Liftoff – Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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The Star Trek franchise is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and those who remember tuning into NBC on a cool September night in 1966 to see a hammy William Shatner and a Satanic-looking Leonard Nimoy battle a shapeshifting salt vampire through cardboard starship corridors couldn’t possibly have fathomed that we’d still be talking about this thing five decades later.  As late as the Nemesis debacle and the failure of Enterprise, when Star Trek seemed to have attained its final frontier and been dismissed by the masses as terminally uncool, the property of sad neckbearded nerds in plastic pointed ears, we worried that we’d never have anything new from that universe again to keep us going – other than perpetual commercial-crammed reruns keeping us up late on lonely weekends, or old DVD’s dissected for some hitherto unknown piece of production trivia to make the whole thing seem fresh again.  Trek was a box office loser, a past glory fated to fade away in a whimper rather than burn out.

And yet… here we are in 2016.  Still boldly going.

Over the course of 37 years and now 13 films, Star Trek, like its audience, has evolved and adapted to changing eras, trends, and expectations.  As leaps forward in visual effects technology have obliterated the limits of what moviemakers can realize with their imaginations, so too have the goalposts been shifting in terms of what the people sitting in the theater will crave.  What stirred us as kids can jade us as adults; what once had us clinging to the edge of our seats will eventually yield only yawns.  Our demands are nigh near impossible to accommodate:  repeat the past note-for-note, we caution, and be labeled unoriginal; wander too far from the formula and be damned as a demographic-chasing heretic.  Make it the same, but different, and better.  Rising to the challenge, a football stadium’s worth of people have wandered through the Star Trek cinematic universe since 1979 attempting to put their stamp on it, appeal to the times and, perhaps in defiance of those first two objectives, stay forever true to the vision articulated by the late Gene Roddenberry of that hopeful, diverse future where the conflicts that make headlines today have been relegated to the realm of head-scratching ancient history.  The success rate seems to hover at about 50/50; we’ve spoken about the odd-numbered Star Trek movie curse, we’ve seen triumphs when it hit all the right notes and embarrassments where it flailed vainly to speak to people who’d stopped listening to what it had to say.  We’ve seen it make the most of limited resources and almost strangled by the ego battles associated with movie studio politics.

So on to this demanding stage steps Star Trek Beyond.

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It’s strange to think that after only the second voyage of this rejuvenated and financially potent Enterprise crew that there might arise the need for a behind-the-scenes shakeup, but with J.J. Abrams lured from our galaxy to the pressing needs of another significantly more distant, Paramount was suddenly left without a captain for its flagship, even though Abrams would remain attached as producer (albeit with his workload likely reduced to mere infrequent consultation).  Instead, Roberto Orci, who had co-written the two previous movies with Alex Kurtzman, took the lead on developing the script with writers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay and lobbied the studio suits for the opportunity to helm his first feature.  Wary of entrusting this important tentpole to a novice director, Paramount nonetheless extended Orci an offer to direct, contingent on their approval of the screenplay.  The story ideas floated at the time however suggested a franchise unsure of where to head next:  one intimated that the new movie would pick up where Star Trek Into Darkness had left off, with Starfleet going to war against the Klingons and Benedict Cumberbatch returning as Khan, and another said that there would be no villain at all and that the movie would try to recapture the original series’ spirit of exploration.

Whatever was in Orci’s pages, it wasn’t enough to seal the deal, nor was his cause aided by his online behavior:  always an enthusiastic participant in social media and on Star Trek message boards, Orci had become bitter and foul-mouthed in his responses to fan criticism of Into Darkness (one exchange had him boasting “this is why I get to write the movies, and you don’t”), and he eventually deleted his Twitter account.  Orci withdrew from the director’s chair in December of 2014 (remaining credited as producer, but effectively with no further involvement) and Justin Lin, veteran of the Fast & Furious series and TV’s True Detective, assumed his place a few weeks later, after a brief campaign by Jonathan Frakes to get the job went unanswered.  The Orci/Payne/McKay script was binned and Lin was told he could come up with his own idea from scratch.  For writing duties he enlisted the aid of Doug Jung, who had worked on the TV series Dark Blue and Big Love, and none other than Simon Pegg – continuing into this new generation the tradition of Star Trek‘s actors contributing behind the camera as well as in front of it.

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In interviews accompanying the announcement of his involvement as writer, Pegg explained that the studio had found the Orci script bogged down in the obsessive minutiae of the Star Trek canon – “too Star Trek-y,” as he put it, with its potential appeal limited only to diehard fans.  His and Jung’s new approach would be to first structure the movie like a heist film or western, and then populate it with the Star Trek characters, in the hopes of reaching the sort of audiences that would happily flock to see The Avengers three times without wanting to or having to understand the decades of often perplexing history that preceded it.  Absent would be questions of politics spread across the light-years; this would be a good old-fashioned action-adventure story that didn’t ask you to remember how to retrofit a warp core, or to keep track of the motivations of dozens of different characters with funny names full of apostrophes.

With the main seven heroes under contract, only three major guest aliens were required:  acclaimed British actor Idris Elba would be slathered unrecognizably in prosthetics as unstoppable villain Krall; rising star Sofia Boutella, who had played a baddie with blades for legs in Kingsman: The Secret Service would be painted in zebra stripes as the helpful, beats-and-shouts-loving Jaylah (taking her character’s name from Jennifer Lawrence’s celebrity moniker J. Law) and Lydia Wilson, from the magic realist rom-com About Time (featuring Pegg’s frequent co-star Bill Nighy) would take the role of Kalara, a mysterious captain whose distress signal sets the plot into motion.  Persian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo was also added to the cast late into production as a Starfleet commodore.  To save money, the majority of filming took place outside the U.S., a first for a Star Trek production, with soundstages in Vancouver, B.C. used as the primary location and additional scenes filmed on the futuristic streetscapes of Dubai.

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The hiring of Justin Lin led more than a few fans to speculate yet again as to whether Star Trek was being lobotomized for the ever-crucial and expanding teenage demographic, and the first teaser trailer for Star Trek Beyond did not do much to dispel the notion, featuring Chris Pine’s Kirk leaping across bridges and chasms on a motorcycle as the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” blared.  Simon Pegg sought immediately to calm the Trekkies’ collective frayed nerves, opining that he was not fond either of what had been cobbled together by marketing to highlight the action-intensive parts, and assuring us that the movie as a whole was more substantial than that.  In fact, Pegg assumed the role of Beyond‘s primary defender when the movie waded into a most unexpected – if ultimately minor – controversy around the character of Mr. Sulu in the months before its release.

For a franchise that had prided itself on its long-standing embrace of diversity, Star Trek had steadfastly avoided the question of gender and sexuality, apart from one or two clumsy attempts in the early 90’s.  Gene Roddenberry had frequently told convention audiences that he wanted to introduce gay characters, but those plans never came to fruition – a Next Generation AIDS allegory script that was to have featured a male/male pairing was scuttled before it could be shot, and the agender race in the episode “The Outcast” was cast entirely with female actors for fear that the love story between one of them and Riker would wig folks out.  Deep Space Nine featured a f/f kiss, but it was wrapped in the trope of “forbidden passions” between a character who identified as straight in her other 100 appearances, and a one-shot guest star.  Voyager, Enterprise and the twelve preceding films had steered entirely clear.  For fifty years, Star Trek had never dared to breach the final frontier of establishing one of its heroes as gay, but it was 2016 now.  Surely we had outgrown the last of our old prejudices?

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In Star Trek Beyond, Pegg and Jung wanted to make a statement without making a statement; that is, portray the sexuality of an important main character (not a quickly forgotten redshirt) with the kind of casual indifference that would be shown if it were entirely heteronormative, as would be expected in the more evolved world of the 23rd Century – when interaction with multiple alien species would lead humans to embrace a much more pansexual and fluid gender view of themselves.  In tribute to George Takei, who had become an icon and activist for the worldwide LGBT community since coming out eleven years earlier, the writers chose Sulu.  Sulu was given a husband, Ben (played by Jung himself at John Cho’s suggestion) and a young daughter, Demora (as established by Star Trek Generations).  Perhaps it was hoped that Takei would be moved by the portrayal, and indeed he was, but in the opposite direction.  Takei took to the airwaves to claim that Roddenberry had never intended Sulu to be gay, that he was conceived as a straight man and should have remained such.  Pegg wrote a rebuttal on his blog explaining their decision and providing an in-universe rationale as to how the Prime Sulu (eg. Takei’s version) could be heterosexual, preserving Roddenberry’s original intent, while Cho’s version wasn’t.  But the debate would be laid aside when tragedy struck just  before release:  Anton Yelchin died suddenly at the age of 27 when his own vehicle ran over him in the driveway of his home.  The question of Sulu’s sexuality became immediately less pressing as the cast and crew grieved for their friend under the spotlights of red carpet movie premieres.

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(Author’s note:  this would normally be where I would go into a detailed summary of the plot; given that Star Trek Beyond is still in theaters as I write this, I will demur in order to avoid specific spoilers, but before you tread further, please note that they may come up in the course of the actual review.  Consider yourself duly warned.)

Beginning in 2009, the revitalized Star Trek had essentially owned the big screen science fiction market, cementing itself as the yardstick by which pretenders to the genre would be measured.  This worked fine for a while as even the underwhelming Into Darkness manage to achieve massive box office success.  But in December of 2015, the world was introduced to Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8.  Star Trek immediately became something of an afterthought, with reactions to its rollout akin to are they still making those?”  Fairly or not, Star Trek Beyond would fall under the shadow of Star Wars, and to a certain extent the surprise Marvel sci-fi smash Guardians of the Galaxy, which had come out two summers before (and featured Saldana as one of its leads).  Would it stake new ground or let itself be influenced by its competitors?  The answer is the latter, with the caveat that such influence doesn’t in this instance make for a lesser experience – so long as you go in with the right attitude.

Being a fan of the modern Star Trek cinematic universe is accepting that the days of plots hinging on characters engaging in heated moral debates over a briefing room table are long gone.  The pulse of these new movies beats much quicker, and you can either choose to keep up or let them race ahead without you and seek solace in your copy of The Wrath of Khan instead.  Star Trek Beyond is a trek for the age of Marvel and The Force Awakens, with a similar lightweight, straightforward plot about a group of rag-tag heroes who have to come together to stop a ruthless bad guy from using a superweapon to destroy their world – nothing more complicated than that.  Of course, our heroes here aren’t a band of misfits, they’re a professional crew who have already been through two adventures together aboard a state-of-the-art starship, so Pegg and Jung’s script essentially pushes the reset button by destroying the beloved Enterprise and stranding the crew in separate pairings on an alien world before the movie has reached the thirty-minute mark.

