I was six, maybe seven years old, and turning the knob on the old Panasonic 12-channel TV, when I saw a field of stars, and a curiously-shaped spacecraft passing among them. A “re-run” (a word I just learned) of a show called “Star Trek”. Well, I had been playing with a telescope in my back yard for years already, and building a whole universe of spacecraft out of Lego bricks. So, of course I sat down and watched. The crew of that ship “beamed” down to a planet, where they met three witches, towering in the skies above them. And I turned the TV off and ran up to my room. It was too scary.
Eight years old. Still scared of Star Trek. My dad took me to the cinema to see The Wrath of Khan anyway. That film, along with Roy Gallant’s book Our Universe, and (I must admit), two of the three Star Wars films released to that date, produced in me a lifelong love of science fiction, which I still enjoy to this day.
Over the last few days, in honour of the 50th anniversary of the franchise, I watched all six films made by the original cast. Here’s what I like about each of them.
By the way: spoilers.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
I am very well aware that most scifi fans, and indeed most Trek fans, regard this film as the runt of the litter. To me, it’s one of the top ten scifi films ever made. I can’t recall exactly when I first saw it; I have a vague memory of seeing the transporter accident scene on TV in the late 70s or early 80s. In the 1990s a friend gave me the film on VHS tape and I watched it daily for a month.
Of all the films featuring the original cast, this one seems to me the most philosophical. It is a film about knowledge: it’s a film about the philosophical question “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” And that’s a very difficult theme around which to tell a story. It explores this theme in two ways: one on a “big picture”, represented by the existential threat posed by the V’Ger probe, and the other on the “small picture”, represented by Spock when he gives up his Kohlinar discipline; and by Kirk when he effectively commandeers the Enterprise from Decker, its new captain. V’Ger is introduced with a long and visually trippy descent into the cloud, to establish the weirdness and alienness and wonder of space exploration. V’Ger itself is the product of an alien society that loves knowledge so much it took an ordinary exploration probe and gave it godlike powers for the sole purpose of learning “all that is learnable, and transmit its knowledge to its creator”. The film ends with very possibly the best reveal in scifi: V’Ger is one of ours. Then, as if to place a quasi-religious glamour on the search for knowledge, V’Ger and Decker fuse with each other and become a new, maybe supernatural being. The message is: knowledge is transformation and enlightenment.
If you are a fan of Trek who doesn’t much like TMP, consider at least this much: the music. Glorious. Evocative. Bold. Inspirational. The overture, Ilia’s theme, played to a blank screen (in the cinematic release) or a receding starfield (in the remastered DVD) tells you from the beginning that this is going to be an introspective and personal film. Then the brass rise for the main theme, played over the opening credits, tells you that this is a film about courage and triumph. You know that theme: it was used for the opening credits for The Next Generation. I listened to the soundtrack for TMP while writing my own novels. The long exposition scenes that some critics hate are actually essential: they give you time to think about the big themes that Star Trek has always been about. The scene when we arrive at the Enterprise in its refitting dock was the first time anyone saw their beloved starship in over ten years. Fans needed that long, loving look. They deserved Goldsmith’s beautiful music score to pay homage to it.
On watching this film again last week, for the first time in perhaps ten years, I suddenly realised how many contemporary films and TV shows of every genre obsessively demand action, action, action. TMP is a slow burn. A science-fiction art film. A movie for thinking, not merely ‘riding’. A love song to the idea that we human beings can solve our problems and boldly go where no one has… you get the idea. We have far too few such films in the canon of Western pop culture. We’ll probably not get many such films again, in Trek or in any franchise. But I digress.
The Wrath of Khan (1982)
This film I also regard as one of the top ten scifi films ever made. Indeed I think this film, together with its predecessor, make for two distinct and complimentary faces for what Trek is about: TMP is thoughtful, questioning, and inspirational; Wrath of Khan is scrappy, adventurous, and heroic. We have clearly defined heroes and villains; they’re both tough, and they’re both smart. The Enterprise crew changed its friendly (but boring) uniforms from TMP for a sharper, more militaristic look. The opening musical theme also changed, emphasizing strings over brass and somehow evoking the romance of space travel and the danger of space warfare at the same time.
