If you’ve only just discovered Craggus’ Trek Trek or missed a few, to save you having to scroll through and search for the relevant posts, I’ve collected them here in one handy compendium. So here you are: twelve Treks, no waiting!
STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE
I guess I would consider myself a lapsed Trekkie (I was never that bothered about the difference between Trekkie and Trekker), losing my faith somewhere between the last couple of seasons of “Star Trek: Voyager” and the launch of “Enterprise”. I loved, and still love, the original series and I was really into “Star Trek: The Next Generation” when it was on, although I think it’s aged worse than the other shows. I really enjoyed “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”, especially once it got into its long-form storytelling stride, but “Voyager” was always a bit meh, and I gave up on “Enterprise” before it finished its first season. Saying that, I’ll occasionally stop and watch them if I’m flicking channels and find them on but the movies…ah, the movies are something special, so I’m embarking on Craggus’ Trek Trek.
Over the course of the next six weeks, I’ll be taking a look at each of the twelve Star Trek feature films. It’s probably going to get a little [a lot] geeky, there’ll be some pedantry and nit-picking but also some defending of the indefensible and ranting at the intolerable. So without further ado, let’s get underway. Ahead: warp factor one!
We start our voyage with 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, commonly and slightly unfairly known as ‘The Motionless Picture’. It’s only slightly unfair, because however you look at it, pace is not its dominant attribute.
When a vast alien energy cloud of unprecedented size and power blows straight through Klingon space on a direct heading for Earth, the newly refitted USS Enterprise is the only starship in intercept range. What awaits them is V’ger, a vast living machine seeking to meet its creator.
Promoted to feature status after the success of 20th Century Fox’s “Star Wars”, “Star Trek” had been on course to return to TV screens in a planned ‘Phase II’ series and watching it today, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is, without a doubt, the most Rodenberry-esque of the Trek feature films. Although the commercial success of Lucas’ space fantasy juggernaut was the driving force behind Paramount’s decision to launch a big-screen “Star Trek” franchise, Rodenberry was keen to distance it from the more fanciful saga and took it far closer in tone to that first ill-fated pilot episode “The Cage”, restoring his original vision.
While superficially similar to the original series episode “The Changeling”, what “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” lacks in pace, it makes up for in scale and spectacle. Its flaws notwithstanding, it is a textbook example of what needs to be done to transition a TV series to the big screen. Everything is bigger, better and more spectacular than on TV. Visually, the film is a sumptuous feast for the eyes: the Enterprise looks fantastic with its new facelift, the special effects, thanks to a decade’s worth of technological development, are strange new worlds away from the TV series, even the Klingons get new ships and the now famous Cornish pasty facelift and the music…oh, man – the music! Jerry Goldsmith delivers an almost ludicrously glorious score for The Motion Picture, soaring themes and musical motifs which lift and propel the picture through the many patches where the script and story sag.
Under the watchful guidance of Producer Gene Rodenberry, celebrated veteran director Robert Wise brought an epic feel to the whole film and certainly didn’t hold back in any sense story-wise. The version I watched was the original cut, which lists V’ger’s cloud at almost 82AUs in diameter which is nearly twice the size of our Solar System (Wise did correct this in the generally superior 2001 Director’s Cut, reducing it to a more reasonable 2 AU).
Not every update works as well as the ship redesigns. The uniforms are a complete mess and look awkward and uncomfortable. With the exception of Kirk’s super sharp grey and white Admiralty uniform, the rest is a sea of bland 1970’s beiges and greys, with no seeming rhyme or reason as to who wears what kind of uniform at what point. Likewise, the script – reputedly being rewritten and tweaked on an almost daily basis whilst shooting – is repetitive and littered with redundant scenes. A great drinking game (if you’ve got nothing to do for the rest of the day) is to take a shot every time somebody announces that they think there may be an object at the centre of the cloud. Seriously, this happens at least four or five times in the first half-hour of the movie alone, and each time the crew react as if it is an astonishing revelation. Although this film gives us our first real glimpses of Starfleet Headquarters and 23rd Century Earth it also asks us to simply accept the fact that Starfleet is so complacent about its own security that the planet, and indeed the surrounding regions of space, are so devoid of any Starfleet presence that only the Enterprise, still undergoing a major structural renovation project, is able to intercept V’ger. Really? What if the Klingons had attacked? Or the Romulans? With the apparent ludicrously lackadaisical deployment patterns, the Tribbles could probably have mounted a successful invasion of Earth prior to V’ger’s arrival.
The exotic and mysterious special effects (supervised by both Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra) are amazing on screen but in the original cut of the film, it’s almost impossible to get a sense of what V’ger’s spacecraft actually looks like. In the effort to make everything awe-inspiring and mysterious, the film sacrifices visual clarity and, again, it’s only in the 2001 Director’s Cut that a new sequence actually gives us a decent look at V’ger the vessel. The epic scope also comes at the expense of the human elements, which had always been a strength of the original Star Trek. Possibly due to Wise’s unfamiliarity with the cast and Rodenberry trying to force them back into the archetypes he had originally envisioned, the characterisation is a bit off and with the exception of Kirk and Spock, there’s very little for the extended returning cast to do, with the remaining action given over to the two guest stars.
Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley deliver decent, if unremarkable, performances but the script gives them very little to actually work with, being mostly filled with exposition and technobabble. Stephen Collins is likewise solid as Commander Decker but the character feels superfluous and tacked on to provide some sporadic conflict within the script until he’s needed to spare any of the regular characters from making the required sacrifice during the finale. Persis Khambatta does impress, however, as the exotic and enigmatic Deltan Ilia, and even more so once she is absorbed and returned to the Enterprise as V’ger’s emissary and probe. While it’s fun to see Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig and George Takei back on screen as Uhura, Chekov and Sulu, they’re pretty much just fun cameo nods to the original series, with only James Doohan’s Scotty getting anything remotely relevant to do. FUN FACT: In early drafts of the script, Chekov was going to be killed off by his exploding console instead of just getting his arm burned. For all his surliness about Star Trek since, I suspect Koenig is secretly grateful that didn’t come to pass.
There’s a lot in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” that serves as a direct blueprint for “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, which Rodenberry would turn his energy after being effectively frozen out of the feature films. Elements borrowed directly from Phase II, such as Decker and Ilia would become Riker and Troi, however the Ilia probe has a very similar arc to that of Data and the very idea of a more experienced, veteran captain supported by a younger, dashing first officer would become a mainstay of TNG.
A bold and extravagant production, (one of the most expensive ever at the time), “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is equal parts triumph and folly. As a “Star Trek” film, it’s intelligent, thought-provoking and spectacular to look at, but it’s let down by a clunky, talkative script which fails to capture the magical chemistry which made the original TV series so great.
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN
While I’ve seen “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” more times than I would probably have chosen to, thanks to it being one of the few sci-fi titles available when VHS rental was starting to be a thing, any opportunity to watch “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” is always a delight.
When Admiral Kirk’s old nemesis Khan manages to escape exile, he sets his sights on conquering the galaxy, but not before he’s taken his revenge on the ship and crew who defeated him years before.
Following the commercial success of the first “Star Trek” movie, Paramount were keen to press ahead with a sequel, with some caveats: it had to be cheaper to make than the first motion picture and it also had to be more action-oriented. With Rodenberry unceremoniously ‘promoted’ out of harm’s way to the role of Executive Consultant, it was down to incoming producer Harve Bennett to deliver on the studios wishes. Not being familiar with the series, the first thing he did was sit down and watch all 79 episodes of the original series. Smart move. The next thing he did, though, was a stroke of genius which changed the Star Trek movies forever: he hired Nicholas Meyer.
As they were nearing the production deadline, Bennett and his writers were knocking around a bunch of ideas for a potential sequel but none of them were hitting the spot. Meyer was brought in to help wrangle the story and suggested the unusual approach of making a list of everything everyone liked: it could be a character, a scene, a line of dialogue to see what emerged. A mere twelve days later, what emerged was a script so perfectly balanced; it set a benchmark for Star Trek movies that’s yet to be bested.
It goes without saying that “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” joins the rarefied pantheon of sequels which are better than the original, an achievement all the more impressive when you understand the genesis (zing!) of the movie. Taking its cue directly from the problems plaguing “The Motion Picture”, “Star Trek II” is steeped in character and rich with themes and motifs that relate directly to the human element. The liberal use of literary quotes and paraphrasing, particularly of Melville and Dickens, in the dialogue gives the whole film a classy intelligence without once coming off as elitist or snobby. The production design is far better too, with the mishmash of beige jumpsuit uniforms replaced by the iconic burgundy double breasted asymmetric jacket and turtleneck which came to define this era of Trek. Meyer also schools his more illustrious predecessor in clever lighting of the existing sets, not only vastly improving the look of the Enterprise interiors but also ensuring that the bridge of the USS Reliant looks sufficiently different despite using the exact same sets.
There’s a thrifty vein of recycling throughout the production as footage is reused from “The Motion Picture”, especially in the early scenes but even here, Meyer can’t resist making a few subtle jibes at the glacial pacing of Trek’s first cinematic outing. By reusing some Enterprise shots, Meyer is able to use his special effects budget to deliver the tense skirmishes between the two starships and, of course, the ground-breaking CGI of the Genesis device demonstration film. Lacking today’s flashy modern technology, Meyer reimagines starship combat as space bound naval warfare and although by today’s standards relatively few shots are actually fired, each blast has weight and consequence and both ships take a battering. More than the X-wing dogfighting of “Star Wars”, it was the brutal, attritional strike and counter-strike of “The Wrath Of Khan” that indelibly defined space combat for my younger self and it remains one of my favourite battle scenes to this day.
Of course, one of TWOK’s most famous elements is the grand, sacrificial finale which sees the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. In today’s spoiler-saturated internet age, it’s hard to believe the film would have managed to pack such a surprise emotional punch at the end, but again Meyer deserves the plaudits here due to his audacious toying with the audience. Aware that rumours of the death of Spock had indeed leaked during the development of the film, Meyer created a lasting piece of Star Trek lore: the Kobayashi Maru test. The unwinnable scenario sees Spock apparently die on screen within ten minutes of the film’s opening, only to turn out to be a massive fake-out. With audiences’ expectations subverted, the rest of the story is free to unfold with its sucker punch ending safely teed up.
The script is undeniably sensational, the dialogue razor-sharp and the cast are clearly relishing it. The film is chock full of quotable phrases and memorable moments, such as the now legendary ear-invading Ceti Eels. The chemistry between the Enterprise bridge crew, so noticeably absent in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is back in full effect, and the introduction of new character Saavik (Kirstie Alley) is far less intrusive than Decker or Ilia were. There’s more to do this time out for the crew, especially Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan and Koenig although once again Nichelle Nichols is short changed but the whole film is dominated by the two central figures at the heart of the conflict: Kirk and Khan. Both William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban (reprising the role of Khan) are magnificent, creating and developing a combustive on-screen chemistry, all the more impressive given they don’t physically share any scenes at all. Shatner’s performance as Kirk during Spock’s funeral is some of his very best work and shows just how good an actor he can be given the right material. Meyer also opts to embrace the reality of the aging cast, weaving it into and throughout the story and giving the characters quieter moments to reflect on life, death, past decisions and regrets. There’s poetry to the whole structure of the script which has rarely if ever been bettered, inside or outside the world of Star Trek. Literally every moment enriches the story or sets up a necessary and satisfying pay off.
“Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan” also marked the first major film score by then young composer James Horner, who lends the whole affair a nautical, swashbuckling air, thick with character themes and motifs. It fits the film well and, of course, brings back the famous fanfare which preceded the TV series. Horner would not only go on to score the next “Star Trek” film but would bring a very similar sense of militaristic bombast to James Cameron’s “Aliens” four years later.
