Brief Reviews: Star Trek Movies I-VI   2 comments

Above:  The Starship Enterprise, NCC-1701, from Star Trek:  The Motion Picture (1979)

A Screen Capture

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Preliminary Statements

A few preliminary statements will prove helpful before I get into the meat of this post:

  1. I have been a fan of Star Trek for a long time.  I used to watch the original series in reruns–sometimes on weekends and, when possible, weekdays–and record episodes.  I remember stumbling upon an occasional episode of the animated series (1973-1975) on cable television in the early 1990s.  I recall when I could count the number of movies on one hand and have fingers left over.  I remember watching The Next Generation (1987-1994) in first run.  I have watched every Star Trek movie and most episodes.  I watched every episode all the way through Voyager (1995-2001).  I abandoned Star Trek:  Enterprise (2001-2005) early in the third season, for I was tired of subjecting myself to that series after two years.
  2. Certain Star Trek fans are fanatical to the point of leaving vicious comments online.  I have no use for such behavior.  This is entertainment, not a matter of life and death.  William Shatner’s “Get a life” sketch from Saturday Night Live (1986) rings true for many people.
  3. One can find many podcasts and videos regarding Star Trek episodes and movies.  Unfortunately, many of the creators of these media (A) swear enough to embarrass even the most profane sailors, (B) are hyper-critical, to the point of pettiness, and/or (C) speak out of their ignorance.  All of this irritates me.  I respond by ceasing to watch such videos and listen to such podcasts.
  4. On the other hand, many reviewers, working in written, audio, and audio-visual media, do speak and write out of their knowledge.  I am especially fond of the reviews at tor.com, for example.
  5. My intention in this post is neither to write all that I know regarding the first six Star Trek movies nor to replicate the work of others.  (I know far more about these movies than I have written here.)  No, I plan to be concise and to contextualize these films according to each other.  My most basic standard regarding any of the Star Trek movies is whether I want to place the disc in my Blu-ray player, press the “play” button on the remote control, and watch the movie from beginning to end without skipping any scenes.
  6. No work of human beings is perfect, of course, but it can be enjoyable and well-crafted.  I seek to find the good and praise it, imperfect as it might be.

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture (1979)

A Screen Capture

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture exists in various versions, all of which suffer from the same problems, with their origins in the story itself.  The story, such as it is, is an adaptation of a pilot for a television series Paramount never made.  The movie also overextends the plot and focuses more on special effects than on characters.  The best Star Trek stories have to do with characters.  In this movie, however, characters in pastel pajama-like uniforms gaze at special effects for long periods of time.  Speaking of the story, I like the concise version of it–The Changeling, an episode of the original series.

Nevertheless, The Motion Picture does have its virtues.  The overture, Ilia’s Theme, is gorgeous, the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith is majestic, and the Enterprise receives all the respect due such an august vessel.  I enjoy looking at the Enterprise, so I like the sequence in which Kirk, Scotty, and, by extension, the audience members, look at the refit ship’s exterior for six minutes.  This is a movie for people with long attention spans, not individuals with the attention spans of fleas with ADHD.

I rank The Motion Picture near the bottom of the first six Star Trek movies, for, after the ship leaves the orbit of Earth, I start skipping scenes.  To paraphrase George Lucas from a Star Wars documentary from the 1980s, a special effect without a story is boring.

Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan (1982)

A Screen Capture

I thrill to play this movie from beginning to end, without interruption.

The Wrath of Khan also exists in various editions.  I prefer the director’s cut, for that version includes nice character moments and background information absent from the theatrical edition.

The Wrath of Khan, the first installment in the accidental trilogy, is a movie I have memorized.  I can anticipate every line of dialogue while watching it.  Also, whenever I listen to the soundtrack, I can visualize the germane scene.  This is my favorite Star Trek film.  It is the favorite Star Trek movie of many people.  It is so popular and influential, in fact, that Paramount Pictures has released remakes and bastardizations of it, namely Star Trek:  Nemesis (2002) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), both of which I consider barely watchable.

The stars align in The Wrath of Khan.  Ricardo Montalban is excellent as the poetic and insane Khan, the “majestic maroon” uniforms are wonderful, the theme of aging resonates well, the death of Spock is gut-wrenching, and Admiral Kirk realizes the truth of his statement that

How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.

I cannot heap enough praise on this film, for its flaws are minor.

Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock (1984)

A screen capture

Leonard Nimoy’s debut as a cinematic director is a wonderful story of self-sacrifice for a friend.  Admiral Kirk and the other heroes from the original series risk their careers and destroy the decommisioned Enterprise to reunite Spock’s body (regenerating on the Genesis Planet) with his katra (resident in Dr. McCoy).

Here is another movie I enjoy watching from beginning to end, without skipping any scenes.  Yes, Star Trek III is not as good as Star Trek II.  Yes, the leisure wear is horrid.  Yes, the chairs on the bridge of the U.S.S. Grissom are pink.  Nevertheless, the Excelsior and Oberth Classes of starships debut in this film.  They, in combination with the Miranda Class (from Star Trek II) add up to three new classes of starships, thereby expanding the Starfleet on-screen.  Furthermore, the enclosed Spacedock makes its first appearance in Star Trek III.

My favorite aspect of Star Trek III is the character work.  Out of friendship Kirk and company make themselves criminals to rescue Spock, who had sacrificed himself to ensure that the Enterprise could escape from the Genesis Wave in Star Trek II.  Star Trek III has plenty of heart.

Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home (1986)

A screen capture

The Voyage Home, for all of its plot holes and a few pointless scenes, is fun.  I have no difficulty watching it from beginning to end, without skipping scenes.

Much of the appeal of Star Trek IV is the fish-out-of-water plot for our heroes.  Watching Admiral Kirk and company in San Francisco in 1986 is hilarious.  Spock discovers profanity and curses badly, inserting “the hell” awkwardly into sentences.  (“They like you very much, but they are not the hell your whales.”)  Kirk does not know the difference between LSD and LDS.   (“He did too much LDS in the Sixties.”)  Scotty speaks to a computer.  Chekov and Uhura seek “nuclear wessels” during the Cold War.  All of this is fun.

“Home” has a double meaning.  “Home” refers to Earth, which the crew saves from an alien probe with a warped sense of logic.  The probe, having lost contact with humpback whales, proceeds to begin to vaporize oceans.  Huh? (Whales are aquatic lifeforms.) “Home” also refers to the Enterprise-A, presumably the Yorktown (the ship whose chief engineer rigged a solar sail at the beginning of the movie), Kirk’s new command after demotion to the rank of captain.

Kirk’s demotion to Captain makes sense.  In The Motion Picture he seizes command of the newly refit Enterprise awa from Willard Decker, who goes off to merge with V’Ger.  In The Wrath of Khan both Spock and McCoy tell Kirk that he ought to be a starship captain.  Kirk is bored when he is not commanding a starship. His demotion from Admiral to Captain is not a punishment, but a reward.

The Voyage Home‘s financial success is the reason Paramount Pictures greenlit The Next Generation (1987-1994), thereby launching a period of 18 years during which at least one Star Trek series was in production at any given time.  That is a fine legacy.

Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier (1989)

A Screen Capture

I know that The Final Frontier makes plain that the Enterprise-A is a new, poorly constructed ship, but I refuse to consider this movie to be part of Star Trek canon.  The film tramples continuity, makes a mockery of the Enterprise-A (until it ceases to do so, without explanation), and portrays most of our beloved characters in inconsistent and unflattering ways.  How is it that characters who were prepared, in universe, less than a year prior to this movie, to throw away their careers to rescue Spock, betray Kirk so casually in Star Trek V?

This is cinematic excrement with an occasional nice character moment.  But who are these characters?  They are certainly not the Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, and Chekov I have come to know via episodes and movies.

“All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”–John Masefield

A screen capture

At least the Enterprise-A, being a refit Constitution Class vessel, has graceful lines.  (The refit Constitution Class is my favorite starship design.)  However, the vessel, according to deck plans, has 21 decks, with the Bridge being on Deck A, at the top of the saucer.  In the movie the ship has at least 84 decks.  That is quite an error in the The Final Frontier.

Furthermore, Kirk and crew have been to the center of galaxy.  In The Majicks of Megus-Tu, an episode of the animated series, the Enterprise journeyed to the center of the galaxy, where Kirk and crew met Satan, who seems to have been a horribly misunderstood character, according to the story.  In this movie they just met a disgruntled and imprisoned spirit vulnerable to Klingon weapons.  Both stories were garbage.

Star Trek VI:  The Undiscovered Country (1991)

A screen capture

Star Trek VI gives our heroes a proper send-off, complete with a warmongering Klingon general who quotes Shakespeare, sometimes in, as Chancellor Gorkon puts it, “in the original Klingon.”  Kirk and crew save the day and the life of the President of the United Federation of Planets, but not before events force them to confront their own prejudices first.  Even the best of us harbor nasty prejudices, after all.  The difference between the best of us and the worst of us is that the best of us acknowledge and resist those prejudices.

Change is frequently difficult, even when the change in question is necessary and proper.  In this case the change is the end the Federation-Klingon Cold War, in parallel to the Cold War of the twentieth century.  When we define ourselves according to who our enemies are, the question of how we will define ourselves when our enemies cease to be our enemies becomes a psychologically difficult one.  Some individuals become so frightened of change in Star Trek VI that they conspire to assassinate.

Above:  The Enterprise-A and the Excelsior

Sulu is wonderful as Captain of the Excelsior, a ship he would have commanded since Star Trek III, except for William Shatner’s behind-the-scenes machinations in the 1980s.  I wonder how different certain preceding movies would have been with Sulu aboard the Excelsior.  I am convinced that the supporting characters, such as Sulu, always deserved more to do in the original series and in the first six Star Trek movies.

I have no difficulty watching Star Trek VI from beginning to end, without skipping scenes.

Rankings

As I have pondered these movies again during the last few days, I have changed my mind several times regarding the relative rankings.  I have arrived at the following rankings, from best to worst:

  1. Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek VI:  The Undiscovered Country
  3. Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home
  4. Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock
  5. Star Trek:  The Motion Picture
  6. Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier

Nicholas Meyer directed my two favorite Star Trek movies and partially wrote the top three.  He was a great asset to this series of films, after all, so this ranking has not proven to be accidental.

My overall rankings of movies I-X are here.

Looking Ahead

Next I plan to ponder and rank the four Next Generation movies.

I choose make one point of comparison plain here:  The original series movies were, taken together, superior to the Next Generation films, taken together.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 19, 2018 COMMON ERA

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2 responses to “Brief Reviews: Star Trek Movies I-VI

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  1. Pingback: Brief Reviews: Star Trek Movies VII-X | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

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