Tue
May 3 2011 3:21pm
In the Shadow of Genesis: How the Other Trek Films Suffer From The Wrath

Khaaaaaan?

As the brief snippet from Nicholas Meyer’s memoir clearly illustrates, The Wrath of Khan changed Star Trek forever, and most certainly for the better. 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.

But the thing is, there’s only one Khan.

A cursory bit of research from magazine articles I read at the time of the various 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 villains 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 is 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.

Star Trek episode Space SeedI’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 whole villain credible. This sort of works in Star Trek: First Contact by having Picard mad at the Borg, because at least we’ve seen the Borg before. But, the misstep here is that the Borg then get a leader, a character we’ve never seen and just told to hate because she’s in charge of the bad guys. 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 what they’d just done with Khan, but it’s something to think about.

Ummm, can I help you, Shinzon?

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.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanAnd this isn’t just the fault of the latter-era Star Trek filmmakers. The fans are partially to blame here, too. Because we (correctly) love The Wrath of Khan, it’s slipped into the social conciseness 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 staff blogger for Tor.com. Both he and his younger sister can quote from many of Khan’s speeches in “Space Seed” owing to the fact they recored the entire audio of the episode onto a Fisher-Price tape recorder as children.

This article is part of Star Trek Movie Marathon: ‹ previous | index | next ›
20 comments
Bill Siegel
1. ubxs113
I love your analysis of Star Trek, thanks again!
j p
2. sps49
This post illustrates why I say anyone wanting to write (or film) Star Trek should watch the original series, and not base a story or setting on a later iteration. I live in fear that a filmmaker who only saw ST:5 will think they can make a good Trek movie; even trying to emulate a good Star Trek movie is shown to be a terrible idea.
Evan Langlinais
3. Skwid
Great article. Really enjoyed this one, thanks.
Marcus W
4. toryx
This is definitely my favorite Star Trek movie, hands down, but I never wanted another Wrath of (Fill in the blank here). What I would have liked to have seen in future movies, especially in regards to TNG, is an actual exploration based story-line. They sort of tried that with ST:V but only as a means to an end.

Give me a Star Trek movie that's about exploring strange new worlds, tie in a human theme that we can all relate to and offer some development for the characters. I think that could have been every bit as good as, if not better than, ST:II. Alas, no one had the balls or imagination to do it.

Wrath had everything: Human issues (aging, obsolence), battles, nostalgia (Khan and Space Seed), sacrifice and even a little bit of the wonder that came from encountering new worlds as seen in the Genesis Cave and the outright creation of a new world. It wasn't any one thing that made this movie great, it was the combination of all those factors in a remarkable effective way. I really don't know why anyone ever figured that out.
rob mcCathy
5. roblewmac
I don't think Wraith of Kahn is good just becuse of Kahn. Genieues was a good idea. Also think back....no internet no spoilers you're 8 years old and going to see a movie because you and your great grandmother like Star Trek. WHAM Spock dies!! That's going to have a bigger impact than any of the other movies by it's nature.
rob mcCathy
6. roblewmac
You know "James T Kirk meets GOD" is not a bad idea but that was a weak script and now days Spock's brother reminds me of DR zoidberg.
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
@roblewmac- Come back to the site later in the week for my Star Trek V review!
F Shelley
8. FSS
I dunno. Kahn was good, yes, but sometimes I think it overrated because of it's great one liners. I like 4,6,8, and even 9 better. I like the ethical questions better than straight action. Also, wok kinda cemented the idea of Kirk as a kind of swashbuckler, which has been taken waaaay too far in the new movie.

What I'd like to see in the next movie or series is an exposition on the USA's role today. If we accept starfleet to be a fictional America, why not take it forward to the point where starfleet is much more powerful than their weaker but persistent enemies? How does starfleet deal with them? I'd like to see the utopian argument made, even if I disagree with it (and I probably will).
john mullen
9. johntheirishmongol
There is no better Star Trek movie for more than just what you mentioned. It is by far the best performances of the 3 main characters. They are incredibly comfortable with their characters and each other. They look like they care, there is a sense of reality with all of them. In many ways, it is Shatner's best performance of his career. He can go over the top because the situation fits.

