Writing The Wrath of Khan

Whatever its weaknesses, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been a success, so it came as no surprise that Paramount Pictures decided to develop a sequel. With Gene Roddenberry stepping into the background, Star Trek was handed over to Executive Producer Harve Bennett. It was Bennett’s job to develop a script that could be filmed on a reasonable budget and put a new Star Trek feature in the theaters in the summer of 1982.

One of his biggest problems was finding the right approach to the material. The Motion Picture had adopted a very serious and epic style, which many felt was inappropriate. Somehow, the sequel would have to capture the essential heart of the show and give the audiences what they had been waiting for.

Bennett watched all original Star Trek episodes in preparation for his task. His thrawl through the episodes provided him with what he had been looking for. He was determined that his movie would have something the first one lacked — a real villain. When he saw “Space Seed”, Bennett was struck by Ricardo Montalbán’s performance as Khan and decided that he would make the perfect villain for the film.

The War of the Generations

William Shatner and Harve Bennett
William Shatner and Harve Bennett on the set of Star Trek II

In November 1980, Bennett wrote his first treatment called Star Trek II: The War of the Generations. In this story, Kirk is called to investigate a rebellion on a Federation world. En route, he saves a woman he once loved and learns that their son — whom he never knew he had — is one of the leaders of the rebellion. Upon arriving at the planet, Kirk is captured and sentenced to death by his own son before we learn that Khan is the mastermind behind the uprising. Kirk joins forces with his son to fight Khan and the film ends with Kirk’s son joining the crew of the Enterprise.

Bennett had already decided that one of the film’s major themes would be the aging of the characters. In the drafts that followed, Kirk was consistently confronted with a son he knew little about, Spock was often preoccupied with death and, in the later versions, McCoy had to struggle with his feelings for a much younger woman.

Bennett still had to turn his outline into a workable script that could be shot, so he hired Jack B. Sowards, who had written several admired movies of the week and was a self-confessed Star Trek fan.

Sowards instantly had a major impact. Where Bennett’s original treatment made no mention of Spock, since Leonard Nimoy was not keen to make a second Star Trek film, Sowards thought he had a way of persuading Nimoy to return: he suggested that Bennett tell Nimoy that in this film Spock would die a little more than a third into the story. The opportunity to play his death scene was too good for Nimoy to pass up and he agreed to come on board. From this point on, all the scripts featured Spock’s death, although its position in the film would inevitably be pushed toward the dramatic conclusion.

Project Omega

Sowards had only a few months to write a script before a writers’ strike was called in April 1981. By late February, he had produced a first draft that significantly expanded Bennett’s outline and added several vital elements. This script introduced the idea that the Federation was preparing to test a terrible weapon known as the Omega System.

The film opened with Captain Clark Terrell and his first officer, Pavel Chekov, beaming down to Ceti Alpha V, which had been selected as the test site, to make sure the planet was as dead as sensor readings suggested. Starfleet know that Kirk had left Khan and his people stranded on this planet but was amazed to discover that he and a handful of his followers, including Marla McGivers, had survived.

A vengeful Khan took control of Terrell and Chekov and used them to take control of Project Omega. Terrell claimed that Kirk had ordered the Omega System to be loaded onto the USS Reliant, which was a Constitution-class starship like the Enterprise, and made it clear that it was going to be used to fight the Klingons in the Neutral Zone. Project leader Janet Wallace contacts Kirk, who orders the Enterprise to set course for Gamma Regula IV, the planet on which the project was headquartered.

As Enterprise approached the planet, its engines were badly damaged, and Spock sacrificed his life to get them back online in time for Kirk to fight the Reliant. Later Khan and Kirk would fight a psychic battle in a variety of exotic locations, using quarterstaffs, whips and swords. Khan, who had acquired impressive mental powers during his isolation, eventually won, but Kirk survived because he understood that the weapons were only illusory. The film ended with a pitched space battle in orbit around the planet in which Kirk defeated his enemy with his superior tactics.


