[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: America's relationship with Star Trek began before man ever set foot on the moon. Gene Roddenberry's creation was born in 1966 and lasted three seasons on TV before dying of low ratings in 1969. Forty years, endless reruns, four live-action TV series and 10 feature films later, Star Trek is alive and well in the pop culture. In just a few days, on May 8, the crew of the starship Enterprise—Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov—will hit the big screen yet again in an origin story directed by J.J. Abrams. Star Trek, as the film is simply called, is perhaps the most anticipated movie of the spring. And though its arrival is hardly a surprise in this era of remakes and retreads, the brand's longevity is nonetheless impressive.
From 1987-2005, there was some form of modern Star Trek on TV. The Next Generation (1987-94) begat Deep Space Nine (1993-99), which begat Voyager (1995-2001), which begat Enterprise (2001-05). All of these series can be traced back to the 1966 pilot that started it all, but it's safe to say that none of these series would have been possible without the varied yet undeniable success of Star Trek at the cinema. From 1979-91, six Star Trek films were released featuring the recognizable cast and characters of the original TV series. Almost two decades later, these films are cherished by some ("Trekkies" or "Trekkers"), mocked by others and seemingly ignored by everyone else.
Ed, I have invited you to join me in boldly going where so many have gone before, to those first six Star Trek films. Over the course of our discussion, I'd like to explore the factors that make Star Trek beloved and belittled. I'd like to figure out whether Star Trek gets too much respect or not enough. I'd like to debate the series' impact on cinema. And I'd like to forecast what a successful Abrams adaptation might look like. But let's begin at the beginning. Tell me: Prior to rewatching the first six Star Trek films, what was your relationship to those films and to the overall brand? Which of these films had you seen, and how long had it been since you'd seen them? What was your stored impression of Star Trek cinema up until a few weeks ago, and what is it now?
Ed Howard: I've never had much of a personal connection to any of the Star Trek films or TV series. Growing up, I was always more of a Star Wars kid—not that one need be just a Star Wars kid or just a Star Trek kid, I don't think. Or is there some kind of Beatles vs. Rolling Stones type competitiveness between these two venerable sci-fi institutions? But anyway, it was Star Wars that I watched obsessively over and over again on worn VHS tapes, and Star Wars that I was into so intensely that I eventually branched out into the many semi-canonical books based on George Lucas' universe and characters, some of them surprisingly great, most unsurprisingly trash, but all of them devoured by nerdy me. To put it another way: as a kid, I could've told you a lot about Wookies and Bothans but very little about Klingons.
To the extent that I was aware of Star Trek, it was as some peripheral thing, that other big sci-fi series. I saw a few of the movies—I know I at least saw The Wrath of Khan—and I've caught random episodes of all the various TV shows at one point or another. I remember some stuff about the Borg (was that Next Generation?), who I thought were pretty cool villains. I remember the famous kitschy/sexy/ridiculous green lady (Yvonne Craig) from the original series, and got a kick out of catching her again on a rerun not too long ago. But my interest in Star Trek has never been what you'd call serious. Watching these first six films for this conversation, I was seeing most of them for the first time, and even with the ones I'd seen before, my memories of them were so hazy that it might as well have been the first time.
So that's the story of my (lack of) relationship with these films prior to this conversation. Now in a very condensed period of time I've seen the first six Star Trek films. So in theory I'm far better versed in this universe than I was before. But I can't shake the feeling that if you ask me again in a few months, I'll be more or less back to where I was before. There's something ephemeral about these films, something insubstantial, like they'll all just melt away once I stop thinking about them. Maybe it's because they're so thoroughly rooted in this weird nostalgia for the original series, a nostalgic feeling that I can't say I really share. Each of the films has an extended montage, some of them longer and more insufferable than others, in which the camera caresses the glistening surface of the starship Enterprise with fetishistic glee, like a horny dude ogling a naked centerfold or a mid-life crisis case polishing the chrome on his sports car. In the first film, it feels like it takes 20 minutes for everyone to stop just gawking at the damn ship in disbelief. It's a strange experience to watch these films with all these obvious nostalgic cues—the crew reassembling for each new mission, the familiar faces being highlighted, the bombastic music whenever the ship first appears, the obscure nods to episodes of the TV series—and to realize that I'm not in on the reminiscences of the intended audience.
So I watched these films, and some of them I enjoyed, and some of them I could have gone my whole life without ever subjecting myself to, but all of them gave me the feeling that I was watching something not really made with me in mind. That is, they all seem to be aimed very specifically at an audience of fans who had adored the original series and would now follow the movies as though they were just really long TV episodes. Some of them even begin with a "previously on Star Trek" synopsis of the previous movie before jumping into the action. I'm sure you can already tell, but I haven't exactly become a converted Trekkie now that I've caught up with these movies. There's a lot to like in this series, and one or two of them I'd actually call, somewhat grudgingly, good movies, but on the whole nothing I've seen here has substantially improved my perceptions of the pop culture phenomenon I mostly ignored as a kid and will be happy to resume ignoring as an adult.
JB: Your relationship to the Star Trek series mirrors mine in that growing up my passion was reserved for the Star Wars franchise. Many times I have said that I was raised on Lucas' Star Wars, and so the difference between me and you is that I can also say that I grew up with Roddenberry's Star Trek. I became familiar with this sci-fi warhorse through reruns of the original TV series, which my dad would turn on after coming home from work, mostly because my preschool-aged mind found Spock significantly more fascinating than Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. Even as a kid I was partial to movies over television, and so it wasn't long before the Star Trek films became the portal through which I formed my relationship with that brand. Certainly, I watched no movie growing up more often than I watched Star Wars (Episode IV), a VHS tape that cost my mom about $100 when she purchased it at the advent of the VCR era, but, as I've thought about it recently, the film I watched second-most might very well have been Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which was a gift from my aunt and uncle. With a limited VHS collection, one watched what one had. (Which would also explain why I've seen Romancing the Stone more times than anyone should, but that's another conversation.)
