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The movie industry of the modern age is a minefield when it comes to spoilers. Even before a project is released, or even completes production, there’s a chance that material will leak out that ruins a plot twist or two for the next big blockbuster. But believe it or not, the legendary sci-fi hit Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had to contend with someone leaking a pretty big event that was about to take place, and there was a pretty ingenious solution to combatting one of the biggest spoilers of Star Trek history coming out before fans had a chance to witness it.
Acting as a landmark moment in the history of the Star Trek movie canon, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is known for, among other things, the death of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock at the end of the film. Giving his life to save the Enterprise, especially his best friend, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Spock’s actions would reverberate throughout the fandom as a gut punch and a half, and thanks to disgruntled Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, that fact was already public knowledge.
Set phasers to “learn,” crew members, as we’re about to discuss a specific piece of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan's messy history that we learned due from Inglorious Treksperts co-host/Star Trek history buff Mark A. Altman during last weekend’s Paramount-sponsored livestream for this long hailed classic.
Hell Hath No Fury Like A Roddenberry Scorned
Let’s start out with one important question: why the hell would Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek itself, leak the fact that Spock was going to die in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Well, quite frankly, it comes down to the basic fact that the finished film wasn’t really wasn’t his baby.
Originally, gene Roddenberry had a concept for Star Trek II that was something very similar to what we’d see in Star Trek: First Contact. The short version of that script saw Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise-A going back in time to stop some rogue Klingons from preventing the JFK assassination. Needless to say, management at the time wasn’t ready for that… but their kids were eventually going to love it.
This resulted in Gene Roddenberry being removed from the project, producer Harve Bennett being brought on board to make sure Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan stuck to its TV-budgeted guns and a slew of rewrites that would change the story in so many directions, it wasn’t even funny.
Eventually, one important point got stuck in the confusing evolution of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: it would reintroduce original series villain Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) into the mix and give him the ultimate motivation for wrathful vengeance. Of course, that’s a story for another day, but in the here and now, it’s time to acknowledge the man who helped glue it all together into one cohesive whole.
The Man Who Saved Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’s story really belongs to writer/director Nicholas Meyer, the man who Harve Bennett wanted to take on the project and whip it into shape. After initially resisting, Meyer accepted this seemingly impossible mission, taking the various drafts of the film and rewriting it in a scant two weeks.
Nicholas Meyer had to work with a lot of different drafts that varied wildly. Some had Khan present in them, some didn’t. Psychic powers came into play and left just as quickly in some iterations. All the while, Paramount didn’t even interfere with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, allowing the project to chart its own course into movie history.
The big reason being that unlike the previous Star Trek film, the very Gene Roddenberry production known as Star Trek: The Motion Picture which became a horrifically bloated experience that was already several million in the hole at the start of shooting, this lean and mean budgeted film was produced by the television division. Star Trek II was almost the antithesis of what Gene Roddenberry was trying to do, and that didn’t sit well with him at all.
Gene Roddenberry Leaks The Death Of Spock
Up until the point that Gene Roddenberry dropped this bombshell into the public consciousness, Paramount really wasn’t worried about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The project was playing with a low stakes TV budget, as opposed to becoming another bloated affair similar to filming of Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
That wouldn’t last though, as management would soon have a mite of anxiety on their plate. Mark A. Altman highlighted this, in response to a fan question if there was actually any interference on Star Trek II on behalf of the Paramount regime at the time:
The only other time [Paramount] really got worried was when Gene sorta leaked the fact that Spock was going to die. They were afraid then, ‘Well if we lose the Star Trek audience, then we have a problem.’ You know, a lot of people were saying, ‘If Spock dies, you die. If Spock isn’t there, I’m not coming.’ People forget, this was a very big deal, it was very vitriolic. … Obviously, after the movie came out, people were very happy with the way things worked out.
In the days following that Star Trek II leak, there were, of course, letter writing campaigns to protest the decision to kill Spock. The very thing that led to Star Trek coming back in the first place became a Genesis weapon against its very well-being.
