As we celebrate fifty years of Star Trek, CultofWhatever is looking back on each of the shows and film franchises that defined the Final Frontier.
We’ve talked about the Original Series and how, when it was great, it embraced the sixties social revolution. On the other hand, when the Original Series stumbled, it slipped into every silly cliche that doomed science-fiction from that era. The Next Generation took a little bit to find its mojo, but when it did it managed to surpass the original by expanding the franchise’s horizons. Deep Space Nine followed soon after, and though it was the red-headed step-child of the brand, it dared to be different and was rewarded with loyal fans, many of whom regard it as the best of the bunch. Meanwhile, Star Trek Voyager tried to be “more TNG” but ended up being “lesser TNG.” Finally there’s (Star Trek) Enterprise, which spent three years failing to live up to its premise (nevermind its legacy) before finally finding its footing…and immediate cancellation.
Halfway through Enterprise’s troubled run on UPN, Paramount decided to bring the crew of the Enterprise-D/E back to the big screen for a fourth feature film. The first, Generations, was a mixed bag with both critics and fans. First Contact followed two years later to mostly glowing reviews and great fan support. After that it was Patrick Stewart who suggested that the third movie should be more easy-breezy, with less pathos and more romp. Two years later, Insurrection premiered as a movie criticized by many for being a glorified two-part TNG episode (and not one of the better ones either). It seemed like a real step backward for the franchise, not only creatively but financially as well. It grossed a little over 100 million on a 50 million dollar budget. For comparison, First Contact grossed about 150 million on a 45 million dollar budget. Though TNG was the gold standard for TV Star Trek (at least among the post-TOS spinoffs), its success on the small screen had not translated to the silver screen. Paramount took four years off before trying again.
After two movies (one of which is among the film-franchise’s best) Johnathan Frakes was out of the directors chair. He took the fall for Insurrection‘s poor performance (despite Stewart’s insistence on a lighter film, and Michael Piller’s disappointing screenplay) and was replaced by Stewart Baird. Baird had previously directed such cinematic gems as US Marshals and Executive Decision. Baird was an admitted Star Trek neophyte but long-time producer Rick Berman insisted this was a value, since he could bring fresh eyes to the struggling franchise (he said this, while continuing to stifle creativity on the TV side of the franchise, but I digress). The screenplay was also taken out of the hands of Star Trek veterans (Michael Pillar, who ran the TNG writers room during its peak years, wrote Insurrection, and Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga, who co-wrote many classic TNG scripts, wrote Generations and First Contact): John Logan (fresh off of writing Gladiator‘s acclaimed screenplay) was brought in to pen the script. Logan was an admitted Trek fan but had never written for the franchise or even worked in the science fiction genre (he had yet to write his The Time Machine screenplay). That’s fine though, according to Rick Berman; his newness would bring fresh blah blah blah.
Really the problem was Berman. He was the only decision maker that stretched across a decade of post-Roddenberry Star Trek, with two failed TV shows and three (out of four) failed movies. After throwing Frakes under the bus and after giving Moore/Braga the boot, Berman was the only one left. And then Star Trek: Nemesis was released and it bombed. It was the worst box office performance for a Star Trek film ever. It ended up grossing less than 45 million dollars. It’s opening weekend was a paltry 18 million and that number dropped to a dismal 4 million the following weekend. After that Star Trek was effectively dead. Nemesis‘ terrible performance probably pushed Paramount toward the decision not to renew Enterprise for a fifth season and to let the franchise lie dormant for a while. And with that, the long continuity of Trek which stretched from 1987 until 2005, much of which was overseen by Rick Berman, was finally finished, not with a bang but with a whimper.
Seven years later, a whole new team was put in charge of bringing the franchise into the modern era. JJ Abrams was originally only going to produce the reboot, but he agreed to direct because he loved the screenplay so much. Though he was an admitted “Star Wars > Star Trek” guy, he has spoken of his love for the Original Series and the dynamic between Kirk and Spock that it showed (he apparently missed that the true heart of the show was the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship, with Kirk being guided by two very different friends, one stoic and the other emotional, but I digress).
