The Star Trek franchise

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Rating: C-

Dir: Robert Wise
Star: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Stephen Collins, Persis Khambatta

There are occasions in cinema where technology overcomes the storytelling aspect. Avatar was one such; going back a bit, so was Thunderball, which was so obsessed with underwater photography, it felt more like a Jacques Cousteau documentary than a Bond film. A very similar problem is present here. While the depiction of space-travel and whizzy visual effects may possibly have been groundbreaking enough, when this came out in 1979, to meriti their lengthy screen time, they are no longer worthy of extended attention. This reaches its nadir in a very slow shuttle crawl that takes Kirk (Shatner) and Scotty out to the new Enterprise.

Seriously, I could have walked there faster, and can see why Chris described this as “Enterprise porn.” For a film that runs 145 minutes, there’s surprisingly little going on. An energy cloud is heading towards Earth; it’s up to Kirk and his crew to stop it. That’s it. The film’s biggest strength is that it could well be a very large-budget version of the TV series, with the characters and their relationships as strong and interesting as ever. Spock is logical (once he gets rid of the crap hair he wears at the beginning); McCoy is irascible; Scotty grumbles about the laws of physics or whatever; and Kirk is… Kirk.

But that’s also its biggest weakness, as this runs more than three times the length of an episode, without significant additional content or depth. Once you’ve done admiring the visual effects – and, while some are still solid, there are occasions where time has not been kind, and you can see the matte edges. Overall, it’s a film which puts an awful lot more emphasis on style over substance, and that’s the last thing you would say about the TV series. Based on this, you’d never imagine the series would still be going strong 30+ years later, though better – much better – was to come.


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Rating: B

Dir: Nicholas Meyer
Star: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban, DeForest Kelley

As an appetiser, we watched Space Seed, the original series TV episode in which Khan (Montalban) first appeared. It’s probably the first Trek episode I’ve seen in 20 years, and despite the wobbly scenery and dubious costumes (check out the compulsory mini-skirts for female crew members!), works simply because the characters are so well done. Khan, a survivor of the 1990’s Eugenics Wars – still three decades ahead at the time – is rescued from cryonic suspension, only to hijack the Enterprise until Kirk goes to work with a convenient monkey-wrench.

Separated at birth:
Khan Noonian Singh and Peter Stringfellow

Fast forward fifteen years, Trek time, and Khan is back, as power-hungry as ever (though the most evil thing is his disturbing resemblance to aging Lothario club owner, Peter Stringfellow), and desperate for revenge on Kirk, now an Admiral. Cue a battle of wits, rather than monkey-wrenches this time – indeed, the two foes never actually meet, only getting to curse each other through video-links, bringing it closer to Hunt for Red October than you might expect. This is especially so at the climax, where the two ships hunt each other in a nebula (shaped curiously like a plot device) that conveniently blocks their sensors.

The film combines the heart of the television show with big-budget production standards; the effects sequences have stood the test of time surprisingly well, perhaps because they are only used when necessary, rather than for eye-candy. The rapport between the leading cast members is excellent, and largely makes the movie – not a dry eye in the house for the final moments, either. While The Voyage Home may be the most enjoyable Trek film, this is among the best, and is quality SF by any standards, even for non-Trekkies like myself.

Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)

Rating: C-

Dir: Leonard Nimoy
Star: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Christopher Lloyd, James Doohan

The structure of this film is all wrong. It starts off with a repeat of Spock’s funeral from Part II, and the problem is, nothing even comes close to matching that for emotional impact – it’s downhill all the way, effectively. The show is largely a three-legged stool, with logical Spock, emotional McCoy, and Kirk trying to strike a balance: kick away one of those legs, and what you get is ludicrous heroics, such as Kirk hijacking the Enterprise to go look for his Science Officer. Even the central plot is fairly flaky; it’s never quite explained how Spock gets resurrected (if that’s a spoiler, I’d better also mention the fall of the Berlin Wall. How was the dark side of the Moon?) or why Bones is undergoing somethat that would have got him burned at the stake in Salem.

