One thing that struck me almost immediately is something that was largely missing from The Motion Picture, but which I didn’t notice except by comparison. Namely, The Wrath of Khan is funny. Not the swing-for-the-fences goofiness of Trek IV, but simply the character-based humor that comes naturally from the Enterprise crew when they’re being written well. The Motion Picture is a really dour enterprise — ahem — and takes everything so seriously that it’s largely missing the sense of fun and adventurous spirit that makes the best of Trek work. Especially the core triad of Kirk, Spock, and Bones, it’s amazing how much more they seem like themselves in Trek II, with the three of them bickering and needling each other good-naturedly, like the old friends we know them to be. Comparatively, The Motion Picture seems like the crew is in the middle of a wake the entire time.
It’s not surprising to see the crew much more alive in the second Trek outing, because every aspect of the script by Jack B. Sowards and an uncredited Nicholas Meyer (who also directed) is rooted in character, from the themes of aging, death, and loss, to the core conflict between Kirk and Khan. Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski has talked about the experience where you no longer feel like you’re telling a story on the page, but rather that the characters have come to life and are now in control — you’re just taking dictation. It’s easy to believe that must have been the case with the Wrath of Khan script, because nearly every character here feels vivid, complex, and alive.
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