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Ironically those first thirty minutes are where Beyond reserves the majority of its sheer spectacle; a quality that the first four decades of Trek films lacked.  Starbase Yorktown, where the Enterprise docks for resupply after being out in space for three years following the end of the previous film, is a jaw-dropping creation that Gene Roddenberry and his 1960’s designers could only have dreamed about (assisted by a few era-appropriate doses of acid).  Described on-screen as an elaborate snowglobe in space, it’s a visual feast of skyscrapers and hundred-mile-long glass tunnels large enough to accommodate starships stretching out in every gravity-defying dimension, with infinite minute details that it would take at least a dozen viewings to absorb and sort out, and the only shame is that we don’t spend nearly enough time there before the plot kicks in and we set out into space again.  Star Trek has too often underwhelmed in its visuals, and it is as if Justin Lin and his effects team are trying to make up for every missed opportunity of the past by cramming them all into one.

The planet on which the majority of the film’s action takes place, Altamid (taking its name from an anagram of Matilda, daughter of Simon Pegg) is likewise an effective exercise in the subtlety of worldbuilding:  if Pandora from Avatar is filmed sci-fi’s gold standard and the endless boring trips to L.A.’s Bronson Canyon that characterized most of Star Trek‘s alien landscapes to this point are the definition of half-assing it, then Altamid scores a respectable silver.  It is never weird enough that we spend all our time gaping at the scenery to the detriment of losing our focus on the characters, but there are lovely little added digital touches (in the form of unusual plants and tiny creatures scrabbling over the local rocks) to give us the sense of elsewhere and that this isn’t just a municipal forest tract five miles from the studio.  It speaks to a most welcome level of care about the details, about recognizing that we as an audience want to be immersed in a place that we’ve never seen before.  We want to explore strange new worlds just like the characters do, and we’re savvy enough to recognize an indoor set when we see one.

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Pretty scenery isn’t worth a bucket of tribbles if you don’t populate it with interesting characters, however, and Star Trek Beyond succeeds not only in giving each of the ensemble something substantial to do (one cannot help but grin at Pegg’s significantly larger role this time around given he was the one co-writing it) and in introducing a compelling new member of the family (Boutella’s spry and upbeat Jaylah) but in finally making Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk seem for the first time like a real captain, seasoned and tempered by his time in the chair instead of the impulsive, somewhat out-of-his-depth maverick he was in the first two films.  His uniform collar is higher, and he stands straighter.  Certainly part of this evolution belongs to the actor:  no longer the unknown under the pressure of his big break, Chris Pine has become a major movie star with plenty of significant roles under his belt, and he moves and speaks with an authority that he simply didn’t have before (and was most glaringly absent whenever he had to share the screen with Benedict Cumberbatch).  When he gives an order, it’s with conviction and certitude, and you can’t imagine the crew still thinking of him as that smarmy punk who fell ass-backward into a captaincy.  But as Beyond begins, this new commanding Captain Kirk is restless, wondering about a greater meaning to his life, and worrying that he is losing himself to the unknown that frames his every day of existence.  It takes a kick in his complacency – the destruction of the comfortable confines of his ship and an encounter with a man who has lost himself to the unknown to lead Kirk to rediscover his purpose.

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In my rather snarky review of Star Trek Nemesis I talked about the misguided choice to make that movie largely about its (lame) villain.  Star Trek Beyond, by contrast, is a much better example in how to craft your bad guy from a personification of your hero’s flaws.  The remorseless Krall comes on initially like a force of nature with his endless swarm of alien ships, wrecking the mighty Enterprise without much of a fight and stranding its crew on his world.  We discover as the movie goes on that he is not as alien as we first thought, and that he was a human Starfleet captain named Balthazar Edison, a veteran soldier whose ship crashed on Altamid a hundred years ago with only three survivors.  With no help forthcoming due to their remoteness and the inability of communications signals to escape the local nebula in which Altamid is located, Edison employed alien technology to prolong his life by draining others, which mutated him beyond recognition.  He has literally lost his humanity, and as an old soldier put out to pasture with no one left to fight, he believes that the peace and unity among worlds promoted by the Federation will only make humanity weak (one suspects he and the war-hungry Admiral Alexander Marcus from Into Darkness would be kindred spirits).  To that end he seeks to assemble an ancient life-consuming biogenic weapon (the “Abronath,” which sounds suspiciously like a small village in Scotland – likely writer Pegg being cheeky again) and unleash it on the diverse population of millions inhabiting the Yorktown in the hopes of renewing a galaxy-wide conflict.

This is Kirk’s listlessness and loss of purpose amplified with a healthy dose of rage, and in Edison/Krall, Kirk can recognize what he might become given similar circumstances and thus stake his own moral compass determinedly to the opposite direction.  Although there is an element of revenge to Krall’s thinking, it’s not his sole motivation and it’s certainly refreshing given that we’ve had four villains in a row driven primarily by vengeance.  There is a complexity to Krall that reflects more mature screenwriting, and the pity is that the Edison reveal takes place so late in the third act that we don’t really get the chance to chew over the duality of the basic conflict between himself and Kirk, the contrast between the two once-valiant starship captains.  Also, the heavy makeup the role requires pretty much smothers the great Idris Elba, and he has a hard time emoting through the latex beyond the requisite evil growls and snarls.  I wasn’t wild either about the “life force draining” aspect of his character, given that it (and the design of the corpses left in its wake) reminded me a little too much of that space vampire zombie movie from the 80’s…

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Amidst imaginative visions of alien worlds and a villain determined to wipe it all out using an ancient gizmo that fits into the palm of one’s hand, Beyond manages to fit in a nice arc for Spock and McCoy too, giving their legendary combative friendship attention that has been absent with the first two films’ decision to focus primarily on the Kirk/Spock relationship.  Spock in particular is much more like his old familiar self this time, less formative and more assured, with noticeable restraint shown in both the writing and the performance, and – thankfully – no rage eruptions in sight.  There is a note of tragedy instead, with Spock grieving over the passing of Spock Prime, and doing so with dignity (only a single tear).  It’s tough to gauge in fact where the performance ends and the genuine emotion begins.  There are moments where the curtain drops and you are seeing Zachary Quinto grieving for Leonard Nimoy.  In those scenes Karl Urban as McCoy becomes almost fatherly in his responses, as the character who is supposed to represent stoicism becomes the source of the movie’s deepest expression of heart.

Now, to the stuff that’s not so great.  As a general rule, I haven’t been fond of the sillier scenes that have peppered the most recent Star Trek movies, and regrettably Beyond does cough up a few, including the climactic unleashing of the Beastie Boys as the ultimate weapon against Krall’s swarm ships, which has stretched my tolerance for their ongoing and increasingly grating presence in this universe to its breaking point (though to be fair, I did love McCoy’s subsequent joke about “classical music”).  You just have to roll your eyes a bit and move on.  One thing that is difficult to move on from, however, is the choice by the filmmakers to yet again destroy the Enterprise.  The first time this happened, in Star Trek III, it was a true shock and an important beat in that film’s theme of sacrifice, and the reveal of the Enterprise-A at the end of Star Trek IV was a joyous surprise, a merited reward and a promise of greater things to come.  When the Enterprise-D bit it in Generations, it was as part of a meaningless “wow sequence” designed to allow the series to continue with more modern sets and a sleeker, more cinematic ship (and to make matters worse, the characters didn’t seem that bothered by losing the home in which they’d spent the last seven years).  Watching the Enterprise go down for the third time, early in the movie when we’ve barely gotten to know her and her destruction has been spoiled by the trailer, we don’t feel much of anything at all, apart from “there they go again.”  Since we know the crew will get another ship in the end (as has happened twice before), the impact of this plot twist is muted, and it’s a tired gimmick that I hope we have seen the last of.  However, it crystallizes my key issue with the movie, even as I land on the thumbs up side of the equation.

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Fundamentally, Star Trek Beyond is not a journey forward, it is a stop on the side of the road to fix a tire.  Everything about its story, from the conception of its villain to the construction of its plot, is about getting the characters back to exactly the same place they were in the beginning.  This is not necessarily a bad idea; some of the greatest movies ever made are about finding your way home.  But Beyond feels like a placeholder, or at best, a transition towards an even greater adventure (depending on the final grosses of course, which sadly have not been up to par with the previous two films).  Like the Marvel movies, which manage to be simultaneously entertaining and forgettable, it doesn’t leave you with a lot to think about, except perhaps missed opportunities, and the expectation of something better – deeper, more provocative – the next time out.  The movie does have a lot of good in it, especially in what seems like the most diverse cast of both leads and extras (and aliens) in any movie in recent memory, but it never manages to be greater than the sum of those good parts, perhaps because there is no greater aspiration inherent in its creation other than being a passable piece of fun summer entertainment.  Which it most definitely is, with more heart in it than any other shoot-em-up you’ll see this season.  Justin Lin’s direction, the source of controversy among fans the instant he was announced, isn’t as obnoxious as the trailers would lead you to believe, and while the pace is certainly in keeping with the action blockbusters that have made his reputation, he is astute enough to know to when to slow things down and give the characters (and the audience) a chance to breathe.  And we do love these characters and this universe so much that we will doggedly follow their trek wherever it leads, or whomever is leading it.

