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Star Trek – The Movies (Review)

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s interesting how radically different the Star Trek feature films were from the show that spawned them. All were anchored in the classic science-fiction series. Star Trek: The Motion Picture felt like it was heavily influenced by The Changeling. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan obviously drew on Space Seed. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock evoked The Menagerie. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home featured the same plot device (and time travel technique) as Tomorrow is Yesterday. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had Kirk defeating one final god-like being. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country had the crew finally make peace with Klingons.

However, they were quite clearly a very different animal from the original television show. Which makes a great deal of sense. After all, there’s a world of difference between a fifty-minute adventure produced for weekly television and a big theatrical event. However, what’s interesting about these changes is that they weren’t necessarily in the direction you might expect. The television show was a collection of episodic adventures, but what’s really striking about the films is that most of them have a reasonably clear serialised arc.

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To be fair, it is worth divorcing The Motion Picture from the films that followed. In many ways, The Motion Picture was a direct spiritual successor to the television. Even the script for the film was re-purposed from In Thy Image, the 1977 pilot script for the aborted relaunch television show Star Trek: Phase II. Unlike the films that followed, The Motion Picture was very clearly driven by the will of creator Gene Roddenberry. He gets a credit on the film’s screenplay and even wrote the novelisation.

However, the subsequent films were produced without the direct involvement of Roddenberry. Roddenberry would remain involved in production – writing countless memos for each of the film, most of which were ignored or overlooked by the writers and director – but he was very heavily sidelined. So heavily sidelined that there is some speculation that Roddenberry was behind at least some of the leaks which threatened the production of The Wrath of Khan. Even Harve Bennett blames Roddenberry for spoiling Spock’s death.

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Director Nicholas Meyer and writer Harve Bennett are probably the creators most responsible for the last five films based on the original Star Trek films, even if neither worked consistently on the movies. Indeed, Meyer’s influence over the movies was so great that he took offense to Roddenberry attempting to dictate whether Saavik could be revealed to be a traitor in early drafts of The Undiscovered Country, suggesting that Roddenberry had no right to dictate anything about the character.

“I created her,” Meyer argued. “She was not Gene’s. If he doesn’t like what I plan on doing with her, maybe he should give back the money he’s made off my films. Maybe then I’ll care what he has to say.” To be fair, Meyer has since gone on record admitting that he regrets the somewhat troubled relationship he had with Gene Roddenberry, but it’s clear that the films were more heavily influenced by Meyer’s vision than Roddenberry’s. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Gene Roddenberry is a controversial figure within Star Trek circles. He probably always will be. There are various rumours and insinuations that are made about the man, both in a personal and professional capacity. It’s often hard to separate the myth from the reality. Patrick Stewart, for example, praised Roddenberry at his funeral for taking a chance on casting a Shakespearean actor in his science-fiction show, but has recently admitted that Roddenberry wrote whole memos about how he was wrong for the part.

History tends to cloud the issues, and it’s likely that the discussion will only grow more heated over time. So let’s try to offer a reasonably fair commentary of Roddenberry’s relationship with his creation. First of all, the man created Star Trek. He is responsible for getting the show to screen, for creating an iconic and instantly recognisable pop culture phenomenon. That deserves no small measure of praise and acknowledgement.

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However, once you get past that basic idea, a lot of people were involved in making Star Trek what it was. In particular, writers like D.C. Fontana and Gene L. Coon tend to be overlooked when appraising the television show. Roddenberry had some wonderful ideas, but few would count his writing contributions among the best of the show. The Omega Glory, Bread and Circuses and Datalore hardly stand with the best of the franchise.

There’s no denying that Roddenberry working incredibly hard to build the franchise. There are stories about the producer writing and rewriting Shore Leave as it was filmed in order to placate the network. At the same time, there was a point where Roddenberry seemed to lose track of the franchise. Writer Ronald D. Moore, who worked on the spin-offs, argued that “Gene sort of started to believe in himself as more of a visionary than a writer at a certain point.” And it seems like that was the point at which the show started to slip away from him.

