For over 40 years, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has been the gold standard of Star Trek films. Of the 13 films released, director Nicholas Meyer’s entry is still the one all other Trek movies try to live up to. And so far, none really have. We’ve said for a long time that the Star Trek franchise, particularly the films, have needed to “stop chasing Wrath of Khan” as their key to success. Some of the weakest entries in the franchise, namely Nemesis and Into Darkness, have tried and failed to recapture that specific Wrath of Khan magic. We’ve implored the folks in charge of Star Trek to look beyond the beloved 1982 film for inspiration. Luckily, however, Star Trek: Picard season three showrunner Terry Matalas absolutely ignored our advice. Because this last season of the series pays homage to The Wrath of Khan and does it right.
When It Comes to Wrath of Khan Homages, the Third Time’s the Charm
Star Trek: Picard‘s homage to The Wrath of Khan works in ways both very on the nose, as well as some that are smaller and more subtle. Some in just how the production itself was mounted. Most importantly, Matalas and his writing staff have carefully avoided the mistakes of previous Trek productions trying to replicate Wrath of Khan. They clearly understood the difference between “homage” and “knockoff.”
In Picard season three, they’ve focused on the story, mood, and tone of Wrath of Khan, not just replicating its meme-worthy moments. This differs from previous movies like the aforementioned Nemesis and Into Darkness, which just lifted iconic beats and specific scenes from the second Star Trek film. Data’s death at the end of Nemesis and Spock screaming “Khaaaan!” as Chris Pine’s Kirk died ultimately read like Family Guy episode references—not as authentic or truly earned moments. Everything in Picard season three that reminds one of The Wrath of Khan emotionally resonated because it’s rooted in story, not just nostalgia bait.
Face-to-Face with the Road Not Taken
One of The Wrath of Khan‘s most relevant themes is coming face to face with one’s life not lived. A 50-year-old Kirk (William Shatner) starts the film wondering if his days adventuring through the cosmos are behind him, and if he’s worth anything as an Earthbound Admiral instead of as a spacefaring Captain. Things change for him when he meets his own adult son and his mother, former lover Carol Marcus, played by Bibi Besch. He came face to face with the family life he could have had, but never did. And the shock of that put his entire life in perspective.
Of all the story parallels in Picard season three that reference Wrath of Khan, the most obvious among them is Jean-Luc’s discovery that he has an adult son named Jack (Ed Speleers) whom he never knew existed. This reflects Captain Kirk meeting his own adult son David in Wrath of Khan, played by Merritt Butrick. Other The Wrath of Khan homages are more cosmetic, but this one is pretty literal. Although to be fair, Kirk knew he had a son, and Picard did not—it’s not an exact one-for-one. In the hands of less talented people, it might not work. But in Picard, it all clicks the right way.
“My son. My life that could have been…and wasn’t.”
Picard is in a similar place at the start of season three to Kirk in The Wrath of Khan. He’s ready to leave Earth and retire with his partner Laris (Orla Brady), officially leaving his Starfleet days behind him for good. He’s less outwardly angsty and depressed about his set of circumstances than Kirk was in The Wrath of Khan. But then, Kirk was only 50 and feeling like a relic, and Picard is well into his 90s. Both men feel like their best days are behind them, despite a not-so-small part of them still craving adventure. And then, adventure calls. That adventure, in both cases, takes the form of a distress call from a woman they once loved.
The revelation that Picard has an adult son from an old love actually resonates more than Kirk’s similar reveal in Wrath of Khan. We watched the relationship developing between Picard and Dr. Crusher for years, whereas Carol Marcus was an entirely new character—one Kirk had never even mentioned before. In this instance, Picard season three actually improves on Wrath of Khan. The exchange over their life choices by Gates McFadden and Patrick Stewart carries way more emotional weight than William Shatner and Bibi Besch’s conversation, if only because we were shown their relationship and not just told about it. It’s hard to do The Wrath of Khan better than the movie itself, but in this instance, they did.
Epic Storytelling on a Smaller Scale
Picard season three shares a behind-the-scenes similarity to The Wrath of Khan, which impacted how both stories played out. The second Star Trek movie followed 1979’s The Motion Picture, a highly expensive film for the time. When it didn’t pull in Star Wars-level money, the studio made a more economically conservative sequel. The Wrath of Khan reused as many sets, props, and models from the previous film to save money, and as a result, had a much lower budget. The Motion Picture cost $45 million, and The Wrath of Khan cost a mere $12 million. Much of the action in Wrath of Khan was on the bridges of two starships with very little planetary hopping. It was all to save money.
Meanwhile, while Picard is not a cheap TV show to produce, by the very nature of it being a television series, its budget is far less than that of a feature film. So, many sets from previous seasons have to be repurposed, The Wrath of Khan style. The bridge of the Titan is a modified version of the Stargazer from season two. They recycled much from previous seasons’ lowlife planets for the seedy District Six. Picard production had to be creative, because they were telling an epic story on a not-epic budget. This is the tactic Nicholas Meyer used when filming The Wrath of Khan, and that movie essentially launched a franchise. The Picard production has employed the same tactics to great success.
You’re Only as Good as Your Villain Is Bad
And you can’t make The Wrath of Khan comparisons without talking about the villains. Obviously, Montalbán’s Shakespearean scenery chewing made him the Trek movie franchise’s greatest villain. But Amanda Plummer is no slouch in that department as Captain Vadic of the Shrike, even if her motives don’t seem to be personal revenge against Picard—thankfully the show isn’t using that tired Trek trope. She still gets to have a cat-and-mouse encounter with a Federation starship just as Kirk and Khan did. But it’s with enough differences to not make it seem like a cheap knockoff of The Wrath of Khan. Once again, the feel is the same, but the specifics are different.
The Sound of the Future
And then there’s the score. The composer for season three of Picard is Stephen Barton, known for his work on shows like Matalas’ 12 Monkeys, and the game Jedi: Fallen Order. His musical score for Picard simply oozes the majesty of James Horner’s music from The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock. When you hear those soaring strings when the Titan leaves spacedock in episode one, you can’t help but think of Lt. Saavik taking the Enterprise out of drydock in Wrath of Khan. It evokes all the same feels, the 19th-Century nautical vibes, all while still feeling like its own piece of music.
Of course, there are similarities to other Trek films, too. Picard and Riker meeting Sidney La Forge (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut) as the Titan’s helm officer recalls Kirk meeting Sulu’s daughter Demora in the same position in Star Trek: Generations. Riker and Picard “hijacking” the Titan to go on a mission to save a friend and comrade recalls Kirk and company doing the same with the Enterprise in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. But regardless of references to other parts of Trek lore, it is the DNA of The Wrath of Khan that asserts itself most strongly. We may still have seven more episodes to go before we can render a final verdict, but so far, the final season of Picard is delivering on the promise of Wrath of Khan better than anyone could have ever hoped.
Star Trek: Picard season three streams new episodes Thursdays on Paramount+.