12 things you may not have known about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

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Jun 4, 2017

Today (June 4) marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Although the franchise had returned to life 10 years after the original series was canceled with 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount Pictures was wary of making another movie. ST: TMP was ultimately a financial success, but it was enormously expensive to make, and both fans and critics had given it a lukewarm-to-hostile reception.

Laying the blame at the feet of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who had produced ST: TMP and conceived its ponderous plot, Paramount brought in veteran TV producer Harve Bennett to make a new Star Trek movie on a budget. Figuring that a sequel had to return to the show's roots -- action and adventure, but with intelligence and morality -- Bennett decided to make a follow-up not just to ST:TMP, but also to one of the series' most popular episodes: "Space Seed," in which Ricardo Montalban played a genetic superman from the late 20th century named Khan, who is revived in the 23rd century and plans to conquer the galaxy with the Enterprise as his weapon.

The movie -- in which Khan seeks revenge against Kirk 15 years after the events of "Space Seed" -- captured the flavor, tone and camaraderie of the original series, much more than ST: TMP did, with a fearsome villain in Khan, an aging Kirk (William Shatner) coming to terms with his mortality and his past, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) making the ultimate sacrifice in a plot stroke that was both ingenious and controversial. Directed and co-written by Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time), Star Trek II was an enormous hit and is to this day the gold standard against which all other Trek movies are held.

35 years after its release, here are a dozen things about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan -- its conception, development and production -- that you may never have known ...

1. The Roddenberry Factor

Gene Roddenberry wrote his own treatment for Star Trek II, in which the Enterprise crew discovers that the Klingons have used the Guardian of Forever (from original series episode "The City on the Edge of Forever") to go back in time and change Earth's history, wiping out Starfleet and the Federation. The story also involved the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with one rumored draft revealing Spock as the shooter on the grassy knoll (!) who must kill JFK for history to get back on track. Paramount was not pleased with the script and did not want Roddenberry working on a second movie anyway, so he was made "executive consultant" and his screenplay abandoned.

2. Tonight's Star Trek Episode: The Wrath of Khan

Stung by the high cost of Star Trek: The Motion Picture ($45 million -- an astronomical figure at the time), Paramount wanted badly to downsize the franchise and in fact decided to make a second Trek adventure as a TV movie -- with the stipulation that if it came out really well, the studio would release it theatrically. They turned to veteran TV producer Harve Bennett to oversee the project. When asked if he could bring it in for less than "45-f**ing-million dollars," Bennett famously replied, ""Where I come from, I can make five movies for that." (The film came in at around $12 million.)

3. Star Trek: Generations

Bennett's first treatment for the sequel was called War of the Generations, in which the Enterprise investigates a rebellion on a distant planet and Kirk discovers that its leader is the son he never knew he had. When it's revealed that the mastermind pulling the rebels' strings is none other than Khan Noonien Singh, father and son team up to defeat him. One version included one-time Kirk love interest Janet Wallace, first introduced in the the original series episode "The Deadly Years," as the mother of Kirk's son. Later scripts by Bennett-recruited writer Jack Sowards introduced the concept of the Genesis Device (first called the "Omega System") and its ability to either create or destroy planetary ecosystems. Khan, the Genesis Device, and Kirk's son were all elements that made it into the final movie. Sowards was credited on screen with the final script, although director Nicholas Meyer did an uncredited rewrite.

4. A Khan-less Star Trek II?

At one point in the script development process, Harve Bennett had Jack Sowards take a break and solicited ideas from three sci-fi writers who had all contributed episodes to the original series: David Gerrold ("The Trouble with Tribbles"), the legendary Theodore Sturgeon ("Amok Time") and Samuel A. Peeples ("Where No Man Has Gone Before"). Gerrold and Sturgeon's pitches are lost to history, but Peeples apparently wrote a treatment in which Khan did not appear, replaced by two super-powered aliens who almost destroy Earth accidentally. Think about that -- Star Trek II: Not the Wrath of Khan.

5. The Death of You-Know-Who

Spock's death was dreamed up by Harve Bennett as a way to lure Leonard Nimoy back; Nimoy did not want to do a second picture, but was intrigued by the idea of playing Spock's death scene. The beloved Vulcan was initially supposed to die in the movie's first act, as a Psycho-style surprise, but the big scene kept getting pushed further and further into the script until he ended up sacrificing himself at the end to save the ship. The early death was re-inserted into the movie, in a way, when Spock "dies" in the Kobayashi Maru simulator in the movie's opening sequence -- a scene meant to throw fans who had heard that the Enterprise's Science Officer was doomed off the scent.

6. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

One way in which Harve Bennett kept costs way down on Star Trek II was by re-using a lot of material from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The bridge set was redressed but kept essentially intact, and was also used as the bridge of the U.S.S. Reliant and the "bridge simulator" for the Kobayashi Maru test. Numerous visual effects shots -- of Klingon ships, of Kirk's shuttle docking next to the Enterprise, of the starship slowly leaving spacedock -- were also recycled from the first movie to save time and money. Those were just some of the methods Bennett used to make The Wrath of Khan for a price -- which ultimately made it much more profitable.

7. Where is Khaaaaaaaaaan?

Ricardo Montalban was several seasons deep into his role as Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island when Star Trek II came calling, so when it was time to get back into character as Khan, he needed a quick refresher course and requested a copy of "Space Seed," Khan's original series debut. After watching the segment three or four times, Montalban felt himself returning to the mindset of Khan again. Speaking of Fantasy Island, it was partially due to the production schedule on that show that Star Trek II is missing a face-to-face confrontation between Kirk and Khan. Because of Montalban's filming commitments on the series, his scenes and Shatner's were filmed months apart, limiting the interaction between the 23rd century captain and 20th century tyrant to viewscreens and communicators

8. The Lost Origin of Saavik

Many viewers are startled by a shot during Mr. Spock's funeral in which we see his protege Lieutenant Saavik (played by Kirstie Alley in her film debut) with tears running down her face. Aren't Vulcans incapable of showing such emotion? Well, Saavik was conceived as a mix of Vulcan and Romulan, so she does not withhold her feelings the same way that full-blooded Vulcans do. Her back story was not made clear in the movie, which is why two other expressions of emotion -- a quiet "Damn" during the Kobayashi Maru sequence and a gasp of horror when Scotty brings his wounded nephew to the bridge -- seem incongruous, as well. There's even a scene in the original novelization of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in which Saavik (played in that movie by Robin Curtis) sleeps with Kirk's son David -- we almost wish they'd kept that little subplot in...

9. That Time Star Trek II Made Visual FX History

There's a scene in Star Trek II where Kirk, Spock and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) watch a computer simulation of the Genesis wave transforming a barren planet into a fully living and habitable one. Created by Lucasfilm engineer Loren Carpenter, this is the first fully computer-generated sequence ever used in a feature film. Carpenter actually made the CG breakthrough while working at Boeing, where he used it to create realistic landscapes for aircraft flight simulations; little did he know that his work would revolutionize -- for better or worse -- the motion picture industry (side note: the Lucasfilm computer graphics group that produced the scene was later sold to Steve Jobs, who turned it into a little company called Pixar).

10. Cast or No Cast

Leonard Nimoy was not the only original cast member to hesitate at making a new Star Trek film. At one point or another, William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, and George Takei all nearly passed on the movie, while James Doohan had suffered a heart attack shortly before filming began. Shatner was unhappy with Nicholas Meyer's first draft of the screenplay, and also uneasy about playing an older Kirk (he thought he could use make-up to keep the character "young"). Kelley initially turned it down, but was satisfied with changes that Meyer made. Takei was, unfortunately, left high and dry: Sulu was originally supposed to command the Reliant (he'd finally get his own ship four movies later) but was busted back to helmsman on the Enterprise. Even a few character bits promised to him were apparently dropped from the final cut.

11. "My Beloved Wife"

Originally, the character of Lieutenant Marla McGivers -- the Enterprise historian seduced by Khan in "Space Seed," who ultimately joins him in exile on Ceti Alpha V -- was supposed to appear in The Wrath of Khan, and the actress who played her, Madlyn Rhue, approached to reprise the role. Sadly, however, Rhue suffered from multiple sclerosis and was confined to a wheelchair, so McGivers was written out of the movie. Khan references the death of "my beloved wife" when he is first encountered by Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) on the surface of the planet -- almost certainly meaning McGivers.

12. The Name Game

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan went through several name changes over the course of its development, with early titles like Star Trek II: The Genesis Project and Star Trek II: The Omega System giving way to Nicholas Meyer's preferred title, Star Trek II: The Undiscovered Country (a line from Shakespeare refers to death as the "undiscovered country"). But the studio nixed that -- although Meyer eventually used it for Star Trek VI -- and wanted The Vengeance of Khan. That too was scuttled by news that the next Star Wars film would be called Revenge of the Jedi (later Return), so The Wrath of Khan was eventually what everyone settled on.

(Sources: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan -- Director's Cut on Blu-ray, IMDB, Memory Alpha, Star Trek Movie Memories by William Shatner and Chris Kreski, The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman)