This summer marks the 30th anniversary of what is considered the greatest blockbuster season of all-time: summer, 1982. That year, the cinemas were loaded with genre-defining classics that are still shaping the worlds of science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and action to this day. In this retrospective series, 1982: The Greatest Year, Jeff and other members of the Geek League of America will take a fond, and sometimes funny, look back at this monumental time in nerd culture history.
Like many of you, I grew up on Star Trek. I arrived on the planet in ’63 and have been watching TV since I was able to sit up. So, if Star Trek:The Original Series (or, TOS, as it has come to be known among Geekdom Assembled) has been in syndication since 1969, I’ve been watching it at least since I was six years old. As a result, Kirk, Spock and McCoy have been part of my world since they hit WPIX-TV in New York. Watching the original episodes over and over again, week after week, I’m sure Roddenberry’s little morality plays have guided my inner geek as much as comic books. I wouldn’t label myself a Trekker, but I AM a big fan (I have to overcome a true sense of dread whenever I put on a red shirt). So, when word went out that there was to be a major motion picture based on Star Trek, I salivated with glee. However, the first movie in the Star Trek franchise, um… didn’t hit the sweet spot with everyone, myself included.
The wait and anticipation of fans for Star Trek, The Motion Picture was legendary. Trekkers, geeks and nerds of all stripes had seen and fallen in love with Star Wars. What then, would Paramount deliver to the fans with all the tech and special effects at their disposal that the series never had? Well, ST:TMP was —to many— an over-long, over-blown, overdue film that could be best be described as a decent episode expanded to feature film length. Not exactly the sci-fi extravaganza fans had waited years to see. In addition, I had made a special trip with a good pal to view it at a “better-than-our-neighborhood” movie theater. I held our spot on line as he ran downstairs in the mall to buy us fast food burgers for lunch. We scarfed them down while waiting for the line to move. Apparently, there was something …not quite right with my lunch. By the end of the movie, my head was swimming and my gut was torqued and twisted. I didn’t know that all too soon I’d be recreating the Linda Blair role in The Exorcist. Later that evening, my projectile vomiting both amazed and appalled my friends. All in all, not the best movie-going memory I have. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan wasn’t going to have to work very hard to exceed my experience with its predecessor.
Looking back now, decades later, with an ever-expanding stable of Trek films and series, we don’t hang quite so much significance and importance on that first film. I actually enjoy revisiting it from time to time. But, you can see how simultaneously, Wrath of Khan didn’t have a high mark to hit and yet, had a lot to redeem for me.
From the beginning, ST:TWOK improved upon its predecessor. Where ST:TMP had a gray, cold, cerebral feel from the production design to the storyline. WOK was infused with color and passion. Gone were the washed out pajama costumes and introduced were the rich red-jacketed uniforms that at least looked like real clothes. Where TMP used an alien to help us find the amorphous and removed notion of “the human adventure,” WOK gave us a far more immediate and recognizable theme: good, old-fashioned human revenge. Personal relationships and facing one’s own history took the place of arguing semantics with an alien intelligence and a 20-minute masturbatory fly-by of the exterior of the Enterprise. In short, this was everything the first movie was not: faster paced, dynamic writing that pulled from previous Trek lore; a script and directing that played to the strengths of both the source material and the actors; much more action, and oh, a villain. A real villain.
Wrath picked up the thread begun in the very popular episode, Demon Seed, from the original series. It reintroduced Ricardo Mantalban as Khan Noonien Singh, your basic genetically enhanced dictator, who had held much of the Earth under his thumb in the 1990’s of the Trek universe. (Did we miss all that? I don’t remember being oppressed by an older man with killer pecs, do you? Well, there was Ah-nold as the Governator, but I digress…) WOK has been lauded by fans and pundits alike as having saved the Trek franchise. Because even though TMP made more money worldwide, it cost more to make and received a luke-warm reception. Whereas Wrath of Khan made it’s money back opening weekend and was embraced enthusiastically by fans. But, what’s not to love? Khan opens with the Kobayashi Maru, a now deeply embedded part of Trek lore and ends with one of the all-time great Trek quotes: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” In between we have Kirk and Khan in an elaborate dance that kills starships and gives birth to worlds. We find out Kirk has a son he never knew about(that dirty dog). We see mind-controlling eels make Chekov cry and are treated to Scotty playing the bagpipes. Turn up the entertainment value to eleven.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy are back in the saddle along with the rest of the crew, doing the Star Trek Shuffle. But, now they are also dealing with the pitiless march of time. They are inarguably older and part of the underlying theme is aging and dealing with past decisions. Specifically, Kirk’s past lands a one-two combination in first finding out he has a grown son, then realizing that his decision years before to strand Khan and his band on a remote planet has come back to bite him hard on the ass.
