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Boldly Going…: A Look Back At The Original The Original Series Star Trek Movies

Posted By Brett Harrison Davinger On May 12, 2013 @ 10:07 pm In Movies,Movies & TV | No Comments

The USS Enterprise from The Original Series

You know what movies average out to be really good? The first six Star Trek movies!“- Philip J. Fry, Futurama(RIP), “Where No Fan Has Gone Before”

In preparation for Star Trek Into Darkness, I decided to take a look back at the original The Original Series movies, marathon-style. Of course, I have no way of proving that I went through the films in a straight shot, so you can either take my word for it, or not.

I should also note that even though I have seen all the movies before, I am not a Star Trek obsessive, so a lot of this was relatively new to me. The only one I’ve seen somewhat recently was the fifth (and by far the worst) one. With that introduction out of the way, let’s see what Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest were before they became all high-tech, CGI-bolstered, action-adventurers.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (dir. Robert Wise, 1979)

The Poster for Star Trek: The Motion Picture

© Paramount Pictures

The most unfairly maligned Star Trek feature, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is probably the best Star Trek film. Not the best movie, but it’s definitely the most cerebral and ambitious installment in the entire franchise. In some ways, it seems like the natural evolution of the series. No longer hindered by network expectations or the psychedelic look of the 1960s, it attempts to become a high-brow science fiction film in the vein of Silent Running or even Solaris. The damn thing even opens with an overture, which is still very awesome. Jerry Goldsmith’s whole soundtrack, complete with what would become the The Next Generation theme, is fantastic.

Unlike future Star Trek films, this one most avoids action in favor of philosophical debates about the nature of existence. While this element has always been present in Star Trek, it’s never been the center of an episode or movie as much as it is in this one. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe anything is fired from phaser or ship in the entire movie. What’s important is not space battles, but, as the movie repeats in several incarnations, “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” Understanding every sentient being on its most basic, personal level. It’s not just a question pondered by V’ger, but it’s also the key to Spock’s series-long journey as he tries to reconcile his Vulcan and human sides. You also have to give credit to any franchise that decides to start its run with the enemy being the inability to figure out the meaning of life.

Visually, the movie still holds up. Roddenberry and crew use the enhanced budget not just to make a redo of the television series, but to show the Enterprise in as much detail as possible. Painstakingly so. Long and painstakingly so. While the series only had a limited number of sets to use, this movie shows several different areas of the ship. We get the game room, some version of 10 Forward, and other areas that give a sense that the Enterprise is a gigantic entity with plenty of rooms and space for its crew and visitors.

An overture!

Additionally, Gene Roddenberry and the rest use the movie to answer questions that would seem out of place in a traditional episode- what happens when you enter Warp Drive with an engine imbalance, what happens when there’s a transporter malfunction, etc. Star Trek: The Motion Picture wisely uses its extended running time to delve into the nuances of its science, which is much appreciated. (Isaac Asimov is even credited as a Special Science Consultant.)

However, my favorite part of this movie is something that none of the other movies really managed to capture- the isolation of space. The empty void of the cosmos. The Enterprise is out there alone, a mere speck in the abyss, traveling towards infinity, cut off from everyone and everything. It’s eerie and suspenseful based almost purely on atmosphere.

The movie definitely has problems, though. It’s long and occasionally feels more than its running time. The opening shot of the Enterprise seems to go on for about 20 minutes as the opening theme loops. You get a sense of just how much adoration they have for the ship, but it’s still lengthy. The closing title card of “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning” seems out of place and cheesy. Regardless, its biggest failing comes in humor. This is an intense and dramatic movie, to its detriment. The cheekiness of Star Trek was part of its appeal, and this movie seemingly abandons that. To be sure, there are some humorous moments- crazy bearded McCoy, Ilia unit tearing through doors, the giant space vagina- but they are few and far between. For a movie that’s all about the importance of humanity, there is a detached coldness throughout, which brings us to…

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1982)

The Poster for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

© Paramount Pictures

Still the best Star Trek movie and the template for so many of its followers. What makes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan work is that it is also the natural evolution of the series except down a different, more mass friendly path than the first one. This is the movie with the villain of the week, the epic space battles, the jokes, the colorful set design, the camaraderie, the crazy technology, and the alien creatures, but done in a larger scope than television could allow.

