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“We Encoded Four Minutes” – Star Trek II, Four Minutes at a Time

Credit: Paramount Pictures

In 2012, I blogged a short series for The Sci-Fi Christian called “Thirty Things to Love About Star Trek II.” It “counted down” to the 30th anniversary of the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, still my favorite Star Trek film and one of my favorite movies overall.

Next year, a decade will have passed, and Star Trek II will be celebrating its 40th anniversary. To mark this milestone, and inspired by the Citizen Kane Minute podcast, I’ve decided to do as close a watching as I can of Star Trek II, taking and commenting on the film four minutes at a time.

Why four minutes? Four minutes was the first specific interval of time I remembered from the movie. Near its end, when Spock detects the energy signature of the Genesis torpedo, David Marcus tells Admiral Kirk the device is on a buildup to detonation. “How long?” Kirk asks. David replies, “We encoded four minutes.”

So, in celebration of Star Trek II’s impending 40th anniversary, let’s watch and think about the film four minutes at a time. 

(Note: I’m watching the original theatrical cut of the film. Although the 2016 director’s edition contains some interesting additional material, none of it substantially alters the film, and in some cases I prefer the original. We’ll talk about it as we reach those moments. Besides, I can easily toggle between the theatrical cut on Paramount+ and my word processor!) 

0:00:00-0:02:52  The Opening Credits

The Starfield

After the Paramount Pictures logo fades from view (this “blue mountain” version, the studio’s fifth, was in use from 1975 until 1987), we find ourselves traveling through a deep, dynamic starfield.

I’ve heard fans say director Nicholas Meyer simply filmed the starfield off a planetarium’s dome as a cost-cutting measure. The truth is more complicated.

These stars shine courtesy of the then brand-new Digistar planetarium projection software. As the software’s creators Stephen McAllister and Brent Watson recall, the film’s opening pass through the stars was the last footage filmed in the two months ILM worked with them. 

It took about three hours to film. “But it ended up looking very good,” says McAllister. “The first time I saw that in a theater—I was used to Digistar, and even I was impressed!” 

The starfield replaced the opening credits sequence producer Robert Sallin originally storyboarded. Sallin’s sequence would have featured the Enterprise pushing through the Roman numeral “II” in the title “with appropriate fanfare.”

It’s impossible to know exactly how Sallin’s idea would have looked. But it’s a certainty the starfield alone is a beautiful view of “the final frontier.” It’s the reason why, whenever I looked up at a starry sky in real life as a teenager—which, living in the suburbs, wasn’t all that often thanks to light pollution—I imagined I could hear the first few notes of composer Alexander Courage’s Star Trek fanfare.

The Music

Star Trek: The Motion Picture briefly featured the main section of Courage’s original TV series theme in two scenes, but never that fanfare section (which, I recently became aware, shares its first three notes with the first three from composer Robert Farnon’s 1951 Horatio Hornblower score).

James Horner—here composing the 14th of his eventual 165 movie scores—sounds the fanfare at 00:00:19 and 00:00:27 before introducing his original Main Title theme. (He quotes it again at 00:02:27, as the sequence is winding down.)

In their liner notes for Film Score Monthly’s 2009 expanded release of Horner’s Star Trek II score, Jeff Bond, Lukas Kendall, and Alexander Kaplan call Horner’s theme “nautical and cosmic.” Director Nicholas Meyer, eager to play up Starfleet’s naval associations in the film, instructed Horner to “think Debussy, La Mer—nautical but nice” when composing his music. 

(These liner notes also alerted me to the Horatio Hornblower connection I mentioned above.)

The phrase “nautical music” makes me think of sea shanties! I remember enthusiastically singing “Blow the Man Down” as a child. I’m not sure “nautical” is as self-evident an adjective for Horner’s music as others assume.

