Have we slunk so low already that we’re doing lists? What’s next? A CHIRISTMAS CAROL adaptation?*
So I catch Star Trek III: the Search for Spock the other day on the Universal HD channel. (Made back in the days when they had the common decency to number sequels the way god intended. I’d watch the Harry Potter movies but I can’t figure out the order they come in.) I’ve probably seen it as many times as the characters in FREE ENTERPRISE (1998) have but I hadn’t seen it in HD yet so I gave it a roll. The movie was a revelation in many ways after all these years. It was the first ST movie directed by Leonard Nimoy, who would go on to direct STAR TREK IV: THE JOURNEY HOME, the highest grossing of all the Star Trek films. It was the follow up to the Louis Mayer opus STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, which had taken the franchise from failure to victory. It was the first time the Enterprise has been destroyed (a cliche for the series, both as a bluff in the Original series, and as an actual thing in the movies). But it set me to thinking. Now that the series is over and in anticipation of the release of JJAbrams’ (Lost) reboot of the franchise, how do the movies actually rate? So…a list. I’ll talk about the individual movies later, probably as I get to see them in HD so I can approximate as closely as possible the original viewing experience. But now is the time for an overview of folks interested in the series that might not have seen all the movies.
In order of quality/merit/satisfaction. (Starting with the last and working up to the best is a gimmick.)
1. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN
Nicolas Mayer’s reboot of the franchise. Mayer was unfamiliar with the Star Trek mythos; so he sat down and watched all 79 original episodes. This was the result- an outsider’s view that did almost as much to encapsulate what we know as the best of Star Trek as Gene Coon did. Action grows out of motive and motive grows from character. Kirk deals with middle age and learns of a son he never knew. McCoy continues as his emotional conscience. Spock pays the ultimate price. The greatest starship battle before or since in a Star Trek movie. This one has everything.
2. STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK
Nimoy takes the helm as director and lauches a new career for himself. In fact, this is perhaps the best directed of the series, along with #2. The supporting cast gets at least one scene each and good lines are distributed widely. The mind meld scenes are done perfectly. And Nimoy is even able to wring the best performance out of Shatner that he would give in the entire series (perhaps in his career). While not as good as Mayer’s Horatio Hornblower in space, the most nuanced Star Trek movie ever made.
3. STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME
In the tradition of THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES, ST scores its biggest box office bonanza with this lighthearted romp through contemporary San Francisco (pre cell phone and iPod). While the campier aspects are what it’s remembered for (Nuclear Wessels) the real treat is the timing Shatner and Nimoy have in the comedy bits. As good as anything the true comedian of Star Trek (Brett Spiner, did I really have to tell you?) would ever do.
4. STAR TREK I: THE MOTION PICTURE
Also called “Where Nomad Has Gone Before” and “ST: The Motionless Picture”. Originally maligned for being too slow, then overly praised in the DVD director’s cut re-release on DVD (it was a couple more special effects shots- the critics had been bitching about it being too special effects heavy to start with!?!). I stood in line on December 7th, 1979 to see it. And it was glorious. When the film opened and those Kingon ships flew toward that immense cloud a cheer rose up from the crowd. Then as each character made his first appearance, another cheer. Plus we got to see the size of the Enterprise for the first time. But it IS too slow, it DID steal the plot from an old episode, and the characters are underused.
5. STAR TREK GENERATIONS (ST VII) (Unfortunately they gave up on the Roman numerals when they fell out of vogue. Shame, that.)
The Original Series and The Next Generation, together again for the first time. (And for the first time I know of, this Yogi Berra-ism is literally true. ST:TNG (The Next Generation) had met several of the characters from ST:TOS (The Original Series) but had never met Kirk.) This was the point where the torch was handed to the youngsters (such as they were). It also had a good villain in Malcolm McDowell and a decent McGuffin for a Star Trek Movie.
6. STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Nick Mayer makes another Star Trek film. And this time he attempts that ol’ Star Trek relevance trick (you know, the one that gave us Frank Gorshin with his face painted half white and half black). Kirk and Spock witness the end of détente with the Klingons but nothing interesting is really said about turning points in history. Instead we get the “old warriors hate peace” bromide with a silly mystery tacked on and a detour into Klingon jail. BTW, the “undiscovered country” in Hamlet isn’t the future, as Mayer frequently said in interviews, it’s death.
7. STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (ST VIII)
This is almost a tie with #6. Nothing is egregious but nothing is really interesting. The biggest mistake this movie makes isn’t giving us a completely retconned view of Warp Drive pioneer Zefram Cochrane. (In the original series we meet Dr. Cochrane as a clean cut 1960s astronaut type in his mid to late 30s.) The biggest mistake is overplaying the Moby Dick allegory to the point that it makes the Paradise Lost references in ST II look subtle in comparison. Riker and Troy get a couple of good comedy bits and Data learns about sex (allegorically) from the Borg queen (ick).
But it’s worth it to hear Zefram Cochrane, just having been told by the TNG crew that he’s about to change the course of human history more than any man since the invention of fire, says, “So you’re all astronauts, on some kind of star trek?”
8. STAR TREK: INSURRECTION (IX)
Just another TNG episode. Picard finally falls in love with an age appropriate woman, but it’s doomed anyway. David Warner enters into competition with Mark Leonard (in TOS) and Jeffrey Combs (DS9, Enterprise) to be the first to portray every species in the ST Universe.
9. STAR TREK: NEMISIS (X)
Picard clones, dune buggy chases, and a big surprise at the end (yawn). Only notable for being the last ST movie they will ever do featuring TNG (until they re-cast the roles in 40 years). My own perfect version of this movie has the Romulans and the Klingons both growing Picard clones and artificially accelerating their growth to be Picard contemporaries. The Klingon Picard is played by Sir Ian McKellen and the Romulan Picard is played by Sir Ben Kingsley. In the ensuing conflict, the two knights quickly subdue the commoner Stewart, and then set about to rule the universe together. There is a real story arc here, so whoever hands out contracts for Star Trek Novels- CALL ME.
10. STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER
Just as Mayer’s WRATH OF KHAN was almost so good that it surpassed the franchise, this is, by a wide margin, this is the worst ST movie ever! Shatner takes over the director’s seat and embarrasses himself badly. There are blue horses (the number of horses in a ST movie is directly proportional to Shatner’s influence), aliens playing pool on flooded pool tables, Uhura fan dancing, and the crew meets god- AGAIN. In the book Star Trek (Movie) Memories, Shatner offers a plethora of reasons why the movie was doomed. He leaves out the fact that he was only mouthing those words for all those years without ever having a clue what science fiction was really about. This one is only good for a laugh.
Well, there it is. We’ve gone from the Original Series to the Next Generation and stand on the cusp of The actual Next Generation of Star Trek. The franchise is about to be taken over by people who not only didn’t work with Roddenberry at any time, but weren’t even alive when that first episode aired on NBC over 40 years ago. I was personally disappointed when Michael J. Straczynski didn’t get a chance to implement his ideas for the series, but we’ll see what J.J Abrams has up his sleeve.
* The phrase “jump the shark” has entered the popular lexicon as the point at which a television series (or any series, for that matter) passes a point of no return in quality. The phrase is based on an episode of Happy Days where Fonzie was supposed to jump his motorcycle over a shark tank. Actually I always thought there was an earlier indicator of when the when a television series had the wheels come off the wagon. And unlike “jumping the shark” this signpost is ubiquitous and specific. I call it the Dickens Horizon. It’s when a series does an adaptation of Dickens A CHRISTMAS CAROL for its Christmas episode using their own cast for the parts. EVERYBODY has done this and it’s NEVER interesting. But it does show that the series has completely run out of creative juice.