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As we’ve looked back at the peaks and valleys of Star Trek‘s cinematic history in the spread of these posts over the last couple of months, we’ve seen that what remains compelling even in its weakest outings is the vision at its core, the one that was first articulated by the flawed Gene Roddenberry, perhaps on some level out of the desire to remedy his own human failings, and shaped by the creativity of the people who came together around him.  It is of a future where human ingenuity has lifted us out of our pettiest problems, where human ambition pursues not the meaningless acquisition of wealth but the betterment of the individual and the all, where fear of the other has been replaced by the unqualified celebration of our differences.  The bells and whistles of special effects and chases across the stars are merely glittering ornaments on a sturdy and ever-thriving tree; that of a welcoming, wondrous galaxy that we want so desperately to touch, especially as our own world repeatedly lifts up leaders who seemed determined to prevent us from ever reaching it.  After fifty years, there remains an unquenchable spark in the vision that is Star Trek.  The hope, in the shadow of this most recent installment, is that next time, it truly does dare to go beyond.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

All 13 Star Trek Movies, Ranked (again, arbitrarily):

  1. Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  3. Star Trek: First Contact
  4. Star Trek
  5. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
  6. Star Trek Beyond
  7. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  8. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  9. Star Trek Into Darkness
  10. Star Trek: Insurrection
  11. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
  12. Star Trek Generations
  13. Star Trek Nemesis

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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If there is to be an epitaph for the last two decades of filmed entertainment, it will be these two words:  dark and edgy.  I’m not sure you can pinpoint the precise date at which this era began:  perhaps it coincides with the re-emergence of disaster movies in the mid-1990’s, followed by the tremendous downturn in the overall mood of the world since 9/11.  Somewhere in there it became un-hip to look up, and nowadays, you need only tune your receiver to any given TV station to see programs filled with people doing horrible things to other people, whether it be on reality or on scripted television, and receiving accolades for it.  The esteemed professional critics of our time are only too happy to initiate rounds of trained-seal clapping at the most violent and unpleasant pieces of fiction, and to wrench their noses disdainfully skyward at anything that suggests optimism and hope.  I honestly don’t know whether this is our actual culture as a whole being reflected by our entertainment, or merely the small and insular cabal that produces that entertainment inflicting their inner turmoil on the rest of us.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both; how else do you explain Donald Trump?  But sensing the pervasiveness of the “dark and edgy” trend, I did roll my eyes a bit when the title of the twelfth movie in our ongoing series here was announced as Star Trek Into Darkness – a little on the nose, n’est-ce pas?  Besides, Star Trek is supposed to be about looking to the future with anticipation that things are only going to get better.  “Into Darkness” seems like the wrong course to plot.

With a quarter of a billion dollars in Paramount’s bank account as the lights went down on the final screening of Star Trek in 2009, questions about the content of an inevitable sequel to this suddenly-hot-again commodity began to simmer, but, strangely, they were singularly and somewhat simply focused:  “Are you gonna do Khan?  Huh?  Are you gonna do Khan?”  As much as we bemoan Hollywood’s tendency to repeat itself, those outside the bubble seem just as programmed to expect and even desire the recycling of their favorite hits.  The Star Trek universe had been rebooted specifically to open up storytelling possibilities, not to churn out bigger-budgeted rehashes of what had gone before, and yet, here was the public almost daring J.J. Abrams and company to do just that.  Ever the diplomats, and aware that every syllable of their responses would be parsed by fans eager to glean whatever hints they could, writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof would make coy comments musing about how in this new continuity, Khan was out there in space in his sleeper ship, and it would be foolish to “not consider” using him.  Privately, the writing team debated for over a year whether or not they wanted to shoehorn Khan into the screenplay they were crafting that was designed to confront Kirk and his crew with a threat to the fabric of Starfleet and the Federation itself.  Responding somewhat to criticism that Kirk had been advanced too quickly to his captaincy in the previous movie, this story would see Kirk’s inexperience and impetuousness coming back to bite him.

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But to Khan or not to Khan?  The former would immediately invite comparisons to the gold standard of Star Trek films; the latter, observed Lindelof, would be like Batman not using the Joker.  So Khan it would be, but Abrams invoked his “mystery box” policy and clamped down on any mentions of the Enterprise crew’s most notorious foe, leading to what would turn out to be one of the most ineffective disinformation campaigns in the history of motion picture marketing.  When Benicio del Toro was said to be in talks with the studio, only the least astute failed to note the similarity to Ricardo Montalban; when del Toro bowed out, additional Latino actors were considered, and everyone asked, “is it Khan?”   Finally the very much not-a-Latino, but very much in vogue Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as this enigmatic bad guy, which allowed the Bad Robot team at least a modicum of deniability.  The other actors weighed in on the is-he-or-isn’t-he debate as filming got underway:  Simon Pegg called the rumored presence of Khan ridiculous, and Karl Urban blurted in an interview that Cumberbatch would be playing Gary Mitchell (Kirk’s best friend-turned-remorseless-godlet in Star Trek‘s 1966 pilot episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”)  A movie magazine ran a still from production in which Cumberbatch’s character was labeled as “John Harrison” – a bland, meaningless name intended to quiet rumors and creating quite the opposite effect.  When Alice Eve was cast as “Carol Wallace” and Peter Weller as “Alexander Marcus,” it became fairly clear to all that some manner of retelling of The Wrath of Khan was afoot – even if the production crew remained adamant that Harrison was his own, unique man.  They would stick to this attempted subterfuge until the middle of the movie’s second act…

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On the primitive planet Nibiru, Kirk and McCoy are running from some angry aliens while Spock is lowered from a shuttle into a massive supervolcano on the verge of tearing the planet in half, and the Enterprise hides on the bottom of the nearby ocean.  When Spock’s tether breaks and the shuttle can’t retrieve him, Kirk exposes the ship to the natives in order to beam Spock safely back, just before a “cold fusion” device detonates and renders the volcano forever inert.  Nibiru is saved, but the natives begin worshipping the image of the Enterprise.  Spock files a report criticizing Kirk’s decision – even if it was to save his life – and Starfleet strips Kirk of his command and reassigns him to the Academy.  Admiral Pike tells Kirk that he does not “respect the chair,” and that such reckless behavior might one day lead to his entire crew being killed.  Meanwhile, in London, a Starfleet officer with a dying daughter is approached by a deep-voiced stranger who promises a cure, which he supplies by way of a sample of his blood.  The price is agreeing to carry out a suicidal terrorist attack – the bombing of London’s Kelvin Memorial Archive.  A dejected Kirk is approached by Pike, who has spoken in his defense and gotten him reassigned to the Enterprise as first officer, under Pike himself.  But the bombing in London necessitates an emergency meeting at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, led by Admiral Alexander Marcus (Weller).  Spock is also present, reassigned to the U.S.S. Bradbury under Captain Abbott.  Marcus advises that the attack was carried out by one of their own:  special agent John Harrison (Cumberbatch).  He orders a massive manhunt, just as Kirk notices that Harrison is carrying something in the security footage of the bombing.  Kirk recognizes that Harrison must have known that such an attack would precipitate a meeting like the one they are having now.  Abruptly a Starfleet jumpship piloted by Harrison rises outside the window and strafes the meeting room with phaser fire, killing most of the senior personnel including Abbott and Pike.  Kirk is able to disable the jumpship, but Harrison disappears in a transporter beam and materializes on a distant planet.

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In the wreck of the jumpship, a portable transwarp beaming device is found, which Harrison used to escape to Kronos, the homeworld of the Klingon Empire – where Starfleet cannot follow.  Admiral Marcus admits that the Kelvin Archive was cover for Starfleet’s intelligence unit, Section 31, which was researching advanced weaponry and tactics for an anticipated war with the Klingons.  He gives Kirk the Enterprise, with Spock as his first officer, and orders him to hunt down and eliminate Harrison.  He also equips the Enterprise with 72 special long-range torpedoes and assigns science officer Carol Wallace (Eve) to the crew.  It’s an uneasy mission:  Spock is uncomfortable with the idea of executing Harrison without a trial, while Scotty, who is unable to determine the armaments of the long-range torpedoes, resigns his post rather than sign off on permitting them aboard the ship, and cautions Kirk against ever using them.  Kirk makes Chekov acting chief engineer and orders a course set for Kronos.  Swayed by the arguments of his friends however, he advises the entire crew that their primary mission will be to capture Harrison, not kill him.  Spock confronts Carol, telling her that he knows her real name is Carol Marcus, daughter of the Admiral, and questioning the purpose of her presence on the ship.  Suddenly the Enterprise drops sharply out of warp; there is an unexplained coolant leak in the engine.  Chekov gets to work on fixing it while Kirk, Spock, Uhura and a few security guys change into civvies and use a confiscated, non-Starfleet ship to finish the trip to Kronos, to ensure that the Federation cannot be held responsible for whatever happens next.  Sulu, meanwhile, issues a message to Harrison, ordering him to surrender or be eliminated by the advanced torpedoes.  Approaching Kronos, Kirk’s ship is ambushed by several Klingon vessels, and on the surface, Uhura, who speaks Klingon, tries to negotiate with their leader, who is uninterested in the internal disputes of humans and threatens to kill them.  They are rescued by an unlikely savior – Harrison, who takes down most of the Klingon patrol with superior strength and fighting skills, before demanding to know just how many advanced torpedoes Kirk has.  When he is told the number, he surrenders and is confined in the Enterprise‘s brig.

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McCoy takes a blood sample from Harrison, who demands to speak with Kirk alone.  He is aware of the Enterprise‘s engine trouble and gives Kirk a set of coordinates not far from Earth to investigate.  He also suggests that Kirk open one of the torpedoes.  Kirk contacts Scotty, who is sulking in a San Francisco bar, apologizes to him about the torpedoes and asks him to check out the coordinates.  Scotty discovers a secret shipyard near Jupiter, and reacts with shock to what he sees.  Since their message to Admiral Marcus indicating that Harrison has been captured has received no reply and the warp engines are still down, the Enterprise limps to a nearby planetoid where a torpedo can be opened safely without endangering the ship; Carol, whose true identity has now been revealed to everyone, volunteers to try with McCoy’s help.  Inside the torpedo is a cryo-tube with a person frozen in it.  Further examination reveals that the individual is 300 years old.  Kirk demands answers, and Harrison is forthcoming:  he is a genetically engineered human being from late 20th Century Earth, exiled with 72 of his crew into space aboard a sleeper ship that was found by Admiral Marcus after Vulcan’s destruction in the previous movie.  Marcus woke him up to exploit his intellect and savagery in the design of weapons and ships to prepare for a war with the Klingons.  Marcus also arranged for the sabotage of the Enterprise‘s warp drive, figuring that if a Federation starship fired torpedoes against the Klingon homeworld and was then found lurking in Klingon space, it would ignite the war he wanted.  Harrison had hidden his crew in the torpedoes for their protection but thought they had all been killed, prompting his acts of terrorism.  He adds that his real name is Khan.

