Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Movie Trek

By Debbie Gilbert

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  Though I’m sure the suits at Paramount didn’t plan it this way, for some peculiar reason the even-numbered Star Trek movies have been pretty good and the odd-numbered ones have generally sucked. This does not portend well for number nine, Star Trek: Insurrection, currently at a theatre near you (but not for long). Here’s a brief rundown on Trek’s 20-year cinematic history.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture started the ball rolling in 1979, probably the first (and unfortunately not the last) time somebody tried to make money by turning a 1960s TV show into a movie. Series creator Gene Roddenberry was thrilled at making it onto the big screen but didn’t know what to do once he got there. So he reused a plot from one of the original episodes, “The Changling,” in which a space probe somehow melds with an alien machine to become a conscious entity, then tries to take over. Now-Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) just happens to be aboard the brand-spankin’-new Enterprise at the time, and he wrests control from its current captain so he can pursue the humongous, maze-like cloud called V’Ger. There’s a long sequence in which Kirk, approaching dry-dock, gazes with lust at the sensuous new vessel, and there are many long, long sequences in which crew members gaze in awe at V’Ger. These scenes are sustained by Jerry Goldsmith’s magnificent score, and they are strangely mesmerizing if you just zone out and go with the flow (drugs will enhance the effect). Acclaimed director Robert Wise came to the project with no prior knowledge of Star Trek, but that doesn’t excuse his inability to pace the movie. The most off-putting aspect of this film is its cold formality, both in visual design and dialogue; the actors seem uncomfortable with each other, and there’s no chemistry.

Star Trek’s theatrical voyages might have ended right there if it hadn’t been for writer-director Nicholas Meyer and producer Harve Bennett. Seeing that the previous picture hadn’t worked, they decided to pretend that it never happened, and started from scratch. The result was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), widely considered to be the best of the series. What a change! This one has humor, literary references, handsome red uniforms, Kirk commiserating with his pals about getting older, a hot-headed half-Vulcan, half-Romulan lieutenant-in-training named Saavik (Kirstie Alley), and most important, Ricardo Montalban’s campy performance as Khan, who first appeared in the TV episode “Space Seed.” He’s mad at Kirk for stranding him on a dying planet, and he takes revenge by stealing Genesis – a device intended to quickly terraform planets – in order to use it as a weapon. There’s never been a more charismatic villian, and he spouts Moby Dick like he means it (“From hell’s heart I stab at thee!”). Besides battling this nemesis, Kirk’s got emotional stuff to deal with, including being reunited with an old flame and a son he never knew. And then, of course, there’s the melodramatic death of Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who sacrifices himself because “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” It’s about as powerful as Star Trek ever gets.

The producers killed off Spock because Nimoy didn’t want to do the series anymore, but then – uh oh! – he changed his mind (maybe because they let him direct this one). So they did an entire movie, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), just to get him back into the franchise. It’s really a transitional episode and doesn’t stand alone as a film. The title is apt: The characters do indeed spend the whole time looking for Spock, who doesn’t appear until the very end (after a series of utterly preposterous events). The role of Saavik is played by Robin Curtis, a poor substitute for Kirstie Alley (who reportedly demanded too much money). To demonstrate the crew’s devotion to their friend, they endure all kinds of travails, including blowing up the Enterprise (even though, in logical plot terms, it’s not necessary). The film’s strong point is its focus on relationships, and the fans ate it up.

But the series needed a crossover success – something non-Trekkers would enjoy – and it scored with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Nimoy directed again, but the clever Nick Meyer had a hand in the script, borrowing from his own time-travel movie Time After Time. Here, Kirk and company, aboard another brand-new Enterprise on its shakedown cruise, encounter an alien that apparently will destroy Earth unless it can communicate with humpback whales (go figure). Trouble is, the whales are extinct in the 23rd century. So Kirk takes the ship back to the 1980s (using that ol’ slingshot effect around the sun) and the crew wander around San Francisco in search of whales. Yeah, it’s silly, but with so many opportunities for culture-clash humor, who cares? Catherine Hicks gives a winning performance as a marine scientist who tries to figure out what’s going on and – naturally – falls for Kirk. The film often plays like something from the Marx Brothers, but with a serious underlying message: Save the whales! Only problem is, we never find out what message the alien was trying to send the whales. If it was important enough to obliterate Earth for, don’t you think we should be told about it?

