Best Served Cold, by Bob Connally

21 Apr

There has long been a debate about whether Trekkie or Trekker is the proper name to describe Star Trek fanatics. Whichever one it is, I can’t claim to be one. I’ve always been a casual Star Trek fan. I have seen every movie but only a handful of episodes from the original series and The Next Generation. So it may come as a surprise that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite movies of all-time.

I first saw Wrath of Khan when I was 12-years old. A few days earlier my mom had taken me to see Star Trek: Generations, mere hours before I discovered I had chickenpox. On my Christmas vacation. This was not how I wanted to end 1994/begin ’95. Not being able to go anywhere for several days of course limited my options. So my mom and I decided we would watch Star Trek II, III, IV, V and VI (the last three of which I had seen before). We didn’t watch The Motion Picture because my mom was still annoyed she had been subjected to it in 1979.

All I remember about the last few days of my vacation was watching five Star Trek films with my mom while not scratching my face. Even then, my critical eye was budding. It was clear that the even numbered Treks were the better ones and that the best of them was The Wrath of Khan. It would be many years and several re-visits to it however before I would truly come to appreciate what a magnificent film Nicholas Meyer had really made.

Star Trek II begins as a film about the crew of the Enterprise coming to terms with the fact that they are getting older. (For all anyone making the film – or watching it – knew, this could very well have been the final bow for the cast or for the Star Trek franchise entirely.) The movie opens with James T. Kirk (William Shatner) now an Admiral in Starfleet, no longer at the helm of the Enterprise. He is feeling as though his purpose in life is now gone. However, when the ship receives a distress call on a training mission, he assumes command, discovering that an enemy he had left for dead on a remote planet fifteen years earlier (in the original series episode “Space Seed”) is still alive. Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) firmly believes in the “old Klingon proverb,” that, “revenge is a dish which is best served cold.” From here, Star Trek II becomes a battle of wills and wits between Kirk and the “superior intellect” of Khan.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is of course primarily thought of as a science fiction film and while it is that, it’s really a movie that ticks every box one could possibly want a movie to tick. It boasts excellent character development, an utterly absorbing story, expertly directed action sequences, a sense of humor that befits its characters (and that is often very sly), a thrilling musical score by a young James Horner, one of the greatest villains in movie history, and an ending with incredible emotional power.

So about that ending. In 2012, I got to see this film on a 70mm print at Seattle Cinerama with the best audience I’ve ever seen a movie with. It was a Saturday night in a theater packed with people who I could tell had all, like me, seen Star Trek II several times, knew the film backwards and forwards, and probably owned it on Blu-ray. Nobody was obnoxiously quoting lines before they were spoken but seemingly everyone was reacting with enthusiasm to everything. Little exchanges and facial expressions got huge laughs. People cheered the introductions of William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban. The roof just about came off the auditorium after, “KHAAAAAAAAN!!!!” We were into. This. Movie. Then the moment came.

“Jim…I think you’d better get down here,” McCoy says over the intercom. “Better hurry.” Kirk looks to his right and sees Spock’s empty chair. He already knows.

Maybe it’s just because it was such a contrast to the entire movie up to that point but it became a moment where I could hear the silence of the audience. All that broke it up was the sound of a few people sobbing. It really was amazing. Here we all were watching a thirty year old movie we knew inside and out, watching a death scene for a character we all knew full well was resurrected in the very next film. And yet, its power was in no way diminished. Neither Spock nor Star Trek in general are often cited for their emotional power but for me, Spock’s goodbye to Kirk (“I have been and always shall be… your friend”) is as powerful a moment as any in film.

A large part of why the ending is as effective as it is comes down to it being inevitable. Everything about the film was building towards Spock’s sacrifice and death and what dealing with that would mean for Kirk. It really is a perfectly constructed screenplay by Jack B. Sowards, masterfully directed by Nicholas Meyer.

Every time I watch it I find things that I haven’t before that change the way I look at it. It was only in the last few years that I realized that Khan almost certainly goes to his death believing that he’s won and killed Kirk. The Enterprise only escapes seconds before Khan dies in the explosion of the Reliant (that is if he didn’t die from his wounds shortly before that). We never see Khan’s reaction to Enterprise’s escape and he of course could never have known that Spock sacrificed himself, putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few, or in Spock’s case, the one.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is endlessly watchable and re-watchable. It never fails to entertain or to move. It’s a movie where everything clicked to absolute perfection and its huge success is undoubtedly the reason that Star Trek stayed alive and has ultimately thrived for the past 35 years.

As a companion film (keeping with the spirit of More Than One Lesson) I recommend 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I know, you’ve probably already seen it but if you haven’t watched it in a while it really does hold up and is a lot of fun.

One Response to “Best Served Cold, by Bob Connally”

  1. Bro April 21, 2017 at 8:00 pm #

    You can have Khan, but for me, Star Trek 4: Save the Whales will always be the best of the best.

    “Hellooo, computer…”

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