It helps to have one of the best villians ever in Khan. Ricardo Montalban is fabulous. Good acting is often playing off who you are working with and they fed on each other well.

About the only issue I had was the introduction of his son, who I thought was just an annoying intrusion to the movie. I was fine with the old gf.

The rule has pretty much been that the good ST movies are those that are divided by 2.
Ashley McGee
11. AshleyMcGee
I had never seen Wrath of Khan up until last year, and after having watched many of the TNG movies and only one other Star Trek originals movie, WoK came as a huge shock. Old Star Trek cast and characters were setting the stage for tropes used throughout my understanding of the Star Trek lore. Also my husband neglected to shield me from the fact that Spock dies. That being said, I'd almost say that the most defining moments of WoK have nothing to do with Khan, but rather with Spock's sacrifice. Khan was a fabulous villain, but I think the movie overall blows many of the other Star Trek movies out of the water.

I agree that Khan is like the ex-boyfriend I'll always be measuring my villains up against in an attempt to re-create a man in his image, oh-so-Ricardo Montalban. I feel terrible that we have set such a standard for ourselves, but there you have it. And you're right. I haven't been happy since before Khan, and I'll never be happy again!

However, as usual, this nerd has to defend Nemesis, simply because I have such huge respect for TNG. I grew up on TNG. I have a thing for Picard. That's my reality. Now, the reason I think Nemesis is not a Khan rip-off is because the two story lines, while essentially the same in a few details, has a completely different moral plot. While Khan is motivated by revenge, Shinzon, while previously unknown (and I've done my fair share of questioning the writing behind Shinzon), is driven by purely destructive malice. Lacking moral grounding, little needs to be known about him, and since this is the case, it sets Shinzon up for death. Obviously Picard can't allow someone like that to run loose in Federation Space, even if it is his clone/brother. Data dying broke my heart, but since half of the Star Trek lore that follows it, disregards Data's death (and Riker's marriage to Troi, and all the other discontinuities that might have made Nemesis truly terrible), I find it equally important to remember that the sacrifice of a crew member to save Captain Picard is one thing, but to save the entire Enterprise is something only Spock could have done. Each character had a different reason for their sacrifice. TNG bases the survival of the crew on Picard, while the orignal Star Trek bases it on the crew as a whole, "The needs of the many outweight the needs of the few."

All in all, though, its really great to be able to discuss WoK. It truly was one of the best. Also, thanks for the chest shot of Ricardo Montalban.
Michael Burke
12. Ludon
Thank you for this. I think you've touched on why I've seen Nemesis only twice (and the second time was because I had to as part of my job at the time). I had not thought of it in comparison to Wrath of Khan. One thing that I had noticed about Nemesis was that there was only one moment from it that stuck with me and that one was only a weak laugh gag. Warf reacting to the song Data sings. WoK had those little character moments that we had come to know and love. Like Kirk commenting about Spock being dead after the fireworks in the simulation bridge then later his looking at Spock's duty station when he's called and told to get down there. Those were characters - those were people who had known each other for years and they had spent a lot of time working together. They knew how to relate to each other and they had a sense when things were wrong.

While I feel that WoK is a fine movie, I'd place The Voyage Home and First Contact ahead of this one. And, though I'm getting ahead of things here, I want to say that the best in a Star Trek movie for me was the opening scenes (Opening credits) of Insurrection. Lovely music and art direction and most of all, a new culture to learn about. Give me more of that Star Trek in the movies.
Forrest Leeson
13. Forrest Leeson
[rant]
Between Meyer and Nimoy, TWOK basically killed Star Trek.

TMP started out on the wrong foot, but ended on the right one. The end of the film leads smoothly into the next voyage of the Starship Enterprise.