While it’s not as philosophically dense as its predecessor, it still broaches a number of issues, which is rare in a primarily action-adventure movie. It brings up the concept of aging, which the franchise tackles for the next four, arguably five movies. The “needs of the many v. needs of the one” debate. The qualities of being human. How easily a tool for good could become a weapon of evil. It’s probably the best example of how the conflicting worldviews of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy interact with each other, and it makes me hope that Star Trek Into Darkness raises the profile of Bones.

Its use of the sins of the past coming to haunt you is well done. Kirk’s son and former lover Carol Marcus give some gravity to his intergalactic bed hopping. And, of course, Khan shows how the best of intentions (Kirk could have easily killed or had him imprisoned in “Space Seed” instead of exiling him on Ceti Alpha V) can lead to the most disastrous results. Even though crews of the Enterprises have had to deal with madmen out for vengeance before and since, Khan still towers above the likes of Shinzon from Nemesis, Nero from Star Trek, General Chang from Undiscovered Country, etc. Ricardo Montalban gives him such a manic level of obsessiveness that his revenge really seems personal rather than revenge-for-revenge’s-sake. I personally hope Cumberbatch isn’t playing him in Into Darkness– not because of Montalban’s performance, but because I don’t want both first sequels to travel down the same path. That seems lazy. I also wonder if audiences will buy the Eugenics Wars taking place in the

II also has some genuinely amazing model work. The Enterprise, the Reliant, and other ships and space stations spread throughout the film are so well crafted and intricately detailed that you really appreciate the hands-on craftsmanship that must have gone into the development of each prop. The sequence of Kirk versus Khan in the nebula proves you don’t need a constant barrage of fire to create a truly memorable space action scene.

And Spock dies.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (dir. Leonard Nimoy, 1984)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is not a bad movie. A weak installment, yes. Kind of lame, yes. Cheaply backs away from the developments made in the second, yes. A huge step back from the first two, definitely. But it’s not hateable.

The biggest problem with Star Trek III is that it feels more like the outline of a movie than a movie itself. A skeleton. It hits its plot points efficiently, but it lacks a soul, a greater depth. There’s a feeling of disconnect that plagues the entire experience. Moments that should have emotional resonance such as Bones losing his mind, the Enterprise being destroyed, and Kirk’s son being killed seem more in service to the plot than something that happens to the characters. The main villains, Klingons desperate for the Genesis device, are serviceable but unmemorable. Though Kirk killing leader Kruge at the end is easily the most The Original Series-level acting moment up to this point.

Star Trek III is also the first Star Trek movie that includes sequences that appear to be goofy-for-goofy’s-sake. Stealing the Enterprise by locking a Starfleet officer in a closet and sabotaging another ship is played more for comedy than suspense, and when this is permitted, it follows them throughout the rest of the series.

However, the scenes at the end when the crew is on Vulcan waiting to see how Spock recovered from the Genesis experiment are quite good.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (dir. Leonard Nimoy, 1986)

The Poster for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

© Paramount Pictures

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, aka The One With The Whales, should not work. A super-logical Spock and the rest traveling to 1980s to save humpback whales should not work. Everyone not understanding the 1980s and dealing with wacky mishaps and misunderstandings should not work. (After all, the gang traveled back in time before and managed to remain relatively low-key.)

Yet somehow it does. As hokey as it is, the humor works. Some of the dialogue is actually funny. The characters work well together, and it’s a fun movie throughout. It’s a good-time movie that just wants to be a good-time movie. Yes, it’s based on obvious environmental issues, but it doesn’t become an overbearing message movie.

I read somewhere (I’d give credit if I could remember where) that the fourth season of most television series is when the show hits a weird place and becomes more about spending time with the characters than learning new things about them. This theory easily applies to Star Trek IV. Whether you’ve been with the Enterprise from the television series or from the movies, you’ve been with them long enough to know who they are, and this movie is just about hanging out with them. It has no villains (there are some obstacles (the US government, time, whalers, brain hemorrhages, exact change)), but they are brief and nuisances more than flat-out bad guys. The movie is just about having a light-hearted romp with the crew of the USS Enterprise and doesn’t try to be more than that.