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Kirk has Khan moved to sickbay under guard, and the Enterprise is approached by a massive, sinister-looking starship:  the Khan-designed, Dreadnought-class U.S.S. Vengeance, double the size and speed and weaponry of any other Starfleet vessel, and commanded by Admiral Marcus.  When confronted with what Kirk knows, Marcus accuses Kirk of being influenced by Khan and orders that the renegade be executed.  The Enterprise tries to escape at warp speed, but the Vengeance easily catches up with them and cripples the ship between Earth and its moon.  Carol pleads with her father to spare the Enterprise, but he simply beams her aboard his ship and prepares to resume his attack, judging Kirk and crew in league with a terrorist and admitting he had always intended to destroy them.  As Kirk looks despairingly at the faces of the crew he has seemingly led to their deaths – just as Pike predicted he someday would –  the Vengeance‘s systems suddenly go offline.  It’s Scotty, who managed to sneak aboard at the Jupiter shipyard and has now sabotaged the warship.  They have a few minutes while the Vengeance reboots.  Kirk asks for Khan’s help, claiming it’s the only chance he’ll have to save his own crew.  McCoy, meanwhile, is further experimenting with Khan’s blood and injects it into a dead tribble to see what effects it might have.  The Enterprise aligns its waste port with the Vengeance‘s airlocks, and Kirk and Khan leap across debris-filled space in thruster suits to reach the warship, reuniting with Scotty and proceeding to confront Admiral Marcus on the bridge.  In the meantime, Spock, left in command of the Enterprise, makes a call to his older self (Leonard Nimoy in his last acting role before his death in 2015) to ask about Khan; Spock Prime reveals that Khan is the deadliest adversary that the Enterprise ever faced and that he was only defeated at great cost.

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Spock orders McCoy to begin work on arming the torpedoes, and the Vengeance‘s systems come back online just as Kirk, Scotty and Khan reach its bridge, stunning everyone except the Admiral and his daughter.  Scotty also stuns Khan.  Kirk arrests Admiral Marcus, but Khan recovers from the stun and attacks them all, crushing the Admiral’s skull as Carol screams in horror.  Khan takes command of the Vengeance and orders Spock to surrender the torpedoes containing his crew.  Spock complies, beaming Kirk, Scotty and Carol back as the torpedoes are transferred to the Vengeance.  But they unexpectedly detonate once they are onboard, damaging the Vengeance beyond repair and driving Khan into a blind rage.  It turns out that Spock had all the cryo-tubes removed before beaming them over, and Khan’s crew is stored safely in sickbay.  But the crisis is not over; the Enterprise‘s engines fail, and the ship is caught in Earth’s gravity and begins plummeting toward the planet.  The warp core injectors are misaligned, and extreme radiation is saturating the chamber where they are located.  Kirk knocks Scotty out, enters the chamber and kicks the injectors back into place, restoring ship’s power and pulling it out of its dive.  Scotty calls the bridge and tells Spock to get down here, that he’d better hurry.  Beyond the glass wall of the reactor chamber, Kirk is dying.  He says he is scared, and asks Spock if he knows why he saved his life back on Nibiru.  Spock says it is because they are friends.  They press their hands against their respective sides of the glass, and Kirk slips away.  Spock’s emotions overwhelm him and he screams Khan’s name.

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Khan sets the crumbling Vengeance on a suicide run into Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, and the massive ship plows into the city, taking out several buildings (including Alcatraz Island) and probably killing thousands, though we never see that.  Spock beams down to chase the genetic superman through the streets, and the two battle hand-to-hand on top of a flying garbage barge.  Back on the Enterprise, the dead tribble McCoy had injected with Khan’s blood chirps to life, and they realize there is still a chance to save Kirk.  As Spock and Khan fight, Uhura beams to the barge and stuns Khan, knocking him off balance and enabling Spock to get the upper hand.  Spock begins pummeling Khan remorselessly until Uhura screams at him to stop, that Khan is their only chance to bring Kirk back.  The Vulcan finally K.O.’s his opponent with one last belt to the face.  Some time later, Kirk awakens in a hospital room, having been restored by an injection of Khan’s blood.  Kirk thanks Spock for saving his life, and Spock reciprocates the sentiment.  Khan is returned to cold storage along with his crew, and Kirk presides over the dedication of the rebuilt Enterprise, observing that Starfleet’s true mission has always been one of exploration and that they cannot be lured from that path by those who would seek to do them harm.  Back on the bridge, Kirk orders the Enterprise to commence its five-year mission, with Carol Marcus as a member of the crew, and Spock finally expressing his trust in Kirk’s good judgment.  Warp speed to credits.

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Star Trek Into Darkness is perhaps the most overtly political Star Trek movie, simmering with hard questions about the role of principles, ethics and due process in an era of war against enemies that can rarely be seen or predicted.  It asks whether we can remain true to who we are and the values we cherish, or if victory requires that we become what we despise.  Unfortunately it buries these fascinating discussion points beneath a poorly constructed and far less effective karaoke version of The Wrath of Khan, with a climactic sacrifice undone before the end credits by means of magic blood.  At every turn, punches are pulled; for a movie whose title boasts of a journey into darkness, the story really never has the guts to venture that far down the path.  Who, in fact, is trekking into darkness?  It’s not our guys, who largely resolve their ethical qualms in the first act.  It’s more the Dick Cheney-esque Alexander Marcus, who sets the convoluted plot in motion for our heroes to untangle (and for Cumberbatch to explain mid-movie in an overly long expositional monologue), and who is merely the latest in a long line of Starfleet admirals who are corrupt/misguided/evil (curious in Roddenberry’s supposedly perfect future how the guys at the very top remain morons).  Perhaps the only main character who dares explore his dark side is Spock, in what to me represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the character.  This is two movies in a row now we’ve watched him lose his temper, but what made Spock special in the first place was his ability to make emotional and human choices from an unemotional, flawlessly logical perspective – not waiting to see what will make him fly off the handle and start throwing punches.  When he gave of himself in The Wrath of Khan, he kept his emotions contained to the very end, suggesting that grief was unnecessary because his act was logical – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  By contrast, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is always being driven almost exclusively by his emotions, and it betrays the mentality of the writers penning his lines, guys who are accustomed to painting in broad, easily understood by mass audience strokes rather than the more interesting nuances and subtleties that made up the Nimoy version of Spock.

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Be that as it may, the main problem with Star Trek Into Darkness is that only half of it is a good movie.  Its first hour is compelling as we are welcomed back to Abrams’ immersive, budget-busting worldbuilding and genuinely intrigued by the mystery of who this sepulchral-voiced stranger might be… and it finally goes off the rails when the camera tightens in on Cumberbatch as he hisses “my name… is… KHAN!”  From there we can’t help but do exactly what the writers feared we would:  compare to Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II.  The writers do not help themselves in this regard either, by bringing in Nimoy’s third act cameo to evoke memories of that other movie just as we should be neck deep in this one.  And then, restaging the entire climax of The Wrath of Khan beat for beat, with the roles of Spock and Kirk reversed and the dialogue echoing lines we’ve heard recited a thousand times before.  If we’re going to be asked to take this as the movie’s most dramatic, emotionally impactful moment, we shouldn’t also be invited to wink and smile at the familiar at the same time.  This is blowing the landing, big-time.  When The Wrath of Khan came out, nobody knew whether Spock would come back; here, we know Kirk will make it because this series just started and Chris Pine has a three-film deal.  It’s dancing on the border of “dark and edgy” but skipping hurriedly back because we don’t want to possibly leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouths.  It also sets a dangerous precedent for future films, in that there is now a story mechanism available in this universe for resurrecting any character who happens to kick off during the adventure – just go dig up Khan again and help yourself to a pint of his O-neg.

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There are a few dumb moments that don’t help matters either:  the Enterprise rising out of the ocean, Kirk in bed with two cat-tailed alien girls, the Beastie Boys again, and the much-maligned unnecessary shot of the lovely Alice Eve in her skivvies are products not of good storytelling instincts but of Red Bull infusions for bored writers thinking certain ideas would be “cool.”  Some of the early plot twists don’t make any sense – I’m still not sure why, if Khan hates Marcus so much, he would retreat to Kronos of all possible forbidden locations throughout the galaxy (remember, space is really, really, really big) and give Marcus the perfect excuse to start his desired war with the Klingons.  In fact, everything he does for the first hour seems to be helpfully furthering Marcus’ agenda, rather than trying to stop it.  I can’t quite figure out the order of events following Khan’s waking either.  He says Marcus held his crew hostage, but then Khan hid them in torpedoes, but only managed to get himself away, then thought Marcus had killed them all, then went rogue but was still able to meander about on Earth?  Maybe there’s a piece I’m missing, but I shouldn’t have to think this hard to have things make logical – sorry – sense.  As to the question of the caliber of the guy with the task of succeeding Ricardo Montalban as Khan, Cumberbatch is fine in this thankless assignment, and one supposes that it is a testament to his raw skill that he is able to speak a completely bewildering mid-movie monologue and still arrest your attention.  He’s much less interesting when he’s required to growl and wince while he swings at Quinto – but then, action blockbusters have oft made fools of dignified Shakespeare-trained thesps, and Benedict Cumberbatch is not the first to succumb.

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Sequels, especially first sequels in a franchise, are tricky work in that you have to do the same thing, but different and better.  So much of the tank was obviously emptied for 2009’s Star Trek, because it was their one chance to do this universe over and set it up for a brand new generation of audiences.  They had to leave it all out on the field.  As a result, there did not seem to be much inspiration left for the second entry, necessitating the trip back to an old, much too familiar well.  It would be one thing if The Wrath of Khan hadn’t been seen much since its initial release, but this is a modern sci-fi classic that is screened frequently every year, both in Trekkies’ home video collections and in revival houses across North America, its tropes seared into our pop culture collective consciousness.  You don’t dare tamper with that unless you know you can knock it out of the park – and the best Star Trek Into Darkness can manage is a ground-rule double.  It fails to get any further because it promises far more than it delivers, competently meeting expectations rather than thwarting them or surprising us.  J.J. Abrams has said in hindsight that it was perhaps a mistake to hold back Khan’s identity in the marketing, given that the big reveal was ultimately a source of audience annoyance.  But it never needed to have been Khan at all – the movie would have worked much better if Cumberbatch had played a completely original character in keeping with the freshness of this new direction.  Recycling Khan, even if he is considered the Joker to Kirk’s Batman, brings nothing to the table.  When he announces that his name… is… Khan, that’s for the benefit of us watching it, not for Kirk & company, who in this universe have never met him before and so the revelation within the story is meaningless.  (I was watching the movie hoping that he wouldn’t say it, and when he did, my enthusiasm for the remainder of the movie ebbed like air silently escaping from a balloon.)  And Spock yelling out his name in agony is not an earned, honest character moment, but a laughable callback to one of the most comic examples of William Shatner’s famed overacting.  Montalban’s Khan had a history with Kirk, but this version of Khan is a forgettable villain-of-the-week, provided with just about as much depth and having as little lasting impact.  Though the end sees him stored away for possible future revivals, I very much doubt we’ll be seeing him again.

