Yesterday I rewatched Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a flick I’ve only seen maybe three times in my life prior to that viewing. Needless to say, the first Star Trek feature doesn’t exactly hold a special place in my heart. When it comes to today’s entry, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the complete opposite is true. Along with Trek IV, Enemy Mine, and 2010, it was in more or less constant VHS rotation throughout my childhood. Revisiting it now, in such close proximity to The Motion Picture, it’s startling how much more effective it is, both as a standalone movie and as a representative adventure for Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest.
One thing that struck me almost immediately is something that was largely missing from The Motion Picture, but which I didn’t notice except by comparison. Namely, The Wrath of Khan is funny. Not the swing-for-the-fences goofiness of Trek IV, but simply the character-based humor that comes naturally from the Enterprise crew when they’re being written well. The Motion Picture is a really dour enterprise — ahem — and takes everything so seriously that it’s largely missing the sense of fun and adventurous spirit that makes the best of Trek work. Especially the core triad of Kirk, Spock, and Bones, it’s amazing how much more they seem like themselves in Trek II, with the three of them bickering and needling each other good-naturedly, like the old friends we know them to be. Comparatively, The Motion Picture seems like the crew is in the middle of a wake the entire time.