Alas, there’s something in movie-star contracts known as parity. Nimoy directed the previous two films, so Shatner demanded equal time. The studio gave him the helm for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Shatner set out to make his directorial debut the grandest concept of all: Let’s have Kirk meet God! Well, not exactly. Spock’s evil half-brother (yeah, right) commandeers the Enterprise for a rendezvous with what his zealous mind thinks is God. Mediocre special effects don’t help the overblown story, and with Shatner directing himself, there’s no one to hold the actor’s histrionics in check. Especially embarrassing are opening and closing scenes with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy (DeForest Kelley) singing around the campfire. Cringe-inducing.

Stung by criticism, Paramount rehired the tried-and-true Meyer to direct Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), an entertaining mix of political intrigue and murder mystery. In an obvious parallel to U.S./Russian relations, the economically strapped Klingons want to end their Cold War with the Federation because they can no longer afford the weapons buildup. But peace talks go awry when somebody assassinates the Klingon leader and abducts Kirk and McCoy, putting them on trial for alleged crimes against the Empire. The renegade Klingon General Chang (Christopher Plummer) is a Khan-like villian, who implausibly quotes Shakespeare, and there’s another overeager Vulcan protege, Valeris, played by Kim Cattrall. She’s in charge of the murder investigation that brings a startling revelation, and despite a lot of holes in the plot, the film works up to a suspenseful climax and a feel-good ending. This is the last movie to feature the entire original cast, and it’s a nice touch to put their signatures on screen after the closing shot.

Why was it their final movie together? Because Paramount wanted to bring its highly successful TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation to the big screen, so the original series had to be phased out. But studio executives weren’t sure viewers would pay money to see actors they’d watched – for free – every week for seven years. So to hedge their bets, when filmmakers did Star Trek: Generations (1994) they had a couple of the older characters, Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Scotty (James Doohan), make cameo appearances, and they had Shatner co-star as Kirk, who would pass the baton on to Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Logistical problem: The two TV series were set about 80 years apart. How does the meeting of the captains take place? Through ridiculous plot gimmickry, that’s how. In perhaps the worst-written of all the Trek movies, Picard and Kirk join forces to battle an evil scientist bent on destroying a planet. It’s so derivative you don’t know whether to laugh or fall asleep. And then they kill off Kirk almost nonchalantly, an ignominious end to his glorious career. The story meanders through convoluted dreamlike sequences, none of which reveal much. The Enterprise crash-lands on a planet, apparently to wake up the audience. And the Next Generation characters don’t fare too well in their movie debut. The android Data (Brent Spiner) is given emotions, which turns him into an idiot. The script was written by the same guys who did the TV series, so you’d think they’d know better. But some of the blame for this mess of a movie should fall on the director, an unknown named David Carson. Aside from a few cute scenes, there’s nothing to recommend this film to anyone.

With Star Trek: First Contact (1996), the Next Generation cast had to carry the picture on their own, and – surprise! – they do very well. One of the actors, Jonathan Frakes (who plays Cmdr. Riker), also directed, and he’s much better behind the camera than in front of it. Moreover, the writers came up with a kick-ass story this time around: The machine-like race the Borg have taken over the Federation by going back in time to 2063, the year humans first made contact with an alien life form. To stop the Borg, Picard has to make sure the first-ever warp flight takes place, in order to set history right. And Picard’s got a grudge; he was once assimilated by the Borg (we see this in one of the coolest opening sequences ever, a long pull-back shot from the inside of Picard’s eye to the vast innards of the Borg ship). This movie’s got just about everything you’d want: playful camaraderie between the regular characters, fine guest appearances by James Cromwell and the incomparable Alfre Woodard, and the creepy horror of all those Borg drones running around aboard the Enterprise (yet another brand-new ship – does insurance pay replacement costs if you wreck one of these things?). The movie’s one big minus is Data being seduced by a Borg queen; it’s just dumb and unbelievable.

First Contact, the eighth Trek movie, set the bar so high that it’s hard to imagine any sequel measuring up. Don’t expect the ninth installation to be a smash hit. But this makes it easy when you’re at the video store looking for a Trek fix: Just remember, 2, 4, 6, 8.

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