At the time, what was so appealing about both the Star Wars and Star Trek series was that they were growing with me, and thus Star Trek's advantage over Star Wars was that the series didn't go on extended hiatus in 1983. I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and The Search for Spock (1984) regularly on VHS, dabbled in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), sampled and loathed Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and then, when I was about to forget about the series entirely, recaptured my affection for the lot through Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). I'm not a Trekkie by any means, but I know the terms Vulcan, Klingon, Romulan and Tribble. I know that impulse power precedes warp speed. I know how Kirk overcame the Kobayashi Maru. And so I returned to these films having not seen most of them in well over 10 years, the exception being Wrath of Khan, which pulls me in whenever I stumble upon it on TV. I had no expectations for what it would mean to watch all these films again, no deep emotions that needed to be fulfilled or validated. I was simply curious.
What I found in re-experiencing these films matches your thumbnail description. Yes, in many cases the six original-cast Star Trek pictures feel like "really long TV episodes." Yes, the films are "thoroughly rooted in this weird nostalgia for the original series." Yes, they are "aimed very specifically" at an already adoring audience. I agree, and I expected that. What surprised me was how often I felt like part of that diehard audience, even for all the moments that I didn't. For example, that erotic fixation with the exterior of the Enterprise that's especially alive in the first two films stirred nothing in me. In fact, the scene from The Motion Picture in which the camera ogles the Enterprise with "fetishistic glee"—a scene that does feel like it takes 20 minutes even though it's less than four—gave me the giggles. But why? It occurs to me that Stanley Kubrick spends at least 20 minutes in 2001: A Space Odyssey eyeballing spacecraft with the lasciviousness of Brad Hamilton spying on Linda Barrett in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, what's the difference? Is the stark, dispassionate nature of 2001 the thing that makes Kubrick's ogling high art? I'm not looking to compare the greatness of Kubrick's film against the Star Trek saga. I'm simply wondering if the sentimentality and emotional focus that serve as the key to Star Trek's charm are also the series' undoing.
EH: It's funny that you bring up 2001, because I found myself thinking of both it and Solaris several times during the first Star Trek movie—and it's not a flattering comparison. That first movie takes a lot of its ideas out of the high-concept sci-fi playbook, and especially from 2001. All those long scenes of ships silently motoring through space are blatant attempts to recreate the poetic effect Kubrick achieved by staging a ship docking like a mechanized waltz. There are a lot of very abstract, nearly dialogue-free sequences derived from the example of 2001, and Kubrick's also probably to blame for the parts in which the Enterprise flies through streams of trippy colored lights for long stretches of time. Director Robert Wise—who was an admirable journeyman director during the classic Hollywood era and probably should have known better—seems to have believed that boredom is equivalent to art. Neither the script nor the direction here can capture the evocative beauty of Kubrick's vision. This is a long way for Wise from his crisp, economical boxing masterpiece The Set-Up, one of my favorite noirs, so even looked at from an auteurist perspective this movie is fairly sad.
Now, granted, it's way too easy to pick on the first Star Trek film, which is pretty much atrocious, but some of the problems with this movie echo through the rest of the series in more understated ways. Like the tendency to confuse solemnity with intelligence and portentousness with emotion. I watched this movie not long after wrapping up our last conversation, and the experience put my complaints about Steven Soderbergh dumbing down Solaris in perspective. Star Trek has, ostensibly, similar themes and concepts, dealing with the quest for knowledge and the desire for an increased understanding of the universe, but all these worthy ideas are treated with as much depth and sophistication as you'd expect from a Three Stooges slapstick routine.
To the extent that the other Star Trek films are better than this first one—and they undoubtedly are, even the lousy fifth installment—it's not because they get any smarter in dealing with those big themes, but because they compensate for the simplicity and superficial ideas with better action, or more fun moments, or more recognizable humanity in the characters, or a more restrained approach to the big eye-candy shots so that they don't drag on forever. You're right about the sentimentality of this series being both an asset and a liability. The second film, The Wrath of Khan, is a much "warmer" film than the first one, which with its spaceship fetish and robotic acting—even before one of the characters is literally turned into a robot, without much change to her personality—is much more clinical and chilly. Khan is one of the better Star Trek films because of its nostalgic outlook; if the film is about anything beyond its frenetic battle scenes, it's about reawakening fond memories, right down to casting a villain who apparently appeared in a 1967 episode of the original series. It's hard not to bask in the glow of this sepia-toned nostalgia, but at the same time, even in one of the series' high points, there's this lingering suspicion that nostalgia and sentimentality is all these films ultimately have to offer.
JB: I agree with you, at least in terms of the effect; most of the time, nostalgia and sentimentality are the only things these films are successful in achieving. Furthermore, sometimes those feelings are the limit of the attempt as well, particularly in stretches of The Voyage Home and The Final Frontier. What's so odd about The Motion Picture is how desperately it strives for nostalgia and sentimentality without much actual success. The inaugural Star Trek movie suffers from an identity crisis. Based on a TV series that Roddenberry modeled after Gulliver's Travels, in which each episode was entirely self-contained, with no significant character development over the course of the series, The Motion Picture is stuck between trying to do what it's always done (only larger and longer) and trying to compress three-seasons worth of magic into a little more than 2 hours. It's a film trying to stay true to its roots while also reinventing itself for the big screen. It's a film intent on achieving the mysteriousness and peril of space as defined by 2001, which came along more than a decade prior, while also tossing in some attempts at gee-whiz futuristic gadgetry in order to keep pace with Star Wars. Thrown together, it's a sci-fi pot pie that's almost entirely inedible.
