Did Star Trek peak too early?
The original series, despite being canceled after a mere three seasons, clearly tapped into something special in our collective psyche. The franchise famously got a second chance in the wake of the phenomenon known as Star Wars, but it had a slight issue. Space adventures were supposed to be the domain of young, dashing casts, and all the principals of Star Trek — in their 30s and 40s when the show was sunset in 1969 — were now a decade older.
But Trek didn’t run from its aging problem; instead it fully embraced the themes of obsolescence and renewal, and ended up creating some incredible stories in the original run of films. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a direct sequel to one of the best episodes of the ’60s TV series, is widely considered the high-water mark for drama in the franchise.
The thing is, TWoK debuted in 1982. As I write this in 2018, it’s a 36-year-old movie. Since then the franchise has expanded and rebooted several times over, and there’s definitely been a lot more Star Trek since it came out than before.
But the franchise has never really topped Khan, even when it ingloriously remade the story (sort of) as 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. What does it say about Star Trek that its best work came so relatively early, and in a completely different era?
To help answer the question, I looked to Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, who spoke at a Q&A after a screening of Star Trek II Saturday night at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
Shatner is not the guy to turn to if you want to nerd out about your favorite Star Trek episode. When the 87-year-old actor walked out onstage after the screening, he didn’t have much to say about Wrath of Khan directly, but his career has had a similar trajectory to Star Trek itself. Both are best known for their early work, and much of what came after was a skilled repackaging of those early successes.
For Shatner, that’s meant returning to the genre he’s best known for. Though he hasn’t appeared onscreen as Kirk since 1994’s Star Trek: Generations (apart from an in-character one-off for Seth MacFarlane’s 2013 Oscars), he’s parlayed his Star Trek fame into a prolific writing career, including the TekWar series and a plethora of behind-the-scenes books about his time on Trek. He also doesn’t hold back from Star Trek-themed events like conventions and the night at NJPAC.
Which isn’t to say it’s been all Trek, all the time for Shatner. He’s certainly done all kinds of other high-profile gigs, including the recent reality/travel show Better Late Than Never, the TV version of Sh*t My Dad Says, and a very respectable run on David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal opposite James Spader.
But consider this: Many of Shatner’s roles see him playing some variation of the paternalistic over-the-top blowhard — a character trope that’s arguably an exaggerated version of how many sometimes (wrongly) regard Captain James T. Kirk. In other words, the characters Shatner tends to play are often distorted reflections of his Star Trek work.
If this bothers Shatner at all, though, he hides it well. He expertly entertained the NJPAC audience with his trademark self-deprecating charm, but he brought new material, including a story about how he suffered from food poisoning on the first day of his one-man show on Broadway in 2012.
“In the middle of a Broadway opening,” Shatner remembered, “I can’t be on stage any longer. I said, ‘There’s been a technical difficulty — I’ll be right back.’ The technical difficulty was I raced upstairs to my dressing room, got out of my pants and underwear, took a quick… shower, put my pants back on, came back, and finished the show.”
There was a murmur in the audience, with many not quite getting the “shower” reference, so Shatner spelled it out: “Captain Kirk shit in his pants.” The audience roared.
He also got in plugs for some of his eclectic upcoming projects, including a pair of albums, one for country music and another compilation of Christmas tunes titled “Shatner Claus.”
There’s very little chance Shatner will ever return to Star Trek as Captain Kirk. He wasn’t asked to be a part of the J.J. Abrams-produced reboot movies, something he wasn’t happy about at the time. There’s always a chance he could appear on the new Star Trek: Discovery series, but given the tone and time period of the show, that seems unlikely.
But moreover, what do you do with that character? Putting aside the fact he was — spoiler alert — killed off in Generations (although Shatner penned a Star Trek novel where Kirk returned), the idea of an older, worn-out Kirk getting a new lease on life was the entire point of Star Trek II.
And that may be the key to why TWoK is so well-regarded in Star Trek canon. It came at a time when the idea of a new cast taking the reins of the franchise was still a far-away idea. For all intents and purposes, the original cast was Star Trek: Their time was finite, and here they were, 15 years older than their original series selves, their bankable mileage quickly running out. Star Trek wasn’t a few years away from a reboot; it was a flop away from oblivion.
In fact, after the middling box office of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II almost never got made. It was saved only by some in-the-moment advice from the wife of an studio executive, at least according to Shatner.
“[The Motion Picture] made some money, but it didn’t do all that well,” he said. “So Charlie Bluhdorn of Paramount Studios, goes home and says, ‘We’re not going to do any more Star Trek.” And his wife said, ‘Are you crazy? You’ve gotta do another one.'”
It’s hard to imagine an alternate timeline where Star Trek — now at seven TV series, 13 movies, and counting — petered out before we ever got to know any other captains. But it was a real possibility in 1982, which made the onscreen stakes feel all the more visceral. Audiences (including eight-year-old me) cried when Spock died, the trope of a “comic book death” still mostly confined to actual comic books.
Contrast that to today: The enormousness of the franchise bestows a brilliant canvas, but it also makes it harder to create convincing drama. And maybe that’s why both Trekkies and critics look back so fondly at The Wrath of Khan (it has an 88% score on Rotten Tomatoes): It reminds us of a time when Star Trek’s galaxy was just as large, but still mostly unknown, waiting for someone to boldly go and explore it.
We’re grateful that someone — several someones, actually — did just that, but we also sometimes wish we could wipe our collective memories, start over, and do it all again.