25 years ago, Kirk faced the wrath of Khan

It is a sequel that exceeded its original source material. It is a sequel that dared to take risks. It is a film that redefined Star Trek for a new generation. On Friday, June 4, 1982—25 years ago today—Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan brought fun, excitement, and intense drama back to the universe of Trek.

Despite the fact that the first Star Trek movie was both a creative and a critical disaster, fans starved for new Trek adventures made 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture more than successful enough to warrant a sequel. Paramount gave series creator Gene Roddenberry, producer of the ill-fated Motion Picture, the new title of “executive consultant” for the second movie and removed him as the head of the Star Trek films.

Television veteran Harve Bennett, best known at the time as executive producer of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, took Roddenberry’s place at the helm of the Star Trek film franchise. He was named executive producer of Star Trek II only two weeks after being hired by Paramount’s television department.

Harve Bennett: “I had only seen a few episodes of Star Trek . . . .So, a bit clueless as to how I might make this thing I work, I sat alone in the projection rooms for three months and watched every episode of Star Trek at least once. When I’d finally finished, I felt that en masse, the episodes were about one-third brilliant, about one-third okay, and about one-third ‘ugh.’”

Leonard Nimoy (“Spock”): “I really was adamant that I would not work on Star Trek II because I had been so frustrated with (The Motion Picture) and I was feeling very negative about the whole thing.” Writer Jack Sowards helped Bennett to convince Nimoy to do the film by having him state that the character of Spock would not only die, but die at the very beginning of the movie.

Leonard Nimoy: “The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s the honest thing to do. Finish it properly rather than turn your back on it.’”

Jack Sowards (Writer): “The big up side is that we eventually got Nicholas Meyer to direct, who has a talent for bringing a scene to life. With him, the characters are living their lives. That’s what a director is supposed to do.”

Robert Sallin (Producer): “It is, in all candor, Nick’s un-credited rewrite that is on the screen. Contrary to what the critics may say, Harve made contributions, Sowards made contributions, I made contributions, but I think it was Nick’s final version that we used.”

Nicholas Meyer: “I have always thought, to the extent that I’ve had any clear thoughts about Star Trek, that it was something that, for one reason or another, never quite fulfilled its promise. Either because in terms of a TV show, they couldn’t afford the sets or the effects, or because in the first movie they dropped the ball somewhere. This was an opportunity to make something right that had never quite been on the nose before. The more specific you get, the better. It was not necessary for me to see Admiral Kirk go to the bathroom, but I said why couldn’t he read a book?”

Nicholas Meyer:Star Trek II is not very much about science fiction, the Genesis Planet aside. Its themes are entirely earthbound—death, aging, friendship.”

Nicholas Meyer: “I said it should be like Captain Horatio Hornblower in outer space. I made everyone on the set watch the movie version of Hornblower. The young midshipman who gets killed, he’s stolen right out of that movie. And it was interesting because when I first spoke to Bill Shatner about my idea, he said, ‘That’s interesting, that was also Gene Roddenberry’s original take on it.’ So far, so good.”

Nicholas Meyer: “I redesigned everything in the movie that I could get my hands on, beginning with the costumes, to make things more nautical. In my mind, the Enterprise was going to be some combination of the submarine from Run Silent, Run Deep and one of those eighteenth-century galleons with cannons blasting away. If you look at II, you can see a lot of the obvious comparisons. We had crewmen running out the guns, we had torpedoes, and all of that gave the film a style which I loved, but which frequently flew in the face of a lot of Roddenberry’s dicta.”

Nicholas Meyer’s original title for Star Trek II was Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, drawn from a line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet referencing death. A Paramount executive changed Meyer’s title to Star Trek: The Vengeance of Khan, which angered him. Since George Lucas’ sequel to The Empire Strikes Back was, at the time, to be called Revenge of the Jedi, the title was again changed and the film became Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan. Meyer would later use his preferred subtitle for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Nicholas Meyer: “I wasn’t too happy with The Wrath of Khan (as a title) either, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it, because my theory of film is that nobody cares what the name of the movie is, nobody cares what the movie’s about, and nobody cares who’s in the movie, they only care about one thing, ‘Is the movie good?’”

Ricardo Montalban reprised his role of Khan from the episode “Space Seed.” Still involved in the production of the hit television series “Fantasy Island”, Montalban watched a copy of “Space Seed” to help prepare himself for the role.

Ricardo Montalban: “I started to remember what I did as an actor back then, less mature than I am now, and over time, Khan began returning to me. I realized that while he was still the same guy, he has now become consumed with an overwhelming passion. His superior strength and intelligence are now overwrought with a burning passion for revenge against the man he blames for the death of his wife. Therefore, Khan is not insane, but obsessed, out of control. Nick Meyer also gave me a copy of Moby Dick, because he felt that Khan should be consumed by his quest for revenge in the way that Ahab had been consumed by his quest for the whale.”

The character of Saavik was half-Vulcan and half-Romulan, although the references to her Romulan heritage were edited from the final film. Nicholas Meyer wanted actress Kim Cattrall to play the role but when she proved unavailable, newcomer Kirstie Alley was chosen instead. Meyer would later have Cattrall play Valeris, a Vulcan in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Kirstie Alley (“Saavik”): “I liked the Star Trek TV series. In fact, I’ve been rehearsing Spock for some years now. I would pretend that I was his daughter. Every week, every episode, I’d sit there thinking, ‘I should play Spock’s daughter.’ I mean, I could arch my eyebrows as good as Leonard Nimoy. . . . Whenever I’d watch the show, I’d write dialogue for myself so I could actually take part in the story. When Leonard said a line, I’d respond. So when I was told about the part, I was very excited. I went in and acted like Spock, then Nick Meyer said, ‘Boy do you have him down.'”

