In the interests of honesty, I have a minor confession to make: I don’t think Star Trek Into Darkness was all that bad. Granted, I only saw it once, but I remember mostly liking it for what it was. I know it’s not a popular opinion among Trek fans, and for good reason. Like the first of J.J. Abrams’s reboot series movies, it is much more of an action movie than a Star Trek story. But my general opinion on why fans don’t care for it that much is simply this: it tried to remake what the general consensus says is the greatest of the movies to feature the original cast.
And you know what? Every time I rewatch Wrath of Khan, I tend to think the general consensus is right.
The origins of Wrath of Khan are simply this: Gene Roddenberry got pushed aside, a new producer named Harve Bennett took over, and Bennett, having never really seen the old TV show but thinking the first movie was dull, watched a bunch of the old show’s episodes, really liked the character of Khan, and also came up with three plot ideas. He wanted to bring in a single antagonist in the form of Khan, he wanted Kirk to have a son, and he thought it would be interesting if the Federation developed some kind of potential doomsday weapon.
And then someone thought it would be cool to basically do all three of those ideas at the same time.
And somehow, it works. It really works.
After all, why wouldn’t Kirk have a son with all that space carousing he used to do? Heck, the lad’s mother, Carol Marcus, hadn’t appeared on the show, so Kirk’s womanizing clearly continued long after the show ended…or perhaps it all happened before the show started. Point is, David Marcus is a full-grown adult, a scientist like his mother, and a young man who holds the father he never really knew in complete contempt until he gets to know him.
And he’s a lot like his father.
We also get the first appearance of both Kirstie Alley and Saavik. True confession: I didn’t see these movies in order originally, and actually didn’t much care for Alley the first time I saw her. I just didn’t think she made a good Vulcan. I also didn’t recognize her for some reason. Later on, well, I still don’t think she makes a good Vulcan. Also, Saavik seems to follow Kirk around like some kind of Vulcan fangirl, constantly looking to get something from Kirk, even if it’s just how he beat the Kobayashi Maru.
Still, we have adult children and a new generation on the Enterprise for what is intended to be a simple training mission for Starfleet cadets under Spock’s general tutelage and Kirk, as an Admiral, is just there to observe. And Kirk, well, he’s a bit miserable. That was hinted at a bit in the first movie, but here both McCoy and Spock separately tell Kirk he shouldn’t be a paper-pushing Admiral, that he was happiest commanding a starship at the rank of captain, exploring the stars and doing the general cowboy-in-space act. He’s a man used to winning (he hates to lose, he says so himself), but he isn’t a young man anymore, and it’s his birthday and everything.
That said, as much as it comes down to Khan looking for revenge against Kirk for an incident that is in no way Kirk’s fault, we have a good villain to go along with the movie. If Shatner is known for his scenery-chewing, he’s met his match in the bare-chested Richardo Montalban. And here is where the conflict between the two men works out. Khan is both stronger and smarter than, well, everybody. But Kirk has one thing Khan doesn’t: experience. For all Khan’s brilliance, he just doesn’t know Starfleet regulations and three-dimensional battle tactics the way Kirk does. Kirk knows how to shut down another Starfleet ship with a handful of the right numbers. Khan doesn’t even know that’s possible. And Bennett, along with director Nicholas Meyer, understood something few Trek movies do: these ships can travel in multiple directions. They’re more like submarines than battleships. Khan thinks two-dimensionally. Kirk thinks, out of practice, in three.
But then there’s Spock, and for all Khan makes an incredibly memorable villain, the thing people rightfully remember here is Spock’s death. It’s hinted at early on, when one of Kirk’s first lines is to ask Spock why he isn’t dead after faking it for a stimulation. And sure enough, Spock dies, and KIrk loses his composure in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do before or since. Yes, Spock doesn’t stay dead long and the Genesis Project already set in stage the means for Spock’s return, but seeing it happen, perhaps suspecting he wasn’t coming back for audiences seeing this movie for the first time in 1982, complete with Scotty playing the bagpipes because of course Scotty can play the bagpipes, it does lend a somber tone to a movie that, essentially, is about growing old. And when people grow older, their longtime friends start to die.
Granted, they don’t usually die changing out the radioactive core in a warp drive, but the point stands.
Basically, there’s a lot going on, appropriate for Star Trek, and it’s still rather tense, exciting, and smart. I don’t think any single installment of the series ever captured the basic human condition as well as this one did, and all it took was a couple big hams going off against each other.
Besides, this one kicked off a nice trilogy of films that tell one longer story. I guess for now, we may need to go looking for Spock.