A few Wednesdays ago now, I went to the Lyric Opera House with family and friends to see Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan on the big screen. I had last seen it thus-presented back in 1982, when it was released. I believe it was the first movie I ever returned to the theater to see more than once, because it was just that good. (For a lot of people, that movie was Star Wars. Not for me. I was a Trek kid.) The screening of the film was followed by a Q&A with William Shatner, MC’d by my friend Bob Greenberger. (Who may someday forget that he was on stage with Bill Shatner for an hour, but not any day soon.)
Shatner’s presence was a good thing, because the audio on the film was terrible. Kinda disappointing in a hall where people go to hear live musical performances.
For me, bad audio and all, it was a two-hour detour into the past, and not just any part of the past. It was a trip back to the time when adulthood was crashing down on my head like a player piano carelessly knocked out of an 11th-story window, when I had my whole life ahead of me and was starting to envision a shape for that life, and when a TV series that had been intellectual comfort food for me since I was six years old became a film that made me light up and say, “I’ve found my purpose!”
The purpose I’d found was multi-fold: I wanted to write, I wanted to participate in activities like running conventions and publishing zines, I wanted to become one of the creators who made wonderful entertainments like “Wrath of Khan.” Because of that film, I dove into doing them all.
What was it that lit me up so? Was the film really that good? (My 18-year-old BFA-candidate son says, “No.”) Did it answer some question I had been asking or fill some need I didn’t even know I had? (I’m pretty sure.) Was it just the right time in my life for me to be lit afire by something? (Probably.)
I mean, seriously, it was just another Star Trek film, wasn’t it?
You know, I don’t think it was. “Wrath of Khan” was many things. It was a sequel to a disappointing (and very expensive) reunion film. It was rumored to be a potential pilot for a new TV series. It was a project that took a franchise at middle age, at a critical decision point, and revitalized it. Its producer, Harve Bennett, is rightly referred to as “The Man Who Saved Star Trek,” because, if he and Nick Meyer had not made this film, there would not have been 11 more Trek films and five more Trek series as of this writing.
“Wrath of Khan” was a rebirth.
Yes, Kirk and Spock and McCoy were still there, and Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov too. The BFA candidate asked, “Why were they [the second-stringers] even in the film? They didn’t do anything!” I told him that the fans needed them there.
That’s just what was expected of what was, by the standards of the times, a pretty typical thing: a reunion film. Jerry Mathers was Still the Beaver, Andy Taylor had made a Return to Mayberry, there had been a Rescue from Gilligan’s Island, followed by the return of the castaways in a second film and a visit by the Harlem Globetrotters in a third. Father Knows Best, The Partridge Family and My Three Sons had all reassembled their casts so that audiences could relive old times. Star Trek just did the same, but on the big screen instead of the small.
But Star Trek did something a little less common, with “Wrath of Khan,” at least for a little while. It tried to move beyond the nostalgia and present us with a conceived reality where time passed, people grew, and the young took over for the old. Kirk was 50 and confronting his age. He had a son he’d never known, and an estranged former lover. Spock was mellowed now, a teacher proud of his pupils. The very mission of the Enterprise was now to train the young.
Enter Dr. David Marcus and Lieutenant J.G. Saavik.
Before I talk about them, I should clarify one more thing. I mentioned that this might have been a potential pilot—here’s why I say that:
Shortly after “Wrath of Khan” came out, Simon & Shuster released Allan Asherman’s The Making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. As is typical of Asherman’s books, this one included detailed discussions of early drafts of the scripts. Some of these were very different from the finished film, including one by Trek veteran Samuel A. Peeples, which did not actually include Khan, but did feature the first appearance of a female, half-Romulan Saavik. Previous drafts had made Saavik or Savik or Wicks a full-Vulcan male.
There were alternate Davids as well—David Kirk, David Wallace, David some-other-last-name—who were, variously, a rebel leader on a divided planet, a victim of a cult leader, and other sundry trouble-youth types. They all had one thing in common—they all ended up joining Kirk in his future travels. In one version, David’s entire contingent of young rebels joined Starfleet, with the idea that Kirk would have a whole “boatload of children” to train in future adventures.
I read this book as soon as it came out, and it set my expectations for the next two years. David and Saavik were meant to be permanent fixtures, and probably bigger players than Sulu, Chekov, Uhura or Scotty. Asherman was the one who revealed to me that the film was produced by Paramount Television, and was originally slated as a TV release.
Paramount, wanting to make some money off of its fading cash cow, wanting to recoup some more of the $40 Million it had spent making Star Trek: The Motion Picture, turned to Harve Bennett because he was a veteran TV producer. This was the man behind The Mod Squad, The Six Million-Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. He knew action and science fiction, and he knew how to make them less soporific than STTMP had been for many fans. (Not me. I actually loved that film.)
The book doesn’t chronicle anyone flat-out saying “And then we’ll turn it into a TV series,” but it was a reasonable supposition that that was where Paramount saw it going, before they kicked it upstairs to the big screen.
TV Movies erupting into successful series was very common in the 70s and 80s, with Bennett’s own Six Million Dollar Man, Montalban’s vehicle Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat as prime examples. So, while I think we all knew in 1982 that the financial success of Star Trek II meant that there definitely would be a Star Trek III in theaters, my mindset was that David and Saavik had been created with an eye toward being ongoing characters in a series, and that all future movies would prominently feature them.