It's safe to say that very little of The Motion Picture plays well for audiences in 2009, given the film's languid pacing, goofy outfits and far-from-special-anymore effects. That isn't surprising. What I can't get over is the hunch that this must not have played well in 1979 either. The ship-ogling sequence we've mentioned is designed to stir the nostalgia of Trekkies, sure, but it's also a rather surprising miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers, who failed to consider the cultural shift that happened in the decade after the original TV series went off the air. When the Star Trek series debuted, the United States was in the heat of the space race. In that context, shots of the Enterprise suggested that man wouldn't just reach the Moon (still a far-off concept for many Americans until it actually happened); someday man would conquer space (how thrilling!). In that respect, the TV series as a whole and the Enterprise itself were promises of what was to come at a time when developments in real-world space exploration were happening rapidly. The Motion Picture suggests that its filmmakers failed to recognize that the U.S. hadn't (and still hasn't) put a man on the Moon since 1972, that America's fascination with space was waning and that Star Wars had swept in to fill imaginations with stories from a galaxy far, far away.
In that respect, The Motion Picture, which treats even the most mundane aspects of space travel as if they make for thrilling action sequences, came along 10 years too late. The effects trickery clearly designed to wow audiences fails to match not just 1977's Star Wars but 1968's 2001, too, making Star Trek a sci-fi brand poorly going where better films had gone before. Still, in fairness I'd like to call attention to a remark Roger Ebert makes about The Motion Picture in his 1982 review of Wrath of Khan: "Although I liked the special effects in the first movie, they were probably not the point; fans of the TV series wanted to see their favorite characters again." Ebert's observation confirms the idea that Star Trek has always aimed itself at a very passionate target audience, but at the same time it suggests that the film's futuristic appearance wasn't dead on arrival.
EH: That's a fantastic point about Star Trek playing off of people's expectations and fantasies about real space exploration. One of the primary differences between Star Trek and Star Wars is that the latter is pure, straight-up fantasy, while the former consistently attempts to relate itself back to the real world. On its surface, Star Wars is also about imagining a time when humanity has become just one of many alien species living in a galactic society, but it defuses these expectations by establishing its setting in the distant past rather than the future, and by placing Earth distinctly outside its universe. It's not really about a future where humanity travels through space; at heart it's more like mythology than true sci-fi. Where Star Trek aims itself towards the real world and the future, Star Wars responded primarily to other movies, engaging in a dialogue with adventure serials and samurai epics. This is probably why Star Wars seems so timeless while Star Trek is much more of its time. Star Trek doesn't just want to tell a rousing fantasy story, it wants to tap into the zeitgeist, though as you point out it often comes along a bit too late. This is true not only of the space travel utopianism of the first film but of the strained political/social references in The Undiscovered Country, which takes the bold stance of coming out against Nazis, race prejudice and Cold War hysteria, all of this in 1991, at the height of glasnost and on the brink of the Soviet Union's dissolution.
At the same time, even the first Star Trek film is perhaps more sophisticated in its engagement with nostalgia than we've suggested thus far. This film actually contains an acknowledgment of the failures of the space program, in that its "villain" is actually the restructured remnants of the Voyager 1 space probe, launched just two years before the film was released. This suggests that the great scientific and space travel advances of the Star Trek universe are not the extension of then-current late 1970s scientific thinking. It presupposes that the Voyager program will be a failure, that the entire NASA program is a dead end and that space travel will only progress to the level shown in these films due to massive changes in technology. In other words, it's not entirely the utopian dream of the future it sometimes seems to be on superficial examination. And to the extent that it is utopian, its hopes for the future are predicated on a profound distaste for the present, especially as seen in The Voyage Home (the best of the series, if you ask me), which thoroughly mocks late 20th Century medicine, technology, social conventions and ecological preservation.
On another note, it's funny that Ebert actually singles out the special effects in the first movie as worthy of praise. It's easy to forget just how much our standards for movie effects have evolved over the years, and this is a striking reminder of how quickly these things can change. Effects that were once acceptable or even stunning can seem dated and cheesy just a few years later. Then again, I do seriously question whether the ridiculous warp sequence in the first movie—during which everything becomes distorted by wavy lines and everyone's speech is slowed and slurred—was ever considered top-of-the-line filmmaking. This underlines one of the difficult things about judging this series. It's sometimes hard to tell, from the vantage point of 2009, what about these films only looks bad now because of the developments in film technology and aesthetics over the past three decades, and what would've looked bad in any era. Did audiences at the time see that warp scene as exciting, or did they see it the way we mostly do today, as silly and unintentionally hilarious?
These kinds of questions are especially hard to answer with Star Trek, because to some extent the cheesiness and datedness of these films are actually built-in. They're meant to be somewhat chintzy and rough because that's what people found appealing about the campy original series. That's one of my big problems with camp in general: it's an absence of critical and aesthetic standards, a willingness to laugh at a film rather than with it. And too often the Star Trek films encourage this kind of enjoyment where what you're enjoying is not the film so much as making fun of the film.
JB: We should probably move on from The Motion Picture before Trekkies who have spent decades trying to forget it feel compelled to get Klingon on our asses. But, since you brought up the concept of unintentional silliness, I can't leave The Motion Picture without mentioning that shocking first close-up of the freakishly toe-headed crewmember, which is so abrupt and awkward that it feels like a gag out of Young Frankenstein, nor can I resist the urge to call attention to the (accidental? purposeful?) sexual innuendo of Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) solo encounter with the mysterious entity pronounced "Veejer." That's right, "Veejer."
The, um, climax of The Motion Picture is preceded by Spock's exploration of a series of cylindrical canals that lead toward what looks like a horizontal space vagina—a space vagina that contains a mysterious "sensor" that shocks Spock with electricity when he tries to mind-meld with it. This is unintentional comedy, I assume, and yet Spock's narration of his encounter with Veejer might as well be commentary from the peanut gallery on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Says Spock: "I intend to calculate thruster ignition and acceleration rate to coincide with the opening of the Veejer orifice... I have successfully penetrated the next chamber of the alien's interior... I'm passing through a connecting tunnel, apparently a kind of plasma energy conduit." You can't make this stuff up. I can't figure out if the writers of 30 years ago were as clueless as Fox News analysts of today doing reports on protesters "teabagging" the White House, or if this was intentional symbolism of some sort. ("Veejer" does take on the form of a woman.)
