Star Trek film theory: 50 years, 13 films, odds good, evens bad? Horta puckey!
How Kirk and Co bested Star Wars
Star Trek @ 50 So how many Star Trek fans does it take to change a lightbulb? As long as there are two, four, six or eight of them, it doesn’t matter. But you can forget about decent illumination if there are one, three, five, seven or nine of them.
Thirteen episodes in - and 50 years ago on Thursday after the original series that spawned them aired on US TV - and I’m tired of hearing the old “even numbers good, odd numbers bad” claim about all those Star Trek films.
It’s just so much Horta shit. Film number two, Wrath of Khan, is fine, but three, Search for Spock, which should be awful, is OK. Now, four, The Voyage Home – an even number, you’ll note - is a Mad magazine parody. Film eight, First Contact, deserves a thumbs-up, but nine, Insurrection, though weak is much less risible than ten, My Boy Romulan... er... Nemesis.
So you see, the old saw is just plain wrong. And so is the as widely held notion that the first two films to introduce Enterprise crews to wider audiences - Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: Generations - top the list of bad ones. Not so. Indeed, unlike their franchise fellows, odd or even, I think they present quintessential Trek stories that offer emotional and intellectual depth as well as explosions. The problem with most Trek films: they want to be Star Wars, and Trek done properly is not space opera.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, showed the USS Enterprise from a different angle
In the case of the first Trek movie, 1979’s The Motion Picture (ST:MP), Star Wars really was to blame. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had finally been given the chance to reboot the series when, as if from deepest space, a long-forgotten genre arrived to threaten Hollywood. For Paramount, only one ship could intercept the threat in time… to cash in on it. Like the long lost V’ger probe, space opera was an old genre given a new vehicle of conquest: Star Wars. Visual SF would never be the same again.
Space opera. Per favore... no
Certainly not Star Trek, which hastily upgraded from new TV series to big-screen, effects-filled extravaganza - ironically, since it had only recently been shifted in the opposite direction. Close Encounters of the Third Kind showed that more cerebral SciFi had a market, so perhaps Trek and Wars could co-exist.
Nice try, but no. Even casual Trek fans grumbled that Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as the film was pretentiously titled, was just an extended TV episode with big-budget effects padding. Everyone else wanted to know where the space battles and the monochrome heroes and villains were.
Yet the absence of these Star Wars stalwarts was the whole point; Star Trek is not space opera. Star Wars is basically Flash Gordon - captive princesses, rescues, moustache-twiddling baddies, beardy boffins, amusing sidekicks, and clean-cut, gun toting heroes. Trek was more nuanced than this comic-book stuff. Yes, ”intellectual” with a small “I”, but still a show that was more interested in concepts than gunfights.
The TV series had had to be. It’s both costly and boring to have nothing but space-battle stories every week, especially with the limits of 1960s FX. So Trek replaced violence with variety. The three TV series featured time-travel stories (City on the Edge of Forever), space exploration stories, surreal stories (Spectre of the Gun), monster stories (Operation: Annihilate! )… heck, even submarine stories (Balance of Terror). In fact, pretty much every science fiction sub-genre but space opera.
Not the Spock you know: our Vulcan tries to banish his human side in Motion Picture
For me, as a kid growing up in the 1970s, this is what made Star Trek fascinating. Lurid purple lighting aside, it was right at home with the bizarre worlds of Doctor Who and 2000AD. Yes, I loved Star Wars - what 11-year-old boy wouldn’t? - but Trek was different, brainier. And so was ST:MP.
What's wrong with that Star Trek floppy?
So let’s look at some of the film’s “flaws”. Yes, veteran director Robert Wise’s direction is slow, but it’s not beyond the parameters of the period in which it was shot. Star Wars was fast, but most films up until then were not. .Star Wars. is rightly called “the first film of the 1980s”: its pacing and approach to storytelling were not contemporary but heralded a new style which quickly came to dominate. This is why most kids of my generation didn’t much care for earlier science fiction films, and why a lot of today’s children don’t like black-and-white films. They all learned a different, later film grammar.
Wise’s disservice to the movie is really all the time spent gawping at the new-look Enterprise. But this was really Paramount chiefs insisting - or Wise anticipating them - that audiences would want to see as much stuff “outside” the Enterprise as within it. And, yes, what you want to see in big-screen science-fiction entertainment is model work on a massive scale.
On board the Enterprise we have the key cast members reprising their original roles as if they had never been away. Bridge dependables Sulu, Chekov and Uhura are, respectively, as stolidly professional, as cheeky and as able to open hailing frequencies as ever. Down in engineering, Scotty doesn’t get as flustered by warp drive fubars as he used to, but he has just rebuilt the entire bloody ship.
Star Wars's Monochrome heroes and villains problem for Star Trek
William Shatner is spot on as the lionised captain forced by his own success into a desk job he hates but suddenly given the chance to have his cake and eat it too. Away from the hotseat, he’s forgotten how much he relies on his teammates. The movie is his journey of re-discovery.
