Now, that’s more like it.

Once again, with hindsight, what’s remarkable about Star Trek II is not so much that it set the template for the billion-dollar franchise which followed (although it undoubtedly did), it’s that Paramount was willing to make another movie at all. Actually, on paper that’s not so surprising. The film did make money – around three times what it cost to make – but it was hugely expensive. Disney’s The Black Hole, released the same year cost half what Star Trek The Motion Picture cost and it was Disney’s most expensive movie ever. But the reception from mainstream media and die-hard fans alike had been luke-warm. Did it really make sense to risk another forty million dollars to try again?

Enter TV producer Harve Bennett who confidently told Paramount bosses he could make five movies for the budget of the first one. After a year or two of script development going nowhere and staring down the barrel of a release date, Bennett sent for Nicholas Meyer who compiled a list of the bits-and-pieces people liked from the dozens of Star Trek II draft scripts and sat down to write the final screenplay, stitching all these disparate bits together, before beginning work on directing the movie, days later. These two men, neither of them familiar with Star Trek before they started work, saved the franchise, largely by completely and utterly ignoring the first film.

Meyer knew nothing about spaceships and future technology, but he saw the Enterprise as a sailing ship and Captain Kirk as Captain Horatio Hornblower. Ironically, Gene Roddenberry – who had by now been kicked unceremoniously upstairs – hated the naval paraphernalia and militaristic feel which Meyer gave to the Enterprise, but had himself used Hornblower has a frequent touch-point for the character of Kirk. Generally, Meyer’s reimagining of the Enterprise and Star Fleet through a naval lens works very well to create an impression of a colossal ship, manned by an enormous and active crew. Occasionally, he goes too far, such as when Kirk is literally piped aboard, or when photon torpedoes sit under hatches which have to be manually levered open, but these are tiny and easily-overlooked transgressions.

The whole look-and-feel of the film is vastly improved. The new uniforms strike the perfect balance between the colourful sixties jerseys and something which does actually resemble military garb, as opposed to pyjamas. They would still be in use for Star Trek Generations, a dozen years later. The bridge feels more like a submarine and less like the lobby of a futuristic hotel. The plot has the kind energy and drive so lacking in the first film, and the charm and humour of the characters returns, most noticeably in the early birthday scenes, but also throughout.

Despite – or possibly because of – the script’s mongrel heritage, it’s pretty much iconic scene after iconic scene. Playing into rumours of Spock’s death, Meyer apparently kills him off in the first five minutes as new crew member Lt Saavik struggles with the Kobyashi Maru scenario. Before long, Captain Chekov is facing down Ricardo Montalban’s fearsome Khan Noonien Singh, reincorporated from the original series, but that hardly matters.

Saaviki is also notable for actually making it to the end of the movie, but Paul Winfield as Terrell fulfils the usual role of doomed new cast member – in fact he does double-duty being both revealed as traitor and dying at the half-way point. Few of the rest of the cast get very much to do, but Bones gets a few choice lines and of course Leonard Nimoy gets to play a very real death scene at the end.

There are just a few moments where the film’s joie de vivre shades into smugness. On second viewing, it’s a little hard to understand just why Captain Kirk lets Carol and the rest continue to believe that they are trapped in the Genesis Cave with no hope of rescue, and the gag of the Reliant not bothering to look up or down in the final space battle in the nebula is a little hard to take seriously, but overall, this movie give us the space adventure we had so missed in the first film, and yet manages to be about something at the same time. Themes of age, decay, responsibility and obsession reverberate pleasingly throughout but never upstage the blood-and-thunder action and Montalban of course is an exceptional villain, gleefully chewing on Meyer’s theatrical dialogue.

What adds to the power of the film, and almost certainly secures its crown as the very best of the series, even thirty-odd years later, is that Kirk’s victory is so hard-won and comes at such a terrible cost. Spock’s death is meaningful, poignant and apparently permanent – three things it’s very hard to say about its karaoke re-enactment at the clumsy hands of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and JJ Abrams recently.

Meyer might have cut back on the super-expensive transporter and warp drive effects, but he puts the money on the screen, re-using a few models and even model shots from the first film, and using then cutting-edge computer graphics to show the effect of the Genesis wave – a sequence which would become very familiar not only from its use and reuse in this film and its sequels but also as the iconic images for early eighties CGI in the movies in countless documentaries and behind-the-scenes TV specials.

Of course, as production neared its close, the whole cast and crew began to suspect that they might be on to a winner, and so rather than being the film that would shut the door on Star Trek, there was every chance that it might be only the beginning, and so Nimoy and Bennett hatched a plan to leave just enough of a thread to pull on if Spock needed resurrecting in Star Trek III – should that ever be made. This is done just gracefully enough that it doesn’t spoil the ending, and even that shot of Spock’s coffin on the Genesis Planet which enraged Meyer doesn’t bother me too much.

Pretty much perfect in every way, Star Trek II gave the series a future – without the Great Bird of the Galaxy who would soon turn his ambitions back to TV.

Facts and figures

Released: 4 June 1982
Budget: $11.2m
Box office: $97m
Writers: Harve Bennett, Jack B Sowards, Nicholas Meyer
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Producer: Harve Bennett

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