Paramount’s goal for the new movie was to make Star Trek into a box office franchise. They wanted a series of movies that appealed to action movie fans moreso than science-fiction fans. It was assumed that the diehard Trek fans would come to see the movie regardless; it was “Joe ticketbuyer” that they needed to attract. Abrams, creator of the ABC smash-hit Alias and director of Mission:Impossible 3 was a good choice to do just that.
To say he succeeded would be an understatement. Abram’s two Star Trek films, Star Trek (2009) and Into Darkness, together grossed over 480 million dollars. Star Trek is an almost two-billion dollar film-franchise for Paramount; JJ Abrams has directed half of that. People are going to see these movies.
But at what cost?
Paramount would say everything has worked out for the best. Star Trek is popular again. It’s no longer “just for nerds” or “just for fans” or whatever else people said fifteen years ago. Although if I wanted to be testy I would say Star Trek, when done well, is not “just for” anyone; it’s great for everyone. TNG had incredible ratings, the good Star Trek movies were all big earners at the box office. Star Trek didn’t need a makeover, it just needed competence behind the scenes, some fresh creative minds working through Gene Roddenberry’s original vision, and—after going from TNG to DS9 to Voyager to Enterprise, boom-boom-boom, non-stop, with movies along the way—it needed a break. When it came back in 2009, the franchise had been given its break. All it needed was for a new team to come in an interpret Gene’s vision for a new generation.
Instead JJ and Paramount decided to water everything down. The movie was successful, but did it need to be done this way to be successful? Paramount will say yes because they have the box office receipts to back them up, but purists will maintain that the franchise just needed a break and a return to form. The debate continues as the third movie in the rebooted series is released and if there’s a fourth movie featuring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and the rest, the debate will continue to rage between new fans and old.
Personally I enjoyed the first JJ-Trek film. It was fun, much more fun than the pitiful Nemesis or the stupid Insurrection. It lacked the theatricality of First Contact, but that was entirely by design. The movie had a very specific agenda and it accomplished it very well. Was it shallow? Yes. Was it convoluted in spots? Yes. Were there moments of scientific illogic that would make anyone who gave it two seconds’ thought lose their mind (Spock sees Vulcan—which looked bigger than our moon from the earth—be destroyed…from Delta Vega!)? Yes. But JJ wasn’t into making a thinking man’s Star Trek. He was into playing Star Wars with Star Trek action figures.
It was what it was, but it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t very Star Trekey, but it wasn’t a bad movie, which is more than can be said for Star Trek: Nemesis…
…or Star Trek Into Darkness (no colon…except for the one in my gut which wanted to release itself immediately upon seeing it)…
STID, as I will henceforth condescendingly refer to it, is an insulting motion picture. There are some wonderful moments, and a few stand-out acting performances. The direction, score, costume design…so much of it is on point. Just looking at it, you’d say “this is a great Star Trek movie!” It’s modern, big-budget, and if I weren’t a fan of the franchise I might have enjoyed myself as it was edited to be a fun little adventure movie.
But I am a Star Trek fan, and as a Star Trek fan STID is the most offensive movie in the series. I know what you’re thinking: Can it actually be worse than the snoozer that was The Motion Picture? Yes it can. TMP was slow, cerebral and contemplative, but at least had a big science fiction premise. I can appreciate that. Can STID actually be worse than the laughably cheap Star Trek V: The Final Frontier? Absolutely it can. Hate on Shatner’s directing all you want, but if nothing else, that movie offered viewers the Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic on the big screen in a way not felt since The Original Series went off the air. It was basically a two-hour episode of TOS (season three) and that’s just fine with me (because it was a fun stupid episode, as opposed to Insurrection, which was just a boring stupid episode). What about Generations, with its convoluted plot, or Insurrection with its neutered action, or Nemsis! How can it actually be worse than Nemesis?! That movie killed The Next Generation! It forced the franchise into hybernation! It betrayed its own continuity!
Alright: We’ll call it a tie.
