In 2285, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) conducts a simulator class of Captain Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) Starfleet Academy trainees, in which Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley) commands the Starship Enterprise on a mission to save the crew of the Kobayashi Maru, but is attacked by Klingons and the ship is critically damaged. It is a no-win scenario to test the character of Starfleet officers. Famously, Kirk as a student had broken into the classroom the night before and re-written the program so he could win. After the session, Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) joins Kirk for his 52nd birthday, giving him a pair of antique reading glasses, which does not help his depression about getting older. The doctor’s orders: cheer up and get the command of something besides a desk. The Starship Reliant is searching for a lifeless planet on which to test the Genesis Device, which is supposed to remake dead worlds into habitable ones. Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) beam down to what they assume is Ceti Alpha VI, where they are captured by the genetically engineered tyrant Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), whom Captain Kirk had defeated fifteen years before. Singh and his followers were exiled to Ceti Alpha V, on which they could live and build a colony. But nearby Ceti Alpha VI exploded, rendering Ceti Alpha V nearly impossible to survive on. Many of Khan’s followers died, including his wife, who was Lieutenant Maria McGivens of the Enterprise.
Khan implants Chekhov and Terrell with larvae that make them susceptible to mind control and they capture the Reliant. Learning of the Genesis Device, which could be a powerful weapon, Khan attacks Space Station Regula I and the inventors of the device, Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and her son David (Merritt Butrick) whose estranged father happens to be Captain Kirk.
The Enterprise receives a distress call from Regula I. (Why is Enterprise always the only ship available, and why is it never ready for battle?) Kirk assumes command of his old ship, which is undergoing a training cruise, and speeds to the rescue, but they are attacked and crippled by Reliant. Khan offers to spare the crew in exchange for all the data on Genesis. Kirk stalls and turns the tables on Khan, who retreats, and the Enterprise is sent to safety. Kirk, McCoy, and Saavik beam to the station and find Chekov and Terrell and many bodies, but Carol and David are found hiding in a terraformed cave deep inside a nearby planetoid. Terrell and Chekov resist orders to kill Kirk; Terrell kills himself and Chekov manages to expel the larvae.
Khan transports Genesis aboard the Reliant and intends to maroon Kirk inside the dead planetoid but is tricked by Kirk and Spock. Kirk takes the Enterprise to the nearby Mutara Nebula, where shields and targeting systems are useless. After a blind hunt based on the stand-off between Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens in The Enemy Below, which had also inspired the Balance of Terror episode of the Original Series, there is a battle and Reliant is disabled. In his rage, Khan activates Genesis, which will re-organize the nebula, killing every living thing inside. With the Enterprise warp-drive inoperative, Spock enters the radiation-flooded engine room to restore FTL drive McCoy tries to stop him, but Spock renders him unconscious with a neck-pinch and mind-melds with him, telling him to remember. Spock repairs the warp drive and the Enterprise escapes the Genesis explosion, which creates a new planet filled with life. Dying, Spock tells Kirk that his actions were only logical, since the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. He is buried in space, his coffin landing on the new planet.
The movie was produced and written by Harve Bennett, with Jack B. Sowards and Nicholas Meyer, who directed. Nicholas Meyer also wrote the Seven-Per-Cent Solution and directed Time After Time. Leonard Nimoy appeared because he had been promised a great death-scene. After the beautiful but slow-moving first film, something fast-paced and adventurous was wanted. The Wrath of Khan was a box-office success, critical reaction was positive, and it is usually considered the best Star Trek film. Harve Bennett agreed to direct though he had never seen Star Trek. But he watched the Space Seed episode and instantly recognized Khan as the perfect villain for the piece. The script was leaked, and fans were outraged at the death of Spock. His death was moved to the end of the movie as a climax. Originally, he was supposed to die in the beginning like Janet Leigh in Psycho. Bizarrely, some fans were so upset that they sent death-threats to Leonard Nimoy.
It was to be entitled The Vengeance of Khan, but it would be coming out too close to Revenge of the Jedi, so the title was changed to The Wrath of Khan, which is a wonderful title. Then Revenge was changed to Return of the Jedi. Nicholas Meyer wanted to call it The Undiscovered Country, but that was rejected. He got to direct that later. Shatner persuaded George Takei to appear in it. The view of San Francisco from Kirk’s apartment was a painting created for Towering Inferno, making his address 655 Market Street, 135th floor. Scotty’s “wee bout, but Doctor McCoy pulled me through” refers to James Doohan’s recent heart-attack.
Kirstie Alley plays Saavik, Spock’s protégé. She cries at his funeral despite being a Vulcan, since she is half Romulan, though that is not made clear in the movie. She is quite wonderful in the role, being a real pain in the ass to Kirk, constantly quoting the rules to him and unable to understand why he doesn’t appreciate her help. It was her first film-role. When she was a girl, she would fantasize about being Spock’s daughter, and wore Vulcan ears constantly. During her audition, she did an uncanny impression of Spock. After filming, she would take her Vulcan ears home and sleep with them on. Sets from Star Trek: The Motion Picture were used to save money. In the film were cinema’s first entirely computer-generated sequences. The camera used was the same as that used on Star Wars—the Dykstra Reflex. Many of Khan’s henchmen were Chippendale Dancers. A machine at Regula I is from Airplane II, which featured William Shatner.
James Horner created the swashbuckling score. He came cheap but the music, which was his first for a major motion picture, and which he wrote in a little over four weeks, is great. He was told not to use any of Goldsmith’s music, so he went back to Alexander Courage’s TV Star Trek theme, and added his own music from Wolfen, which had been influenced by Goldsmith’s score for Alien. The film revived Star Trek. It won two Saturn Awards and was only beaten out of a Hugo by Blade Runner. In the end, Nimoy enjoyed his death so much he began to think about coming back to life. Playing Amazing Grace on the bagpipes at his funeral was James Doohan’s idea. Bagpipe players would see that he was not really playing, and sharp-eyed viewers might notice his missing finger, which he almost always hid.
The movie borrows heavily from Moby Dick. The book is in plain view in Khan’s shack, and he quotes it word for word: “To the last I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” The whole thing is about Khan and Kirk (King and Church). Ricardo Montalban proves that Bill Shatner is the second biggest ham in the Star Trek Universe. No one else could say, “I’ll chase him round the Moons of Nibia and round the Antares Maelstrom and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up.” And Shatner’s most-quoted line is: “Kha-a-a-n!!! Ironically, Shatner and Montalban are never face-to-face. They see each other through viewscreens, and their scenes were filmed four months apart. Incidentally, Montalban’s chest is his own; it’s not a special effect.