Star Trek Movies – And In Conclusion…

Star Trek films are, in the end, a strange breed.  Born from the ashes of the Phase II project, The Motion Picture attempted to shift the adventures of the Enterprise from the small screen to the big one, but t’s worth reminding ourselves how unusual it was in 1979 for a TV series – a cancelled TV series no less – to make the transition to cinema. Star Wars, of course, is partly to blame / be held responsible (delete as applicable) for this since Paramount wanted a slice of the box office pie and had a handy space-based franchise just sitting there. But back in the beige, chilly days of the 1970’s this wasn’t a Thing That Happened. The likes of Kojak and Colombo might get a TV movie here and there but that absolutely was not the same thing. Now we live in an era where TV shows transitioning to big screen adventures can happen to almost any intellectual property, from The Addams Family (twice so far) to Mission: Impossible, from The Twilight Zone to Miami Vice. A dash of nostalgia here, a sprig of brand recognition inserted into the carcass of memory there and off we go.

Star Trek, as far as TOS is concerned, was a middling success that only found its feet in syndication, but it was at the forefront of this transition from the small screen to the big one, and bringing it to cinema was more of a gamble than it might seem. If Phase II had gone ahead and subsequently bombed, well, TV is littered with failed revivals, c’est la vie. If it had gone ahead and been successful, that’s nice but it would be a while before Paramount would start to see any financial reward from it – again, most probably when it reached syndication, or when there were enough episodes to package and sell to foreign broadcasters. But a movie is more of a gamble. If it tanks, it tanks. That’s the end of the line.

The Motion Picture represented work done on Phase II, and indeed used a script retooled from it, and Paramount was banking on the idea that the affection the public held for Star Trek had grown in the decade since the show had gone off the air enough to encourage them into their local movie theatre. In the end The Motion Picture exists simultaneously in a quantum state as two separate but equal things – both an unmitigated disaster and very much a success. Critically the film took a drubbing and it’s hard to disagree with many of the criticisms levelled at it, both contemporaneously and in the present – it’s slow and pretentious, we don’t get to spend much time with the characters we all know and love, and there is little on screen beyond some flashy effects. All of this is true, and yet the film itself is a crucial milestone in Star Trek history because it was a big financial success and guaranteed the green-lighting of the movie that came after it. And after it again. And again. And eventually that leads us to The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, Picard, Prodigy, Lower Decks and the whole Abramsverse alternate timeline (not to mention whatever other shows lurk in the future). 

Saying that, though, it’s easy to understand why it’s the forgotten runt in the litter of TOS movies. Every other movie has something to distinguish it from the others – as with some entries that doesn’t necessarily mean “good”, but most of them are at least distinctive. The one with Khhhaaaaan (also Spock dies)! The one where the Enterprise is destroyed. The one with the whales (especially the one with the whales). “What does God want with a Starship?” Sailing off into the sunset with Shakespeare and some Klingons. The Motion Picture is distinctive in the sense that it’s “the first one”, but that’s not really enough and almost all of its innovations – everything from the new, ghastly, uniforms to its genuine efforts to find a future for TOS rather than reflect on the past – are immediately abandoned by The Wrath Of Khan. But The Wrath Of Khan has, in Ricardo Montalban, an outstandingly charismatic lead and also some cool space battles, two things markedly absent from its predecessor. It also has some imagination and wit and it dwarfs the film it follows, both in cultural status and straightforward entertainment value. The Wrath Of Khan is a deeply flawed film, not least in the way that it deals with its dour militarism and complete failure to understand why Kirk shouldn’t be treated as a hero, but it’s not exactly difficult to understand why it caught the public’s imagination where The Motion Picture didn’t.

A sequel was inevitable at that point, and The Search For Spock provides a new narrative innovation for Star Trek –  a continuing storyline. There is, beyond the cast, nothing that links The Motion Picture with The Wrath Of Khan – they are simply separate stories. The Wrath Of Khan is a sequel to “Space Seed”, but it’s not a continuing, ongoing narrative. All episodes of TOS save for “The Menagerie” (a not-entirely-successful attempt to rescue the failed pilot, “The Cage”) were standalone. But here, for the first time in Star Trek, we get a narrative that is a straight, direct continuation. It seems minor now, but then it was something quite new. The Search For Spock is a linear piece, but it ticks a lot of boxes and is constructed smartly enough that its watchable without an in-depth knowledge of The Wrath Of Khan (a couple of handy flashbacks do some of the heavy lifting here, but it’s not too heavy). Nimoy’s return to the fold at the end of the movie provides one of the emotional high-points of the whole series, and yet The Voyage Home picks up and runs with the “continuing narrative” when it didn’t really have to and thus we get an unofficial trilogy.