It’s Spock’s journey too. Critics complained Leonard Nimoy wasn’t his old self, but that was because Spock is attempting, very much in character, to rid himself of his human side and become the Vulcan he believes he should be. He fails to do so because he just can’t resist the call of the unknown. Re-engaging with his Enterprise crewmates and encountering V’ger shows him who he really is, and that’s who he was all along.
McCoy doesn’t change, but here it’s the doctor’s role to be the midwife of Kirk and Spock’s renaissance - and thus the rebirth of the franchise itself. DeForest Kelley has less opportunity to angrily denounce Spock’s alien nature - another gripe of the film’s critics - but then we don’t get the once-obligatory chumminess and chuckles at the end of the “episode” either, so it’s not all bad. We do get a pithy exchange as the newly enlightened V’ger, offspring of one of the most dazzling shag metaphors in film history, sets off for challenges new.
ST:MP can‘t help but feel like the pilot episode it so nearly was: 90 minutes of TV show brutally extended with 42 minutes of effects shots only a film budget could make possible - hence the grouse that it was just an effects movie. But if we take a little too long to get to payoff as a result, you can’t deny a great reveal. What seems archly alien is suddenly exposed as a very human artefact. And timely too: the two Voyager probes were launched in 1977, with much publicity, so the idea of space probes were in the public consciousness when .ST:MP. was released.
But so was Star Wars. ST:MP with its over-extended effects shots and lack of gunfights and laser swords seemed dry by comparison. Roddenberry’s baby was taken into care and handed to foster parents who were keener that it fit in than demonstrate its individuality. The result: the much more popular Wrath of Khan unquestionably exciting but not what Trek was supposed to be about.
Retelling the Star Trek story
Now if ST:MP is all about birth, Star Trek: Generations (ST:G) is about death. And, appropriately, re-birth. ST:MP emerged out of Gene Roddenberry’s attempt to reboot the original series in the late 1970s as Star Trek 2 and ST:G derived from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was the true realisation of Roddenberry’s vision.
The creator didn’t live to see his new Enterprise crew make their own move from the small screen to the big. Had he done so, he’d have understood that ST:G had the same problem ST:MP had: how to introduce the current Star Trek universe to a new audience of filmgoers rather than fans without selling out to the-lasers-and-explosions crowd.
This time, the producers could at least start with the familiar. Enter Kirk, Scotty and Chekov to give a new Enterprise an official send-off. This is not Star Fleet protocol, of course, but PR stunt, both on screen and off, as the new ship and crew - Enterprise B and new film franchise - must be seen to get the approval of its famous predecessors.
Meanwhile, two ship-fulls of refugees attempt to sail to a place where their every wish can be fulfilled only to find the crossing more hazardous than they imagined. No, not economic migrants trying to get into Europe but El-Aurian survivors of a Borg assault suddenly needing Star Fleet assistance.
The rescue is as successful as it can be - two stars and a handful of extras are recovered - but Kirk nobly dies saving the ship. Out with the old and, 78 years later, in with the new, and a Trek where the Klingons are no longer the bad guys, holodeck technology can make us feel like we’re all at sea, and we have a captain who’s not wearing a rug.
Star Trek is basically Flash Gordon – except a bit more "intellectual"
And not only does Captain Picard lack hair but he’s missing a stiff upper lip too. We soon see him blubbing over the death of his nephew and pondering his own mortality. These 24th Century types are more in tune with their feelings, man, than those 23rd Century ruffians, and it’s his emotional maturity that allows Picard - wisely the focus of the piece - to understand that the Nexus, the energy field the El-Aurians were trying to enter 78 years ago, really doesn’t bring it all back home.
This isn’t just a story about blowing up Klingon spaceships, but a meditation on the meaning of mortality. Picard’s enlightened - dare we say Californian - outlook is contrasted with El-Aurian boffin Dr Tolian Soran who has also seen loved ones lost but, unlike Picard, won’t accept the fact. You can’t help but sympathise. Picard, ever the academic, says: “It’s our mortality that defines us.”
Yet the Nexus is just a sham: a solipsistic dream concocted by the vistor’s sub-conscience for his or her own benefit that’s no more real than the Enterprise D’s holodeck. Picard is to just too urbane to accept any of that. Kirk was always wilder, less disciplined so it’s no surprise that he can’t see the Nexus for what it is, though he can’t call upon Whoopie Goldberg to put him right. So it’s Picard’s job to free Kirk from the comfort zone and get him - and the franchise - back on track.
As Kirk faces fate in Generations the film franchise discovers its TV roots
ST:G’s most popular character, the android Data, doesn’t quite get the introduction he deserves, and the sub-plot with the emotion chip feels contrived. But his journey does fit the film’s overall theme of accommodating life changes rather than trying to wish the bad stuff away.
Even Kirk figures it out, kind of. History thinks him dead, so Kirk faces up to that sentence. Roll credits and the old order changeth yielding place to the new, and none of the key players are quite the same people they were at the start. ®