As promised in this week’s edition of the Podwits Podcast, I’m running down my list of the best Star Trek films as the Podwits’ Trekkie-In-Chief.
First, for those who may not have heard the podcast this week, we’re only talking about the original Star Trek films, and not the ones featuring either the Next Generation cast or the JJ-verse.
In order to understand my list, I have to get one thing clear right off the bat. For me, there are really only 4 original Star Trek films. I count Star Trek II-IV as one film. Sure, I could call it the mini-trilogy as some have done before me, but to me, the stories are so intertwined that one could not survive without the others. Their interdependency makes them a long, three-act film. Then there’s the other three.
So let’s get this out of the way while we’re here. YES, II-IV are my favorite film. Now before you get all up in arms and demand that I pick a favorite of the three, let me say it won’t happen. I love them all. I don’t care about the detractors who say that the odd-numbered films suck. You are entitled to your incredibly terrible opinion. Follow me here, if you dare.
Act One: The Wrath of Khan is a great start to the film. The soaring nautical score by James Horner sets the stage for an epic battle between two mortal enemies, surrounded by the all-too-human reminder of our own mortality and the follies of youth. The brash choices of our youth will come back to haunt us (be it marooning a mortal enemy on a planet and never bothering to check on his progress, or having a son out of wedlock). We’re also taught that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.
Industrial Light and Magic picks up the over-indulgent pieces of Apogee and Abel & Associates’s mess from the previous film, lending a slightly grittier feel to the effects and giving the proceedings the undeniable look and feel of a submarine drama. Nicholas Meyer and Harve Bennett return the franchise to its very human roots, eschewing the larger-than-life, god-level concerns of Star Trek: The Motion Picture for the more personal messages and relationships that made the show great in the first place. Little wonder, since they went back and watched the source material from beginning to end before embarking. As a Star Trek fan, the death of Spock was heartbreaking. Not only because we lost a friend we had known for over 15 years, but because it was played so well. Leonard Nimoy played Spock’s death as painfully as any Shakespearean actor could. And while William Shatner takes barbs for what is generally perceived as wooden acting, his hearfelt regret over the death of his friend poured off the screen.
Ricardo Montalban’s Khan is the template from which all Star Trek villains are compared. And it is due in equal parts to the acting of the man and the vengeful, Melvillian writing of the character. Khan’s hatred runs deep, and while he is given his comeuppance in the end, he does manage to deal a striking blow in the death of Spock (even if he did so indirectly).
The Wrath of Khan ends on a hopeful note, picked up on in Act Two: The Search for Spock.
The Enterprise heads home to be decommissioned (the theme of mortality continues) as the crew is still reeling from the death of Spock. We continue the very human story but this time with a reversal. The good of the one outweighs the needs of the many. The moral of the story is that yes, it is best to live your life by thinking of what will benefit the greater good rather than one person, but there are exceptions. It’s not logical, but it’s very human.
What probably irks most moviegoers is the eventual resurrection of Spock using the film’s MacGuffin, the Genesis planet. Audiences don’t exactly respond well to the idea that a beloved character they had to painfully watch die can come back to life. It doesn’t happen, so whatever way the writers choose to make this happen will not satisfy all. Another problem with this installment for certain audience members is the idea that the film effectively negates many things that happened in the first film:
1) Kirk’s son is killed, effectively removing the idea that he’s a father
2) Carol Marcus is nowhere to be seen, so that drama won’t unfold
3) Spock is brought back to life, negating that emotional moment and possibly negating the “mortality” theme that we supposedly sat through in Act One
But then there’s another way to look at the story. David’s death is a consequence for bringing Spock back. It’s an old tale told in mythology, of consequences. It could almost be seen as the Faustian bargain. Kirk gets what he wants… his friend back, but it costs him his son. A life for a life. Except he also loses the love of his life at the same time: the Enterprise. It’s not an easy victory for the character, at least not as easy as some would have you believe. At this point, even his career is torched. James T. Kirk is giving up everything for his friend. The rest of the crew is as well. The core of this story is friendship—another idea most human.
