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The Star Trek films

► Star Trek 1: The Motion Picture (1979)

This is important in Trek history as the first return to the screen since TOS and TAS. However, it isn't a film that most fans re-watch a lot. It's very much the odd one out of Trek films, and in fact belongs as much to the style of serious SF current before Star Wars. The influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey can be seen, with a lot of action outside the ship in space suits etc., with the space dock scenes looking "realistic" in terms of the actual space travel of the time. It's slow-moving and seems too long, but the ending is good.

It's worth noting that it was directed by the great Robert Wise. Among his many achievements he directed The Sound of Music and West Side Story, and was nominated for Film Editing for Citizen Kane. (Less famously, for some reason, he directed The Curse of the Cat People.)

Since we've seen so much later Star Trek, a number of things in Star Trek 1 seem to be versions of later themes. Spock's acceptance of his human feelings is a preview of his development in Star Trek 4. Decker and Ilia seem like an early draft of Riker and Troi. The love story between them is a true SF love story, rather than just a love story on a spaceship. (That is, a love story which has a SF aspect as a key part of the story.)

Best line: "My oath of celibacy is on record, Captain."

► Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

For many fans this is the film of all Star Trek films. The conflict of Kirk and Khan is larger than life, with Ricardo Montalbán in the role of Khan (reprising the role from his TOS appearance in "Space Seed"). This is one of Montalbán's greatest roles, allowing him to unleash his full dramatic power. What's more, that was apparently his real chest. Kirstie Alley as Saavik is also memorable.

The space battle shows that what counts with special effects isn't so much the technical stuff as what you do with it. It's hugely engaging.

The biggest problem with the film is that it contains the seeds of the later drift into militarism. The somewhat Ruritanian uniforms, which look more like something out of costume drama than the practical uniforms of TOS, add to the effect.

Incidentally, this film is also responsible for the strange Star Trek custom of referring to both male and female officers by male terms ("Mr", "Sir").

Best line: "Khaaaaaaaan!!!!!!"

► Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock (1984)

ST2 was not originally intended to be the start of a trilogy, but like Sherlock Holmes, Spock could not be left dead. Perhaps the best scene in the film is the sequence of rescuing Dr McCoy and stealing the Enterprise, which achieves nail-biting suspense (much more than most battle scenes) just by backing a ship out of the space port, rather slowly. However, the destruction of the Enterprise also stands out. The self-destruct code sequence from "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield" (TOS) is followed exactly; just as well since most fans could recite it from memory.

In Kirk's final battle with the Klingon commander Kruge, notice that when Kirk has him at his mercy he tries to pull him back from the cliff and save him. It's only when Kruge shows that he prefers to drag Kirk down with him that Kirk kicks him off the cliff. Kirk is clearly furiously angry, but he only kills when it is unavoidable for self-defence. As he says in "A Taste of Armageddon" (TOS), OK, we're killers, but we don't have to kill today.

Best line: "How can you have a yellow alert in space dock?"

► Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home (1986)

Otherwise known as "the one with the whales". People argue whether other Star Trek films are better, but few claim that others are more enjoyable. It's probably the most positive of all Star Trek films, with no villains in a normal sense and an upbeat and light tone despite some serious content. The alien probe is destroying Earth, but not intentionally, it's just trying to communicate. The only phaser shot is on stun and doesn't work anyway. There are one or two annoying people, notably the punk on the bus, but they hardly rise to the level of villains. ("I eschew you!") The nearest thing to villains are the whalers. There are surely few more satisfying moments in film than the scene where the Klingon Bird of Prey uncloaks in front of the whaling ship.

Mark Lenard's brief appearance as Sarek is superb. "Your associates are people of good character," he tells Spock. "They are my friends," Spock replies. "Yes, of course," says Sarek softly, seeming rather embarrassed (if that isn't too emotional a word) by this human-style talk, but accepting, even if not easily.

Best line: This is a tough one. Possibilities include "Double dumb ass on you!" and "No, I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space." But perhaps "One damn minute, Captain."

► Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier (1989)

This has tended to receive bad reviews, but I suspect it may go up the charts a bit in time. It does deal with a big theme, namely the search for God. The God that Sybok finds turns out (like others in Star Trek) to be false, but at the end Kirk and Co. are left speculating about whether God is out there. Kirk suggests that perhaps God is not "out there" but in the human heart. Viewers may take this either in terms of God being found within, or in terms of the idea of God being more about some human quality.

