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Revisiting Star Trek [Part 6 of 7]: The Films

[NOTE: This is the sixth essay in Pete Tzinski’s 7-part series leading up to the premiere of the new Star Trek film. See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.]

(We’re nearly at the end here. Just this one, and another, article and then the new Star Trek picture is upon us and we will either be rejoicing, or going to our local bars and trying to drink it out of business. Personally, I’m holding out hope for the former option.)

After the original Star Trek series was canceled, it returned to us in movie-form long before we ever saw any new television series. All the way through the whole history of Star Trek, there have been movies, like sign posts on the trip. Up until now, we’ve had ten of them altogether – although that number is very shortly about to tick up to eleven. If I did an article about each movie at the lengths of the previous articles, you would kill me before I even finished with The Wrath of Khan. So I’m going to talk about all of the movies at a bit of a run. Mostly, I’m going to leave out the background and just talk about them and me. I hope you don’t mind. Let’s get to it.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

This first film came out pretty close to the first Star Wars, and it felt like it stood next to Star Wars as the “how not to do it” example of using computer generation and relying too heavily on the special effects. For me, this first film was the least enjoyable, the most awkward, and the most infrequently watched. The most interesting bits were watching the original crew reassemble at the beginning. What was McCoy off doing while he was growing a big beard like that? But once the movie got underway, it typically loses my interest, which remains lost through to the conclusion. Plus, it is a bit weird seeing the guy who played the father on 7th Heaven as Commander Will Decker.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I think it’s widely treated as the best of the films, although certainly everyone has their personal favorites. For me, this is about third on the list. Maybe fourth. I’m probably in the minority on that one. It is a fantastic film, full of clever action sequences and strong ideas, and good character work. The uniforms are still my favorite Starfleet uniforms. The soundtrack is in fine form. Ricardo Montalban is an amazing, powerful actor, and he is brilliant here. The film is intense from the beginning of the Kobyashi Maru and doesn’t much let up, until just before the ending credits. And of course, the ending, with Spock’s death. It was heart-wrenching when I first saw it, and it still is. And Leonard Nimoy’s narration at the very end. Beautiful! When I was a child, I think this was much higher on my list of the films. And if it’s on, I’ll still gladly watch it.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

The first interesting thing about this one is that it continued the story from The Wrath of Khan. There was the possibility that Spock was alive (and inside McCoy’s head, somehow). They had to get Spock’s body, get Spock’s brain, get away from Planet Genesis, and get them to Vulcan to reunite him. The only thing stopping them is Reverend Jim Ignatowski in Klingon make-up. That is, Christopher Lloyd as the least menacing Klingon ever.

I really enjoyed this movie. I don’t know what the general consensus is on it, I know the theory is that all the odd-numbered Trek movies are rubbish and the even-numbered ones are good…but I really enjoyed this one. I liked that we got to see more of Starfleet in the early parts of the film, we got to see the crew around and doing things besides being on a starship bridge, or punching an alien race. It was enjoyable and eclectic. And while it may have featured a dorky Klingon, it also featured a really touching scene at the end, as the flaming hulk of the Enterprise burns through the atmosphere of the Genesis world, and Captain Kirk looks up and says “My God, Bones. What have I done?” It was a touching scene. But not nearly so touching as the end of the movie, when a puzzled Spock looks at Kirk and says “I am…and always have been…your friend?” Honestly, it’s one of my favorite Trek films.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

This was, simultaneously, one of the dumbest and best of the Trek films. I mean, the premise is silly. A giant space cigar comes to Earth to talk to the whales, but they aren’t here, so Kirk and his crew attempt time travel (by flying around the sun! What!?) to go back in time and get some whales. That’s the plot. No, honest.

However, we go from a pretty dorky premise, to a really enjoyable movie. It wasn’t deeply dramatic, or heart-stopping or anything. But it was a lot of fun. It was the most quotable of any of the Trek films, wasn’t it? “I love Italian. And so do you.” or “Noo-clee-arr wessels!” or “Hello Computer?” It’s a simple film, and there isn’t a great deal to say about it. There was no particular bad guy (except for San Francisco, or maybe money), and the plot was dealt with pretty quickly…but by this point, we just delight in the characters, the silly situations (“Hunchbacked…people…?” “Whales, Scotty…!”) and feel happier for having seen it.