Again, ILM pulled of a herculean feat, expanding the Star Trek universe visually in a way it had never been before. The Grissom, the Klingon Bird of Prey, the Excelsior and, most notably, Spacedock… it was the first time we had been introduced to such a large complex in the history of Star Trek, a floating city that could house multiple starships from a variety of entry points. The visual execution was breathtaking.
James Horner once again continued to tell his musical story through the Star Trek universe, continuing on themes he built in Act One, and creating newer ones along the way. One of the most completely satisfying scenes in the entire film series is “Stealing the Enterprise“. From Horner’s music to ILM’s effects magic to the cast and crew hitting every point perfectly, this scene is Star Trek at its most thrilling.
Act Two ends again on a hopeful note. Their ship and their careers are gone, but they have done what they came to do. They saved their friend. The Adventure Continues…
Act Three: The Voyage Home
The story begins with the crew deciding to go home to take their lumps over their actions. It’s a tough decision, but the right one to do. On the way, the Earth is attacked and the crew does what they normally do. They try to save it. The romp to the 20th century is the highlight of most moviegoers’ Star Trek experience. It’s mostly because the majority of the film is the crew making fools of themselves in the world we live in. It’s a fun film. The characters have a good time, but don’t forget for one minute the extreme responsibility that they carry. They have to succeed in their mission or all will be lost.
The film itself is fun from beginning to end. I have previously assessed Leonard Rosenmann’s score for the film here. It marvelously accompanies the romp. ILM didn’t have quite as much heavy lifting to do in this mostly 20th-century-Earth-bound film, but they had it where it counts. This act took the overall humanity theme in a different direction, harkening back slightly to the theme of Act One: that of the consequence of youth coming back to haunt you. This time it was the youth of humanity itself. We also got the moral that “wrong thinking is punishable… right thinking will be as quickly rewarded.”
The crew’s valiant rescue of Earth not only earns them a stay of execution, but a better future as they are sent aboard the new U.S.S. Enterprise to continue the voyages that they started and so that Kirk could perform the duty to which he “has demonstrated unswerving ability… command of a starship.”
As the Enterprise warps into its future, it closes the book on Act Three, spelling out THE END for the film that is Star Trek II-IV. Like I said: It’s a three-act film with not just a running narrative, but running themes and arcs. It’s unfair to judge them separately.
My second favorite film would probably be Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, but not by much. On paper, the film is a spy-thriller filled with political intrigue. Unfortunately the film’s pacing makes it hard for the story to build up a head of steam. There are undeniably outstanding moments in the film: Valeris’ master manipulation of the events aboard the Enterprise (from commandeering the Captain’s Log to her suggestion of Romulan Ale for dinner as well as her very clear command over the assassins), to Spock’s continually creative ways to subvert Starfleet orders without breaking the Vulcan code of honesty, to Spock’s eventually brutal mental rape of Lt. Valeris. The film has a lot of big moments. Like I said, it just seems to take too long to get to each. Cliff Eidleman’s score for Star Trek VI didn’t help much. It felt a bit lifted from Holtz’ The Planets and was lacking the musical energy that had been built up in the previous films.
ILM was the standout for this film, photographing the Enterprise so well that you almost felt like you could reach out and touch it. Their simple effect for the Klingon ship firing when cloaked was so incredibly effective that it almost boggles the mind. If anything, the film looked great.
The biggest sin this film committed however, impacts those films not on this list. The film ends with Spock making a very out-of-character, very human remark. It got a smile from the audience for its gravitas and should have been a one-off. However, in pretty much every TNG film that follows this one, Data is given the exact same kind of moment:
First Contact: To Hell with our orders
Insurrection: Saddle up… lock and load
and so on.
