Star Trek II:
The Wrath of Khan

directed by Nicholas Meyer
(Paramount, 1982)

All of the failings of Star Trek: The Motion Picture were erased with The Wrath of Khan.

Even the uniforms are cooler.

While The Motion Picture took place (in Star Trek time) only a few years after the conclusion of Captain Kirk's first five-year mission, this sequel takes place much further along in the future. James Kirk and his crew have concluded a second five-year mission, and Kirk is back in an admiral's post.

The film begins with the Enterprise being destroyed in a conflict with the Klingons. The crew is familiar, but a newcomer, Lt. Saavik (a very young Kirstie Alley) is in the center seat. Turns out the whole thing is a training simulation, and Kirk (William Shatner) is the judge.

Kirk is, once again, unhappy with his desk job and wants to be back in space. He gets his chance when a training mission on the Enterprise becomes a true crisis, and Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is the training instructor, cedes command to the ranking officer.

Meanwhile, Capt. Terrell (Paul Winfield) and his First Officer Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) are leading the starship Reliant on a research mission for Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), coincidentally Kirk's old lover, and her son, David (Merritt Butrick), coincidentally Kirk's unknowing offspring.

The Reliant stumbles upon the remains of the Botany Bay, a ship full of genetically engineered superhumans marooned by Kirk on his original mission. Leading them is Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), who also returns from his original role in the 1960s episode "Space Seed." The intervening years haven't been good ones, and Khan is impressively angry about the whole thing. Using a nasty little creature to drive Terrell and Chekov mad (and render them susceptible to suggestion), Khan and his followers commandeer Reliant and set out on a quest for vengeance.

For those who remember Montalban only from his days on Fantasy Island, wow. His scenery-chewing performance here is exquisite, a divine and raging madness with a single-minded intent that is wonderful to behold.

Meanwhile, Kirk and his usual team (including the usuals, DeForest Kelley as McCoy, James Doohan as Scotty, George Takei as Sulu and Nichelle Nichols as Uhura) are attempting to save the Genesis Project, a potentially devastating experiment led by Drs. Marcus and Marcus. They are unfortunately saddled with a largely untried crew, and their first encounter with Reliant is disastrous -- and it stands as one of the most suspenseful five minutes in the history of science fiction cinema.

That leads to one of the best ongoing space battles ever filmed, a one-on-one bout between Kirk and Khan. The mighty dogfight becomes a three-dimensional chess match as the ships move into a nebula and find vision obscured -- it's an edge-of-your-seat game of cat and mouse. The film is visually sensational and action-packed, but The Wrath of Khan isn't just another spectacle where spaceships shoot a lot and blow up real good. The tension and conflict between Kirk, Khan and their respective crews makes this a winner with real staying power.

There are many grand touches, such as Kirk's obvious nervousness when the inexperienced Saavik pilots the Enterprise out of spacedock for the first time, the easy camaraderie between Kirk and McCoy on the admiral's birthday, and the relaxed rapport between Kirk and Spock. James Horner's soundtrack is splendid.

Alas, one of the most glorious victories in SF history is followed by one of the saddest and most moving scenes ever filmed. It's a moment of heroic sacrifice which will have repercussions through the rest of the film series. If you haven't seen it before -- or even if you have -- have tissues on hand.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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