Daniel Haight grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been publishing short stories on a variety of online fiction sites since 2007. His stories are characterized by action, dark humor and flawed characters. His latest novel is Flotilla.

Science Fiction’s Debt to the Original Star Trek II

With J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek sequel being celebrated all over the place, it’s worth looking back at the original Star Trek II. Why? Well, everyone loves it now, but would you believe the hassles it went through just to see the light of day? Wrath of Khan is not only a seminal Star Trek, it’s the quintessential science fiction film. Let’s consider what makes it such a powerful addition to Star Trek and to the sci-fi genre.

As a film, Khan went through many hoops with both the producers at Paramount, fans and Gene Roddenberry himself before the cameras started rolling. Conflicts between Paramount and Roddenberry over story and script led to a new producer being hired, one that hadn’t even seen the original TV show. Fans knew that Spock was to be killed due to a leaked script and public outcry overshadowed the development process … Leonard Nimoy even received death threats! Multiple scripts were created and rejected, with the final script being written by Nicholas Meyer in just 12 days to meet studio demands.

Nobody thinks about these things now. They just say call Wrath of Khan on of the best Star Trek movies. Let that be a lesson to us, kids: People will forgive almost any mistake as long as you succeed. For the record now, here are the reasons I think sci-fi owes a tremendous debt to Star Trek II:

  • The Story Had to Fight to Live – With the aforementioned hassles of production, there’s a definite sense with this movie that the cast, the crew and the movie itself wants to be there. They knew that they were lucky to get the script greenlit and brought their A-game, even though the film had almost no budget compared to Star Trek the Motion Picture. Unlike some of the latter films where you can see the cast shuffling through their lines, Khan has a sense of ‘you all better get right at this time ’cause there might be no next time.’ You can’t say that about Phantom Menace.
  • They told an old story in new ways – For Star Trek, having the characters hop galaxies was old hat…doing it again wouldn’t be that amazing. Instead, Meyer and Bennett had the characters look inward at themselves. Additionally, the story of Khan vs. Kirk owes much of its existence to two classic stories: Moby Dick (with Khan as Captain Ahab) and the old Horatio Hornblower stories. The result was a film that explored new ideas while paying tribute to well-treasured archetypes and the audience ate it up.
  • They let the actors out to play – From James Doohan’s personal rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes to Niomoy giving DeForest Kelley giving a mind meld to open the way for Search for Spock, Nicholas Meyer let the cast, the people who understood the characters best, lend touches to the story that gave it weight and texture.
  • They Spent Less and They Told MoreStar Trek II cost a quarter of what The Motion Picture cost to make. The SFX crew re-used models from the first movie to cut down on production costs (Regula One for example, is the Starfleet station from Motion Picture turned upside down). If you’re like me and you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you’d be happy to know that the Cow Palace (one of our trashier venues) played a seminal role in the destruction of the Reliant. It’s important to remember that, in the business of sci-fi, you can’t solve everything with money. Star Trek II proves that and for all of us who are pushing our stories out there, it’s an encouraging bit of news.
  • They Were Self-Aware – Until Star Trek II, you didn’t have Kirk really acting like he knew what he had become. Rather than being the Kirk who had sex with all the girls, he was confronting the reality of one of his old flames and the son he never got to know. I never watched the scene between him and Bibi Besch before they walk into the Genesis cave when I was younger. I always fast-forwarded through it. One day, I decided to watch it and when he goes: “My son… my life that could have been… and wasn’t. How do I feel? Old… worn out.” I got choked up. I was like, oh my god…I totally know what that means. You could tell Kirk did too. It was at that moment that I started caring about his character again…for the first time. I try to reflect that level of self-awareness and…I guess the word is ‘honesty’…in the characters I write.

To wrap this up, let me say this. Yeah, I know the movie’s 30 years old. Yeah, I know other movies have done a better job of telling sci-fi with heart since then. Yeah, I know other movies have better special effects. That’s not the point. The point is that Star Trek II was the first movie to do it. I’m glad I got a chance, at 5 years old no less, to see it in the theatres – earwigs from hell and all. It made me want to tell stories and tell them well. I guess it’s really true what they say…

You never forget your first.

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