Reflections on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on the big screen

The best production of 50 years of Star Trek, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, returned to theaters Sunday for two screenings nationwide, and audiences packed theaters from coast to coast.  The 35th anniversary of the biggest summer of movies continues Wednesday with your last chance to see 1982’s The Wrath of Khan back on the big screen as Paramount Pictures partners with the Fathom Events series once more.  We couldn’t wait to see it again and saw the first screening Sunday and were quickly reminded why the film was such a success.  What were my takeaway thoughts this time through the film?  Leonard Nimoy’s voice echoed throughout the theater with every line (was this his finest work as Spock?).  Kirstie Alley’s Lieutenant Saavik fits right in as the new crewmember.  The lengths director and screenplay writer Nicholas Meyer took to make the Enterprise look like a functioning military vessel:  from the boatswain’s whistle, to the formality of the uniforms and ship inspection by Admiral Kirk, the pulsating real-world sound effects of the two competing vessels, and the military tactics and trickery as Khan and Kirk try to one-up the other that always connects this film for me to another favorite, The Hunt for Red October.  William Shatner was so cocky and confident.  Tightly edited action sequences, camera angles placing the audience inside the bridge and into every nook and cranny inside the Enterprise (Turbolift doesn’t work? Let’s take the ladder), and James Horner’s unforgettable and unique musical score.  And it was fun for me to think back of all the people who made this film that I have had the good fortune to meet, like Shatner, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig.  Each of these actors seem to have done their best work in this film.

What surprised me?  After watching Sunday’s screenings I heard remarks from viewers about how many new scenes they did not remember, and this was echoed across the Internet, including comments from long-time Star Trek fans and insiders.  But it makes perfect sense–unless you are a rabid Star Trek fan, you probably didn’t track all the variations in the film that have been released over the past 35 years.  If you have a photographic memory at all, you may hear lines in this week’s presentation that don’t quite match up.  But if you only saw the film in theaters or via early DVD and Blu-ray releases, you will have seen different versions of the film (for one example, the original cut didn’t include the current title, instead it was Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, without the II).  If you watched the expanded ABC TV movie re-broadcast on television in 1985–as many did before the prevalence of home video options–you saw a version different from the 1982 release, full of entirely different takes of several scenes.  In 2002 a Director’s Edition was released, and if you saw the film recently at all, but before 2016’s official Director’s Cut, then you probably last saw the Director’s Edition.  The differences from what was scripted and filmed and what made the original theatrical version alone literally fills ten pages of Allan Asherman’s 1982 book The Making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but even that book of course couldn’t include the differences found in the much later ABC TV version and subsequent editions.  The version in theaters this week is the official 2016 Director’s Cut, itself absorbing so many modifications from the original 1982 release from prior incarnations.  But this is the final, the version Nicholas Meyer (the reputed “Man Who Saved Star Trek”) discussed with me in my interview with him here at last month.

Wait–What’s going on here?  I don’t remember this scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan! (Keep reading!)

So if you recall a more suggestive relationship between Kirk and Kirstie Alley’s Lieutenant Saavik, or sensed a romantic relationship brewing between Saavik and Kirk’s son David (played by the late Merritt Butrick), you won’t notice that so much in the Fathom Events presentation (below you’ll see the ABC TV version offered more “steamy” close-ups and additional dialogue amplifying the more womanizing Kirk of the original series).  If you don’t recall that Scotty has a young relative aboard the Enterprise, be prepared for a pleasant surprise, including some great additions featuring Kirk and Scotty.  The midshipman’s (played by Ike Eisenmann) death is more poignant in the latest cut, and an entire sequence between McCoy and Kirk gets us further into Kirk’s thoughts in the aftermath of Khan’s attack.  A conversation about ego between Spock and Alley adds further justification for Kirk’s actions as he taunts Khan into the nebula.

Newspaper advertisement for the 1985 ABC television presentation of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

But do you recall seeing a child in Khan’s crew on Ceti Alpha V?  McCoy mentioning he served with Paul Winfield’s Captain Terrell?  How about McCoy operating on Chekov after he returns from the Genesis planet and Chekov struggling to return to help on the bridge?  Sulu’s promotion to the Excelsior, or Kirk’s final line, quoting Peter Pan’s “first star on the right, and on ’til morning”?  That Saavik is half-Romulan?  David besting Kirk and holding a knife to his throat?  How about these lines from Khan:

“On Earth, 200 years ago, I was a prince, with power over millions–now, like Prometheus, I have been left by Admiral Kirk to digest my own entrails,” and “And I’ll wager he never told you about his shipmate, the beautiful and courageous Lieutenant McGivers, who gave up everything to join me in exile, out of love.  And see how Admiral Kirk requited her devotion–she’s dead as earth!  A plague upon you all,” or “I, Khan Noonian Singh, the eagle you attempted to cage forever.”

Scenes filmed for The Wrath of Khan but cut, that still made it to trading cards.

You haven’t seen this footage, because none of it made it into any released version of the film, or into any deleted scenes featured on DVD or Blu-ray.  Most can be found in the early drafts of the script and some mentions in the novelization, but much was actually filmed by Meyer, and fans have collected bits and pieces of the footage in various forms, the full volume of which is believed housed intact at the UCLA Library Film & Television Archive.  This includes a scene with a young boy peering out of Khan’s vessel on Ceti Alpha V who later, in what would have been an over-the-top and gut-wrenching scene, approaches the Genesis device just as it is detonated by Khan (unknown child actor shown below and on set with director Nicholas Meyer).


Here is some audio footage that didn’t make the film, revealing Sulu’s promotion to the Excelsior, which, like Kirk’s delivery of the Peter Pan line (and Nicholas Meyer’s original title for Star Trek II: “The Undiscovered Country”) audiences ultimately do not see on film until the arrival in 1991 of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country:

Here is footage of Spock remarking about Saavik as half-Romulan, and some of the footage hinting at a relationship between Saavik and David, which we don’t see hints of even via Robin Curtis’s assumption of the Saavik role in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock:

And here are comparisons highlighting major differences between the original release, the ABC TV broadcast, and the Director’s Cut.  Note some changes consist of color correction and pan and scan clean-ups, but some are completely different takes:

So grab your friends, those who saw it in the summer of 1982 or on television in 1985 or on laserdisc, Beta, VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray, and those who have never seen it as it was intended to be seen, as Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan–the complete Director’s Cut–comes to a theater near you Wednesday, September 13, 2017, at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. local time, including a newly produced, in-depth interview with William Shatner that will play before each screening (an interviewer practically jumps out of his seat fanboying about the film with Shatner).

Theater tickets are available now at the Fathom Events website here.  The Director’s Cut of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is currently available on Blu-ray here at Amazon, including more than two hours of in-depth bonus features.  For an added throwback, check out the Wrath of Khan reunion as Merritt Butrick (David) reunited with Judson Scott (Khan’s henchman Joachim) as guest stars in the 1988 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Symbiosis.”

C.J. Bunce




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