On the plus side, all the actors are obviously so comfortable with their roles that it’s impossible not to be drawn along by them, at least moderately. Spoc…sorry, Nimoy’s hand as a director is likely also too heavy, especially for a plot which ends with a fist fight to the death between Shatner and Klingon captain Lloyd (combined age when movie released: 98 years. They should really know better) on a conveniently-exploding planet. In many ways, it’s a nostalgic throwback to the original series, all it needs is some green-skinned alien floozy to ask, “What is this Earth thing called kissing?” and we’d be there.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Rating: B-

Dir: Leonard Nimoy
Star: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Catherine Hicks

It’s a cunning ploy to drop the crew of the Enterprise back in the 20th century, since it’s a lot cheaper to film in modern-day San Francisco than fabricate three hundred years into the future. Indeed, there seems to be a lot of money-saving techniques here – we get effect sequences recycled from both the previous two entries. Still, it’s hard to complain when the culture clash on view is such fun; seeing Kirk and co. struggling with money, swearing (“double dumb-ass on you!”), crossing the street and the archaic technology which is the computer mouse, is a joy and delight.

Less successful is the unsubtle ecological message, which could have made its point in four words (Killing Whales Is Bad), but hangs around for most of the movie. Amusing to note the makers had to use animatronic whales for 95% of the footage (and very impressive they are too, I have to say), the real thing presumably not deemed suitable… The lack of an actual enemy is also a bit of a problem: much like Disney, Star Trek has had some glorious villains, but here, the major threat is Californian drivers. Bad, but not quite the wrath of Khan. No real matter, when rarely has the Prime Directive – y’know, the one about non-interference – been so gloriously raped as here. By the end, the Earth has gained a phaser and a communicator, discovered transparent aluminum, and lost a biologist. Sounds like a fair exchange to me.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Rating: D-

Dir: William Shatner
Star: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Laurence Luckinbill, DeForest Kelley

Not quite as hideous as I’d been led to believe, this is still pretty weak, maintaining the pattern of “even=good, odd=bad”. There are some spectacular cringeworthy and embarrassing moments: chief among them is Lt. Uhura’s fan dance, which sets back the cause of racial equality several years in about 25 seconds, but Spock’s rocket-shoe rescue of Kirk, and Scotty’s prat-fall quickly come to mind too. Although any film on the theme of encountering God is skating on thin ice, this angle isn’t handled too badly – at least, until a finale more reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz than any divine encounter.

The movie fails singularly to answer any of the potentially interesting questions raised earlier on. and we don’t really have a villain here either, just Spock’s half-brother Sybok. He hijacks the Enterprise by getting the crew in touch with their inner pain, then crashes through the barrier at the edge of the universe – why the Enterprise can breeze through, but nothing else ever has, is never explained. There is still some absolutely cracking dialogue, however, which helps distract from the obvious flaws. Guess Shatner wanted his turn at directing after Nimoy had done so well with parts III and IV, but all he succeeds in doing is prove that directorial and acting star quality are not the same thing.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Rating: B

Dir: Nicholas Meyer
Star: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Christopher Plummer

This works on a number of levels; oddly, the least effective is perhaps the science-fiction. As a political whodunnit, however, it’s entirely satisfactory, with historical resonances ranging from the Cuban missile crisis through Watergate to the fall of the Soviet Union. Kirk and McCoy are framed for assassinating the Klingon chancellor (David Warner – a human in the previous installment!), and they must try and escape from a prison planet, in the movie’s weakest section. Much more interesting is how the rest of the crew have to find the real killers, before the potential for a human/Klingon peace treaty becomes a war instead.

