While “Star Trek” is now a huge, beloved franchise, recently reinvigorated by J.J. Abrams‘ reboot (and, fingers crossed, next year’s sequel to that film), it wasn’t always like that. The original 1960s series had low ratings, and only lasted three seasons, and while success in syndication let to a film version being greenlit in the aftermath of “Star Wars,” that film, 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” proved hugely expensive, and less profitable than Paramount had hoped.
Instead, it was the second film, 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan,” that really cemented its place in pop culture. Made for a quarter of the budget of the original, it won rave reviews, thanks to a faster pace and less reverent approach from non-Trekker director Nicholas Meyer, and earned the all-time biggest opening weekend up to that point, and is still held up as a high watermark for the franchise. ‘Wrath of Khan’ opened thirty years ago today, on June 4, 1982 (the same day as “Poltergeist“), and to mark the occasion, we’ve assembled five things you might not know about the sci-fi sequel.
1. Series creator Gene Roddenberry wrote an alternate sequel script involving the death of JFK.
After “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” series creator Gene Roddenberry plowed ahead with his own treatment for a sequel. Roddenberry’s take involved Klingons traveling back in time to stop the death of JFK (who knows why?), leading the Enterprise crew to head back to try and restore history. Unsurprisingly, the questionable taste of the premise didn’t win fans at Paramount, but the problems went beyond that. Roddenberry had insisted on frequent rewrites during production on the first film, and Paramount executives blamed the sky high cost (a whopping $45 million, roughly equivalent to $150 million today), as well as the film’s sluggish pace, on him. As a result, Roddenberry was pretty much kicked off development of the sequel, given the mostly cosmetic title of “executive consultant,” and replaced with TV veteran Harve Bennett (“The Mod Squad“), who told the studio that he could have made five movies for the cost of the original.
2. The script went through a number of iterations and titles while in development.
It was Bennett (a newcomer to Trek) who came up with the idea of using Khan, who’d featured in original series episode “Space Seed,” as the villain, finding the lack of a major antagonist one of the flaws of the original. In November 1980, Bennett wrote a treatment entitled “Star Trek II: The War Of The Generations,” in which Kirk discovers that his son is the leader of a rebellion (instigated, as it turns out, by Khan) on a distant world, with father and son eventually teaming up to defeat the old foe. TV writer Jack B. Sowards was hired to rush a script before the 1981 writer’s strike: he delivered one called “The Omega Syndrome,” in which Khan steals a Federation weapon known as the Omega System — production designer Michael Minor would later suggest that it should become a terraforming tool called the Genesis Device. As production came closer, original series writer Samuel A. Peeples (who penned the show’s pilot) was brought on to rewrite, but turned in a wildly different draft that dumped Khan in favor of two new alien creatures called Sojin and Moray, leaving the project without a script, and a fast-approaching deadline to begin special effects work. Between then and the film’s release, it gained a brace of other working titles, including “Star Trek: The Genesis Project,” “Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country” (reused for a later installment) and “Star Trek: The Vengeance of Khan” (which was retired when it emerged that George Lucas was calling the third “Star Wars” film “Revenge of the Jedi,” although that too was later swapped out for “Return of the Jedi“).
3. Director Nicholas Meyer rewrote the script in only 12 days.
With no workable script, and a release date already targeted, Paramount were in dire straits until executive Karen Moore suggested writer-director Nicholas Meyer, who’d had a recent success with time travel picture “Time After Time.” Meyer had never seen an episode of “Star Trek” (later saying that “the chief contribution I brought [to the film] was a healthy disrespect… I tried through irreverence to make them more human and a little less wooden”), but was keen on the idea of tackling the film. He went on to compile a list of highlights from previous drafts, and went on to blast through a new draft in the twelve days needed before work on the effects had to begin, for no pay. Among his most lasting contributions were a more Naval take on Starfleet, inspired by the “Hornblower” novels by C. S. Forester, with redesigned ships and uniforms. Roddenberry didn’t approve, but he was way out of the loop at this point. Meyer also turned Spock’s protege Saavik into a female character, and, while his first choice was Kim Cattrall (who Meyer would eventually cast on his return to the franchise for “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country“), future “Cheers” star Kirstie Alley wound up in the role.
4. Rumors of Spock’s demise led to Leonard Nimoy getting death threats.
Killing off the ever-popular Spock was on the cards from the very beginning: Leonard Nimoy was reluctant to return to the role, and only did so on the condition that his character wouldn’t survive the film. In early drafts, Spock was actually killed in the first act (in a move Bennett said was inspired by the death of Janet Leigh in “Psycho“). But despite secrecy, word of the move leaked early, causing a fan outcry: one group of Trekkers paid for an advert in Variety decrying the idea, and Nimoy even got death threats from particularly fervent fans. Nevertheless, the prouduction moved ahead with the plan, albeit moving Spock’s demise to the end of the film. However, as production went on, Nimoy found himself enjoying the experience more than he expected, and pressed for the door to be left open for him to return. When the ending tested poorly, it was settled, and the scene where Spock’s casket lands on the newly formed planet of Genesis was added, despite objections from Meyer, and plans started to form for a third installment, “The Search for Spock,” which Nimoy would direct.
5. The film features the first all CGI-sequence in film history, created by the company that would eventually become Pixar.
Despite the innovations of “Star Wars,” computerized special effects were still in their infancy, with models and other techniques still making up the bulk of effects work at ILM, who were the main house working on ‘Wrath of Khan.’ For instance, the nebula was created with a latex rubber and ammonia mixture being injected into a cloud tank full of fresh and salt water, and shot at two frames per second. But the film did serve as a pioneer by featuring the first entirely CGI sequence — where the effects of the Genesis Device on a barren planet are developed. LucasFilm‘s Computer Graphics group were brought on, hoping that it would become a showcase for their work (see the featurette below). They would go on to create the Stained Glass Knight scene in “Young Sherlock Holmes,” before Lucas sold the group to Steve Jobs in 1986, when it was renamed… Pixar.