And at the end, we get a some very good scenes. Spock speaking with his father was nice. But the best of all was the whole crew in a shuttle. And they come up over the bulk of the Excelsior, holding their breath…and the Enterprise-A comes into view. Magnificent ship. The Enterprise-A, inside and out, was my favorite ship design until the Enterprise-E came along, I may as well tell you. The moment when the new ship appears is spine-tingling for any proper Trekkie.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

What can I say about this film that hasn’t already been joked about? I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone that this film is particularly good, and I’m not going to try. It felt like a bit of a stretch, after some of the clever movies that had come before. It is the least memorable to me.

So, what were the good bits? Well, first off, we got to see a lot of the Enterprise-A, which made me happy. And second off, I really enjoyed the growing weariness and crankiness on the part of the crew. More about that in a second, but it was evident in this film and I liked it. I liked the moments with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in the national park.

And that’s about it. It was a stumble. It wasn’t a bad film, but it was terribly forgettable.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

This was the first of any of the Star Trek films that I saw in the theaters, and I’m still rather proud about that, even though it’s not much of an accomplishment. This has always remained my favorite of all the Star Trek movies.

I think that certain themes just resonate with certain people, for whatever reason, and this one hit most of mine. I love the theme of age, of getting old and tired and becoming obsolete, and yet of still perhaps being the best person for the situation. I love the sheer world-changing scope of the story, of peace coming between the Klingons and the Federation, and the hard (and intelligent) path that it will prove to be. The list of what I loved just goes on and on. Captain Sulu and the Excelsior were magnificent. David Warner as Chancellor Gorkon was very interesting, as a calm and intellectual Klingon – rather than the war-mongering ones we had tended to see up until now – and he was also interesting for being Kirk’s age and aware that they were old, and the wrong generation for peace.

The comedic scenes were terrific. (“Any unusual radiation surges?” “Only the size of my head…”) The plot showed actual advancement to the status quo of the Star Trek universe, which was very important. The soundtrack was amazing.

And it is impossible to talk about this movie without discussing Christopher Plummer. He played General Chang. And he did it with relish and chewed up any scene that he was in. Quoting Shakespeare, or standing as the prosecution at Kirk’s trial, to crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war in the battle over Khitomer…he was a magnificent opponent. He was arguably the strongest and most interesting of all Trek individual bad guys since Khan, and I don’t really think he was ever equaled.

This is my favorite Star Trek film, and as such, I find it frustrating to try to put into words all the reasons I love it, and why it matters to me, and what it’s for. No matter what I’ve put, I will always be leaving something out. The key, though, is what I mentioned before: resonance. The themes match up neatly with what already exists inside my head.

Star Trek: Generations

This was the first of the films to feature The Next Generation crew of Picard, Riker, Data, and the others. I enjoyed it quite a lot, and still do. It’s not my favorite, it’s not my second-favorite, but I could watch it repeatedly without getting sick of it.

Partially, that’s because the same themes are present again as they were in the last film. Picard is made aware of his own mortality by the death of his loved ones. Doctor Soran is trying so hard to cheat death and get back into the Nexus. Captain Kirk, old and obsolete, on the bridge of an Enterprise that is not his own, with a captain’s chair that he cannot have…facing his own death and old age. I liked the themes.

The actual storyline, and the inclusion of the Duras Sisters were all fun, but they went no deeper than that. There were memorable moments, though. Such as the quiet moment before Kirk leaps after the remote (and then goes to his death). Or the whole, sad, intense sequence in which the Enterprise-D crashes into the planet. That sequence was clever, well-done, and conveyed the sense of a massive portion of starship slamming through a planet.

Ultimately, and most importantly, this film just served as a gateway into further The Next Generation films. It worked just fine, in that sense, and was a perfectly enjoyable film.

Star Trek: First Contact

A lot of people seem to consider First Contact to be the high point of the TNG films, and it’s with pretty good reason: it’s a terrific film. The Borg have sent a cube to assimilate Earth and Picard must not only face the Borg, but his own dark memories and desire for revenge. And at the same time, they have to help Zefram Cochrane launch his warp ship and make first contact.

It’s a striking film to watch, from that early moment of Picard flashing back to when he was on the Borg ship (including the little scene in which a drill bit approaches and dents an eyeball, which I cannot watch)…to that beautiful scene with gorgeous music in which the Enterprise-E glides across the screen for the first time. I adored the Enterprise-E, and I still do.

The interesting thing about this film is that the plot doesn’t actually hang together all that well, if you’re watching with a critical eye. There are dumb moments. The biggest one being: if the Borg are going to ignore you until you are a threat, and you are trying to get into Engineering to stop them by puncturing the coolant tanks….instead of taking a massive armed team in, why not send one brave person with a bomb, who throws it into the room and blows the tanks? Well, of course, the answer is: because then you have a four minute film.