The Voyage Home itself was a huge cultural hit, not just in terms of its box-office but it was, for the last time, the point where the original crew could make a meaningful impact on popular culture. The Undiscovered Country is, in every way, a better film than The Voyage Home, but it never caught the cultural zeitgeist in the way The Voyage Home did. Trapped in between those two outings lies The Final Frontier, a widely mocked and derided piece that is, nevertheless, substantially better than its reputation. Its failings – dreadful special effects (although, come on) and a writer’s strike scuppering script re-writes – are fairly easy to gloss over and its charms equally easy to innumerate. And yet despite its reputation even The Final Frontier was a financial success (albeit not quite at the scale the studio had hoped for), and The Undiscovered Country was a huge hit as this crew bid their final farewell (more or less). It’s worth remarking on that, unlike the two movie sequences that followed, the TOS movies never lost their appeal at the box office.

What the TOS movies undoubtedly proved was that there was still a hunger for new Star Trek and however old our crew got punters were still prepared to turn up and fork over cash to see them. But there’s only so long you can strap William Shatner into a girdle and toupee, only so often you can ask Leonard Nimoy to stick on some pointy rubber ears, before things become untenable. Thus, in 1987, we get the launch of The Next Generation on the small screen, a whole new crew and ship to give adventures to while the old lags get to head off into the sunset. Yet TNG owes its entire existence to the success of the TOS films – without their considerable box office draw it’s doubtful there would ever have been an argument strong enough to make more TV shows. The continuation of Star Trek on television can, ironically, trace its legacy directly to the success of the movies.

And after seven seasons of warping about the galaxy TNG finally earns the right to its own movie series as well, and it follows directly in the path of TOS movies by delivering something terrible as its first outing, kicking off with… erm, Generations. Well, never mind. At least from that low, low bar things could only get better. Generations is, in many ways a series of confusing choices made for confusing reasons resulting in a confusing mess of a film. Why bring back Kirk? Why waste time with “fan favourites” which could only serve to isolate the viewing public? Why kill off Kirk like that? There are plenty of questions and precious few answers, but the film was still a big success and that meant that the TNG cast get a second shot. First Contact is not a deep film by any stretch of the imagination but, like The Wrath Of Khan before it, goes out of its way to correct the errors of the first film in the sequence and delivers a rousing action-adventure story that uses Star Trek mythology without requiring the viewer to be steeped in it, and works out how to use that action-adventure template to deliver some top-tier sci-fi spectacle. The use of the Borg – long established as the best of the TNG-era villains – means there’s a familiar hook for both hardcore Trekkies and casual fans alike, and the film was a smash both with critics and at the box-office.

Insurrection followed, and… wasn’t. Well – it did Ok at the box-office, but critically it was very mixed and the spark that fired First Contact was lost. Insurrection tries hard to follow more in the footsteps of the TV show rather than the movies and in some ways succeeds all too well, ending up as a reasonable but very far from spectacular two-parter of the type the show did all the time. First Contact figured out how to have a script that was an actual movie, not a two-parter and as such had terrific pacing – Insurrection never manages to square that particular circle and thus ends up being really rather dull, the absolute worst sin a Star Trek film can commit. See, by comparison, the last film in the sequence, Nemesis. It’s many things, but it’s not dull. Stupid, puzzling, and occasionally – briefly – inspired, but not dull. Its critical reputation, though, was understandably very poor, Nemesis lost money, and plans for a final, fifth TNG movie were permanently shelved. This makes sense when watching Nemesis – nothing about it screams “finale!” so knowing it was never meant to be one at least slightly eases the oddity of its style and production. But however you parse it Nemesis was an ignominious ending to the series which had reinvigorated Star Trek for a whole new set of viewers.

