Star Trek was originally a television series back in the 1960s in a similar genre to Batman, Bewitched, and Lost in Space. It never rated particularly well on television and — it could be argued — was able to find a niche specifically because television companies were more inclined to have these quirky niche products than they are today. By the time of the first movie, the original series had been off the air for over a decade. The Star Trek films have therefore always been framed in terms of nostalgia.
This nostalgic element results immediately in difficulties. How do you satiate existing fans while attracting new audiences? How do you balance the need to present spectacle and action with the fans’ awareness of the absurdities? More importantly, how do you refresh the structure of a Star Trek story to meet changing expectations about the world? Do you update the individual story elements, images, and styles?
Take the example of the Orion slave girls. In a 1969 episode of Star Trek (‘The Original Series’) called ‘Whom the Gods Destroy’, Yvonne Craig (who also played Batgirl in Batman) portrayed a member of this species:
In 2005, the Orion slave girls made a return in a completely fresh, entirely updated, and very modern take on the original:
Or maybe not.
The Orion slave girl example provides an interesting insight into the way science fiction is used as a mirror of society. When the Original Series was on the air, the key political question of the day was the conflict with Russia and distrust of China. In 1967, the episode ‘Errand of Mercy’ introduced the Klingons as an avatar for the Communists. The Federation, on the other hand, has always represented the Anglosphere in Space (even when it’s had Japanese and Soviet characters in Star Fleet). Over the course of the Star Trek franchise, the Klingons would eventually be reconciled with the Federation, but women who were more than mere titillation objects would always be the exception rather than the rule.
This gendered element of Star Trek allowed the series to explore some deeply troubling aspects of society: was there any limit to what could be sexualised? No matter how far away from Earth we flew, we’d always find something that looked hot in skin-tight pants. Although the Star Trek universe is inherently political (what does it mean for a society to be built around a regimented institution of scholar-warriors?), it is — first and foremost — about sexuality and masculinity.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Since the final episode of the Original Series twelve years earlier, James T. Kirk has been promoted from Captain to Admiral. He has a desk job. He oversees operations. He gains weight. He goes a bit pudgy, his eyes go eggy, and he’s a bit creakier than he used to be. A fresh, new captain has taken over the helm of the Enterprise (Kirk’s old ship). And the ship is riddled with bright, young things who aren’t much like Kirk’s old crew. When a cosmic, catastrophic event starts making its way into Federation space, Kirk jumps at the chance to take over his old ship from the new captain.
The film tries — perhaps unsuccessfully — to balance two different stories. There is the story of the cosmic, catastrophic event that’s heading towards Earth, and there’s the story of the old war horse who is desperate to feel relevant again. The story of Kirk’s attempt to relive his glory days is a surprisingly interesting story, but there’s no link to the elaborate, majestic, beautiful, and dull — horribly, hideously dull — story about the strange space event. This presents a problem for the audience, as Kirk’s story gets lost in the ocean of the other story. Why is Kirk being so petty and small-minded when he’s coming up against the majestic terror of space?
The stories don’t mesh particularly well because there is something extremely alien about the bigger story. The original series of Star Trek was, primarily, about social and psychological issues. Rather than being about hard science and new tech, it was about the human condition. Star Trek: The Motion Picture instead takes its styles and cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey (which came out in 1968).
The cosmic entity — V’ger’ — is actually a space probe which was originally part of Earth’s Voyager program. The film was released two years after Voyager 1 and 2 were launched; the probe in the film is optimistically identified as Voyager 6. The threat that we face in space is one that, ultimately, originated here on Earth. V’ger has travelled the universe and has collected information on absolutely everything. It has gained sentience and is now seeking to reunite with its creator (humans). For some reason, the information it’s collected does not include: ‘People die when you electrocute them.’ V’ger, being a mechanical entity, thinks that the starship Enterprise is actually the intelligent lifeform and that some sort of carbon-based disease (people) has infested it, so the information is far from being complete. It also lacks information on how to communicate meaningfully with other creatures. Instead of expressing its needs like an advanced entity, our intrepid heroes have to undertake a wide variety of tasks (including ‘mind-melding’ with V’ger) to work out that it needs to merge with a human.
Is there a link between Kirk’s need to feel complete — which can only be fulfilled through his integration with the starship Enterprise — and V’ger’s need to feel complete — which can only be fulfilled through its integration with a human? If so, it’s not particularly clear.