In any case, the Star Trek series got its groove back with Wrath of Khan, which is certainly the most celebrated of the Star Trek films and arguably the best film of the series, particularly if one agrees with Ebert's assessment that the Star Trek movies (like the Star Wars and James Bond movies) are only as good as their villains. Indeed, Ricardo Montalban's performance as Khan is tremendous—reviving a character from the TV series and infusing him with the enormousness and flamboyance of a Shakespeare villain, plus the determination and bloodlust of Captain Ahab. Khan is indeed the best of the Star Trek villains, and he brings out the best in William Shatner's Kirk. Together, these heavyweights are like stars of a space soap opera, puffing out their chests, clenching their jaws and playing to the back row of some distant galaxy. It's unrestrained, sure, and even silly, if you want it to be. But I could say the same about Humphrey Bogart's performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Orson Welles' performance in Citizen Kane, or any number of classic performances. The reason it works is that there's no other Star Trek film in the series that's so sure of itself.
EH: As I hinted above, Khan is not my favorite Star Trek movie, but it's definitely up there at the top (not that there's much competition, honestly). And a big part of why it's so enjoyable is Montalban, whose Khan is not only the best villain in the series but the only one worth a damn until Christopher Plummer's Shakespeare-quoting Chang, who doesn't get nearly enough screen time in The Undiscovered Country to seriously challenge Khan's title as Star Trek villain supreme. Khan's evil brilliance would be definitively established if his only appearance was that creepy and disturbing sequence in which he implants Chekov (Walter Koenig) and another officer with wormy parasitic insects that burrow into their ears. For a few squirmy, uncomfortable minutes, Wrath of Khan becomes a surprisingly effective horror movie, and it establishes right away that Khan is not a villain to be fucked with.
The rest of the film doesn't quite reach those heights again, but you're right that the operatic conflict—and Montalban and Shatner's epic quest to out-ham one another—makes this a compulsively entertaining spectacle. The film features some of the best action sequences of the series in the space battles between Khan and the Enterprise crew. And considering the black and white morality of these films on the whole, it's striking to see the casualties of battle treated more or less equally no matter whose side they're on. In one scene, director Nicholas Meyer cuts directly from wounded crew members on the Enterprise to Khan on the collapsing bridge of his own ship, where he regretfully watches his right-hand man die. The surprising nuance of this moment is refreshing, and the way it treats the loss of "bad guy" lives as tragic in its own right is quite different from the traditional action movie attitude towards human lives, where the enemies are just cannon fodder. The more action-oriented installments in the Star Trek series usually display the same mentality, so this film is an interesting exception in that respect.
Of course, for all its good points, Khan can't entirely escape the camp factor, and there's plenty to laugh at for those so inclined. Like Shatner's manic overacting: "Khaaaaaaaaaan!" Or the gratuitous shot of Scotty (James Doohan) playing bagpipes at Spock's funeral. What, the accent and nickname aren't over-the-top enough? Could they not fit a kilt in the budget as well? The funeral scene is like a case study in everything that Star Trek can get right, and everything that it can get so wrong. It's a heartfelt scene, centered on that haunting image of the crew aligned in rigid rows of mourners on either side of Spock's sleek black coffin. That image has a certain inherent grandeur and grace that the direction and editing seem intent on sabotaging. It's typical: these films never trust the emotional or visual simplicity of their best moments. Every emotion, every idea, has to be triple-underlined and then preferably shouted out directly in dialogue by one of the tactless actors. So instead of being a stark, affecting farewell to one of the series' most iconic characters, this scene is a barrage of emotional clutter: the overbearing music ("Amazing Grace," of all things), the rhythmically repeated shots of Saavik's (Kirstie Alley) tear-stained face, the Kirk speech, those damn bagpipes. Watching it, I can see what the scene might've been, can enjoy the dramatic compositions, but the compelling images are surrounded by sentimental muck.
JB: That's all true. And yet, going back to what I said before, the sentimental muck of Khan has a certain strength of conviction that eases (though doesn't completely erase) the awkwardness of that funeral scene and others. Sure, it's chuckle-worthy when we spot Scotty playing the bagpipes, but the chuckle I experience is one of appreciation, as in: "Of course Scotty plays the bagpipes!" Khan, like the TV series before it, takes itself absolutely seriously, but it does so within the context of a series that doesn't take itself seriously at all (The Motion Picture excluded). So, yes, the storytellers behind Star Trek show no shame in handing Scotty a pair of bagpipes, or in having Kirk scream Khan's name, or in having a choked-up Kirk blubbering about how Spock was so "human" (an observation that sounds nice but makes little sense if you stop to think about it), and yet if you believe that any part of this fantasy could exist, you must concede that all of these overly dramatic flourishes make perfect sense. If Spock died, Scotty would play the bagpipes, Kirk would be a melodramatic mess, and so on. In that way, this takes us back to your previous observation, that these films target their diehard fans. That's absolutely correct in that Star Trek is an ocean of fantasy that can't be appreciated by wading in up to your knees; unless you dive in, you might as well stay on the beach. That said, I don't think nostalgic Trekkies would be the only ones willing to take that kind of two-hour leap of faith.