But I can imagine hearing the crash of waves in the theme’s cymbal crashes (such as at 00:00:48, when the film’s full title is first on screen), and the rolling of an ocean, on which perhaps a frigate gently bobs, in its more subdued stretches (such as the flutes around 00:01:50). On some level, then, Horner’s Main Title is a musical expression of the sentiments John Masefield expressed in “Sea-Fever” (a poem Star Trek has quoted twice):

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…

The Title and Subtitle

As readers of Vonda N. McIntyre’s excellent novelization of the movie may recall, The Wrath of Khan wasn’t always going to be Star Trek II. The cover of her book lacks the Roman numeral, as the production itself initially did, and as its 70mm prints ultimately did

I wish Paramount hadn’t waited until Star Trek: Generations (1994) to drop the consecutive numbering, since Star Trek “II” ignores the events (not to mention wardrobe) of the previous movie altogether. If it’s a “II” to anything, it’s “Space Seed” II

Nor was the subtitle always The Wrath of Khan. I’d known for a while Paramount originally announced the film as The Vengeance of Khan, apparently in imitation of the then-upcoming Revenge of the Jedi—only for George Lucas to retitle his movie Return of the Jedi and for Paramount to retitle its The Wrath of Khan.

I learned only more recently that Meyer wanted to call the picture The Undiscovered Country. That subtitle really does fit Star Trek II better than it does Star Trek VI, which must redefine the phrase to mean “the future” in order to use it. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” is death. 

Granted, the title Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country might have confirmed fans’ worst fears—the death of Spock—before the film premiered. Some might think it “spoiler-y.” But it could have also referred to Ceti Alpha V in its unknown to Starfleet, post-cataclysmic state. It could also have referred to the lifeless planetoid Regula, “essentially a great rock in space,” where the Drs. Marcus were conducting the Genesis Project. In that case, the title could have underscored the film’s motif of new life and new beginnings in the midst of death.

Today, it’s hard to imagine Star Trek II with any other subtitle. The four-syllable subtitle we got sounds appropriately ominous. It also subtly echoes the phrase “the wrath of God.” Certainly, Khan sees himself as a superior, if not quite god-like, being executing righteous judgment against Admiral Kirk.

Granted, “wrath” lacks the connotation of retribution “vengeance” carries. But there’s something to be said for using nothing but monosyllables in the subtitle. It has impact. It hits. Just like Khan himself. (Well, in “Space Seed.” As we’ll no doubt discuss later, he and Kirk are never even in the same room in Star Trek II.)  

The Cast and Crew

What a bold choice, for Star Trek II to go with a complete cast of unknowns!

I kid. But the opening credits (apparently set in the 1971 font Urwtnor) do contain some new names, most notably Kirstie Alley’s. Star Trek II was her big break, though she did have one sci-fi credit before it: her first listed role on IMDB, as a handmaiden in a 1978 episode of Quark.

Merritt Butrick also had few credits before Star Trek II. He would reprise this role of David Marcus in Star Trek III, and also appear with his uncredited Star Trek II co-star Judson Scott in the first-season TNG episode “Symbiosis.” Butrick died, aged 30, in 1989.

In contrast, Bibi Besch’s career began more than two decades before Wrath of Khan. Her many TV credits included turns on Police Story, The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, and The Six Million Dollar Man. Besch died in 1996.

And of course, Ricardo Montalban was well-established as an actor by 1982, and was best known to U.S. audiences as the genial Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island (a role Star Trek: Generations guest star Malcolm McDowell would revel in radically reinterpreting on the underrated 1998-99 rebooted series). 

As far the returning Star Trek cast, note that the “Also Starring” players—James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig—all get their own title card in these credits, unlike the card they had to share (along with Grace Lee Whitney (my mistake – Grace Lee Whitney did not even make the opening credits of TMP) and Majel Barrett) in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s welcome recognition of the fondness fans have for these “supporting players,” no less than the “triumvirate” of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. (It’s also, I presume, the result of behind-the-scenes contract negotiations. Good for them!)

I’ve grown more familiar over the years with some of the production names in these credits. Nicholas Meyer, of course, would co-write Star Trek IV (the 20th-century portion of its time travel script) and return to direct Star Trek VI (and finally get to use The Undiscovered Country as a Trek subtitle). His career outside of the franchise is interesting and impressive, too. (In fact, before I ever saw Star Trek II, I had been a fan of his Jack the Ripper vs. H.G. Wells time travel movie, Time After Time, although I would not have been able to attach his name to it.)