Which never happened.

Meyer said, oh no, we can't pretend that only three years has passed since the series ended. We have to allow for the passage of real time and do a story about Kirk's midlife crisis (as though "midlife" wouldn't have been pushed back to 60 or 70 by then). So the entire second five year mission was elided, and the brand new Enterprise was suddenly a clapped-out schoolbus fit only for the wrecking yard.

Nimoy, of course, couldn't make up his mind about whether he was Spock or not, so they killed Spock but left themselves an out, and thus tied up the next four or five years of real time bringing the film series back to ... the end of TMP. 2, 3 and 4 -- and come to notice it, 5 -- are just a big plot loop, leaving the series where it was at the end of TMP; they might as well never have happened.

And then Paramount, smarting from the box office on 5, went back to the well and Meyer did it to us again with 6, eliding the entire third five year mission, and an Enterprise that was brand new the last time we saw it was once again fit only for the wrecking yard; this time the crew ditto. (Except of course that Shatner through sheer force of will managed to dial himself back to 1981 for his appearance in GENERATIONS.)

Star Trek movies? What Star Trek movies?
[/rant]
Ryan Britt
14. ryancbritt
@Forrest

Personally, I think Nick Meyer saved Star Trek. I don't think we'd be talking about it in the way we are without him. Meyer is to Star Trek what Russell T Davies was to Doctor Who in 2005. Sure people would have still loved StarTrek, but Meyer made it relevant and accessible.

I see where you are coming from, and when we get to discussing Star Trek IV and V on the site, I think you might find some stuff you agree with.
Ashe Armstrong
15. AsheSaoirse
I honestly don't judge the movies based on Khan. If anything, I would judge them based on Undiscovered Country because it was the first one I saw, in theaters when it came out at the age six while also being a fan of TNG. But I usually judge them on their own merits. Khan is fantastic, definitely but my favorites at Undiscovered and probably First Contact.
Forrest Leeson
16. Your Mom
Great writing! I have always thought some of the very best acting was in the WoK. When the main bad guy knows who he is, well what could be better? You are really getting good at this, Ryan
David Scotton
17. Kaxon
I've never actually thought Khan was one of the better ST movies, maybe because I was so young when I originally watched them. But in spite of that this was a good, interesting post. And you make a point that I've brough up myself - the biggest mistake of the TNG Trek movies was never using Q. It seems like an absolute no-brainer that ST9 or 10 should have featured Q heavily, instead of introducing completely new characters. (Not to mention more Picard romance, which I don't think was anyone's reason for watching Star Trek).
Ryan Britt
18. ryancbritt
@Kaxon We love Q here at Tor.com. LOVE
Forrest Leeson
19. Gregoire482292
Just watched Nemesis. I do see the resemblances to Wrath of Khan. I also saw references to Star Wars (the laser battles in hallways? jumping down chute? all they needed was a garbage dump to land in lol). Wrath of Khan was certainly a well-made and original movie. Actually, I thought the first Star Trek movie was unique as well, and creepy to boot. First Contact had the potential to be on the same scale as Wrath or Voyage Home, but they blew the concept of the Borg. Hello! The Borg were a collective; they had no hierarchy, no leader, no "face". Instead of being creative with that, they turned the collective into an insect colony with a queen. Seen that before way too many times.
Forrest Leeson
20. Mt Dewd
This may be unpopular to say, but while I agree with a lot of what you say, the statement that "You don't need a space battle" really threw me off.

Sure, I love the exploration, the fact that humanity has (mostly) evolved past the petty antics we see today and all the other stuff that made trek different. But above all else, I love seeing space ships fly around doing stuff that is far beyond our ability today, and blowing stuff up in the process.

Now, the deeper stuff and the space battles don't have to be exclusive to one another, but I do think some phaser fire makes a Star Trek movie more than a drama set in space and personaly, that's one of the things that always draws me back.

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