Maybe this is a backhanded compliment, but I have an obligation to mention that Spock's death left me emotionally wrecked when I saw Khan for the first time at the age of eight or so. Seeing the film on VHS, I was too young to understand that a franchise like Star Trek wouldn't kill off one of its two main characters, nor did I recognize the foreshadowing of Spock's resurrection, because I didn't fully grasp Project Genesis—either in its scientific principles or its Biblical allusions. And though this admission could be used against the Star Trek franchise, as evidence of shallowness and childishness, my long-ago tear-stained cheeks provide evidence of something else, too: the Star Trek formula works. As with the equally family-friendly Harry Potter series, you buy into the characters and follow them wherever they go, or you don't. This isn't to say one Star Trek film is as enjoyable as the next, because that's far from the case. It means that the intricacies of the plot are mostly incidental. The characters, in all their perversely goofy glory, are the hook. So, on that note I wonder: Has there ever been a bigger shocker-cum-cliffhanger on the big screen than Spock's death, or is the conclusion of Khan the "Who shot J.R.?" of cinema?
EH: Well, I have to at least give them credit for playing fair with the end of Khan: eight-year-olds aside, pretty much everyone would've grasped that they were setting up Spock's return already at the end of the movie, rather than truly leaving us hanging. That shot of the coffin sitting on Genesis—the planet that creates new life or something—might as well be subtitled, "don't worry, he'll be back soon." Sure, a lot of kids watching it wouldn't have gotten it, but otherwise it barely even qualifies as a cliffhanger. It was smart, too, in that a two-year layover in which Spock really appeared to be dead would've been pretty painful for diehard Trekkies.
Of course, their minds would've been set at ease by the title of the next installment in the series, the Leonard Nimoy-directed Search for Spock, which is basically a feature-length retcon of the previous movie. It takes them two hours to unwrite the effects of Spock's death and eliminate Genesis from the Star Trek universe and also, while they're at it, to get rid of the son, David (Merritt Butrick), that Kirk abruptly learned he had in the previous film. It's like they'd introduced too many elements that weren't part of the original TV series conception, and now they had to struggle to get back to the status quo.
The result is another dull, plodding Star Trek, though it's dull in a very different way from the first film. Because there are certain things that need to be accomplished here, the plot runs through a checklist in order to reset the franchise. About the only thing left hanging at the end of the film is the fate of the Enterprise, which is destroyed here and not rebuilt until the end of the next film. The fiery death of the Enterprise is one of the film's best moments, in fact, because it's one of the few moments that isn't dedicated to retconning the events of Khan. The ship's meteor-like descent onto the surface of the planet takes place against a bright orange sky, as the crew of the ship stands silhouetted on a rocky outcropping, watching their beloved ship on its final flight. It's a genuinely touching image, which isn't all that surprising: this is a series built on ship porn, after all.
In fact, the destruction of the Enterprise hurts everyone more deeply than the death of Kirk's son, which mostly just provides an opportunity for some typical Shatner histrionics. Unable to show emotion by crying or modulating his voice or any of the other usual actorly expressions of grief, Shatner decides that he'll sit down and miss his chair, the idea being, I suppose, that nothing says soul-crushing despair like a good pratfall. It doesn't help that all of a minute later everyone's back to their characteristic quipping and joking, as though nothing had happened. These movies continually make me feel bad for laughing at what are supposed to be the big dramatic, emotional moments, but no amount of guilt can stop me from laughing in the first place. That's one of the things I dislike about these films, the way everything gets churned through this camp grinder and becomes fodder for semi-intentional humor, even (or especially) the most emotional and heartrending parts.
Anyway, I haven't even mentioned the ineffectual Klingon villains yet, who set new standards of bad acting even for this series (including a makeup-caked Christopher Lloyd of all people—I kept wondering why that one Klingon sounded like Doc Brown until I checked IMDb). And I haven't mentioned some of the things I like about this movie, because it's certainly not a total loss. But since I know this was one of the films you watched obsessively on VHS as a kid, whereas I'm seeing it for the first time now, I'm curious to see how your reaction differs from mine.
JB: My reaction doesn't differ much. The retcon description certainly fits, and that's essentially what I was referring to with respect to the cliffhanger conclusion of Khan. Maybe "cliffhanger" isn't quite the right word, but as that chapter ends, even though Spock's resurrection is foreshadowed, Spock's death certainly begs the question: "Well, how the fuck is this going to work?" As you suggested, the answer to that question turns out to be: "Not very well." In addition to the problems you identified, the treatment of Spock's microwaved physical evolution is peculiar to say the least—lots of whimpering and moaning from various actors playing the rapidly aging Spock, leading up to the uncomfortable scene in which Saavik (Robin Curtis) eases the pain of Spock's transition into manhood by giving him what I can only describe as a Vulcan handjob.
Still, there are things to enjoy. For example, I love the way that each of the supporting characters is given a chance to shine. The scene in which Uhura (Nichelle Nicols) orders a new recruit into a closet is probably her most memorable moment in the entire series. (Sad, maybe, but true.) The same could be said of Sulu (George Takei) in relation to his encounter with the security guard twice his size. ("Don't call me tiny.") And so on. Kirk, with his I'll-do-it-myself spirit, has a tendency to hog the spotlight, but Search for Spock, like Voyage Home after it, spreads the wealth a bit. Beyond that, I'm a sucker for some of the early shots of the Genesis Planet (snow falling on cacti) that seem like something out of 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth; I still get a childlike excitement for the green Klingon Bird of Prey and its cloaking device; and I think the confrontation between Sarek (Mark Lenard) and Kirk, up to and through their mind-meld, is one of the series' few truly poignant moments.
But, especially upon review, I agree with you that the sequence involving the self-destruction of the Enterprise is the high point. Given all the time the Star Trek series spends jerking off to the ship's exterior, the swiftness with which the Enterprise meets its demise is both astonishing and exhilarating. There are no speeches, no quiet goodbyes. Instead, Kirk makes a silent decision and enlists Scotty and Chekov as accomplices in the exercise without a word of explanation. Together the men gather around a computer and provide their authorization codes to arm the bomb. And, darn it, it's thrilling stuff. As with Spock's death in the previous film, there's a sense that this can't be happening. But it is. The true genius of the plot twist is that it subverts our expectations while confirming the one thing we know beyond a doubt about the series' star character: Kirk will stop at nothing to win.
