Wow, I had forgotten how good this movie was. A chance ticket to see Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan in theaters leads to another great moment in storytelling. Let’s talk one of the greatest Star Trek movies of all time, what made it great, and what that teaches as storytellers.
Look, no one is saying Wrath of Khan is perfect as a movie. God love him, Ricardo Montalban is the perfect Shakespearian villain, chewing up the scenery so hard that you come away from the story wondering if he just needed some therapy and donuts. Like, bro – are you okay? You so full of hate, did you ever talk to someone about that? The production of Star Trek II is a story unto itself, with many competing interests threatening to turn the production into a dumpster fire.
None of that matters right now. What I want to focus on is the story – we’re storytellers, right? Watching it the theater, you’re forced to watch the entire movie end-to-end, no skipping to the battle scenes. It made me notice the brilliant character arcs in Star Trek II; they can teach you a lot if you’re paying attention. You marvel at how well the story comes together at the end, especially since director Nicholas Meyer re-wrote the entire screenplay in twelve days. Take that, Nanowrimo!
This won’t be a huge blog post – let’s focus on the following two lessons from Star Trek II – the Wrath of Khan, a great moment in storytelling:
Lesson #1 – Make Us Feel Something
The original production of Star Trek II didn’t have Gene Roddenberry’s support. Budgeting issues forced the production to re-purpose many of the SFX shots from Motion Picture, as well as backdrops from The Towering Inferno. No joke, the view out of Kirk’s apartment window is a backdrop from The Towering Inferno with some futuristic skyscraper models thrown in. Goes to show how much you can do with minimal budget and a great story – there’s a lesson in there somewhere for the newer Star Treks but that’s for a different time.
Everybody in STII makes you feel something – McCoy as the underdog supporting character, Khan as the space-age Captain Ahab, David and Carol Marcus as Kirk’s estranged but earnest family. Director Nicholas Meyer let them show off the textured backstories of their fears, and regrets leading to a moment of catharsis where Kirk gets to prove he’s still got it as a warrior, and Spock gets to prove his moral nobility in an act of self-sacrifice.
Star Trek II tells an economical, emotional story – everything you saw in the beginning of the movie existed make you feel something by the end. Spock’s gift at the beginning of the film – an antique copy of A Tale of Two Cities – becomes his final message to Kirk as he gazes upon Spock’s gravesite. The books on the Botany Bay on Ceti Alpha V become the basis for Khan’s Captain Ahab references throughout the movie. Savik’s frustration at the Kobayashi Maru test become the foundation of Kirk’s realization at the end.
It takes talent to create a story with that level of detail and texture – my hat is off to Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett, and Jack B. Sowards for pulling together such a great moment in storytelling.
Lesson #2 – Weaknesses = Strong Characters
I know we love to dunk on William Shatner as an actor. However, you can’t deny that he did some interesting things as an actor, and that’s a function of the storytelling in Star Trek II. In the first act, he’s confronting some harsh truths about aging. In the second, he’s dealing with ‘a life that could have been, and wasn’t.’ In the third act, he’s forced to deal with loss in a way he never could before.
He’s not the only one – Walter Koenig as a tortured Chekov, the unwilling accomplice to Khan’s evil plans, stumbling up to the bridge to resume his duties at the weapon’s console. Merritt Butrick has a remarkable character arc through the movie as Kirk’s son, David – makes me sad that we lost him so young to AIDS. The point is, showing your protagonist’s weaknesses is a good thing – it makes them into strong characters. As Pixar loves to say, you admire a character for trying. Don’t be afraid to show your protag’s dirty laundry. We’ll relate to that, as well as their journey toward redemption.
So yeah, Star Trek II – Wrath of Khan? Not a perfect movie. Yet, by making us feel something, by letting the characters’ weaknesses make them strong, Star Trek II is a great moment in storytelling. Give it a watch if you haven’t already and remember …