In which I discuss my views on the six movies with the original series cast only. I may end up with my nerd card revoked for this one. There is a saying about “Star Trek” movies – “Even-numbered Trek movies don’t suck.” This implies two things – odd-numbered Trek movies do suck, and the best that can be said about the others is that they don’t suck. This is not a very high bar for a set of movies.
I liked the original television series, for all the low-budget movie props and badly choreographed fight scenes. I’m not entirely sure what the creator of the series intended, but I always thought the idea of Star Trek was to explore ideas, some controversial, within the relatively safe shell of science-fiction (it’s not pointed satire, it’s make-believe, see!). Not all the episodes were very good. Some had interesting premises but the execution was poor. Of course, the series wasn’t exactly high-brow cinema either. Captain James T. Kirk seduced women and often punched people. Dr. McCoy was comically curmudgeonly at times. Chekov was adorably foreign. Sulu was capably foreign. Scotty was contractually obligated to perform miracles. Uhura answered the phone which was considered progressive for both women’s and civil rights. And Spock watched it all, supposedly unemotional but definitely bemused/irritated, and made sarcastic comments on the illogical behavior of his shipmates. For the time, the cast really was diverse. I should also probably note that I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation before I got a chance to see the original series, so that may be affecting my opinion.
So, where does this leave the movies? Well, I’m going to say it – I don’t think all the odd-numbered movies sucked. I know, I know, that’s totally against conventional wisdom. I will at least explain why, so perhaps my nerd card will not be revoked.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – This is actually the most Trekkie of the original movies to me. There’s a strange alien life form headed to Earth, and the crew is sent to investigate. It’s pretty cerebral (and I am told by a co-worker who saw it in the theater after smoking some…cigarettes, shall we say, that it was also pretty darn trippy). The alien captures one of the crew members (one of the hottest bald women I’ve ever seen in cinema) to use as its ambassador. The alien calls itself “Vger” and is looking for its creator, which it believes is on Earth. There is of course drama as the crew has no idea who the creator is, and Vger becomes more and more agitated. And also, the brash new captain (who of course clashes with Kirk) who was not in the original series is in love with the woman who became the ambassador. When they find out that “Vger” is actually one of the Voyager spacecraft (both of which despite being launched in 1977 are still working and well on their way out of our solar system) that was found by a race of intelligent machine-aliens and upgraded. Once Vger had attained sentience, it decided to return home to find its creator. Vger wasn’t exactly thrilled to find out its creator was in fact an advanced species of primate, but ended up merging with the crewman who was in love with the bald woman to create a brand new life form. It also has a 44% freshness rating, and a rating of 6.3 out of 10 stars. I think people thought there just wasn’t enough action.
And it doesn’t suck because – This sounds to me like a darn good Trek episode. There’s a love drama (not with Kirk, although he was clearly checking out the bald woman), Kirk trying to prove he’s still Kirk to an upstart youngster, and a mystery to solve that could have dire consequences. Who is Vger? What is Vger? Why does it want to get to Earth so badly? I thought the reveal that Vger was one of Earth’s own spacecraft was a neat twist. It begs the question of what is God, and what is a lifeform? What are the consequences of sending bottles out into the cosmic ocean?
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – this is a movie made for Trek fans. The main baddie comes from an actual episode of the original series and the end of the movie has no emotional impact unless the audience know Kirk and Spock. Khan’s overacting was a great match for Kirk’s overacting (much scenery was chewed), and the end is legitimately emotional. It has a 91% freshness rating and 7.7 out of 10 stars.
And it doesn’t suck because – I’m not going to say this sucks; not at all. But I don’t think it’s the best of the original six movies either (which could also get my nerd card revoked). On the surface, it’s really a pretty generic action plot:
–Brash Hero is now middle-aged is now removed from the action and teaching the next generation, but longs for his glory days. Coincidence leads him to an Old Flame he left 20 years ago when he was young and stupid. Old Flame has a child (in this case a son) about 20 years old. Hero does not put two and two together. Old Flame is working on a world-changing technology that in the wrong hands could be a terrible weapon. Enter a Bad Guy from the Hero’s past to take the technology and also takes Old Flame and Child hostage. In the course of this, Hero finds out Child is his child. Bad Guy kills Old Flame and/or Child to hurt Hero (in this case, just the Child). Hero swears revenge but is outmatched by the Bad Guy at every turn. When all looks lost, the Hero’s unorthodox, out-of-the-box, brash thinking combined with the Bad Guy’s arrogance wins the day, although at further great cost in the form of a heroic sacrifice (in this case, the Hero’s Best Friend).–
To me, this is one of the least Trekkie of the movies precisely because the plot is so generic. I know, there are only so many plots, but when a plot could as easily be set in the modern day as it could space, then I feel it’s barely science fiction. Also, I’m not saying action is bad, either. The first movie would have benefited from some more action. But this movie is almost entirely action. What makes this a Trek movie is, again, the emotional reaction from the audience pretty much relies on knowing who these people are. And if you do, wow, is that ending a punch to the gut. Otherwise, it’s a medium-budget, serviceable action flick set in space.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – This is actually a direct sequel to “II” and picks up right where “II” left off, with a despondent crew and a dead Mr. Spock. Spock’s father Sarek tells Kirk that Spock’s thoughts survived inside of Dr. McCoy’s mind and that they need to try to find his body. Unfortunately there’s a problem in that Kirk loses command of the Enterprise and is told to go back to his desk job. Kirk being Kirk, he’s not about to let pesky little things like rules or regulations keep him from saving an old friend, even if it means effectively stealing the new Enterprise. Having buried the body on the planet that was being terraformed by the world-changing technology in the last movie, they head there while McCoy is having serious multiple-personality issues (occasionally to comedic effect). It turns out a technology that can bring a dead planet to life can also bring a dead Vulcan to life, although it also turns out such technology is incredibly unstable and dangerous. And of course, everyone’s favorite Trek baddies the Klingons get right in the middle to mess everything up. In the end, Spock and McCoy are returned to their own bodies with perhaps just a bit more respect for each other, and Kirk destroys the brand-new Enterprise he just stole. It got a 78% freshness rating (not bad at all for an odd-numbered Trek) and 6.5 out of 10 stars.
