The Franchise Launches
In the 23 years from 1979 to 2002, the Star Trek franchise released ten films. Like clockwork, a Star Trek film hit the theaters every two and a half years or so for over a generation. The series never really hit blockbuster status, with only the fourth of the ten breaking the $100 million mark domestically. There’s the common wisdom that the even-numbered films are good and the odd-numbered films aren’t, which isn’t comforting news for JJ Abrams if he’s superstitious since the reboot is number eleven overall.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
“V’Ger must evolve. Its knowledge has reached the limits of this universe and it must evolve. What it requires of its god, doctor, is the answer to its question, ‘Is there nothing more’?” — Spock
The name is incredible if only because it may be the last incidence of a film’s title ever referring to itself as a motion picture, the previous probably being during the Great Depression. An anachronistic title is not an auspicious start to a film nominally about the future, and it doesn’t get terrifically better in the watching.
Gene Roddenberry had been working for several years on a new “Star Trek” television series (Phase II) that would return most of the original characters and actors to the small screen. Episodes had been written, sets built, test footage shot. And then Star Wars arrived and invented the blockbuster science fiction film. Paramount scrapped the series virtually overnight, and the planned first episode twisted into Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The background explains a lot of what is wrong with the film. They’ve got the core of a good idea, but a lot of nonessential elements floating around that may have added color over the span of a television season, but just distract from the main storyline in a film. It’s got that paradoxical problem of seeming to go on forever without much of anything happening. Incidents happen - the transporter turns someone inside out, a wormhole almost destroys the ship - but none of them are pertinent to the actual plot of the film. They introduce new characters - a bald and chaste nymphomaniac alien, and the dad from “Seventh Heaven” - and give them a great deal of focus instead of the well-established ensemble that anchored the original series. Most of the critical plot points hinge on these new characters, the old ones are there almost just to enable the development of Baldy and Reverend Camden.
It takes an almost interminable amount of time before the Enterprise gets to the cloud-of-death plowing towards Earth, which is the entire point of the story. And it’s particularly disappointing because the second half of the film is actually fairly decent (other than the world’s longest and most excruciatingly boring spacewalk). It raises themes of evolution and the meaning of life. Of all the films, it is closest to the original series’ vision of a philosophical science fiction short, and thus it is doubly frustrating that it fails. But it also fails by being essentially the original series episode “The Changeling” with the motivation tweaked and the ending changed.
So is it worth watching 30 years down the road? Well, the special effects hold up surprisingly well, though the costume design is the horrific epitome of seventies future chic. Seventies sci-fi was all about the jump suits. If the film was cut up a bit, down to forty minutes or so, it would make something fairly interesting to watch on YouTube. But the entire 136 minutes? Sigh. I really hate to come down too hard on a film that really does try to be something deep and philosophical, especially in light of a lot of the later Star Trek films that had such small minded vision and hardly felt like more than extended television episodes in their scope. But the flaws of the film make it difficult to recommend unless you are just watching all of them for completeness sake.
“What it needs in order to evolve is a human quality. Our capacity to leap beyond logic.” —Kirk
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
“Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.” — Kirk
So the big budget special effects extravaganza of Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t exactly a stellar success, but Star Trek as a franchise still seems like it might have a few dollars left to squeeze. So what’s a studio to do? That’s right, greenlight a sequel, but cut the budget by 75 percent, take creative control away from the creator, hire a TV producer in his place, write a script in two weeks, get the host of “Fantasy Island” as the villain, retroactively give Kirk a son, and add some goddamned explosions for good measure. That should have been the end of the franchise right then and there, but somehow The Wrath of Khan managed to end up being a damn good film and launched the loose trilogy of films formed by II, III and IV.
The film begins with the introduction of Kirstie Alley (her first film appearance) commanding a simulation called the Kobayashi Maru, a test required of all command cadets, a test that cannot be won. The importance of the test is gradually revealed over the course of the film and dovetails with the plot: the contradictory need both to face death and to refuse to believe there is any such thing as a no-win situation.
Ricardo Montalban magnificently hams his way through the villain’s role, quoting Moby Dick gleefully even as he pursues his own white whale to destruction.
Despite the low budget, the special effects hold up very well to this day. The battles between the two ships have a tension to them, a gravity, enhanced by the film’s clever decision to establish that the Enterprise was on a training mission with an entire crew of half-trained cadets. They’re terrified, undisciplined, make mistakes, die by the dozens in fire and vacuum. Survival becomes dependant on the intelligence and tactics of their commanders. Strategy makes sense throughout the film, emphasizing guile and logic in the place of technobabble.
The duality of life and death runs through all elements of the film: the polar opposites of the scientists and the fleet officers, Spock dying so that everyone else may live. And running through all of it the Genesis device: creation through destruction.
Even at an almost three decade remove, this film still works, primarily because while nominally having a bunch of space battles, it gets that it isn’t actually about space battles any more than Moby Dick was about whalers.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” — Spock
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
“The needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many.” — Kirk
Star Trek III picks up where Star Trek II left off and establishes its own theme: sacrifice. The crew realizes that before his death Spock transferred what amounted to his soul into McCoy’s body so that it could be taken back to his home planet. With his body left behind on the Genesis planet, buried at space so to speak, it isn’t possible to lay him properly to rest. Banned from retrieving the body and McCoy quickly deteriorating into insanity with two minds inside his head, the crew decides to steal the decommissioned Enterprise.
As with Wrath of Khan’s focus on the duality of life and death, Search for Spock hammers home the nature of sacrifice. For love of their friend, the crew sacrifices their careers to see him buried properly. David sacrifices his life for Saavik and Spock. Kirk sacrifices the Enterprise to buy them all a chance at survival. Spock’s sacrifice of his life is brought full circle through the miracle of his resurrection. It is only through sacrifice that we are redeemed.
It is a dark theme to be sure, but the first half of the film in particular is lightened with gallows humor. It’s a miniature heist flick of sorts.
The main complaint is in the villains. No matter how entertaining it is to see Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon, the reality is that he and his crew exist primarily as MacGuffins. They are not particularly salient to the plot, they exist merely to generate obstacles for the protagonists to overcome. If they weren’t there, the plot would be more or less the same, but less people would die and the film would be half as long. It’s a bit frustrating since otherwise the film is well done, and especially in light of how wonderful a villain Khan made in the previous film. One cannot help but wonder how much better this film would have been had Khan also been regenerated by the Genesis device, and his fate somehow linked to that of Spock.
The final question as always: is it worth seeing? Well, Star Trek IV makes a lot less sense without having seen this middle feature of the pseudo-trilogy, so it’s got that going for it, but that’s sort of a cop out of a conclusion. It tends to get bad press because it’s odd-numbered and falls right between two of the strongest Star Trek films. Really, this is a pretty good film that for the most part ties up the story begun in Wrath of Khan, and despite its flaws is still a perfectly entertaining film that explores deeper themes.
“My God, Bones… what have I done?” — Kirk
“What you had to do. What you always do: turn death into a fighting chance to live.” —McCoy
So, we’ve got three films here, time to check the scorecard:
Star Trek I: Probably not worth seeing.
Star Trek II: Definitely worth seeing.
Star Trek III: Underappreciated but still holds up fairly well.
“I have been and always shall be your friend.” — Spock
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.