A virtually unalloyed triumph, “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” takes a whole host of ideas and even some genre clichés which should bog it down but don’t (long lost son?) and blends them seamlessly into a thrilling, tense game of interstellar cat and mouse. It kicks off Trek’s biggest trilogy as the repercussions of the Genesis device carry over into the next film and delivers one of sci-fi’s most heart-breaking moments. It is cinematic “Star Trek” at its very finest but also ended up being a curse as we’ll see in later chapters of Craggus’ Trek Trek where successive movies try with varying degrees of desperation to recapture the “Wrath Of Khan” lightning in a bottle.
STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK
June this year will mark the 30th Anniversary of the release of “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock”, but is it a landmark worth celebrating? It was always going to be a tricky prospect, creating a follow up to the critically and commercially successful “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan”. After all, when you’ve hit your peak, reached the pinnacle, where else is there to go? Judging by sequels these days, the tendency would be to up the ante, go bigger, go darker and try to outdo the previous film in every conceivable way but returning producer and debut director (and literally returning star) Leonard Nimoy decided to go in a different direction…
Following the devastating Battle of the Mutara Nebula and the detonation of the Genesis device, the USS Enterprise limps home to Earth only to learn that the crew is to be broken up, the ship decommissioned and nobody is allowed to return to the Genesis planet. But when Kirk discovers that Spock shared his consciousness with Doctor McCoy before he died, he vows to return Spock’s body to Vulcan by any means necessary. Meanwhile, a rogue Kilngon Commander seeks to control Genesis for himself and only Kirk’s son and Lieutenant Saavik stand in his way.
It’s an inescapable fact that “Star Trek III” feels smaller than its predecessor, and the death of Spock – freshly replayed in a ‘previously on Star Trek’ montage – overshadows the early part of the film. It’s a brave decision, and certainly a rarity in 1980’s genre films for significant events in a previous film to be acknowledged let alone have consequences which spill over so markedly into the following tale. On the one hand, it does make “The Search For Spock” feel like a seamless continuation of “The Wrath Of Khan” but the downside is it makes it very difficult for the film to establish a dinstinct identity of its own. As a result, despite some excellent set pieces and a couple of key moments I’ll touch on later, it’s an introspective film which ends up feeling like a ‘seat filler’ between the operatic gradeur of “Star Trek II” and the high-spirited jolliness of “Star Trek IV”. On the rare occasions “The Empire Strikes Back”, the patron saint of superior sequels, receives criticism it’s generally because it’s perceived to defy the orthodox story structure of a beginning, a middle and an end by having a middle, a middle and a middle. That’s doubly true of “The Search For Spock”, a story which exists almost solely to pick up plot threads and move them along without resolving anything except undoing the crowning glory of “The Wrath of Khan”. Certainly that’s how Nicholas Meyer felt, as he declined the offer to write and direct it because disagreed with the decision to resurrect Spock.
The early scenes on the bruised Enterprise are heavy with melancholy as the crew come to terms with their losses and we get the first sense of what Spock’s mindmeld with Doctor McCoy actually did. The patched up and scarred starship looks great and there’s a lovely moment as Lieutenant Rand (Grace Lee Whitney popping up for her Stan Lee-style cameo) reacts to the state of the ship as it arrives in Spacedock. Yes, Spacedock. After two near-disasters where the Enterprise was apparently the only ship available to intervene, the gold-pressed latinum has finally dropped for Starfleet and they’ve not only built a shiny new Spacedock in orbit of Earth but have actually made sure there’s more than one starship in the neighbourhood, notably the cutting edge new USS Excelsior. This is the first film where we really start to get a feel for the size and scale of Starfleet with a variety of ships and missions as the earnest but authorotative Admiral Morrow (Robert Hooks) explains to Kirk why he cannot return to Genesis. Meanwhile, on Genesis, we get to see another starship: the USS Grissom, commanded by Captain Esteban (Phillip R. Allen). Unfortunately for Captain Esteban and the Grissom, they’re quickly destroyed by Klingon Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) and his crew who are intent on acquire the secret of Genesis, leaving David, Saavik and a ‘mysterious’ young Vulcan boy trapped on the planet’s surface.
Thanks to its small scale, the film has an intimate feel to it and allows the regulars more time in the spotlight. There are no major new characters introduced in this installment so there’s room for the existing cast to breathe. The scenes of them making various attempts to get back to Genesis are amusing and well played, with DeForest Kelley particularly good in his dual role as McCoy and Spock. We also get an all-too-rare glimpse of our heroes’ fashion sense as most of the crew spend the movie in their civvies although I’m betting the 23rd Century version of Joan Rivers had some pointed things to say about Chekov’s salmon pink Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit.
Although it takes its time, the whole film really kicks into gear once Kirk and his crew steal the Enterprise. It’s a lovely little sequence that plays out a little bit like “Star Trek” does “Ocean’s 11” and Uhura finally gets more to do than act as a switchboard, dealing with an eager young Starfleet officer ‘Mr Adventure (Scott McGinnis). The automated Enterprise is a clever conceit to repeat the traditional Trek McGuffin of having the power of the ship limited or compromised somehow while still making it different enough to be credible. The special effects work on the shots of the Enterprise swooping around the Spacedock pursued by the Excelsior are gorgeously rendered, proving again that models have the edge over totally CGI creations.
Of course, despite its modest ambitions and small scale, “The Search For Spock” still has two iconic and shocking moments up its sleeve. With brutal efficiency, it does what “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull” should have done and swiftly does away with its hero’s son, delivering yet another emotional gut punch to Kirk and providing important motivation for the character to get through the events still to come. It’s interesting to note, though, how easily Kirk shrugs off the death of his son. Spock’s death took a whole movie to deal with and still gets reference in “Star Trek IV” and beyond whereas David’s death gets mentioned once more and then is never referred to again. But the real gem of “Star Trek III” – its money shot – is the self-destruct sequence which finally brings the venerable starship Enterprise to its end. Not only is the actual setting of the self-destruct mechanism a lovely call-back to the original series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” but the effects are great. There’s a real emotional heft to seeing the beloved ship crumble, shatter and then plummet into the atmosphere, ending its days in a fiery trail across the sky.
The cast play this moment particularly well and again, Shatner is at the top of his game when it matters most: the death of David and the destruction of the Enterprise. We do get a new Saavik after Kirstie Alley also declined to reprise the role when her demand for a higher salary than DeForest Kelley was rejected. Fortunately, Robin Curtis takes on the role and absolutely nails the character of Saavik in a way Alley didn’t. Also boosting the Vulcan contingent are Mark Lenard, reprising his role as Sarek, Spock’s father, from the original series for the first time and theatrical grandee Dame Judith Anderson as the Vulcan High Priestess. James Sikking brings a wonderfully pompous swagger to Excelsior commander Captain Styles and if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see that his first officer is none other than futue-OCP sleazeball executive Miguel Ferrer. Character actor Alan Miller injects a healthy dose of humour as a colourful alien smuggler with a Yoda-esque approach to syntax offering his services to McCoy. Christopher Lloyd’s turn as Kruge is a little pantomimey though, undercutting any sense of menace and the Klingons in this film come across as simply not fearsome or threatening enough to feel like a credible threat to Kirk, especially after Ricardo Montalban’s towering performance as Khan. If he’d skewed closer to his portrayal of Judge Doom in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” he might have become a more memorable foe but as it stands, he’s a bit bland. Fun Fact: Kruge’s sidekick Maltz is played by John Larroquette, who would return to bicker and joust with William Shatner in the great TV series “Boston Legal”.
James Horner’s score is a continuation of his work on “The Wrath Of Khan” and he brings in new themes to complement those carried over from the previous film. Again, the grand Star Trek tradition of reusing and recycling is apparent again, from the footage from previous films at the start of the movie to the bulk of the costumes and sets being redressed again and again but it still feels shiny and new.
Again, the film ends on a cliff-hanger but one sweetened by a touching scene of reconnection between the revivifiedSpock and his friends. It leaves our heroes on Vulcan, effectively on the run from Starfleet and in a stolen Klingon Bird of Prey. When I first saw this movie, I was convinced that the next film would see Kirk in command of the Excelsior, but that wasn’t the way the trilogy would round out. It’s a decent entry in the franchise but it doesn’t carry any real weight due to a lack of any dramatic tension and the inevitability of its resurrectionary ending. Without the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of Kirk’s son, it would be very ordinary indeed.
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME
Spock is dead (although he got better). Kirk’s son is dead. The Enterprise has been destroyed. So far, the “Star Trek” films had been heavy with drama and conflict. It was time for a change of pace to round out the ‘Genesis Trilogy’. It was time to return to the “Star Trek” of ideas and challenges.
Returning from Vulcan to face the consequences of their actions in rescuing Spock, the former crew of the Enterprise, now in a commandeered and renamed Klingon Bird Of Prey HMS Bounty, head to Earth. Meanwhile, a vast alien probe is also heading for Earth, repeatedly signalling the planet and disabling all starships and outposts it encounters. When Kirk and his crew receive a planetary distress call, they discover the probe is attempting to communicate with humpback whales in Earth’s oceans – only humpback whales have been extinct for over 200 years. Kirk decides their only option is to go back in time and bring two humpback whales into the future.
Once again, we’re in the hands of Nicholas Meyer, who shares the scriptwriting duties with producer Harve Bennett while second time director LEaonard Nimoy handles the task with more confidence and comfort than the previous chapter. The result is a warm and witty adventure with a subtle moral and a fitting resolution to the story arcs started in “The Wrath Of Khan” and “The Search For Spock”.
The script is superb, and the cast have a great time with the ‘fish out of water’ comedy. By cleverly layering the challenges the crew have to solve to accomplish their aims, the script splits them up into teams and giving every character plenty to do. With the additional screen time, the supporting cast shine. Whether it’s Scotty, Sulu and McCoy retrofitting the Klingon ship to accommodate the whales or Uhura and Chekov’s attempts to gather radiation particles from nuclear-powered navy vessels, the plot is moved along at a jolly pace, the humour natural and easy. One of the main aims was to tell a story where there was no specific villain, although those who have seen “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” will know that technically, there is at least one villain seen in “The Voyage Home”. The lighter tone and gentle nature of the story are a little bit of a jarring gear-change after its predecessors and the tone of the film does undercut what’s at stake a little. After all, as Kirk points out, the threat could mean ‘the end of every life on Earth’ but the film still manages to succeed in keeping the drama in play and the ending is satisfyingly dramatic. At the film’s heart is a strong environmental message but its careful not to ram it down the viewers’ throats, preferring to let the story and its resolution point out the short-sightedness of our actions here in the present day.
Production-wise, the film looks great thanks to the extensive location shooting in and around the city of San Francisco and the effects work is solid, especially in relation to the model shots of the whales. The cast are by this point so comfortable in their roles that they can send themselves up without undermining the characters; although unusually James Doohan’s usually reliable Scottish accent takes a brief sojourn to Ireland for a few scenes.
There are some nice scenes at Starfleet Headquarters showing the president and this time the ‘previously on Star Trek’ recap is cleverly woven into the story itself as the Klingon Ambassador presses his case against Kirk. As the Probe’s effects worsen and the crisis deepens, there are nice cameos from Majel Barrett and Grace Lee Whitney in the control room and a slick cliff-hanger involving a storm-shattered window which bookends Kirk’s transmission and his return to his own time. Of course, given one of the major plots in the film, it does beg the question of why Scotty can provide a formula for transparent aluminium which has the equivalent strength of six inch thick Plexiglas but Starfleet Headquarters has windows which can’t stand up to a little wind and rain.
Time travel stories are always fraught with the potential for plot holes however time-travel wise “Star Trek IV” holds together pretty well. It’s actually in a couple of other areas it strains credibility. At the very start of the film, Kirk records a Captain’s Log confirming they have been on Vulcan for three months or so yet just as they’re about to leave, Saavik says she hasn’t had time to speak with Kirk about his son’s death. The implication is, I suppose, that Kirk has been avoiding her but seriously, what else has Kirk been doing for three months that kept him too busy for Saavik to say two sentences? Not clothes shopping, that’s for sure. Most of them are still wearing the exact same outfits they were in at the end of “Star Trek III” except for Chekov who has sensibly disposed of his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit in favour of a less conspicuous leather jacket/ turtleneck combo.
