In preparation for STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, I have spent much of the past week re-watching the original series of STAR TREK films, as well as the J.J. Abrams reboot. This week in the Journal, I share my reflections on the adventures of the original Enterprise crew, then jumping ahead to 2009 when Abrams gave his own, unique take on the material.
It should be noted that I have never been what you would call a Trekker. I am however a fan of the original series, as well as most of the original films. I have found most of my entertainment regarding these characters in the novels that continue to be published to this day. I mention this to give a background of where I’m coming from on this. There are bound to be a number of different types of fans reading this – from people who have never seen the older shows to people who know them all by heart.
SCOTT’S FILM GEEK JOURNAL: ENTRY 39
STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) – An alien cloud appears in space, destroying three Klingon cruisers and one Federation space station. No one knows anything about it, except that it has enormous destructive power and is headed right to Earth. For this reason, the newly-refitted Enterprise is launched ahead of schedule to meet and investigate the menace, taking any actions deemed necessary. Kirk has been bound to a desk for the past few years, having foolishly accepted a promotion to Admiral. He uses the calamity to oust the Enterprise’s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins) and assume command. The reunion with many of his old crew, including eventually an even more emotionally distant Spock, is tempered with uncertainty. Did Kirk act purely in the interest of the mission? Will he still have the same spark he did years ago? And most importantly, will any of them be able to unravel the mystery of the Intruder before it reaches Earth?
I have a long history with STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. It was the first film I ever saw in the movie theatre (my mother still insists my first film was PINOCCHIO, but we’ll assume I’m right for now). I fell asleep, as I did for most of the first few films I went to see. Unfortunately, STAR TREK: TMP still put me to sleep for many years afterwards. The film was a legendarily chaotic development. The finished film was rushed to theatres before it was even finished to director Robert Wise’s specifications. This led to some ridiculous moments, such as Spock shielding his eyes from a sun that isn’t there. It also caused some major pacing problems, something which was not aided when early TV and VHS prints added even more footage to the running time. The film had remarkable special effects and the film took a languorous approach to show you each and every one ad nausea so that eventually one became numb and then finally bored with what they were seeing.
Thankfully, in the mid-1990s, Robert Wise was able to complete his “Director’s Edition.” Unlike other Special Editions, this didn’t contain much in the way of fancy effects (save for one or two effects achieved digitally because the original elements were lost). Instead, he only presented what he had always intended the finished film to look like in 1979. The finished film is still far from perfect. Spots drag, the entire wormhole sequence is clumsy and there is a lack of humor that plagues the production. Nevertheless, we can finally see a quality film underneath, previously hidden by all the extra baggage of the theatrical version. There is some real depth and intriguing story elements to this film. Beautiful images combine with characters that it’s good to see again. It’s never going to be a great film, but at least it’s finally a good one. 1979 Theatrical Edition: ★1/2 (out of ★★★★). Director’s Edition: ★★★ (out of ★★★★).
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) – Now, this is a great film! A little background: In the STAR TREK episode “Space Seed,” the Enterprise thawed the cryogenically frozen body of Khan (Ricardo Montalban), a mid-20th century conqueror, the product of genetic engineering who committed acts of genocide and enslaved portions of the planet during what was known as the Eugenics War. Rather than kill Khan, the Enterprise marooned him Ceti Alpha V, giving him the chance to form his own society, without any danger of reaching outside worlds.
As STAR TREK II begins, the starship Reliant is surveying planets for the top secret Genesis Project. They accidentally stumble upon Ceti Alpha V and Khan’s group overtakes them. Losing contact with the Genesis scientists, Kirk disembarks with the Enterprise and a crew of young recruits to investigate, not knowing that Khan is using his newly-gained starship to swear revenge on Khan and take control of the Genesis device.
