STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN Is a Masterclass in Fixing a Franchise

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In 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (TWOK) showed everyone in Hollywood how to course-correct after a less than stellar franchise launch. It not only “saved” the movie series, but its success led to more movies, and eventually, Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is still almost universally hailed as the greatest of the 13 Star Trek films four decades later.

Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Paramount Pictures

But what were the vital ingredients that made this movie what it was? Was it just Ricardo Montalban as the film franchise’s best villain? Spock’s shocking (and touching) death scene? And what lessons can it teach to modern franchises in need of a refresh? We’ll get to all that, but first, a minor history lesson on why TWOK needed to be a franchise course correction in the first place.

Repairing the Enterprise in Spacedock
The starship Enterprise in the Mutara Nebula in Wrath of Khan.
Paramount Pictures

When Paramount released Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, the intention was for it to be their Star Wars. At least in terms of box office and merchandising. TMP cost a then-staggering amount for the time, $45 million dollars. (Star Wars, by comparison, cost $10 million.) Although its box office was decent, its merchandising tanked. And the film gained far more mixed reviews than the studio would have liked. (Its reputation has grown since its initial release). So clearly, they needed to rethink things. And the final result, The Wrath of Khan, is the textbook on how to “fix” a franchise that has potential, but has lost its way. Here are the exact steps producer TWOK Harve Bennett took to right the ship, and they are still lessons for modern film series to this day.

Recycle, Reuse, Reduce…
The cast of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Paramount Pictures

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an incredibly expensive film when it came out in 1979. They created a ton of new models and practical assets for TMP, including a new starship Enterprise, space stations, and new Klingon battlecruisers. For TWOK, they reutilized as many of those assets as possible. Including whole actual scenes. The Klingon ships from the Kobayashi Maru were just recycled footage from TMP. The Regula One space station was the Federation station from TMP, just turned upside down. And it all works. Reusing existing assets in the right way can help save money, and if you do it well, no one will complain.

Put a Fresh Face Behind the Camera
Kirstie Alley as Saavik and Leonard Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Paramount Pictures

The great Robert Wise directed TMP, the same genius who gave us The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music. But for TWOK, they went with a young director with only one feature film under his belt, Nicholas Meyer. And yet, his fresh take on the franchise was exactly what the movie series needed. He took several disparate scripts and in 13 days fused them together into one cohesive storyline. It was the kind of decision a young filmmaker with a big vision would make, and it paid off in spades. Sometimes it really pays to roll the dice on new creative talent, and TWOK was a perfect example as to why.

Acknowledge the Past, Don’t Erase It
Ricardo Montalban as Khan
Paramount Pictures

Although TMP wasn’t a reboot in the modern sense, it made almost no reference to events of the original series. You didn’t even need to know much about TOS beyond the basics of the characters. But TWOK was explicitly tied into the events of the 1967 episode “ Space Seed.” They based Khan’s entire motivation on events from that episode. While you didn’t need to see that episode to fully understand the plot, the film had greater resonance for those who did. And by tying it explicitly to TOS, it made the film that much richer. In some ways, TWOK was the first big-screen “Legacy Sequel,” long before that was a common term.

Take Storytelling Risks with Main Characters
Spock's death scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Paramount Pictures

Certain characters in major franchises always have plot armor. You’re not going to see James Bond die or Batman die, not unless there is a reboot around the corner that everyone knows about. For all of Star Trek until the TWOK, the main cast was impervious to harm. That is, until Spock died in the film. Even though they suspected there would be backlash from fans (and there sure was) the filmmakers went ahead and did anyway. Only when TWOK made mad money did they consider bringing back Leonard Nimoy as Spock. But at the time TWOK came out, it was meant to be permanent. And it was a huge storytelling risk that paid off.

Seek Inspiration Beyond the Franchise

When Nicholas Meyer came on board to direct TWOK, he had never seen an episode of the classic show. Although TWOK sequalized an old TV episode, Meyer didn’t just mimick old episodes of the series, he took inspiration from classic literature. There is a metric ton of influence from Moby Dick, and the adventures of Captain Horatio Hornblower. Some of the best franchises today refer to classic literature in the same way as TWOK did. Like TWOK, The Dark Knight Rises makes heavy reference to A Tale of Two Cities. And what is The Lion King if not Hamlet?

TWOK has had a huge influence on franchise films since its release. You can see Khan’s fingerprints on films like X2: X-Men United, which mimicked TWOK’s entire ending. And Kill Bill Vol. 1 opens with Khan’s “old Klingon proverb” quote. Transformers: Dark of the Moon even has Leonard Nimoy’s Sentinel Prime quote Spock’s lines from The Wrath of Khan. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, a lot of these references are superficial. But it would be nice if more modern franchises took the storytelling risks and practical approaches that The Wrath of Khan did in 1982.

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Jun 3 2022