As well as restoring the crew to the bridge of a starship, the final act of the trilogy covering Spock’s death and resurrection sees him at his most Sheldon-esque as he struggles with the computer’s question of ‘How Do You Feel?’ and is constantly startled by the culture and contradictions of 20th Century Earth. Oddly, this is the sweariest of all the Trek films, thanks to its peppering of ‘colourful metaphors’ but the most surprising line is one where a naval interrogator uses the word ‘retard’ pejoratively to describe Chekov’s potential mental disability. It’s a small thing, but a big indicator of how the world has moved on in the 28 years since the film was made. I don’t condone any form of censorship or attempts to ban words but I doubt you’d hear the term in a mainstream family movie these days without there being a bit of a fuss.
One of the few problems this film has is its score. The music is terrible – more suited to a regency wedding farce than a sci-fi adventure. I get they were trying for a lighter tone, and the composer (Leonard Rosenman) was a friend of Leonard Nimoy’s but it’s hands down the worst score of all the Star Trek movies by a long way.
By the end of this film, everything has finally been restored to its proper place. Kirk has been demoted to Captain and given command of a starship. You’re teased that it’s going to be the Excelsior and then it’s revealed to be a new Enterprise, with the registration number NCC1701-A, a lettering convention which opens the door to future models of the Enterprise, most notably the Enterprise-D which would make its syndicated TV debut less than a year after “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” premiered. The film ends on an open-ended note as our heroes warp off to new adventures, bringing this happy, crowd-pleasing adventure to a close. One of the most accessible and popular Star Trek adventures ever, “The Voyage Home” was a refreshing departure from previous films and possibly the only Star Trek film to break out beyond its usual audience, as reflected in its box office receipts.
STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER
When it first came out, I went to see “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” five times in the cinema. Five. It wasn’t because I loved it so much, it was because it niggled at me. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I should and I was convinced I’d missed something. After the breezy good humour and box office success of “Star Trek IV”, “The Final Frontier” landed at the box office with a decidedly leaden thud – despite my individual heroic efforts to boost its grosses.
It’s only been in recent years that I’ve begun to re-evaluate the movie and learned a lot more about its troubled production. And ultimately, I’ve come to really enjoy it. Oh, it’s no masterpiece and it has a few glaring flaws, but most have a reasonable explanation and, more importantly, there’s a lot of Star Trek goodness that gets unfairly overlooked due to its undeserved reputation.
When a renegade Vulcan takes the Klingon, Romulan and Federation Ambassadors hostage, the Enterprise is sent to rescue them despite its undergoing significant repairs. When they arrive at the planet, they discover the hostage situation is a ruse designed to lure them there. The renegade Vulcan has other plans: to find the fabled lost planet of ShaKaRee and meet with God himself. Unfortunately, an ambitious and reckless young Klingon captain has responded to the hostage crisis – and he sees an opportunity to test himself against the legendary Starfleet officer. A prisoner aboard his own hijacked ship, Captain Kirk must find a way to outwit his captor and save the ship from the Klingons.
This is the only “Star Trek” film to date to have a cold open, and it’s impressively shot. There’s a mythic quality to the gradual reveal of Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) riding out of the dust storm. We first encounter our heroes during shore leave on Earth, in scenes involving mountain climbing, camping and campfire sing-alongs. Frequently derided as being too light-hearted and silly for a “Star Trek” film, tonally it’s picking up exactly where “The Voyage Home” left off and feels like a good fit for the character. After the angst and drama of the Genesis trilogy, it’s nice to see Kirk, Spock and McCoy’s friendship come to the fore again in a relaxed setting.
In fact, of all the original cast “Star Trek” movies, it’s “The Final Frontier” that comes the closest to replicating the tone, attitude and storytelling of the original TV series episodes. The trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are central to the story, there’s a celebrity guest star and the central story is a heady mix of action and high concept philosophy, peppered with a little comedy every now and again, that ends with our heroes confronting an evil alien entity posing as a false God. Even the special effects are a little bit shaky.
Impacted by the 1988 Writer’s Guild Of America strike, the story sets up a number of interesting ideas which aren’t fully paid off due to the inability to rewrite and fine-tune the script. A key example of this is throughout the first half of the film, a lot is made of ‘the great barrier’ which lies at the centre of the galaxy and has never been breached by any craft, probe or sensor beam. When the Enterprise reaches this barrier, it’s simply able to fly through without any problem. The addition of a scene (or even a montage – it was still the 80’s) showing some cleverness or idea on how they breach the barrier would have added much to this sequence or at least lessened the anti-climax in the first place.
Partially due to the writer’s strike and partially due to the increasing salary demands of the franchise’s stars, Paramount started to get a little bit frugal with “Star Trek”. Since the lavish approach to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, Paramount had increasingly reigned in the budgets of the sequels. Although they saw the franchise as a dependable cash cow (each picture had reliably earned back about 500% of its production budget at the box office), they were also aware there was a ceiling to the box office receipts. The effect this penny pinching had on “Star Trek V” would ultimately gut the film’s original ending and force director William Shatner to deliver a compromised, underwhelming ending that betrays the ideas and direction of the earlier story. I imagine William Shatner, if he’s seen it, watched much of “Noah” through gritted teeth. There are scenes in the film which are reminiscent of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” and the rocky Watchers will definitely remind him of the ending “The Final Frontier” could and should have had, if Paramount hadn’t kept slashing the budget.
1989 was a busy year for sequels and with the special effects wizards of Industrial Light & Magic busy on “Ghostbusters II” and “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade”, Shatner was forced to use cheaper and less accomplished effects houses and the results are patchy at best. Of course, the great Trek tradition of reusing effects footage is honoured by reusing the shots of Spacedock and the Enterprise from the end of “The Voyage Home” and, wherever possible, using the existing sets from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” which was shooting at the same time.
It’s a shame that bad luck, bad timing and some bad studio decisions undermined this film to the extent it did. Shatner proves himself a competent director, with an eye for some beautiful visuals, such as the beam of light shooting up from ShaKaRee with the Enterprise in the foreground, the landscapes of ShaKaRee or the opening shot of Sybok in the sandstorm. The production design is wonderful, the newly designed bridge looking bright and modern without resembling an Apple Store and the Observation Deck with its old fashioned ship’s wheel and engraved plaque bearing the motto “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Yes, there are some Shatnerisms here and there – the triple breasted woman dancing in the bar (predating “Total Recall” by a year) and the preponderance of horses and it could be argued that the whole Nimbus III section brings a “Star Wars” aesthetic to “Star Trek” long before J J Abrams got his hands on the franchise.
The magnificent score, by returning composer Jerry Goldsmith, also helps to elevate the film, and the heavy Klingon presence allows him to make full use of the Klingon theme he had composed and used briefly in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”.
The main cast are reasonably well served by the script, with Scotty getting the bulk of the comic relief but the main focus if firmly on the Kirk-Spock-McCoy troika. Laurence Luckinbill really commits to the role of Sybok, imbuing the character with a charisma and presence that makes up for the script’s shortcomings and George Murdock does well as the false God in his limited screen time. Todd Bryant as Klingon Captain Klaa and Spice Williams-Crosby as his lieutenant Vixis are memorable additions to the pantheon of Klingon baddies but again the script problems come to the fore as they never really feel fully integrated into the story, occasionally feeling superfluous to the main story. Unfortunately, a number of great character actors are wasted by the same script, with the writer’s strike preventing any changes to beef up their roles. As a result, David Warner and Charles Cooper largely just stand around watching events unfold.
Unfairly maligned as the weakest of the Star Trek films, “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” is easily as good as “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” but lacks that film’s marquee moment when the Enterprise is destroyed. Saddled with more than its fair share of bad luck during production, it deserves a sympathetic reappraisal. It has some standout visuals and some great Trek moments, but its muddled execution lets it down. It’s still an entertaining and enjoyable Star Trek movie though and its final scenes of a partial rapprochement between the Federation and the Klingons foreshadows the original cast’s swansong to come.
STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Coming off the back of the creative and box office misfire of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”, the franchise was in the doldrums as it headed towards its 25th Anniversary. Paramount itself was on an austerity drive due to a series of high profile flops (“Star Trek V” wasn’t actually one of them. Although it significantly underperformed, “The Final Frontier” still made back nearly three times its production budget). Having fired Harve Bennett, producer of the last four films, the studio turned to the man who had inexpensively saved the franchise once before: Nicholas Meyer. Working with Leonard Nimoy, the two of them came up with a story to act as both a celebration of the past 25 years of “Star Trek” and a capstone for the adventures of the original cast. As with “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” which was dedicated to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” also carries a dedication: to the memory of Gene Rodenberry who died shortly before the film’s premiere.
When the Klingon Empire suffers a catastrophic environmental accident, they are forced to the negotiating table to make peace with the Federation in order to survive. However, forces on both sides oppose the truce and will stop at nothing to ensure the outbreak of a galactic war. Dragged out of retirement for one last mission, Captain James T Kirk and the crew of the USS Enterprise must navigate treacherous interstellar diplomacy and unmask the conspirators before it’s too late.
Meyer proves himself once again to be a master of economical film making and while the budget for this instalment was one of the tightest yet, it looks sensational. The Enterprise interiors, many of them redresses of existing “Next Generation” sets, are well designed and expertly lit, giving the ship a harder, more lived-in aesthetic. The bridge has never looked better than it does in this film, with more subdued and subtle illumination, redesigned control panels and a grittier, more functional feeling. Despite the constrained budget, the film feels exotic and expansive with scenes of Klingon courtrooms, icy prison planets and, of course, two starships for the price of one. Fun fact: at the UK theme park ‘Chessington World Of Adventures’, there’s a ride called ‘The Vampire’. While you’re queuing to board the ride, the sound the ride makes as it winches the cars to the start of the ride sounds exactly like the noise made in the Klingon court as Kirk and McCoy are brought in for judgement. True story.
Meyer’s knack for casually coining names and places within Trek lore comes to the fore again and in a few lines, the Klingon penal asteroid of Rura Penthe attains the feel of something legendary within the Trek universe that we’ve been waiting to see on screen for years. While the prison planet’s name may owe something to the 1954 movie “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, most of Meyer’s dialogue inspiration is again literary, this time from the Bard of Avon himself. The dialogued is liberally sprinkled with Shakespeare quotes and the characters even discuss Shakespeare at a simultaneously amusing and tense dinner scene.
While there are racial undertones to the plot, the principal allegory in “The Undiscovered Country” is the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a loose metaphor it works reasonably well although the initial incident which kicks off the action is a little too 1990’s hot button issue to age particularly well. Spock advises that the explosion of Praxis, a key energy production facility, has resulted in the deadly pollution of their ozone (what does that actually mean?) which means there’s only fifty years before the planet is uninhabitable. While this would be a sizeable blow, it’s difficult to believe that the loss of one moon and one habitable planet would bring the Klingon Empire to its knees – unless the “Empire” is extremely small. Luckily, the story does not dwell too much on this aspect and once the ‘incident’ has occurred, the story races forward without looking back to examine the credibility of its own scientific MacGuffin.
The opening effect of Praxis’ destruction is spectacular, and was so effective it has become a commonly used special effects, notably being added to the “Star Wars” Special Edition when the Death Star is destroyed. It’s the perfect start to the film and introduces us in short order to the USS Excelsior and her new Captain – Hikaru Sulu. As with his previous directorial effort, Meyer keeps the plot moving along at a brisk pace but never at the expense of character. Although it has a strong plot, this story moves along through a keen understanding of who the characters are, why we love them and what makes good drama. With humour and action, the story clips along with satisfying twists and turns and a thrilling final showdown involving the Enterprise, the Excelsior and a deadly new prototype Klingon warbird.