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The movies came at a point where Roddenberry was making all these edicts about what Star Trek should or shouldn’t be, or what it should allow or shouldn’t allow. Such restrictions would become known as “the Roddenberry Box”, and would become a source of frustration to writers on both the films and the shows. These rules suggested that the characters on the show had transcended humanity. There were no petty jealousies, no insecurities, no major character flaws allowed. Everybody got along.

In a way, Roddenberry’s proclamations and directives were more rigidly adhered to in the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation than they were over the course of the films. The Motion Picture is relatively close to Roddenberry’s vision, and you can draw a clear line between that and the first season of The Next Generation. Even the characters of Will Decker and Ilia seem conspicuously close to those of Commander William T. Riker and Counsellor Deanna Troi. Spock’s character arc changed so that it resembled what would become Data’s arc on The Next Generation, learning to be more human.

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Of course, there’s a rather wonderful irony to Gene’s “perfect human” future. It’s very much an attempt by the producer to re-write the show’s history. As Moore notes, early Star Trek was full of character conflict and drama:

It never made any logical sense or any dramatic sense. It just didn’t feel like it was a logical sense of where the Star Trek universe was going. I was always saying ‘the Original Series was never like this, the Original Series has plenty of problems with humanity, plenty of with jealousies and bickering and even racial prejudices are alive in the 23rd century.’ In Balance of Terror Stiles is overtly prejudiced against Spock just because he is Vulcan. And that isn’t the only instance of that. It made for drama and it made for conflict. It made the world work.

It’s also worth noting that Mudd’s Women is a story about Kirk enabling space-age prostitution, and Where No Man Has Gone Before has Spock urging the Captain to exile his best friend. One of the reasons that the leading trio on the original Star Trek is so memorable is because McCoy and Spock are constantly petty and unprofessional to one another. (While each is secretly fond of the other.)

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So Roddenberry’s oft-discussed approach and philosophy of Star Trek seems to have only been created after the fact. By the time the movies were released, it was clear that Roddenberry had drifted a little out of touch with what made Star Trek work as a franchise. There’s no shame in that. It’s very hard to work as the sole creative force on something as big as Star Trek without losing the way a little bit. The optimism of the future of Star Trek was a major hook for the show, but Roddenberry seemed to push that idea too far, to the point where he risked suffocating any spark of drama for these characters.

For any long-running franchise, it’s necessary to keep things fresh. After all, these shows and films need to remain accessible to the public, and need to constantly prove their value to an entirely new generation in order to thrive. In that respect, the movies represent the first real “changing of the guard” when it comes to the Star Trek franchise, the first point where the reins were handed from one creator to another. The classic television show had a number of different producers, but Roddenberry was always there.

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Even in the show’s troubled third season, when NBC slashed the budget and moved the show to the Friday night death slot, forcing Roddenberry to tender his resignation, Roddenberry contributed to two of the season’s episodes. These included The Turnabout Intruder, the story that would become the series’ last ever episode. Although D.C. Fontana argues that he never took the spin-off “seriously”, Roddenberry refused to sell off creative control of Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been Gene Roddenberry’s baby. And, for all its pacing problems and its difficulties, it’s a very bold and provocative piece of science-fiction. While the script is hardly water-tight, and the movie has some very significant flaws, it’s no small accomplishment for Roddenberry. There are worse ways to leave a franchise, and it seems like, after The Motion Picture, Star Trek really began to gradually slip from his grasp.

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So The Wrath of Khan is really the first time that Star Trek was produced without any real input from Gene Roddenberry, as Harve Bennett has explained:

How involved was Gene Roddenberry in the features?

He was banished after Star Trek I. I think, part of Star Trek I, they asked him to recuse himself. He was a constant harping voice. And you had to listen to him because he was Gene Roddenberry. But what I got from watching these episodes differed from what he now perceived the work to be. For example, he was now very anti-military, even though he’d been a pilot in the war. But it was Nicholas Meyer, my collaborator and great writer who said, “This is Horatio Hornblower in space!” A phrase that Roddenberry had used years before.