There are a number of good angles, such as Kirk’s anti-Klingon prejudice (they killed his son), which is treated with surprising sympathy. The jokey approach that worked for IV, but was rapidly growing old in V, is wisely discarded in favour of a straightforward ratcheting up of the tension, though mercifully we are spared a fist-fight between Shatner and Plummer. It’s closer to chess as the two sides maneouver, one group trying to protect negotiations, the other trying to sabotage them – Spock in particular has a masterful eye for “tactical omission”. You could relocate the film to contemporary Earth without much trouble, and it’d be just as solid, meaning that for those who don’t like SF in general, and Trek in particular, it’s probably the best in the series.

Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Rating: C-

Dir: David Carson
Star: Patrick Stewart, Malcolm McDowell, William Shatner, Brent Spiner

This entry transfers the franchise from original to Next Generation crew, albeit in a somewhat clunky manner with a story spanning almost 80 years. Villain Soran (McDowell) is desperate to return to the Nexus, a warm, fuzzy place, and is happy to destroy whole solar systems to reach the gateway. He Must Be Stopped, it goes without saying. Conveniently, the Nexus is where Kirk has been living, after getting sucked out of the Enterprise (Version B) when it got stuck there in a previous episo…er, part of the film.

The Nexus is basically a giant plot device, but hasn’t been thought out at all, since it basically gives everyone involved infinite lives. If they don’t stop Soran, they end up in the Nexus, and can exit at any moment in history and try again. And again. There goes any threat. Of course, rather than any sensible plan, they choose the most obvious dramatic moment – as in II, there’s something amusing about seeing actors, average age 56, duking it out like drunken frat-boys. However, this does let us see the really cool Enterprise (D? E? Still no seat-belts!) crash again. The rest of the film is herky-jerky, leaping forward then diverting into sequences of doubtful relevance. Though seeing that Klingons have invented Wonderbras, I am hopeful for the future of galactic peace.

It’s fun to see Kirk and Picard side-by-side, though having them bash heads on home turf, the Enterprise bridge, would have been even better. However, the rest of the crew of both eras seem there largely to fill contractual obligations, save perhaps Data (Spiner), who gets a chip that lets him feel the full range of human emotions, and probably allows him to play any region DVDs. At 117 minutes, there’s hardly any more content than a usual episode, and perhaps it should have stayed that way.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Rating: C+

Dir: Jonathan Frakes
Star: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Alice Krige, James Cromwell

Rather like The Two Towers, this entry in the series tries to join two almost entirely separate plots, and the results are just as lumpy. Taking place largely in the 21st century, the Borg uber-baddies are slowly hijacking the Enterprise, with the aim of “assimilating” the future. Down on Earth, Zefram Cochrane (Cromwell), inventor of warp drive, is being helped get his act together in time to alert a passing Vulcan spaceship. [This assistance is not technically violating the Prime Directive, since it doesn’t exist yet. :-)] Either story would be fine, but the switching back and forth largely destroys any tension, and they’d have been better off sticking with one or the other

Individually, there’s still a fair bit to admire, beginning with a startling sequence, showcasing the top-notch special effects which are present throughout. The Borg thread is particularly well-handled, with Krige a wonderful leader, though the way they completely ignore you until you attack them is a bit dumb; you’d think they’d have learned a long time ago that, wherever Captain Picard goes, trouble follows. Best not dwell on the time-travel stuff either – I doubt a script exists that effectively deals with the paradoxes inherent in the concept. But it is satisfying to see that the real Cochrane isn’t quite as heroic as history believes. Given the Borg are among the best all-time Trek villains, the overall effect is slightly disappointing, albeit a definite improvement on Generations.

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

Rating: C

Dir: Jonathan Frakes
Star: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, F. Murray Abraham

This has been sitting on the shelf for years, largely because our son Robert kept nagging us to watch it. Finally, we picked it up ourselves, and despite the curse of the even-numbered entries, this is no disaster. Admittedly, there isn’t much tension – the main baddies, the Son’a (led by F. Murray Abraham), look wrapped in toilet paper, and are addicted to plastic surgery. Any similarity to Anne Nicole Smith is purely coincidental, but it’s hardly what you’d call a threat. Thanks to a convenient loophole in the Prime Directive, they convince the Federation to relocate a planet’s inhabitants, in order to “mine” the rejuvenating radiation in which it basks.

