Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan featured a stunning debut performance from Kirstie Alley as Saavik.
Way back in 1998, when I decided I wanted my entry to Pocket Books’ Strange New Worlds short story contest to feature Lieutenant Saavik, I knew I’d have to write the character so readers could picture and hear either of the two actors who played Saavik. But as I wrote “The First Law of Metaphysics,” I pictured and heard only Kirstie Alley as Saavik in my mind.
Robin Curtis played Saavik expertly and exactly as Leonard Nimoy—no small authority on Vulcans—directed her to in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and (all too briefly) Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. But when Kirstie Alley originated the role of Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirstie Alley brought to it an elegance, an emotional complexity, a wit, and a captivating presence that instantly earned Saavik a place in Star Trek lore all out of proportion to her time on screen.
How unfortunate Kirstie Alley as Saavik didn’t become a regular cast member in the later films. How fortunate, ultimately, she wasn’t turned into a traitor to Starfleet in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as Nicholas Meyer originally planned.
Yes, I was 12 years old when I first saw The Wrath of Khan. Yes, I had a celebrity crush on Kirstie Alley for a few years. I watched North and South to see more of her, and briefly watched Cheers just because she joined the cast as Rebecca Howe. But even as the crush naturally faded, my respect for her performance as Saavik stayed and deepened. So the fact that Saavik, in my story, has an “emerald gaze”—even though Robin Curtis’ eyes are dark brown—is no accident.
I wish we’d gotten more Star Trek performances from Kirstie Alley. But she did so much in her only appearance in the franchise to appreciate and remember.
Here—at the end of her life and career, and at the end of Star Trek II’s 40th anniversary year—are my choices for Kirstie Alley’s top three moments as Saavik in The Wrath of Khan.
Kirstie Alley as Saavik in the center seat during the Kobayashi Maru
Kirstie Alley as Saavik is the first voice we hear in Star Trek II. I often wonder how long-time Star Trek fans in the 1982 audience reacted hearing an unknown woman narrate the captain’s log on what appears to be the bridge of the Enterprise as the film begins.
But I don’t have to wonder about the effect Alley has when she swivels around to face the camera for the first time. It’s electric.
Of course, Saavik’s control over the situation doesn’t last long. But her soft swearing after hearing the data about the imperiled freighter is one of the few ways we see the circumstances rattle her. She almost completely maintains command composure throughout the disastrous “rescue mission.”
I say “almost” because her reaction to Captain Spock’s “death,” just before the simulation ends, is a subtle and masterful choice. Remember: Saavik knows these events are not real. She knows Spock is not dead. Yet when she sees her mentor cry out in pain as his console explodes, then slump to the deck in feigned lifelessness, Saavik appears stricken.
The expression on Alley’s face only becomes clear in retrospect, as we realize Saavik must have been upset at the thought that she had failed her mentor. But even as we watch it, it’s a subtle and masterful moment alerting us to this character’s hidden depths.