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Time and again, humanity has asked itself the timeless question, “What’s in a name?” When it comes to a movie like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it means quite a bit. As it turns out, that iconic name was the second place choice in the run up to Star Trek: The Motion Picture's sequel. Strangely enough, you can thank a rather interesting party for this pivotal decision: the Star Wars saga!
Just as Star Trek II found itself a product of a lot of changes on the scripting end, the title for the film was changed because the original title of the 1982 sci-fi classic was very similar to the title of a Star Wars film that was in production. So what was the original title for The Wrath of Khan? Brace yourselves, as if history kept us on the right track, it would have been Star Trek: The Vengeance of Khan.
According to the live watch commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, provided by the hosts of the Inglorious Treksperts podcast, the original title was drawn from another crucial story decision. Originally, the sequel to the Original Series episode “Space Seed” was going to see Ricardo Montalban’s Khan Noonien Singh returning along with another co-star: former Enterprise crewman-turned-Khan-panion, Marla McGivers.
But sadly, as Madlyn Rhue was unable to participate due to her battle with Multiple Sclorosis, and writer/director Nicholas Meyer didn’t want to recast the part, the death of McGivers was written into the script. From there, Khan’s inspiration for vengeance became very personal, and thus, Star Trek II: The Vengeance of Khan was born.
After reading the story about how many changes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan went through, you’re probably wondering how far this title got before being given the heave ho. Well, believe it or not, it stuck around long enough that there was a poster advertising the title itself in a rather stylish manner! However, that title wasn’t long for this world, thanks to the following anecdote doled out by Mark A. Altman during the live watch commentary:
Now why was it changed, because even the marketing materials said, ‘At the end of space, lies the beginning of vengeance’? Well, because at the same time, Revenge of the Jedi was announced, and they felt it’d be too confusing … So this became the Wrath of Khan, and Revenge of the Jedi became Return of the Jedi.
Have you ever shown up to a party wearing the same exact thing someone else decided to wear to that same occasion? That’s basically what happened with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and just as you’d expect, both films went home and changed their titles. If only Nicholas Meyer and company had stuck it out a little longer, they’d have realized they never needed to change their title.
History eventually saw Revenge of the Jedi become Return of the Jedi, as George Lucas decided that revenge wasn’t a Jedi concept. So there was a chance that we could have seen history stay on course. And yet, as Star Trek history has shown us, the scrappy and quick decision making that’s kept the series together quite often yields a more memorable result.
With a new title that still worked with that killer tagline, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would go on to become the movie advertised in the trailer below:
Such decision making is only part of how Star Trek has made sci-fi history, with the other part of the equation being clashes in taste. As it turns out, Mark A. Altman had another note that specified another title that didn’t even mention Khan at all. In his words:
Interestingly enough, the original original title on the script was The Undiscovered Country.
Apparently the reason that title was ditched was because it was seen as “pretentious.” The rest is Star Trek history, and we’d never see Nicholas Meyer’s “pretentious” title ever again. At least, that was true until Meyer was brought back to co-write/direct 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
So what have we learned today? Well, besides the fact that the Star Trek series loves to recycle a good idea, we’ve discovered that sometimes a healthy rivalry, and a good marketing department, can make all of the difference. That, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a simpler title that rolls off the tongue. Thanks, Star Wars.
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. Or, if you're in the mood to celebrate May the Fourth in a fantastic fashion, check out this 7-day free trial for Disney+, as you can watch Revenge... um, Return of the Jedi, and the rest of the Skywalker Saga, in one convenient place!