Picking up where we left off (because where else can you pick up?), the battle lines among the Resurgent staff have been drawn. Star Wars devotees squabbled over the malleability of midichlorians. Indy fans argued over which franchise had the best sequel. And the Trekkers--well, that would be Steve Berman and me, because obviously none of these other jokers have the taste and sophistication required to truly appreciate Star Trek--mused on whether a phaser would be more effective than a blaster against a lightsaber-wielding Sith Lord because it can fire a continuous beam. This back and forth pretty much went on the whole day, resulting in an email chain the likes of which we haven't seen since we debated the cultishness of Instant Pot owners. I think Andy Crawford said it best when he tweeted:
It can safely be said that at the Resurgent, we stick to the important issues.
Which moves us on to the next item in our very scientific study--if by scientific, you mean the kind of plausibility on display in your average Sid and Marty Krofft Supershow. So set your phasers to stun and give the engines all they've got, because we're about to take you where no science-fiction franchise has gone before. That's right--we're talkin' 'bout...
And boy, is there a lot of Star Trek. While the original series spanned a mere 80 episodes (if you include the original rejected pilot), followed by a generally well-received animated series that extended the show for another two seasons, that was nothing compared to what would come over a decade later when Star Trek: The Next Generation returned the franchise to television. That particular series ran for seven years, and along the way gave birth to the spinoffs Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. And just last year, CBS launched its own streaming service with yet another incarnation of Star Trek called Discovery (which, in my humble opinion, pretty much blew chunks--but that's another story). The sheer volume of episodes makes it impossible to discuss them all, and since we're supposed to be comparing movies I thought we'd just stick to the Star Trek films featuring the crew from the original series.
It really is weird to think that the era of the Trek film started almost 40 years ago itself. Paramount, which owned the franchise at the time, had been noodling around with the idea of relaunching Star Trek with a brand new series in the mid-70s, but decided to shelve those plans in the wake of Star Wars and its mind-boggling box office take. After that, the suits told series creator Gene Roddenberry that they wanted a full-blown movie--and they gave him a $40 million budget to make it, a sum that was unheard of at the time. The result was 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which reunited all of the original crew and put them under the direction of Robert Wise, the famed Hollywood auteur behind West Side Story. With that combination, you would have thought they couldn't lose--but, alas, instead of the Klingons and the Federation slugging it out like the Jets and the Sharks in space, we got long, plodding shots of a beautiful new starship Enterprise cruising the stars set to a gorgeous score by Jerry Goldsmith. More in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey than he happy, go-lucky space opera spirit of Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a financial success but something of a critical--and more importantly, fan-panne--disaster.
As for me, I actually liked it, and to this day it's probably the movie I've seen more times than any other. A DVD release of a director's cut back in 2001 (how appropriate!) patched some of the holes and updated the special effects and was generally considered much better than the original cut that was rushed into theaters--but even at that, the movie is considered to be painfully slow, overly cerebral and an example of why Gene Roddenberry shouldn't have been allowed to make a Star Trek movie. Thank God the studio at least nixed his idea to have Captain Kirk and Jesus get into a fight on the bridge of the Enterprise. And no, in case you were wondering, I am not making that up.
So a couple of years pass, and Paramount decides they want to have another go at the franchise--only this time they got smart and bypassed Roddenberry, approaching producer Harve Bennett with the idea. "Sure," Bennett--a television producer with a long line of credits--told the suits. "I can do that." The suits, for their part, had only one question: "Can you do it for less that 40 f*cking million dollars?" Bennett said he could make four movies for that, and still have money left over. Paramount gave him the job, threw some cash at Roddenberry to keep him on the sidelines, and the result was 1982's Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan--universally considered the best of all of the Star Trek films.
Khan is flawless in its execution. The story is simple, but effective. Its treatment of the characters is reverent, but not stodgy. The pace is brisk, and the space battles to this day represent some of the most clever I've ever seen. Most importantly, however, the film gave us, in Ricardo Montalban's performance as Khan Noonien Singh, the most powerful villain the franchise has ever known. And he hasn't been topped since.
Two years later brought us Star Trek III: the Search for Spock, which Bennett said was a companion piece to Star Trek II. He was quite correct in that observation--and while the film can seem a bit dated and cheesy at times, it remains generally faithful to the characters and even has a sly sense of humor. I can recall not being overly impressed with the film when I first saw it during its original release in theaters, but years later watching it with my kids I was actually surprised how well it held up. William Shatner keeps his performance nicely understated too, for which we can probably thank Leonard Nimoy, who made his feature directorial debut with this film.
Nimoy returned to the director's chair with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which remains a fan favorite even if the whole save-the-whales storyline is a bit over the top and the time travel element had already been done to death. But Nimoy proved he knew these characters better than anyone, and by dropping them in the middle of 20th century San Francisco and letting them do their stuff, he gives Kirk and company the opportunity to let everything hang out. It's pure, lighthearted fun all around, and neatly wraps up the story arc that started with Wrath of Khan. It's also the only Trek movie I saw where the audience actually cheered the screen.
Next came the unmentionable Star Trek V: The Final Frontier--also lovingly known as Star Trek V: Shatner's Ego. Figuring he should get a shot at the directing gig after Nimoy had done two of the movies, Paramount gave William Shatner the reins--literally--and let him go to town. And Lordy, are the results a big mess. To be fair, it wasn't totally Shatner's fault. The studio seriously chintzed out on the special effects budget, and the results showed. The biggest problems, though were with the story: a renegade Vulcan named Sybok, who also happens to be Spock's half brother (say WHA?) commandeers the Enterprise so that he can go off to the center of the Galaxy where he expects to find God. Literally. Along the way, we're treated to such cringeworthy moments as a drunk Dr. McCoy singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" around a campfire and Kirk trying to give Spock a hug, to which Spock says, "Please, Captain. Not in front of the Klingons." That must've given slashfic writers fuel for years.
The original series of films wrapped up with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Having learned their lesson with Shatner on the last flick, Paramount wisely handed directorial duties back to Nicholas Meyer, who had directed The Wrath of Khan. Meyer also largely wrote the screenplay for VI, which he turned into a parable for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, casting the Klingons in the Russian role when their empire is suddenly faced with extinction after a horrible accident on a nearby moon. Their choice is to make an uneasy peace with the Federation or die--an effort that certain segments of both the Federation and the Klingon High Command would rather see fail. Political intrigue, assassination plots, and a great turn from Christopher Plummer as the Klingon General Chang make this a rousing thriller.
So let's tally up the results, shall we?
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture - A big, thoughtful storyline during which you could fall asleep for extended periods and not really miss anything. Zzzzz....
- Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan - A grand space opera all about revenge and redemption, with the greatest Trek villain of all time. If you don't like this movie, I don't like you.
- Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - Spoiler alert: they find Spock--but you knew that already! Good but not great, so probably a B- if I were to give it a grade.
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Fan favorite fun, where all of the characters get to romp. Probably the easiest film for a non-Trek fan to watch, and that counts for something.
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Would have been better if the campfire scene had aped Blazing Saddles. I would have paid to see Mr. Spock fart, but as it stands the movie was a waste of my time and the studio's money.
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - The title quotes Hamlet, so you know this one is gonna be heavy. A couple of plot holes bog it down and the timing suffers from the same problems as Luke Skywalker's visit to Dagobah, but nothing serious enough to distract from your enjoyment of the film.
By my reckoning, that puts the original Star Trek movies at 3.5/6.
Coming up next: Romance! Adventure! And a hero named after the family dog! Y'all come back now, ya hear?