Kirstie Alley: “We really had to work on it so that she could be sensitive and let the Romulan part of her come out a little bit. That’s why the tears near the end. I was very sad. I would have cried standing at the end of that, even if I wasn’t supposed to. It was very touching.

Nicholas Meyer: “As far as I was concerned, except for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Gene (Roddenberry) was never really involved in the movies. You’d just go in and meet with him and then get back to work.”

Roddenberry apparently leaked the news of Spock’s death in the film to Trek fanzines, causing a growing uproar. Since the secret was out, Meyer came up with a unique solution to regain the element of surprise.

Nicholas Meyer: “I was just sort of mumbling and joking around, and the next thing you know we’ve got a new improved opening for the movie. We’d ‘kill’ Spock in the first three minutes, expose his death as merely part of a training exercise, then move on with the story. Later, when the audience had gotten swept away by Khan and the Genesis project and so forth, we could sneak Spock’s death back into the action as a general surprise. We basically just reorganized our strongest material.”

Although filming did not begin until mid-November 1981, Paramount had already booked The Wrath of Khan into theaters for June 1982.

Nicholas Meyer: “When I did Time After Time, I had about five months to edit the film. On Star Wars, George Lucas took about a year. I would have had a month (on The Wrath of Khan). At that point, they’d have had just about enough time to put in the special effects, put in the music, make their hundreds of prints and get them to the multiplexes on schedule.” Meyer was forced to work around the clock, shooting the film during the days and editing it at nights, in order to give himself more time.

Leonard Nimoy: “Never again the raised eyebrow; never again the delicious teasing of the irascible doctor, or the offering of logic to my impetuous friend and captain. Never again the mind meld, the neck pinch, or the Vulcan salute and blessing ‘Live long and prosper.’ The weight of it finally struck me as I was driving home. I asked myself, ‘What have I done?’”

James Horner (Composer): “(Nicholas Meyer) knows what he’s talking about, musically. He wanted to give the film the feeling of an adventure on the high seas. It’s that sort of nautical, under-sail, wind-blowing spirit that I’m after, as opposed to Star Wars’ very imperial, material kind of theme.”

After the film was complete the decision was made to shoot additional footage, including Spock’s coffin at rest on the Genesis Planet, which gave the film its “There are always possibilities” open ending. The new footage was shot without Nicholas Meyer because he did not wish to participate.

Nicholas Meyer: “I tried everything to stop (the new ending). It was done without me and put in without me. I thought it was wrong. They said, ‘Oh, we can’t just kill off a main character, audiences won’t go for that.’ So I said, ‘You’re absolutely wrong. Beginning with Romeo and Juliet, they do go for it, all that matters is whether or not you do it well. And with Spock, I think we’ve done it well.’ So the open ending was an upstairs decision and I don’t know why they made it.”

Nicholas Meyer: “In retrospect, while I think their decision worked well in setting up the movies that followed, in terms of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I don’t think it made a difference.”

Although the film made its debut in some cities as Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the title was quickly changed on most prints to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan—essentially the only nod in the entire film that the first movie even existed.

Gene Roddenberry (Executive Consultant): “I thought they were very lucky they had the actor they did in Ricardo Montalban to play Khan, since it was not a well-written part. ‘I will chase you through the moons of Jupiter’ and so on, in the hands of almost any other actor would have gotten snickers from the audience. Montalban saved their ass. Khan was not written as that exciting a character, he was rather flimsy. The Khan in the TV episode was a much deeper and better character than the movie Khan, except that Montalban pulled it off. I also objected to other little things. Remember when the eel came out of Chekov’s ear? What did Kirk do? He had a look of disgust on his face and grabbed his phaser and went ‘zap.’ Now, how dare he destroy a life form that had never been seen before! It needs studying. They had him act like an old woman trampling on a tarantula. Now that’s not the Kirk we built up for three years. So many of those fine little things in the episodes, hundreds of them, are what gave Star Trek its quality. Unfortunately, they began doing those things incorrectly in (Star Trek II). There was also a great deal of violence. But yet, it was exciting, exciting photographically. I’m grateful that it did what it did.”

Nichelle Nichols (“Uhura”): “I think this is the definitive Star Trek. They’ve captured the essence of what made the show wonderful.”

Walter Koenig (“Chekov”): “I think if you can point to one single element that makes this film successful, it is the presence of a formidable, worthy antagonist. You can’t have conflict unless you have something to butt up against. V’ger was more like something you were in awe of.”

James Doohan (“Scott”): “To me, this movie is Star Trek the way it should be.”

DeForest Kelley (“McCoy”): “This is the kind of film that in fact we had all hoped for the first time.”

William Shatner: “Star Trek, really for the first time since the second season of our prime time run, was back on track. We’d finally found the creative footing that had previously proven so elusive, and additionally, the chemistry and camaraderie between our characters were back in abundance.”

Information Sources
Star Trek Movie Memories by William Shatner, 1994.
The Making Of The Trek Films by Edward Gross, 1992.
I Am Spock by Leonard Nimoy, 1995.
The Star Trek Compendium by Allan Asherman, 1989.