The Wrath of Khan doesn't seem like a "best Star Trek film" to me -- why do so many people think that it is?

To be clear, I’m not looking to debate whether this is the best Trek film. Rather, I’m asking why so many people see it as such.

I enjoy TWoK well enough, and certainly it is a good film overall. But consider: it is much more militaristic than any Trek before and more than most Trek since, and relatively violent compared to TOS; there is no exploration of strange new worlds; tonally, it is quite different from most Trek stories. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these qualities are required for a “good” Trek film – I’m just noting a few obvious ways that TWoK is unusual.)

In terms of TOS episodes, TWoK is probably most like a combination of “The City On The Edge Of Forever” and “Balance of Terror” – which, to be fair, are beloved classic episodes, in part because they are somewhat exceptional compared to the rest of the series. So perhaps that gives us some clue as to why the film is so beloved.

In general, TWoK is ultimately about mortality. For all that the film professes to be about Khan, he really is just an Act of God (in the natural disaster sense), creating an unstoppable force that Kirk must humble himself against. The film is really about Kirk learning to confront death – heightened by the contrast of the new life of Genesis and in his newly-rediscovered son. And that is something that the film did which was new: able to plumb the depths of Kirk’s emotional journey at greater length thanks to the larger screen and the longer format.

But, again… it’s a great film, but I don’t know that it’s obvious to me that Kirk learning to deal with the no-win scenario particularly epitomizes what “Star Trek” is (whatever the hell Star Trek actually “is”). In that respect, The Voyage Home seems like the most obvious candidate – whatever Star Trek “is”, to me TVH “feels” more like it than does The Wrath of Khan.

So, why has TWoK earned such a place of acclaim?

(PS: I could write a similar post about First Contact, whose popularity also confuses me.)

downpunxx,
downpunxx avatar

Khaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnnnnn! can't be beat, end of

cloudy1999, (edited )

There’s almost too many good things to make a coherent summary, so let me list some high points: Khan is a tie back to Space Seed, an original series episode featuring Ricardo Montalban. Also, James Horner’s sound track was incredible. Kirk’s Explosive Reply and Surprise Attack almost tell the story all by themselves. Then there’s the well paced storytelling of the cat and mouse battle between Enterprise and Reliant. Throw in some dark sci-fi elements (possibly Alien inspired) like the ear bugs and the abandoned science station filled with rats and dead bodies. There’s the Trekish ethical/moral plot of making Genesis vs using it (not unlike Oppenheimer). The self exploration of a middle aged Kirk who’s realized he’s getting older and regrets missing out on a family. The no win scenario and the loss of Spock. Spock’s death is a powerful scene that plays Vulcan logic against human emotion on the stage of a deep friendship. Generally, the film transforms Kirk into a three dimensional character. Those are a few things.

Edit: spelling

PottedPlant,
@PottedPlant@lemmy.world avatar

Good take - I think you nailed it.

I would add this:

Ricardo f’in Montalban

The dude nailed it.

His chest should have been in the credits for supporting actor.

cloudy1999,

Agreed, Ricardo did have an exceptional chest. We could all only be so fortunate.

Melkath,

Also:

KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!

deepthaw,

I’m glad somebody else has brought up that TWoK sort of feels at odds with Trek despite being the best of the films. However, I say it is still the best Trek movie because:

It focuses on the characters who know from Star Trek, and their growth, change, loss, and acceptance is critical to the story. While the things that happen to them aren’t limited to Trek characters, Kirk, Spock, et al. were the definition of “Star Trek” at the time.

The militaristic aspects aren’t totally foreign to Star Trek. While exploration was always at the forefront of their mission, Starfleet was (as Carol Marcus pointed out) still a military organization. What has happened is that the exploration/scientific aspects in the story have been initially shifted to Dr. Marcus.

The sci-fi aspects and story telling are still very strong, it’s just that Kirk and Khan shooting each other in a nebula is so great that we forget they’re there.

  • What are the ramifications of a device like Genesis, which puts a civilization even closer to the ability to “play god?” Is every tool that can create also doomed to be a weapon that can destroy?
  • How does a future society balance the often competing goals of scientific exploration with military power, especially given something like Genesis?
  • What responsibilities do we have when we decide to “play god” within a much smaller microcosm such as Khan’s people. Kirk presumed he was doing the right and just thing by setting them up on a planet but never returned to check on them. Was he responsible for what happened to Khan as a result?

The increased breathing room of a full motion picture that doesn’t have to delve into the backgrounds of the characters we already know gives the story room to breath, and unlike TOS we have time to let events that aren’t driven strictly by the “gimmick” of the scifi aspect intermingle and impact with the plot device(s).

