Let's get this out of the way first: at the 1983 Oscar ceremonies, when the envelope for Best Actor was opened, the announcement should have read "...For Best Actor, William Shatner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan!"
Ben Kingsley actually won that year for Gandhi and his fellow nominees were Paul Newman for The Verdict, Peter O' Toole for My Favorite Year, Dustin Hoffman for Tootsie and Jack Lemmon for Missing but make no mistake: that statue should have gone to Shatner. Those other performances are all top notch. Shatner's just happens to have been better. To be fair, Shatner had years of experience with his role by then. Makes sense that he could crush it. No shame in losing to him, I say.
Of course, he wasn't even nominated and that is an absolute crime. By the early '80s it was already fashionable to have, at best, an ironic appreciation of Shatner's acting style with the understanding that even if you enjoyed what he did, you still were supposed to concede that it was objectively bad. I do not go along with that line of thinking at all. I think Shatner is a legitimately great actor and if not for the kneejerk snobbery directed towards him and against sci-fi in general and Star Trek in particular, his performance in Khan would have been instantly heralded as a career high point, one that should have made even the doubters finally give it up for the man. Honestly, I don't see how what Peter O'Toole does in My Favorite Year or Paul Newman does in The Verdict (both incredible, by the way) is any goddamned better than what Shatner does in Khan.
Both O'Toole and Newman are playing middle aged men facing down their own mortality and their own weaknesses and regrets. In Khan, Shatner is doing the exact same and he's doing it at the top of his game, for everything he's worth. He deserved equal acclaim. Did he not get it just because My Favorite Year and The Verdict are realistic and not space adventures? Must be, because there doesn't seem to be any other reason to laud the one and ignore the other.
Anyhow, Shatner is fucking great in Wrath of Khan. What is also fucking great is Wrath of Khan itself.
Written and directed by Nicholas Meyer (who had also wrote and directed 1979's ingenious H.G. Wells vs. Jack the Ripper tale Time After Time), Wrath of Khan introduced the Kobayashi Maru into Star Trek lore, a training exercise meant to test Star Fleet cadets' reaction to a no win scenario that Kirk, in true Kirk style, found a way to cheat his way out of because he rejects the idea that any such scenario exists. In real life, the first Trek sequel saw its makers facing a crucial must win scenario that would decide the future of the franchise.
When the first Star Trek movie came out in 1979, it was a thing of beauty but inert. It's full title was Star Trek: The Motion Picture but it was quickly dubbed The Motionless Picture by critics due to its lethargic pace. If Trek was going to survive as a movie series - or as any kind of franchise, for that matter - something had to be done to really engage audiences the second time around and to better capture what people loved about the original series. More than just bringing back the action the sequel also had to restore the warmth and humor between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Meyer did all that and more. The result was the greatest course correction in movie history.
Released on June 3rd, 1982, Khan so completely righted the ship for Star Trek that, even though it's one of the great Part II's ever made, it feels more like a complete reset than it does a sequel. One thing that Star Trek: The Motion Picture lacked (which its fans would argue is an aspect that made it intriguing) is a villain. V'Ger was not a bad guy, it was just a machine looking for answers about its creator. But this time around, Meyer knew it would be important to give Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise a true adversary to test them. Looking to the original series for inspiration, Meyer brought back Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) from the first season episode "Space Seed."
At the end of "Space Seed," the genetically enhanced superman Khan had been defeated after trying to take over the Enterprise but rather than being punished for his crimes, Kirk gives Khan the opportunity to relocate along with his followers to Ceti Alpha V, an uninhabited but fertile world that could be his to rule. The episode leaves off with Spock musing about how it would be interesting to return to Ceti Alpha V in 100 years to see what Khan has made of it. As it turned out, fifteen years was long enough to find out that things hadn't gone so well.
Some time after Kirk had left Khan and his crew on Ceti Alpha V, the neighboring planet of Ceti Alpha VI exploded, causing Ceti Alpha V's surface to be devastated. The previously fertile world was turned into a wasteland and Khan and his people, including his wife (Lieutenant Maria McGivers, the historian who betrayed the Enterprise to assist Khan in "Space Seed"), struggled for survival. His wife didn't make it, leaving Khan bitter and vengeful. When the Starship Reliant, which counts former Enterprise navigator Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) among its crew, comes to Ceti Alpha V (mistaking it for Ceti Alpha VI) in order to assess the lifeless world's viability as a testing ground for the top secret Project Genesis, Khan puts Chekov and Reliant Captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) under his control (thanks to depositing alien eel larvae in their ears, a scene that was nightmare inducing for young viewers in '82), and sets his sights on exacting his revenge on James T. Kirk.
Khan, of course, learns that when you come at Kirk, you better not miss. And Kirk, for his part, realizes that he should have just killed Khan's ass when he had the chance. Along the way, Kirk reunites with his former lover Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), now the lead scientist on Project Genesis, who introduces Kirk to her son David Marcus (Merritt Butrick), also a scientist assisting his mother and also, as it turns out, the son that Kirk never knew he had.
Already grappling with a midlife crisis at the start of Khan, unable to enjoy the occasion of his own birthday (as a fed up Bones says "Damn it Jim, what the hell is the matter with you? Other people have birthdays, why are we treating yours like a funeral?"), coming face to face with the adult son he never knew forces Kirk to ask even more questions about his life. At the same time, his mettle is being tested at every turn by the relentless Khan. The cat and mouse pursuit that Kirk and Khan engage in across the galaxy, with Montalban doing his best to not give an inch of the screen to Shatner, provided the kind of bracing, edge of your seat adventure that was missing from the airless, somnolent ST: TMP.
When their conflict finally comes down to a situation where Khan seems to have stalemated Kirk, leaving Kirk and the Enterprise primed for destruction, even though it will mean Khan himself will go too, a sacrifice play is the only thing that will save the Enterprise and its crew. It's Spock, Kirk's eternal right hand man, who selflessly - and with perfect logic - takes it upon himself to make that play, slipping off the bridge to go down into the engine room and fix the ship's damaged warp drive, exposing himself to fatal levels of radiation in the process. The news of Spock's possible death in Khan had leaked prior to the film's release and fans had flooded Paramount Studios with outraged letters, hoping to force them to change course.
Despite the angry outcry (which included death threats), Paramount and Meyer did not rethink their decision. Of course, once the film was released it was obvious that a back door had been put in place to allow for Spock's return in the form of life-restoring Project Genesis but even though it was clear it would not be permanent, the death stands as one of the great moments in Star Trek history and both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner play this scene for all the emotion it's worth. I have no shame in admitting that as a 13 year old, I did not greet this moment with Vulcan-like stoicism.
I began this by saying that Shatner should have gotten an Oscar for his work here and, man, I will not budge from that. Just his performance during Spock's funeral alone is enough for me. When Kirk delivers the eulogy, choking back tears as he utters the word "human," holy hell.
I just wish that Shatner could have gotten more opportunities in subsequent Trek sequels to match or top his performance in Khan but he really didn't. He continued to be great throughout, of course, but in reviving Spock in the next sequel, the emotional and dramatic stakes of the series felt instantly lowered across the board. Sure, Kirk loses his son (and the Enterprise!) at the hands of Klingons in The Search for Spock but the impact wasn't the same. Once the universe gave his best friend back to him, Kirk's problems never seemed to hit as hard again.
In Khan, though, Kirk went through some stuff. Meyer gave Shatner a lot to work with and the man was up to the challenge. Forty years later, it is still peak Trek.
So come on and say it with me people: