As we celebrate 50 years of Star Trek, Cultofwhatver recently completed a look back at the Final Frontier’s many TV iterations as well as considered the newest entries in the film franchise.
We 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 was (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.On the big screen side of things we’ve seen how JJ Abrams modernized Star Trek, but in doing so sacrificed a lot of what made the TV show so special. Last month saw the release of the third film in the revised series, and though it was a great ride that paid heartfelt homage to the original series, it has been a disappointment at the box office.
Laying out all thirteen films in order really shows how up and down the series has been. For my part, here’s how I rank them…
No movie is scores lower than a 4 on my personal rating system (0-2 = abysmal, not worth watching ; 3-5 = poorly done for a variety of reasons ; 6-8 = passable-to-good ; 9-10 = exceptional). Those are not objective scores of course, since I watch those movies as a Star Trek fan and it’s impossible for me to turn off my fandom. Some of the low scores are probably lower on other critics’ charts but I don’t have the heart to knock them too low; others are lower than some critics had them because certain things were inexcusable for me as a fan.
Based on my own reckoning, there is no better three-movie stretch than the series of movies that ran from 1982-1986: The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home.
Those three also happen to form one continuous story that tells, with a beginning, middle and end, about the enduring friendship between the crew of the Enterprise. Along the way there are serious issues discussed, such as the nature of aging and death, willful sacrifice and pointless murder, revenge, principles, and saving the world. It’s a trilogy on par with some of the best “three-parters” in Hollywood history (Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Back to the Future, etc).
Their achievement as a “film series within a film series” represent the peak of Star Trek on the big screen: Trek was never more perfectly realized and never more perfectly justified its existence as a Hollywood hallmark than in these three movies.
Star Trek II is a movie about life and death.
It is not, despite the word “Wrath” plastered right there in its subtitle, about revenge. Revenge is the chief motivator of the villain, but the story here is not Khan’s (despite how wonderful Ricardo Montalban is in the movie, and how fully-realized his story is), it is Kirk’s. The movie begins with Kirk as an admiral (just as he was in the beginning of the first movie, the details of which are entirely ignored in this film). As a member of Starfleet “brass” he’s no longer in command of a starship. Instead the ship is being led by “Captain” Spock, who commands it under the authority of Starfleet Academy. The old crew of the Enterprise (except for Chekov and the aforementioned Kirk) are now teachers on a “boat full of children” as Kirk calls them. Kirk is older, but not content. He is anxious, restless and frustrated with a deskjob when he would much rather be off hopping galaxies. It’s also his birthday, which doesn’t better his mood, and neither do the reading glasses that McCoy gifts to him…OR the book that Spock gives him (“A Tale of Two Cities” with its somber refrain “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”). Things are not great for Jim Kirk as he contemplates his past and struggles with thinking of his past as “passed.”
And then fate steps in and an old nemesis returns. By pure coincidence, Khan commandeers a starship (XO’d by Chekov) and flies to a space-station overseen by Kirk’s former lover Carol Marcus. Kirk comes face to face with a reminder of the rebellious days of his past, both in the form of Carol and of the child they had together: His son David. There’s action, thrills, betrayal, even a dash of horror (that scene with the abandoned station and the dead bodies was terrifying to ten year old me), but the real heart of the story is Kirk being forced to confront the sins of his past (a past he, at first, was yearning to restore) while also wrestling with a midlife crisis and the fact that he’s not getting any younger.
Speaking of death: Kahn wants revenge for the death of his wife (who died on the planet Kirk left them on in the Original Series). He finds his way to carry out revenge by weaponizing the “Genesis” project (turning a life-bringing experiment into a planet-sized atom bomb). Kirk starts the movie dragged down by his own mortality. He then rediscovers his son and the life he could have had and it reinvigorates him with a new lease on life.
Life and death, death and life.
There’s a telling conversation mid-way through the movie, where Kirk explains to cadet Saavik how he beat the supposedly no-win scenario at the Academy (a scenario Saavik is shown losing in the opening scene of the film): In short, Kirk cheated. He says this without any sense of shame; on the contrary, he beams as he tells it, feeling a great swell of pride at his actions (and of the commendation his original thinking earned him). As he says: “I don’t like to lose.” If you must cheat to avoid defeat, you cheat. As long as you live to fight another day, you win.
At the end of the movie, the crew faces a real-life no-win scenario. Khan, defeated, activates the Genesis device, intending to destroy himself along with the incapacitated Enterprise. This time, however, Kirk has no more cards to play. There’s no way to cheat out of it. Death seems to the only possible outcome until Spock takes it upon himself to restore the ship to capacity, allowing it to escape. The rescue came with only one casualty: Spock himself. The first-officer remarks that he never took the no-win scenario at the Academy, but that his solution was at least as inventive as Kirk’s. His death gives life to the crew. Khan’s death coincides with the Genesis device overloading, the shockwave of which brings life to a dead planet (later dubbed “The Genesis planet”).
Life and death. Death and life.
