Movie and television geeks of all persuasions were saddened to learn of the passing of actor Ricardo Montalban on Jan. 14, 2009 at the age of 88. Though many knew Montalban as either the mysterious Mr. Roarke from the TV series Fantasy Island or as Armando from the Planet of the Apes movie series, most sci-fi fans associate him with the title character from 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Montalban played arguably the most memorable villain — and in the best feature film — of the entire Star Trek franchise.
This, of course, makes both Khan and Montalban a font of fascinating Geek Trivia.
First off, even though Khan Noonien Singh is considered by most Trekkies to be the ultimate arch-nemesis of James T. Kirk, Montalban and actor William Shatner never performed any scenes together in Star Trek II. In fact, the two filmed their roles months apart, as the bridge of both Kirk’s USS Enterprise and Khan’s USS Reliant were actually the same set mildly redressed.
Moreover, The Wrath of Khan almost didn’t include either “wrath” or Khan. Previous drafts of the script had a pair of villains named Sojin and Moray instead of Khan. When the Kirk-obsessed Khan plot was finally greenlit, the movie was originally titled Star Trek II: The Undiscovered Country (which was a name that would get reused for Star Trek VI) and then The Revenge of Khan (which was scrapped because it was too close to Revenge of the Jedi, the presumed title for the third Star Wars film).
When producer Harve Bennett and writers Jack B. Sowards and Nicholas Meyer finally locked down the script, they arrived at a tale of age, death, and rebirth filled with tiny character moments and production touches. Among these, we learn that in his youth James Kirk cheated (successfully) on the famous Kobayashi Maru command test, and in his later years, he became an avid collector of antiques, including a classic copy of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (from Mr. Spock) and 18th century reading glasses (from Dr. McCoy).
Computing history nerds, however, no doubt noted James Kirk’s collection also included a famous 20th century PC.
WHAT CLASSIC 20th CENTURY COMPUTER WAS OWNED BY JAMES T. KIRK?
What famous 20th century personal computer was shown as part of James T. Kirk’s antiques collection during Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?
If one pays careful attention during the scene where Dr. McCoy and then-Admiral Kirk are sharing Romulan ale, you’ll note a functioning Commodore PET in the background. Look for it just before Kirk snarkily insists, “Don’t mince words, Bones. What do you really think?” Ironically, The Wrath of Khan was released in 1982, the same year the Commodore PET was discontinued, which meant it was an obsolete relic even before the 23rd century declared it so.
Don’t think that’s The Wrath of Khan‘s only footnote in the history of computing, either. Star Trek II also boasts the first fully computer-animated sequence ever included in a feature film. The computer demo of the Genesis Project, which shows a simulation of a Genesis torpedo remaking a lifeless planet into a thriving ecosphere, was entirely computer rendered. It’s no surprise that Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) did the honors, viewing the 60-second sequence as a commercial for ILM’s fledgling computer graphics division.
To ensure that Paramount was impressed with ILM’s efforts, the effects team made certain that the background starfield looked “realistic” by matching it to known constellations; the Big Dipper can be seen in one portion of the sequence. Extra astronomy homework aside, ILM wasn’t the only effects house involved in the making of Star Trek II.
Visual Concepts Engineering (VCE) has the distinction of being the only effects company to let James Kirk fire his ship’s phasers on the big screen. Of the original six Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan is the only one to show the Enterprise firing its trademark phasers. In every other battle sequence, the Enterprise used photon torpedoes. VCE was responsible for the one-movie-only phaser effects.
The Wrath of Khan also introduced a new class of starship, the Miranda-class Reliant, which looked markedly different from the familiar Constitution-class Enterprise — even more than originally planned. Early production designs of the Reliant depicted the starship with its engines above its saucer section, rather than below as they appear in the finished movie. Producer Harve Bennett originally viewed — and approved — the Reliant designs upside down. When assistants pointed out his mistake, Bennett nonetheless insisted that the Reliant model be built engines-down, so as to make it more visually distinct from the Enterprise, especially in shots where both ships were only partially visible.
That’s not just some serendipitous cinematic selection, it’s a classically Khan-worthy cache of Kirk-cursing Geek Trivia.
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