Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) made a lot of money-$146 million, not adjusted for inflation-but it wasn’t the Star Wars-esque mega-hit Paramount Pictures had hoped for when they ponied up the high sum of $45 million for its creation. It didn’t help that most critics didn’t really like the film. After waiting a full decade for their beloved TV series to be reincarnated, Star Trek fans were underwhelmed.
As said, The Motion Picture‘s gross might have been disappointing, but it wasn’t bad by any accounts. The bean-counters at the studio decided that another picture would also bring a tidy profit-provided costs were kept down this time. A sequel had already been on Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s mind-he’d penned a story idea for Star Trek II.
Roddenberry’s idea, however, wasn’t exactly what studio executives were looking for. Reportedly it involved the crew of the USS Enterprise assassinating John F. Kennedy to restore a corrupted timeline; not what great films are made of. Furthermore, the studio blamed Roddenberry’s involvement in the first film with the costly delays during production; at the end of the day, it had been Roddenberry’s story idea. So the studio decided to cut Roddenberry off from his own brain-child; he was “kicked upstairs” to the largely ceremonial title of executive consultant, a place where he could complain but would not have much real power to affect the film.
Having essentially divorced Star Trek and its creator, Paramount set about to find people who thought they could do right by a sequel-prior knowledge of Star Trek was not a necessity. In came Harve Bennett, an up-and-coming television producer who was brought into a meeting of Paramount bigwigs including Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner. Bennett, who had never seen the 1966-1969 television series The Motion Picture was based on, confessed he had found the film “boring” and thought he could make a better one. Charles Bluhdorn then asked if he could make that better film for less than “forty-five-(expletive)-million-dollars?” Bennett replied with that kind of money he could make five movies; the television producer was now the overseer for the next Trek film.
Of course, having never seen the original television series, Bennett was at a disadvantage in trying to create a sequel. So he sat in a darkened room for hours on end, watching the three seasons of the television series from start to finish. Bennett decided that what the first film had lacked was a true villain the crew of the Enterprise could fight against, so he decided to bring back an enemy from the television series episode “Space Seed”-a genetically engineered tyrant known as Khan Noonien Singh. Bennett didn’t yet have a concrete story idea or a script, but he began gathering up his production staff, including college friend Robert Sallin as producer and Michael Minor (who had previously worked on The Motion Picture) as art director.
With preproduction in full swing, Bennett sat down to write the first plot treatment in November 1980. This story had Enterprise captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) investigating a rebellion and discovering that his own son is apparently the leader of the uprising. As it turns out, Khan is behind the whole conspiracy, and Kirk and son join forces to triumph. Bennett then brought in avid Star Trek fan Jack B. Sowards to write the screenplay. Soward’s draft involved the theft of the “Omega system”, an ultimate weapon. Bennett was concerned that the Omega system was too negative, and with Minor’s prompting Sowards turning the Omega system into the Genesis Device, a powerful world-shaping and terraforming tool.
The script slowly took form over the following months. Leonard Nimoy was unwilling to reprise his role as the Vulcan Spock; as a way of enticing the actor back, Bennett promised that Spock would get a dramatic death scene in the film. The desire to go out in a “blaze of glory” appealed to Nimoy. The death scene was to occur early in the film as a surprise twist a la Psycho (1960), but when the story details of the script were leaked, negative fan reaction lead to a rewrite. It was spring 1981, and there was still no finished script to use; cast members were dissatisfied with the story, and an alternate script written by Samuel Peeples (who had penned the original Star Trek pilot episode) omitted Khan entirely and was discarded. Since the special effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) needed storyboards in order to plan and execute the film’s visual effects in time for the film’s release, there was little time to produce a final shooting script.
Enter Nicholas Meyer, a young writer and director who had also never seen an episode of Star Trek. Meyer sat down and helped make a list of all the best elements from previous drafts-be it a scene, line of dialogue, or character-and wrote a new screenplay containing the choice elements in just twelve day’s time. The production team was so impressed by the turnaround that Meyer was chosen to direct the film as well. Finally, Star Trek II was moving forward.
Roddenberry was one person not happy about Meyer’s changes to the script, but as he was largely without power in the new production order, his concerns were overruled. The new director was very much interested in creating a naval texture which he described as “Horatio Hornblower in outer space”. The Enterprise was redressed in darker hues and given a ship’s bell, and instead of the plain unisex pajamas the crew had worn in the previous film, costume designer Robert Fletcher created red wool uniforms with clear military inspirations.
Filming began on November 9, 1981, and wrapped January 29 the following year. Despite being more action-oriented than its predecessor, Star Trek II ended up costing far less to make-in part because production was handled by Paramount’s television division, rather than the theatrical team. In order to make due with less, Meyer reused old sets and uniforms where possible, adding fake scenery and utilizing forced perspective to make small sets seem larger, and renting props rather than buying or designing new ones. Some sets were merely modifications of existing ones. A significant change occurred after most filming had been completed; test audiences reacted negatively to Spock’s death, which had been moved to the climax of the film. It was simply too dark and final, Meyer was told. While disappointed with the desired changes, Meyer let Bennett add a small amount of new footage and a closing monologue by Nimoy-essentially allowing a window for Spock to come back to life, if necessary.
While filming was underway, ILM was busy creating the many special effects for the film. The storyboards provided by the Paramount production team were essential; having a precise layout of shots prevented costs from skyrocketing as they had on The Motion Picture. To speed up production, ILM used vector and other computer-generated graphics for ship displays and monitors. Among ILM’s technical achievements on the film was the first entirely computer-generated sequence, showing the Genesis Device being used. While comparatively primitive by today’s standards, it was an impressive advertisement for the division of ILM who created it (and who would later become Pixar.)
With the reduced budget, Meyer had been unable to hire The Motion Picture‘s composer, Jerry Goldsmith-or a composer of his caliber-to score the film’s music. Instead, Paramount’s vice-president of music approach a young and promising talent, James Horner. Meyer wanted music evocative of swashbuckling adventure and seafaring, and Horner gave it to him. The film became Horner’s first major motion picture score and catapulted his career; on the way he wrote distinctive themes that would become almost as well known as Goldsmiths’ (for more information on the music, see “Making Movie Music: The Original Star Trek Films”.)
Star Trek II coasted to theaters on June 4, 1982, with little hiccups. The film’s original title as proposed by Meyer, The Undiscovered Country, had been rejected in favor of the more action-packed Revenge of Khan-that is, until Paramount learned that the production title for the next Star Wars film was Revenge of the Jedi, and so the final title became The Wrath of Khan. The film broke box office records by making $14,347,221 in its opening weekend, and a grand total of $97 million worldwide. While the gross was less than The Motion Picture, due to the smaller budget it was actually more profitable.
Not only was The Wrath of Khan a bigger commercial success, but it was a much bigger critical one; it was hailed by fans and reviewers as a superior product, and even almost thirty years later is often cited as the top Star Trek film. Entertainment Weekly credited the film with “saving Star Trek as we know it”. Thanks to Meyer, Bennett, and a bunch of people who didn’t know Star Trek, ironically, the film franchise would continue on.
Star Trek History: Making The Wrath of Khan;
*Anderson, Kay. “‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’: How the TV series became a hit movie, at last” [Cinefantastique v12n5/6.]
*JM Dillard. Star Trek: “Where No One Has Gone Before” – A History in Pictures (ISBN 0671511491).
*Rioux, Terry Lee. From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley (ISBN 0743457625).
*Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Directors Edition [Special Features and Commentary]
Previous Star Trek History:
More Star Trek info by David Fuchs:
“Making The Motion Picture” / “Creating the Klingons”