In an inspired move, Harve Bennett, a television veteran, was brought in to executive produce, and his sensibilities, honed on the budgetary restraints of the small screen, helped to get the most out of the available funds. A director of the stature of Robert Wise was out of the question, but Bennett and Roddenberry were impressed by young Nicholas Meyer, and his one directorial effort, the cult SF favorite, TIME AFTER TIME, and the 37-year old leaped at the opportunity to tackle another SF film. Contrary to popular belief, Meyer was NOT familiar with the series, but he quickly immersed himself with the series' episodes, then looked at Harve Bennett's script outline, and the two of them then hammered out a shooting script. Gone would be the sterile, monochromatic future envisioned in the first film, replaced with warm colors, frequent references to classic literature, and the sense of camaraderie that had made the original series so popular.
Both men had been impressed by Ricardo Montalban's charismatic Khan, in the episode, 'Space Seed', and agreed in bringing back the superhuman, yet sympathetic villain for the film. Leonard Nimoy provided the film's theme; with rumors of a possible new TV series still circulating, the actor, not wishing to be subjected to the weekly grind, suggested 'killing off' Spock, in some heroic fashion. Bennett loved the idea, although he wisely left a 'hook' in the script, in case Nimoy changed his mind, and he and Meyer could now address both the passage of time, and death, issues that were relevant, as the original cast were beginning to show their years!
William Shatner, after the stinging reviews of his stilted performance in ST:TMP, needed a strong script to provide 'damage control', and he got it. In perhaps his finest performance, he dominates the screen, whether ruminating on his own mortality with McCoy, explaining how he 'beat' the Kobiyashi Maru scenario by cheating ("I HATE to lose"), discovering that after years as an interstellar lothario, he is a father (and by the one woman he truly 'loved'), playing 'cat and mouse' with Khan, or facing the death of his best friend, Spock. Both decisive and likable, Shatner's Kirk is the glue that holds ST:TWOK together, and he is brilliant.
Leonard Nimoy, getting every actor's dream, a chance to 'die' onscreen, gives Spock a poignancy that is, ultimately, heartbreaking; DeForest Kelley, excellent as Dr. McCoy, not only offers righteous indignation over the implications of the Genesis Project, but projects such an obvious affection for both Kirk and his 'sparring partner', Spock, that, far more than in the first film, you can see the nearly symbiotic link between the three leads. The rest of the original cast, despite small roles, still have far more to do than in the first film, and are obviously enjoying themselves (except, understandably, Walter Koenig's 'Chekov', when the parasite is put into his ear!)
Of the other leads, Ricardo Montalban lustily chews up the scenery as an 'Ahab'-influenced older Khan; a pre-'Cheers' Kirstie Alley gives Vulcan Lieutenant Saavik far more sex appeal than did her successor in the role, Robin Curtis; Paul Winfield makes the most of his brief role as Chekov's new boss, the doomed Captain Terrell; and Bibi Besch provides a combination of intellect, toughness, and affection playing Kirk's lost love, Carol Marcus. The only disappointment is Merritt Butrick, as Kirk's newly-revealed son, David; in a poorly-written role, he has little to do but gripe about Kirk, before and after he discovers their relationship.
The film score was composed by 29-year old James Horner, who was told not to incorporate any of Jerry Goldsmith's themes from ST:TMP; he later admitted that he sneaked a bit of it in, anyway, along with Alexander Courage's original TV themes. While lacking Goldsmith's grandeur, the music is evocative and sweeping, and Horner would return to score STAR TREK: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK.
Despite budget restraints, ST:TWOK had terrific FX (particularly during the Mutaran Nebula sequence), and was able to reuse the space dock and voyage sequences from ST:TMP quite effectively. The space battle scene between the Enterprise and Reliant is one of the best sequences in the entire 'Star Trek' film series.
ST:TWOK was a HUGE success, both with critics and fans, vindicating Gene Roddenberry's faith in the franchise, and the decision to use Meyer as the director. And in a twist worthy of Scheherazade in 'The Arabian Nights', Spock's death created such an uproar that Paramount HAD to keep the series alive, just to resolve the issue.
From a one-shot film deal, a THIRD film would be produced!