According to Bennett, it was a problem that developed into “an exchange of hostile memos.” In one of the ironies of Star Trek, Roddenberry would later use “Horatio Hornblower in space” in trying to explain the concept of Star Trek to Patrick Stewart.

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Franchises like Star Trek need new blood to stay afloat, new and bold creative energy. Long-running characters like Batman and Superman thrive on being reconceptualised and reimagined. Doctor Who discovered a way to literally reinvent itself every couple of years, capable of becoming something that was both new and challenging and also comfortably familiar. I’d argue that the best of Star Trek came from a desire to pass the torch and push forward.

Bennett and Meyer had a bold new vision of Star Trek, to the point where it feels almost like a “reboot.” The show makes the naval metaphors that have been obvious from the earliest episodes more literal, with Starfleet becoming more of a rigid military. Even the change in uniforms feels dramatic – much more dramatic that the shift from the show to The Motion Picture. This felt like a new way of approaching these characters and themes.

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Similarly, The Next Generation thrived when Michael Piller and his dynamic writers tried to make the show their own in the third season. Over the next couple of years, Piller laid down his own template for what Star Trek should be, making it more exciting when Ira Stephen Behr and the team on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine decided to reinvent the concept for themselves. Even the last year of Star Trek: Enterprise was energised by the approach of Manny Coto and his team of writers.

Indeed, Star Trek tends to suffer when it’s allowed to grow stagnant. The franchise owes a very sizeable debt to Rick Berman, particularly in the early years of The Next Generation, but the spin-offs became quite tired when he tried to figure out a casual formula for functional Star Trek. Star Trek: Voyager felts like it was an attempt to take what had worked on The Next Generation and turn it into a production philosophy. The early years of Enterprise felt like they were running on fumes because Berman and Braga had already been doing a decade of the same sort of stuff.

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Arguably, the most obvious contrast with the energy invested into the original Star Trek movies can be seen in the feature films for The Next Generation. While the films featuring the original cast made an undeniable pop culture impact, those featuring the crew from The Next Generation generally landed to a lukewarm reception before being quickly forgotten. Star Trek: First Contact is really the only film from that cycle to age well.

The reason that the Next Generation films don’t work as well as those featuring the original cast can be traced down to the fact that they don’t feel like a reinvention. Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: Insurrection feel more like two bigger-budget more-stylishly-shot two-part episodes from the show’s later season than bold cinematic experiences. Part of that is down to the fact that the writers were recruited from the television show, and that they seemed to be writing to that particular model of Star Trek.

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(This is most obvious in the continuity. Why would anybody watching Generations care about a Romulan attack they didn’t see or the presence of Lursa and B’Etor or dialogue referencing the Borg or the pay-off of Data’s emotional chip arc? These are all things that were important on the show, but they feel like threads holding the film back from being an exciting and engaging feature film in its own right. There’s an assumption that we’ve all seen the show and this is a continuation.)

In contrast, Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer boldly reimagined what Star Trek could be. They drew on continuity from the show, but in the broadest sense. It’s possible to appreciate Khan without having being familiar with Space Seed. When plot and character beats were carried over – most notably Spock’s relationship with his father – they were explained in the context of the films themselves. There was no assumption that the audience would be invested in the movies.

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And the storytelling is markedly different. I’d argue that the ensemble from the classic Star Trek only really developed into well-defined characters over the course of the films. In particular, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home took time to flesh out the bit players and create a sense that these people were more than just colleagues – they were friends and family. In particular, Sulu and Scotty went from being two-dimensional recurring guest stars to feeling like fully-formed characters.

(It’s a bit of a shame, then, that Uhura doesn’t really benefit too much from the decision to broaden the focus of the films. She’s left behind in The Search for Spock and doesn’t get a big character moment in The Voyage Home. Then again, despite rumours of cameos in The Next Generation or of a cameo in Voyager‘s Flashback, Uhura remains the only member of the original cast never to appear in any of the spin-offs – assuming you count Chekov’s spot in Star Trek: Generations. So it seems Uhura gets a bit of a rough break as far as the original Star Trek cast goes. I’m glad she’s so crucial to JJ Abrams’ reboot.)