Of course, it’s up to Picard and the crew to save the day, the premise being that the needs of a bunch of aging hippies…er, non-aging hippies, outweigh the needs of everyone else in the Federation. If you buy that, you’re probably too busy hugging trees to be reading this review. However, the tone is light, which definitely helps matters – Data’s impression of a seat-cushion is a moment to treasure, closer to Red Dwarf than anything. The conspiratorial aspects are also welcome, even if they rely on conveniently opaque chunks of space preventing anyone contacting the authorities. It does presume familiarity with the show (where did Geordie’s glasses go?) and the first 20 minutes are simply confusing. But apart from a questionable central premise, this was better than expected. Or, at least, not as bad as Robert’s enthusiasm suggested.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Rating: C

Dir: Stuart Baird
Star: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Tom Hardy, Brent Spiner

The last entry in the series I saw was number four, so I feared having to whisper questions to my more-knowledgeable other half in the cinema – “the bald one, he’s the captain, right?” Fortunately, I needn’t have worried: in the fifteen years since my last cinematic Trek, the names may have changed, but the scenarios are as comfortable and familiar as an old red jumper. Bad guy with personal grudge against Kir…Picard, also happens to possess a doomsday weapon. You just know it’s going to end in a fist-fight between the two. With Data and Worf, there’s even echoes of the old Spock-McCoy relationship, though the latter gets little to do here.

There are some interesting ideas thrown up – the villain is a clone of Picard, and Data also has a duplicate, raising questions about the nature of self. But the conversations between Picard and his evil twin are deadly dull; Tom Hardy doesn’t have the necessary weight for the role, and comes across as colourless compared to any of the truly memorable Trek villains. Being honest, even the shrieking space cylinder from part four had more charisma. When the action gets going, it looks great, but I still can’t get over the way crucial personnel still cheerfully abandon their posts at the drop of a yellow alert. What happened to military discipline? But hey, what do I know. For a more informed (Trekker? Trekkie? Trek-tator?) review, from someone who does, I will hand you over to Chris…

One of my hobbies as a “kind-of” Trekker is going to the Star Trek films and finding the references to and/or actors from, the original series. It’s something to do when you pretty much know a film isn’t going to be great. Nemesis was not great, but it was interesting. The one thing that irritated me about the Next Generation series was their incessant need to dwell on how good the past of Earth was. Never mind that there were thousands of other planets/species and cultures working within the Federation, the Earth’s past history was always the nostalgia used in the series and it’s crept into the films just as irritatingly. Can we do without Data doing his lounge lizard routine at all? I was very surprised that they didn’t have Riker get up on stage playing his stupid trombone as he did so many other times. Although I have to say how pleased I was that there were a) No Holodeck scenes, b) No Deanna Troi’s mother and c) Hardly any Guinan at all.

The story follows up a long lost reference from the original series about the sister planets Romulus and Remus and their ages-old war to overcome one another. Romulus’ senate gets taken over by a Reman, who turns out to be a clone of Capt. Picard, created for the purpose of eventually taking over the Federation in some elaborate Bond-esque doppleganger plan. The clone, played by Tom Hardy, looks strikingly like Picard as a young man and the emotions are stirred as Picard ponders how he would have reacted in the circumstances of his clone’s upbringing. The battles in space were very slick, as were the set designs of the Romulan planet. Interesting to see the Romulans wearing the same uniforms as in the 60’s, on the original series. Dina Meyer is great as a Romulan Commander and Ron Perlman (Blade 2) was virtually unrecognizable as the Viceroy henchman for the clone, Shinzon.