Nimbus 3 is Graham Greene in space: the washed-up general, the somewhat disreputable cynic (St. John Talbot is almost the only person in the whole of Star Trek who smokes), and the innocent young idealist, together in the seedy forgotten outpost.

Best line: "What does God need with a starship?" Though "Not in front of the Klingons" and "Were we having a good time?" also possible.

Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Political allegory. Note the date: those too young to remember that period may not realize how much the huge upheavals of the time (change in the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War) dominated consciousness. The film is full of allusions which were familiar then but now need footnotes.[1] There is no doubt it is a good film, both dramatic and funny. Chancellor Gorkon (the name is a very obvious reference to Gorbachev) is convincing, and Kang's eye-patch bolted to his skull is genius... But on reflection one may question if it deserves to be such a good film.

The film's biggest fault is its lack of belief in the Star Trek premise that the world can overcome problems. In this film the Federation may not be racist within itself, but racism towards Klingons has taken its place. (What happened to the attitudes Kirk expressed so forcefully in "The Day of the Dove"?) It is reported that Nichelle Nichols refused to say one of the lines. Starfleet looks at its most military so far. This vision, attributed to the director and co-writer Nicholas Meyer, was a quite reasonable way of writing SF allegorizing the end of the Cold War. It just doesn't belong in Star Trek. It's a bit like someone taking over Inspector Morse and making him corrupt, because that would introduce some realistic issues. Or what actually was done to Mission Impossible. Of course one could say that the eventual outcome is a true Star Trek triumph of enlightenment after all.

Spock seems to have become a bit too accepting of his humanity, giving way to a display of anger with Valeris.

Best line: "You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon."

► Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Good in parts, but inconsistent. Inconsistency doesn't matter if you don't notice it, but in this case some of the issues are big enough to get in the way. One is the nature of the Nexus. Guinan tells Picard that it was like being "inside joy" and warns him that if he goes he won't care about anything anymore except staying there. Whoopi Goldberg puts a lot of power into the line and it stays with you. (It sounds a bit like the experience of drug addiction.) But when we finally reach the Nexus, it seems to be more a variable fantasy. (Captain Picard's fantasy, in his case the family life he doesn't have in reality, is a bit embarrassing when brought out into the open, but that would be true for most of us.) Picard is able to decide to leave, and Kirk decides to leave when he senses the unreality. What about the incredible contentment?

Captain Kirk's death is for an important cause but seems oddly undramatic—he falls off a high place onto rocks. (OK, he spent a lot of time in TOS climbing around rocks.) Incidentally, apparently his foreknowledge that he would die alone (ST5) was mistaken, unless he meant he would die apart from his friends.

There are some terrific scenes: especially Data's discovery of emotion and the crash of the Enterprise D. The rescue of Spot may not quite match that of Cat in Breakfast at Tiffany's but it's a great moment.

Best line: Possibilities include "Don't tell me—Tuesday" and "I hope for your sake you were initiating a mating ritual". But I'm going with "I just love scanning for lifeforms."

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

One of the best ST films. First Contact managed to combine "action" with the Star Trek vision. The more one re-watches, the more the action becomes less interesting while the other parts grow, with Zefram Cochrane having greatness thrust upon him. Lily is a superb character and refuses to let Picard get away with his superiority—he needs to hear "Bullshit!" more often.[2] The ending, with the arrival of the Vulcan ship, is genuinely and surprisingly moving. This is helped by the superb score, written by Jerry and Joel Goldsmith, which establishes this mood, rather than the conflicts, as the heart of the film.

One good thing is that leaves open the relationship between Lily and Zefram Cochrane. She takes his hand briefly when he goes to meet the Vulcans. Just friends? The film resists the temptation to tell us.

Best line: "You told him about the statue?"

► Star Trek Insurrection (1998)

Watchable but rather bad. Incidentally, even on first watching one notices that it introduces a potentially interesting backstory (the origin of the Sona) which seems to radically undercut the goody-goody inhabitants' moral superiority, but then completely ignores the implications.

Best line: "In the event of a water landing, I have been designed to serve as a flotation device."

► Star Trek Nemesis (2002)

There are one or two good bits at the start....

Best line: "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be in the gym."


Footnotes

[1] In fact, at least one scene, with Colonel West, was cut from a DVD distribution presumably because the allusion would now be so obscure to younger viewers. [Return]

[2] Does this mean that the demand for "realism" is right after all? No, the world really has got better. But Picard often seems to feel that he personally embodies the merits of the Federation. [Return]


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