EH: I too enjoy the little supporting cast moments in Search for Spock, like the sassy Uhura and Sulu spotlights. There's also the bizarre and fascinating final sequence in which Spock's mind is finally restored to him. The whole thing with him aging throughout the film is really awkward, and in the process we learn a whole lot more about Vulcan puberty than anyone should ever know. But then the payoff is this baroque ceremony for reanimating his newly reconstructed body, and it's weird and campy and compelling in the way that only Star Trek can be. Visually, the minimalist set design of the Vulcan temple is striking, and the eccentric shamaness in her outlandish outfit seems like a character from a David Lynch movie. It's the kind of wild, nutty stuff that this series does so well: too silly to function as the high drama it was doubtless intended to be, but still an unforgettable sequence.
Nimoy takes the helm again for the fourth film in the series, The Voyage Home, which is my favorite of the bunch. I guess that's not really surprising, since it's the Star Trek film for people who don't actually like Star Trek all that much. The characters are all there, but the premise keeps them out of their usual milieu, away from all the Trekkie trappings. I like how it sets itself apart from the other movies: its humor, its willingness to treat its characters and situations as a big joke, its wise decision to soft-pedal the serious ecological themes rather than slathering on the philosophy like spreading butter with a trawl. I don't take these films too seriously, so I appreciate that there's at least one entry in the series that acknowledges, very openly, just how silly this stuff is. I laugh at all the Star Trek films, to one degree or another, but The Voyage Home is the only one where I don't feel bad for laughing, because for once everyone is in on the joke at all times. It's the only one where I'm laughing because it's meant to be funny, rather than because Shatner can't deliver an emotional line without laying on the ham, or because the special effects look like some kid carrying a toy spaceship across a piece of cardboard painted black, or because I'm forced to listen to yet another pseudo-philosophical discourse on God only to discover that God is a giant floating head who shoots lasers out of his eyes. The relaxed atmosphere and fun spirit of the fourth film is refreshing for a series that, despite its reputation as prime camp, too often takes itself deadly serious.
In fact, it's pretty much a comedy, in the tradition of Crocodile Dundee, which coincidentally came out the same year and shares the same well-worn comedy trope: a misfit or misfits with innocent hearts trying to adjust to the harsh modern age. Everything is played as broad farce, right from the initial premise. I mean, of course they have to travel back in time (by sling-shotting around the sun, whatever that does) in order to find some humpbacked whales, then bring them back to the 23rd Century so that the whales can communicate with an alien probe that is, for some reason that's never explained, trying to talk to the whales and wreaking havoc upon the Earth in the process. It's ludicrous, even more so than some of the other ideas the Star Trek franchise has unleashed upon unsuspecting movie audiences. This is a film whose climax consists of a pair of whales being beamed up onto a spaceship. Think about that. But it's so much fun to see the cast playing it like a standard "culture clash" comedy, wandering around San Francisco in their Starfleet uniforms, actually not looking that much more unusual than your average transplanted hippie or 80s fashion victim. They almost get run over by a speeding cab with a rude driver (an obligatory scene in these types of movies), and Kirk gets to deliver a great catchphrase-that-never-was: "double dumbass on you!" There's even a near-slapstick sequence where everyone's rushing around the hospital, maybe in tribute to Woody Allen's Sleeper, which is as good a template as any for this crazy movie.
The whole actual sci-fi part of the story—with an alien probe that's more or less just a lazily recycled version of the "Veejer" idea from the first film—is limited to a framing story, almost completely forgotten during the bulk of the film. It's an excuse for the crew of the Enterprise to interact with 1980s American culture, and the result is the most goofily endearing entry in the entire series.
JB: "Goofily endearing" is quite right. Ebert puts it this way: "When they finished writing the script for Star Trek IV, they must have had a lot of silly grins on their faces. This is easily the most absurd of the Star Trek stories—and yet, oddly enough, it is also the best, the funniest and the most enjoyable in simple human terms. I'm relieved that nothing like restraint or common sense stood in their way." Amen! By "restraint or common sense," Ebert certainly means not only the beaming up of humpback whales (and the water around them, don't forget) but also the time-travel element that makes everything possible. You'd think the latter trick would have come in handy about a thousand times up to that point, so it's as if Kirk was saving that maneuver for a special occasion. Watching the film again recently, I half expected him to say: "You know, I saw Superman do this once..."
But, as you said, once the crew reaches San Francisco of the 1980s, the reason for being there melts away. The Voyage Home is a comedy, that's quite right, and it's a smart comedy at that. In addition to the terrific scenes you mention, there's Scotty's confused encounter with a computer mouse, Kirk's hilarious reaction to spotting Spock mind-melding with a whale (which actually doesn't look as ridiculous as it sounds) and Chekov's exasperating effort to find "nuclear wessels." But the best scene is the one in which Kirk and Spock are sent into a mini Abbott & Costello routine in response to the simple question of whether they like Italian food.
It would be so easy today, after years of send-ups followed by the once omnipresent Priceline campaign, to entirely dismiss Shatner as some kind of talentless hack. But scenes like the ones mentioned above reveal the truth; the guy had skills. And, while we're here, it's only fair to point out that the vast majority of Kirk's countless hammy moments over the course of the series are conceived in such a way that playing them straight wasn't a realistic option. Then again, to watch the YouTube-popular clip of Shatner performing "Rocket Man" at the 1978 Sci-Fi Awards (whatever those are) is to wonder, really wonder, whether Shatner is on the outside or the inside of his own joke. The bottom line though is that funny is funny. And the difference between the fourth Star Trek film and all the others is that there is no doubt that we're supposed to be laughing.
