The ponderous, turgidly paced Star Trek: The Motion Picture managed to eek out enough box office to warrant a sequel. However, the studio slashed the budget. The job of director went to Nicholas Meyer, who’s sole directing credit was the quaint “Time after Time” and was otherwise ignorant of the Star Trek universe. He turned out to be the perfect choice to revive the franchise.
Meyer’s vision, “Horatio Hornblower in space”, would recast Trek in the vain of colonial era nautical combat. This meant adding layers of rules, regulations, and protocols common to navies. It also informed the space battles, they became more “pounding contests” between the ships with the victor often barely seaworthy afterwards.
Ricardo Montalaban, who often lamented that he was never given a great role, pours his whole soul into this performance. Haughty and virile; stronger and more intelligent than Kirk and impossibly manages a bigger and more fragile ego than even William Shatner can muster. In other words Khan is the perfect villain. The heroes’ strengths and weaknesses amplified to such a degree that any attempt at direct conflict would fail conclusively.
So thoroughly outclassed--Khan even manages to secure a better starship than Kirk’s Enterprise--what’s the recourse for the hero? While Wrath of Kahn begins with Kirk lamenting his middle age, whenever boxed in Kirk is able to fall back on the breadth of his experience to rebuff Khan time and time again. The famously cavalier captain proves that he indeed knows Starfleet regulations, so well versed that he’s able to briefly turn Khan’s ship defenseless and pass code over open channels of communication. His established friendships with a starfleet officer saves him from the assassin’s phaser. In the final confrontation, Kirk is able counteract his opponent’s amateurish steering by literally adding another dimension to the playing field. Fun stuff.
Wrath of Khan makes good use of all the original cast members, even affording Walter Koenig’s Chekov to carry Khan’s introduction. Rounding out the cast are the ever reliable Paul Winfield; Bibi Besch as Kirk’s former love interest; Kirstie Alley as the sexy but restrained Saavik, Spock’s protege; and Merritt Butrick as Kirk’s son.
The effects work Wrath of Khan is often written off as where the seams show from the poor budget, but the truth is they’ve survived as well as any from their era. Meyer’s too smart to sell the film based on the visuals alone, preferring to rely on the strength of his actors to sell the story.
For all the successes of this picture, the remaining entries in the Star Trek film series seemed hellbent on removing everything it added. In the very next feature, Kirk’s son David would be dead and Spock brought back to life. Bibi Besch wouldn’t make another appearance. Saavik would become a traitor in part 6. Director Nicholas Meyer would be booted from that role in favor of Leonard Nimoy and then William Shatner. If the odd-numbered Star Treks have poor reputations it may be that Meyer was most involved with the evens.