The level of continuity in the II to IV run might be the most remarkable things about the series. The glasses Bones gave to Kirk in II play a plot point in this one. The damage to the Enterprise from the Khan battle is still visible in III. The movies (and even VI to a lesser extent) tell one complete story with the characters changing and growing throughout. Spock is the most obvious one as he learns to regain his humanity from being a blank slate, but Sarek also ends this film begrudgingly accepting that him joining Starfleet was a good idea and praising his son’s human friends for being so loyal.

Keep in mind, these three films were released in 1982, 1984, and 1986, respectively. It was rare for franchises up until maybe the 2000s to bother connecting subsequent installments in any significant way. Villains might return, props might reappear, callbacks might happen, but telling an ongoing story was certainly not common. It’s not like Superman III or Superman IV had anything to do with Superman II.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (dir. William Shatner, 1989)

The theatrical trailer for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Speaking of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, what about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier? The only one I saw recently due to the Mr. Plinkett Audio Commentary [1] (and I will try not to repeat any of his points), V (along with the latter two Reeve adventures) is a perfect example of a “what were they thinking?” movie. Don’t the filmmakers realize that they’re doing this for posterity? This isn’t some crappy community theater workshop that disappears as soon as everyone leaves the stage. This is a multimillion franchise that will be released to the entire world and be put out on videotape forever.

And yes, I know the film had some behind the scenes issues. Budget cuts. Writers’ strike. Teamster strike. Etc. But this is the movie that follows Star Trek IV, easily the most successful movie in the franchise until JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. The one that delighted non-Star Trek fans. To follow that up with this would be like following The Dark Knight with the Adam West-starring Batman: The Movie.

The number of things wrong with this movie are deserving of a tome itself. I won’t be going through every individual mistake or error because that would take way too much time and require me to go through it yet again. I will give the movie credit for trying to feel the most like an old school episode with its cheap sets and a God Like Being as a villain, but it tells a story worse than any Original Series episode, including “Spock’s Brain.”

Struggling to make its running time, it includes all the unimportant stuff that should happen off screen as they travel from place to place. Every piece of strategy lacks logic. The villain (who needs to steal a starship because he found God in the middle of the universe) makes no sense, and they do not explain his mind control powers. Considering how many times the crew has faced God Like Beings before, it would be nice if someone would have mentioned how no God Like Being they’ve encountered ever ended up being God. The acting is terrible. The humor is even worse. Did we need McCoy to have a tragic backstory involving the mercy killing of his father? Was that supposed to connect to his family recipe for beans during the opening camping sequence? When Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are thrown in the Enterprise’s brig, Spock says, “This is a new brig, Captain. It is escape proof.” As opposed to all those other brigs that weren’t? It’s the type of movie that just ends, and you rewind it to see if you nodded off and missed the climax.

There are plenty of other things to nitpick about this movie, and this article is already exceedingly long by this point. While I try not to criticize plot holes or the like, it’s impossible to avoid in a movie that’s nothing but plotholes. I know the budget was small, but couldn’t they have done some “The Menagerie” style wrap-arounds? It would be cheesy, but it could a) be excused as a callback and b) at least explain some things.

And I complained about the movie without once mentioning the Uhura fan-dance.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1986)

The Poster for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

© Paramount Pictures

Now we come to the end of Star Trek classic with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I’m glad this movie was made because it’s a) one of the superior Star Trek films and b) nice that Star Trek V wasn’t the curtain call. Additionally, it covers an area of this universe that the previous five movies didn’t- the Federation of Planets. The plot involves the Klingons trying to make peace with the Federation because their cold war has left them on the verge of destruction, which leads to political intrigue and espionage.

After a dinner between human ambassadors (the Enterprise crew) and Klingon ones, the Klingons are attacked. Their leader, Chancellor Gorkon is killed, and the Enterprise (specifically Kirk) is framed. It’s a typical whodunit story, but done well, even if it has a literal Scooby Doo ending. Although Chang tries too hard to be Khannish (replacing Moby Dick with Shakespeare) and there’s a space battle with a Bird of Prey, it’s nice that they decided to go with a different type of plot for the final movie in the series. Even if the scheme to assassinate the Federation president is similar to the Doctor Who story “The Deadly Assassin” from 15 years prior.