Next on the list is Star Trek: The Motion Picture. First, let’s go over what I liked about the film. The biggest thing to come out of this film for me, and the most important of all, is the Enterprise herself. She is a beauty. The original Matt Jeffries design was cool. It was something unexpected for its time. The refit for TMP took everything that was great about the original design and made it better, period. The lines became sleeker, the corners became rounded, and the ship became self-illuminated, which gave her an amazing personality that is uniquely hers. The ship was given what’s known as Aztec-Modeling which is a pattern painted onto the hull which ultimately gives the look of multiple plating. This helped to give the ship its sense of scale.
And because I love this ship so much, I am one of the few who appreciate the extended flyover sequence where Scotty takes Kirk to see his ship. I fell in love with her just as Kirk did on that one trip. She’s the most beautiful ship in science fiction film. And to this film I am at least grateful for that.
I am also grateful to Jerry Goldsmith for his new Star Trek theme and score. While not as inclusive of Alexander Courage’s original theme as Horner would wind up being, it’s still a marvelous score in its own right and does its best to create the grandeur that the film itself lacks.
The story is only half of the problem with this film. A rehashing of a story first told on the original series (“The Changeling”) but adapted from a story by Alan Dean Foster, TMP feels like ground re-trod, and not particularly well. The costumes and props don’t really evoke any sense of continuity with the original show. But the problem really falls on the way the characters were written. These aren’t the people we came to know and love. They’re moody, they’re snippy, and they don’t seem to have much camaraderie throughout the whole film. The journey seems almost as unpleasant to them as it is to the audience. And that’s a shame. Perhaps if the crew was excited, we could be too.
This brings us to the tail end of the my Star Trek film list. It should come as no surprise to anyone (except possibly Brian) that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is my least favorite Star Trek film. The story and the writing are probably the biggest offenders in this pile of film excrement. A wise man once posed this question:
Suppose you look in the TV Guide* to see what’s on Star Trek this week. You go down the list and when you find Star Trek, it says “The crew of the Enterprise goes in search of God.” OK then. Knowing what you know about how fiction works, how exactly do you think it’s going to play out? There’s no mystery here. The crew isn’t going to find God. They’ll probably find something that claims to be God and find out it’s not God. And really only something evil would pretend to be God, so they’ll wind up fighting it.
One could make the argument that in good fiction they’d find a character that is an alien being that we define as God. Of course, for a film in the late ’80s to have any kind of broad appeal, this probably isn’t the route that the filmmakers were likely to take. Especially when one of the creators of the story says that he came up with the idea when he was watching a late night televangelist, and decided he wanted to make commentary on that.
Another colossal misstep here was the hiring of Bran Ferren to do the special effects. To save money, the production team had to look outside of ILM to do the effects for STV and settled on this New Jersey-based company. Bran Ferren really hadn’t done the kinds of special effects that a Star Trek film required, and it shows. My girl looks flat throughout the entire film. There is no sense of size, scale or even movement. The effects team might as well have taken a still photo of the ship and dragged it across the screen (which is what it looks like in most shots). The film’s effects are a stone’s throw away from making the film look like it was produced by Golan Globus.
Jerry Goldsmith produces one of his most inspired Star Trek scores for this film, but it’s literally like putting lipstick on a pig. The film doesn’t deserve anything that good. The script also tries to channel the humor from Star Trek IV, but with little exception it is written poorly with surprising lack of wit. The film feels like an overblown episode of the original series complete with transporter problems, mindless Klingon antagonists and a mission that only the Enterprise can solve.
To recap, here is my list:
In no way is it definitive to all Trekkies, but it is pretty definitive to me.
And remember… these are the continuing voyages of the Podwits. Our continuing mission… to explore strange new… news. To seek out new entertainment forms… and new civilizations. To boldly go where no podcast or blogsite has gone before!
++cue James Horner’s music++
*TV Guide is a printed publication that once was the definitive guide to what is on television. It is now a niche magazine and television channel that is trying desperately to hold on to a semblance of importance