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By Patricia McIvor
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the original broadcast of Star Trek, the oddball science fiction show that spawned four sequel series to date, as well as 13 feature films. While not as pervasive as its sister phenomenon Star Wars, Star Trek has made its own indelible mark on our culture.
Given Hollywood’s current yen for post-apocalyptic dystopias, Gene Roddenberry’s peaceful vision of the future is amazingly refreshing. Set in the 23rd century, Star Trek acknowledges the darkness that humanity is capable of (their history of the late 20th century includes runaway eugenics programs and a nuclear WWIII), but argues that we will survive and rise above our self-destructive tendencies to eventually explore the stars. Led by consummate explorer Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), red-blooded medical officer Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and dispassionate Vulcan Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the diverse crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise pursues their ongoing mission of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and boldly going where no one has gone before.
Thanks to DVD box sets and streaming services like Netflix and Hoopla, revisiting the original series is easier than ever. If you’d rather celebrate this anniversary with one of the Star Trek movies, however, I recommend Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan.
Between its catchy title and tremendously memorable villain, Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan appeals to die-hard Trekkers and casual viewers alike. After making an appearance in the original series episode “Space Seed,” Ricardo Montalban returns as Khan, the fiercely intelligent and charismatic leader of a band of genetically engineered super-humans (the result of those unfortunate eugenics experiments). Originally bent on conquest, Khan returns in this film in order to exact revenge on Kirk, who unwittingly marooned him on a desert planet at the conclusion of “Space Seed.”
Besides its seemingly standard revenge plot—which is further enhanced by Montalban’s ferocious performance as well as literary allusions to Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities—the film largely functions as a meditation on aging and death. Fans of the recent Star Trek reboots will remember how Kirk famously cheats in order to beat the unbeatable Kobayashi Maru test, a simulation of a no-win scenario designed to test a captain’s character. Wrath of Khan further explains that due to his ability to talk or fight his way out of scrapes, Kirk has never truly faced death. However, the film opens with Kirk resigned to semi-retirement as a desk-bound admiral, using reading glasses and, in his own words, “feeling old”; and while Kirk finds himself rejuvenated when he inevitably returns to the captain’s chair, the film ends with one of the most iconic death scenes in cinema history.
Thanks to their years together on the original series, the ensemble cast shares a warmth and familiarity that fits their roles as the long-serving members of an exploratory mission. Shatner and Kelley bring some lovely depth to Kirk and McCoy, and Nimoy so naturally inhabits the role of Spock, it’s difficult to imagine him in any other role. Montalban nearly steals the show as Khan, channeling Captain Ahab with such theatrical relish that his ultimate demise is almost a disappointment.
What’s your favorite version of Star Trek? Email me your favorite captain at firstname.lastname@example.org.