This year marks the 35th anniversary of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hitting theaters. As part of the celebration, Fathom Events is screening the classic film on September 10 and 13 in theaters for a special two-night event, which also happens to fall right after Star Trek‘s 51st anniversary. As part of the screenings, there will be a special Q&A with Captain Kirk himself, the legendary William Shatner. We got the chance to chat with the actor/author/icon about the film that revived the franchise and is still considered the greatest Star Trek movie of all.
It took a decade for Star Trek to return to any kind of screen, and it did so with The Motion Picture. When it finally hit theaters in December 1979, the reaction from critics and fans was an overwhelming “meh.” The movie did make money, but it cost a fortune to make, making most people think the chances for a sequel were pretty much zilch. I had to wonder, did Shatner believe Khan would be the “this time we really mean it” swan song for the cast of Star Trek, or did he believe it was going to be the new beginning it ultimately turned out to be?
According to William Shatner, “After the reviews for The Motion Picture, they said it would be the end. My understanding is that the owner of the studio at the time said, ‘That’s it, we shot the movie, and that’s all there is.’ But the owner of Paramount’s wife, she had always been a fan of Star Trek, and she berated her husband to give it another shot. So, he hired a TV producer, Harve Bennett, to produce the next film.”
“He said, ‘I can make a Star Trek movie for a lot less money.’ He did, and Wrath of Khan was both beloved and profitable. Bennett produced the next three installments,” Shatner continued. He didn’t mince words about Bennett’s contributions to the franchise, saying, “Harve Bennett is responsible for saving Star Trek. He was both good and sometimes difficult.”
Wrath of Khan is, in many ways, a film primarily about aging and facing death. Admiral Kirk is faced with his own mortality in this installment, as he witnesses the death of his best friend Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and meets his adult son David (Merritt Butrick) for the first time. How did Shatner feel about letting aging factor so much into the story? “I was intrigued by the idea that this was set some years after Kirk was last seen on television. He would have aged. I mean, I was aging,” Shatner said, “to acknowledge that fact, to nod in that direction as to having done something in a past life that allowed me to have a grown child, that was wonderful. I followed that idea in the Star Trek novels that I wrote afterwards, which I based on my own life.”
Bennett brought on board a young writer/director with only one directing credit to his name to helm the movie, Nicholas Meyer, in late 1981. Although essentially a newbie, Shatner always believed in his talent–not just as a director, but as a writer. He said, “He really was the best writer of all of them actually. He wrote beautifully. If a writer can imagine all that, he needs to be given a chance to bring his conception to light. But that also requires moving people around and taking command of the set. He would stand on a ladder–I have a vision of Nicholas Meyer standing on a ladder in a cape and a top hat taking command of the set.”
Shatner continued, “Because they now established how much the box office could bring with the first film, we made the sequel. The thinking was that this was the last one. In fact, every Star Trek movie we made, when we finished the last day of filming, they would burn all the sets because they always (wrongly) assumed that was going to be it, that whatever movie we were making would be the last one. They didn’t even store the sets.”
Speaking of sets, it was on the set of Wrath of Khan that Shatner got to show his real heroic skills, when he saved the Enterprise set from starting a huge fire on the Paramount lot. He recalled, “I do remember that the set caught fire at one point. I was shooting a TV series at the time [TJ Hooker], that I had to report to work for. I had to be out of filming Star Trek and get to the series by a certain date to start shooting. Then a fire started on the set, and while we waited for the fire department, I remember I was so desperate that nothing be harmed that I ran in with a garden hose, and I started to hose the fire down. The fireman said if I hadn’t done that, the set would have burned down, and they would have had to rebuild it. It would have delayed the film, and then I would have had to go against my TV series contract. That’s one memory from the making of that film that sticks out always.”
Of the seven Star Trek films that Shatner made, why does he think it is Wrath of Khan that resonates so much with audiences? It seems Shatner is as mystified as the rest of us as to the specifics, saying “I don’t know, but I know that Ricardo Montalban was given this remarkable opportunity to create a villain for the ages with Khan. And as a piece of entertainment, it was operatic and wonderful, as was Montalban himself. It was just overall a neat, entertaining, very human film. The entire movie just had a humanity about it, so if you’re looking for a reason for its longevity, I think that’s it,” Shatner said.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan will screen at select theaters on September 10 and 13. You can buy your tickets now at Fathom Events.
Do you think Wrath of Khan is still the crown jewel in the Star Trek film franchise? Let us know in the comments.
Images: Paramount Pictures
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