The cast, perhaps in acknowledgement that for most of them this would be their last hurrah, give it their all with Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nicholls and James Doohan delivering their best work in the movies. Nimoy and Kelley likewise are at the top of their game while George Takei positively revels in his chance to shine as the captain of his own ship. Kim Cattrall as new crew member Valeris fits in so well you’d believe she’d been a member of the crew for ages. Pitted against his old friend Christopher Plummer as the villainous General Chang, William Shatner rises to the occasion and the two of them chew the scenery wonderfully in a welcome pastiche of the Khan/ Kirk dynamic. The supporting is pretty impressive too, especially given the frugal production constraints, and there are subtle links between classic Trek and The Next Generation as Grace Lee Whitney, Mark Lenard and Michael Dorn make cameo appearances alongside David Warner (playing a different role from his “Star Trek V” appearance), Rosanna DeSoto, Iman, Brock Peters, Kurtwood Smith and Christian Slater. There are also blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em appearances by Todd Bryant, reprising his role as Captain Klaa (now demoted to a translator) and John Schuck as the rambunctious Klingon ambassador from “The Voyage Home”. If you’re watching the home video release, you’ll also get to see Rene Auberjonois of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” as Colonel West.
The score, by Cliff Eidelman, is one of the best of the entire series – and the one I listen to most often. Deliberately darker than previous chapters, it still manages to capture that adventurous Star Trek flavour while reinforcing the sinister and mysterious stakes at play. During the exciting space battle finale, it manages to deliver a rousing background to the explosion action on screen without having to mimic the pomp and grandeur of Jerry Goldsmith or the swashbuckle of James Horner and when it comes time to finally bid our heroes adieu, the music is perfect: joyful and triumphant.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting end to the adventures of the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise than the one served up by Meyer, Shatner, Nimoy & Co. in “The Undiscovered Country”. Freely acknowledging the age of its cast, the film turns this into a virtue, producing a thoughtful and intelligent meditation on prejudice, progress and change with a theatrical and Shakespearean flair, action, comedy and intrigue. As it was their final appearance together, it’s worth pointing out one thing: despite their reputations as limited actors there’s never once a hint on screen of the very real animosity many of the cast felt towards each other over the years – not a sign. We utterly believe in the camaraderie of these heroes and as Kirk utters the final command to set course for the ‘Second Star to the right; and straight on ’til morning!’ we want to believe that they will live on forever. “Star Trek” movies would never be this good again.
STAR TREK: GENERATIONS
The original series of “Star Trek” lasted for only 79 episodes and by the time it returned to the big screen there hadn’t been any new live action adventures for Kirk and Co for ten years. The intervening years had seen massive improvements in the areas of special effects, and of course the crew of the Enterprise had entered the public consciousness and become part of popular culture. When it returned, it came back with vastly improved special effects and a cast of characters we already loved but still wanted to learn more about and who, crucially, still had aspects to explore.
By contrast, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was a successful television show which had run for 178 episodes during which time it had exhaustively explored all of its principle characters in a wide variety of stories. It enjoyed state of the art effects and a loyal following. Although it hadn’t made the cultural breakthrough that its forebear had, it did generate two spin-off shows which enjoyed their own successful runs. Towards the end of its run “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was showing signs of fatigue, with the quality of the stories starting to suffer as the writers began to run out of interesting things to do with or say about the characters.
Keen to keep the franchise alive, Paramount put a “Next Generation” motion picture into fast turnaround. Already facing an uphill struggle due to the required premiere date, it was also burdened by a wish list of studio expectations. It had to somehow pass the torch from the original crew to the new crew and had to be achieved on a modest budget (of course). Producer Rick Berman, making the leap from television to feature production, commissioned rival scripts from different teams of writers, eventually choosing a winner but incorporating elements of both into the finished project.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise-D find themselves up against renegade El-Aurian scientist Tolian Soran who is willing to commit murder on a planetary scale in order to change the path of a mysterious energy ribbon called the Nexus. The Nexus is the portal to another world, a world of bliss and joy and to get back Soran will have to kill hundreds of millions of people. Trapped in the Nexus, Picard needs help to defeat Soran, but the only man who can help him has been dead for seventy-eight years after he was lost saving the Enterprise-B: James T Kirk.
It starts brightly enough, with a lovely opening shot of a tumbling champagne bottle in space, which eventually christens the Enterprise-B. Unfortunately the ship is commanded by the hapless Captain Harriman (Alan Ruck) and quickly gets into trouble on its maiden voyage. The opening sequence features cameo appearances by Walter Koenig and James Doohan as Chekov and Scotty in addition to William Shatner reprising Captain Kirk one more time. Although the supporting roles were clearly originally written to be Spock and McCoy (both Nimoy and Kelley declined the invitations to appear and Nimoy also declined the offer to direct), Koenig and Doohan do well enough in the brief time they are on screen. There’s a throwaway reference to Sulu in the form of his daughter Demora (Jacqueline Kim) and an appearance by Tim Russ (making his second of four appearances in “Star Trek” before landing his role as Tuvok on “Star Trek: Voyager” – you have to admire his persistence) but the preamble serves one purpose: to get Kirk into the place the story needs him to be so it can pick him up later.
Whether deliberate or not, there was clearly a decision taken to abandon attempts to broaden the franchise’s appeal and instead cater to the core Trek fan base. As such, there is little effort to introduce the characters of the Next Generation, especially Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) – who is integral to the plot – or any of the new technology such as the holodeck. The enduring mystery of “Star Trek: Generations” is that, given the production crew and writers were taken directly from the TV show’s staff, how could they get so many aspects of the story, characters and continuity so wrong?
Eschewing the strong, character driven, thematic arcs of the previous trek films (even the less successful ones), this film-making by contest and committee feels less like a coherent story and more like Berman and co-writers Ronald D Moore and Brannon Braga trying one thing after another as they desperately try to keep the story moving. Ultimately, the film doesn’t really know what its key themes are, or what its characters’ motivations might be so it laboriously slogs its way through a dull and unengaging story with little enthusiasm or momentum.
The characters are buffeted around at the caprice of the script instead of the other way around, with everybody but Picard and Data left with little to do but stand around and occasionally react to the latest plot contrivance. Picard is poorly served by a script which sees fit to burn his entire family to death simply to give him a reason to bristle at Soran’s line about time being the fire in which we burn. A maudlin Picard then reveals a sentimental longing for a family of his own which was largely absent from the character through seven years of television. There’s a terrible moment where we see him disconsolately looking through a photo album at pictures of his nephew, brother and his wife. A paper photo album, but you can tell it’s the future because the photos have silver holographic paper borders around them. The whole event is crass and obvious and Picard’s reaction is deeply uncharacteristic, undermining the impact. On a continuity note, they don’t even bother to get the same actor back to play his nephew. If Picard is poorly catered for, I’m not sure what term should be used to describe the treatment of Data. The emotion chip arc is simply terrible, and results in poor Brent Spiner having to mug and gurn his way through most of the film until Geordi gets kidnapped and then he gets to look sad. The writers seem confused as to what emotions are. For the record: gagging on a drink because of the taste is not an emotional response. Thankfully, the emotion chip arc just kind of fizzles out but in doing so, it underlines its irrelevance to the main plot and joins a host of dead-end or truncated subplots which go nowhere.
There’s Geordi’s kidnapping, for example, which was truncated in the final edit, leaving dialogue referencing torture kind of hanging there without real explanation or context. The ludicrous highlight of this aborted storyline sees Dr Soran interrogating Geordi about trilithium, a subject on which he is already the foremost expert in the galaxy.
When the film finally stumbles to its grand finale, the structure and the pacing are terrible. In theory there are 230 million lives at stake but we never get to see or care about them much. Instead, we’re treated to repeated smug posturing about how a twenty year old Klingon Bird of Prey is no match for the Galaxy-class USS Enterprise, right before the Klingon ships kick’s the Federation flagship’s ass. Okay, so they manage this by re-tuning their weapons to penetrate the Enterprise‘s shields but the whole battle is where this film loses all credibility and momentum.
I’m about to get all nerd-ragey here so bear with me.
Picard trades himself for Geordi on condition that Lursa and B’Etor first transport him to the surface of the planet to try to reason with Soran but there’s no real reason for them to comply with Picard’s condition once they have him save that the story needs them to. Meanwhile, due to their hacking of Geordi’s visor, Lursa and B’Etor are able to spy on the Enterprise, essentially seeing what the chief engineer sees. Finally, he happens to glance at a display which shows the shield frequency. They then adjust their torpedo frequency to match and for no real reason, open fire on the Enterprise. Did nobody detect the warbird arming its torpedoes? In a potential combat situation, was nobody monitoring the enemy vessel? When the first salvo breaches the shields, the Enterprise sluggishly begins to move and returns fire. At this point, the rest of the crew have had a discussion that they don’t know where Picard is, and they can’t detect him on the planet’s surface but they’ merrily fire away at the Klingons without knowing if their captain is still on board. Fans of the series will also remember that the Enterprise has a standard protocol to continuously randomly modulate the shield frequency from their battles with the Borg yet nobody thinks to activate it here. Although they manage to overcome the Klingons by tricking the vessel into lowering its shields (rather than, say, using the massively superior firepower they were banging on about earlier) the damage is done and the Enterprise suffers a catastrophic warp core breach, destroying most of the ship and sending the saucer section crashing to the planet below. Whichever way you cut it, the Enterprise-D is only lost due to the gross negligence of its command crew. At least we get the obligatory traditional re-use of an effects shot from a previous film as the bird of prey explosion from “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” is used again.
On the surface, Soran has fired a rocket – a rocket – which somehow manages to reach the planet’s sun in a few seconds and the Nexus sweeps over the surface, scooping up Soran and Picard just before the whole planet is destroyed, leading to…an extended dream sequence.
Yes, that’s right, just as the film had finally built up a sense of urgency and action, it slams on the brakes for an extendedly twee fantasy sequence where we get to see Picard’s heart’s desire. It’s like The Mirror of Erised by way of Hallmark. It comes as something of a surprise to discover that the fondest wish of our dashing Captain, whose heroic exploits and interest in archaeology have been well documented, was to have had a family in the 19th century and be father to children who can’t act very well. Fortunately Guinan shows up convinces Picard to abandon Hallmark Victoriana fantasy and return to the real universe and stop Soran. But to do it, he’ll need help. Well, hey – guess what? Captain Kirk didn’t actually die in saving Enterprise-B – psyche! No, he also got trapped in the Nexus and is currently living out his ultimate wish fulfilment of…chopping wood and cooking eggs. The fact Kirk’s version of the Nexus is a log cabin where his breakfast is burning flies in the face of everything the past six “Star Trek” films have been telling us and cuts right to the heart of why this lacklustre film fails so much. The production team seem utterly ignorant of who Kirk is and what the differences between him and Picard are. As a result, the film fails to use him well at all. Kirk even lectures Picard about staying in command because he can make a difference. Oh yeah, so how come you were dreaming about eggs on toast?
The film never really recovers from the sudden, crushing inertia of the Nexus scenes and the problems are compounded by the fact that Picard chooses the worst time, literally the worst possible time, to return from the Nexus, giving him and Kirk only seconds to save the day when they could easily have had hours – weeks even. I’m not going to dwell on the way Kirk was killed off. I mean, why should I? The film certainly doesn’t. It’s shoddy, ill-conceived exit for an immense, culturally iconic character whose eventual end would probably have been better never actually seen. It carries so little emotional impact that the sense of anti-climax reaches back retrospectively throughout the movie, emphasising the mediocrity of the whole thing.
