[SPOILERS] In the wake of The Motion Pictures' critical flop, it was something of a surprise to find Paramount giving Star Trek a second chance to prove itself on the silver screen. To be fair, TMP had made enough cash to justify a do-over. Creator Gene Roddenberry, blamed for TMP's failure by the studio, was swiftly removed from the creative process, leaving writer-director Nicholas Meyer to hammer out a screenplay in 12 days (unpaid) after watching all 79 episodes of the '60s show.
Meyer chose to pitch a sequel to an episode he loved called "Space Seed" (concerning the awakening of a genetically-engineered villain cryogenically-frozen in the distant past), and imbue the film with a faster, slicker, militaristic vibe...
Recycling sets from the big-budget TMP ($35m), the modestly-budgeted Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan ($11m) went into production in 1981, primed for a 1982 release. Leonard Nimoy returned as Spock (on the understanding that a death scene for his character be incontrovertible -- hehe) and Trek regulars like Kirk (William Shatner) and McCoy (DeForest Kelly) were joined by Ricardo Montalban, reprising his guest-role as Khan from "Space Seed", and a pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley as the Vulcan Lt. Saavik.
The story concerned the Federation's invention of a terraforming system known as the "Genesis Device", which Kirk's estranged son David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) has been involved with. While scouting for an inhospitable planet to test Genesis, the USS Reliant's Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) and Lt. Chekov (Walter Koenig) are captured on the supposedly-barren Ceti Alpha IV by a ragtag group of genetically-engineered men, led by the eponymous Khan, who were supposedly left behind on Ceti Alpha V by Kirk 15 years ago.
Unbeknownst to the Federation, the destruction of a neighbouring planet altered Ceti Alpha V's orbit, condemning Khan's people to an extreme desert environment. Sensing an opportunity to escape their dusty prison, Khan uses indigenous mind-controlling slugs to ensure Chekov and Terrell's obedience in luring the Enterprise into orbit, so he can exact his revenge on Kirk for the hardship his crew have faced.
Writer-director Nicholas Meyer should be credited for transforming Star Trek into its modern shape with this movie. Light-years away from the primary-coloured '60s series and its drab movie predecessor, he constructed this movie as Hornblower in space, with elements of Herman Mellville's Moby Dick thrown in for good measure. Indeed, Khan and his cronies are essentially intergalactic pirates trapped on a desert island. One of many things missing from TMP was a human villain, and Trek gets one of its greatest foes in Montalban's insane, indelible performance.
Khan's the avenging Ahab; Kirk the nemesis Whale. And the space-opera that ensues between the two is gripping to watch. Fascinating even, considering the hero and villain only really square off during an extended battle of wits inside an opaque nebula; the Reliant and Enterprise sparring like mighty galleons in a dangerous ocean -- reducing Kirk to primeval bellowing ("KHAAAAN!"), as his enemy cooly quotes literature ("...for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee...") and never admits defeat.
Performance-wise, this is the pinnacle of Shatner's Trek tenure. He feels totally at home in the role and his character has some decent subtext to work with; the story revolves around aging, death and resurrection, with middle-aged Kirk receiving reading glasses as a birthday gift, and reflecting philosophically on his younger days as a carefree starship captain. The central Genesis device brings life to death, but slow-aging Khan sees only the opportunity to bring death to life, and the mission to retrieve Genesis ultimately gives Kirk a sense of midlife rebirth. In retrospect, it's funny to consider Kirk's age concern in Star Trek II, given the fact Shatner would go on to star in four more sequels, and is still going strong in his late-70s. He's a relative spring chicken here!
Star Trek II is also home to my first childhood brush with a great movie tradition: the death scene. Here, Spock saves the Enterprise from annihilation by a Genesis-bomb primed by Khan aboard the Reliant, by braving radiation in the Engine Room to restore the Enterprise's warp power. The rapture of avoiding certain destruction immediately soured once Kirk realizes their salvation came at the cost of his best friend's death. A beautiful scene, perhaps the best of the entire series; Kirk separated from the dying Spock only by a pane of glass, both friends saying their farewells. Affecting and understated work, the elegant move into Spock's funeral and Kirk's eulogy ("...of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most... human") still brings a lump to the throat, and a tear to the eye. Thrilling, intelligent, dramatic and exciting, with just a dash of camp silliness, little wonder Star Trek II is most people's favourite.