The villain quotes Moby Dick with his dying breath, ambitiously cementing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as a cinematic space epic rightly revered for its passion, story arc, and brave sacrifice of one of the most famous characters in pop culture. It’s time for 10 things you never knew about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
It was made without Gene Roddenberry
During the three months of filming on The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry worked on other projects on the Paramount lot, but not this one. He’d been offered a producer role but without any real creative control. The studio had blamed him for the huge cost and middling reception to the first movie.
Roddenberry’s Star Trek II
Gene Roddenberry pitched an idea where Klingons use the time portal from the classic Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” and travel to 1963 to prevent the assassination of JFK, which creates a ripple effect that benefits the Klingon Empire. At one point, JFK would’ve toured the Enterprise, hanging out and chatting with Kirk. The story ended with Spock firing a shot from the infamous grassy knoll. Roddenberry pitched variations on this idea again for Star Trek III and Star Trek IV.
Harve Bennett was a TV producer with hits like The Mod Squad and The Six Million Dollar Man. Paramount tasked him with making a better Star Trek movie for less than the $45 million cost of the first. He pointed out that Star Trek: The Motion Picture lacked a compelling villain and set about binge-watching the entire original series, in a screening room, in search of one. That’s when he discovered Khan.
Potential titles included Star Trek: The Genesis Project, The War of the Generations, The Undiscovered Country – which was, of course, used later – and The Vengeance of Khan. That last title was a little too similar to the original title for the next Star Wars, Revenge of the Jedi, and after all the Star Trek II effects were done by Lucasfilm.
Speaking of those effects, the Genesis Planet scene is often credited with being the first fully CGI scene in cinema history, at least in terms of fractal based CGI.
Khan almost turned it down
Ricardo Montalban returned to the Star Trek universe more than 15 years after his single episode appearance as Khan in the classic original series episode, “Space Seed,” delivering one of the most memorable performances in sci-fi history. But it almost didn’t happen. After five years as the mystically powered Mr. Roarke on TV’s Fantasy Island, Montalban was interested in doing “some kind of mundane story – maybe a light comedy or some story with pathos,” he told Starlog. The script for The Wrath of Khan and the chance to work with the director of Time After Time, Nicholas Meyer, changed his mind. In preparation, Montalban spent a Saturday re-watching his 1967 episode four times.
It was almost a TV movie
The mixed reception for Star Trek: The Motion Picture made the franchise’s future uncertain, something us fans have become all too familiar with over the years. Even as the sequel eventually inched forward, there were reservations. It wasn’t until executives began to understand how great The Wrath of Khan was shaping up to be that they decided to switch it from a made for TV movie to a theatrical release.
Spock must not die!
These days, story secrets are on such lockdown even some of the biggest stars of the Star Wars and Marvel movies aren’t let in on all of the secrets till opening day.
So imagine the uproar when The Wall Street Journal reported that Spock would die in the second Star Trek movie before filming had even wrapped. Rumors circulated that Leonard Nimoy had agreed to do the film only if Spock were killed off in it.
Nimoy was flooded with threatening phone calls and hate mail. There was even a threat against his daughter’s life. “He did not do this picture for that reason,” Bennett told Starlog when the movie was released. “The ultimate victim of it all was Leonard. He was made to look like Spock’s killer.”
In later years, he was more forthcoming. In a 2010 interview with Star Trek dot com, he explained, “One of the problems was that Leonard Nimoy had already written his book “I Am Not Spock.” He had publicly put it out there that he’d never do Spock again… I finally convinced him with a very simple, actor-proof argument. I said, ‘Leonard, if you come back, I’m going to give you the greatest death scene since Janet Leigh in Psycho. One third of the way into the picture, we’re going to kill you. The audience will be shocked. It will be the end of your problems with Spock and we will go on to complete the story.'”
But once news leaked, the angry letters poured in. (Roddenberry expressed his disapproval as well.) “Hence a rewrite and when Nick Meyer, God bless him, came on board we found a way to extend Spock’s role. And it was much better, because I think Wrath of Khan might have been a failure if Spock had died one third of the way through it. So we got Wrath of Khan done, Nick Meyer was brilliant and the rest is history.”
Bennett went on to produce and co-write the third, fourth, and fifth movies, making a cameo as Starfleet Chief of Staff Admiral Bennett in The Final Frontier. His plans for the sixth would’ve been a prequel, bookended by the classic cast, with younger actors playing Kirk and Spock at the Academy. He had his eyes on John Cusack and Ethan Hawke. The studio, however, was eager to get something else out in time for Star Trek’s 25th anniversary, and the man credited with saving Star Trek moved on.
Nimoy returned and sat in the director’s chair for Star Trek III, which made a small but loud portion of the audience upset with him all over again: this time for blowing up the Enterprise.
Theft was a problem
Way before the days of internet-driven spoiler culture, Star Trek II was a closed set, with security. Despite these precautions, a list of items stolen from the soundstages ran four pages, including tactical display units, jackets, and over 30 copies of the script. One cast member invited a friend to the set who turned out to be a freelance science-fiction writer. “He was walking around with a tape recorder,” Executive Producer Bennett told Starlog.
“We discovered that the kid had taped a very crucial story discussion concerning Spock’s fate. We all exploded. ‘Get that tape! Burn that tape!’ By that time, I was a little paranoid, because of all of that ‘Spock must not die!’ stuff.”
The triple bridge
Schedule shakeups and budget concerns meant the Wrath of Khan production crew worked furiously to stay a step ahead. Towards the end, shooting would take place during the day and set construction would happen on the same soundstage at night. The bridge set was actually redressed three times, as the bridge of the Enterprise, the Reliant, and for the beginning of the movie, the Starfleet cockpit simulator.
Kirstie Alley’s tears during Spock’s funeral were reportedly upsetting to William Shatner, because a tightly wound Vulcan should never cry. Deleted scenes explained that Alley’s Vulcan Lt. was more emotional than most because she’s half Romulan.
“He’s dead, Jim.”
According to From “Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley,” Dr. McCoy was supposed to tell Kirk, “he’s dead, Jim.” But the actor knew that audiences would likely laugh at the line, given it had become a famous catchphrase. So a rewritten version with the same intent went to Scotty, who says, “Sir! He’s dead already.”