The resolution of the V’ger plot simultaneously robs us of an ending to Kirk’s plot. The new captain of the Enterprise is the one who merges with V’ger, removing him from the conflict with Kirk. Kirk wins by default. Kirk needs to be the dominant male in his environment. It’s essential to his psychic unity. Simply removing the new captain robs us of a chance to see Kirk assert his authority definitively. Kirk is the mini-emperor because his competition has gone off to bigger and better things (specifically, being an interdimensional, cosmic entity).
Alongside the battle of Kirk and the new captain is the story of the bald Deltan female, Ilia. From the moment we are introduced to, really, the only prominent female in the movie, we are told all about her sex life. Deltans are just like humans except ridiculously sexual (in the same way that Vulcans are just like humans except ridiculously ‘logical’). In order to join Starfleet, Ilia had to swear an oath of celibacy. There is a preoccupation with controlling this woman’s sexuality. Eventually, V’ger replaces Ilia with a robot-clone. Already reduced by the two leading males of the film, she is literally reduced to an object by the antagonist of the film. Things get weird when the new captain’s love for Ilia doesn’t appear to change just because Ilia is swapped with a robot-clone: he agrees to sacrifice himself because of his remaining affection.
Can a robotic clone of a bald Indian chick be an object of sexual desire? ST:TMP says yes.
The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Where ST:TMP fought desperately to get people interested in a cosmic space storm, The Wrath of Khan worked out that Star Trek is, at its very core, a space opera. The Wrath of Khan is amazing. Set in the vast emptiness of space, this film makes you feel like the entire universe is not large enough to contain the two egos of Kirk — who’s back on the deck of the Enterprise — and Khan — a genetically engineered superhuman who blames Kirk for the death of his wife.
There’s some baldernonsense about some spacey technology and an addition of hitherto unknown Kirk-children, but what makes this film hold together is the tension between the two alpha males. Here’s a scene where Kirk is on a planet while Khan is miles away in space:
Despite the in-universe distance between the two men, it feels always like they are face-to-face, staring each other down. Shatner and Montalban never met for a scene in this movie and yet their chemistry drives the explosive tension.
That said, the conflict between Kirk and Khan is so intense and all-consuming that there’s little room for other characters. Or plot. Ordinarily, you can summarise a pop-culture film in a sentence or two. What’s the story? Wrath of Khan escapes such summary. It’s a character piece about Kirk and Khan. They’re fighting for control of some piece of tech, but that’s not really terribly important. This is a story of revenge and ego.
While this plot is unfolding, other characters are reduced to cameo-like appearances. Spock is the most notable of these. He is overseeing his prize cadet, Saavik (played by Kirstie Alley): Saavik is trying to understand her role as a bright, young Vulcan in the Federation. Her mentor is Spock, who provides both Saavik and the audience the moral compass of the film. In the Star Trek universe, consequentialism is the logical morality. Spock’s assertion that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few will be tested by Kirk, while his advice to Saavik is to be more flexible. The story really doesn’t require Saavik at all. Variations of her lines could have been absorbed by Spock and there is a sense in which Saavik and Spock are occupying the same role. Leonard Nemoy was planning to retire the character with this film, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that Saavik was going to take over Spock’s function (quoting rules and regulations; being the straight man to Shatner’s Shatner). The question, then, is whether or not Saavik manages to be anything but a ‘sexy Spock’.
A very similar problem emerges with Kirk’s family. A long time ago, Kirk had a fling with a random woman (Carol Marcus) and she ended up giving birth to Kirk’s son. It is unclear why this element of the plot is dumped on the audience so rapidly — it definitely doesn’t endear us to Kirk. The story doesn’t lend itself to any sort of romance with Carol Marcus, nor does it have room for a Kirk reimagining himself as a father. Once Marcus and her son have delivered their exposition, they merely end up being sentient targets.
Finally, there’s Spock’s death. With the clash of the titans between Khan and Kirk, their respective crews are transformed (or reduced) to extensions of their selves. Thus, Kirk’s victory over Khan is personal, even though it comes at the sacrifice of Spock’s life. In the highly regimented world of the Federation, subordinates distance themselves from their own desires in order to achieve the goals and aspirations of their superiors.
