Let me be very clear from the get go. This article is specifically for everyone who knows nothing about Star Trek and wants to learn about Star Trek…from someone who knows very little about Star Trek.
With this defeatist attitude in mind, let’s revisit the Star Trek movies briefly. It’s a difficult task for me…I’m not a born-and-bred fan. Truth be told, my Star Trek education is limited to only the films–which I watched over the last couple of weeks…for the first time.
Let’s jump right in…with the first big-screen adaptation of Gene Roddenberry’s classic sci-fi vision, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Honestly…that title should tell you everything you need to know about this movie. The whole movie is obsessed with two things: being a big movie, and doing things that weren’t possible in the television series.
This isn’t always a bad thing. The production value of this film is never matched in the rest of the series (they learned their lesson when this one lost money), and the effects and scope of the movie are breathtaking. It reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey, filled with long shots of floating space ships and big, swelling dramatic music. The only problem with this one is that the screenplay, very much in the tradition of a traditional Trek episode, doesn’t seem to know what director Robert Wise is going for.
In the end, though, I enjoyed this more than most Trek fans. It is swinging for the fences with its Twilight Zone-ish ending, and…come on, Wise won an Oscar for West Side Story. You can’t say this one isn’t at least interesting.
But no, most fans completely dismiss this flawed and irrelevant opening act and skip forward to Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. And it’s understandable. This movie has all the cheeky, goofy fun of the original series. And it’s got Ricardo Montelban, a character from one of the episodes, getting revenge on Kirk.
Plus the ending is more affecting than you would expect in a Star Trek film (SPOILER COMING UP!)–Spock’s death and perfectly-played funeral.
In the end, this one is the quintessential Trek film, combining all the elements in a way that is 100% satisfying. It might not be as ambitious as its predecessor, but dammit if it’s not a whole hell of a lot more fun.
Unfortunately, they follow up this popcorn masterpiece with the (reportedly) less-than-stellar The Search for Spock. See, Spock wasn’t really dead. They’ve just gotta get his body back and transfer his soul from Dr. McCoy.
This one also has Doc Brown as a Klingon. And they quickly dispense with Kirk’s son, who was introduced in Wrath of Khan. Let’s face it, though. We don’t want Kirk to have a blonde-haired, whiny teenager hanging around him.
So many people didn’t bother with part three, apparently, that part four begins with a recap of the events of the previous film. Then we’re treated to what can only be described as the most tongue-in-cheek, jokey entry into the franchise. What’s it about? Traveling back in time, to the 1980′s, to save the whales?
That’s right. There is an alien probe threatening earth. It speaks only “whale,” and the only way to stop it is to bring the extinct species from our past into the future. It’s ridiculous…and it’s a blast. You have to throw your hands up in the air ad enjoy this fish-out-of water Journey Home.
Then comes part five, The Final Frontier. Everyone hates this movie with a passion. It’s about searching for God in tandem with Spock’s evil half brother. Which is a terrible idea.
I kind of dug it.
It is, arguably, the most philosophy-driven film of the franchise, dealing with questions of free will, the role of pain in human endeavors, and the need to find meaning. Are these handled perfectly? Hell no. It’s ham-handed and awkward most of the time, but at least it’s trying. If for no other reason, I like this movie because of two events.
The first is a line, spoken by James T. Kirk in the presence of “God.” I’ll paraphrase:
“What does GOD need with a starship?”
Good question, Captain.
Second, there is a shot that, to me, sums up what Star Trek is all about. As the Enterprise is about to plunge into the depths of the unknown–a barrier through which no ship has returned–the camera pans to a plaque attached to a decorative steering wheel.
It reads: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Fucking A. And what better way to sum up the themes of the series than to go on a suicide mission in search of God? That’s the adventurous spirit that Star Trek is all about, and I credit this immensely flawed film for recognizing that.
We end the Trek of the original cast with my favorite film of the franchise, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. To me, this is what a Star Trek MOVIE should be. It takes us to alien planets, it deals with complicated interstellar politics, and it creates a true story arc–Captain Kirk’s struggle with racism against Klingons–that cannot be accomplished (effectively) in a television show.
This movie may not be epic in appearance, but it’s epic in tone and scope, encompassing a “whodunnit,” a political thriller, an action movie, and a prison caper. And somehow, all these things seem to gel as one.
Best of all, this is the self-admitted last movie in the series. We are reminded (but not in an annoying way) that this is the last Trek of the Enterprise. And at the end, when the crew accomplishes their mission and decides to break orders to take one last spin around the Galaxy…well, it’s the perfect way to end the series. Our crew is finished…we know that. But we don’t see them leave the ship for the last time. Instead, our final image is of Kirk ordering the Enterprise to venture into the great unknown, echoing the last shots of the first film.
It’s all about exploration, adventure, and feeling alive. The end of Undiscovered Country leaves you with a giddy feeling that isn’t replicated in the rest of the series.
Then, of course, we were introduced to the Next Generation. And with the passing-of-the-torch, Star Trek: Generations, the tone of the series changed dramatically.
I love the Next Generation films, but there is a life, an energy, and a goofy fun and adventure in the films of the original series that can’t be recaptured.
Or can they? I guess we’ll find out next Friday.
Be sure to tune in Thursday when our good friend Hans details his favorite, and least favorite, aspects of the Next Generation series. Maybe he’ll even be able to answer that age-old question: who’s the better Captain, Kirk or Picard?