The challenge for Star Trek Beyond will be to look forward and up once more, to put the lie to the notion that everything has to be dark and edgy to be accepted in this day and age.  The trailers seem to foretell the opposite: a wrecked Enterprise, a lost crew, and a sneering bad guy promising death and destruction (and more Beastie Boys… sigh).  But that doesn’t mean that the movie itself won’t contain what we need it to:  hope, rising from the ashes of ruined starships.

I’ll check it out at the theater and let you know.

In summary:  The non-Wrath of Khan parts are good.  The Wrath of Khan parts are bad.  Magic blood should never be spoken of again.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek (2009)

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On May 13, 2005, the cancelled Star Trek: Enterprise aired its much-maligned series finale, “These Are The Voyages,” and for the first time in eighteen years there would be no new Star Trek on the air in the fall.  Likewise, the box office failure of Star Trek Nemesis had staked the film series through the heart.  Even die-hard fans, weary of repetitive plots resolved by reconfiguring the deflector dish, were pleading that Trek needed a forced rest.  Go away, we cried, echoing Bono, and dream it all up again.  Behind the scenes, life still stirred, as franchise guardian Rick Berman proposed reinvigorating the movies by introducing a brand new crew in a yet-unexplored piece of Trek‘s future history:  the Earth/Romulan war of the 22nd Century.  He hired Band of Brothers writer Erik Jendresen to pen a script with a World War II movie feel called Star Trek: The Beginning.  In Jendresen’s draft, after a devastating attack on Earth by a Romulan fleet, the disgraced Captain Tiberius Chase, an ancestor of James Tiberius Kirk, would lead his hastily assembled, ragtag crew on what would turn out to be a suicide mission to detonate a nuclear bomb in the heart of the Romulan Empire and bring an end to the war.  Fans weren’t wild about Berman’s continued stewardship, and this proposed story sounded pretty depressing after the already dreary Nemesis.  And so it was that in 2006, new Paramount chief Gail Berman (no relation) cancelled development on The Beginning and turned creative control of future Star Trek film projects over to an up-and-coming filmmaker named J.J. Abrams.

Abrams had started young, writing the script for the Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry at the age of 21 and serving as script doctor on blockbusters like Armageddon before turning to television and achieving success with the series Felicity and Alias.  The latter, starring Jennifer Garner as a spy who has to keep her espionage work secret from her closest friends, attracted the notice of Tom Cruise and earned Abrams a shot at directing the third Mission: Impossible movie, which made $400 million worldwide just as Rick Berman was being advised that his services were no longer required.  M:I-III just happened to be a production of Paramount Pictures, who had signed Abrams to a multi-film contract and realized, well, lookie here, we have this other moribund franchise in need of some adrenaline.  Abrams, who admitted up front he had always been more of a Star Wars fan, signed his Bad Robot Productions on to produce, but wouldn’t commit to direct as well unless the script measured up.  To ensure that it did, he brought along his co-writers from M:I-III who were also veterans of Alias:  Roberto Orci, who described himself as a rabid Trekkie, and Alex Kurtzman, who didn’t.  Immediately they faced the challenge of what to do with Star Trek‘s weighty history:  ten movies, hundreds of episodes and one of the most elaborate – and from some perspectives, creatively suffocating – fictional canons ever assembled.

Their answer:  toss it.

Sort of.

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Abrams wasn’t interested in chronicling the further exploits of Captains Picard, Sisko, Janeway et al, claiming that the various spinoffs and sequels had “disconnected” him from the franchise.  He wanted to return to the essence of Star Trek, and that meant a new take on the classic characters of Kirk and Spock, and, in an echo of the Harve Bennett “Starfleet Academy” movie that had never been made, going back to look at how they first met to reintroduce them to a new world.  He noted, however, that one of the (many) weaknesses of the Star Wars prequels was that there was little dramatic tension in their foregone outcome – basically, you knew Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t going to die because you’d already seen him in his elder years.  Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci came up with a concept that in their minds would respect the hundreds of hours of Trek that had gone before but still give them carte blanche to craft a fresh and unpredictable story – without throwing away everything a la Batman Begins.  To wit: using a little time travel to go back before Kirk was even born and create a new, unpredictable alternate universe in which all bets as to the fates of our characters were off.  Satisfied with the progress of scripting, Abrams agreed to direct and his participation was confirmed by official press release in February of 2007.

It was then a matter of finding new faces for this new universe.

Casting Captain Kirk’s original crew for the first time since 1966 was a daunting task; the fanbase would rebel, and quite rightly so, if the iconic roles were filled with a bunch of vapid CW flavor-of-the-month types.  Although Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) was interested in playing Spock, and Matt Damon had to call Abrams personally and ask him what was up after reading trade rumors that he would be cast as Kirk, the choice was made to go with actors who had solid experience but remained relative unknowns so they wouldn’t overwhelm the parts with offscreen personality.  Zachary Quinto, who was earning notices as superpowered supervillain Sylar on the TV series Heroes, and looked more like a young Leonard Nimoy than Leonard Nimoy, was the first to be announced in July 2007 – along with Nimoy himself.  The Bad Robot team had visited the retired actor at his home and pitched him their story and the significance of the presence of the elder Spock in it, and, uncharacteristically perhaps for a Vulcan, Nimoy was so moved by their presentation he could not speak for quite a few moments after they had left.  With Nimoy having rejected multiple previous offers to rejoin the cinematic Trek universe, his enthusiastic participation calmed the nerves of fans who didn’t know what to make of these new kids who’d been trusted with the sacred keys to the Enterprise.  After Nimoy and Quinto came the rest:  Zoe Saldana, who had played a Star Trek fan in the Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal – where the legendary director taught her the split-fingered Vulcan salute – was cast as Uhura.  Anton Yelchin, who had been born in Leningrad, got the role of Chekov, while John Cho, best known for his comedic roles, took over as Sulu.  After working with him on Mission: Impossible, Abrams cast Simon Pegg as Scotty simply by sending him an e-mail asking him if he wanted the part (would that we could all get jobs so easily.)  And Lord of the Rings veteran Karl Urban was first rumored to be playing the villain before it was clarified that he’d be succeeding DeForest Kelley as McCoy.

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The guest cast began to fill in with interesting names as well:  Ben Cross, as Spock’s father Sarek, became the second actor from Chariots of Fire (after Alice Krige) to take on a Star Trek role.  Jennifer Morrison from TV’s House and Once Upon a Time signed on to play Kirk’s mother Winona, her presence in the movie confirmed after paparazzi snapped a picture of her walking to the set in a bathrobe to conceal her costume.  A more famous Winona – Winona Ryder – would play the cameo part of Spock’s mother Amanda.  Bruce Greenwood got the role of Captain Christopher Pike on the strength of his work as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days.  After trying his hand at being a superhero in 2003’s controversial Hulk, Eric Bana decided to err on the side of villainy as the embittered Romulan captain Nero.  Some other Australian guy no one had really heard of at the time named Chris Hemsworth was cast as Kirk’s father George.  The crew needed its captain, though, and while Mike Vogel, who had worked for Abrams before on the 2008 shaky-cam horror movie Cloverfield, was said to be a front-runner, the successor to William Shatner was ultimately announced as Chris Pine.  Pine’s father Robert was a veteran TV character actor who had guest-starred on Enterprise as a Vulcan, and Chris’ most prominent role to date had been alongside Lindsay Lohan in a 2006 rom-com called Just My Luck.  Pine looked not to create an impression of Shatner but rather to Harrison Ford’s roles as “accidental heroes” Indiana Jones and Han Solo as inspiration in his interpretation of Jim Kirk.

Shooting began in November of 2007, just as the Writers’ Guild of America went on strike.  As a result, for fourteen weeks of production, Abrams could not make any changes to the screenplay (very, very few scripts are “locked in” once shooting begins – on-the-fly rewrites and polishes may be required as stuff that seems brilliant on the page often doesn’t work when the cameras finally roll and the actors have to say the lines).  But the overall impact on the production was minimal, and because writers Kurtzman and Orci were also credited executive producers, they could be on set the entire time and provide indirect assistance in shaping scenes without violating their union rules.  Of course none of that would have mattered to those of us who were awaiting this new take on Trek with equal measures of excitement and apprehension; thrills at the spare-no-expense blockbuster treatment balanced with fear that the entire affair would be a trendy Hollywood dumbing down of what was still thought of as the more cerebral of the world’s two leading cinematic space franchises.  The first teaser trailer, which showed the Enterprise under construction to echoes of the sounds of the early American space program, did much to heighten our enthusiasm that perhaps this would finally, after a string of false starts, be the Star Trek movie we were waiting for.

May 2009 arrived, the theater lights dimmed, and we held our breath…

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In a prologue set in the year 2233, the starship U.S.S. Kelvin encounters an enormous, spider-like vessel, the Narada, emerging from a lightning storm in space.  Quickly crippling the outmatched starship with their advanced weapons, the Romulan crew demand that the Kelvin‘s Captain Robau come aboard to discuss surrender, leaving first officer George Kirk (Hemsworth) in command.  The Romulans want to know the location of a strange jellyfish-shaped ship and its pilot, an Ambassador Spock.  When Robau admits he does not know of either, the Romulans’ leader Nero (Bana) kills him in a fit of rage and resumes the attack on the Kelvin.  Kirk orders the entire crew to the shuttles and escape pods, including his wife Winona (Morrison) who has just gone into labor.  With weapons gone, Kirk sets the Kelvin on a collision course, but the autopilot is disabled and he must remain behind.  He hears the first cries of his baby son, and he and Winona agree to name the boy Jim.  The Kelvin cripples the Narada and allows the shuttles to escape, but George Kirk is killed, leaving the newborn Jim fatherless.