Spock’s funeral is also notable in that regard. Spock is a Vulcan and operates his life through the lens of his Vulcan heritage. In his eulogy, Kirk says that of all the souls he has met in the galaxy, Spock’s was the ‘most human’. Kirk (and the audience) clearly intends to understand this as a compliment. A high compliment, even. But what is complimentary about robbing a person of their rich cultural history? In the mind of Kirk and the viewer, Spock transcended the realm of being non-human through moral excellence in order to become human. It’s a confusing sentiment.
The graphics and costumes are extremely ’70s (even though it was filmed in the early ’80s), and the films pacing is similar to sword and sorcery films (like Conan the Barbarian, which came out the same year). Despite all of that, Shatner and Montalban are phenomenal. Definitely worth watching (even for non-Trekkies).
The Search for Spock (1984)
The Wrath of Khan posed a problem for the franchise. Nimoy had insisted that he didn’t want to come back, so they killed off his character, Spock. A Star Trek film without Spock is a bit like having a Harry Potter film without Snape. But to ‘magic’ him back into existence would undermine the ‘sacrifice’ he made at the end of Khan. The Search for Spock is a 105 minute bromance dedicated to undoing the last fifteen minutes of Wrath of Khan.
Given that Saavik and Spock cohabited the same space in Wrath of Khan, it is interesting that Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis and her 1980s hair) does not occupy Spock’s old expository function in Search for Spock. Instead, Spock’s father performs that function.
Saavik has joined with Kirk’s son to investigate the planet where some sciencey-tech stuff has happened. There, they find that the sciencey-tech stuff has resurrected the body of Spock. Saavik’s role is to be a mother-companion to the resurrected Spock.
Spock’s father explains to Kirk that he is an idiot: of course Spock transferred his mind into the body of the ship’s doctor, of course Spock somehow knew that his body would be healed or resurrected, of course Kirk should be aware of what every Vulcan schoolchild knows.
This causes Kirk and the old gang to steal their old ship and go hunting for Spock’s resurrected body. They are frustrated in this attempt by the Klingon Kruge (played by Christopher Lloyd).
Kruge kills Kirk’s son, not realising that Kirk had spent more time in his life with gastronomic upsets than he had with his son. In this life, and in the next, only one man will matter as much to Kirk as Kirk means to Kirk:
Killing Kirk’s son in a movie that’s absorbed with the idea of resurrection is an odd plot device. This film is robbing us of the certainty of death within the Star Trek universe. There’s no eternal slumber for anybody loved by Kirk. Everybody must return to the sorrow of existence until he is finished with them.
The Search for Spock again shows the very strange habit of Kirk’s subordinates to sacrifice their best interests for the sake of achieving Kirk’s goals. Given the influence of the Vulcans in the Federation, there are clearly other ways of achieving their goals of rescuing Spock besides hijacking a spaceship. Kirk is not just a man who occupies a space within the Federation. He is the locus of moral and ethical reasoning for an entire group of people. While his subordinates might have personal views, disagreements, or reservations, ultimately they are not empowered to exercise those qualms of conscience. They are, in effect, unable to turn their beliefs and desires into actions unless Kirk does it for them.
Is this film really that bad? The Wrath of Khan was amazing and the film will regain its sense of fun in the next film, The Voyage Home. Perhaps The Search for Spock‘s greatest sin is not being as good as the film it follows or the film that follows it.
On the other hand, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this film is little more than a band-aid.
The Voyage Home (1986)
Leonard Nemoy — who played Spock — directed both The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. Where the previous two films were extremely heavy affairs about vengeance, ego, death, and resurrection, The Voyage Home is about whales. Why? Nemoy frickin’ loves whales.
Kirk and his crew are heading back to Earth following the events of Search for Spock when they receive a distress warning. Earth is under attack from some mystery probe which — as Spock correctly deduces — is using the destructive power of whale-song.
So they go back in time to the 1980s in order to find a humpback whale.
As you do.
In a departure from the previous two films, there isn’t a clear villain in this film. Instead, it’s a straight up problem-solving movie. How are they going to find a whale? How are they going to carry it around? How are they going to bring it back to the future?
The film provides enough space for other characters to play and frolic but, ultimately, that’s all this film is — a highly enjoyable play and frolic. It’s full of classic lines — ‘Hello, computer!’ and ‘Vhere are your nuclear wessels?’ — but it’s not a film which inspires much in the way of deeper analysis.