But in absolutely no way is STID anywhere close to being a good Star Trek film, or even a passable one. Maybe it is to you, but not to me. I have too much “cracky, purist nerd” in me. First of all, the fact that Wrath of Khan is not just the most definitive Star Trek movie, but it is also one of the best movies of 80’s means that Paramount (1) never should have tried to recreate the magic and (2) could not help itself but try to recreate the magic. I get it. It’s business. But if you’re going to make a film that is an homage to a masterpiece (which Wrath of Khan certainly is) then you had better at least have something worthwhile on your own to say, otherwise your work is just going to be criticized as derivative.
And that’s the biggest problem with STID. It’s (insultingly) derivative. It mixes things up here and there, but not in any substantial way. The whole “Cumberbatch isn’t Khan, swearsies!” from JJ Abrams, throughout the filming and pre-release promotion, was moronic. I appreciate that he wanted to surprise us, but along the way it went from a headfake to a flat-out fabrication and once the “reveal” happened in the movie, there was no shock or excitement or anything. If anything it produced a chuckle since everyone knew it going in. Using Khan wasn’t even the problem, however. It was that they used him to retell Wrath of Khan’s major moments in a less satisfying way than in the original. If I want to watch Wrath of Khan I’ll just pop in the blu-ray. I don’t need to see a subpar remake.
What’s worse was the feeling throughout the movie, as though everyone involved really felt like they had a message to tell. The scene where Kirk dies and Spock shouts “Khan!” was filmed uber-serious, but it ended up being a joke because (1) it was just a character-swapped rip off of two major moments in the original film, done better in the original film, and (2) no one took it seriously because it was much more hamfisted than in the original Wrath of Khan film.
STID may have wanted to have a message, but it had none. Wrath of Khan, on the other hand, had a message; all great sci-fi does: It uses the aliens, spaceships, laser beams and what not as window dressing to tell a story about us. Great sci-fi is about something. Wrath of Khan was about something: It explored aging, dying (and the acceptance of the two) and being forced to face up to the sins of the past (after running from them for so long). Kirk is put through the ringer in the movie: First we meet him sulking away as an admiral when he wants to be on adventures commanding a starship. He celebrates his birthday in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Then, an old nemesis of the past returns and—purely by happenstance—runs afoul of an old flame. Along the way he discovers he has a son (the ultimate “past catching up with you” moment) and then loses a best friend.
And unlike in STID, Spock stayed dead. Yes he came back a movie later, but originally there was no “movie later.” That was it. Nimoy was done and his death was to be permanent. Thankfully for us all he had too much fun and came back for more, but at least Wrath of Khan had enough respect for its story to end with one of its heroes really dead for real. Kirk “died” and was back to action in twenty minutes. It was insulting.
Most frustrating of all is the fact that STID hit many of the same story beats as Wrath of Khan but without any of the meat of the story being explored. It was hollow and pointless. It had nothing to say. Wrath of Khan earned the ending with Spock’s death because it was not only built on fifteen years of backstory but also on two hours of thought-provoking drama. STID aped it with Kirk’s death but it hadn’t earned it, not in the timeline of NuTrek and not in the two+ hour runtime that built up to it.
Watching the two back-to-back (and STID basically invites you to do that, so its not unfair to compare them) reveals just how much Wrath of Khan had to say compared to STID, despite being shorter than Abrams’ movie by ten or so minutes.
As we approach the next movie in the NuTrek/JJverse (whatever you want to call the rebooted, alternate timeline franchise), the cast and crew have bent over backwards to emphasize how Star Trek Beyond is more like Star Trek of old. It’s thought-provoking, they promise. It’s got more character stuff, they promise. It’s like a big episode of TOS, they promise.
Promises, promises, promises: They’re just words. It’s time to deliver on them, because two movies in and the best they’ve done so far is only a “not bad” movie. They worst they’ve done is an insult to the franchise. It’s “modern” and “hip” to non-fans though, so I guess…good for them? It is possible to make a movie that both casual and hardcore fans can enjoy. Marvel’s been doing it for almost a decade now.
It’s time for Star Trek to return to critical and commercial success.