Despite its laidback mood, however, The Voyage Home still has its share of cringe-worthy moments. Lest anyone make the mistake of thinking that Shatner cornered the melodrama market, Catherine Hicks, as Dr. Gillian Taylor, has a yelling match with another staffer at the San Francisco Aquarium (actually the Monterey Bay Aquarium) that is staged, shot and performed in such a way that it could easily stand in for the first five minutes of any Murder, She Wrote episode. (Other than when the Enterprise crew walks past one of those yellow signs for Winchell's Donuts, The Voyage Home never feels more 80s.) Still, the film is a heck of a lot of fun, and Ebert's suspicion that the writers "must have had a lot of silly grins on their faces" when they finished the script must be right, because at the end of the film, when the crew of the Enterprise is splashing about in San Francisco Bay, even Spock can't keep from smiling. (Oops.)
EH: You highlight a lot of the best, funniest moments, although I also loved Spock's misguided attempts to lace his speech with vulgarity in order to fit in better in the 80s. There's also that kick-ass shot of the cloaked Klingon warship suddenly materializing above a whaling vessel, which really put a silly grin on my face. I'll even cop to enjoying Catherine Hicks' tone-deaf performance, which out-Shatners Shatner: Gillian really should have gotten together with Kirk so they could've had kids whose acting would be so bad it could be a weapon, causing the very structure of the universe to implode by sheer force of awfulness. Now there's a sci-fi plot. Gillian's like this film's Betty from Mulholland Dr. The off-kilter phrasing, the golly-gee fresh-faced complete lack of self-consciousness, it's bad acting elevated to an artform—although unlike Naomi Watts, I'm sure Hicks isn't aware of what she's doing.
While we're on the subject of bad acting, you're right that Shatner is often (maybe) in on the joke of his own weird acting style. If anything, he's certainly in on it now, as his very in-jokey stint on TV's Boston Legal attests: he's playing a knowing self-caricature whose personality is perfectly tailored to Shatner-brand ham. And yet at the same time, from the few episodes of that show I've seen, he's capable of being poignant and emotionally complex in ways that Kirk seldom was. So either Shatner has improved as an actor over the years, which is certainly possible, or he consciously never brought much depth to Kirk, who remained throughout the series an iconic figure rather than a fleshed-out human being. That's true of all the Star Trek characters, of course. None of them exactly have multi-dimensional personalities. They each have one trait that serves them well in all situations: Kirk is driven and stubborn, Bones is skeptical, Spock is unemotional. Sometimes they don't even have that one trait, sometimes they just have nationalities or ethnicities: Scotty is Scottish, Chekov is Russian, Sulu is Asian. And Uhura is a sassy black lady. These are not, to say the least, complicated characterizations.
JB: No, they aren't. But I could say the same thing about various characters from the Oscar juggernaut Lord of the Rings trilogy. In that series, Elijah Wood's Frodo is well-developed, but there's a pretty steep drop-off after that. Characters like Orlando Bloom's Legolas and John Rhys-Davies' Gimli are as boiled down to a look or a skill as is the supporting cast of the Enterprise.
It's enough to make me wonder how much separates that fantasy series from this one. Sure, Peter Jackson created three epic films that you'd never confuse for camp. On the other hand, the Lord of the Rings series is equally dependent upon a loyalist's affection for its characters and their universe. Also, while Star Trek eroticizes the Enterprise, the Lord of the Rings movies eroticize CGI battle spectacles. The latter may be more awe-inducing, but that's today. In 2031, three decades after the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, might those digital spectacles seem foolishly proud of themselves? Might Gollum induce snickers instead of goose-bumps? If the special effects of these Star Trek pictures is now reminiscent of "some kid carrying a toy spaceship across a piece of cardboard painted black" (and I don't disagree), will it even take until 2021 before the then-state-of-the-art effects of the Rings movies begins to look like crude cartoons?
Is it that these Star Trek films haven't aged well, or were they only mediocre to begin with?
EH: Well, that's the thing about empty spectacle: it's only satisfying for as long as it takes for technology to advance beyond it. If there's nothing to a film beyond its capacity to produce a visceral "wow" reaction, then it's obviously destined to be ephemeral, to last only as long as it takes to watch it, and if it's lucky, to be rehabilitated someday as camp. The alternative is being forgotten altogether; just ask countless now-obsolete "blockbusters" of years past. Giant effects showcases, films that elevate style over substance, tend to have very short shelf-lives, which is part of the problem for the Star Trek films, and might come to be seen as a problem for the Rings films in the not-so-distant future. The best films offer more than just effects. If a film is good, it'll still be good long after its effects have dated: think of something like Jack Arnold's gritty, existential Incredible Shrinking Man, which is much older than Star Trek and has some cheesy, primitive effects, but it's still a sci-fi stunner because it's such a well-made, intelligent film.
And then there's something like the fifth Star Trek film, The Final Frontier, which is sabotaged by some of the worst effects of the series (I'm not sure how it's possible to take this much of a step back, visually, five films into a well-established franchise) and a plot that's ridiculous and, worse, boring. The Voyage Home already proved that the plots for these films could be utterly silly and improbable without being a problem; as Ebert said, this series doesn't actually benefit from "restraint or common sense" in its creative impulses. What matters is whether it's entertaining or not, and The Final Frontier just isn't. It's the most infuriatingly dull of these movies since the first one, a drama-less, humorless, action-less, static film that shamelessly recycles ideas from the rest of the series, especially the search for "God" that drove the first film. There, the seeker was the remains of the American space probe Voyager, while in this film it's Spock's half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), who was exiled from Vulcan as a young man because he believed in emotion and religion, and wanted to find the mythical home of God.
I won't actually go too much into the plot here, because as far as I'm concerned it just makes no sense, and it's all ineptly paced and staged. It'd be tempting to blame Shatner, who takes the director chair for his first feature film, but it's not like any other director could've turned this shitty script into gold, and anyway Shatner's aesthetics don't really diverge much from any of the other directors who have helmed this series. The Star Trek films aren't even really concerned with visual aesthetics: the long San Francisco segment of The Voyage Home is all lit and staged like a generic 80s TV show, which I guess is appropriate since it plays out like a really funny and really long sitcom episode. Throughout the series, there are scattered images and sequences of visual interest, but seldom anything sustained or formally satisfying in a deeper way. So I don't think it matters so much who directs these things, because the franchise drives itself; Leonard Nimoy had never directed a feature before doing his two Star Trek installments, either.