But how were people so sure that Gene Roddenberry was the man behind these leaks? Well, Mark Altman revealed a particularly telling detail that also debunked a common fan counter-theory:
Some claimed it was Susan Sackett who leaked it. It was Roddenberry who leaked it … this is because there was a code on each of the scripts that could be traced back to whoever it was. The script that was leaked had the Roddenberry code. Susan may have been the person who actually sent it for Roddenberry, because Susan was Gene’s secretary, but it was unquestionably Gene Roddenberry who did it. It’s just a fact.
With the news of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock heading to his own final frontier in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there wasn’t much that could be done to put the Vulcan back in the bottle. However, Nicholas Meyer would hatch a scheme that would not only cover his tracks, it would also provide one of the most iconic openings in Star Trek movie history.
How Do You Solve A Problem Like A Spoiler?
So now that everyone knows Leonard Nimoy is going to die in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there’s a pretty big problem that’s sitting square in Nicholas Meyer’s lap. Fans were outraged that Spock, a fan favorite, was going to take a big dirt nap, and people were ready to boycott. How do you compete with something like that staring you in the face?
Originally, Nicholas Meyer did have a draft where Spock was going to die closer to the beginning of the film. But instead of pursuing that course, Meyer instead included an opener that saw most of the Enterprise crew present in the middle of a tense scenario, with the newly introduced Lt. Savvik (Kirstie Alley) trying to navigate her way through the Kobayashi Maru “no win” scenario.
Nicholas Meyer, the Star Trek movie god who would return to see the Original Series crew off on their final adventure together in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, decided to keep everyone guessing… and “kill” Spock right from the get go, in a huge fake-out. Here again is Mark A. Altman, with his discussion on why this tactic was so brilliant:
The thing that’s so brilliant, that Nick Meyer did, he said ‘Let’s kill Spock in the simulator scene, and everyone’s going to think ‘Oh, it’s all a publicity gimmick. Of course he doesn’t really die. Spock is going to be fine.’ And they got us, they fooled us. Of course, it really tees up the ending of the movie, where Spock does in fact die for 20 minutes until Star Trek III.
It was an amazing decision that would provide Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan an unexpected element of surprise. But even as a titan of the then-burgeoning Star Trek film franchise, there were some decisions that Nicholas Meyer couldn’t abide by making. Which, in turn, lead to yet another crucial change to this film’s very DNA: the ending.
Even Star Trek Movie Gods Get The Blues
Killing Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a pretty bold move, and it was one predicated by the fact that Leonard Nimoy supposedly returned to the role only to give it the blaze of glory finale he deserved. Even to this day, from the moment Spock dies talking to his best friend Captain Kirk, right until the funeral at space, that stretch of Nicholas Meyer’s film is a stone cold heartbreaker for all ages.
It’s tempered by one addition that wasn’t present in the draft Star Trek II was filming with though, and that was the fact that we see Spock’s coffin land on the Genesis planet, with the uplifting strains of “Amazing Grace” hinting at something not so depressing. The funny thing is, Nicholas Meyer didn’t want anything to do with that ending, which was a result of the original ending playing horribly with test audiences.
Which meant that, in true Star Trek II fashion, someone had to step in and do what had to be done. One last time, Mark A. Altman lays in a vital brick in the history of The Wrath of Khan:
[Producer Robert Sallin] was the one who famously shot the ending that Nick Meyer didn’t want them to do. Because after they tested it, and Nimoy realized that he had a good time and wanted to potentially come back in Star Trek III, they realized that it was too much of a bummer that Spock was ‘dead’ dead.
When your star wants a way to return from the dead, and your potential audience hates the ending you originally ran with, you can bet that a film like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is going to find a way to revamp the ending into something everyone can accept. It just so happens that, in the case of this particular film, the rocky road to finality only helped it become the classic that it’s regarded as today.
If it wasn’t for the trials and tribulations of Star Trek II, we might not have gotten the fantastic voyage that is The Wrath of Khan. And without that film’s success, the Star Trek series might have died on the vine yet again. So while the leaks, woes and conflicts made the production of Nicholas Meyer’s historic event picture a little more complicated in its execution, it assured the world that the franchise Gene Roddenberry created would live long and prosper for decades to come. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is available on Digital HD, Blu-ray, and DVD; and it can also be streamed on Prime Video. Also, a special thanks to Paramount for drafting the Inglorious Treksperts hosts, Mark A. Altman and Daren Dochterman, in leading the watch party that this knowledge came from.