Tellingly, there’s no movies for Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Creatively at least, this is the right decision. Deep Space Nine ends on a profoundly ambiguous note that fits with that show’s far more opaque approach to storytelling, and Sisko’s uncertain fate feed into this as well – a movie might provide more story but it’s hard to imagine it would be especially beneficial to the one that it would follow. And Voyager’s story actively concludes. Voyager exists to be a story about a ship, lost at sea (well, space) finding its way home. That’s what it’s for. Once it gets home, well, the story is concluded. There could be other stories with that ship and that crew, but they wouldn’t be, in any real sense, the same show. Naturally both shows have been continued, but in print (and to varying degrees of success, though none of them especially high levels of success). Janeway, of course, gets a brief cameo in Nemesis and Worf gets ported back from DS9 to the parent show for movie outings as well, but both of those examples allow for their respective shows to be represented within the movie franchise without actually having to have their own. By dint of being the only post-TOS Star Trek show to be cancelled rather than concluded, Enterprise never stood a chance of getting a shot at the big screen. While the fourth season was a marked improvement from the first three, it qualitatively still lagged behind the best seasons from the other post-TOS shows, and ultimately, it’s hard to feel much was missed there.

Which brings us to the last and most recent series of movies, the Abramsverse (or, if you insist, the Kelvin Timeline). Three movies in, and one thing is clear – there’s still at least some hunger for stories featuring the original crew. The Undiscovered Country sent the original crew off into the sunset in 1991. And in 2009 – eighteen years later – back they come. But rather than “out of retirement” we instead get a full recasting. That’s a big ask of an audience, to accept new actors playing familiar characters, and the most significant legacy of the 2009 Star Trek is just how adroitly they were able to recast. In Chris Pine they found an admirable replacement for William Shatner, and Zachary Quinto’s Spock has very nearly achieved the same popularity as the original. Speaking of which, Nimoy is on hand to pass the torch but ultimately, he’s not necessary – the new cast are more than capable of taking up the mantle.

The previous two movie sequences followed the same pattern – poor first outing heavily course-corrected by the second. This time out we get a different story – Into Darkness follows on the heels of the 2009 movie but rather than – as per the first two movie sequences – telling a whole separate story, it instead plunders The Wrath Of Khan for inspiration. Or maybe “inspiration”, with heavy inverted commas, is closer to the mark. Khan’s inclusion was an open secret and the movie was roundly – and correctly – mocked for porting over a villain who had no reason to be used in this timeline, and not even an impressively weighty turn from Peter Weller as Admiral Marcus could distract from the obvious shortcomings of Khan’s inclusion. The final – thus far – movie in the Abramsverse is 2016’s Beyond, which turns out to be the most satisfying of the three movies and finally strikes a balance between acknowledging the past without being simply swamped by it. Yet Beyond, despite good reviews and general favour, lost money and a fourth movie has yet to emerge. Rumours still rumble on, for better or worse, and probably there will be more at some point but there’s nothing on the horizon now. Perhaps it will happen, perhaps not, but Star Trek has remained stubbornly difficult to remove from the silver screen.

And yet… ultimately that’s not where Star Trek belongs. Oh there are some great examples of Star Trek movies, but one of the most satisfying elements of Star Trek is just how well it’s able to build its worlds, its mythos, and its characters. Every branch of the franchise has managed this, from Cold War parables of Mutually Assured Destruction from TOS through to Klingon politics, Founder wars and a million different examples, Star Trek is almost always at its best when it stretches out. The Xindii wars in Enterprise are not well regarded, but there’s detail and texture in there. Voyager’s rogue’s gallery has some successes – the Hirogen, the Viidians – and some failures – the Kazon – but its in the margins of these societies that we find out most. In the Cardassians, DS9 gave us a whole race to explore, far away from the lazy clichés of most sci-fi aliens with real depth and breadth, and a level of intricacy that would have been impossible outside of an ongoing series. TNG is largely lacking in serialisation but we have different bits of the universe linking up, from characters leaving and returning (Dr Crusher) to recurring Admirals, or just Q popping in for This Season’s Annoy Picard storyline. TOS gave us the Klingons and the Romulans, arguably the best-known alien races ever created and who still exert enough cultural gravity to be included in the current iterations of the series. While there’s no argument to say that Star Trek doesn’t belong on the big screen, there’s an extremely compelling argument to suggest that it is not where the show’s best work is done. The pleasures of the Star Trek movies are many, but the pleasures of the TV shows are infinitely more. The movies will exist – and I don’t doubt that they will continue to exist – but the TV show ultimately retains primacy. 

And that’s just how it should be.

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