This year is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, so we are going celebrate the best movie in the ‘Star Trek’ franchise for Throwback Thursday, ScienceFiction.com’s ongoing column dedicated to the great science fiction of the past.
Yes, I said the best, and I’m pretty sure 99% of the Trekkie population would agree. Sure, there are thirteen movies, so it stands to reason that there should be some disagreement, but honestly, ‘The Wrath of Khan’ will always top the list. After all, it was so loved that the alternate universe mimicked it (to disastrous, or beautiful results depending on the viewer).
I’ve put a lot of thought into why this is. Maybe it’s because the plot is worthy of a Shakespearean revenge play. Maybe it’s because we can empathize with the villain. Maybe it’s because it is the only ‘Star Trek’ movie that happens in direct relation to a previous episode. Maybe it’s because Ricardo Montalban is just a damn good actor, and very pleasant to look at.
Probably it’s all of those things.
‘The Wrath of Khan’ is essentially the sequel to the ‘Star Trek’ episode, “Space Seed”. The episode is probably remembered well because of the movie, but I suspect that it was thought of as a decent episode, with some great acting, but maybe not one of the greatest episodes, even though Khan was one of their best villains. Essentially Khan and a ship of followers who are genetically enhanced are exiled into space after trying to take over the world, ne’er to ever be worried about by Earth again. That is until the Enterprise finds them, and resuscitates them. While Khan is being outright charming, and seducing a Federation historian, Marla McGivers, the crew begins piecing together who he is really is… and are almost too late to stop him from taking their ship to finish what he started on Earth.
It’s a good episode, don’t get me wrong. But what it becomes is something far more intense.
Flash forward to the future. Khan had actually loved the historian he seduced, and she goes with him when he and his crew are exiled on a desert planet that is barely habitable. To be fair to Kirk, it was almost a paradise when they arrived. But a freak ecological disaster makes it impossible to survive. McGivers dies, and Khan becomes too angry that he concocts a plan to lure Kirk out and have his revenge.
It sounds basic, I know. But imagine you’re watching this movie for the first time, and all you have are reruns of the original series. Imagine the horror you must feel when Chekhov happens onto a ship on a desert planet with the name “Botany Bay” (the ship Khan was exiled on). You would be jumping up and down in your seats because the best villain of ‘Star Trek’ is back. Sure his name was in the title, but just knowing the most intelligent man that ever lived is gunning for our fair Kirk had to have had every Trekkie’s heart beating hard and fast.
Anyway, Khan manages to get off the planet, and resolves to kill everything Kirk holds dear… like his kid that was never mentioned before. Oh and baby-mama Carol Marcus (who is nothing like her counterpart in the reboot films), but that is neither here nor there as much as I want to make it everywhere.
The two fight in a very Moriarty versus Sherlock kind of way where there can be no winner since they are equals… or maybe Harry Potter and Voldemort kind of way, which is to say one cannot survive while the other one lives.
And that’s when the movie goes from good to downright insane. Here you are, a ‘Star Trek’ fan, and you’re watching your beloved ship fall apart, and Kirk finally meeting his match. And then, horror of horrors, the only way to save the day is for Spock to essentially expose himself to lethal doses of radiation in order to fix the warp core breach, thwarting Khan’s mutually assured destruction plan… but still, killing Spock… which is just… heavy.
You lose red shirts in ‘Star Trek’. You don’t lose people with actual names and backstories. Imagine you are watching Khan for the first time, and all you know is the original series and the very much maligned motion picture. You wouldn’t be able to leave the theater because there was too much to think about; too much to digest. Not the least of which is watching your favorite character die.
Maybe that’s why ‘The Wrath of Khan’ is so well-loved. It was a true continuation of a ‘Star Trek’ story, with real consequences that constantly surprised the viewer. Add that to constantly being in view of Montalban’s well-sculpted abs, and you have one of the greatest sci-fi ever written.
If you haven’t seen it, go do it. If you have, try watching it as if it’s your first time, and have a truly new experience. You won’t regret it.