Study Guide

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Nicholas Meyer

    It Doesn't Take A Trekkie

    They call him "the man who saved Star Trek," and it's a pretty accurate assessment. Nicholas Meyer was the right guy at the right time to give Star Trek its greatest moment. And ironically, he wasn't even much of a fan when he started.

    In fact, that might have been his secret weapon.

    Meyer had a history of shaking up well-established literary franchises for the better. After scripting the schlock classic Invasion of the Bee Girls, he stepped up his game to write and direct The Seven Percent Solution, based on his own novel, which took a long, hard look at Sherlock Holmes's cocaine addiction.

    He repeated the trick a couple of years later with Time After Time, a nifty science fiction movie speculating what might have happened if H.G. Wells actually built the time machine he wrote about in his famous novel.

    So you take a guy with a knack for coming at things from an interesting angle, and you hand him Star Trek. The franchise was not in the best shape when he found it. Yes, the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture had made money, but it was a critical disaster and didn't become the monster hit that the producers clearly hoped it would. The cast was getting older, the TV show was a decade in the rear-view mirror, and if this second effort didn't work, Paramount was likely going to pack up the whole circus tent and try something new.

    Star Trek? Never Saw It.

    Enter Meyer, who had seen a few Star Trek episodes, but was hardly what anyone would call a Trekkie. Because of that, he didn't view these characters as sacred cows, which meant he could take them in some really interesting directions. (Like, oh yeah: kill one of them off.)

    He also had a nifty notion for the action scenes that got away from the Star Wars-style dogfights that were all the rage at the time, as well as the rather clunky laser battles of the original series. He claimed that Trek reminded him of Horatio Hornblower—a series of swashbuckling naval combat novels set during the Napoleonic Wars—and set out to make the Trek universe resemble an outer-space update of those 19th century ship-to-ship battles.

    He gave the series a creative shot in the arm by still throwing in a nice throwback feeling. We find this creativity mostly in the script and in the new, exotic setting. But the most important thing he brought back was the sense of character and fun that the first movie lacked.

    We get to see McCoy and Spock bicker like they used to:

    McCOY: Why you green-blooded, inhuman…

    We get to see Kirk make eye contact with the ladies and make them weak in the knees. We even get to listen to Scotty's whimsical stories about outer space venereal diseases. This was the stuff fans remember from the original series.

    Ironically, the people closest to it were too close to see what they had lost. Either that, or they were too busy trying to imitate other science fiction movies (like Star Wars and 2001) to remember that they didn't have to imitate anyone.

    That's what Meyer brought to the party. He never saw these characters as untouchable, and so he was able to have a little fun with them and restore the human dimension that the first film lacked. In the process, he turned Paramount's $11 million budget into a $78 million profit…good enough to make for a bona fide hit in the summer dominated by E.T., and keep the franchise going into a very bright future.

    Meyer became something of a good luck charm for the series. He wrote the screenplay for Star Trek IV (which Leonard Nimoy directed), and returned to write and direct Star Trek VI, which are considered two of the better entries in the franchise.

    Along the way, he also directed the apocalyptic The Day After for television, as well as the Tom Hanks comedy Volunteers and the Pierce-Brosnan-fights-the-Thuggee extravaganza The Deceivers. But Star Trek II is the one he's best remembered for, the one that made him a pillar of one of the biggest science fiction franchises of all time.

  • Screenwriter

    Jack B. Sowards

    Nicholas Meyer was an unofficial screenwriter, and we talk about him in the "Director" section. But officially, the screenwriter was Jack B. Sowards, a television writer best known for his work in Westerns like Bonanza. Star Trek II was his only movie script, but since it was based on a television show, it made perfect sense. (Source)

    He also managed to bring one of the film's key players back to make it. Sowards was brought in in part to talk to Leonard Nimoy, who had had his fill of the pointy ears and was eager put Star Trek behind him. The producers worked and worked, but Nimoy kept saying no. This Enterprise mission was going to go forward without its first officer, which could have been disastrous.

    But then came Sowards, who had a good relationship with Nimoy, and called him up to promise the one thing he hadn't had before: a brilliant death scene for Mr. Spock. Not only would Nimoy get a terrific moment, but he'd also never have to play Mr. Spock again.

    Well Nimoy bought it, and the rest is history. Sowards wrote the scene, Spock's death left all of us weeping like children, and Star Trek got the high point of the whole phenomenon. It was so powerful, in fact, that it caused Nimoy to rethink his attitude toward Spock. He returned to direct Star Trek III and would reprise his role for numerous additional appearances. We have Sowards to thank for that.