I still hold that TMP is the most “Trek” of the movies, but TWoK is the best of the movies while still being sufficiently “Trek.”

maplealmond, (edited )

The problem with crowning The Voyage Home as the best Star trek movie is that the Enterprise is absent.

It’s not like you need the Enterprise for good Star Trek. Many of the best episodes have not really used the ship. But for a movie to be the pinnacle of Star Trek in fan reactions, the absence of the Enterprise is keenly felt.

If I was going to put any movie up against The Wrath of Khan it would be the Undiscovered Country. Everything I like about TWoK returns in The Undiscovered Country. An iconic and interesting antagonist? Check. A starship battle decided by clever outthinking of the enemy instead of a situation where the main character and antagonist end up in punching match? Also check. Kirk confronting his place in a world that keeps passing him by? Also check.

If I had to ask why does TWoK beat out TUC, and it only does by the narrowest of margins, it’s that TWoK has slightly more universal themes. The Undiscovered Country is about the end of the Cold War, and if you grew up in that time, it resonates strongly. Treating your old enemy with respect, moving past your old hate, these are things which landed much harder in the early 1990s than the early 2020s.

But growing old, life passing you by, old mistakes coming back to haunt you, the danger of revenge, all those stand out today as well as they did when the movie first aired.

TWoK aged better than the others, though not by much. Many of the other movies are very, very good. I personally rank TUC and TWoK almost even.

I do think TWoK has in my mind soured a little for the same reason that First Contact did. Its success ensured we’d get so many attempts to dip into the same well again. But that’s a very subjective issue, and one which it’s hard to really hold against TWoK.

Stamets,

Not a clue. Funny thing is that I can’t stand Wrath of Khan but actively enjoy Into Darkness. The movie that everyone calls a ‘worse Wrath of Khan’. The blood magic is utter nonsense but otherwise I enjoyed the movie far more than the original it’s based off of.

startrekexplained,

I actually agree, while good, Star Trek 2 kinda seems overrated now on repeat viewings. I even like Star Trek 1 a bit more. Then again, my favorite of the films, First Contact, seems to be hated by a good chunk of the fanbase now so what do I know?

Kahlenar,

I can’t imagine why first contact would be hated, it had everything: a good fight scene, the Defiant, and a special effects budget

startrekexplained,

Well everyone who tells me it sucks cites the old RedLetterMedia review as a gotcha. That review I guess changed some peoples minds

Prouvaire,
Prouvaire avatar

I've always maintained that TWOK is not just a really good Star Trek movie, not just a really good science fiction movie, but a really good movie period. It transcends the franchise and the genre, which I don't think can be said of any other Trek movie.

It's a movie that's about something meaningful - getting older, confronting mortality and legacy, and renewal through sacrifice. Kirk starts out feeling old, worn out, but ends with him saying "I feel young". Maybe it's a little trite when put so bluntly, but it's executed in an elegant and impactful way.

TWOK evolves Kirk in a way we hadn't seen before. He is a different person at the end of the movie than he was at the beginning (or throughout the TV show). Less cocky, more aware of the consequences of his actions, because it literally cost him his best friend.

Spock's death scene was the first time Star Trek ever made me cry. You can argue that TWOK is more militaristic than Star Trek normally was, but the themes of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice is pure Trek idealism. One could even argue that TWOK is about exploration, but an inner journey not an external one: Kirk encounters for the first time (by which I mean in a way that truly hits him) "death, the undiscovered country" (the film's working title).

In David Marcus and Saavik TWOK introduces what might have been a new generation of characters, to whom the torch might have been passed if they hadn't been killed off and sent to the home for pregnant Vulcans, respectively, in later movies. In either case, these two new characters - especially in light of Spock's death (a death sadly temporary, to the franchise's long-term detriment) - tie into the themes of mortality and legacy.

TWOK has what's arguably Shatner's finest performance - certainly in Star Trek, maybe ever. Everyone else is also in top form.

TWOK has the best antagonist. So compelling was Khan that they keep on trying to remake the "so-and-so is out for revenge" story. Montalban was so good Paramount even launched a "For Your Consideration" campaign to get him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod. And Montalban's Khan easily has the best chest of any Trek villain.

Even though Khan is the best villain, Khan and Kirk actually never physically meet. Their entire confrontation is carried out over comms. They never get into a fistfight or even breathe the same air, something that took me years to realise. Because theirs feels like the most visceral, tense and personal battle of any movie.