As for actors in the film, it was nice to see that Capt. Janeway made it home and became an admiral for the fleet (I never finished the last two seasons of Voyager ’cause it got boring, so I didn’t know they made it). In the end, as with all things, you begin to realize that there must be a final battle, complete with tragedies, and the bad guy always gets his. That’s the way it is. However, as far as I was concerned, this dragged on and just didn’t hold my attention. It might be the last Star Trek film I’ll see in the theatres and perhaps even the last made, but it’s time to move on.

Star Trek (2009)

Rating: B+

Dir: J.J.Abrams
Star: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood

Yes, as a convincing reboot of the franchise, this will do very nicely, doing an excellent job of respecting the original characters, while giving the new actors a chance to bring something fresh to the younger versions [with somewhat varying success, it must be said]. The bulk of the film takes place just as the batch of cadets are about to graduate from Starfleet Academy – a distress signal from Vulcan means they are pressed into action on the Enterprise under Captain Pike (Greenwood). However, when he is taken hostage by renegade Romulan Nero (Bana), a man bent on revenge for perceived crimes not yet committed, it’s Spock (Quinto), not Kirk (Pine) who takes over.

That clash of personalities which leads to Kirk being tossed off the ship and onto a near-deserted planet. However, what he find there sheds new light on Nero’s plans, and gives Kirk additional incentive to get back on to the Enterprise. The key thing here is that this works as a straight science-fiction film: even if you didn’t have any knowledge of the Trek universe at all [almost impossible, I imagine], this would still be thoroughly enjoyable, and is certainly a film whose sweeping spacescapes are cinematic enough to make this worth the trek to the theatre: the budget is up on the screen, certainly. There are enough nods to the original to make for a seamless transition, yet the new cast go at it with gusto, not least Simon Pegg as Scotty.

There is a touching and well-worked supporting performance from one of the original cast [look, I’m trying to avoid spoilers, even though odds are you know who it is already], and the script does a great job of capturing the same blend of drama, humour, humanity and general optimism that characterized the best of the previous versions. If perhaps a little too derivative of Khan, overall, it’s more successful than the initial reboots of Bond or Batman: I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Rating: A-

Dir: J.J.Abrams
Star: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon Pegg

This had a pair of large shoes to step into: due not only to the quality of the first reboot, also because Wrath of Khan was one of the best of the original series. Yet, somehow, this managed to surpass both, building on the strengths of each, yet managing to be entirely its own beast. It’s a remake of Khan, paying tribute to it in a number of ways, both big and small, yet diverts from it in others. It takes some time before you reach the meat: Khan’s retaliation against those whom he blames for the fate of him and his family.

First, we have Kirk (Pine) being relieved of command and there’s a terrorist attack against a Starfleet facility, before Khan (Cumberbatch) shows up to spray their HQ with gunfire, before heading off to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. To chase him down, Kirk is given back the Enterprise, armed with 72 “special” photon torpedoes, which can taken Khan out without being traceable to the Federation. But neither the mission, nor the torpedoes, are quite what they seem.

Really, this is everything you want from a movie. It’s undeniably cinematic, with any number of visually spectacular scenes. It’s also rather smart, with all the characters having motivations that make sense. And it’s flat-out entertaining, providing such a broad emotional spectrum, I’m hard-pushed to think of any Hollywood movie in the last decade which is its match. Proceedings are certainly helped by the fact we are now familiar with the characters, so the pacing is improved over the first.

But the main improvement over the original reboot is likely Cumberbatch, who makes an excellent villain, something which his predecessor, Nero, really wasn’t able to deliver. Montalban was iconic as Khan, but there wasn’t much humanity to be found: Cumberbatch adds an extra dimension there, and there are times when you are almost rooting for Khan, because the truth is that he probably isn’t the worst example of mankind in the film, shall we say. The overall impact is stellar (pun intended), and if there are any better big-budget movies this year, I can’t wait to see them.