There are good touches to the movie as well. The aliens on the prison planet Kirk and McCoy are sent to have some nice character designs. Michael Dorn cameos as who I presume is Worf’s ancestor, defending McCoy and Kirk against accusations that they willfully murdered Chancellor Gorkon. It’s relatively bloody for a Star Trek film, as animated blood droplets float across the screen after someone is shot in a zero gravity environment. Moreover, it allows Kirk to find closure over the death of his son in III while setting up the more peaceful future that enables Worf to serve on the Enterprise a century or so later.

Sure, Star Trek VI is not the best in the franchise. But it’s still a decent film, easily one of the best “sixths” in any film series, and a nice note to go out on.

That is until…

Star Trek: Generations (dir. David Carson, 1994)

The theatrical trailer for Star Trek: Generations

It was playing for free on Amazon Instant. Why not?

This is my second time ever watching Star Trek: Generations, and my first time since finishing the entire series of Star Trek: The Next Generation over a year-and-a-half span. While it definitely has a cinematic look and feel, it definitely shows why the TNG film franchise never really took off.

Starting with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the TOS series seemed meant for fans. It wasn’t unwelcoming to newcomers, but it had a confidence that viewers would either know the backstory or catch up quickly enough. Whereas The Motion Picture ended up making the characters more complex, Generations dumbs them down. The complexity gained by pretty much the entire main cast during the parent show’s seven-year run is ignored for a relatively mindless space actioner. You can tell there’s a problem from the start when Dr. Crusher tells Data during the ridiculous holodeck boat sequence that he should “live in the moment, be unexpected.” After nearly a decade, she hasn’t learned that this is difficult for an android? Of course she has, because it was a major component of Data’s arc.

While there are many areas where this movie doesn’t work, I will only focus on two: Data and Kirk/Picard. When I first started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, I despised Data. His quest to become a real boy invited incredibly hammy overacting from Brent Spiner…and the sense that humor regressed horribly by the 24th century. However, as the show progressed, he improved greatly, and Data became a more compelling character by being more grounded and severely less annoying. Season 2′s Data-centric “The Measure of a Man” might have been the first episode to show the series’ true potential. But Generations sends him back to that first season goofiness. His over-the-top acting as he deals with his emotion chip is so terrible, unfunny, and douche-chilly that it reminded me why I had an immediate prejudice towards him going into the run. Not only is it unpleasant all around, it makes Data of secondary importance to Picard and places the actual Number One (Riker) in the background.

The Poster for Star Trek: Generations

© Paramount Pictures

But let’s face it, Data (and pretty much anything connected to The Next Generation) is pointless. After all, the hook for the movie is that we’re going to see Picard and Kirk together! Finally! Which I’m going to guess some people were clamoring for, but, most importantly, it sounds like a great marketing gimmick. Bones, Scotty, and Spock all made appearances in The Next Generation, but we never heard a peep about the fate of Captain/Admiral/Captain Kirk. And maybe it’s better we didn’t, because Generations is what happens when we do.

The dialogue between Kirk and Picard sounds like something out of amateur fan fiction. Yes, it’s cool that you can write these two icons talking to one another, but you get a sense that the writers didn’t take a step back from their fanboyish excitement and write things that felt true to the characters. Kirk’s heaven doesn’t connect to what we know about the character beforehand and totally ignores his “I need my pain!” exclamation from V. They spend most of their screentime in the Nexus talking about nothing, and then they ride horses. Kirk dies so pointlessly (and feels so shoehorned into the movie) that it’s hard to imagine that anyone thought that anyone would be satisfied seeing one of television’s most legendary figures reach his ultimate destination being crushed by a bridge and buried under rocks.

And with that, I debated and eventually opted against watching JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. (Though I have seen it a couple of times and actually do enjoy it.) Yes, it has the original Spock connection, but I thought it would be nice to leave Star Trek as it should be. Not a big budget, high-octane extravaganza, but three old guys fighting poorly on the side of a mountain. Stay tuned for my Star Trek Into Darkness review.


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[1] Mr. Plinkett Audio Commentary: http://www.redlettermedia.com