And why it doesn’t suck – The premise is interesting, if perhaps a little comic book-ish (I am 95% certain “dead dude stores brain in someone else while waiting for resurrection” describes what’s going on with Charles Xavier right now). The actor playing McCoy does a good job portraying a man literally of two minds. Kirk is Kirk, as I said, and damn rules and regulations because friendship is magic! I mean, important. A lot of this does rely on those relationships between the crew members the audience is expected to be familiar with. The movie also shows that creating life is not an easy task, and that humanity has a long way to go to be on par with God.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – Really, II-IV are one big trilogy. So having fetched Spock and gotten him and McCoy in their right minds again (well, McCoy more than Spock since Spock basically had to grow up all over again), the crew are heading back to Earth presumably to face some serious charges of insubordination and theft. Their ship back is a stolen Klingon ship, because nothing says, “Please don’t charge me with mutiny,” while returning in your sworn enemy’s spaceship. Fortunately for them, an alien spaceship is in the process of destroying the Earth and they are the only ones who can save it. Except they can’t. Spock informs them the aliens are trying to talk to humpback whales, which are extinct. But Kirk is Kirk and won’t let pesky things like “the laws of physics” and “ripple effects in the space-time continuum” stop him from saving Earth. They go back in time to late 1980s San Francisco to find some whales and steal them (and just happen to have a ship with a cloaking device). This allows them to take full advantage of the “fish out of water” premise (ba da dum!), especially since Spock is still kind of loopy. Also, I guess when they get the two whales back to the future, the whales tell the alien probe everything’s fine and then later the poor whales find out everything’s wrong. Anyway, it has an 85% freshness rating and 7.2 out of 10 stars.
And why it doesn’t suck – it doesn’t. It’s part of the reason conventional wisdom says even-numbered Trek films don’t suck. It’s a wholly different tone than the previous three movies, or even the two in this trilogy. It’s much more comedic and has a nice, if unsubtle environmental message. I like this one and think it’s a good Trek movie. There isn’t as much generic action flick action plot and it plays around with the concepts of unforeseen consequences and time travel.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – Spock’s fully Vulcan half-brother is the hippie-dippie leader of a peace cult that steals a spaceship to go find God at the center of the galaxy. Sybok also has the ability to use the Penance Stare, I mean, help people face their “inner pain” which has the net effect of brain-washing them. Also, it turns out God is just a trapped alien and Sybok sacrifices himself to allow the crew to escape by using his Penance Stare, I mean, making the alien face its inner pain. It has a 21% freshness rating and 5.2 out of 10 stars.
And why it doesn’t suck – yeah, it sucks. It totally sucks. I only said I didn’t think all odd-numbered Trek movies sucked. This one really does. The premise might have been interesting considering the other movies do have underlying questions about the nature of God, but the execution was poor and the “twist” was something everyone saw a mile away.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – Kirk and McCoy are about to retire from Starfleet once and for all. The Federation is busy negotiating peace with the Klingons when a high-ranking Klingon official is assassinated and Kirk and McCoy are tried, convicted, and sentenced to a prison planet for the crime. Spock and Co. head out to find the real culprits, exonerate Kirk and McCoy, and salvage peace negotiations. Kirk and McCoy try not to get killed on the prison planet while working on their own investigation. Eventually the crew all meet up again and have discovered the assassination was a Klingon plot to frame Kirk and McCoy and start a war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. It has a freshness rating of 83% and 7.1 out of 10 stars.
And why it doesn’t suck – it’s pretty good, actually. There are definitely some comedic elements to it (“Captain, not every species keeps its genitals in the same place”), some lively action sequences with a scenery-chewing bad guy, some investigation and conspiracy theories, and in the end a crew that has done great things but is still trying to define their place in the stars. They fly into space to decommission the Enterprise using a line from Peter Pan. It’s a very Trek send-off, to my mind. The way it ends indicates the journey isn’t really over yet.
How would I rate them? I’d put VI at the top and V way, way, way, way down at the bottom. Every other movie is better than V by at least an order of magnitude. But I don’t think the Motion Picture and III actually suck. I think they’re pretty decent.
So, can I keep my nerd card?