Even though TWOK was made on a very limited budget, a lot of the production design and visual/special effects hold up - there's a reason why Robert Fletcher's monster maroons are so iconic for instance. So many effective little moments. Eg the Genesis simulation (one of the first uses of CGI in a movie), though primitive by today's standards, still looks really cool because of the way it was storyboarded by ILM, with the camera sweeping ahead of the Genesis effect, then the effect catching up to it.

The battle scenes have real weight. I've always thought that Meyer's conceptualisation of starships as capital ships - rather than as jetfighters - made for better fight scenes. The entire movie is basically Roddenberry's "Horatio Hornblower in space" idea realised (hence touches like the bosun's whistle and the old-fashioned look of the uniforms), an idea which carried over to how he staged the battles, with Enterprise and Reliant squaring off like galleons at sea.

Speaking of battle sequences, the "gatling gun" phaser effect is still the best phaser effect in Trek. And you've never felt the pain of the ship getting hit as acutely as the "can opener" shot: another example of a shot which is unremarkable at a technical level today, but which still has an emotional impact. Ditto the Ceti eels.

Horner's music is arguably the best of any of the movies. There are individual tracks in other movies that might rank alongside or above the best of Horner's tracks - eg Goldsmith's First Contact theme or Giacchino's "Enterprising Young Men" - but as a whole I don't think you can surpass TWOK's score.

There are so many iconic moments and lines. "Aren't you dead?", the Dickens and Melville quotes, "I never forget a face, Mr... Chekov", "I don't like to lose", "He's so... human. / Nobody's perfect Mr Saavik", "I have been and always will be your friend", "Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most... human".

Is it a perfect movie? No. Eg while a lot of production design works, some of it looks cheesy (like Meyer's obsession with blinkety lights). Some of the supporting characters aren't utilised as well as they might have been. (But then, the TOS movies have all been Kirk movies - it's worth remembering that TOS was not an ensemble show, but one with a clear primary, secondary and tertiary character.) But the elements in TWOK that don't quite work don't detract from its overall impact and quality.

JohnnyEnzyme,

Wow, what a great mini-essay. I’d love to see it posted such that more ST fans could enjoy it.

He is a different person at the end of the movie than he was at the beginning (or throughout the TV show). Less cocky, more aware of the consequences of his actions, because it literally cost him his best friend.

Hmm, the idea of ‘cockiness’ is an interesting one that seems to meet the eye test, but I’m not sure I really agree with. That is-- altho he could indeed bluff, boast and ‘exert his personality’ here and there in the series, it felt to me like there was almost always a stone-cold, calculating nature behind it.

TWOK has what’s arguably Shatner’s finest performance - certainly in Star Trek, maybe ever.

I’m tempted to agree, altho reading something like Shatner’s Toupee, I was impressed by how many strong performances he turned in over the years. For example, I’d never heard of Incubus nor The Defender before, but that amazing blog introduced those and many other interesting acting he’d done.

I also feel that in the series proper, Shatner showed an amazing versatility in terms of ways to react and play various scenes, to the extent that I can’t imagine how much more dull the show would have been with Jeffrey Hunter as lead. So I think it’s fair to say that while his TWOK performance was great, he also turned in a load of other great performances as Kirk and other characters. Which was ‘finest?’ I suspect that’s a pretty monster and/or nebulous debate, really.

arquebus_x,

At the very least, TWOK takes the position of "best Star Trek film" simply because all the other ones are worse. (And I'm someone who thinks TFF is good, actually.)

aebletrae,

I saw The Wrath of Khan as a kid, quite possibly before seeing any of the series, so there’s never been any question of it not being representative of Star Trek for me, though I can see how someone approaching chronologically might see more of a disparity.

However, TOS had plenty of deaths, including destruction of starships, as did V’Ger’s, uh, collection of data, so does TWoK really stand apart in that regard? Chekov and Terrell kick off the plot while surveying planets, encountering a strange alien creature, and Kirk and co. find an underground paradise; I see that as fitting the explorative aspects of the show, at least somewhat. The villain is defeated with teamwork, deception, and by outplaying him, common to the original series. And the story raises some ethical questions regarding cheating, playing god, and marooning, again in the tradition of the show. I see the differences as more stylistic than substantial, but as I said, personal history affects my perspective.

As far as general movie principles go, music can be a strong influence on audiences, and Wrath of Khan has a great score.

khaosworks, (edited )
@khaosworks@startrek.website avatar

Oh, where do I start?