The direction, by TV veteran David Carson, is humdrum and lacks any real flair and the lighting is downright awful – the sets are so dimly lit it laughable. It may have been an attempt to create a moodier aesthetic for the film but I suspect the real reason was the TV sets simply weren’t up to the standard needed for a feature film (hence the decision to destroy the Enterprise so they could have a new one for the next film. There’s an unexplained mish-mash of uniforms throughout which is somewhat distracting and the score by Dennis McCarthy is very poor indeed. It’s not all bad, though: the special effects are good and the set for the stellar cartography scene is pretty cool.
Intended to be about new beginnings, the film seems obsessed with endings, as it trashes everything in a vain attempt to provoke some kind of audience reaction. “Star Trek: Generations” is a barely adequate Trek movie which insults both the original series and “The Next Generation” as well as the audience’s intelligence. The story is dull and inconsequential, the execution muddled and Data is annoying as fuck, for no real story payoff.
It’s such a disappointing step down from the quality of the previous film and it also didn’t help that the TV series had ended a mere six months previously with “All Good Things…”, a double episode finale which would have made the perfect “Next Generation” movie. I honestly hadn’t remembered it being this bad. In fact, I think this film provoked an emotional response. I think I hate it. Yes, I hate it. More? Please!
STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT
There’s a commonly held belief that even numbered “Star Trek” films are better than the odd numbered ones. This is a spurious correlation. In actual fact, the true axiom is that “Star Trek” films which involve Nicholas Meyer are better than those that don’t. “Star Trek: First Contact” is the film which gives rise to the erroneous ‘evens are better than odds’ hypothesis but happily, is also the exception which proves the Nicholas Meyer rule.
After “Generations” got nearly every aspect horribly wrong, there was a lot for “First Contact” to do. It needed a compelling story, a strong adversary and a sense of both continuity and development that stayed true to the characters. Remarkably, the writing team of Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore who got it so wrong last time manage to turn the whole thing around and deliver an exciting adventure which gives the whole crew something to do and calls back to one of the TV series’ finest moments.
When the Borg begin an invasion of the Federation, Picard and the crew of the new Enterprise-E defy Starfleet orders and join the battle, helping the fleet to halt the invasion. When a small Borg sphere escapes the destruction of the main ship and travels back in time, Picard orders the Enterprise to follow them back and prevent the assimilation of Earth in the past. But the time travelling combatants have arrived at a pivotal moment in galactic history: the day before Zefram Cochrane’s first warp speed flight and any change to events will have devastating repercussions for the future of the Federation.
First things first, the new Enterprise-E is lovely. Sleek and overtly predatory, its design is a bit of a statement of intent: this “Star Trek” movie is upping the action quotient and from here on out, the movies aren’t going to be about exploring. Einstein said if you want different results do things differently and although we have the same story and screenplay team of Berman, Braga and Moore, they certainly do things differently here. Unlike “Generations”, “First Contact” knows its characters and their history, respects everything that has gone before and finds new and interesting things for the cast to do. For the uninitiated, the film opens with a brief dream sequence replaying the key points of Picard’s assimilation into Locutus of Borg but this is a film you can enjoy without a detailed knowledge of the “Next Generation” canon. The production design is also great, with some nice shout outs to the traditional macguffins of the TV series such as the holodeck and after the bizarre mix and match style of “Generations”, the “TNG” cast finally get uniforms fit for the movies (and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”).
While the writing staff is the same, there are still some changes behind the camera. After John McTiernan and Ridley Scott declined the opportunity to direct (Ridley Scott was a bit of an overreach to be honest), Jonathan Frakes takes over, becoming the third cast member (and second First Officer) to direct a “Star Trek” film. Frakes’ TV episode work was always of a high standard and he doesn’t disappoint. He keeps the story flowing and chooses his set pieces carefully to maximise his budget and make the most of the script and cast. And what a cast it is. Joining the usual “Next Generation” crew are James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane, Alfre Woodard as Lily Sloane, Neal McDonough as Lieutenant Hawk and Alice Krige as The Borg Queen. There are also cameos from Dwight Schultz as fan favourite Reginald Barclay and Patti Yasutake as Nurse Alyssa Ogawa and even Robert Picardo and Ethan Phillips from “Star Trek: Voyager” show up to join in the fun.
Although the Borg’s ultimate plan is needlessly complicated and doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny, the story wisely puts their larger scheme in the background, allowing the story of Zefram Cochrane’s historic flight to take some of the limelight and reducing the Borg elements to a struggle with much more personal stakes. One of the film’s unexplained gimmicks is that Picard has become some king of ‘Borg whisperer’ and is still able to hear them in his head, an ability which was never demonstrated during the TV series but which comes in handy several times during the film to move the plot forward. Picard’s quest for revenge at any cost against the race which brutalised and dehumanised him so thoroughly is well played, and allows Lily to act as the audience surrogate in asking the questions which let the backstory unfold. Data’s arc is much improved on his last film outing and even the emotion chip which caused so many problems in the last film is dealt with effectively and with the minimum of fuss. The clever inversion of assimilation as the Borg tempt Data with the pleasures of the flesh is a terrific conceit and with much better material to work with, the quality of Brent Spiner’s performance returns to the level we’d become accustomed to.
The decision to give the Borg a single identity is an understandable dramatic necessity but robs them of much of their menace and power. Fortunately, Alice Krige does such a superb job as the Borg Queen, you won’t mind that much. With the action split between the ship and the Earth below, there’s plenty for the regular cast to do and while Worf and Dr Crusher get in on the Borg battling action aboard the Enterprise, Riker, Troi and LaForge work to help Cochrane launch his ship on time. LaForge has also benefitted from advanced optical replacements; I guess the hacking of his visor in the previous film was the last straw. Maybe it was a recommendation of the court martial which should have followed the loss of the Enterprise-D. With the renewed focus on action, the script has a bit of fun with its fair share of dubious action movie one-liners such as Worf’s “assimilate this!” and Data’s “Resistance is futile!” but when Zefram Cochrane says the line “you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek” it’s awkward, clunky and just embarrassing. The glibness with which Picard treats the potential destruction of the Enterprise-E (‘plenty more letters in the aphabet’) grates too.
Music-wise, after the disappointing previous score, the producers go back to basics and get Jerry Goldsmith back in. Keen to avoid reiterating his memorable “Next Generation” theme, and not wanting to drown the film in dark, menacing Borg inspired themes he chooses instead to go for a more pastoral, optimistic motif based on the potential of the event of First Contact. While it suits the film well, it does make for slightly underwhelming opening titles. It’s also the first time in “Star Trek” that genuine contemporary music is featured, with Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” and Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”. Their inclusion feels odd and weirdly anachronistic, explaining why Starfleet Officers have historically tended to favour classical music and opera in disproportionate numbers.
In retrospect, it seems odd that anyone questioned whether a “Star Trek” film could succeed with no involvement at all from the original cast, especially as this one works so well. This feels like something that builds on and enhances the series, and is just lavish enough to feel like it genuinely belongs in the cinema and couldn’t have been done on TV. It falls short of greatness due to the number of plot elements which rely on convenience or hand waiving technobabble – seriously, how easy is it for them to travel back to the future at the end? – to really be a fully satisfying Sci-Fi adventure. But it gets the broad strokes of its story just right and combined with the smart visuals and a selection of well executed action set pieces, this film sets the bar for what “The Next Generation” crew were able to do with their movies.
STAR TREK: INSURRECTION
After the franchise-stabilising success of “Star Trek: First Contact”, fans were once again eager to see the next adventure of the intrepid crew of the Enterprise-E. Never a studio to let a good thing go untampered with, Paramount in its infinite wisdom decided it was time for a change of pace. Perhaps, emboldened by the box office prowess of “First Contact”, they were chasing the break-out feel-good factor of “The Voyage Home”, hoping to expand the audience beyond the loyal (and surprisingly tolerant) fan base. Thus we get “Star Trek: Insurrection”, a small scale story about a big issue, deliberately gentler and lighter in tone than its predecessor.
When Data goes rogue and turns against a Starfleet observation mission on a planet in the ‘Briar Patch’, the crew of the Enterprise-E come to investigate, against the wishes of the Admiral in charge of the mission. When they arrive, they uncover a covert alliance between the Federation and an aggressive alien race called the Son’a, intent on forcibly relocating the resident population of the planet, the Ba’ku, so they can harvest the unique radiation properties its rings possess. With no alternative and unable to call for help, the crew of the Enterprise decide to rebel against Starfleet Command and defend the Ba’ku at all costs.
A frequent criticism of the “Next Generation” movies is that they too often resemble extended episodes of the TV series, and it doesn’t help that “Insurrection” basically begins by copying the popular and acclaimed episode “Who Watches The Watchers” note for note. The early structure of the film also feels quite televisual in nature: the scenes of Data going out of control and revealing the technological duck blind to the Ba’ku feels very much like a ‘cold open’ and could easily have preceded the opening titles of the film. The rest of the crew are then introduced during the middle of a diplomatic reception, where the Dominion War (featured prominently in the excellent and often underrated “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) is mentioned as reason why the Federation is reaching out and recruiting allies at a reckless pace.
To support the change of pace, Producer Rick Berman brought in Michael Piller to write the screenplay from story ideas they had conceived together. In his unpublished (you can’t buy it but you can find it online pretty easily) book ‘FADE IN: From Idea to Final Draft, The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection’, Piller relates in fascinating detail the trials and tribulations of pulling together a script for this Star Trek movie, from the increasing input and requirements of the studio, director and producer to the growing influence of key cast members. It’s quite ironic that the underdeveloped feel of many of the films themes and motifs is actually due to overdevelopment and too many cooks spoiling the broth. Piller makes a sly dig at the bogged-down soapiness of the plot by having Picard ask early on: “Does anyone remember when we used to be explorers?”.
The film juggles a number of interesting ideas and themes, but can’t seem to settle on one to really explore and as such it feels restless and superficial when it should really be landing some good punches. There are swipes at the culture and pursuit of ever more extreme methods to retain the appearance of eternal youth as well as wry observations on the pace of modern life which sit uneasily alongside weightier themes of the forcible relocation of indigenous populations and potential genocide, all wrapped up in the barely touched at dirty politics of convenience and desperation.
The villains of the piece, the Son’a (Piller loves apostrophes in this one), are an intriguing race but we barely get to spend any time with them and when we do, they’re largely just evil stooges for their leader and the morally ambiguous Starfleet Admiral Dougherty. The Ba’ku, on the other hand, are a blandly peaceful agrarian society and little effort is made to flesh them out beyond their idyllic lifestyle in their impossibly bucolic village. Even the eventual revelation of the Son’a’s origins lacks any impact because we haven’t really invested in either group. Of the lead characters, we simply don’t get to spend enough time with Son’a leader Ahdar Ru’afo and despite the efforts of the great F. Murray Abraham, who plays him with a gloriously lack of restraint, there’s little chance to develop the necessary adversarial chemistry between him and Picard for us to really get invested in the conflict. The leader of the Ba’ku, played by Donna Murphy, gets far more screen time and the gently blossoming romance between her and Picard is well written and cutely played by both actors but again the film pulls its punches and there’s no culmination or payoff to the relationship (a filmed kiss was cut from the finished film at the studio’s request), leaving the whole subplot just hanging there.
There’s a lot of technobabble and scientific mumbo jumbo to explain away how the planet’s rejuvenating metaphasic radiation works, but suffice to say it somehow manages to keep you from aging but also will regenerate lost or damaged bodily organs and make you feel younger if you’re beyond a certain age. Oh, and it doesn’t affect you until after you’ve finished puberty. That sure is some conveniently particular radiation. There’s a few jokes mined from the crew getting younger but many of them rely on the characters having some gratingly dumb conversations, such as Data discussing the firmness of his boobs with Worf. A positronic brain so advanced it’s been impossible to replicate and he isn’t aware of the inappropriateness of the conversation? That’s just bad writing.
