Like the Kool-Aid man busting through a space wall, declaring “Oh yeah,” Star Trek Into Darkness arrives tomorrow, and Cumberbatch is our king. I’m not going to tell you if he is or is not playing a certain someone, but if you’ve seen one second of any trailer, you already know this movie is borrowing heavily from the uber-popular and successful Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It’s about revenge! Explosions! Maybe sacrifice! Things you like about a movie!
But, as great as The Wrath is, did it unintentionally ruin Star Trek films forever?
A brief snippet from Nicholas Meyer’s memoir clearly illustrates, The Wrath of Khan changed Star Trek forever, and most certainly saved it from cutlural oblivion. Though some may bemoan the distancing of Trek from Roddenberry’s utopian ideals, or the transformation of Starfleet into a more militaristic organization, the tone, style and story of The Wrath of Khan works on almost every level. However, a utopian future and Spock’s body weren’t the only casualties of this film. Every single Star Trek movie that came after The Wrath of Khan was completely judged in contrast to this one. And part of the problem with TNG-era Trek films, and even some Trek TV, is that they tried to succeed by emulating the aesthetics, tone, and plot of this movie.
A cursory bit of research from magazine articles I read at the time of nearly all the film releases reveal interviews from the various filmmakers and actors constantly claiming their villain as “the best villain since Khan.” We were told Sybok is the most complex villain since Khan. General Chang knows more Shakespeare than Khan. John Logan and Rick Berman told us Shinzon was going to be even better than Khan. Orci and Kurtzman claimed Nero was as good as Khan and hey; he’s driven by revenge too! The Whale Probe is like Khan…okay, not really, but you get the picture.
Since Shatner screamed that infamous scream, the drumbeat that Star Trek films needed an antagonist to rival Khan has been burned into the minds of Trekkers and the people behind the scenes alike. I’ve already made the case here as to why Trek movies don’t need villains; but suffice to say, the reason why Khan as a character is so great is because he’s unique. Having a character driven by revenge is one thing, but having a character driven by revenge based on events we actually witnessed on the TV show is something else entirely. After all, the movie’s title does reference a “wrath,” implying someone we’ve heard of is coming back. The Wrath of Shinzon would have been ridiculous for a lot of reasons, primarily because nobody knows who the hell Shinzon is.
I’m not saying one needs to see “Space Seed” in order to enjoy The Wrath of Khan, but the existence of the origin story is what makes the the story credible. I think everyone had a hard time giving a shit about Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, because his presence in the zeitgiest just wasn’t strong enough prior to showing up in the movie. This is sort of why Star Trek: First Contact works: having Picard mad at the Borg is great, because a lot of people have seen or heard of the Borg. With Khan, even if you haven’t seen “Space Seed,” knowing it’s there makes the movie way richer. Imagine if, instead of bringing on Christopher Lloyd as Krudge, Nimoy had decided to use one of the actors who played a Klingon on the original show, like John Colicos? Would it have worked? Maybe not, as it would have felt too much like what they’d just done with Khan, but it’s something to think about. (Also, you should really watch “Space Seed,” because it rocks.)
Before 2013, the biggest culprit in trying to rip off The Wrath is easily Star Trek: Nemesis. From the fight in the nebula, to a doomsday weapon, to the fact that a beloved character sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, literally everything is appropriated from Wrath. It was as if after years of dancing around the fact that they wanted to make a movie as good as Khan, the people working on Star Trek just admitted to themselves, “Let’s go ahead and do it. Rip it off wholesale. People will love it, because they loved The Wrath of Khan.”
And though Starfleet ships are hiding in nebulas or other gas clouds way too much post-Khan (see: at least two episodes of TNG, nearly every other episode of Voyager, and at least a couple instances on Enterprise) the real crime of Nemesis is that it doesn’t even rip off The Wrath of Khan correctly. Despite the fact that we’ve never heard of Shinzon, the reason why it doesn’t work is because it simply borrows the imagery and the plot ideas without actually thinking about the pathos of what made all that stuff work. For example: addressing the fact that Kirk and company were getting old really helped ramp up the stakes in The Wrath. In TNG’s version of this, Riker and Picard are fist-fighting everyone. Also, if the TNG films wanted to tap into what made the Khan/Kirk confrontation work, they would have brought back a REALLY memorable character like Q. Wrath of Q, anyone?
But the real problem with all of this is that there should never be an attempt to go back. For the most part, the original films post-Khan didn’t actually do this. Yes there is a crazy ranting villain in Star Trek III, and a well-read one in Star Trek VI, but the movies tried to be about other things. However, every Star Trek movie (with the exception of IV) did feel it necessary to have the mandatory space battle at some point. A space battle is not necessary to make a good Star Trek movie, nor do you need to hide in a nebula, nor do you need a crazy bad guy out for revenge. When Star Trek movies take a chance, like they did with The Voyage Home, it sometimes works. What everyone forgets now is that at the time The Wrath of Khan came out, everything about it was risky. But now, because it’s become so canonized, it doesn’t seem risky at all. It seems perfect.
And this isn’t just the fault of the latter-era Star Trek filmmakers. We the fans are partially to blame here, too. Because we (correctly) love The Wrath of Khan, it’s slipped into the social consciousness that no Star Trek movie will ever be as good as The Wrath of Khan. Well, Star Trek VI was pretty good. Sure, maybe Christopher Plummer wasn’t as memorable as Khan, but he was pretty damn good. If you are a person that wants to see more Star Trek stuff, holding The Wrath as this untouchable standard seems like an unhealthy paradox. It’s like we’ve set up Khan as some perfect ex-girlfriend/boyfriend who dumped us a long time ago, and we compare everyone we date to Khan. We’ll never be happy if we do this!
The Wrath of Khan will never die as long as we remember it, but maybe it’s time to move on.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and has probably seen “Space Seed” more times than is healthy.
(Aspects of this article appeared in a different form on Tor.com in 2011.)