A decade later, we peek in on our two lead heroes:  teenage Jim Kirk is leading a rebellious life in Iowa, while on the planet Vulcan, young Spock is bullied over his half-human heritage.  A college-aged Spock (Quinto) is eventually accepted to the Vulcan Science Academy, but rejects the honor after the Vulcan elders refer to his human half as a disadvantage.  In Iowa, a group of Starfleet cadets are celebrating before shipping out to the Academy, and townie Kirk (Pine) makes a drunken attempt to flirt with Uhura (Saldana) before getting his ass kicked in a fight that is stopped by Captain Christopher Pike (Greenwood).  Pike talks about Kirk’s father and how he represented an element of daring that Pike feels Starfleet has lost.  He notes that in George Kirk’s twelve-minute captaincy, he saved 800 lives.  Pike dares Jim to do better and suggests that he enlist in Starfleet.  After a late night bike ride to contemplate the U.S.S. Enterprise being built in a cornfield, Jim accepts Pike’s challenge and boasts that he will complete the four-year Academy program in three years.  On the shuttle ride to San Francisco, Kirk meets up with the man who will become his dear friend, Doctor Leonard McCoy, who laments that his recent divorce has left him with nothing but his bones.

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Three years later, Nero’s crew, which has been waiting out in space for a quarter century, captures the mysterious jellyfish ship when it emerges from a second lightning storm, with Nero growling “welcome back, Spock.”  At the Academy, Kirk is taking the no-win Kobayashi Maru simulation test (first mentioned in The Wrath of Khan) after failing it twice, this time beating it by reprogramming the simulation.  A disciplinary hearing is convened and Kirk is dressed down by the test’s programmer, Spock.  But judgment is interrupted when a distress call comes in from the planet Vulcan, which says it’s under attack.  All cadets are assigned immediately to different ships, with the exception of Kirk, who is grounded pending a decision on his status.  McCoy injects Kirk with a vaccine to make him ill and invokes a regulation regarding transportation of patients to bring him onboard the ship to which he has been assigned – the brand new U.S.S. Enterprise.  A Starfleet armada warps out of orbit headed for Vulcan, with the Enterprise delayed a few moments as its helmsman Sulu (Cho) forgets to disengage the inertial dampeners.  But when a woozy Kirk overhears Chekov (Yelchin) talking about the appearance of a lightning storm in space preceding the attack on Vulcan, he makes the connection with the lightning storm that occurred on the day of his birth prior to the arrival of the Romulan ship, and realizes the Enterprise is heading into a trap.

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The Enterprise drops out of warp into a scene of carnage:  the entire fleet of starships destroyed by the Narada’s advanced weapons, and its laser drill carving a deep bore into the surface of Vulcan.  Nero orders his crew to destroy the new arrival too until he realizes what ship it is.  He hails the Enterprise and addresses Spock, advising him that they will know each other quite well in the future.  Nero also demands that Pike surrender himself by shuttle.  Pike agrees, leaves Spock as acting captain and promotes Kirk to first officer.  He assigns Kirk, Sulu and Chief Engineer Olson to space-jump to the drill platform to try to disable it.  The thrill-seeking Olson (dressed appropriately in red) waits too long to deploy his chute and is killed, and the explosive charges he was carrying are lost.  Kirk and Sulu still manage to overpower the Romulans on the platform and disable the drill, but not before Nero’s crew launches a probe filled with mysterious “red matter” into the drilling site.  The probe detonates inside Vulcan’s core and a singularity begins to form – a black hole that will consume the planet.  Spock beams down to locate his parents, but his mother is lost as the group beams aboard, and Vulcan is destroyed.

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Left in command of the Enterprise with the death of his mother and his planet weighing on his mind, Spock decides to retreat to join the rest of Starfleet in the Laurentian system.  Kirk objects, insisting that they should be hunting Nero down.  Frustrated, Spock renders the combative Kirk unconscious and dumps him on the icy world of Delta-Vega.  There, Kirk is saved from a ravenous local monster by an oddly familiar old Vulcan:  the original Spock (Nimoy).  Spock Prime explains everything:  one hundred and twenty-nine years from now, a star will go hypernova and threaten to destroy the galaxy.  Spock was sent to use red matter to swallow the nova with a black hole, but he was not able to act in time before the planet of Romulus was destroyed by the cosmic explosion.  Nero held him responsible and chased him down, but both ships fell into the black hole and were transported back in time, with Nero arriving first, and changing history by destroying the Kelvin.  Nero now has Spock’s ship and the red matter and intends to destroy every remaining planet in the Federation in retaliation for the loss of Romulus.  Spock Prime knows he has to get Kirk back to the Enterprise and takes him to someone who can help:  Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Pegg), who has been assigned to a derelict Starfleet observation post on Delta-Vega.  Spock completes Scotty’s formula for transwarp beaming and transports Kirk and the engineer back to the Enterprise, where Kirk forces the younger Spock to relinquish command to him after provoking him into a wild display of anger.  Kirk orders the Enterprise to chase after Nero, who is on his way to Earth after obtaining the system’s planetary defense information from a tortured Pike.

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After a conversation with his father in which he realizes that his emotions can be a source of strength, Spock returns to duty and makes amends with Kirk.  The Narada arrives at Earth and begins drilling into San Francisco Bay, while the Enterprise conceals itself in Saturn’s rings and Kirk and Spock beam to Nero’s ship, where Spock obtains the details of Nero’s scheme and the location of Captain Pike from a mind-meld with an unconscious Romulan.  They locate the jellyfish ship and its supply of red matter, and the ship recognizes Spock as its pilot and permits him to steal it.  Kirk confronts Nero, who brags that he will deprive the young captain of his future just as he did Kirk’s father.  But their fight is interrupted as Spock uses the jellyfish ship to destroy the drill, and Nero orders his crew to pursue it.  Kirk defeats Nero’s second-in-command and heads off to rescue Pike.  Spock sets the jellyfish ship on a collision course with the Narada, and Nero fires everything he has – only to be surprised by the Enterprise, which destroys Nero’s missiles and allows the jellyfish ship to complete its kamikaze run, with Kirk, Spock and Pike beamed to safety.  The red matter ignites on impact and a black hole begins to form inside the Narada.  Nero refuses assistance and quietly closes his eyes as his ship is crushed.  The black hole begins to pull in the Enterprise as well, but Scotty ejects and detonates the warp core to push the starship clear.

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At a ceremony on Earth, Kirk’s field promotion to captain is made permanent and he is assigned the Enterprise in relief of Pike, who assures him that his father would have been proud.  Spock encounters his future self, and Spock Prime promises him that his friendship with Kirk will come to define them both.  The Enterprise crew is reunited and sent off on its first formal mission, and the elder Spock narrates the famous “space, the final frontier” speech as the grand ship hurtles into warp, and sequels.

Well then.

Star Trek was always popular, but not that popular, really – it had consistently been a moderate box office performer, a sort of useful pinch-hitter who comes off the bench every few innings for a single up the middle right when it’s needed, but never sets any records or makes the playoff roster.  There had been attempts to lure non-fans, but both production and marketing for each film release tended to linger on the conservative side of the ledger, operating from the perspective that “we know we’ll get the Trekkies, and if we get a few other folks wandering in too, hey, that’s gravy.”  Never had there been a concerted effort to really strive for that glittering true blockbuster ring hovering like a tantalizing tempter just out of reach, the gilded echelon achievable only by those who dare to leap for it with both feet.  It was a credit to Paramount’s confidence in J.J. Abrams that they gave him and his team the resources with which to try.  While previous entries relied on story and performances to create a sense of scale, the truth of the matter was that most of the time you still felt you were watching a TV production shot on cardboard sets, and what should have been a massive universe still seemed very small and confined.  The Wrath of Khan got away with this because the people and the stakes were larger-than-life; The Search for Spock could have stood comfortably alongside a two-part episode of MacGyver.  The Voyage Home created scale by being able to shoot in real locations without having to hide the cars driving by, but The Final Frontier whiffed with alien environments resembling nothing more exotic than anything you’d find ten miles from the Los Angeles studio gates.  Progressively bigger budgets and more exotic location shooting followed, but the final results remained artificial and hopelessly Earthbound.  It was, perhaps, a failure of ambition.

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The worldbuilding of Star Trek has never felt immersive until the release of this movie, which finally had the resources and the determination to pay that critical exacting attention to every blessed detail; to make us feel as though you could wander through any door and find evidence of the 23rd Century in every conceivable nook and cranny.  If Abrams borrowed this approach from Star Wars, so be it – but it works, and works well.  And what we wanted from Star Trek in 2009 was not more of the same.  So here are the thousands of extras that William Shatner couldn’t get for The Final Frontier.  Here is the “future with a past” –  fleets of ships both large and small that look banged up by years of re-use and not as though the paint dried five seconds before the cameras rolled.  Here is a movie-caliber Enterprise that looks like the grand old lady we always imagined she was, with dozens of massive decks to get lost on.  Here is an alien threat that doesn’t come off like one guy in a tiny room pushing plastic buttons.  Here are exotic worlds with unifying cultural themes evident throughout their architecture, their costuming and even the lay of their landscapes; aesthetic details that you don’t notice on your first viewing but are saturated in each frame, pushing the experience into your mind on a subliminal level.  And here, finally is the broad and extensive marketing campaign that sells a Star Trek movie as a can’t-miss event.  Not a mere curiosity offered meekly for a small, enlightened clique, but the explosion of a globally inclusive phenomenon that makes you feel foolish for even considering giving it a pass.  Maybe some Trek purists preferred the idea of a protective, hipster attitude towards it – this thing that is ours and that you mainstream people don’t get – but the economics of entertainment don’t always favor that attitude, and Star Trek was stagnating toward the brink of demise.  It needed the kind of movie that would explode and introduce it to a new audience, and it simply couldn’t do that by staring at its own navel through a haze of impenetrable continuity.  “Not your grandfather’s Star Trek,” proclaimed the ads, to the derision of more than a few.

