Out of Darkness: Revisiting The Wrath of Khan

By Jared Young

Mailed on June 06, 2013

Dear Jack B. Sowards,

Maybe it's a good thing you're not around to see this. Six years after your passing, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - what I would kindly suggest is the great accomplishment of your career - is enjoying a sort of renaissance. Not necessarily on its own (countless) merits, but mostly because there's this new flick in theaters, Star Trek Into Darkness, that is trying - and failing spectacularly - to mimic them.

I'll get to those merits (and failures) in a second, but first let me elaborate on this idea that Star Trek II is your greatest professional feat.

I don't mean to disparage your long career as a writer and producer in television. From Bonanza to The Streets of San Francisco to BL Stryker, you were the model of the network-era journeyman writer; a sort of narrative mechanic, who, within the airtight confines of an hour-long scripted drama, was able to tinker with the wheels and gears of a plot to keep it running efficiently. But despite this workmanlike competence, your experience was pretty limited. Mostly westerns, cop shows, legal dramas. By the spring of 1981, after more than two decades in the business, you'd never written for the big screen. And you'd never been hired to write science-fiction.

Nonetheless, producer Harve Bennett brought you on board to help save the Star Trek universe.

The franchise, which seemed primed to coast the post-Star Wars deep-space adventure frenzy, was in a precarious place. In 1979, the original crew of the USS Enterprise was brought together for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Response was lukewarm. Robert Wise's thoughtful, meandering approach to the genre had a difficult time finding an audience in the dawning era of Spielbergian summer blockbusters.

While there remained a solid base of passionate Trekkers and Trekkies, the trick would be to draw in the casual moviegoers - the date night lotharios, the mall-haunting suburban kids with pockets full of allowance money - who held the power to push a movie out of the cult canon and into the mainstream. Those goals seem in opposition to each another, don't they? Fan service vs. broad appeal. But, working with Bennett, who developed the story that you turned into a screenplay (at warp speed, to avoid the 1981 writer's strike), you somehow managed to hit them both.

Listen, Jack: when it comes to sequels, I don't grade on a curve. You're not getting any extra points for level of difficulty. I think telling a story with already-established characters in an already-established universe has just as many benefits as it does pitfalls. The pitfalls, obviously, are repetition, redundancy, and a misguided sense of responsibility to the bombastic and superfluous (bigger, in sequels, is rarely better). But the expositional simplicity of the sequel is an oft-overlooked asset. Spider-Man 2, unfettered by the obstructions of an origin story, is one of the great comic book films of all time.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is unquestionably a sequel; it assumes a congenital knowledge of the people and places and lore established in all previous iterations; the script drops you immediately into a false-start action sequence that, to someone unfamiliar with the Star Trek universe, might feel completely bewildering. A sequel, yes, but - here's the brilliant part of what you did - not a sequel to the previous film. It's a sequel to the original series. To a specific episode of the original series.

Back to the source material. Back to basics. That was the genius of what you and Bennett did.

In the 1967 Star Trek episode "Space Seed," Kirk et al. encounter a derelict spacecraft from the ancient era of the 1990s; within, row upon row of genetic superpeople frozen in stasis. Their leader, Khan Noonien Singh, is thawed out and uses his commanding presence and yogic breathing techniques to briefly assume control of The Enterprise. He is thwarted (of course) and sent, by Kirk, to an uninhabited planet upon which he might indulge his megalomaniacal urges without hurting anyone.

(American Netflix subscribers can watch the first twenty 20 minutes of Star Trek II, and, when Chekov and Captain Terrell first encounter Khan, switch over to "Space Seed" and watch the original episode in its entirety--it functions as a dramatization of Khan's expository monologue, a deleted scene that gives you a sense of just how consistent Ricardo Montalban's insane performance is).

When this episode first aired, you were just beginning your career in television, penning westerns like Daniel Boone and The High Chaparral. Learning, I bet, the sort of hyper-efficient storytelling you'd later put to use when adapting the reflective mood and ambiguous conclusion of "Space Seed" into something a bit more consistent with the familiar beasts of a summer popcorn flick.