The movie ends with Kirk at peace after starting the film in such disarray. He looks out toward the new planet that has been birthed and quotes from the book Spock gave him on his birthday. McCoy asks how he feels, and Kirk replies “Young.”
Star Trek III is a movie about sacrifice.
It is not about Kirk bucking his bosses and “going rogue.” That’s all just window dressing to spice up the plot. This movie is about how much you are willing to give up to do what is right for the one you love. The axiom “the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few” was the motivating factor in Spock’s death at the end of Wrath of Khan. But it is the inverse of that saying (that the needs of the “one” were actually more important than the “many”) that gets put to the test in this movie. Kirk and his crew believes that Spock is important enough for them to sacrifice for him.
After limping back to spacedock, damaged mightily from the battle with Khan, Kirk is eager to bring the Enterprise back up to snuff so that he can go back into space, specifically to Planet Genesis to explore the new life that the new planet may be blooming. Starfleet Command however is ready to put the crew out to pasture and the Enterprise out of her misery. Mandatory retirement is implied for some, mandatory shore leave for others, and for Kirk, he faces a return to the dreaded deskjob that was his bane in the previous movie. Then, a sudden appearance by Spock’s father throws everything into focus and gives him a purpose: Spock may be dead but his Vulcan spirit might still exist to be returned to his body. Needing the body (on Genesis), Kirk is presented with the opportunity to sacrifice for the best friend who sacrificed so much for him. But how much is he willing to sacrifice?
The movie poses that question to Kirk over and over and each time he presses on to Genesis to retrieve Spock’s body and to Vulcan to restore it back to life. He loses his career, stealing the Enterprise right out of spacedock, sabotaging the next great Starship (Excelsior) along the way. He loses his ship, watching his beloved Enterprise streak through the sky like a comet, blown up and burning, sacrificed to defeat only a handful of Klingon soldiers and a scout ship that the Enterprise normally could have easily handled. He loses his only son, who died saving Spock; but no one needed to die at all: David was the victim of a pointless murder; a show of strength when no such show was required.
Through all of these moments, Kirk does not flinch. He was willing to sacrifice it all. Spock’s father will later ask him if it was all worth it and again Kirk does not flinch: “If I hadn’t tried…the cost would have been my soul.”
Star Trek IV is a movie about family.
It’s not about “saving the whales” or even saving the world. It’s about a family being together, working together, and sticking together, through good times and bad. It’s also about owning up to the sins of the past (whereas Wrath of Kahn was about being confronted by them).
After so much death and misery and Shakespearean weight, director Leonard Nimoy (who also directed part 3) and writer Nicholas Meyer (who also directed part 2) opted for a movie that was, by design, lighter, funnier and easy-breezier than the previous two. Focus is not on stopping a menacing threat (there is no “traditional” villain in the movie) but instead on teamwork and problem solving.
The crew of seven splits up into pairs (with Sulu the odd man out, sort-of teaming with Scotty and McCoy and sort of on his own) to take care of business in 1980’s San Francisco, obtaining the items needed to repair their stolen Klingon ship (stolen at the end of part 3), while also treating the audience to some great “fish out of water” humor. Other than Kirk and Spock, the pairings all highlight crew-members that didn’t normally share scenes together in the original series; McCoy and Scotty especially demonstrate great chemistry.
The adventures and mishaps and drama with Chekov almost getting a lobotomy aren’t just little moments to keep things humming and to keep the giggles steadily flowing. They also give us a chance to watch these characters (that have been together for so long, and have recently gone through so much) simply be together. They are a family, after all. And that idea is never more fully realized than after the crew gets home (to their century).
The Kirk who opened this trilogy pining for the good old days, when he used to cheat his way out of trouble, ends the trilogy having lost (and regained) a best friend, as well as watching his own starship and son both die. Now at the end, he stands willingly before a tribunal, ready to accept the consequences of his actions in the previous movies; no more cheating.
Kirk tells the judge that he is responsible for the actions of his crew, intending to suffer the consequences for them (the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one). Yet, while saying that, his crew stands beside him ready to be punished and unwilling to let Kirk suffer alone (the needs of the one outweigh the needs to the many). And then Spock leaves the stands to position himself next to Kirk. The Judge points out that he is not accused of any crimes, but Spock is quick to reply “I stand with my shipmates” (the needs of “family” outweigh all).
And in the end Kirk is stripped of being an admiral and becomes a starship captain again (solving a problem from part 2), the Enterprise is restored better than ever (solving a problem from part 3), and they all serve together again like one big happy family (bringing the issue of part 3 to a satisfying conclusion).
Life, death, sacrifice and family: There are the important philosophical themes with grounded, emotional resonance explored in these movies. Star Trek has (almost) always been about venturing as much into the mind and nature of humanity as it has been about funny aliens and space battles. Never has that been better realized, on the big screen, than in the “Star Trek Trilogy.”
On the other hand, The Motion Picture and The Final Frontier are, for different reasons, pretty much the quintessential Original Series movies. But that’s for next time…