Not only is this the best film in the STAR TREK series, it is perhaps my favorite sequel of all time. It is an unprecedented improvement over STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. At this point, Gene Roddenberry was given a consultant position and Harve Bennett took over overseeing the franchise. While this may seem blasphemous to some at first, it was one of the best things that could have happened. The series was refocused and regained some of that spirit present in the original series. What makes the film such a success isn’t simply that it is a thrilling adventure. It is, much in the same way of old nautical literature like the Horatio Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin novels.
No, what makes this work is the keen insight into the characters. Kirk must face the idea of getting old, as he comes face to face with ghosts from his past in the guise of an old nemesis and a life that could have been. The relationship between Kirk and Spock is at its most poignant here and leads to some well-known shocking moments. I feel no embarrassment in saying that STAR TREK II makes me tear up virtually every time I watch it.
This is not just a great sequel, it is the great sequel. It’s a great motion picture and one people should continue to gain inspiration from. ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984) – The Enterprise returns from their mission, mourning the loss of Spock. They also discover that the events surrounding the Genesis project have caused an uproar in the Federation and they are forbidden from visiting the planet or even mentioning it in conversation. Only the Federation ship Grissom, with Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis) and Dr. David Marcus supervising, is allowed to study the planet. Saavik and David discover lifeform readings from the planet, which is not behaving as suspected, a side-effect of some questionable meddling on David’s part. They begin investigating the planet, only to discover a newborn Spock has been reconstituted due to the Genesis effect. Unfortunately, there is a Klingon warship overhead that wants to take control of Genesis and will kill thousands to get it.
Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise is led to drastic measures when McCoy starts behaving erratically, suffering from the effects of a Vulcan mindmeld. The crew must steal the Enterprise in order to retrieve Spock (who they don’t realize is alive) and meld the Vulcan’s body with the remnants of Spock’s mind, trapped within McCoy’s psyche.
Oh, what could have been. In truth, STAR TREK III is still a perfectly good film, but it is plagued by some major flaws. The Genesis planet never feels like anything more than a set. The Klingon commander Krug (Christopher Lloyd), as written here, is too much of a buffoon, betraying the races ideas of honor in favor of full psychosis. Much of the most intriguing points of the story – the failure of the genesis planet, the problems plaguing McCoy, the ethics of scientific research and the ways Spock’s biology is tied to the planet’s – are given short shrift in favor of keeping things moving. And frankly, Robin Curtis is not able to fill in for Kirstie Ally as Saavik.
Still, Leonard Nimoy does an admiral job, stepping into the director’s chair. The film is always entertaining and never dull. Since the film manages to have a fast pace (perhaps too fast), and contains intriguing elements, it winds up being a mixed but mostly successful batch. ★★1/2 (out of ★★★★)
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) – An alien probe is approaching the Earth, broadcasting a strange signal and unknowingly wreaking havoc on the atmosphere and power grids. The crew of the late great Enterprise is on route to Earth to answer for crimes they committed in the previous film. Learning of the calamity about to hit the Earth, they figure out that the probe is communicating in the songs of humpback whales, which have been extinct for over two hundred years. The crew travels back in time to 1986 in order to retrieve two humpback whales and fix their injured spacecraft so they can get back to their time and save the Earth.
This was a big deal back in ’86. The STAR TREK crew briefly veered right into comedic territory, which proved to many that they were in on the jokes people had been making for the past twenty years. And then, when it was all over, they got right back down to business. After all, the humorous bits of the film take up no more than half the running time. The beginning and ending portions of the film were dead serious and the fish-out-of-water bits danced right up to the edge of self-parody without ever crossing the line.
The film has not aged very well. Even though the time travel element should make it immune to such judgments, the film does feel like a product of the 1980s. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is an innocence and altruism that fits well with the STAR TREK mythos. This is an entertaining, humorous film that just hits a few stumbling blocks along the way. It also contains a great ecological message which would suit Mr. Roddenberry just fine. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Number of films covered in the Journal so far: 185
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