Once again, Data gets the short end of the stick in terms of character development. Remember the emotion chip that was irremovably fused to his brain in “Generations”, then gained the ability to be switched on and off in “First Contact”? Well, in this one, he didn’t even take it with him on the Ba’ku duck blind mission. As a result, we’re back to normal Data and that means we get a ‘cute’ subplot about him learning what it means to be a child. Again. Likewise, Worf is mainly used as the butt of jokes involving Klingon teenage acne and pubertal aggression. There’s almost no mention of why he isn’t on Deep Space Nine and no acknowledgement of the recent death of the character’s wife. The sloppy treatment of plot elements isn’t confined to the regular crew, either. The Ba’ku are established early on to have the ability to slow down and nearly freeze time but it’s never used for anything more significant than some nature documentary shots. While it is used later, improbably by Picard who masters the technique within days, it still begs a more obvious question: how can a population who can manipulate time, or even the perception of time, possibly be overcome by conventional force?
Patrick Stewart gets some good moments as Picard, although his request for mambo music to reflect his feeling younger and friskier is the closest thing “Star Trek” has ever managed to the soul-shrivelling embarrassment of ‘dad dancing’. With LaForge and Riker confined to the Enterprise, the others, including Crusher and Troi get to have a bit of action and fun on the surface, leading the surprisingly heavily armed (phaser bazookas?) convoy of fleeing villagers. On the ship, Riker gets to play at cat and mouse with a couple of Son’a ships in a battle sequence which is actually pretty good but culminates in a truly spectacularly misjudged finale where he pilots the Enterprise using an old ‘Thrustmaster II’ joystick.
Anthony Zerbe is suitably ambiguous as Admiral Dougherty and his death by plastic surgery is one of the films better moments, recalling his sticky end in the James Bond film “Licence To Kill”. Donna Murphy and F. Murray Abraham are both far better than the material and screen time they’re given and if it weren’t for the studio neutering the story, Anij would be counted as one of the great loves of Picard’s life.
By this point, it sounds very much like I don’t like “Star Trek: Insurrection” but that’s not true, it’s a decent, if unremarkable entry in the series. Jonathan Frake’s direction is good and he gets the most out of the stunning locations. He manages the pacing well, ensuring that the story maintains momentum despite a rather sluggish narrative. Production design-wise, the “Star Trek” tradition for recycling is in full effect, with many sets being redresses of the then-filming “Star Trek: Voyager” TV series. Like “Voyager”, all the special effects and space-based action is computer generated, the first “Star Trek” film to have no starship model shots at all. The only disappointing aspect is the interior set of the Son’a radiation collector. From the outside, before it unfurls its sails, it looks a little like V’ger (hey – it’s an apostrophe alien party) but inside, apart from the superstructure, it looks like a blue screen set that was forgotten in post-production. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is suitably mellow, echoing the overall feel of the film while still finding opportunities to revisit his now iconic themes and motifs from previous scores.
In the end, the title promises much more than the film delivers. The title conjures up the idea of a full-scale rebellion within Starfleet, pitching friends and shipmates against each other in a desperate battle of ideals whereas the actual film delivers a pleasant enough pastoral romp which really doesn’t amount to much more than a little local difficulty. When your first film had 230 million lives at stake and your second had 9 billion lives in the balance, 600 anonymous back-to-nature pacifists feels like a huge step down. “Insurrection” does nothing to undermine the belief that odd-numbered Trek films are a bit disappointing, but it’s not terrible, it’s just a little too mild mannered for its own good. If the same situation and characters had been realised with the attitude and darker approach of “First Contact” it could have worked, Gilbert And Sullivan and all. As it is, having read everything Michael Piller went through, I’m inclined to be lenient.
STAR TREK: NEMESIS
In the four year gap between “Star Trek: Insurrection” and “Star Trek: Nemesis”, much had changed. “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager” had finished and Rick Berman’s ultimate plan had reached fruition: the blandest, most uninteresting “Star Trek” ever was currently setting the airwaves a-snooze with “Enterprise”. Apart from Berman and the cast, there was nobody involved with the movies now that had any experience with the show it was based on. Sometimes, the injection of fresh perspectives can bring enormous rewards, reenergising a tired format and franchise. Sometimes.
With a story by Rick Berman, Brent Spiner and Spiner’s good friend John Logan (alarm bells ringing yet?) and directed by Stuart Baird (“Executive Decision”, “U.S. Marshals”), Berman himself boldly proclaimed that “Nemesis” would be an exciting new departure for Star Trek movies, where anything could happen, and no character was safe. Instead, what he delivered was a lazily insipid re-tread of “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” with the most unsubtle pressing of the reset button outside of (most of) “Star Trek: Voyager”.
When a military coup on Romulus places a new Reman leader at the head of the Empire, the Enterprise interrupts its investigation of the discovery of another Data-like android to respond to a request from the new Romulan government for peace talks. However, when the crew arrives at Romulus, they find a very familiar face waiting for them and whatever the new leader of the Romulan Empire is planning for, it’s not peace.
Unusually for the secretive Romulan Empire, we actually get to see the coup take place, with the opening scene set in the Senate Chamber itself. This is the first “Star Trek” film to be made post-“The Phantom Menace” and Logan shows he’s learned his lesson and knows what gets the sci-fi kids going these days: trade negotiations and procedural politics. Fortunately, the scene is cut short by the deployment of a Thalaron radiation weapon which petrifies all organic matter and puts a heavily made up Alan Dale (as Praetor Hiren) out of his misery.
There’s a continual attempt at a thematic metaphor of mirrors, reflections and echoes but they can’t disguise the fact this film is a shameless and weak echo of “The Wrath Of Khan”, but with none of that film’s heart, intelligence or gravitas. Both films feature a villain who has spent a lot of time in exile, both villains manage to escape their isolation and get themselves a ship and the means to go anywhere. Both instead obsess about revenge, obtain a powerful doomsday weapon and set out to mess with the Captain of the USS Enterprise before heading for a final showdown in a nebula which disrupts communications and weapons targeting systems.
Unfortunately, what Rick Berman has learned from the patchy success of “The Next Generation” movies (pretty much just “First Contact“) is that audiences want “Star Trek” to be dark and violent, and boy does he go to town here. The Theleron radiation deaths are gruesome as the senators are turned to ash and stone and the film just gets darker from there. It’s gratuitously violent within the bounds of its certificate, terribly structured, makes no sense from a plot perspective and demonstrates so little knowledge or understanding about the characters and universe of “Star Trek” that it’s actually insulting.
John Logan is a fine screenwriter, with many impressive credits (“Gladiator”, “The Aviator”, “Rango”, “Hugo”, “Skyfall”) to his name, so it’s difficult to pinpoint what went wrong here. Perhaps his friendship with Brent Spiner compromised his ability to objectively look at the story here (it certainly explains the excessive Brent Spiner screen time) and prevented him from doing anything but centring the story on Picard and Data. Yet again. Stuart Baird, on the other hand is an experienced and talented film editor but as a director, he’s a straight-to-DVD hack. It’s no surprise that this was only his third film as director and also, to date, his last.
From the moment the crew appear in the film, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a director who doesn’t know, understand or care about the characters. For no real reason, apart from trying to give an air of finality to “The Next Generation”, we’re treated to Riker and Troi’s wedding where Picard gives a best man’s speech which is pretty much all about him (although he remembers to mention the bride and groom right at the end). Guinan and Wesley Crusher make fleeting cameos and Worf gets to be the butt of a couple of jokes about hangovers (this scene marks the most Worf gets to do in this film). Seriously, he has nothing else of note to do for the rest of the movie). Data sings. Again.
As we’re now ten minutes since we’ve had an action sequence, the script concocts the ridiculous idea that the Enterprise picks up a positronic signature from a distant planet which turns out to be another Soong-type android, like Data because if you’re the screen writer and your friend is the star, you need to find a way to get your friend on screen even more. A bunch of technobabble is thrown in for good measure to hand wave a reason for Picard, Data and Worf (just sit in the back, please) to take a dune buggy and track down the inexplicably scattered android parts. As they are progressing in their scavenger hunt (which, remember, is actually a cunning part of Shinzon’s plan and for the plan to work, he needs Picard alive and the android to be assembled) they are attacked by Remans (what part of keeping Picard alive and getting the android assembled does that help with again?), because what “Star Trek” films really need, what they’ve been missing all these years, is a car chase. It certainly couldn’t just be a gratuitous action sequence because the opening’s been a bit dull could it?
There’s a leaden cameo by Kate Muglrew as Admiral Janeaway (it’s amusing to note that with nearly ten films pushing the idea that truly great starship captains belong on the bridge of a starship rather than promoted to behind a desk, Janeaway has apparently leapt at the chance for a life of operational and administrative duties) but generally, continuity is thrown out of the window in such breath-taking fashion it makes “Generations” look coherent and well researched. There’s no real explanation of the origins of B4 – given everything that’s come before in the TV series regarding Data’s origins (and his evil brother Lore), his existence seems unlikely to say the least – let alone any explanation of where or how Shinzon came to possess him.
There’s a blatant disregard for the established history of Captain Picard himself, including the shoe-horning of photos of Tom Hardy as a young Picard into that terrible photo album (which makes an unwelcome reappearance). The film ignores the multiply-established fact that Picard went bald gradually through his life and had hair when he was a cadet and a young officer. None of this is helped, of course, by the feeble make-up which fails to disguise the fact Hardy has shaved his head for the role.
The script is downright diabolical and most of the cast seem glumly and grimly aware of it. It’s all they can do to spit out the awful dialogue (‘She’s a predator’, etc.). There’s a bizarre moment in the film where Picard cautions Data to make his language a little less florid as they escape from the Reman Warbird which seems unfair given the rest of the script is crammed with overwritten nonsense.
Tom Hardy plays Shinzon as a camp Doctor Evil character, robbing him of any genuine menace and then proceeds to tick off the bumper list of movie villain clichés, including the mind-bogglingly stupid scene where Shinzon provides a blood sample by slicing open his palm with a knife. Seriously? In the age of hypo-sprays, you lacerate your hand? Perhaps it’s hinting at a self-harm problem. I’m convinced the reason Tom Hardy has worked so hard and earned so many plaudits since “Nemesis” is because he’s constantly driven to be brilliant by how dreadful he is here.
The interactions between Picard and Shinzon would also have been a perfect time to revisit the theme of family and Picard’s regret of never having children as per “Generations” and give both films a much needed boost but “Nemesis” wears its ignorance as a badge of honour. Not content with ignoring Picard’s appearance when he was younger, the ripe script has him deliver an impassioned soliloquy to Shinzon where he tells him, amongst other things, that their blood is the same, their hearts are the same. Er..no. It was a fairly major plot point more than once that Picard has an artificial heart due to being a bit of a cocky hothead in his youth. It also turns out that Picard suffered from a couple of aggressive hereditary illnesses when he was younger. Add this to his Irumodic syndrome from “All Good Things…” and you start to wonder why the Romulans didn’t choose to clone someone with slightly less problematic genes. Fortunately, Shinzon’s worsening maladies can be cured with a ‘complete blood transfusion’ from Picard. It’s implied this will kill Picard because it will require all of his blood. Are the replicators offline again? Surely a regulation pint donation or even a finger prick sample would be enough to then replicate as much Vintage Picard claret as you’d like but again, this film isn’t concerned with logic. Nor is Shinzon particularly concerned with his cure as he passes up numerous opportunities to perform the necessary procedures.
About half way through the film, Shinzon’s motivations completely flip and instead of being out to get Picard, he decides he wants to eradicate all life on Earth for…some reason. There’s no real motivation for it, but the writers clearly felt the film lacked any real stakes so they throw in some manufactured jeopardy to inject a little tension into the flaccid showdown.
Every time the film tries to be dark or edgy it comes off as crass or distasteful. The psychic rape scene is just tasteless and unnecessary and leads to one of the most repugnantly ‘off’ character moments ever when Picard asks Troi to endure more assaults in case they provide a tactical advantage. Can you seriously imagine the Picard (or any character) of the TV series thinking that was okay?
