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Happy Birthday to Jack Sowards, Who Wrote a Great ‘Star Trek’ Film

Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban on the set of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, directed by Nicholas Meyer. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Ricardo Montalban as Khan, with members of his tribe. (Paramount Pictures)

It might be going too far to say that Jack B. Sowards *saved* Star Trek. But he sure threw the franchise a lifeline when he wrote the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And he definitely did save Mister Spock.

Jack Sowards was born on March 18, 1929, so he’d be turning 94 this year. He died in 2007, but not before he brought the fun back to Star Trek.

The Wrath of Khan was the only feature film Sowards ever wrote. Oh, he was a veteran writer, but mostly for TV: old-time westerns like Bonanza and The High Chaparral, and 1970s actioners like Barnaby Jones and The Streets of San Francisco. He also wrote some potboiler TV movies, like 1973’s D.B. Cooper-inspired Deliver Us From Evil (“Men hiking in the mountains discover an injured skyjacker who parachuted from a plane with six hundred thousand dollars”). That seems to be what got him the Wrath of Khan job.

American actors DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy and Canadian William Shatner on the set of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, directed by Nicholas Meyer. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Bones, Kirk, and Spock, older and wiser, in their new white-collar Starfleet uniforms. (Paramount Pictures)

Following the pompous and philosophical Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1978), whose main excitement was a bald woman, the franchise was on life support. More potboiler was exactly what was needed. The credit for bringing back the villainous Khan goes to executive producer Harve Bennett. And director Nicholas Meyer says he rewrote the whole thing anyway.

But credit definitely goes to Jack Sowards for two wonderful things.

First, he invented the Kobayashi Maru test, the unwinnable training scenario that Starfleet cadets must face (and which Captain Kirk beats by cleverly cheating). The Kobayashi Maru immediately became a beloved part of Star Trek lore, so much so that Kirk is shown beating the test in the first Star Trek reboot film with Chris Pine as Kirk — and with a nifty Mister Spock kicker at the end.

Spock gives the vulcan salute from inside a glass radiation chamber

“Peace out!” Spock’s death scene in “Star Trek II.” (Paramount Pictures)

Second, Sowards lured reluctant actor Leonard Nimoy back to the film with one juicy sentence: “Leonard, how would you like to play Spock’s death scene?” Nimoy, who had already declared himself out for the film, and who had once written an autobiography called I Am Not Spock, couldn’t resist every actor’s dream moment: a martyr’s juicy death throes.

Sowards promised Nimoy that the death scene would come at the start of the film, so he would only have limited filming. But then, rewrite by rewrite, the crafty old scribe kept moving the death scene back, until it was the climax of the story and Spock was in the whole film. Nimoy was hooked and made the most of the death scene, with Spock throwing a final Vulcan salute before dying to save the Enterprise and its crew.

Sowards was also crafty enough to give William Shatner an emotional scene of his own immediately after, bringing the stars (and screen time) into alignment. The choking up! The bagpipes!

Through a classic bit of Hollywood hokum, Spock was brought back to life in Star Trek III. Nimoy kept making Trek films almost up to his death in 2015. It was a happy ending all around.

As much as we all love movie stars, these stories of workaday movie industry folk getting the job done year after year are almost as wonderful. Jack Sowards later taught screenwriting at UCLA and Santa Monica City College. Who better?


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