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One thing you can certainly never accuse J.J. Abrams’ films of is lacking in energy.  In Star Trek the characters are alive and bursting from the screen in a way they never have been before; perhaps it is their immediate juxtaposition against the more languid Next Generation characters who had preceded them in the drab Nemesis, that makes them seem so vivid and colorful.  As he would later show in The Force Awakens, Abrams always has an excellent eye for casting, and Pine, Quinto, Urban, Pegg, Cho, Yelchin and Saldana slip very comfortably into the roles originated by Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Takei, Koenig and Nichols and are not burdened by the responsibility.  They never make you forget about the original seven, but, armed with snappy, punchy (and mercifully bereft of technobabble) dialogue, they each bring something new to create complete characters for this new timeline instead of merely doing glorified impressions (Quinto and Urban veer closest to this dodgy tactic in their respective approaches but never quite tip over the line).  Pine in particular is absolutely nothing like William Shatner, and the story’s decision to reinterpret James T. Kirk as a maverick, Beastie Boys-loving bad boy who stumbles into his captaincy by sheer, inherent “chosen one” awesomeness, instead of the dedicated, by-the-book career officer he had been in the original series – in effect playing Kirk as the exaggerated Zapp Brannigan version of himself – is perhaps the most jarring element of this reinterpretation, but to paraphrase The Dark Knight, this Kirk may be the hero we need, not the one we deserve.

That latter statement may be the best pronouncement to be made on the entire movie.  Criticism at the time, of which there was relatively little, opined that this was an action movie, or a Star Wars remake, masquerading as a Star Trek film – that social commentary had been eschewed in favor of gags and broad action sequences.  It was ironic that 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture was lambasted at the time for having “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars,” and 30 years later the reboot was slammed for being too much like it.  Whose verdict matters most?  The moviegoing public, who decided to the tune of a record-obliterating $257 million in ticket sales that this was the movie they needed:  exciting, optimistic, and fun instead of measured, ponderous and dry.  Star Trek starts to buckle if you apply too much analytical pressure to its weaker points; the science is slapdash, the plot relies on too many encounters of convenience, and the screenwriters don’t seem to understand the process of advancement in military ranks, among many others, but there comes a point where you just say screw it, this is a flat-out great time at the movies and none of that stuff matters.  It is not cerebral, but it does have a genuine heart, and more emotion in its scenes than the last five Star Trek movies combined.  Perhaps it’s to the credit of Star Trek as a franchise that there are so many options on its menu to suit every taste and mood:  some days you want to watch Stewart-as-Picard pitted in heated debate with a recalcitrant admiral and other days you prefer to watch Pine-as-Kirk bounce around in bed with sexy green girls.  The big tent of Star Trek spans the galaxy, and this was the first time it got the proper big-screen treatment it had perhaps not needed, but always deserved.

In summary:  Points for the cast, the boundless energy, the scale of the worldbuilding, stellar special effects, heck, even the lens flares.  Deductions for a plot relying on coincidence, convenience and very suspect pseudo-science, but look, if you can make me tear up in the first ten minutes of a Star Trek movie then I’m cutting you a heck of a lot of slack.

Next time:  Cinematic karaoke goes way off-key as the new crew matches wits against a bad guy who totally isn’t Khan… or is he?

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek Nemesis (2002)

nemesis

It’s all Ricardo Montalban’s fault.  From the moment that impeccably sculpted chest burst through the screen in 1982, it’s cast a daunting, pectoral-shaped shadow over the creative process of every Star Trek movie that followed.  Let’s have a villain as good as Khan again, say the producers and writers and studio suits as they bat ideas back and forth like so many caffeine-infused tennis balls.  Forget whether the rest of the story makes any sense, let’s make sure we have a bad guy that the audience can boo and hiss and rejoice when he goes to that great villain’s lair in the… well, I guess it wouldn’t be the sky.  After Khan came the boring Kruge, the not-quite-a-villain Sybok, the theatrical Chang, the middling Soran, the eerie Borg Queen, the TV-ready Ru’afo.  As the production of Star Trek Nemesis got underway, producer Rick Berman, while revealing few other details, promised publicly that it would boast the best villain since Khan, forgetting that unlike, say, the Bond series, the appeal of Star Trek as a whole has never been tied to the quality of its antagonists.  The most successful of the Star Trek films to that point didn’t even have one.  But after the deliberately lighter Star Trek: Insurrection underperformed First Contact both critically and financially, Berman and his studio superiors decided that Star Trek worked better when it went dark.  Back to the fastball, then.

As Insurrection had also been taken to task for its TV-episode feel, Berman made a point to staff up with plenty of cinema veterans this time around:  John Logan, who had co-written the Oscar-winning Gladiator, was assigned the script based on a story concocted by himself and Brent Spiner, and as Jonathan Frakes was busy finishing helming the movie Clockstoppers, Stuart Baird was chosen to direct.  Baird had a distinguished career as an editor including the original Superman, and was riding high off directing the hit Kurt Russell/Steven Seagal action movie Executive Decision.  Berman thought that Baird, who had no familiarity with Star Trek, would bring fresh blood and energy to a franchise that was beginning to list and sag a little under the weight of its then-thirty-five year history.  (Prior to Baird, Berman had offered the movie to periodic franchise savior Nicholas Meyer, but like Leonard Nimoy on Generations, Meyer wanted input on the script and Berman had promised full control to John Logan.)  Jeffrey Kimball, the director of photography on smashes like Top Gun and Mission: Impossible II, would handle camera duties; Bob Ringwood (the first three Batman movies) would design the costumes, Jerry Goldsmith would be back for the music.

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Which brings us then to the cast, and although Ron Perlman’s name was announced with the most fanfare (and received higher billing in the credits), he would be taking a supporting part, that of the heavily-made-up Reman Viceroy.  The role of Khan version 8.0 would be played by a little-known English actor named Tom Hardy, who beat out familiar genre names like James Marsters (Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Michael Shanks (Daniel Jackson on Stargate) after first choice Jude Law proved a non-starter.  Of all the many flaws that Nemesis would eventually exhibit, credit must absolutely be given to Rick Berman et al for spotting Hardy’s star potential, even if it’s not overly evident in this movie.  Hardy got the part after submitting what has been described as a “weird” audition tape in which he appeared semi-nude and included oddball home movie footage (anyone who has seen Hardy’s infamous MySpace photos can likely attest to what that footage contained.)  For young and hungry actors, 95% of success is just getting noticed, and whatever the hell it was that Hardy sent in, it was enough to get him cast as Shinzon, the leader of the Reman race who turns out to be a young, unfinished clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.  Nemesis‘ promotional campaign featured Hardy heavily, with the teaser poster showing him in shadow raising a knife amidst a field of green smoke, giving off a vibe perhaps more suited to something like The Ring or The Conjuring and certainly light-years removed – pun intended – from the days of Kirk and Spock.

So was the movie itself.

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We know from the outset that this is going to be a darker and more violent entry, as instead of Insurrection‘s pastoral morning stroll, we open with the gruesome murder of the entire Romulan Senate by a cascade of green radiation that turns their flesh instantly to stone.  On Earth, the Enterprise crew is celebrating the wedding of Riker and Troi, complete with cameos by Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan and Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher, and a rendition of “Blue Skies” by Data.  Following a second ceremony on Troi’s homeworld of Betazed, Riker will be leaving to captain the U.S.S. Titan, and Data will be taking his place as first officer.  On the way to Betazed, however, the Enterprise picks up a positronic energy signature from the primitive planet of Kolarus III.  Picard diverts the ship to the Kolarun system, and in the Enterprise‘s new ground vehicle Argo, he, Worf and Data explore the arid surface, where it turns out that the positronic signature is emanating from pieces of an android body – a duplicate of Data.  In what then ranks as the silliest scene ever to appear in a Star Trek movie, Mad Max-type aliens in dune buggies show up and chase our heroes off the planet with the extra android in tow.  It’s a Forrest Gump-esque prototype of Data called B-4, and it is basically the same except for a redundant memory port at the base of its skull.  In an attempt to augment its programming, Data copies his own memories into B-4, but B-4 shows no immediate reaction.

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Newly-promoted Admiral Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) advises Picard about the coup on Romulus and that the new praetor, Shinzon, who is from the neighboring planet of Remus, wishes to open peace negotiations.  The Enterprise is ordered to Romulus and encounters Shinzon’s massive warship, the Scimitar, in orbit.  Shinzon’s viceroy (Perlman) invites Picard and his crew to beam over to meet with the praetor.  The young Shinzon is not Reman at all, but human, and oddly familiar to Picard, even to the point of having suffered the same rare hearing ailment in childhood.  A DNA scan reveals that he is an exact clone of the good captain.  While Shinzon professes to want peace, not all is as it initially seems; his Romulan allies, including the hawkish Commander Suran (Jude Ciccolella) and the wily Commander Donatra (Dina Meyer) don’t understand his purpose in luring the Enterprise to Romulus, and Shinzon is suffering periodic spasms of extreme pain, which he conceals from all except his Viceroy.  However, Donatra, lingering in the corridor outside after a heated confrontation, notices Shinzon’s discomfort.  Meanwhile, B-4 receives a signal and begins hacking into the Enterprise‘s computer system.

At a private dinner on Romulus, Shinzon reveals his origins to Picard:  he was created as part of a Romulan plot to embed a double agent at the heart of Starfleet that was abandoned when a new government came to power.  Shinzon was exiled to the Reman mines to die, but the Viceroy took pity on him and raised him.  Eventually Shinzon was able to rally the Remans, recruit Romulan allies, and take over the Romulan government in order to free his adopted people.  Picard questions how many Romulans had to die to achieve Shinzon’s goals.  Shinzon suggests that Picard would have acted exactly the same way and asks the captain about what it means to be human.  The two find that despite their radically different upbringings, they looked at the stars in much the same way.  Picard opines that he hopes to be able to trust Shinzon, but that such trust will have to be earned.

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Aboard the Enterprise, Geordi advises that scans of Shinzon’s ship have revealed that it is equipped with illegal and deadly “thalaron” radiation, which can destroy organic matter on contact (it’s the same green rays that petrified the Romulan Senate in the opening scene).  They’ve also discovered that the Enterprise‘s computer has been compromised.  Unbeknownst to them, B-4 is abruptly beamed off the Enterprise and Shinzon downloads what the android has learned from the extra memory port.  And that night, as Riker and Troi settle into bed, the Viceroy uses his telepathic abilities to help Shinzon virtually rape her.  As Picard tries to persuade Troi to shake it off and stay on duty, he is beamed away to the Scimitar, where Shinzon boasts of his plan to attack the Federation, aided by the communications protocols and locations of the entire Federation fleet that he has acquired from B-4.  Shinzon has one of his doctors take a sample of Picard’s blood and leaves him there to contemplate “the triumph of the echo over the voice.”

So… yeah, he’s pretty eeeeeeevil then.

