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38 Things We Learned from the ‘Star Trek II’ Commentary

We listen as writer/director Nicholas Meyer recounts the many stories from the making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Khan Paramount
By  · Published on January 3rd, 2013

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.

One of the most anticipated films of 2013 is Star Trek: Into Darkness, which finally comes out this May. After the trailer dropped late last year, there was plenty of speculation about how it connects to another Star Trek II from more than thirty years ago. Questions were asked – is this about Khan? what exactly is Sherlock doing in this movie? will Kirk and Spock finally make out? and will we ever get to see the green girl’s boobies this time around?

It seems fitting to kick off the new year with a look back at Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, especially after all the hubbub it made as part of the beloved Summer of ’82 from last year alone. The older DVD and the more recent Blu-ray release includes director Nicholas Meyer’s commentary, in which he talks about Shatner’s acting, learning to direct, and (spoiler alert!) the death of Spock. And on to the commentary…

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Commentator: Nicholas Meyer (writer and director)

1. The uncommon word Meyer uses most often in the commentary is “ingenious,” to describe the creative process.

2. Originally a writer before becoming a director, Meyer claims he started writing when he was five-years-old. In fact, when he fills out a job description, he would prefer to identify himself as a storyteller rather than a filmmaker.

3. During the 1972 writer’s strike, Meyer wrote his book “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” which he said lifted him out of obscurity. The book became a best-seller, and he received an Oscar nomination for adapting the screenplay.

4. Prior to directing Star Trek II, Meyer had never seen the television series.

5. After his directorial debut of Time After Time, a friend introduced him to Harve Bennett, who was in charge of the Star Trek sequel.

6. Meyer included the opening title card that reads “In the 23rd Century” for his father’s sake, since he had no idea was Star Trek was or when it took place. The shot later zooms out from Mr. Spock’s ear, which Meyer included because it was one of the most recognizable features of the franchise.

7. Five different screenplays were tossed around for the film. Meyer used the following elements to cobble together his own screenplay: Kirk meeting his son, the Genesis planet, the death of Spock, the character of Saavik, and the return of Khan.

8. Early reports leaked the fact that Spock would die in the movie, which lead to anger from fans and threatening letters. Meyer put the Kobyashi Maru sequence at the beginning of the film as a red herring for Spock’s death. “Let’s kill him off at the beginning, then everyone will forget about it,” he said.

9. When William Shatner first read the script, he thought it was a disaster. After a long meeting with Shatner, Meyer was able to fix the problems in a day’s time. Twelve hours after turning over the new script to Shatner, Meyer received an ecstatic answering machine message from him, raving about the new version. Meyer kept the tape and would occasionally play it back and quote it to Shatner when he was questioned on set.

10. Kirstie Alley used to take her Vulcan ears home with her at night. Meyer suggests that she slept with them.

11. The book Kirk reads in his quarters is Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Meyer included that because he didn’t think enough people were seen reading in Star Trek. He picked up the book from his house, and since everyone knows the first and last lines of it, he felt it made a nice bracket for the story.

12. The more takes Meyer made Shatner do, the better his acting became. This was because Shatner started delivering his dialogue in a somewhat cheeky leading man manner. After several takes, he got bored and started to actually act. Meyer points out one particular scene – in which Kirk says, “Here it comes” before ordering the Reliant to drop its shields – where this achieved the best line delivery. Initially, Shatner delivered the line with a hint of sarcasm, which Meyer did not want because he felt Khan would have figured out something bad would happen.

13. Even though Federation starships are supposed to run silently, Meyer wanted a certain level of noise in their corridors. He used the sound of an air duct thumping in the background of all Enterprise scenes. Other sound elements were inspired by U-boat sounds. However, with as much noise as he put on the ships, he wanted the exteriors to be silent (since sound cannot travel through the vacuum of space), but he knew he’d have a fight with the studio about it.

14. Meyer originally titled the movie Star Trek II: The Undiscovered Country because it quotes Hamlet and fits in with the themes of old age and death. While he was editing the film, the studio changed the title without his knowledge, so he used it again for Star Trek VI “when I had a little more clout.”

15. Khan removing one glove was one of the more controversial decisions Meyer made in the film. He meant it to be a quirky thing for Khan in his operatic entrance. When people ask him why Khan only took off the one glove, Meyer asks them why they think. “It’s not my job to supply answers,” he says.

16. Originally, Khan’s opening scene was shot in one take so Ricardo Montalbán could ramp up into a frenzy. However, he went too big, so Meyer quoted Laurence Olivier to him, saying, “A great actor never shows his top.” Montalbán appreciated the direction and pulled back to the more reserved and scary Khan. Meyer often directed him by saying, “Smaller is better.” This led to what Meyer calls “the most intimate collaboration” with an actor.

17. In regards to Montalbán’s acting style, Meyer said, “Some actors have open faces, and some actors have closed faces. Look at this man, and you can see the wheels turning. You can see him thinking.”

