80s Movie Challenge Week 6: Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan (1982)

In this week’s #80smc shenanigans Paul voyages to the middle of nowhere (the Ceti Alpha system or a small farming village in Northamptonshire; take your pick) to look at one of the most fondly remembered adventures of the Star Trek film series.

Spoilers follow, but to be honest, if you’ve not seen Star Trek 2, or at least don’t know the big plot developments in it then a) where have you been? and b) why are you still reading this?

Do you remember when the shops were closed on a Sunday? In the UK, prior to the Sunday Trading Act of 1994, what was supposedly a “Day of Rest” was often a “Day of Bugger All To Do”. If it was nice weather, of course, you could hop on your BMX, call on your chums and go off for an adventure in the woods, but if it turned out inclement, then your choices were limited.

Colouring in. Reading. Playing on your computer if you were lucky enough to have one. Watching TV. Yeah, watching TV on a Sunday in the early 80s was a total bust. We only had three channels (and then four, although the newcomer’s output for children was sketchy at best). Here’s an example of the delights of Sunday telly, from 25th March 1984:

10:40 BBC1: Maths Help
11:30 ITV: Me And My Camera
13:00 BBC1: Farming
13:30 ITV: Farming Outlook
13:55 BBC2: International Badminton
15:45 BBC1: Bonanza
16:35 BBC1: World Figure Skating Championships
18:15 C4: International Volleyball

I know, right? Dull, dull, dull, dull, dull.

So thank goodness for my Auntie Ann.

“Who’s that?” I hear you ask (Actually, I didn’t, but I’ll allow it… This time, Ed.) Well, Auntie Ann is my mum’s sister. She was married to a farmer called Fred and they lived in a tiny, picturesque village of Holcot in the heart of Northamptonshire. Their house was on edge of the village and the border of Tithe Farm where Uncle Fred worked. And often, on a Sunday, my parents would pack me and my brothers into our Vauxhall Cavalier and drive us there for Sunday lunch and an afternoon getting some country air.

Feast your eyes upon that thing of beauty. Us kids thought our dad’s (which was definitely NOT this one) looked like the Dukes of Hazzard’s car and begged him to get a Dixie horn. Then a year or two later we pestered him to get it sprayed black with a flashing red LED on the front.

That car was also subject to a He-Man related adventure which I shared on Jenny Morrill’s World of Crap website a few weeks ago. Pop on over – it’s a fun, silly, irreverent read.

Anyway – Google Maps reliably informs me that the drive to Auntie Ann’s cottage, once I’ve taken out all the bypasses and new roads that weren’t there in 1984, was 16.9 miles and took approximately 35 minutes. Hardly any time at all; or if you’re 9 years old, what feels like 17 hours. And then at the end of the day came the voyage home. That also felt like 17 hours but you were tired and grumpy and it was dark and scary.

Yes it looks idyllic in the photo, and in the daytime it was, but once the sun had set those trees took on a much more sinister appearance and it was like being driven home through a cross between that bit in Poltergeist and that advert for Shell Sure Grip with Tim Healy and John Hurt in it.

Anyway, as always, I digress quite massively (Yes, you do. You’re supposed to be talking about Star Trek, not nice drives in the country, Ed.). I’m getting there, I promise (You’d better be, Ed.).

So – Sunday afternoons at Auntie Ann’s…

If the weather was nice we’d go for a walk with my teenage cousins Les, Nick and Michelle down to Pitsford Reservoir and get a treat from the ice cream van that seemed to be permanently stationed there (I always had Mint-Choc-Chip) but if the weather was nasty, then we’d need something to amuse us. Our cousins were much older than us so most of their toys had gone or were in ruins (money, houses and everyone’s favourite dog counter were missing from Michelle’s Monopoly, the tracks on Les’s Scalextric were rusty meaning the F1 cars kept conking out), and there are only so many times you can read the toy section of the Grattan’s catalogue (to this day my default setting on any print catalogue is to flip straight to the back page and work backwards from there through Toys and then Video Games, onto Trainers and Sports Bags).

But Auntie Ann was savvy to our needs. She knew we liked Star Wars. Christmas 1983 she even gave Lee a Luke Skywalker (Jedi Knight Outfit) figure, which made him cry because he’d already been given it by Santa (i.e. Mum and Dad) earlier that day and why would Santa bring him two? I heroically swapped my Ree-Yees with him, reasoning that Santa must have got the names on the parcels mixed up. This pacified him, not that it mattered because at the end of the day all the Star Wars men went in our big Dusty Bin toy chest anyway.