It’s a really, really tight script, for one, with little or no filler. Unlike TMP, it moves swiftly from scene to scene, from setup to setup, establishing its themes of mortality, aging, the inability to let go of the past, the tragedy and joy of moving forward, of rebirth right off the bat, in so subtle ways that most don’t catch it until later or a rewatch.

For fanservice, it makes good use of a loose end from TOS continuity which is simple enough for non-fans to get without much exposition, and memorable enough that old viewers will remember it. The relationship between the Big Three is no longer as broken as it was throughout most of TMP, and the banter naturalistic and enjoyable, even among the supporting crew.

Nick Meyer adds all these little touches in the background that make it ripe for literary analysis. A Tale of Two Cities and its themes of sacrifice, Kirk’s fondness for antiques, never really established before, echoing his nostalgia for times past. In Khan’s cargo carrier, you see on the shelf as Chekov discovers the SS Botany Bay tag: Dante’s Inferno, stacked on top of Milton’s Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained, stacked on top of Moby Dick, showing the progression of Khan’s experiences on Ceti Alpha V, echoing his hope in reference to Milton at the end of “Space Seed” - to rule in Hell, build his own Paradise - now replaced by obsessive revenge.

ST II also sets up TNG, in its way, by introducing Peter Preston, David Marcus and Saavik - essentially Scotty, Kirk and Spock’s offspring - the next generation of voyagers that the old guard are trying to give way to, but the past just won’t let them and indeed threatens that legacy.

And then of course there’s the space battles - never really as well executed due to SFX limitations in TOS - but yet leaning so completely into the nautical and submarine metaphor established by Roddenberry and “Balance of Terror”. It was a risky move in an era dominated by adrenaline-fueled Star Wars dogfight-like starship combat, but Meyers’ direction made it work. There’s never a time you don’t know exactly what’s going on in that battle, or what tactics the two sides are employing.

You’re right in the sense that it’s not traditionally what one expects of Star Trek, leaning more into the pulp adventure mold rather than the aliens and exploration mold. But to a degree it’s still an optimistic future. Kirk’s son and Spock’s daughter ready to take the reins, the Genesis Planet representing the potential for new life, Kirk himself experiencing a rebirth of sorts as he finds his youth restored as his best friends told him it would be - on the bridge of a starship. But who says the final frontier can’t be inside us, too? (Archer said as much)

And in the end, it’s a complete movie. The forced-on-Meyer shot of Spock’s torpedo casing notwithstanding, it’s a complete story from start to finish, with no “The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning” tease or the sequelitist tones of the next two movies. All the information you need to know is in here. You could watch it without tying it to a larger universe and be completely satisfied with the experience. All you really need to know beforehand is that it’s connected to this TV show from the 60s.

Scrof,

My favourite was The Motion Picture, it was the most Star Treky of the bunch for sure with awesome high concept sci-fi without a dumb blockbuster feel.

startrekexplained,

Thats why I like Star Trek 1 as an adult

unix_joe,

Same. Really the only Trek movie I like. Tried to do too much with graphics in 1979, but I think the remasters finally captured what was intended. The 2022 version on YouTube is amazing.

It’s really the only Sci-Fi Trek movie, and the only one that got better as it aged.

erp,

Wrath of Khan was the only Star Trek motion picture to feature rich Corinthian leather® on de Plane™!
This is why II is best Trek, young Padawan.

jordanlund,

First, you kinda had to be there…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture kind of went over like a wet fart in church. People really didn’t like it.

So II rolls up, changes the uniform styles, brings back a classic villain, a tense, action driven script, and emulates Balance of Terror which is quite possibly the best TOS episode.

Then, following it up is Search For Spock which was mostly forgettable. Then Voyage Home which is just as well liked as II.

That started the early meme of “odd numbered ones suck, even numbered ones are good.”

Which held for V and VI as well.

SteleTrovilo,

It’s a great example of a science fiction action movie, with great character work, creative action, and a truly original doomsday device that doubles as a compelling philosophical what-if. It’s got a lot to say about the morality of revenge and about the futile attempt to evade consequences.

And of course it’s exciting and suspenseful, too!

There are two things I actually don’t like about WoK:

  1. It’s inspired too many “villain” stories - Shinzon, Vedic, the Borg Queen, and Nero are trying and failing to be like Khan, and it drags down the stories around them. (I don’t actually think Khan in ID is a villain at all - he’s a reflection of Kirk - but that’s a separate discussion.)
  2. Uhura was given nothing to do.

But it’s still a great movie that showed what Star Trek can achieve when it tries.

WarmSoda,

It’s when Star Trek went WoK

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