When I was growing up, I didn’t care much for Star Trek. I was a Star Wars fan, and I suppose I thought the two franchises were mutually exclusive in their fanbases. As I started writing this in the midst of a Netflix Star Trek movie marathon, however, I realize that my aversion to the Trek had a simpler, yet more ludicrous, explanation:
To be fair, you couldn’t really command a Starfleet if everyone just wore what they wanted, but in my youth and at my present age, I’ll take Jedi robes over a Starfleet uniform any day. So there you have it: I deprived myself of Star Trek for decades because I have an aversion to uniforms.
Of course, I’m over such ridiculous ideas now, and in the past few years, I’ve enjoyed the films more, and have even started watching the classic TV series. When I saw the notice that Netflix would be losing the film franchise on July 1, I knew a marathon was necessary, even though I lack the recommended training.
(I don’t intend to do justice to each film in the blurbs/blurts that follow – perhaps I’ll come back someday to offer a detailed review of some of the individual movies, but for now, it’s about impressions, and the marathon.)
I actually did the first leg of the marathon on Wednesday evening, after my parents headed home from a weekend visit and attendance at a local conference. The first two are easy classics: Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the only one of the films that I actually own in physical form (a two-disc DVD set with the Director’s Cut), though I’ll tell anyone in a heartbeat that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is my favorite. Benedict Cumberbatch owned the Khan role in Into Darkness, but I had forgotten that despite the overacting battle between Shatner and Montalban in the original film, Khan really was a ruthless adversary. Spock’s sacrifice, and the line, “I am, and always shall be, your friend,” is every bit as endearing as any moment in science fiction (including, “I love you”/”I know”).
I finished the first evening of my marathon with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock; I can’t think of the last time I watched it, and even now it has the feel of that leg in the marathon I just had to power through. Of course The Search for Spock was set up by the events at the end of The Wrath of Khan, though rather going the obvious, “No, there is another” route that Star Wars took between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, The Wrath of Khan contains subtle clues that are pointed out in The Search for Spock to get the audience to say, “Oh, so that’s what he meant there, I didn’t even catch that!” Spock was too important a character to kill off, so you know (even in 1982) that there’s more to the story, probably revolving around Spock’s Vulcan nature. However, beyond bringing Spock back (which was necessary), the rest of the film feels contrived. Genesis had to be brought back, since Spock’s body was jettisoned there at the end of The Wrath of Khan; thankfully, the only place Genesis appeared again in the 1980’s was on Invisible Touch, which restored Genesis’ good name. Perhaps the toughest aspect of the movie would have been fine when it came out in 1984, but today, it is impossible to see Christopher Lloyd as a cutthroat Klingon, when all I can see is Doc Brown dressed up as a Romulan.i
I did a little more marathon prep Thursday morning, picking up popcorn, a frozen pizza, grape soda, and ice cream before resuming my viewing, later in the morning than I had hoped. Still, once I had my food situated, I felt well-equiped for a full day of classic science fiction.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, I started with low expectations. I remember liking the movie when I was a kid, for all of the things that made me fear watching it now. The movie was the first Star Trek movie I had, a gift from my grandmother who didn’t know the difference between Star Wars (of which I was a huge fan) and Star Trek (for which I really didn’t care, most likely because of the uniforms). Still, what kid wouldn’t love the time travel, the “save the whales” message, and especially the view of contemporary society through the lense of our more culturally evolved descendants? Spock’s attempts at profanity (“double dumb ass”) mirrored my own early and awkward steps into the realm of the crude (and had nothing on my dad, lest there be any fear that Star Trek warped my impressionable young mind); Scotty’s and McCoy’s interactions with engineers and doctors on the cutting edge of their fields were funny when I first saw it, but suggests the possibilities the future will hold. The idea of Chekov asking a San Francisco police officer where he could find the “nuclear wessels” ironic and naive as the Cold War was winding down, but is one of the few parts of the movie that feels dated now. Maybe it was because I had such low expectation for the movie, however, that I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. It manages to present a critique of our present society, and of the potential catastrophic consequences of our disregard for the environment, without ever coming off as preachy.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier came after I made the pizza for lunch. The Final Frontier is actually the only Star Trek movie I saw in the theater, as I went with high school friends who were bigger fans of the franchise. Beyond not understanding Trek at the time, my biggest problem is the same problem I have with the film now: It’s very awkward to try to inject “God” into a storyline. I don’t have anything against God in media, and sometimes it can be done very well (Neil Gaiman’s Murder Mysteries is a prime example, and you should check it out if you’re not familiar; Good Omens also hits the spot), but usually it just feels forced. Introducing a half-brother for Spock – one who is more emotional than analytical – would have been an outstanding movie had it gone a different route, but “let’s cross the Barrier to meet God” (and then finding ‘God’ a fancy light show and ultimately false deity) felt like touchy ground for Star Trek to tread, not only from the religious standpoint, but also from the artistic angle.