Ricardo Montalban, as Khan, tears up every scene he’s in with classical flair. He must have been 60-61 years old when they filmed Khan. And the man worked out to —literally— pump up his physical appearance for the role. Though there are rumors to the contrary, those are his pecs peeking out of that costume, folks. Gotta love that. Montalban did the role for a measly $100,000, because he said he enjoyed it so much. He said the one drawback was that he and Shatner never filmed a scene together. All of their interacting took place over communicators and vid screens. And their individual scenes were filmed months apart.
I’m not going to go on with a complete recap of the plot. If you haven’t seen it, you should, and I’m not going to spoil the whole story.
Paramount insisted on a very tight budget, which influenced the look and feel of the movie in every way. Special effects were closely controlled. Set pieces were reused from the previous film. Scenes were shot in such a way that allowed for the semblance of depth and scope, but were actually quite TV-like in their setup and execution. All of which make perfect sense on paper, and in theory you’d think every movie would be done that way, but this was far removed from the $35 million they threw at the first film. And, that’s a fraction of how much a special effects-laden blockbuster would cost today.
The producers couldn’t afford to bring Jerry Goldsmith back to compose the music. And, they actually wanted a different feel for Khan, anyway. They ended up giving James Horner his first major film score and he did a great job in both making it stand out from the first movie and in setting a faster, more dynamic tone. He also picked up the opening theme from the original series by Alexander Courage. Something I missed from TMP and was glad to have back. Horner is one of my favorite composers. His score for The Rocketeer is absolutely beautiful and I’ll fight anyone who says different.)
Many things changed from TMP to TWOK. The special effects, music and script, the production design — all different. Director Nicholas Meyer was a completely different stylist than Robert Wise. Think of it for a second. It’s practically a reboot. Whatever you call it, it worked. They cleared costs opening weekend. Khan caught and held fans’ affection since its release. I loved the damn movie and I didn’t projectile vomit. I call that a win-win.
This was also the beginning of the “even-numbered Trek movies are the good ones.” Almost ironic, as producer Harve Bennet put the whole thing together for roughly $11 million dollars — and it shows in the rough-hewn special effects. But, apparently this didn’t leave a lasting negative effect with fans, as many of them still point to TWOK as their favorite, or even the best of the series. Doubly funny then that Leonard Nimoy was confident enough there would be no more sequels and was happy to send Spock off with a wonderful death scene. Instead, he had such a good time making Khan, that he asked for a way to bring Spock back. In many ways Wrath of Khan was a do or die moment in Trek history. It was very much a turning point. It certainly gave Paramount enough confidence to move forward. Four live action series and eight major motion pictures after Wrath of Khan and then they reboot the original series in a new continuity free movie. Titled simply STAR TREK, which did well enough that a sequel was planned almost immediately and should be out in May 2013.
Star Trek, the franchise, looks like it’s back with fresh dilithium crystals. Once again ready to take us boldly where no one has gone before. But, in 1982, I was just happy to have a good, old-fashioned Star Trek romp. The dang thing did make me cry, though. Spock dying, saying to Kirk, “I have been, and always shall be … your friend.” Then, Spock’s funeral, with Scotty playing Amazing Grace, well, Hell—I’m NY Irish, I’m hardwired to cry for the pipes. And, I’d grown up with Mr. Spock. It was like saying good bye to a friend. Thankfully, not for long. They went looking for him in the next installment. But, that’s another voyage.