khan in the past, his aging into an admiralty, and loss in the eventual death of Spock.
It’s one of the all-time tearjerker scenes. Spock’s valiant effort to save the ship, his nerve pinch of McCoy, stubborn as ever trying to save his life instead, and then his struggle to even stand. It’s a shocking moment for a species Star Trek fans had known as far stronger than humans. Then you see the two of them, emotion and logic, Kirk and Spock, separated by glass.
It’s perhaps Shatner’s most important moment in his role as Kirk, and he absolutely nails it. He sits next to his dead best friend, stunned and confused. Meyer understood that space is used in Star Trek to heighten and highlight the human condition, and with Kirk’s eulogy in the next scene, he presents his thesis:
We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most... human.
Meyer continued to poke fun at Star Trek throughout the years, in 2017 he appeared on the webseries On Cinema at the Cinema, allowing himself to be the surprise witness during a trial for one of the characters, which gets derailed over a fight about Wrath of Khan.
He can joke all he wants. Wrath of Khan raised the stakes for Star Trek as a series built over time, showing the power that deep bonds can wield in friendship, relationships, and even between planets.
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is streaming on Amazon Prime.