Star Trek II's MacGuffin is pretty brilliant: a bomb the rewrites the genetic code of an entire planetary body: the Genesis Device. But it's the effortless weaving-together of all these separate threads - the research project headed by Dr. Marcus and her whiny son, the re-emergence of Khan and his Beyond Thunderdome-army, The Enterprise and her crew reduced to carrying out yet another boring training mission - and the logic of how those plotlines eventually fold together is deceptively simple. It's a testament to your skill that each movement peaks at the exact right moment; these are the hallmarks of a storyteller who cut his teeth finding shrewd ways to build suspense before each commercial break (and pay it off right after).

You knew something that too few screenwriters mucking around Hollywood studios don't seem to: a story doesn't have to be complicated to be engaging. In fact, the opposite is often true.

I'll admit, I came to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan _a little bit late. I was born in 1979, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was my jam. The whales, the time travel, the hijacked Klingon Bird of Prey--a seven year-old craves these simple, shallow pleasures. But, through my father, who was a meticulous VHS-tape archivist of late-night reruns, I was trained to be a fan of the original series. And, as a child of the cable TV generation, I couldn't help but catch bits and pieces of _Star Trek II while flipping through channels on a rainy weekend afternoon. But it wasn't until a few years ago, at the Mayfair Theater, that I gave the flick an informed, engaged, grown-up viewing. And while I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it, I didn't realize, until I saw J.J. Abrams' own attempt at a Star Trek sequel, how good your film really was.

Now, I'm no hater of J.J. Abrams. In fact, I'm a bit of an apologist for his first Star Trek movie (Spock's "cave of exposition" scene isn't really that bad). It satisfied the supplicant in me. It delivered, generally, on the promise of spectacle. It had some neat moments that felt earned. Cool music. A few clever laughs. But even in that first film it seemed to be borrowing liberally from the blueprint you laid out, what with the fake-out opening sequence, the Kobayashi-Maru as foundational parable, and the fashion-retarded villain with a personal vendetta against a member of the crew.

The writers - Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (paired, for the sequel, with noted philosophical obfuscator Damon Lindelof) - seem desperate, in this second flick, to connect with the Star Trek mythology in the same seamless way that you did. But they did themselves a disservice in the first film by linking both streams of the franchise as divergent alternate dimensions (okay, maybe the cave of exposition was that bad). They are now beholden to both the original series and the original film franchise. So, with Into Darkness, we get Tribbles; we get Harry Mudd; we get Dr. Marcus (who, in your film, is revealed to be the mother of Kirk's child). We get Khan, too. And, sure, Benedict Cumberbatch has an undeniable charm and a cool gravelly voice--but he bears so little in common with Khan (the character, who, like Kirk and Spock and Bones and Scotty is, in the broad strokes of his persona, a vital part of the Star Trek mythos) that fitting him into the story feels like the most senseless, lazy sort of fan service.

(The writers have actually admitted to having retrofitted Khan-as-antagonist into the screenplay.)

Which wouldn't be so bad if Into Darkness didn't fumble its way into the same thematic trap that has claimed so many recent blockbusters (begrudgingly, I'll include The Dark Knight Rises on that list): paralyzing self-seriousness. Laid over the story is a paper-thin 9/11 allegory (what else?) that is naked in its striving for profundity, and is revealed during the climactic action sequence to be nothing more than an offensive thematic ploy (thousands of people appear to die in a single ecstatic CGI shot).

Needless to say, Jack, I felt a lot of feelings while watching Star Trek Into Darkness. Some nice. Some unpleasant. At the time, in the theater, assaulted by the noise, seized by the stuttering cuts, I didn't think it was that bad. Worth the fourteen bucks for a 3D ticket--but just barely. But in revisiting Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, your simple, unpretentious, yeoman's approach to the narrative made clear just how low my expectations were.

Looking back from the high perch of three decades, it's easy to see why Star Trek II is such a beloved blockbuster. It's a film written for the audience. The screenplay is a humble bit of genius. An act of generosity to both fans and casual filmgoers.

And your generosity didn't stop there. You spent the last years of your life teaching film and television at UCLA. Which makes me wish I lived in some divergent reality in which Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof took one of your classes. Then I might have been able to watch another amazing Star Trek sequel.

Rest in peace,

Jared Young

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