by Greg Kuchmek
While the different incarnations of Star Trek on television have been the focus of Trek fandom, the Star Trek films have long been considered merely nostalgic reincarnations of the original series, albeit in larger form. But let's give the Star Trek films the credit they deserve: They've not only gone where no Trek show has ever gone before, but have paved the way for future Star Trek shows such as Voyager and Deep Space Nine. Cut off from episodic contraints, they are far more character- and gimmick-driven than their small-screen counterparts. This, of course, helps the lucrative Trek franchise even more, but it hasn't hurt the evolution of the Star Trek universe.
The film series begins with the dull and dated "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979, Robert Wise). The first Hollywood journey has our heroes developing early signs of rational forethought, as opposed to the quick, impulsive action of the early TV series. They have to save the Earth from NASA's space probe Voyager, which, hundreds of years into the future, has evolved into an incredibly vast alien form of intelligence. Add some hokey mystical shit about a bald alien woman merging physically and spiritually with Voyager (an early suggestion of technology merging with humans, a theme found in The Next Generation with Geordi and his V.I.S.O.R.) and some really crappy Federation uniforms and this adds up to one of the worst films in the series. But as it was the first Star Trek film, the Trekkies came out of the woodwork to support it, paving the way for a sequel.
"Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan" (1982, Nicholas Meyer) starred the same old crew battling a villain from the original TV series (played with much gusto by TV's Ricardo Montalban). Khan had been exiled to a barren planet by Captain Kirk 15 years ago in the original series and, thanks to a twist of fate, is now executing his plan for revenge using the Federation's new "Genesis" device. Able to render a "lifeless" planet into a livable, rich terrain, this device sends the Federation's sacred "Prime Directive" right out the window. The "Genesis" device is not only a potential weapon, but could disrupt the possibility of life forming naturally on any planet it is used on. Where's the honor in that? Luckily, the crew is defiant of the rules and Khan is a good target for them to vent their spleens. Throw in a brain-eating bug that burrows in Chekov's ear and Mr. Spock's "death" at the end and you've got a nice solid film with plenty of action. Even if you're not much of a Trekkie, this one is a good way to kill two hours.
Returning to the "Genesis" planet in "Star Trek III: The Search For Spock" (1984, Leonard Nimoy), Captain Kirk's son, David, finds Spock alive and well as a result of the convenient "Genesis effect." The plot ridiculously thickens as the Klingons want to steal the device for a weapon, and Kirk and crew steal the decommissioned Enterprise in order to return Spock to Vulcan to retrieve Spock's soul from Dr. McCoy. There are special effects a-plenty as the unstable planet collapses, David dies, and the Enterprise is destroyed. Again, the Prime Directive goes out the window in the name of Honor; this shows early signs of what The Next Generation and Voyager were to become. By no means a classic, it is, however, a nice follow-up to the previous film.
For a classic, look no further than "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986, Leonard Nimoy). This is a lively comedy(!) that loads the bumbling ex-Enterprise crew into a captured Klingon Bird of Prey for a voyage back to 1987 in order to save the whales. I hardly think the Prime Directive allows going back in time, no matter how serious the threat is, for fear of destroying the present. But this is a comedy, so logic is thrown out the window; luckily, that allows for a lot of self-parody. See Chekov, the Russian crew-member, attempt to steal nuclear energy from a US. Atomic Submarine! See Kirk and a robed Mr. Spock stumble around San Francisco claiming to be acid casualties! Watch the much-discussed love triangle between Kirk, Bones, and Spock blossom and grow more bizarre! This is a great piece of entertainment and should not be missed.
It was bound to happen: Shatner takes the director's helm with "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1988, William Shatner). While production values have increased with each film, and the crew seems more comfortable with the silver screen, this film ends up as only a minor footnote in the series. A renegade Vulcan steals the new Enterprise so he can go to the center of the universe to meet "God." Of course, the entity he meets is only posing as God; mayhem ensues. Bad pacing and uninspired acting also plague the film. At this point, the cast seems old and tired, and ready to call it quits.
But, no, "Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country" (1991, Nicholas Meyer) had to go and rear its ugly head. The Klingon Empire is collapsing and an Earth-based peace conference has been organized. Kirk and the Enterprise crew are ordered to escort Klingon representatives through Federation space. Things don't go smoothly when it appears that the Enterprise opens fire on a Klingon Battle Cruiser. Kirk and Bones beam over to investigate and are immediately arrested. Spock is left in command of the Enterprise with no options before him but to sit and wait, or actand destroy the possibility of peace. While this is a nice juxtaposition to what was going on between the Soviet Union and the United States at that time, the film generally seems uninspired and the crew anxious for retirement. This film doesn't really address the usual theme of honor and/or the Prime Directive; it just goes right off the map. It does, however, get into the political soap opera sludge that Deep Space Nine will eventually wallow in.
And then there is the inevitable "Star Trek: Generations" (1994, David Carson). With the original crew too disturbingly old and fat to be careening through space, Paramount introduces the crew from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here, Malcolm McDowell plays Dr. Soran, who wants to return to a rip in the space/time continuum known as the "Nexus," a place where time has no meaning and fantasies become real. Thanks to the appearance of the Nexus, Captain Kirk is saved from being sucked into the vacuum of space and sets up residence within the Nexus. The re-appearance of the Nexus, 80 years later, brings Kirk together with Captain Picard to defeat McDowell. Again, any dealings with time travel would seem to go against the Prime Directive, but at least they are consciously aware of the potential consequences this time. The Next Generation crew is finally here and you can tell by the attitude of the script; actions are thought out and discussed first rather than afterwards. The plot is a little weak (it could have been contained within an hour long television episode), but the film series gets a healthy kick in the arse by the new, younger crew and honor is restored.
In November, Paramount is releasing "Star Trek: First Contact," starring the whole Next Generation cast again, this time without Kirk and his ilk. I'm anxious to again see the Star Trek Universe in big-screen glory. The Next Generation crew is so damn hell-bent on the Prime Directive that I'm sure things will get back on track, and things will only move forward from here. Rumor has it that this film features the Borg and, for the first time, a Queen Borg who engages in a sexual act with Data! Now that sounds like a good time! </end>