Director Stuart Baird sincerely believed the scene where Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and the Viceroy (Ron Perlman who must surely have been even gladder than Alan Dale to be near-unrecognisable under his prostheses) chase each other through the Jeffries tubes as the “Alien” moment of the movie, which only serves to emphasise the degree of delusion and ignorance he brought to this misbegotten failure of a movie.
“Star Trek: Nemesis” is the movie which absolutely, irrevocably put to rest the idea that even numbered films were better. Ironically, franchise corroding dunderhead Rick Berman had one last good idea – he asked Nicholas Meyer if he would direct the film. Meyer was interested but told Berman that he would want to do a complete rewrite of the script if he did but Berman had already promised John (friend of Brent Spiner) Logan full control over the script and so Meyer turned him down. We, along with the cast, can only weep for what might have been. Imagine a Nicholas Meyer scripted “Next Generation” movie with Tom Hardy, Ron Pearlman, Alan Dale and Dina Meyer (she pops up as a Romulan commander) and a surprise cameo from “X-Men” director Bryan Singer in it? Sounds awesome, right? Well, instead what we got was a Brent Spiner ego trip where he got to go, in the words of “Tropic Thunder”‘s Kirk Lazarus, ‘full retard’ as B-4 while Picard is given a bunch of overwrought lines to deliver while comprehensively getting his ass kicked in a space battle. Crashing into the ship was the full extent of his master plan? If it had been followed by every available member of the Enterprise crew grabbing a weapon and storming the Reman vessel, in a mass boarding party with pitched battles all the way to the bridge for a final showdown, it might – just might – have saved the movie. As it is, there’s an entirely unemotive swap ‘n’ sacrifice alogia ex machina with Picard and Data. The rest of the cast may as well not be in the movie at all (and probably wish they weren’t). It’s bitterly cruel that this was the great Jerry Goldsmith’s final score for a feature film, especially as the work he does is much, much better than the movie deserves.
This film doesn’t have a single redeeming feature. I could go on and on listing its flaws, problems and mistakes but I’ve already gone on far too long. It’s almost meta-clever that the central villain is a failing clone because everything in this movie is a botched attempt to copy something cool from one of the movies that preceded it. Even the production team’s vainglorious boast that this film really leaves everything shaken up at the end turns out to be a massive ‘fuck you’ to the audience as everything – literally everything – is put carefully in place to allow a further “Next Generation” movie with all the same characters by the time the credits roll. I hate this film so much.
With the residual affection and legacy of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” all but obliterated by the scorched-Earth debacle of “Star Trek: Nemesis” and the franchise’s last remaining television offering having limped to a feeble, underwhelming conclusion, the future was looking bleak for the franchise. There clearly wasn’t an audience appetite for further adventures with the noticeably ageing Next Generation crew and their failure had taken with it any chance of big screen outings for its stable mates “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” both of which had barely registered on mainstream popular culture, despite at least one of them being really good. The problem the last four films had faced remained intractably the same: outside of the dedicated genre fan base, you mention “Star Trek” to anyone and they only ever think of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov. Unfortunately, as the original cast were now all far too old or too dead to take the lead in any further Star Trek adventures, so Paramount was left staring into the abyss…
Enter the polarising figure of JJ Abrams. Initially hailed as a saviour, now lambasted by some as a the bringer of darkness and destroyer of worlds, Abrams took the tired old franchise and did what he does best: he took someone else’s ideas and put such a slick coat of glossy, modern visuals on them that, for a while, it looked brand new and – crucially – exciting again. It’s why, although his contribution has been a mixed blessing at best for “Star Trek”, he’s the perfect director for “Star Wars”.
When the USS Kelvin is sent to investigate a ‘lightning storm in space’, its destruction, and the death of its acting captain George Kirk, sets in motion a series of events which change the galaxy as we know it. Twenty-two years later, underachiever James T Kirk is talked into joining Starfleet by Captain Christopher Pike, boasting that he’ll complete the four year course in three years. As Kirk and his classmates near graduation, however, a planetary distress call is received. The ‘lightning storm in space’ has returned, and the Romulan vessel which emerges from it is attacking Vulcan. Arriving late to the battle, the Enterprise is unable to prevent Vulcan’s destruction or the capture of its Captain, Christopher Pike. As the Romulan leader Nero sets his sights on his next target: Earth, Kirk, Spock and the rest of the cadet crew of the USS Enterprise must learn to trust each other and work together to save the day. Fortunately, they’ll have the benefit and wisdom of someone who knows them all very well to guide them.
Generally, they cast the film pretty well and although it carries the impression that we’re looking at “Star Trek Babies”, the average age of the new cast is only two years younger than the original cast were at the start of the TV show. Zachary Quinto makes for a convincing Spock, even if he isn’t quite as good at conveying the subtleties of Spock’s emotional state as Nimoy was. Karl Urban does a spot on impression of DeForest Kelley without ever stepping over into parody (the throwaway line explaining the nickname ‘Bones’ is great) and it’s a real shame that Doctor McCoy has been downgraded in this new cast to supporting player rather than the big three. His place, of course, has been taken by Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, a character who ends up overburdened and pushed to the front because of a perceived need to emphasise the diversity of the cast. She’s also then forced into an unconvincing and awkward relationship with Spock in order to cement her place in the foreground story wise although it adds nothing to the plot whatsoever.
Given the liberties taken elsewhere, it’s astonishing how timid this reboot is, because there’s no reason why you couldn’t have shuffled the roles of the crew to keep it fresh and different. Okay, so you probably couldn’t have got away with changing Kirk, Spock or McCoy’s roles but why couldn’t Uhura have been a navigator, or a helmsman or a security chief and have Chekov, for example, be the Communications officer? It’s symptomatic of one of the major problems both this movie and its sequel have: it wants to be different and new but it keeps on reverting back to the old. Speaking of Chekov, Anton Yelchin makes the most of the small role and retains the characters youthful exuberance while avoiding being a one-note jokey caricature. John Cho ‘s take on Sulu is likewise a solid performance and he rises above some of the material he’s given such as the excruciating ‘parking brake’ joke. Scotty is unfortunately played almost entirely for laughs, although Simon Pegg is capable of much more. He’s written as a hyperactive buffoon and brings none of the older-head wisdom and gravitas that James Doohan brought to the role. In the original character set-up, Scotty played almost as important role in balancing out Kirk as Spock and McCoy did. He was the veteran Starfleet engineer who years of familiarity with the ship helped guide and shape Kirk’s abilities in his early days in command of the Enterprise.
And as for Kirk…where to begin? Chris Pine is okay casting. He doesn’t have the natural, twinkly-eyed charisma and charm of William Shatner but that’s okay because he’s not the lead character in this incarnation of “Star Trek” – Spock is. But the way Kirk is written just misses everything that made the character great by a light year. It’s almost as if Lindelof, Orci, Kurtzman and Abrams attended a Starfleet comedy roast of Captain Kirk and used that as their character notes. I get that he’s not quite the same man as he would have been because his childhood has been very different, etc. etc. but portrayal is so off, it grates. Yes, Kirk was a bit of a ladies man who romanced his share of love interests (about a third of episodes featured Kirk at least making out with someone) but in this film, he’s written as a horny, promiscuous lunkhead. The rest of the time he’s an arrogant ass, constantly indulging in dickish behaviour to friends and superiors alike.
Take the film’s greatest faux pas: its portrayal of the Kobayashi Maru test. Kirk is an unbelievable asshole in this whole sequence. As he sits there cockily chewing on his apple, trash talking his fellow cadets he is everything James T Kirk wasn’t. Then there is the ridiculously blatant system reboot in the middle of the test after which, inexplicably, the circumstances have changed. Kirk then destroys the Klingon vessels – destroys, not disables – (killing the crews on board) and orders the rescue of the Kobayashi Maru. The scene encapsulates everything wrong with the Kirk of the reboot: an inveterate cheat, sex pest and braggart. To paraphrase Bibi Besch’s Dr Carol Marcus, ‘Listen, kiddo, Jim Kirk was many things but he was never a complete dick.’
The way he “wins” the Kobayashi Maru test requires no guile, strategy or ingenuity – he simply switched off the Klingon shields for no reason. Everything in the original conversation regarding the test in “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” suggests Kirk found the tiniest of loopholes and altered the programming just enough to allow him to use it to successfully complete the simulation, not do the unfeasibly blatant ‘switch everything off then on again and hope nobody notices’ routine. At least dick-Kirk doesn’t go unpunished and has to suffer the ignominy of being judged by Admiral Tyler Perry, of all people.
You could argue that because Kirk’s life has been very different, he is a different man and approaches these challenges differently. And that would be fine, were it not for the fact that the entire resolution of the plot rests on Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) convincing Kirk (and Spock) that they are, in fact, the same people they have always been and should skip the ‘how you been’ and get back to being BFFs already. After all, it was Kirk who said, ‘You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!’ In other words, our past experiences shape us. Either Kirk and Spock are immutable characters who will always be the same or they are shaped differently by different experiences and you can’t presume they will be the friends they were in another reality. Abrams’ “Star Trek” really wants to have it both ways in this respect.
The supporting cast is suitably starry but, with the exception of Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Pike (who is, ironically, much closer in personality to the Kirk from the original series) they don’t really get a lot of screen time. Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Ben Cross, Deep Roy and Rachel Nichols are little more than glorified cameos (although they get more than Greg Grunberg who makes a voice only appearance during an angry phone call to teenage joyrider Kirk) while Winona Ryder sticks out self-consciously as stunt casting. Eric Bana does a good job as the Romulan Nero, cleansing our memories of the previous film’s Romulan villains but he has so little screen time that he also feels like a cameo rather than the propulsive antagonist the story needs.
Abrams is a self-confessed “Star Wars” fan and his love of that franchise bleeds through this film everywhere. Take the overarching set-up: the villain travels the galaxy destroying planets with his giant space laser. Old Spock is Yoda, Pike is Obi-Wan, McCoy is C-3PO, Scotty is R2-D2 and Kirk is Luke. Spock is still Spock, though, because this new “Star Trek” is all about Spock. Important command positions on starships are handed out to junior officers and suspended cadets like they were Halloween candy, much the same way Luke walks into the Yavin base and is immediately given a ship to fly in the most important squadron in the most important battle in the Rebellion’s history. The scene where Pike, on a whim, makes Kirk first office is just ludicrous. Can you imagine serving on a military vessel where promotions and positions were routinely handed out on the basis of patronage and caprice? I’m betting discipline would break down very quickly and we’d have the Mirror Universe style factional infighting, betrayal and conspiracy.* Need more evidence this is thinly disguised “Star Wars” fan fiction? It features a sword fight on a mining platform in the clouds – the sword even has no blade until it’s activated and the blade emerges from the hilt. Oh yeah, and the giant creatures which chase Kirk on the ice planet Delta Vega look like they’ve come straight from the Petranaki Arena on Geonosis (“Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones”).
The cleverest thing they did was to explicitly create the alternate timeline, thus preserving the original continuity of Kirk, Picard, Sisko and Janeaway in the “Prime” universe so everything we remember fondly is secure and Paramount can, if they want, return to it if this reboot experiment fails. Ironically, the new reboot preserves the profoundly mediocre canon of “Star Trek: Enterprise” and it’s a wonder they were able to resist an actual Scott Bakula cameo, even if they couldn’t resist mentioning Admiral Archer and his dog.
Production design-wise, the bridge and interior of the Enterprise are a mixed bag. The bridge looks kind of cool, but it’s shot in such a fidgety, hyperactive ADD style that it’s hard to make out what it really looks like, and of course there’s all the lens flares. The rest of the ship is a major disappointment. Little effort is made to disguise the fact it takes place in an industrial brewery, giving rise to another of the film’s most awful sequences: Scotty’s Augustus Gloop moment as he’s pumped through the improbably large and transparent coolant pipes like the rotund Teutonic ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ character. Actually, on that point I’m inclined to cut Abrams some slack as he’s the first “Star Trek” movie director in a long time that didn’t have existing sets from other TV shows/ movies to redress.
