The Wrath of Khan bridge set

Designing The Wrath of Khan Movie Sets

When Joseph Jennings reported for work on the second Star Trek motion picture, he found the sets for the USS Enterprise still standing. After Robert Wise had finished filming the first feature, he had simply closed the stage doors and moved on. In the intervening months, the interiors of the starship had sat patiently, waiting to go back into action.

Most of that action would take place on the bridge. Although the set may appear quite different from The Motion Picture, Jennings could only make cosmetic changes to its design. The layout remained the same, but in order to make the second film warmer the set was repainted in darker colors.

Director Nicholas Meyer wasn’t a fan of the set.

To take a silly example, if they are in terrible circumstances and everything gets all shook up, why don’t they have seatbelts? And the answer is, because if they had seatbelts if wouldn’t be very interesting. Most of the movie actually takes place on that damn bridge, which is a very tedious set to photograph and it was also, in a reconfigured form, the bridge of the Reliant, so I spent a lot of time there.

The Wrath of Khan did not have the budget to make significant changes, but Meyer asked Jennings if he could find a way to make the bridge appear more detailed:

The least I thought we could do was revamp the bridge and make it twinkle. I remember I had Joe Jennings build me a wall of blinking lights. It was on wheels, and we would shove this thing around behind people, to try anything to break up this expanse of grey panel.

Torpedo bay

The Wrath of Khan Torpedo bay
Crewmen lift the grates of the torpedo bay in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (Trekcore)

Although several other sets were still in place, the Enterprise gave Jennings plenty of work to do:

A new script will call for different things; somebody walks down a corridor and goes into another room and, bang, you don’t have that room, so you add it. And it grows […] until the stage sort of bulges out.

The biggest addition was the torpedo bay. Few people realize it, but this set was a redress of the Klingon bridge from the first movie.

The set featured a long channel where the torpedoes were loaded. Meyer wanted to have as much movement as possible in the action sequences, so he had Jennings put grates over the channel that needed to be lifted when the Enterprise went into battle.

Reliant bridge

The Wrath of Khan Reliant bridge
Khan commandeers the Reliant bridge in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (Trekcore)

The Enterprise bridge was adapted to serve as bridge of the USS Reliant.

“We had one thing going for us,” said Jennings.

There’s a great deal of similarity between the bridge of a destroyer and the bridge of a cruiser in the American navy.

That meant only relatively small changes were needed.

We gave it a change of color and orientation and we got rid of the big screen in front. As I recall, we changed some of the seating arrangements and the elevators a little bit and, of course, we added the ceiling piece to it, because the beam had to come down and pin Ricardo to the floor. The whole ceiling piece was something that had never been featured in the bridge of the Enterprise. That gave it a different look.

Starfleet Headquarters

The Wrath of Khan Starfleet Headquarters
Spock congratulates Kirk on his birthday at Starfleet Headquarters in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (Trekcore)

One of the non-starship sets Jennings worked on was the brief scene at Starfleet Headquarters, where Kirk walks out of the simulator and heads for an elevator. It was much smaller than it appeared on screen:

Mike [Minor] had a bright idea; he went out to several hardware stores and came back with a birdbath, a planter and a bunch of junk. He went off and fiddled with it for about two days and he came up with a miniature. We put that in the foreground as what is called a “cutting piece” and the real set was in the background. They tied together visually and created a perspective trick that made the set look much bigger.

Kirk’s apartment

The Wrath of Khan Kirk apartment
Kirk receives McCoy in his San Francisco apartment in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (Trekcore)

The next time we see Kirk, he is in his apartment. Jennings had fond memories of this set and said that the challenge was to make it clear it was in San Francisco but also show that it was a twenty-third-century building.

The first part was relatively easy: just show the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Making it look futuristic, though…

You set up your frame of reference and then within that you’ve got to be honest, which will lend credibility to the physical aspects of your show. Like all architecture, it has to look as through it’s possible to live in it. You look for materials, for instance, that are unfamiliar, or that are being used in an unfamiliar fashion, to make your design look different from what the public is seeing today.

Meyer made a demand of his own: it still needed to look like a home.

“A fireplace would be an anachronism, but would still fit Kirk’s image of having a cozy place to live,” according to Jennings, “so we had to make a fireplace that looked a little different. Hence we used the curved wall and the mosaic treatment behind it.”

Meyer also wanted to suggest Kirk had too much time on his hands in retirement and had a real attachment to the past, so Jennings and his team filled the set with antique collectibles.

Text adapted from Star Trek: The Magazine 3, 5 (September 2002)

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