In final revelation, Marcus was the aforementioned long-lost son of Admiral James T. Kirk. Saavik was the protégé of Captain Spock. Very little was revealed about her in the film itself, but Saavik had quite a back-story. When the film came out, as was common in those days, its novelization was released some days ahead. There was no such thing as a “spoiler.” The set of a film was not locked down like the Berlin Wall, and leaked information was not treated as being more damaging than leaked plans for a nuclear missile base. Indeed, the death of Spock and the end of the film was announced on network news programs the day the film premiered, and it had been revealed in Starlog magazine as early as 1981, if memory serves.
So Vonda McIntyre’s novelization of the film hit bookstores before the film came out. McIntyre had written The Entropty Effect perhaps one of the finest Star Trek novels ever, and certainly the best one to date at the time. Her adaptation of the film script included parts of the script which were filmed and landed on the cutting room floor, as well as scenes which, as far as anyone knows, came out of McIntyre’s voluminous imagination.
Saavik was half-Romulan. She and David were attracted to each other, and Saavik was not averse to exploring that attraction. These revelations were filmed, and the scenes were even included in promotional films contemporary to “Wrath of Khan.” Peter Preston, the young midshipman who was killed in Khan’s initial attack, was Scotty’s nephew. That piece of information made it into the TV version and director’s cut of the film.
But not on film, and not in any published documents about the film’s development that I’ve seen, were biographical details such as Saavik’s home planet being the failed Romulan colony of Hellguard, that her conception was most likely the result of a brutal rape, that she is sworn to kill her Romulan progenitor if ever she meets him or her, that her existence, and that of dozens of other “half-caste” children, is an embarrassment to Vulcan, and that she has a close, sisterly relationship with Peter Preston.
I think it was because of all this detailed, behind-the-scenes material that Saavik caught on so with fans. It certainly endeared her to me. And it didn’t hurt that the newcomer playing her had the charisma and talent to walk the line between emotionless Vulcan and passionate Romulan, to show her affection for Spock, her admiration and possible crush on Kirk, and her budding romance with David, all while playing by the Vulcan rules.
It’s easy to see that a TV series could have come together with Kirk as the elder hero, still vital, but masterminding the adventures of younger cohorts Saavik and David, assisted by their other mentors—McCoy, Scotty, Chekov and Uhura. Sulu was slated to received command of his own ship, and Spock, of course, was slated to be dead.
Saavik, David, and the talented actors who brought them to life, might easily have helped to carry a such a series, bringing in younger viewers, as Adrian Zmed and Heather Locklear were thought to on T.J. Hooker. It’s important to remember that there were not enough Star Trek fans to bring in the ratings a series (or movie) needed to be financially successful. Any Trek project had to appeal to a broader audience. And none of the regular Trek cast were considered “draws,” except possibly Nimoy and Shatner.
On the other hand, Merritt Butrick was already familiar to TV audiences as Johnny Slash, an outrageous punk character on Square Pegs. His untimely death prevents our knowing where his career would have taken him, but there’s little doubt he was a solid bet. Kirstie Alley would later headline Cheers, as well as three profitable Looks Who’s Talking films with John Travolta.
Okay, I just compared a potential Star Trek series to T.J. Hooker. That’s not exactly an advertisement for the quality of the show that wasn’t. And, once “Wrath of Khan” hit theaters, there definitely was not going to be a TV show—not yet, anyway. Star Trek, after its second theatrical adventure, was a money-making behemoth for Paramount Pictures. Jimmy Doohan went so far as to say, around 1984, that Star Trek was paying for all of Paramount’s other projects, and he might have been correct, at least until Eddie Murphy began making films.
But something else happened once Trek became a cash cow, something more than the abortion of a TV show and adventures that could have been. Star Trek also lost its visionary atmosphere. It was no longer forward-looking. It was about get back Spock, get back the Enterprise, get the crew back on the bridge, leave them just where they were in the halcyon days of the 1960s.
Star Trek became all about living in the past. Pretty funny for the most iconic speculative fiction franchise ever created. David was killed, so that Kirk would have to pay a price for Spock’s resurrection. (That’s Harve Bennett’s statement, in fact. He said the gods demanded that a price be paid.) Kirk also lost the Enterprise, but, of course, he got that back. Saavik was apparently impregnated, then sent out of town to a convent or something to have the baby. Sulu’s captaincy fell by the wayside for nine more years, and Chekov and Uhura were condemned to spend the rest of their careers screaming and saying, “Hailing frequencies open.”
Scotty and McCoy stayed in Kirk’s orbit as well, but they, at least, were already at their career pinnacles. In Starfleet, it certainly didn’t get much higher for an engineer and a physician than Captain of Engineering and Ship’s Surgeon on the Enterprise.
I loved “Search for Spock,” even though it had its share of pain. But the fact is that it drove the nail into the coffin for classic Trek and its characters. It cemented fandom’s attitude that these people should be preserved in amber, instead of being allowed to grow. And it ended all speculation that a younger cast might pick up the baton and carry the Trek traditions into the future, while we watched them grow and develop under the eyes of old friends.
TO BE CONTINUED – AND YES, THERE IS A LIFE LESSON!