I didn’t see Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country until some time in the past two years, but for the original cast, I feel this is the best movie of the group. The film, focused on a peace agreement that will change the future for the Federation and the Klingon Empire, hits all of the franchise’s strengths, while avoiding the appearance of a retread, and is a worthy curtain call for the original actors who had been playing their roles for 25 years at that point. The themes of past hatreds and fears of the future with a changed status quo are universal, and Kirk’s struggle to overcome his prejudices may be the most admirable challenge he ever faced.
My marathon is actually the first time I’ve ever seen Star Trek VII: Generations; since I’m still working my way through the Original Series on Netflix, I haven’t gotten around to watching The Next Generation yet, and I’m only marginally familiar with Picard’s crew (and mostly from watching First Contact). It’s a well done film, but it left me with two thoughts: (1) I need to watch more of The Next Generation, and (2) Malcolm McLaren makes a really good villain.
This marathon is also the first time I’ve seen Star Trek: Nemesis (I have seen First Contact before, but since it isn’t going away from Netflix on July 1, it will be an early post-marathon viewing). Perhaps because it is the first movie I’ve seen that doesn’t involve the original cast and characters, I had the same feeling I now have about the Star Wars prequels – it was a very good movie in its own right, and as a sci-fi film, it is probably a better movie than any of the original six (and definitely better than Generations), but it didn’t feel as much like Star Trek, at least not the Star Trek I know. Again, this could be due to the same thing I said about Generations: I need to watch more of The Next Generation. I do wonder, however, what watching the show might do to my enjoyment of the film – will it feel more “like Star Trek,” while losing something of what made it purely enjoyable to watch?
Star Trek was amazing at first because it presented a future in which a multiracial, multicultural crew of men AND women could work together to achieve their mission; today, such a cast might feel like tokenism (and maybe it did when the franchise started), but I never get that vibe from the series.
Still, while the series does an excellent job of showing a future Earth which has achieved relative harmony, the prejudices and fears we experience when dealing with other races, countries and cultures are shown in the Federation’s dealings with the Klingons and Romulans. The series is optimistic, but not naive: there are times when the opponent simply needs to be defeated, and pure courage and quick wits are required. But the series is at its best – as in The Undiscovered Country – when the characters learn to move past their past beliefs, for the benefit of a brighter future.
While most of the series involves the interactions of cultures, I enjoyed seeing how much of a role Earth’s environment played in the series. The Voyage Home borders on preachy in its environmentalism, and makes the environment and conservation an express theme; The Undiscovered Country is similar, in the crisis on the Klingon moon Praxis bringing attention to the ruin the Klingon Empire invited upon itself through mismanagement and exploitation of resources. My favorite moments, however, were probably the beginning and end of The Final Frontier, when Kirk, Spock and Bones are camping in Yosemite. The notion that as a species we will continue to preserve pristing, natural places of beauty for hundreds of years to come is an optimistic view indeed.
I set aside roughly two days for a Star Trek marathon because I had an email that listed the franchise among the movies which would disappear from Netflix on July 1; the following day, as I was looking for Insurrection (a Star Trek movie that Netflix simply didn’t have), I found that both Amazon and Hulu still have most of the movies available.
I have no regrets. I’ve watched some of the movies from time-to-time, and have even watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture multiple times in a month. This was the first time I had ever watched the entire original series back-to-back, as well as the first time I had ever seen the Next Generation movies. I’ve enjoyed the reboot films, but I now realize how much fun I missed out on by not falling in love with the Star Trek franchise when I was young; I’m expecting to have a greater appreciation for Star Trek Beyond when it is released later this month.
However . . .
I’m still not a big fan of the uniforms.
iTwo solutions occur which could salvage The Search for Spock, at least as far as the Christopher Lloyd problem. Easiest would be to have Marty McFly show up as soon as Lloyd’s Kruge is on-screen, have him offer the Klingon a Snickers, and after Kruge takes a bite, have McFly say, “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry, Doc.” The second possibility would be to flash back to 1985 at the end of the film, with McFly showing up at Doc Brown’s house, and confronting the half-mad scientist with, “Doc, did you happen to ‘hook-up’ with a Klingon lady during one of your trips to the future?”; hijinks ensue, with Marty and Doc warning the version of Doc who travels to the future not to have relations with the Klingon, and avoid the angry half-Klingon/half-Doc. The time stream changes, The Search for Spock never happens, but somehow we jump forward to The Voyage Home, with Spock. Trust me, it’s better this way.