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Star Trek 2 director improved Shatner’s acting with one sneaky trick

William Shatner is one of the Star Trek legends, and his work in The Wrath of Khan is astonishing. That's thanks to one sly trick from director Nicholas Meyer.

William Shatner as Kirk in Star Trek 2 The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan is legitimately a masterpiece. With a superlative villain in Khan and stunning performances from William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, it ranks among the greats. As the conventional wisdom suggests, it really is the best Star Trek movie.

The movie was helmed by director Nicholas Meyer, who also took on direcotrial duties for the last of the TOS-era Star Trek movies with The Undiscovered Country. In both of those films, Meyer was able to elicit a truly brilliant performance from the best Star Trek captain himself, William Shatner.

There’s a widely believed misconception that Shatner is a bad actor. That is, obviously, not true. His performances can come across as hammy and over the top, yes, and it’s inarguable that the actor does have a distinct line delivery. But it’s the uniqueness of Shatner’s acting that gives Captain Kirk a lot of his charm and personality. The only issue is that when Meyer was trying to make the second of the Star Trek movies in order, there was one scene in which he really needed a little less from his leading man.

Meyer explained the situation on the Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan commentary track, as found on the Blu-ray and DVD editions of the movie. In the aftermath of Khan’s surprise first attack on the USS Enterprise, one of the best Star Trek characters – and the most infamous – asks Kirk to send over all information relating to the Genesis Project directed by Carol Marcus. In response, Kirk instead tasks Spock and Saavik with lowering Khan’s shields using the USS Reliant’s prefix codes.

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Kirk plays for time, completely vulnerable to more attacks. In the final moments, just as he’s about to trick Khan into thinking he’s sending the information, he says, “here it comes”. In the final cut, the line delivery is calm, and almost deadpan as Kirk acts defeated by Khan before his own triumphant counter-attack.

However, initially, Shatner’s line delivery was giving away the fact that he was about to trick Khan, which wouldn’t have worked at all. “I said, ‘Bill, this guy is really smart at the other end of the line. If you snidely, smirking deliver this he’s going to know something’s up. Let’s try it again,'” explained Meyer. “And I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I said, ‘I’m sorry that was no good for sound, let’s do it again.'” Meyer continued to make up excuses as to why Shatner had to do another take, and finally, he struck gold.

“Finally, the reading (which is pretty damned effective) is what came out. And that’s when I learned that if you do [a take] a few times [Shatner] was less likely to strike attitudes.” Eventually, due to the repetition of having to do the take over and over, Shatner grew weary and simply delivered the line as it’s heard in the final cut, more subdued. It was a sneaky trick from Meyer, but the subterfuge was ultimately very effective and helped to create one of the greatest scenes in the best movie of the series.

Of course, over the rest of the movie, Shatner’s Shatner-isms were allowed to bubble up occasionally. His eulogy to Spock is particularly Shatner-y, and we really wouldn’t have it any other way.

For more on the best Star Trek character, check out why Paul Wesley understands the biggest Kirk misconception. You can also swap sci-fi franchises and see what’s going on with the upcoming new movie Avatar 3.