When I first saw this film I was too young to understand philosophical and political questions hinted at (though not emphasized) in the film: questions like what to do about getting old, and what to do about superpowerful new technologies, represented by the Genesis Device, and Khan’s own genetic engineered ‘superiority’. I did, at the time, understand that big technologies could be destructive; we had done a nuclear drill in my school that year. What I love now about this film is that it represents a society that loves exploration, science, experiment, and curiosity; that takes such things seriously and questions their ethics; and that is capable of fighting when it needs to. The final space battle between Kirk and Khan, in the nebula, reminded me of submarine war films: the tension was not so much in fighting the enemy, bit finding the enemy. Yet Kirk and Khan had been exchanging moves from the first moment that the Reliant fired on the Enterprise– the battle between them was more a battle of wits than of weapons. Any idiot with a working right hand can fire a gun; it takes Kirk and Khan to fight each other with information, deception, move and counter-move, leading to a surgically-precise final blow. This is how smart people fight each other.
And then– Spock died! First time I saw the film, I never saw it coming. Spock’s death was perfect for the character: logically chosen, and heroically executed. The phrase “I am, and always shall be, your friend”, so simple and plain, and introduced early in the film where it was almost innocuous and casual, was elevated to a more noble meaning. It made for an interesting contrast against Khan’s parallel act of self-destruction: quoting Herman Melville (“To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee”), Khan sacrifices himself in order to kill; Spock sacrifices himself in order to save.
It was wise of the filmmakers to give Spock the last lines in the film: the reading of the show’s manifesto: “Space, the final frontier…”. It told us that the film makers loved Spock as much as we fans did. And that Spock might not be entirely gone.
The Search for Spock (1984)
This film came out when I was ten. I don’t recall if I saw it in the cinema; but I do recall that Robin Curtis’ portrayal of Saavik was one of my first adolescent boyhood crushes. (Too much information, I know. Sorry about that.)
Including my re-viewing of this film last week, I’ve seen Search for Spock perhaps only three times. I find it a strange film: it tries to be thoughtful like TMP, and adventurous like Wrath of Khan, at the same time, and I’m not sure it succeeds at either. The central theme of the film is friendship: it is about the Enterprise crew coming together to effectively bring Spock back from the dead. It’s interesting that the crew of the Enterprise, who we have long admired for being upright and moral people, commit several serious crimes: stealing the Enterprise, sabotaging the Excelsior, disobeying orders, all of which would likely earn them the death penalty in a real-word navy service. Yet the ethics of these crimes is never doubted: the value of friendship overrules them all. We see this in the great personal cost that the crew, and Kirk especially, must bear: the destruction of the ship, the death of Kirk’s only son. But I think the heart of the film appears at the end, when Kirk discusses these costs with Sarek. Sarek expresses regret that if Kirk hadn’t gone after Spock, he would not have lost his son. Kirk replies: “If I hadn’t tried [to save Spock], I would have lost my soul”. Kirk’s friendship with Spock and the crew is his soul; and in a clever reversal of Spock’s utilitarian reasoning that led to his self-sacrifice, that friendship is the “one” which can outweigh the needs of the “many”.
It’s interesting that the film makers had to invoke the idea of a soul to reverse the “needs of the many” argument that concluded Wrath of Khan. This soul is a psycho-spiritual “package”, so to speak, that McCoy can carry around in his head; it’s also a relationship between people, a non-supernatural phenomena. Trek has explored the ethics of individualism over socialism many times; I think that this film is Trek’s best exploration of that theme.