And the same can be said for the other behind-the-scenes personnel. 

Film editor William P. Dornisch won an Emmy Award nomination for The Day After, the 1983 TV movie (also a Nicholas Meyer-directed picture, and also starring Bibi Besch) that spooked the country, too briefly, about the perils of nuclear weapons. (He returned to Trek in 1997 to edit the movie sequences in the endlessly frustrating Starfleet Academy video game, too.)

A veteran of Gunsmoke, production designer Joseph R. Jennings worked on the Star Trek Phase II series that evolved into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but also had a hand in such landmark TV miniseries as Roots and Shogun.

Cinematographer Gayne Rescher won three primetime Emmy Awards for his work in limited TV series. 

Producer Harve Bennett was best known for producing The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman before he, according to many fans, he “saved Star Trek” by bringing his TV production and budget sensibilities to the franchise, a reaction to The Motion Picture’s astronomical spending. TMP’s price tag is a complicated business, since Phase II costs were charged against it—but there’s no doubt Bennett’s small screen mindset imposed limitations on Trek that, as limitations often do, generated some wonderfully creative results. He also produced the short-lived Salvage 1 series, starring Andy Griffith, a series I watched as a kid and whose whimsical theme song I still vividly recall.

And in recent years, producer Robert Sallin has received attention as another of Star Trek’s saviors. According to Sallin, he had the idea to leave the door open for Spock’s return at the end of the movie, saying, “This is science fiction, and there are different kinds of death in science fiction.” He also, as Trekmovie.com reports, suggested Admiral Kirk’s dramatic, backlit entrance into the bridge simulator.

Star Trek II is the first (second – I really should have rewatched TMP’s credits before posting!) Star Trek production to carry the title card, “Based on ‘Star Trek’ Created by Gene Roddenberry.” “Elevated” to the status of executive producer, Roddenberry would not have direct creative control over the franchise again until Star Trek: The Next Generation. But Paramount’s decision to remove Roddenberry directly from the Trek equation paved the way for others like Bennett, Sallin, and Meyer to put their stamp on it, as so many other creative professionals have done since and are still doing, keeping Roddenberry’s creation alive, fresh, and relevant. 

0:02:53–0:02:59 — “In the 23rd Century…”

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Until this title card, Star Trek had never gotten too specific about how far in our future it was set. Gene Roddenberry invented stardates, in part, to avoid placing the show in a specific timeframe.

What scant evidence the original series offers about Star Trek’s relation to the Gregorian calendar suggests the Enterprise’s famous five-year mission took place in the late 22nd century.

Indeed, “Space Seed,” the episode to which Star Trek II is a direct sequel, establishes the Botany Bay left Earth sometime in the 1990s, “two centuries” before the Enterprise encountered it. A strict reading, then, situates “Space Seed” sometime in the years 2190-2199. (Note also, as Ryan Britt does, how Khan in this film “waxes poetic about how he was ‘a prince’ on Earth ‘200 years ago.’ Again, it should be close to 300.”)

“Tomorrow Is Yesterday” and “The Savage Curtain” suggest a mid-22nd-century setting for the original series. “The Squire of Gothos,” on the other hand, hints at a 27th-century setting: Kirk tells Trelane the Napoleon-admiring alien has been “looking in on the doings [of Earth] nine hundred years past.” 

Nevertheless, licensed sources since The Making of Star Trek (1968) have placed the original series in the 23rd century. In 1988, “The Neutral Zone,” Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first-season finale, included the first on-screen dating of a Trek adventure with the Gregorian calendar (2364). The franchise’s current official chronology (The Star Trek Encyclopedia) places “Space Seed” in 2267 and Star Trek II in 2285—consistent with the year on the bottle of Romulan ale we’ll see McCoy give Kirk, but not with Kirk and Khan’s references to the events of “Space Seed” as having happened 15 years previously, if we take them strictly at their word.