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What’s really strange is that these movies really experimented and played with serialisation in a way that televised Star Trek struggled with. The original Star Trek was a collection of episodic television, with few recurring guest characters and little real sense of character momentum or development. Even The Next Generation would be mostly episodic, only really experimenting with serialisation towards the end of its third season. It wasn’t until Deep Space Nine hit the air that Star Trek on television seemed to play with true long-form storytelling.

So it’s fascinating that the theatrical movies should do such a great job of it. Nimoy, Bennett and Meyer will deny that there was a conscious attempt to construct a trilogy, but it fits very well. There’s a clear structure and thematic arc to The Wrath of Khan/The Search for Spock/The Voyage Home. Kirk and crew start out as relics and end up as heroes. Kirk begins outside the chair, pushes himself even further from it, and then earns it again. Spock dies and is resurrected, making peace with his human half.

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However, even outside of that there’s a clear sense that the films generally unfold in a universe more tightly connected than that of the television show. The films are peppered with recurring guest characters. Mark Lenard played Sarek once in the television show (in Journey to Babel), but he appears in half of the feature films. Even minor characters like the Klingon Ambassador or Admiral Lance Cartwright (or even Saavik) recur from one film to another.

More than that, the crew progresses and develops in a way that’s not possible as part of a television science-fiction show. The Next Generation struggled to justify keeping Riker around, and yet the crew of the original Enterprise have all sort of grown apart by the time that The Undiscovered Country comes about. Spock has become a diplomat, following in the footsteps of his father. Sulu has command of his own star ship, in a plot thread that can be traced back to a deleted scene from The Wrath of Khan.

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This richer sense of character development and continuity even extends somewhat retroactively to encompass The Motion Picture. Kirk’s problems in The Wrath of Khan are seen to extend from his arrogance and his cavalier attitude to death and danger. In a way, the themes pick up from a quick exchange between Bones and Kirk about the Admiral’s motivations for commandeering the Enterprise from Will Decker. Similarly, Spock’s difficulty with Kolinahr and his attempts to make peace with his humanity pave the way for his emotional arc over the rest of the film series.

It’s telling that The Final Frontier – that most maligned of Star Trek films – is a complete thematic and tonal outlier from all this. If anything, it feels like a rejection of the threads and concepts that make the films around it work so well, a desperate attempt to go back to classic Star Trek, ignoring the fact that the world around it has shifted and changed over the intervening years. The Final Frontier is an attempt to ignore everything that makes The Wrath of Khan great. The Wrath of Khan features Kirk receiving a pair of reading glasses to help him grow old gracefully, while the credits to The Final Frontier see the character scaling gigantic mountains.

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It is worth noting that the current blu ray release of the classic motion pictures is a little disappointing. Not only is it missing obvious features like the multiple cuts of the various films (in particular Robert Wise’s much stronger Director’s Cut of The Motion Picture), but the sound and picture quality leave a lot to be desired. These are movies that really deserve an affectionate remaster to bring them up to spec for high-definition.

Given the work that has already been done on the original Star Trek and is on-going on The Next Generation, it’s a shame that the movies run the risk of being overlooked. The release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this year would have been the perfect opportunity, but it feels like we’ll be waiting quite a while before any plans to upgrade these films are actually made, which is disappointing. These films hold up surprisingly well, and are a vital piece of Star Trek‘s history and legacy.

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The movies are an entirely different beast from the classic television show, as Shatner discovered when he couldn’t quite get The Final Frontier to work despite treating the supporting cast as extras with exposition, fighting a god-like entity and putting a stunt performer in a silly rubber outfit. However, that’s a good thing. They represent the first real dramatic reinvention of Star Trek, which is a crucial part of the franchise’s evolution. After all, if it can reinvent itself once, it can do so again.

And, in a way, that’s a comforting thought. Star Trek goes through several periods in its history when it is… not very good. However, the lingering lesson of The Wrath of the Khan is that things can change rapidly and dynamically. Star Trek can become something bold and new, and playful. The franchise isn’t just a relic of a pop culture era, it’s an organism capable of regenerating and adapting.

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:

 

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