Back to The Final Frontier, though, it's a treasure trove of awful, campy moments, with some of the most cringe-inducing scenes in the entire long history of the series. On a character level, poor Uhura gets a few of them here, including a jaw-dropping (and not in a good way) naked dance with strategically placed palm fronds covering her up. It's just bizarre, as is the suggestion that she and Scotty have some kind of previously unmentioned (and, incidentally, never-hinted-at-again) romantic connection. Ah, and then there's God. As I alluded to earlier, one of the Star Trek films features an incarnation of God as a giant floating head who shoots lasers from his eyes. This is that film. And oh man it's every bit as horrible as it sounds. I don't think I could stop laughing for one single second where that monstrosity was on screen. Between the cheesy effects and the portentous booming voice and, oh did I mention the lasers, it's impossible to take this big dramatic climax at all seriously. In a way, it harks back to the glory days of unintentional hilarity on the original TV show, and that's nice, I guess, but one would hope that by this point in the series they would've moved beyond this kind of silliness. In any event, even to get to this apex of campy craziness one has to trudge through some of the most interminable and plodding stretches since the endless spaceship ogling of the first film, and this bonkers vision of God is really not worth the trip.
JB: God, none of it is worth the trip. Until a few days ago, I hadn't seen The Final Frontier since its release in 1989. I wasn't quite a teenager then, and thus I was considerably easier to please, and yet I distinctly remember being bored out of my mind that night at the theater; I even recall being offended by the ridiculousness of the plot, and that's saying something. In daring to see the film again for this conversation, part of me wondered if in fact The Final Frontier would turn out to be the best film of the series. Perhaps, I theorized, my 1989 disappointment wasn't attributable to mediocrity but to some bold break from the Star Trek norm that knocked me out of my pre-teen comfort zone. Watching the opening scene, in which the lead singer from Midnight Oil sees a mysterious figure riding up out of the nothingness of the desert, this theory gained momentum. Seemingly borrowing from The Stand, Dune and Lawrence of Arabia all at once, that scene is the only one in the entire series that appears to have been shot by a cinematographer interested in doing anything more than centering the camera on whatever thing we're supposed to be looking at. I dare say it's artful. But after that? Ugh.
The Final Frontier is as pathetic as I found it in 1989, and then some. I'd always remembered the ridiculousness of the campfire sing-a-longs, but I'd forgotten that Kirk actually says with enthusiasm, "I love 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat!'" I'd always remembered the image of Kirk free-climbing at Yosemite, but I'd forgotten that Bones (DeForest Kelley) pairs a denim jacket with a silk neckerchief. I'd always remembered the pathetic effects in the (just-end-already!) encounter with God, but I'd forgotten the come-hither look shared by Scotty and Uhura, and Kirk's brawl with that cat-like creature and the awful Ghost of Traumas Past journeys down memory lane for Spock and McCoy. Especially compared to something like the Lord of the Rings series, the Star Trek pictures could never be mistaken for big-budget, but The Final Frontier looks like it was scraped together from some loose change in a coffee can, featuring a cast of washed-up actors with no dignity left to preserve. To be clear, I'm not saying that's what this is; I'm saying that's what it looks like. Beyond the opening scene, the only praiseworthy moment is Spock's hilarious rebuff of Kirk's attempt at a hug: "Please, Captain. Not in front of the Klingons."
Had the voyages of the original crew of the starship Enterprise ended here, it would have cast a depressing shadow over everything that came before it. Thankfully, the sixth film allows the crew to fly off into the sunset (figuratively speaking) with their heads held high. The Undiscovered Country isn't necessarily the best film of the series (then again, maybe it is), but it at least has flashes of the things the series has done well at one time or another.
Let's start with the villain: Christopher Plummer's General Chang is by far the best villain since Khan, and, like Montalban before him, Plummer chews the scenery in such a way that we enjoy the meal along with him. Then there's comedy: The sixth film is more straight-faced than its previous chapters, but it includes dashes of Star Trek's signature blend of lighthearted humor, such as the moment Chekov's "If the shoe fits" accusation backfires. Then there's politics: The TV series was constantly making references to the political and cultural issues of its era, and though The Undiscovered Country is hardly as groundbreaking as the famous Kirk-Uhura lip-lock that made for American TV's first interracial kiss in 1968, its examination of the awkward transition into post-Cold War peace is still surprisingly relevant today. Then there are allusions to classic literature, which served the drama well in Wrath of Khan and do so again here. And, on top of all that, the film has the best special effects of the series hands-down and some cool though typically uncomplicated set design in respect to the Klingon courtroom and prison camp. So, sure, the Scooby Doo ending is regrettable. But otherwise, what's not to like?
EH: I can't say I'm as impressed as you by the sixth film's desperate, clumsy stabs at social significance. The references to Nazis, racism and the declining Cold War are just a jumble of historical signifiers rather awkwardly cobbled together. I did like Spock's line about the "old Vulcan proverb: 'Only Nixon could go to China,'" which inevitably calls up the image of Tricky Dick with pointy ears. And as you suggest, the ending is pretty terrible and rushed, especially after so much build-up: the heroes just suddenly swoop in, save the day and it's all over.
But there's a lot to enjoy about this film, which seems very conscious of being the last appearance for the original cast, very determined to give them all a proper send-off with some dignity after the debacle of the previous installment. Curiously enough, then, it's not the regular cast that makes the most powerful impression in this film, but the guest stars: a roster of some of the strongest supporting turns in the series. There's Kim Cattrall as the uncharacteristically pert and playful Vulcan Valeris, who despite her