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40 Years Ago: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan May Have Saved the Franchise 

At the end of the universe lies the beginning of vengeance.

Prepare yourself for Warp-10 excitement!

Released in June of 1982 — 40 years ago this week — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is almost universally considered the best film in the Trek canon, or at least the best featuring the original cast. It had the best story, the best villain, and undoubtedly the most shocking conclusion of any Trek film. 

More than a decade after the original Trek series went off the air, the Kirk/Spock cast made a comeback with 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was not, as some misremember, a flop, although its reviews weren’t positive and Trek fans seemed to have mixed feelings at the time. If the follow-up had tanked, who knows in what form the series might have continued in if it continued at all. 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Image: Paramount

Instead, The Wrath of Khan may be the most universally beloved Trek film. Directed by Nicholas Meyer and written by Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards, the film had little involvement from series creator Gene Roddenberry. But it did bring back one of the iconic villains of the Trek mythology, Ricardo Montalban’s  Khan Noonien Singh, who was bent on revenge after the classic Star Trek episode “Space Seed.” 

The plot mostly concerns the Genesis device, a top-secret Federation project, and the Enterprise crew’s attempts to keep it out of Khan’s hands. The main plot takes its time getting going, with Khan not showing up until after the 15-minute mark, but things are moving they never stop. 

For one thing, we get something we’d never seen before- Captain Kirk as a father, as he’s in close proximity to former lover Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and their son David Marcus (Merritt Butrick.) The whole original cast, of course, returned, with some given more to do than others. Walter Koenig’s Chekhov is all over the film, while George Takei’s Mr. Sulu practically has a non-speaking role. 

The film’s famous ending has Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) dying, after sacrificing himself to save the rest of the crew. It’s one of the most emotional moments of the entire Trek canon. 

Image: Paramount

But Spock, needless to say, didn’t stay dead. The next film, released two years later, was subtitled “The Search for Spock,” it was directed by Nimoy himself, and the entire film depicted Mr. Spock’s slow-motion resurrection, thanks to that same Genesis device. Nimoy and the Spock character would continue to appear in Trek projects for the remainder of his life, for almost 30 more years. When Nimoy died in 2015, thousands of people made the same joke: “Why not shoot his body down to the Genesis planet?” 

The two films very much go together, while also keeping up that convention that the even-numbered Trek movies are always better than the odd-numbered ones. And while the Next Generation movies also boasted a second movie that was better than all of the others, that certainly wasn’t the case for the reboot/Kelvin Timeline series. 

Image: Paramount

Leonard Nimoy’s final Trek appearance would be in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, which both brought back a version of the Khan character (played, ludicrously, by Benedict Cumberbatch), and re-enacted the ending of The Wrath of Khan, with Kirk dying this time instead of Spock. But because of the 21st-century blockbuster movie convention that death is nearly always completely meaningless, Kirk was resurrected about two minutes later. The Wrath of Khan and The Search For Spock at least earned Spock’s resurrection. 

 Yes, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is every bit as good as its reputation. The film, along with most of the existing Trek movies and shows, is streaming on Paramount+. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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