It was the late actress’s first movie role, and one that, in its spikiness, reflected her own persona.
Five years before she first pulled up a barstool on “Cheers,” Kirstie Alley made her big-screen debut in a role that couldn’t be more different than businesswoman Rebecca Howe on NBC’s beloved Boston-set sitcom.
It involved a pair of pointy ears.
Alley appeared as the Vulcan Lt. Saavik in 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” and it was a role so beloved that fans wanted Paramount to bring it back for the next film. She had different ideas. But you can see why she made an impression: The movie opens with a simulation every potential Starfleet captain must endure as a test before getting their shot at the command seat — the Kobayashi Maru. It’s a test of how a potential captain will hold up while facing a no-win scenario, and certain death.
The Vulcans are known for those elf-like ears, and for expressing no emotion. For being totally deadpan. But while she’s taking the Kobayashi Maru test, Alley’s Saavik let’s out a controlled, but clearly audible “Damn.” Like many of Alley’s characters to come, it seemed that there was something under her skin. She also revealed an essential truth: It’s not that Vulcans don’t have emotions, it’s that they’re just usually really good at hiding them. And Saavik wasn’t quite as good at that.
The character was significant because at that point, few Vulcans had been seen in the franchise: Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and his father, Mark Leonard’s Sarek, of course. A few others, here and there, such as Spock’s haughty betrothed, T’Pring (Arlene Martel). But beyond Spock, Saavik was the first to get extensive screentime in a “Star Trek” movie. You sense her irritation when Shatner’s Kirk remarks about her letting her hair down when she’s out of uniform (“It’s regulation, sir.”). She shows her indignation when she finds out Kirk was the only one ever to beat the Kobayashi Maru test because he cheated (to Starfleet brass, that showed originality and thinking outside the box). She proved once and for all that Vulcans do have emotions — and you might not want to cross them.
Courtesy Everett Collection
Being controlled vs. letting loose is a dynamic many of Alley’s characters would channel. Look no further than her abolitionist Vergilia in the ABC miniseries “North and South” — her cause is just, but is she really using it just to give vent to her more unhinged impulses? That character is ultimately hanged by her own side, the Union forces.
Saavik was similarly hard to pin down. And Alley departed the role when Paramount refused to meet her salary demands to appear in the next two movies. Robin Curtis took over as the Vulcan in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” — and brought little of the character’s inner fire.
Given that “Cheers” was ahead for her, and that what Saavik actually did in the subsequent films was rather marginal, it’s hard to say Alley made a wrong choice. But in one superlative “Star Trek” movie — “Wrath of Khan” is routinely considered the series’ best — she made her mark on the 23rd century.