It’s not all terrible, though. The special effects are first rate, and it has to be said the exterior of the Enterprise, the space battles and the warp drive are all spectacular. The costumes look good and the props and various other aspects such as the teleport effects are well realised, as are the action sequences. The score, by Michael Giacchino, is fresh and suitably full of pomp and drama, and I confess I had a wry smile as the end titles quickly segue into an orchestral arrangement of Alexander Courage’s original series theme tune. Aside from the patchy characterisations, there are times when it works really well and the cast rise to the occasion, delivering fleeting “Star Trek” moments. Overall it reduces “Star Trek” to the level of a generic sci-fi action extravaganza, but I have to admit it’s a pretty good sci-fi action extravaganza. It’s just not “Star Trek”. It’s more like a “Star Trek” Greatest Hits medley performed by a tribute band. The songs are the same but the arrangements are different and it’s just not as good.
* – If, in the third movie, this turns out to be the intention all along and we’ve been watching the creation of the ‘Mirror Universe’, then these movies will retrospectively become cunning masterpieces. I’m not holding my breath.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
Now, I’ve already reviewed “Star Trek Into Darkness” but that review was written in the rosy afterglow of binging on the special effects and grand 3D IMAX spectacle of it all. It occurred to me a few days later that the plot didn’t make a lick of sense and far from learning from his missteps on the first “Star Trek” film; JJ Abrams had repeated them all and found some new ones too. Worse still, the film explicitly spits in the face of the idea that the rebooted continuity was created to let them tell new stories with the same characters, because they only seem interested in rehashing old stories and staying as earth-bound as possible.
When a terrorist attack devastates a Starfleet installation in 23rd Century London, Kirk and crew are sent to the Klingon homeworld to kill the man responsible, a former Starfleet Officer called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Instead of killing him, Kirk captures him, intending to bring him back to Earth to face justice. However Kirk and Spock discover that Harrison is not what he seems and may hold the key to a vast military conspiracy which reaches right to the heart of Starfleet itself.
The opening of “Star Trek Into Darkness” is possibly the dumbest, most incontrovertibly wrongheaded opening of any sci-fi film anywhere outside of the SyFy channel’s movie of the week. Not only do the writers (the same miscreants who wrote the previous one) seem entirely ignorant of the fictional principles of “Star Trek” technology and science, they seem to struggle with a great deal of present-day knowledge and understanding too. The sequence was no doubt designed entirely to look ‘cool’ and it’s hard to know where to begin pointing out its flaws. There’s a scene in an episode of “Futurama” where the Planet Express Ship is inadvertently dragged underwater which goes like this:
Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Dear Lord! That’s over 150 atmospheres of pressure!
Fry: How many atmospheres can the ship withstand?
Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Well, it’s a space ship, so I’d say anywhere between zero and one.
The ignorance of basic physics is compounded by the fact there is no reason for the Enterprise to be underwater at all. In fact, they shouldn’t be on the planet in the first place and the discussion about the Prime Directive they have isn’t even on the right subject. The rest of it is just nonsense. A ‘cold fusion’ device would not freeze a volcano and why were Kirk and McCoy tasked with getting the natives away from the danger zone when apparently you can escape the danger zone on foot in about thirty seconds. Transporter beams needing line of sight: stupid (and better served by having the Enterprise in orbit rather than under the ocean a mile or so away). The idea of a volcano of that minuscule size being enough to destroy an entire planet: stupid. The suggestion that an entire planet has become corrupted because half a dozen natives have seen the ship rise from the sea? Stupid. And the whole asinine sequence exists in the film for one thing – to get Kirk demoted out of the Captain’s chair (as Starfleet plays musical chairs yet again with the command of Starships) and put Pike back in, just so they can switch them back again fifteen minutes later. So, just to recap, the whole of the first film was purported to be Kirk’s journey (it wasn’t though, was it? It was about Spock) to achieving his destiny, growing from the angry underachiever to a skilled commander. Having achieved that, this film undercuts it in its first five minutes. Don’t worry though, the swings and roundabouts of this most casual of military organisations mean that Kirk is back in the Captain’s chair again before you have time to say “Shenanigans”.
After the terrible start, the film recovers some ground, although its treatment of characters is still cavalier at best and a travesty at worst. The expedition to the Klingon Homeworld is well staged and exciting, as are all of the space battle scenes in this action heavy instalment. The reboot universe Klingons are fierce and intimidating although we don’t really get to know much about them. The real plot kicks into gear once Harrison is brought on board the Enterprise. Taunting and teasing Kirk in equal measure, he prompts the crew of the Enterprise to investigate the motives of Admiral Marcus, the man who sent them on the mission in the first place. Harrison is revealed to be none other than Khan Noonien Singh, and offers an alliance to bring down the Starfleet conspirators and save his Botany Bay crew.
In the beginning of the story, there is at least an attempt to explore how the events of “Space Seed” would have played out differently in this timeline but once Cumberbatch makes his growly declamation of his identity – a moment which is played as the dramatic pivot of the film – all bets are off and it becomes a tedious riffing on somebody else’s ideas. This is the cheapest, laziest point of the film, and it acts as the anchor which drags the last hour down. This new “Star Trek” was sold on the basis that you didn’t need to know anything of what came before, because it was all new. The Khan reveal (already corrupted and diminished by a spectacularly misjudged pre-release campaign of teasing and denial) is completely meaningless and devoid of any drama for both the characters and the audience, unless you’ve seen “The Wrath Of Khan”. This film is literally feeding off the drama of another movie to sustain itself: it’s a narrative vampire; a continuity parasite. Interestingly, it’s clearly shot and edited with a pause to allow a dramatic scored sting in the scene but experienced composer Michael Giacchino wisely opts for the absence of music to reflect the import of the scene. And as for the lifted-straight-from-the-“Wrath Of Khan”-script final act, swapping the characters around doesn’t make it fresh and clever – it makes it cheap and empty. The moments between Kirk and Spock at the end of “The Wrath Of Khan” have such emotional weight and power because these characters have earned it over eighty previous adventures that we’ve seen and a thousand we’ve imagined. When this universe’s Kirk and Spock try to mimic it, we don’t buy it because they’ve spent three hours together and spent most of that time bickering or being enemies and to have Spock scream ‘Khaaaaaan!’ is just risible, although it fits with the general Abrams theme of ‘it’s all about Spock’. That being said, the moment when Quinto’s Spock contacts Spock Prime to ask how to deal with Khan is literally the worst. ‘Contacting Old Spock’ is Trek’s equivalent to ‘Nuking The Fridge’ or ‘Jumping The Shark’. I hope Old Spock mentioned that once they’d dealt with Khan, they might want to get a wiggle on and travel back in time to get some humpback whales as it’ll save a lot of hassle in the long run.
Chris Pine’s Kirk continues to be the worst “Star Trek” captain ever, his aggressive dickishness toned down a little from the first movie (I’m not going to dwell on the puerile alien threesome scene) but his ability to command still severely curtailed. There isn’t a scene where Kirk has an idea or gives a command and it sticks. Usually, somebody else suggests an alternative and Kirk changes his mind. This happens throughout the film, and yet nobody seems to question why he’s in charge if all he ever does if flip-flop when decisions are made.
Quinto continues to do good work as Spock (as he should, he is the lead character) but is still saddled with the unconvincing romance with Uhura which has several sitcom-esque moments of relationship problems for ‘comedic effect’ during the movie. The rest of the crew get very little to do but repeat the same old lines as their predecessors while they sit at their stations. Anton Yelchin’s Chekov gets particularly shafted as he’s packed off to the engine room and hardly appears in the rest of the movie, allowing Scotty and his sidekick Keenser (Deep Roy) to stumble upon the bad guys’ secret lair and do lots of funny running and being out of breath.
Of the guest cast, Peter Weller is suitably bullish as the righteous Admiral Marcus and his conspiracy to provoke a war with the Klingons is the only plot element not to come from “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan”. It comes from “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” instead. Alice Eve as the Admiral’s daughter Carol is completely unnecessary in this film, existing only to emphasise the parallels with “The Wrath Of Khan” and provide a gratuitously clumsy bit of titillation. Benedict Cumberbatch is in full scenery chewing mode and makes for an entertaining antagonist, but it’s hard to shake the impression that the Khan he thinks he’s playing is Shere Khan of “The Jungle Book” and not Khan Noonien Singh.
Not being content with sneaking in as much “Star Wars” as possible last time round, JJ looks to bring in even more “Star” franchises this time, invoking “Stargate” in the use of the trans-warp beaming technology. If Starfleet has the technology to beam across galactic distances at will, Admiral Marcus’ paranoia makes no sense. At the merest hint of a threat, he could just beam a weapon of mass destruction to the homeworld of the enemy and job done. As usual, behind of the flash and spectacle, there’s little thought and no logic.
As it stumbles to its action-packed finale, common sense is again jettisoned out the airlock as the two crippled and adrift starships which are behind the Moon, begin to fall, having been caught by gravity. Not of the Moon, mind you, but by the Earth which is over 240,000 miles away. Once the action crashes back down to Earth (it feels like we’ve never been away and like the Enterprise spends more time in the atmosphere than in outer space), the real reason for the switch becomes clear. With Kirk ‘dead’, the path is clear for the true hero of the “Star Trek” movies, Spock, to have the action packed chase and fight before Kirk is conveniently resurrected using a Khan’s blood serum that McCoy whips up from nothing like a miraculous medical “Ready, Steady, Cook!”. That’s right, kids. In JJ Abrams “Star Trek”, there’s no need for starships anymore and nobody can die. You can just feel the dramatic potential of the third film, can’t you?
As per his previous effort, there are good things about this movie. The interior of the Enterprise is much better realised this time out, although certain design elements are clearly there for dramatic potential rather than good ship design. In a starship where space would be at a premium, why would it ever make sense to have a multi-floor atrium running vertically through the ship? Sure, it looks nice, but it’s a hell of a waste of space. The score, once again by Michael Giacchino, is richer, darker and more confident than the previous one and having heard it performed by a live orchestra and choir accompanying the film, I can confirm it is far,far better than the movie deserves. To be fair, the action scenes and battles are thumpingly good, with the weapons having real and devastating impact but the same problem remains: the things these films are good at are not “Star Trek” things. As a sci-fi action adventure, “Star Trek Into Darkness” is a great improvement over 2009’s “Star Trek”, which itself was a fairly decent space opera but neither of them are quintessentially Star Trek. You’d think being better than the previous one would get it a better score but its egregious plundering of earlier films makes any improvements in other areas ultimately a zero sum game.
With JJ Abrams going off to make “Star Wars: Episode VII”, it looks like there will be more changes behind the scenes as they gear up for the third film. Abrams will still produce but the reality is his Lucasfilm duties will keep him from having too much influence and with the Orci/ Kurtzman partnership dissolving we can expect a new writing approach. “Into Darkness” does end on the promising note of the crew embarking on the five year mission we know and love, so there’s a possibility they consider this film their “Skyfall”: the prequels are done, everything is where we remember it to be and now we’re set for all new adventures. It appears Robert Orci will be handed the director’s chair for the third instalment, no doubt targeting a 2016 50th Anniversary release and of the three previous writers, he may be the least bad choice from a fan point of view. Reputedly, he is a huge fan of “Star Trek” and, if rumours are true, was opposed to using Khan at all in “Into Darkness”. That’s enough for me to give him the benefit of the doubt and you can bet that come 2016, my ass will be in a 3D IMAX seat to see where Trek is boldly going.
Space…the final frontier,
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
It’s ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds,
To seek out new life and new civilisations…
To boldly go where no-one has gone before.