As a follow-up to my comment about the demand for fast-paced film making: Search for Spock doesn’t give us enough time to feel Kirk’s grief. But it does give us just the right amount of time to appreciate Spock’s return. Shot with almost no distracting visuals in the background, and no music, it gave Spock fans the reunion they were waiting for.
The Voyage Home (1986)
This is one of the most popular films in the series but I have mixed feelings about it. I like the environmentalist message, for instance, but I also think the message was delivered a bit heavy-handed. Trek’s best morality plays are the ones where the viewer is shown an ethical or social possibility that she might not have thought of before but still lets the viewer make up her own mind about it. Here the message is “Save the whales, save the world!” Ya. It’s a bit much.
The strength of this film is the camraderie of the team. For the first time in the films, the story is not just about Kirk / Spock / McCoy / Everyone Else. It’s about everyone, nearly equally, bringing their own unique skills to the task. Characters like Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov had almost nothing to do in the previous films; here they have essential jobs to do, and more recognizably distinct personalities. And excellent comic timing! Watching this film felt like hanging out with friends. We had an important job to do; but we’re having fun doing it. The saving of the day was a kind of foregone conclusion. What mattered was that the world of Trek was still around, its heroes were still heroes, and its sense of optimism for a better future was still deeply felt. Job done. But for all that, the film didn’t seem to have much re-playability. I couldn’t watch it again and again like I could watch Wrath of Khan. It felt more like an episode of a TV series than a movie. I also felt stuck on the sheer cheapness of the final set, the Federation council chamber. So, on the night last week when I re-watched this one, I watched the next one afterwards, right away.
The Final Frontier (1989)
I know that most fans regard this film as the very worst of the series. And yes, there’s a lot about this film that really, really sucks, and I don’t want to sound like an apologist. The film is funny in all the wrong places; the ‘ascent of man’ symbol as Kirk climbs a mountain just doesn’t work, and neither does its counterpart ascent in the Enterprise turbolift shaft. An end scene, where Kirk says maybe God is “here” and then he points at himself, just makes me want to gag. All that said: here’s a few points about it which I think are worth praising.
First, as with The Voyage Home, the Enterprise team are working as a team. They’re distinct individuals with unique and necessary skills, and their ability to work together is what wins them their victory. It was also nice to see McCoy standing up for Spock more often.
Second, a reaffirmation of classic Trek humanism. I had a VHS tape of this film when I was a teenager that I watched repeatedly. In retrospect this is surprising, since I was growing up in a deeply religious Catholic household and the film was a deeply anti-religious film. The slowly unfolding premise is a search for God. But the big reveal at the end is that “God” is a fake. In fact Spock, at the gunner station on board a Klingon ship, fires on him and kills him. Logic defeating superstition. Not even for the first time in Trek history. How did I get away with watching that film so often back then?
Third, its villain, Sybok, is a smart and charismatic person, and as you’ve gathered by now, I like a smart and charismatic villain. He’s on a kind of spirital quest, to locate the planet of Shaka-Ri, a kind of mythical Eden which might be the home planet of God. A sound, solid motivation, and it’s easy to share it. That Sybok gets there by effectively mind-controlling people is what makes him an interesting and frightening villain. Also his one tiny moment of self doubt: when told he is mad, he says “Am I? We’ll see!” Actor Laurence Luckinbill played that moment perfectly.
The scene in the officer’s mess where Sybok compels Spock and McCoy to reveal their pain seemed to me very effective. We got to see more of these men’s characters than we normally see. Spock’s pain is one we’ve known since the original series in the 60’s; McCoy’s struck me as new, and very emotionally powerful. Kirk’s speech about how we need our pain also worked: well, sort of. For one thing, we already know that Kirk’s pain is his grief for the death of his son; for another, it’s a strategic rather than principled argument, designed to keep Sybok out of his head. But a central moment in the film, for me, happened right after that speech. Even after Sybok “released” Spock and McCoy from their pain, they chose to remain with Kirk, and not join Sybok’s army of fanatics. That showed the strength of will and the sense of self, which makes those characters the heroes that they are.