    He made other great contributions to the script too, such as the Kobayashi Maru concept, but nothing quite tops getting the Vulcan back. Sowards continued working in TV for another eight years before retiring in 1990. He passed away in 2007, having put in motion one of the most beloved death scenes ever put on film.

  • Production Studio

    Paramount Pictures

    These days, you often have separate companies producing the films and the big studios distributing them. But back in 1982, that just wasn't the case, and for a franchise at the tipping point like Star Trek was, Paramount wasn't about to let it out of their sight.

    The studio itself ranks as one of the earliest ever founded in Hollywood, starting out in 1912 as Famous Players Film Corporation and eventually becoming Paramount formally in 1927.

    Historically, they avoided becoming affiliated with one single genre, like other studios tended to do. (Warner Bros, for example, became known for its gangster pictures, while MGM had musicals, Universal had monster movies and Disney had…well, we're pretty sure you can guess what Disney had.)

    Instead, Paramount banked on stars, pushing early screen icons like Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks as the draw for their movies. The formula worked very well for a time, though the company ran into trouble in the 1950s and 60s when their business model began to fade.

    They were saved by a couple of things. First there was the arrival of actor-turned-producer Robert Evans, who restored their fortunes in the 1970s with a string of hits like Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Love Story and The Godfather. The second was their investment in television. They were early adherents of developing programming for TV and in 1967 acquired the rights to Desilu studio (Lucille Ball's company). That, in turn, gave them the rights to Star Trek, which is how Captain Kirk and the gang ended up in their wheelhouse.

    For Star Trek II, the studio wasn't interested in messing around. The first Star Trek movie had gone way over budget, and while it made money ($82 million), that high production cost ($35 million) cut into the profits. (Source)

    They booted series creator Gene Roddenberry, who they blamed for the bloated production, and brought in TV producer Harve Bennett to help this one.

    Bennett came up with the original story along with screenwriter Jack B. Sowards. At the suggestion of fellow Paramount exec Karen Moore, he brought Nicholas Meyer in to direct. Meyer hadn't seen much Star Trek, but his Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Sigmund-Freud novel The Seven Percent Solution had the same funky reboot vibes that Paramount was hoping to find.

    On a budget of $11 million, Bennett and Meyer delivered a winner to the studio. The film made about the same as the first one, but with a much smaller budget, the profits were much more profit-y, and Paramount was willing to go all in on more Trek movies.

    The rest, as they say, is history. Paramount produced a whole slew of new films, as well new TV shows and attendant piles of ancillary products that brought the money rolling in. Trek remains one of the tentpoles of the studio, thanks largely to the success of this film, and while Paramount has a bevvy of great pictures to claim, this one holds a significant spot among them. (Source)

  • Production Design

    35 mm Film

    Star Trek II showed up well before the age of digital filmmaking, so it was old-fashioned film for Nicholas Meyer and his crew. There were other limitations too, most of which had nothing do to with the fact that the most powerful computer at the time could probably be lapped a thousand times over by your cell phone.

    The original Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a reasonable hit, but it was also super-expensive, and the final numbers didn't match the producers' sky-high expectations. So when they started the sequel, the order came down from on high: trim that budget and make do with less.

    The funny thing is, the comparative cheapness didn't matter a whole lot. Meyer's effects team saved their ammo for the big stuff—the thundering showdowns between the Enterprise and the Reliant—and found ingenious ways to cut corners on the other stuff.

    The scenes with the Enterprise leaving space dock were simply recycled from the first film, while key models like Space Station Regula One were simply Star Trek I models turned upside down. Much of the action takes place on a limited handful of sets, and in fact, Kirk and Khan never actually meet up face to face.

    Most people never noticed. The Wrath of Khan scored its juice by returning to the strong characters and interpersonal drama that made the TV show so beloved, instead of trying to blow everyone's socks off with a lot of expensive visual effects. Everyone saw Kirk, Spock and the gang doing what we wanted them to do—bicker gamely while facing down a seemingly insurmountable threat—and the effects acted to augment the background rather than become the purpose of the exercise.

    There's a lesson in there: a special effect is only as good as your story. A good script means people won't care how many shots of those Klingon warships they saw in earlier movies. A bad one means that not only will we care, but we'll spend the rest of eternity pointing out the stinky in that endless echo chamber that is the internet.

    The masterminds behind Wrath of Khan chose wisely.

  • Music (Score)

    James Horner

    Not-So-Humble Beginnings

    "My job," James Horner once told an interviewer. "Is to make sure at every turn of the film it's something the audience can feel with their heart." (Source)

    That means he likes his music big and bold, and you can see that on full display in Star Trek II. He comes from the same tradition as John Williams, with a lot of heavy brass instruments and a pounding, operatic quality to it all. That's in keeping with a space opera, of course, which is probably a big reason why he got the job.