At this point, Art Director Michael Minor made an invaluable contribution. Bennett was concerned that the Omega System was simply a weapon and there was nothing uplifting about it, so Minor suggested turning it into a terraforming device. Because it would work by reordering matter on a planet’s surface, it would still be a terrible weapon, but the Federation’s goal was to create a paradise, not to kill billions. Bennett was delighted by this and, in recognition of its Biblical power, the Omega System became the Genesis Device.

By April 10, Sowards had produced an updated draft of the script that incorporated the change. In this version, Janet Wallace had become Carol Baxter and Spock’s death had been pushed a little later in the story. During the final battle, Khan fired the Genesis Device at Enterprise but hit a planet, which was reborn as the two vessels continued their titanic struggle.

This draft also included the first version of the simulator sequence in which “Savik” (then a young Vulcan male officer who was Captain Spock’s first officer on the Enterprise) failed to rescue the Kobayashi Maru. When Savik questioned him about his failure, Kirk suggested that the test might be a “no-win scenario.”

By now, pre-production had begun in earnest and Producer Robert Sallin and Mike Minor produced storyboards for the effects sequences.

Running out of time

But, although this draft contained many, if not most of the elements of the final script, Bennett and Sallin were not satisfied. To their minds, the script did not have the epic sweep needed for a major film. So they called on Samuel A. Peeples, who had written “Where No Man Has Gone Before” for The Original Series. His script omitted the character of Khan and replaced him with two powerful aliens called Sojin and Moray, who had been exiled from another dimension and possessed god-like abilities.

While Peeples was working on the script, Bennett and Salllin found a director they liked in the form of Nicholas Meyer. A week or so before the last draft was due to be delivered, they met with him and promised they would be back in touch as soon as they had the new script in their hands. Meanwhile, time pressures were becoming critical and Industrial Light and Magic told the producers that if they did not have a script within a matter of weeks, they would not be able to deliver the effects in time for the planned release date.

By the time the final Peeples draft arrived, Bennett and Sallin knew they could not film it. “We were off in some weird directions and I was really very concerned,” said Sallin.

It did not feel like a motion picture to me. Some of these ideas were too derivative and were too small in their scope. There wasn’t anything underlying it. It was more about people shooting fire and things like that, as opposed to a real story.

Three weeks after their last meeting, Meyer called Bennett and asked where the script was. Although reluctant to share the script, which Bennett found almost embarrassing to show him, Meyer persuaded the producer to send him the draft. Not impressed with what he had received, Meyer called Bennett and told him and Bob Sallin to come to his house with all the different drafts of the script. The three made a list of the things they liked from the various versions of the script. Then Meyer set out to compile a screenplay that incorporated those things.

Meyer’s rewrite

Meyer concentrated on crafting a strong narrative by getting all the scenes in the right order and putting the story into his own words. “I was only interested in cobbling together and cannibalizing various parts that seemed useful,” he explained.

What I fall in love with is the story. I never looked at the scripts again, so there were no words that were appropriated. It all had to be in my own language and in a way that I could understand it.

Meyer had some very clear opinions about what made drama and he was determined that, despite the futuristic setting, his film would make sense to a twentieth-century audience.

Asked to quantify his approach, Meyer gave two examples. First: he brought humor to the project.

I think that putting humor into a serious movie makes the serious stuff more serious and the humor becomes more of an explosive release.

The other important decision he made was something he had thought about when Bennett and Sallin first approached him to direct:

I had the haziest notion of what Star Trek was, because I didn’t really watch the show on television. I finally latched onto the idea that Captain Kirk and friends were really an outer-space version of novels that I had loved as a kid, by C.S. Forrester, called Captain Horatio Hornblower. So I said, “OK, this is Hornblower in outer space; I’ve got it.” When I wrote the script in twelve days it was very, very, very navy, or, as my late wife used to say, “Nautical but nice.”