We see this strength in Kirk a little later on, when the ship arrives at Shaka-Ri, and Sybok relinquishes command, like the honourable man he thinks himself to be. “What makes you think I wont’ turn us around?” asks Kirk. “Because you, too, must know.” Yes, and so must we. Very effective.
More effective still, is when Kirk asks, “What does God need with a starship?” Pure Pyrrhonic skepticism: Kirk still must know, and remains in doubt about everything so that he can get closer to the truth. His superpower is his ability to keep on questioning; Sybok’s weakness is that he can’t. Until Kirk shows him that he can. Then I think that Sybok became a kind of hero, in his own way: maybe an unwilling hero since all his deepest beliefs had just been exposed as illusions, but he died an admirable death nonetheless.
It’s hard to see these good moments behind the mess of bad effects, bad pacing, misplaced comic moments, and pretentiousness. Thank the gods (well, you know what I mean) that the franchise didn’t end here.
The Undiscovered Country (1991)
My re-viewing last week was the first time I had seen The Undiscovered Country since its cinematic release, and it’s growing on me. Though I called the first and second films two of the top ten best sci-fi films of all time, this one may well be the most perfectly Trek film of them all. It’s a film about how our biggest social and political problems are best solved by negotiation and discussion, and not by violence. But it also asks what is to become of those who know nothing but violence, and who might feel they have no place in a world defined by peace. So it is also a kind of ‘whodunnit’ detective story, about smart characters solving a difficult problem together. There’s an investigation into the assassination of an important Klingon politician and the saboteurs of a peace conference. Then there’s also a jail break, a space battle, Sulu in command of his own ship, Spock very nearly losing his temper, some well placed moments of comic relief. And there’s a promise at the end that our heroes are still out there somewhere, sailing into the sunset, and boldly going where no one has gone before. Star Trek optimism and adventurism at its best. Indeed if this wasn’t a Trek film I think it would still stand up as a great sci fi classic. A timely one, too: the Berlin Wall had just come down; America was no longer fighting a cold war with the Russians. So it was with the end of the Klingon Empire. Old cold-war warriors like Kirk and Valeris and Chang have to cool off, but they don’t know how.
For some reason I also began to notice something in this film which hadn’t caught my attention in the other films: the colour palatte. The film makes tableaus with high contrasting elements in the frame: computer lights and dark backgrounds; star fields and starships, red serge uniforms and black metal floorboards. A white hallway and a black armoured Klingon waking down it. Lt. Valeris’ ghost-white skin and night-black hair. The darkness of the mine shaft and the sharp red laser-rays of the mining tools. A red ticking digital clock over the black viewscreen. The bright flags, sashes, and colours of the conference hall. Films three through five had the “look and feel” of a television episode; this one had the look of a big screen movie. Although I think Shatner and Nimoy’s direction in films III, IV, and V got good results from the cast, Meyer got the best results from the camera.
One big problem, which I think no one saw back in 1991, because the sexual politics was different. Near the end of the film, Spock has to probe Valeris’ mind to get the identities of the conspirators. Valeris keeps her Vulcan cool, but it’s clear the mind meld is unwanted. Did Spock psychically assault her? Is Kirk guilty too, for ordering Spock to do it? I invite discussion in the comments.
So there you have it.
Science fiction which is optimistic about humanity’s future isn’t very fashionable anymore. The future we expect is more like the one depicted in films like Blade Runner, The Matrix, or Serenity. Or, people might look forward to a future in which we join the Rebellion and fight the Empire. But the tragedy of that future is that the war, while mythic and romantic, never ends. That is why, although I would like to study at the Jedi Temple some day, I would much rather live in the Federation.
Off to binge on The Next Generation now. And DS9. And Voyager. I’m also 14,000 words into writing my own scifi novel. The human adventure is just beginning.