But who cares? It’s wonderful stuff. Zefram Cochrane is played by James Cromwell to very good effect. Everyone on the TNG cast gets wonderful moments (from Commander Worf getting sick to his stomach, to Riker putting up with a drunk Troi, to a really wonderful moment with Reginald Barclay). The Borg Queen is, for the most part, interesting and a good bad guy.

The silliest thing for me, in the film, is the “sex scene.” That is, the moment in which the Queen asks if Data is familiar with sexuality. It’s a tiny scene, but I remember it being advertised a lot, this racy new film! I think what bugged me was, the word ‘sexuality’ turned up a lot in the late-90’s. In *NSYNC songs and Christina Aguilera stuff. It was always the world “sexuality.” And it always felt dorky. Not much of a complaint, I realize, but there it is.

My favorite moment, hands-down, is when the alien ship lands on Earth, at the end of the film. And the beings step out. And come over to Zefram Cochrane. And they push back their hoods…and of course, it’s the Vulcans. It was just so right, and it made me happy. And it didn’t hurt that the whole film had an amazing soundtrack which really played to good effect in this scene.

It’s not my favorite Star Trek film, simply because there’s no emotional resonance for me. That’s probably just me. It’s still an absolutely fantastic Trek film, though. I love watching it.

Star Trek: Insurrection

Someone once described this one, to me, as “the Star Trek V of the TNG films,” and I could see their point. It is the weakest of the Next Generation films, at least in my opinion. That doesn’t make it unenjoyable, though.

Mostly, sitting down to write about it, I realized that I don’t remember much in particular about the film. Or rather, I don’t remember a lot that I really loved. I enjoyed watching it, and I’ve re-watched it countless times…but can’t remember much. I cringe at some moments, like Data learning to “play” with the boy. Or Commander Riker steering the Enterprise with…a joystick (What?). Once again, though, I come away from this film feeling like it was a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, but on a bigger budget. Not bad, but not memorable.

Star Trek: Nemesis

I read that this was the lowest-grossing Star Trek film. That’s too bad, if you ask me. This is definitely my second-favorite of any of them, right behind The Undiscovered Country, and I am aware that it is because the same themes are present here, again.

Once again, we are exploring age (Picard’s) and endings, and changes. This concludes things, is the feeling that exists throughout the movie, and that strikes a chord with me. Everything from Riker and Troi getting married and getting ready to head off to the USS Titan…to the loss of Data, at the end. To the moments between Picard and Shinzon, the echo and the voice. The action sequences are enjoyable enough, but it’s the plot ticking away that really interests me.

I think that this film had the best character moments. Everything from Troi’s mental invasion at the hands of the Reman Viceroy, and the way she gets back at him later…to the fight scene between that same Viceroy and Riker. There’s a brief, memorable scene where Riker is hanging, one-handed, over a very long fall…and the whole scene just slows and holds its breath. And I do too. It’s an effective scene. Jean-Luc Picard is most interesting in this film, in that you don’t have the strong, intense, loud character moments of First Contact (which were very good), you get quiet moments instead. Patrick Stewart is an amazing actor, and he has the range for it. Here, it is just as effective, those moments when Picard looks truly shaken, or worn out, or saddened, as those moments we saw where he was vengeful and furious in First Contact.

The death of Data…well, it wasn’t as sad as the death of Spock, of course, what could be? But it was touching. And good. And at the end, we get a hint that maybe B4 remembers something, and that’s a fine moment to end on.

This was the last of the Trek films, until this new one appears on the scene. And if you want my opinion (and you must, if you’ve read through this much of the article), this was a very good note to stop on. I’ve watched this one just recently and still enjoyed it a great deal.

And that’s it, we’re all caught up to the present now. I’d like to thank you for sticking it out through a very long article. It’s a lot of movies, even at a run. Join us tomorrow, when I talk about the new Star Trek film, my thoughts on trailers and gossip, and more importantly, what I think it needs to accomplish for the betterment of Star Trek.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

6 Comments on Revisiting Star Trek [Part 6 of 7]: The Films

  1. Hah, I pretty much agreed with you on most of them until Nemesis. This is actually my least favorite film, even behind Star Trek V.

  2. Anonymous // May 6, 2009 at 6:43 am //

    And yet again Peter you managed to capture in words the very sentiment I cherish.