We often accuse the modern generation of young people of being the ‘Nostalgia Generation’. All the shows I grew up with in the ’90s are being rebooted into grittier, cooler, and equally sexist versions. Star Trek IV reveals this to be an unfair accusation. This film is nothing but nostalgia, and there’s nothing in it for anybody who’s not already a fan.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, of course. As a fan of the franchise, I love this film. At the same time, I’m never going to tell somebody new to the franchise that they’ll get something deep and meaningful out of it, beyond Captain Planet-levels of moralising.
The Final Frontier (1989)
Shatner himself was behind this trainwreck of a film in which we are introduced to Spock’s evil halfbrother, Sybock. Sybock has discovered a psychic way of making people feel happy, and believes he knows how to contact God.
There’s nothing new about science fiction exploring religious themes, though it is difficult to think of successful examples. Science fiction is about subordinating the cosmos to the authority of reason. We go out into space and find things which are (eventually) explicable. We use those explanations to engage with our discoveries — more often than not, we use our knowledge to defeat or control the threat. This creates a difficult platform to inspect religious claims. Frequently, we see ‘Extremely powerful alien pretending to be a deity’.
Shatner’s story winds loosely around this framework. Sybok somehow knows how to reach God and so needs to commit several crimes in order to do so. This makes Sybok the villain, but it’s never clear why he doesn’t just explain his brilliant proposal and find people willing to volunteer for the journey.
It’s an awkward mess full of what Shatner thought would be insightful and titillating (see the cat-woman above), and it’s not entirely clear what Shatner’s message is. God is evil? Extremely powerful aliens who pretend to be God are evil? It is better not to search for God because you don’t know whether or not you’ll just find an omnipotent creature who will pretend to be God but is actually evil? Three-breasted cat-women?
Fortunately, the film is in no way memorable. The moment you watch it, it slips from memory, leaving a vague outline of whatever it once was. It’s an ugly film and completely unsatisfying.
The Undiscovered Country (1991)
By this point in the franchise, the series has well and truly tanked. The fun nostalgia is gone. There’s nowhere for the main characters to develop. The story has hit the wall.
The Undiscovered Country shows how completely out of touch the people behind the franchise had become. Although we had seen race-antagonism earlier in the series, this is the film where this theme is at its most ham-fisted. Nichelle Nicholls had originally been given the line ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?‘ but she refused to say it. Thus, it was lobbed over to Walter Koenig where it drops like a fart in the scene.
It’s in this clunky, awkward way that The Undiscovered Country unfolds its plot. The Klingon Empire has suffered some kind of natural disaster for which they had not done adequate risk mitigation or disaster recovery preparation, so they need to form a peace agreement with the Federation. Naturally, the Federation sends it’s most anti-Klingon officer, Kirk, whose son had been killed by the Klingons a few movies prior. Naturally.
Kirk, unable to behave professionally, has a sulk and is generally a spectacular jerk. This means that when a rogue group conspires to cause further conflict between the Klingon Empire and the Federation, nobody hesitates to blame Kirk.
It’s boring and long-winded. Christopher Plummer (of Sound of Music fame) plays the Shakespeare-obsessed Klingon general. Although it’s funny, it does make for an awkward viewing experience. There’s no point to anything, and is all haphazardly falls apart to the end.
Kim Cattrall plays an evil Vulcan, and Iman plays an evil shapeshifting alien. It’s all pretty bad.
This is the one where Kirk dies and there are Klingon women showing their cleavage.
Following the success of earlier Star Trek films, Paramount began production on a ‘new generation’ of Star Trek officers: Stark Trek The Next Generation. Instead of having a captain that has Kirk’s action-hero style character, Next Generation had Patrick Stewart play a cerebral diplomat, Jean-Luc Picard.
The film franchise had tanked. The films were still drawing an audience, but the films were not getting critical success. Thus, the company behind Star Trek decided to pander further to the fanbase. Secure the nerd-audience by giving those mouth-breathing basement-dwellers what they want and the money will flow in.
Thus we get Kirk and Shatner going on an adventure together and busty Klingons.
Kirk gets exposed to space magic and everybody thinks he’s dead. Little does everybody know that he’s actually in some sort of magical personal fantasy land.
