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.