    This time I was not surprised to find that the Undiscovered Country got the high praise. It is for me too the finest of the films.

    The first ST film I actually saw in the theatre was The Voyage Home and it was no small feat mind you since Star Trek was as illusive in my native Poland back then as tropical fruit. I don’t believe that I had even known then that it was part of some franchise. The awakening came with TNG on the telly but that’s another story. Still I have very fond memories of that Blue Whale escapade and then in context of all the other films a deep appreciation of the light-hearted comic moments (Vulcan nerve pinch would be so useful on the public transport sometimes…).

    Nevertheless it is the Undiscovered Country which I return to most often. What moved me about it the very first time was the sophistication, realism (and I use the term full aware that we are discussing SF) and the weight of the plot. This is a political thriller a la carte and a detective story but as with the best of them not all the mysteries get resolved, some are left for the viewer to play with.

    Conspiracy, assassination, corruption and paranoia, it has it all. The ultimate adversary is not a madman or a tyrant wielding a powerful gimmick nor is it an unknown alien power, but prejudice, mistrust, xenophobia and pride. The drama was there from the onset using the classic Hitchcock’ian opening with a bang (literally) and what a bang it was! The great thing was that it got better and more tense afterwards.

    Characters, are brilliantly nailed. Bones frantic fight for the chancellor’s life is heart wrenching (I find Kelly at his best in this one). Checkov with his “old Russian fable of Cinderella” line, Kirk, Uhura (and the attempt to broadcast Klingon), Scotty, Spock even the female Vulcan crew member conspirator. All work perfectly.

    I also love the portrayal of Klingons in this film. At that time Worf was just a secondary character in the series for me not developed enough to give the race credit they were due, but Gorkon and Chang, their contrasting dispositions despite undoubtedly Klingon attributes but neither of them a merely brute warrior stereotype. Incredible on-screen charisma both of the actors and their characters.

    And of course there is Rura Penthe.

    Somehow this film is iconic to me. It is the last of the purely classic Star Trek era movies and it is a great culmination. Maybe it’s just me but it looked crispier and more realistic. The uniforms seemed real not just costumes and camerawork just felt right. I think it aged very well and, to me at least, it is as enjoyable as it had been the first time.

    I always wanted all the following films to capture the same atmosphere. Some of them did to a degree some missed. I do find the same now and again in the episodes but the whole film would have been most appreciated.

  3. Voidman // May 6, 2009 at 7:08 am //

    Apart from not signing the above somewhat lenghty ST:VI praise (my appologies) I forgot to add that I really need to give the Nemesis a proper go. I can’t remeber the film I saw it fairly recently but it evaporated from my memory somehow. Maybe that’s the hint of sorts. I remeber not liking the design decisions they made especially the whole Remulan motif. It could have been executed just as well without them. Also the super-bird-of-prey… c’mon there is no need for such silliness. I don’t believe that there is room in Star Trek universe for any Death Stars or super star destroyers period. I remember that I feld disappointed with the film though, which was not unexpected since I’ve been there before with all the TNG-era feature films. Would you say that they did not work very well in this format?

  4. Star Trek V was ‘not a bad movie’?  ‘Nemesis’ was his ‘second favorite’ movie?  This is a joke, right?   ALL of the Next-gen movies were awful, across the board.   ALL OF THEM.   Yes, even the Borg one.  

    ‘Nemesis’ was the worst major budget science fiction movie since ‘The Black Hole’ and has the dismal box-office to prove it.   

    But yes, ‘Undiscovered Country’ is much under-appreciated and was a fine send off for the old cast. 

    It just astonishes me that anyone at Paramount could actually watch ‘Generations’ or ‘Insurrection’ and CONTINUE ALLOWING RICK BERMAN TO MAKE MOVIES.   What do you have to do to fail in Hollywood?  I guess you have to make ‘Nemesis’, a movie that rips off the ending of ‘Wrath of Khan’ beat for beat and allows Brent Spiner to have a cool death scene (actors LOVE death scenes) but then allows him to be in the next movie thru the slimy plot intention of ‘B4’ the ‘I’m not Data, Data’.  What an insult to the fans.    

    Thank God for J.J.  He has rescued our beloved franchise from the grave.    

  5. Bill Spangler // May 6, 2009 at 11:51 am //


    If you’re interested, Star Trek Countdown a comic published by IDW, resolves the B4 plotline and fills in some of the other gaps left by “Nemesis.” It’s a four issue limited series, and was recently collected into paperback. I really liked it.

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