    Horner got started at the Royal College of Music in London, but came out to Los Angeles to teach music theory at UCLA. He started composing short bits for student films at the nearby American Film Institute…and then moved on to working for B-movie king Roger Corman. His first official score was for Corman's space-age Seven Samurai remake Battle Beyond the Stars, which readily set him up for the kind of operatic grandeur that Star Trek II required.

    Still, he was in the lower echelon of things, and had Star Trek II gotten a little more love from the budget department, he might never have gotten his shot at the big leagues. Jerry Goldsmith, who composed the score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and ranked among a tiny handful of the greatest film composers of all time, was way out of their price range.

    So they went with Horner, giving the kid a shot to see what he could do.

    Launched Into the Stratosphere

    And he nailed it. Horner used a lot of operatic brass and larger-than-life themes, loosely following the trend set by Goldsmith for the first Star Trek movie, and John Williams for the Star Wars films. Yet he found his own rhythm and unique voice for the themes here: Star Trek to be sure, but definitely his take on Star Trek.

    His ideas reflected Williams' ethos of telling the story through the music, underlining the emotional themes in a big, bold way that no one could possibly miss. Khan's theme is menacing and larger than life. The Enterprise gang gets something more along the lines of plucky underdog (and string intensive). Spock's theme is meditational and a little alien. At every turn, Horner informs us of the emotions on screen, augmenting the drama rather than competing with it.

    And with it, he was off to the races, composing a total of 157 scores, including the notable 48 Hrs., Aliens, Willow, Glory and Apollo 13. He also landed the score to Titanic, which became the highest grossing film of all time for a while and netted him a pair of Oscars (one for the proper score and one for "My Heart Will Go On," which will endure forever in the hearts of Celine Dion lovers and dentists' offices everywhere). (Source)

    He landed himself eight other Oscar nominations along the way, and eventually became one of Hollywood's go-to guys for snazzy film music. It's safe to say that his work on Wrath of Khan really sent him on his way.

    Sadly, we didn't get to hear everything he had to compose for us. He died on June 22, 2015, at the relatively young age of 61, when the plane he was piloting crashed in the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California. He left too soon, but his music lives on.

  • Fandoms

    There are fans, there are super-fans…and then there are Star Trek fans.

    Their inexplicable rivalry with Star Wars fans notwithstanding, they kind of set the bar for enthusiastic fanbases. In fact, without them Star Trek might have ended up as some forgotten also-ran of a TV show.

    The term "trekkie" first arose in 1967, when series creator Gene Roddenberry showed up at a science fiction convention to preview an upcoming episode of the show and was greeted by a mob of enthusiastic fans. And their devotion continued after the show was cancelled in 1969. The first big fan convention was held in 1972 in New York City. Roddenberry attended, and, fed by the show's reruns in syndication, the base of Trek faithful only grew from there.

    Like the characters they loved so much, Trek's fans have been innovators. They successfully lobbied NASA to name the very first Space Shuttle the Enterprise. (Source). And when the whole crazy "internet" thing got started, they were among the ones making early use of it. (Source)

    Their dedication extended to other things as well: wikis, fan fiction, cosplayers and convention after convention after convention. None of that's unique, of course, but Trek fans—whether you call them Trekkies, Trekkers, or just folks who look good in a set of pointy ears—set the pace that all those other fan bases have followed.

    The stars of Trek, for their part, have had a mixed reaction to their devoted followers. After being overwhelmed by fans while attending a parade in his Spock gear, Leonard Nimoy swore he would never appear as Spock in public again. (He recounts the story in his book I Am Spock.) Indeed, the only reason he agreed to take the job in Star Trek II was because they were killing off the character.

    William Shatner, for his part, had his own brush with the fan base, notably in an infamous Saturday Night Live sketch in which he admonished a convention full of (fictional) fans to "get a life!" Other members of the cast all have stories of encounters with unhinged fans.

    And yet, their stance softened over time as they realized just how much of an impact their work has had. Nimoy obviously thought better about the whole "never play Spock again" thing, returning for numerous appearances and even directing Star Trek III and IV, which restored Spock to life.

    In an interview with Playboy magazine, Shatner recounted how he met a Vietnam veteran, a POW who stayed sane in the camps by reciting old Star Trek episodes with a fellow prisoner. In the documentary Trekkies, James Doohan tearfully tells about how he talked a woman out of killing herself. The devotion of Trek's fans knows no bounds, and in the end, the entire cast learned to return their love and enthusiasm.

    Aww, shucks.