Putting aside chronological quibbling, this introductory calendar notice that trails off with an ellipsis (much as Horner’s Main Title melody trails off rather than truly resolves, 00:00:52) reminds me of the most famous prefatory phrase in science fiction cinema: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” As others have noted, the Star Wars preamble is a modern way to say, “Once upon a time…” It signals what follows is a fairy tale, for all its futuristic sheen and high-tech trappings.

More fundamentally, it grounds us in our humanity. It’s a way of saying, “Let me tell you a story…”—and is therefore one of the most human statements possible, as storytelling is fundamental to humanity and may even be what makes us human.

While Star Trek has long included elements of space fantasy (not the least of which is the “Vulcan mysticism” figuring prominently in this film’s climax, and throughout Star Trek III), it is science fiction in a stricter sense than Star Wars. It’s a plausible extrapolation of technology’s impact on humanity, usually bounded by the laws of physics as we know them. (Not for nothing does Scotty protest he cannot change them!) 

But the story that is Star Trek isn’t without its fairy tale qualities, either. In this franchise’s future, humanity is living, more or less, “happily ever after.” Occasional skirmishes with Klingons and other foes aside, the human race has realized more of its full potential in the Star Trek future. While Roddenberry would amplify the Federation’s utopian quality in Star Trek: The Next Generation, he never wanted to visit Earth during the original series’ run because, he claimed, Earth was a paradise, and therefore boring from a storytelling standpoint. 

But Star Trek’s “happily ever after” only came after troubled and violent times, as the original series acknowledged (in, for instance, “Assignment: Earth,” “The Savage Curtain,” and this movie’s own direct inspiration, “Space Seed”) and as later entries in the franchise would depict (for example, Star Trek: First Contact and the Deep Space Nine two-parter “Past Tense”). 

Star Trek II could have segued directly from its digital starfield to its next digital image, the rotating, wireframe Enterprise on Spock’s monitor (00:2:59). The fact that it spares six seconds to say, “Let me tell you a story…” grounds us in our humanity amidst all the computer-generated imagery.

It may also encourage us, subtly and subconsciously, to treat the story we’re about to experience as a kind of fairy tale. After all, this story reintroduces one of the villains humanity had to vanquish in order to reach its “happy ever after” future, a future he again places in jeopardy. 

About fairy tales, Neil Gaiman says: “Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” Can we again defeat this “dragon” named Khan? Can we secure our “happy ever after” future as the human race? And How? These are the questions driving Star Trek II

0:02:59–0:04:00 — “Captain’s log…” to “In the Neutral Zone”

I can’t help but wonder whether Star Trek II’s opening sequence fooled its original audiences into thinking Saavik was the new captain of the Enterprise

On the one hand, they would have just seen William Shatner’s name heading the cast credits. Trailers and TV commercials, let alone common sense, likely assured them James T. Kirk would again have “the center seat.” 

But on the other hand, a new and fresher face had been in command of the Enterprise when the previous film began. Audiences in 1982 would not be familiar with these new maroon uniforms and their rank insignia systems, so the small triangles on Saavik’s shoulder strap would not have immediately told them she is a lieutenant. Uhura addresses Saavik as “captain.” And the first words we hear in the film are a “captain’s log” entry. Yes, the log entry asserts the Enterprise is on a training mission, but it doesn’t automatically follow Saavik is one being trained—or that she is commanding a bridge simulator.

The thirty-second shot that opens the action—the camera pulls back from the Enterprise schematic Spock is scrutinizing, then sweeps leisurely to our left around the bridge until coming to rest on Saavik—seems to place Star Trek fans in familiar surroundings. The Enterprise bridge looks essentially as it did in The Motion Picture, albeit painted in darker hues and with the addition of a fire extinguisher and a “No Smoking” sign (Meyer’s signal 23rd-century humans will not be so different from their 20th-century counterparts; in his DVD commentary he says the studio made him remove it, but it remains visible in the simulator). 

