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Tuesday, 14 July 2015

A love letter to The Wrath Of Khan

Some years ago I had a conversation with a then work colleague who I rather fancied getting to 'know much better’. The talk was about our mutual love of sci-fi, and even though I knew she was far more of a full-on aficionado than I was at that point, I thought I was nevertheless on pretty safe ground. The chat was going very nicely for a while until she asked THAT question. It’s quite possibly the one question that in my experience seems to obsess many within and outside the sci-fi nerdy community as being important - and so happens to be the one question that probably annoys me more than most. “So"………she asked, in an ultra-serious tone that intimated that she would be rather annoyed if my answer was the ‘wrong one’…… "Star Trek or Star Wars?”

When I answered that I really didn’t think along those lines she was visibly flabbergasted. “You have to be one or the other, you can’t be both!” When I asked why, she paused, it was as if she had been provided with a conundrum that only Solomon had previously encountered in his biblical trials. I wondered for a moment if she was attempting some form of humour, but no, she was being completely serious – and just as insistent for my answer. Becoming very quickly bored with the conversation (and forgetting that I had other hopes for our 'working relationship'), I thought for a moment. “Well, if I had a gun placed to my head and I had to answer that question with a definitive answer, I suppose that I would have to say that on my personal sci-fi love scale (which sounds a lot more interesting and dirtier than it actually is), Star Wars would be a 9.95 out of 10 whilst Star Trek would probably be a 9.99 out of 10"....... She looked horrified, then immediately stood up and departed the room leaving me sitting there alone. She never spoke to me again except in a work capacity. It goes without saying that I never got to know her ‘much better’.

So let me put the record straight right now. The only reason why Star Trek may get a .04 more than that Galaxy far, far away is quite simple. The Trek universe has always been there in some part of my personal universe. It was already there in its original series form when I was a mere baby, it was there as it began its inexorable feature length movie series when I was entering my teens and it was there as it began to morph into its numerous TV spin-off imaginings. It is still here now. There is probably far too much for me to come remotely close to doing it all justice – so I won’t even try.  In fact I’m going to narrow down my love of the Star Trek universe to one single thing – a truly wonderful piece of work, the masterpiece that is The Wrath of Khan.

When Star Wars came a lumbering and thundering into the public consciousness in 1977 one of the side-effects of the worldwide Tsunami that it created was to inspire an invigoration of popular science fiction, both on TV as well as the big screen. Ever since it's demise due to poor ratings in 1969 Star Trek had been the subject, thanks to the world-wide syndication of its three seasons, of much clamouring to revive what by the late 1970's had become part of the public consciousness in its own right. Those of us who had been clamouring for its revival thought that our prayers and please had finally been answered when in 1979, keen to ride the Star Wars Tsunami wave, it was announced that there would be in fact a full length movie version of Trek. 

Hurrah and hip, hip hooray!!??? - well no, not quite. The problem was the the film was a bit of a bore. I can distinctly remember going to see it on it's first week of release, entering the cinema with barely controllable hysteria only to leave the building after it's painful 127 hour running time feeling, well, bored silly. The years of waiting for Star Trek to be finally revived had resulted in an overblown snooze of a movie which lacked the style, humour or excitement of the television series. If memory serves me correctly, it still became something of a box-office hit around the world as the need to experience the return of Kirk et al was irresistible to everyone. It was just a bit rubbish. If there was going to be a follow up then it was going to have to be a whole heap better than the first cinematic attempt if the Trek Universe was going to flourish once again. As it transpired, the 2nd in the series wasn't just better, it was genius.

In the days before the advent of the love of my life (the Internet), we had far less to go on in terms of movie details and spoilers, it was hell I tell you, hell. What I do remember though the distinct whispers of excitement that were permeating from across the pond in mid 1982 was that Trek had re-found it's mojo.....and big time. 

The genius that underpinned Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was initially two-fold. Firstly it immediately tapped into the nostalgic obsession of the TV series by using the inspiration of the story from a 1967 episode, 'Space Seed' in which Kirk and the Enterprise crew had battled with the genetically modified group of humans and their charismatic leader, Khan. The film sees the fight re-engaged when Khan and his group escape from their 15 year banishment to what had become an inhospitable planet. At the start of proceedings we encounter a recently promoted Admiral Kirk who rather than boldly going etc etc is more concerned with his ever-growing age, failing eyesight and boredom. Kirk's fate however is soon intertwined with Khan, obsessed with taking his revenge together with control of the Genesis device, a secret Starfleet technology than can render life from lifeless planets. The second stroke of genius was the inclusion of the death towards the end of the film of perhaps Star Treks most iconic character....but more of that in a moment.