So, Auntie Ann, knew we loved space and adventure movies and would tape anything and everything she saw with a fantastical plot in her TV Times and Radio Times magazines (remember when you had to buy two separate TV guides to cover every channel? All FOUR of them?). Films I saw at Auntie Ann’s house include:

Starcrash, Battle Beyond the Stars, Hawk The Slayer, The Beastmaster, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (the feature-length pilot episode which almost everyone back then thought was a movie), Star Man, Red Sonja, The Black Hole, The Time Machine, Lifeforce, The Land That Time Forgot, Krull, Galaxina, Mad Max, Clash of the Titans, Flash Gordon, Jason of Star Command, The Sword And The Sorcerer, Space Raiders, Excalibur, The Shape of Things To Come, Conan The Barbarian, The Dark Crystal, Superman.

You get the picture.

If you want a more outlandish story than Starcrash itself then check out the Wikipedia entry for Marjoe Gortner, who played Akton.

We soon learned to stop asking Auntie Ann if we could take home her movies, for two reasons:

  1. Her VCR was neither Betamax nor VHS. She had a Philips 2000. Remember those? In the days of home video format wars, admitting you had one was like saying you owned an Amstrad to owners of the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. Both sides, who usually hated each other’s guts, would temporarily cast their differences aside to gang up on Amstrad which, looking back was probably superior to both (a conflict that became infinitely more awkward when Alan Michael Sugar Trading bought out Sinclair). Nah, who am I kidding!? ZX Spectrum rules! Don’t @ me!
  2. “No. They’re special for when you come here.” Fair enough. Can’t argue with that.

So, from that list of films above you’ll probably have noticed one or two films which are not really suitable for children. Some, like Beastmaster, Lifeforce and The Sword And The Sorcerer have quite disturbing imagery, not to mention boobs and bums (lots in the case of Lifeforce). But of all those films we watched at Auntie Ann’s there was one which got to me more than any other (after all this time, if it’s not Star Trek II, you’re fired, Ed.).

I’d seen Star Trek before, of course I had! You couldn’t escape it in the 80s (it was on a constant loop on BBC2) and I had some of the Mego action figures from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (although they were rubbish because they were shorter than Star Wars and Action Force so were relentlessly bullied by the bigger toys – especially Spock – and they also didn’t have the little holes in the bottom of their feet to make them stand on stuff so they kept falling over) but I’d never really latched onto it in the same way I had Star Wars.

I’d love to say I still have these three from childhood, but a couple of years ago Dave from work was giving his old toys away and I managed to snag them, and Muffet from Battlestar Galactica

It wasn’t really until 1994 in my student days when I met Mrs C (then Miss H) and she had me watching The Next Generation with her every Wednesday night (on BBC2 of course) that I fully appreciated Trek’s more gentle, cerebral approach to science fiction.

Getting back to that Sunday at Auntie Ann’s; she said she’d taped Star Trek for us, and we all rolled our eyes (because Star Trek was boring) but as we were polite kids we watched it anyway. But there weren’t going to be any Epic Space Battles. Star Trek: The Motion Picture had taught us that hard lesson.

And then the music started. Music which sounded a LOT like Battle Beyond The Stars – a film with Epic Space Battles (and Hannibal from The A-Team). Credits over, the film opened to a space battle; a fairly exciting one at that! Which turned out to be a simulation, but still. This was not the Star Trek we knew; it was exciting and cool. And then this happened:

Now I’ve never been particularly squeamish with gore in films; unless it’s stuff to do with the face. Maybe it’s a Personal Space thing, I don’t know, but show an eye being gouged out (like in last week’s film The Terminator), something being shoved up (or pulled out of) a nose (Arnie again, with Total Recall instantly springs to mind) or things being poked into ears and I go into a paroxysm of disgust.

Everyone knows about Earwigs right? They climb into your ear at night, burrowing in with those spikes, and then lay their eggs right inside your brain? I now know they actually don’t do that, but in the mid-80s, every single kid knew it to be true, and the sight of one of the wriggly blighters in the playground would send all the kids running indoors, hands over their ears shouting “Miss! Miss! The earwigs! They’re coming!” Maybe that was just me.

You know the scene right? Near the start of the film Captain Terrell (played by Paul Winfield who also had a small but significant role in last week’s movie too) and his second in command Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) investigate a mysterious reading from a supposedly lifeless planet of Ceti Alpha VI, which is set to be used for Dr Carol Marcus’ experimental terraforming device the Genesis Device. The strange readings turn out to be life signs of exiled criminal Khan Noonien Singh and his gang of roided up super goons because this (Shock! Horror!) is actually Ceti Alpha V, not Ceti Alpha VI (d’oh!), the latter of which was destroyed and in the process knocked CAV into CAVI’s orbit.

OK, so information you’d kind of expect the Federation to know about, right? And what were they doing mucking around in a system where a known criminal was imprisoned?

STARSHIP CAPTAIN: Maintain a geostationary orbit around Ceti Alpha VI
NAVIGATION OFFICER: Er… Captain, which one is that?
CAPTAIN: The sixth planet from the sun.
OFFICER: Well, yes, but…
CAPTAIN: Listen, Ensign! It’s not difficult. You just start with the first one and count… One, two, three, four, five… Oh!
OFFICER: See! Just five!
CAPTAIN: Well, V looks pretty lifeless, maybe we should just tell Doctor Marcus to use that one instead.
OFFICER: OK… Oh wait, Captain! It says here in the database “Do Not Approach! Here Be Villains!”