And we are among so many familiar faces. There is Spock, of course, looking more dignified than he ever has or ever will again (in this blogger’s opinion). Uhura is at communications. Sulu is at the helm. McCoy stands stiffly in front of the turbolift—a little unusual, but he spent a lot of time on the bridge in both the original series and the previous film, and the camera keeps moving, so his presence here rather than sickbay is not, in itself, any obvious “tell.” Perhaps the video game-like navigational graphics (00:03:29-00:03:32), which would have been at home in many a 1980s arcade game, should be—but, at the time, they were so much more advanced than anything we’d seen in Star Trek, they looked entirely cool and futuristic.

Whether this scene “fooled” anyone or not, it is an immediate, audible, literal call to adventure, and so it cannot help but convey mythic power. 

I believe the close-up shots of the bridge speaker, as the distress call from the Kobayashi Maru crackles over it, marks the first time we saw the bridge’s sound system. That static-filled message isn’t the first cry for help we’ve heard on the bridge in Star Trek, nor will it be the last, but it is one of if not the most arresting and visceral. The speaker’s voice is thick with desperation, even terror. Even before Uhura can repeat the word “Enterprise” at 00:03:55, the voice from the Kobayashi Maru supplies it, forming the seamless phrase “Starship Enterprise.” The audience doesn’t yet know this situation is a simulation, but we can appreciate, in hindsight, the great lengths to which Starfleet has gone to make it seem believable, tense, and terrifying.

And acting class must be on the Academy curriculum, because everyone in the bridge simulator (unlike their counterparts in the 2009 Star Trek simulation sequence) treats the scenario with extreme gravity. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his famous Raven showed a “grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore”—he could have been writing about everyone in this scene, from Spock and McCoy, to Saavik, to the nameless cadets who turn to look at her.

And turning, it turns out, is a dominant visual motif in these first few minutes. At 00:03:08, Spock turns his face away from the Enterprise schematic, and then waits a beat—as if to impress upon us his importance to the film, the first character we see—to look at Saavik (still off-screen) as he proceeds to Uhura. At 00:03:24, Saavik rather dramatically turns around in the captain’s chair to address Sulu and to face the camera. At 00:03:33, Uhura turns around in her chair to address Saavik. At 00:03:43, those two fresh-faced cadets turn to look at Saavik, seemingly shaken by the Kobayashi Maru’s plight. At 00:03:44. McCoy turns head from his right to his left, as if wondering how bloody his Sickbay could shortly be. 

Whether all this turning is simply to provide visual variety or hints at some deeper theme, I’m unsure. Were this a real mission, the Kobayashi Maru’s call to adventure could surely prove a turning point. We’ve seen other distress signals turn out to be so, both in Star Trek (“The Cage” and “Balance of Terror” in TOS, “Pen Pals” in TNG, among others) and in other science fiction (in the first episode of The Expanse, for instance). These characters’ body and head turns may provoke us to wonder: How quickly, how willingly, do we turn to respond to a call for help when we hear one—or how quickly do and how willingly do we turn away?

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near… (Luke 10.31-33, NRSV).

These four minutes conclude with Saavik’s realization that “Gamma Hydra, Section 10” lies within the bounds of the Neutral Zone, which she moments earlier ordered Sulu to avoid (00:03:25-00:03:27). Now she must weigh her options. Will she pass by the other side on the parabolic course Sulu has projected—or will she enter the ditch where the Kobayashi Maru lies bleeding, “moved with pity” (Luke 10.33) as Starfleet is supposed to be moved?

More to the point: What will you and I do the next time a static-filed SOS from a desperate and terrified voice crackles across the speakers of our lives?

Not for nothing, I suspect, is his face the first one we see in the movie—and not for nothing do the shots of Saavik listening to the distress call at 00:03:36, 00:03:40, and 00:03:45 feature Spock’s empty chair at the science station behind her and to her right. Before Star Trek II ends, Spock’s chair will be empty for good (so our characters believe), because he will have answered a call for help at the cost of his own life.

What are your favorite moments from the first four minutes of Star Trek II? Let’s talk in the comments below!

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