100 years later, and a guy who’s trying to reach the magical personal fantasy land is blowing up stars because of space magic. Picard finds him, tries to stop him, and ends up in the magical personal fantasy land with Kirk. The magical personal fantasy land also allows people to travel back in time, so Picard and Kirk go back in time to stop the guy from blowing up stars. Kirk falls off a bridge and dies.
That’s pretty much it. It is as pointless as it is painful to watch. And it stopped Shatner from appearing in the new Star Trek movies.
First Contact (1996)
Although this is the film which turns my stomach (you’re welcome), this is easily the best of the original run of films.
This was the first of the Star Trek: The Next Generation films that didn’t include the Original Series’ characters. Thus, it’s a further turn away from engaging with mainstream audiences. This isn’t a film for people who are fresh to Star Trek. You need to know a fair amount about the various characters, and the relationship between the Federation and the Borg, in order to get the film.
And danger lurks down that path. If you’re relying heavily on the audience’s knowledge of the characters, you are limited in what you can do with them. Thus the criticism from folk like the Red Letter Media guys who complain that Picard transforms from a noble diplomat who seeks non-violent resolutions to problems into an action hero who shoots first and smashes things later.
Frankly, I don’t care because the end result is an interesting — if disconcerting — look at the banality of evil and the nature of desire.
The Borg have decided to invade Earth. The Borg are a terrifying collection of space robots that assimilate other species. Initially, the use of language suggests that the Borg are something like a communist collective — the people are drones who subordinate their desires for the sake of a well-functioning society — but it quickly transpires that the Borg are a libertarian metaphor, colonising other cultures, making ‘your distinctiveness their own’, turning people into drones who subordinate their desires for the sake of their function.
The Federation, on the other hand, has mastered the art of multicultural engagement which allows other species to maintain their distinctiveness. Picard meets representatives from cultures that have recently joined the Federation, and tries to learn expressions without the use of the universal translator. But he’s unhappy. Because he was once assimilated by the Borg (but he got better), the Federation is worried that his judgement will be compromised if he is part of the effort against the Borg invasion.
Fortunately for the plot, Picard ignores the Federation’s instruction and goes off to battle the Borg. Space magic happens, sending the crew of the Enterprise and the Borg back in time. The Borg intend to assimilate Earth prior to humans making contact with the Vulcans.
This splits the story into two halves. The first half involves Picard’s campaign against the Borg. He takes the Klingon and the Android with him on a shooting spree. When the Android is kidnapped by the Borg, the story becomes more of a rescue mission. The Android becomes the princess trapped in the castle, and our hero, Picard, has to defeat the villains to reclaim her. The second half involves Picard’s crew going to Earth to make sure that history remains unaffected by the Borg. The guy in charge of the spaceflight project, Cochrane, has been mythologised by Federation history, stripping him of the all-too-human aspects (he’s a drunk, he’s grumpy, he’s selfish, &c.) and turning him into a statue that looks towards the future. Cochrane struggles to reconcile himself with the role that he’ll play in human history, and fights against the destiny being forced upon him by Picard’s crew.
The halves work together in so many different ways. In space, there is the existential battle between humanity and the Borg. On Earth, there is the character-driven biopic about a man struggling to fill his own shoes. In space, the scenes are dark and gloomy, bordering on horror. On Earth, the mood is lighter and cheerier. Thus, it never feels dull. Fighting against the Borg doesn’t seem relentless and exhausting because the Cochrane scenes give us reprieve. Cochrane’s fear about the future doesn’t become whiny and painful because the Borg scenes take us back to the action.
But, ultimately, it’s clear that this is the Borg-story rather than the Cochrane-story, as the Borg half of the film carries most of the philosophical weight.
Prior to First Contact, it was understood that the Borg were a non-individuated, parasitic nation. The Borg would meet a new species and then augment people from that species with technology, absorbing them into the Collective. First Contact introduces a central authority to the Borg: the Borg Queen. The Borg Queen provides the Borg with a purpose and drive.
But this individuation brings personality, and with personality in a science fiction film comes gender. Despite being a film full of intelligent, active, and engaged women, the villain of the film is hyper-sexualised. Her goal is to seduce the Android into joining her cause. To achieve this, she subjects the Android to ‘medical’ interventions in order to produce him with flesh.
There’s something delightfully Gnostic about the corruption of the flesh angle to this film. In order to corrupt the rational, logical robot, the Borg Queen must provide him with flesh. The Android must change from being a mind within a machine to a mind within a body.
