William Shatner is put to the test in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

An action-packed clash between two larger than life figures, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan pits the starship Enterprise against Khan—a vengeful and genetically enhanced war criminal. Obsessed with avenging the death of his wife, Khan is determined to outwit his old nemesis, Admiral Kirk, by drawing him into a cat-and-mouse battle in the depths of space.

Back on Earth, Kirk is given a pair of ‘antique’ reading glasses as a birthday gift. Feeling old and restless he tosses them aside—like him, they are a relic of the past. But finding himself back in command of the Enterprise, the cocksure attitudes of his youth return—and fail him—when his old adversary, Khan, attacks. For the first time in his life, Kirk must face defeat, and death, in a space clash that builds to an epic finale.

The actors chew up the scenery with great relish as Kirk and Khan face off in a series of tactical moves that play out as if they are battling at sea. Indeed, the director, Nicholas Meyer, was inspired by both the classic Horatio Hornblower British naval series and the classic tale of Captain Ahab’s notorious obsession in Moby Dick.

The film’s producer, Harve Bennett, projected every episode of the original Star Trek television series to find ideas for the movie and was drawn to an episode titled, “Space Seed,” which had starred Ricardo Montalbán as Khan. Excited to reprise his role as the villain nearly 15 years later, Montalbán counted this as one of his favorite roles. In a curious side note, his particularly muscular chest in the film was popularly thought to be a Hollywood makeup trick, but, in fact, the chest was natural—he said it was achieved by doing push-ups, “a lot of push-ups.”

The Wrath of Khan re-used many of the sets, costumes and model space ships from its less popular predecessor, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, used the same motion control system from Star Wars to film the space ship shots for Khan. Additionally, Khan features the first entirely computer-generated sequence in a feature film when Kirk views a simulation of a lifeless planet being terraformed into a lush and abundant paradise. The computer division that created this animation later broke off from Lucasfim and became Pixar, the highly successful company behind the groundbreaking animated films Toy Story, WALL·E, and many others.

The Wrath of Khan broke all previous box office records for opening weekends, it was seen as a more faithful interpretation of the television series and is credited with re-energizing the Star Trek franchise, which has continued with an ongoing series of feature films and numerous long-running television series spin-offs, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. In one last ‘industry first,’ the video (VHS) release of The Wrath of Khan was the first home video to cut its price to about half of the existing market price and opened the door to affordable home videos and the rise of inexpensive home video players.

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