After the slower first film, the creators sought to look back to the original series for inspiration. The came back to the first season episode Space Seed. In that episode, the Enterprise comes across a 20th Century ship adrift in space, the SS Botany Bay. The crew of the ship are revived and it is discovered they were genetically engineered super people led by Khan. Khan attempts mutiny, but after failing is left on a remote habitable planet with his followers.
Picking up just about fifteen years later, Chekov (now a Commander) is part of a team searching for a lifeless planet to be a part of an experiment known as the Genesis Project. The goal being instant terraforming that takes a lifeless planet or moon and makes it a living planet teeming with plant life. When Chekov and the Captain of the USS Reliant beam down to Ceti Alpha VI to verify if the life readings are correct. They find a lifeless planet of sand storms and…housing.
As they investigate, Chekov discovers that this is the remnants of the crew of the Botany Bay. But before they can get out and back to the ship, they discover that Khan is alive and well…and fueled by rage against James T. Kirk.
And so Khan sets in motion plans to use Chekov, Captain Terrell and the scientists they are working with to set a trap too torment and destroy Kirk.
The Wrath of Khan focuses on the aging cast dealing with personal fears of obsolescence and weaves it together with a revenge action story. Montalban returns to the role of Khan Noonien Singh and he seems to relish the opportunity to approach the character from a new perspective. No longer simply an arrogant leader impressed with his own “perfection”, he is now engulfed in the flames of anger and hatred singularly directed at the man who insulted his ego the most. This is a terrific performance.
The reveal that Kirk has a son, a son who hate the militaristic Federation and has no trust for them (believing they will take the Genesis Project and make it into a weapon) no less, forces a new look at Kirk. This seems like a big ret-con, but at the same time it works well here, as Kirk reveals he promised Carol, the mother of his son, to stay away. So David knows who Kirk is, and hates him. But he has no idea that Kirk is also his father.
The film also takes a heavy focus on the trio of Kirk, Spock and Bones. This really pays off in the end with a powerful sacrifice that carries the weight of over a dozen years. And while the film clearly hints the story is not over for these friends, it still hits with a heavy heart.
Nicholas Meyer manages to weave the personal stories in with the action with great skill. This film manages to tie with the TV series and have a sense of being an epic, yet keep it on a very personal level. The Wrath of Khan is the high water mark for Star Trek.