And it’s only flesh that can be perverted in this way. Desire is commonly understood as an embodied emotion, rather than a cognitive intent. To tantalise and to arouse requires flesh.
The Temptation of St Android is also a perversion of the Borg norms. When the Borg come to a planet, they set about augmenting species with hideous technology. But when the Borg Queen comes to the technological animal, she sets about augmenting him with flesh. When the Borg come to a planet, they assimilate without consent, declaring resistance to be futile. But when the Borg Queen comes to the technological animal, she wants him to come willingly, desiring a consort. When the Borg come to a planet, the assimilation process is masculine and violent. But when the Borg Queen comes to the technological animal, the assimilation process is feminine and sensual.
And thus we get to the resolution: when Picard confronts the Borg Queen, the Android must decide whom he will support. Will it be his BFF or the woman he has been pashing? Bros before hos.
After the meaty greatness of First Contact, the franchise shifted yet again in tone for Insurrection. The difference between Insurrection and First Contact shows the difference between a film which works as an extended Star Trek episode and a film which works as a blockbuster in its own right.
You could get through Insurrection in about 45 minutes if you fastforward through all the bullshit. There’s Picard chasing the Android by getting him to sing ‘A British Tar’ from Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, for Jove’s sake. The Klingon gets a pimple.
In an uncharted area of the galaxy is a fountain of youth. The Android has been sent there to monitor the indigenous population of the planet but he malfunctions and goes rogue. A group of aliens desires the magical fountain of youth planet and is working with the Federation to relocate the indigenous population of the planet. This opens up the problem of the movie: to what extent is the Federation competent and permitted to relocate the indigenous population of a planet in order to gain access to a resource. Blah, blah, stopping time, blah, blah.
The film irritatingly refuses to engage with this central question and, when it’s later discovered that the indigenous population aren’t actually indigenous, the entire premiss of the film goes wonky. Why does the group who are currently on the planet get to monopolise the magic fountain of youth? Because they got there first? What’s their claim to ownership?
The film also fails to explore its secondary question: the concern we have for ageing. The ‘evil’ alien race is resorting to increasingly ineffective cosmetic surgery in order to maintain their youth. The ‘good’ population of the planet enjoys perpetual youth. There is an association between youth and innocence that the film tries to squeeze out. The technological interventions to maintain youth result in an aesthetically displeasing visage (the skin is stretched and pinned back), but the practitioners of the medical intervention themselves are exotic and sexualised. The population on the planet, meanwhile, have shunned higher forms of technology and seek a peaceful life in commune with their magic planet. Theirs is the natural beauty of not ageing.
Insurrection also provides us with the clearest example of the problem afflicting the Federation: they keep promoting evil people to the admiralty. It’s a common enough plot point in Star Trek that if an episode introduces an admiral, you’re soon to find out that the admiral is evil and sinister. In Insurrection, the admiral is — quite bafflingly — working for the ‘evil’ aliens and not providing them with an obvious solution to their problem: go to a part of the planet that isn’t populated by the few hundred people in the planet’s only village.
Christ, this one is a mess.
Once upon a time, the Vulcans and the Romulans were the same species but the Vulcans pursued a culture of logic (except for the ones that didn’t) and the Romulans kept on being passionate and warlike. When the Vulcans and Romulans parted ways, the Romulans colonised two planets called ‘Romulus’ and — sigh — ‘Remus’. Remus had an indigenous population of bat-like aliens called the Remans, and the Romulans forced them to work in mines or something.
Prior to the start of the movie, the Romulans had the bright idea of cloning Jean Luc-Picard. Alas, they scrapped that plan shortly after they created him and so sent him to work in the mines with the Remans, who named him ‘Shinzon’.
Shinzon overthrows the Romulan leadership and then wages war against Picard. There’s a big fight and then the Android dies.
There’s not a lot to this film, really. Despite being a clone, there’s not much linking Picard with Shinzon.
Picard drives around a planet on a moonbuggy.
Star Trek (2009)
So we’re back to the characters from The Original Series. Following the events of Insurrection, Spock (who was still alive due to Vulcan’s weirdly long lifespan and Spock’s even longer lifespan due to being resurrected in The Search for Spock) tried to stop Romulus from being destroyed by an exploding star. Spock failed at this task, resulting in him and some extremely upset Romulans being sent back in time to the moment of Kirk’s birth.