18. The most common question Meyer gets about this movie was whether Montalbán wore a prosthetic chest. Meyer insists that what you see is his real chest. “He is one strong cookie,” he says. “And he works out.”

19. Meyer concedes that Chekov was not in the original episode “The Space Seed,” even though Khan recognizes him. Meyer, who constantly references Sherlock Holmes throughout the commentary, talks about how Arthur Conan Doyle made many detail mistakes in his writing but went on record that he didn’t care about the inaccuracies. Meyer uses this as his “Chekov Defense” for his own inaccuracies.

20. Meyer envisioned his Star Trek to be Horatio Hornblower in Space, describing it as “nautical but nice.” He focused on it being a military mission and had the uniforms designed to look more like military ones. He requested composer James Horner use this in his musical cues, too.

21. Meyer wanted to put a “No Smoking” sign on the bridge, but the studio made him take it out.

22. He also wanted pockets in the Starfleet uniforms so the actors had something to do with their hands. However, there was no budget for them.

23. Meyer describes Khan and his henchmen as “genetically engineered bikers” and had their wardrobe reflect that.

24. The episodes of Star Trek Meyer eventually watched – as well as the first film – were too serious for his tastes, to the point that he considered them pompous. For this reason, he infused a lot of humor into the characters. Meyer claims this is why it was good he wasn’t a Star Trek fan because he wasn’t afraid to be less serious. On this subject, he says, “Life, I think, as we know it is not all serious and it’s not all a barrel of laughs, either. It sort of varies.”

25. Leonard Nimoy did not like the design of Spock’s quarters, and now Meyer agrees that it should have been somber and different rather than dull and overlit as it appears. When making Star Trek VI, Meyer made a specific point to have proper quarters designed for Spock to avoid Nimoy getting annoyed again.

26. Because of budgetary restrictions, the bridge of the Reliant is the same bridge as the Enterprise. However, the set was built in pie slices so they could switch parts around to create a different look.

27. The CGI sequence for the Genesis Project video was considered groundbreaking at the time of the film, being one of the first fully computer generated sequences of its time.

28. The script original specified that Kirk was forty-nine-years-old, but Shatner did not want an exact age given (which was a year younger than the actor at the time of shooting), so he had that detail removed.

29. Meyer claims that for several weeks during production, he would only see daylight when walking between buildings. His schedule consisted of arriving at set before dawn, walking to a different location to watch dailies while eating lunch, returning to the set in the afternoon, and walking to a cutting room at night.

30. Meyer is not a fan of director’s cuts because often the scenes that are removed were removed for an artistic and storytelling reason. He contends that most screenplays, in fact, are overwritten, and when an audience sees it, they’re way ahead of where the filmmakers think they will be.

31. During Kirk’s conversation with Saavik that he does not like no-win scenarios, Meyer happens to be discussion the no-win scenario in which directors aren’t given enough money to achieve some special effects and are then reprimanded when the effects don’t look right.

32. Composer James Horner makes a cameo appearance as a second engineer walking down a corridor with a lighted staff before the photon torpedo is loaded as the Enterprise heads to the Mutara Nebula.

33. Meyer prefers not to direct effects-heavy films because the movies are often previewed to test audiences with animatics and temp effects. This inevitably leads to audience laughter, which in turn, makes the studio executives nervous about the effects-heavy sequences.

34. Ricardo Montalbán spent much of his career concealing a limp from a leg injury he sustained while shooting Across the Wide Missouri (1951) when a horse rolled over him. Meyer allowed him to limp in this film because it added to Khan’s character.

35. Meyer likes to emphasize sound more than the image in a movie, saying, “When you’re talking about sound and picture, sound always dominates picture. There are no exceptions.” He demonstrates this by suggesting that you look at a photo of a child running across a field of daisies while Chopin’s funeral march plays, and you’ll believe that child will die a horrible death.

36. Meyer spends a long time at the end of the commentary talking about the actors being remembered for this franchise, for better or for worse. He sums it up at the end with the following: “They can either be grateful or angry, but they can recognize it as a fact.”

37. Kirk’s true hero moment comes at the end of the film when he admits: “I know nothing.”

38. Meyer fought against the final shots of the film, which were filmed in the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, ending on the torpedo tube. He thought it was unconscionable to suggest that Spock really isn’t dead. This is why he declined to direct Star Trek III.

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Final Thoughts

Whether or not the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan commentary inspires you to listen to it yourself or gets you excited about the possibilities of the new movie coming out this summer, it should at least inspire you to watch this film one more time. Meyer does a fine job dishing out some trivial details as well as talking about the franchise in general, and in retrospect. He is very polite to his actors, but you can tell there was some tension between him and Shatner on set. However, like any good director, he figured out how to handle the man.

Looking ahead to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it’s clear that Meyer learned from this directing experience to make a movie that might not have been better than his first attempt, but it is definitely at a comparable level of quality.

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