Anyway… so Terrell and Chekov land on the wrong planet and meet villains who shouldn’t be there; villains who instantly recognise our Russian friend, despite the fact that in the first season episode Space Seed, the episode of Star Trek that this film follows up on, Khan and Chekov are never seen interacting (although Memory Alpha reliably informs me that Chekov was indeed a crew member at that time, just not bridge crew, what with Walter Koenig not joining the series until it’s second season).

So Khan, desperate for revenge on Kirk, pops these ugly little blighters in the ears of the Starfleet officers, which makes them extremely susceptible to suggestion. Small, pink, leechlike and probably the oddest – scratch that – horriblest thing in the universe.

The Ceti Eel, for its brief appearance, makes a large, horrifying impact. Out of nowhere in this series of normally gentle space romps suddenly came a moment so jarring, so awful that it had ten-year-old me watching, open-mouthed in terror. Yes, I’d seen some mild horror stuff before (the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark springs to mind) but this was on another level. At this point I’d not seen The Thing, Alien or any of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, so watching this scene on the floor of my Auntie Ann’s lounge was pretty much my introduction to Body Horror. It didn’t make me feel any better about the earwigs, that’s for sure!

Star Trek II’s script always had a mind-controlling beastie planned, but originally it was going to be a longer, thinner creature (hence the name, Ceti Eel) which would control its subject by wrapping around their necks, not unlike the mind-control collar used by Evil-Lyn in 1987’s Masters of The Universe movie. However, a chance encounter with a slug on the doorstep while fetching his morning newspaper gave producer Robert Sallin another idea and our slippery friend was born.

The effects team use simple techniques to rather grotesque effect. The eel’s horrid, red slime was nothing but supermarket raspberry jam, and it’s slow crawl across Terrell and Chekov’s face was achieved using a type of fine thread normally used in fishing called Monofilament. When I rewatched this the other night, I looked very closely for the string and couldn’t see it. It’s a great horror moment, extremely well-executed, and while it left me aghast, it also left me rapt for the remainder of the film, even though I was fully prepared to be bored silly.

And then two extraordinary things happened. I said earlier that I wanted Epic Space Battles – and the final act of the film turned out to be exactly that! One long ESB! Amazing! The next remarkable moment came out of the blue and hit me like a gut punch – you know what I’m going to say, but maybe stop reading here if you don’t want big spoilers…

Spock died.

How could this be? Despite my indifference to Trek, Spock was still up there in my estimation as a classic, iconic character along with Indiana Jones, R2 D2, The Doctor, Optimus Prime, Captain Zep (Space Detective), etc.

How could they kill him? Yes, it was a heroic sacrifice, and he saved the day and all that – but what the hell!? I’d like to say it was the first time I struggled with the death of a beloved science fiction character, but that ship had sailed a few years earlier for me.

What? I liked him! A boy travelling in the TARDIS, it gave me hope I might get a go one day!

The blow was lessened slightly for me when, as I sat there in stunned silence, that the latest Star Trek film was called The Search For Spock. Hmm. I guess he’s not really dead after all. Something which William Shatner himself later commented on:

“I believe it was all planned — I now believe [Nimoy] and [producer] Harve [Bennett] cooked this up.

I suddenly realized that I, as well as many other people, had been taken in by the death of Spock. Leonard was so marvellous at working the territory that he got a directing job out of it.

[At the time] I was thinking my good friend Nimoy is, in essence, saying goodbye to the whole part. No one told me they were thinking otherwise.

But I would have enjoyed being in on it. I get the secrecy.”

Cynical, but Nimoy did indeed return, as both co-star and director of the next movie, so fair play to him I say! Director Nicholas Meyer all but confirmed Shatner’s suspicions:

“Here’s what happened. Leonard was very ambivalent about doing another Star Trek movie. And Harve Bennett lured him with the promise of a terrific death scene, which [Shatner] and he played so touchingly…

I fought it. I thought it was unforgivable to take people who were so wrapped up in this character and sort of dry hustle them and then say, “Oh, we were just kidding.” But in the end, it was a battle that I lost.

We left dangling the prospect of hope. And Star Trek is about hope. That’s the truth. It was not always planned that (Spock) was going to come back.

In retrospect, they were right, and I was wrong.”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains my favourite of the (so far) thirteen movies – and not just because it’s a tight thriller with some great performances (Kirk’s eulogy gets me every time) but because it taught me not to be judgemental about film – that I could actually like one type of thing while also enjoying something quite different.

Join us again in another week’s time as we take a huge leap to the other end of the decade accompanied by Rebecca Aulburn to look at a film credited with turning an ailing Disney’s fortunes around – 1989’s The Little Mermaid.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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