In its infinite wisdom, my local cinema decided to show the newly released Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as part of a double bill with the 326 hour long first movie preceding it. We were going to need a lot of popcorn. At the time I can remember being aware of the feelings of restlessness throughout the packed auditorium as the Star Trek: The relentlessly long Motion Picture took to wind along its inexorable way. In fact I can remember a number of conversations in the audience erupting almost simultaneously during one of the numerous extended camera shots majestically floating around every single centimetre of the Enterprise's exterior.....again. However looking back, this may well have been a stroke of unintended genius on the cinema's part, because what it did was to make the anticipation of the next film almost unbearable. The result was like every Christmas morning rolled into one by the time the credits rolled for 'Khan'.

Oh my god, I can remember that feeling as if it was yesterday. It was immediately apparent from the moment that the stunning soundtrack began that this was the film we Trekkers/Trekkies/whatever had been waiting for. 'Khan' quite simply had everything: strong characterisation, fine special effects, great uniforms, pure excitement, humour, sadness and perhaps the finest bad-guy in all of Trek history. It was visually dazzling, imaginative and emotionally fulfilling on almost every level. It became very quickly the Trek film that, even to this day, every other film in the franchise is measured against. I was mesmerised at that very first showing. I loved the navel-esque red uniforms and immediately wanted one of my very own. The look of the crew and the Enterprise was a million miles away from the insipid quality of the first movie. The sparkling dialogue and chemistry between the crew was back, regardless that some of the cast couldn't stand to be in the same room as each other, it didn't matter.

On a personal level, two things stand our from a whole plethora of stand out elements. The villain of the piece, masterfully and energetically played by the redoubtable Ricardo Montalban, was a textbook case of how to produce a richly layered bad guy complete with numerous textures of vulnerability, pain, hatred, loyalty, love and of course, revenge - all in equal abundance. I can also remember thinking at the time that if I lived to look as physically fit as Montalban did as his age (who was in his 60's at the time of filming) I would be happy. For many years the myth endured that the actor wore a 'fake' muscular chest - nope, it was all him. He himself regarded the time as one of his happiest filming experiences in his long, illustrious career - and it certainly shows. Besides which, if nothing else it gave us this.......(and before any Trekkers/Trekkies/whatever point out that the picture doesn't tie in with the dialogue scene.....I know)

"S02-khan and joachim (battle stations)" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
"He tasks me. He TASKS me; and I shall have him.

I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares maelstrom and 'round Perditions flames before I give him up"

........I rest my case.

Of course, as I mentioned before, the real emotional punch came towards the end of the film when a certain Vulcan was killed-off. If you weren't around at the time you will have to imagine just how big a deal it was when word did began to slip out during production of his death. Letters from outraged Trekkers/Trekkies/whatever overflowed on the desks of the Paramount offices in protest and even Nimoy himself didn't escape some of their wrath (sorry) after receiving a number of death threats. I don't suppose those fools were aware of the irony of issuing a death threat to an actor because they were angry about him 'killing' off a character.

I think I'm correct in saying that this was the period in Leonard Nimoy's life when he wasn't particularly comfortable with the level off association his career had with the character of Spock. In fact the only only reason he agreed to play him in 'Khan' was with the proviso that ol' pointy ears was killed off once and for all. And so he was.......well, kind least until Star Trek III. The problem was that by all accounts Nimoy had such a positive experience during the filming of 'Khan' that someway through he had a change of mind and suggested to the writers that they may want to think of a way that a potential 'resurrection' might be possible in the next film. They must have been pulling their hair out. 
"S02-spock's funeral" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
However, at the time we were young and naive (I still have one of those qualities) and so the emotional kick in the stomach that the incredibly well-acted death scene delivered was powerful without ever falling into cheesiness. Indeed, the point where an almost dead Spock stands, but still pauses to straighten his tunic was improvised actually by Nimoy at that moment, adds a genuinely poignant extra.

As I mentioned earlier, I was expecting his death after being forwarned, however I will readily admit to crying my eyes out in the cinema that day. In fact I wasn't alone, most of the men in the audience suddenly developed an annoying little cough at that point. I can still hear the woman behind me trying to console her partner who was barely inconsolable, with the words "It's ok love, It's ok. I'm sure they'll find a way to bring him back". How right she was.

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