This results in Kirk’s birth being somewhat different from before (his father dies instead of raising him), causing an entirely new timeline to emerge. Kirk has become a degenerate and Spock hasn’t befriended him.
The film works on two levels. There’s more than enough fun for people who are already familiar with the series, and there’s not so much reliance on prior knowledge that the mainstream can’t join in. It’s an origin story without being an origin story. A re-origin story.
The key problem with the film is Kirk. His rise to becoming Captain of the Enterprise suggests that something’s seriously wrong with Starfleet. Or perhaps it’s consistent and explains why so many admirals are evil. But the result is less a feeling that Kirk became Captain because he excelled, and more a feeling that Kirk became Captain because the plot requires that Kirk be Captain.
The film doesn’t have much in the way of philosophical meat. This is a visually stunning, highly entertaining film, but not one which causes you to reflect on the wonder of the universe. We might wonder how Kirk’s father caused the green-skinned female Orions to be disenfranchised.
Don’t get me wrong: I love this film. I just wish it tackled the question of whether or not it was just for somebody to seek vengeance prior to an injustice being committed.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Apart from the ‘I am now going to take off my clothes for no conceivable reason’ shot pictured above, I love this film. I’ll quote from my review:
Screw the set up. The set up is stupid and it’s over quickly. In five more minutes, Kirk will be back to being captain of the Enterprise. What the set up does do is start off the film’s exploration of its major theme: Should you follow the rules?
The exploration of this issue is sublime. Kirk’s had a bit of a Lazarus moment due to not following the rules. He thinks he’s being doing the right thing, being the cowboy of the universe and sleeping with all the alien babes. When it catches up with him, it’s not because his behaviour resulted in some catastrophic disaster — far from it, his disregard of the rules results in positive outcomes. Instead, the complete disregard for the rules makes it difficult for Kirk to exist within the highly structured framework of Star Fleet.
Kirk has been playing cowboy and the Federation — being a highly structured, overtly militaristic political entity — seeks to reassert order. But there’s a problem within that structure: evil admirals. To what extent are people playing within the confines of the rules capable of addressing problems that exist within the structure of the rules?
Thus, we have a three-way power play. Kirk, who is struggling to find his way through the moral maze in which he finds himself. The Admiral, who is evil in the sense that Realpolitik is evil. And Khan, who is evil in the sense of being a Nietzschean sociopath is evil.
The film never shies away from tackling the issue of moral greys (even to the extent that it sacrifices the other characters). It takes the lessons learnt from Wrath of Khan and improves. What more could you want?
That Which You Could Want (The Future)
Star Trek creates a vast universe filled with an endless supply of potential stories. Instead, we follow the same handful of people time and time again. I’ve never been able to work out why we keep going back to those characters. In the case of the Next Generation films, there are simply too many characters on the Enterprise to give everybody a role to play in the story. By the end of the Original Series run, main characters were making cameos. Lines between characters became interchangeable.
This is the problem with turning television shows into movies. In a television series, you don’t mind if one of the characters is absent for an episode. Giles is visiting somebody in England. Don’t care. Hermes is in his office for a weirdly long time. Don’t care. Cleveland has gone to another series. Okay.
But in a film, everybody seems to need to poke their head in for a line or two. Did Sulu have any point at all in The Final Frontier? No.
Films which explored the Federation away from Kirk and Picard would be infinitely more interesting.
It’s not just Star Trek for which this is true. Avatar – The Last Airbender was a terrible film because they wanted to tell three seasons of a television series in one go. Do you know what would have been a better film? Avatar – The Legend of Kyoshi. That would have rocked.
The other advantage to abandoning the television characters is that you can address the structural problems in the stories. Characters that have evolved (somewhat) organically over 5-7 series need to be reset for the purpose of a film. Even characters that have evolved over the past three films need to be reset (it’s why Kirk seems to learn the same life lesson half a dozen times). If you bring in a brand new set of faces each time, you can control how they’re established. The Original Series, for example, lacks a stock of good female characters. Instead of feeling limited by the past, a new roster of characters can have better balance. And so on and so forth.
Ultimately, Star Wars is a better collection of films, but if you’ve got a spare weekend, Wrath of Khan, First Contact, the 2009 Star Trek, and Star Trek Into Darkness are definitely worth a watch.
(Happy birthday, James. I finished this a day late… sorry!)