As Riker and the Enterprise attempt to penetrate the Scimitar‘s cloak, B-4 arrives in Picard’s cell and tells the Reman guard that Shinzon wants the prisoner.  But it’s not B-4, it’s Data, who has been impersonating the lesser android since the compromise of the Enterprise computer was discovered.  They’ve given Shinzon false information on the location of the Federation fleet.  Data offers Picard a one-man emergency transport unit to return to the Enterprise, but Picard insists that they find a way off together.  They escape from the Scimitar using a two-man attack fighter, and the Enterprise flees at maximum warp.  Beverly reveals that owing to a defect in the cloning process, Shinzon is dying, and only a complete blood transfusion from Picard can save him.  Geordi also reveals that the Scimitar‘s deadly thalaron radiation weapon can consume an entire planet.  Picard orders the ship to meet up with the rest of Starfleet’s battle group, noting they must stop Shinzon at all costs.   Data also deactivates B-4 to avert any more trouble.  However, they do not realize that Shinzon’s ship is directly behind them, and to reach the fleet they must pass through an unstable section of space called the Bassen Rift, where communications will not function.

In the preamble to the battle, the two characters who have encountered duplicates over the course of this story, Picard and Data, contemplate duality and nature vs. nurture.  Picard wonders if Shinzon is truly a mirror for him, and Data disagrees, pointing out that neither B-4 or Shinzon have any desire to grow or make themselves better.  The Enterprise enters the Rift, and is attacked by the Scimitar, firing from behind its cloak.  Warp drive is disabled, shields are damaged, and Shinzon offers Picard a last chance to surrender.  Picard tries to appeal to Shinzon’s human side, but the dying clone is having none of it and the battle resumes.

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Two Romulan ships suddenly arrive and Commander Donatra, who cannot abide having Shinzon’s planned genocide of Earth on her conscience, agrees to assist the Enterprise.  But Shinzon’s ship is too strong, and her vessels are swiftly disabled.  A trembling Troi offers her services, using her limited telepathy to locate the Viceroy – and with him, the Scimitar.  The Enterprise is able to finally disable Shinzon’s cloak.  A boarding party led by the Viceroy beams over and engages in hand-to-hand combat with Riker and Worf, and with phasers and photon torpedoes exhausted, Picard decides to do something out of character and rams the Enterprise into the Scimitar.  Both ships are critically damaged and Riker defeats the Viceroy, sending him plunging down an open shaft to his death.  Shinzon activates the countdown on his thalaron weapon, and orders his crew to kill everything on the Enterprise and then do the same to Earth.  Picard beams over to stop it, followed by Data, who – with transporters now down – has to leap across space to access the enemy ship.  Picard and the increasingly decrepit Shinzon have one final duel and Picard stabs his deranged clone with a piece of pipe.  Shinzon drags himself along it, mumbles something Palpatine-esque about destinies being complete, and dies.  Data arrives and beams Picard back to safety with the emergency one-man transport unit.  He then pulls a phaser on the thalaron energy matrix and blows it, the Scimitar and himself into subatomic bits, while Picard appears safely back on the Enterprise bridge.

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Picard and his officers share a quiet toast in memory of their lost comrade, and the Enterprise returns to spacedock above Earth for repairs.  Picard activates B-4 to tell him a little more about who Data was; the prototype does not understand, but as Picard goes to leave, B-4 starts singing a verse from “Blue Skies.”  Thinking that he may not have lost Data after all, a more confident Picard struts out into the corridors of his ship, and the Star Trek fanfare sounds for this particular crew for what would turn out to be the very last time.

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat (or, two thousand words in I suppose).

I HATE this movie.

HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT.

I despise it with as much of my being as is healthy to assign toward two hours of celluloid that was designed primarily to entertain me, not to punch me in the stomach or piss on my lawn or strangle my cats.

I went to see it alone on a weekday in December of 2002 and sat there feeling a progression of emotions from bemusement to frustration, disappointment, and downright annoyance.  In grand geek tradition I felt personally slighted that the creative chefs behind one of my favorite franchises had deigned to serve me this thoroughly unappetizing meal after a four-year wait.

This is a really, really bad movie.

To me, everything that is loathsome about Nemesis begins at its conception, with the choice to build the story around the arc of the villain, not the hero.  WRONG.  Wrong, wrong, basic Screenwriting 101 wrong.  You’re supposed to start with the arc of the hero:  what does he want, and what is preventing him from getting it; therein lie the stakes, and the villain should grow organically from that premise as the primary obstacle to the hero’s goal.  Nemesis, by contrast, is entirely about Shinzon’s journey and his struggle to find his purpose in a life that was thrust upon him, a life that but for a far-fetched Romulan cloning plot never should have been.  That’s all well and good and might have been fine in another movie, but as the audience we don’t care one solitary iota about Shinzon.  We care about our heroes, the Enterprise crew, and they have mostly nothing to do here except react to Shinzon’s evil machinations (which make no sense – we never understand why he’s hell-bent on annihilating Earth, given that his main beef seems to be with the Romulans whom he’s already defeated).  The thematic arc of “family” for Picard, his adopted family (the Enterprise crew) versus his “blood family” Shinzon, is a tenuous connection at best.  It bears saying again (especially given what’s coming in Star Trek Into Darkness) that Khan was not the reason for the success of The Wrath of Khan – his total screen time is quite minimal.  It’s how he spurs our heroes to confront their weaknesses, and prove their heroism through the capacity for sacrifice they find within themselves, that makes the movie work.  The emotionally hollow Nemesis gives us nothing similar, and even Data’s grand send-off – particularly given Brent Spiner’s story credit – feels like the dutiful and orderly execution of an out clause in a restless actor’s contract.

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In a film riddled with plot holes and convenience – space is really, really, really big, and was dumping pieces of an android on a primitive out-of-the-way planet really the most effective way to lure the Enterprise to Romulus? – there’s one glaring one that really grates:  why is Shinzon screwing around for forty minutes of screen time instead of just going ahead with getting what he needs from Picard?  The audience might not necessarily think about that, but the filmmakers helpfully shine a spotlight on it for them by having not one, but two scenes of Commander Suran asking Shinzon what the hell he’s waiting around for, with Shinzon unable to provide a satisfactory answer either time.  We can only conclude that Shinzon has studied at the same academy that taught Voldemort and Sauron and other like supervillains not to try so hard to complete their heinous plots.  Either that or writer Logan realized his “best since Khan” baddie wasn’t substantial enough to pad out a movie’s expected running time.  I’m also not certain why, unless it was simply that the powers that be thought Marina Sirtis needed something to do, the telepathic rape scene was included.  As soon as it occurs, as we watch Shinzon leer and descend into total creepazoid mode, any shred of sympathy we might have nurtured for him is vaporized, as if by a thalaron radiation blast.  What’s even worse is that without a beat, Picard totally dismisses it and asks Troi to subject herself to additional attacks because it might gain them a tactical advantage.  This is abhorrent, and the point in the movie where you stop caring about anyone in it.  (And in the original cut, believe it or not there was a second tele-rape scene to endure.)

For Shinzon to work as a character at all, you have to buy that he really is a dark mirror of Jean-Luc Picard.  But despite Hardy’s game efforts and innumerable “we are the saaaaaame!” scenes, at no point are you ever convinced that this is the case.  There is no way these two men share any heritage beyond the plastic nose and chin they’ve glued to Hardy’s face (and again, it’s lampshaded for us when Shinzon says “not quite the face you remember, is it.”)  Some have suggested that the movie would have worked better had Patrick Stewart played both roles, but the concept was simply misguided and unworkable from the get go.  Picard never needed to meet his evil twin.  Wouldn’t a greater challenge for him be a run up against the very unknown he had dedicated his life to seeking out, something that would have led him to question the value of that life, the moral certitude that was his defining character trait?  In Nemesis, there is no contest as to who is the better man.  Shinzon is a psychotic rapist; game, set and match to Picard, mic drop.

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So how can a movie fail so utterly and completely?  Bad scripts can sometimes be rescued by good direction, but Stuart Baird is not the man for the job.  Editors don’t necessarily make better directors as their skill is in assembling puzzle pieces and not having to understand the emotional truth behind the creation of each piece.  Consequently the overall tone of the movie is simply unpleasant, as if that green smoke on the bad-Photoshop-job posters was ripe sewer gas.  Jeffrey Kimball either chose or was told not to use any lights, as most of the scenes are so dim you occasionally have to squint to see what’s going on.  There are also at least a half-dozen insert close-ups of fingers pushing buttons as if Baird doesn’t quite believe the audience will comprehend that an action is being taken.  He proves that the lack of familiarity with Star Trek was not a blessing, as he doesn’t seem to even understand the screenplay and bludgeons home story points by staging repetitive scenes that deliver the same information again and again (and let’s steer clear of discussing the inclusion of the bizarre dune buggy chase).  When X-Men director Bryan Singer gets his 18-frame cameo as a relief tactical officer after we’ve been subjected to one hour and twenty minutes of pretty inept filmmaking, it yanks us out of the moment and has us wishing that he’d been the one behind the camera instead.

In the theater, I always stay to the end of the credits, as I enjoy listening to the score and have an interest in the technical side of film production.  As the lights finally went up after Nemesis had sputtered to a halt, I caught wind of a conversation between an usher and a woman in a row further down.  He asked her if she liked it and her reply was “yes, but I love them all.”  I used to be that person too.  I forgave copious sins because I was enamored of these movies (and associated TV series) simply being Star Trek.

This movie ended that for me.

Taste matures with age and experience, and sadly the things that once made our eyes light up eventually only make them glaze over.  Visible seams once ignored become more obvious, and there just isn’t enough good stuff in Star Trek Nemesis to balance out the blatant awfulness of the bad.  Loyalty to a franchise can eventually only bring you so far, and it should never be taken for granted on the other end either.  It is not that the audience will only accept consistent and innovative quality – remind me how many seasons of The Bachelorette have aired now – but as a storyteller, you should be doing your damnedest to see that we get it, if for no other reason than to stand proudly atop your work.  Don’t give us sloppy retreads of earlier, greater achievements, and above all, don’t ever assume that the bad guy is the sole key to a meaningful story.  That way lies Batman & Robin, about which one could easily say that Nemesis is Star Trek‘s equivalent – an absolute disaster followed by a much-improved reboot.

I’m not the only one who felt this way, as Nemesis opened in second place at the box office behind a forgotten Jennifer Lopez rom-com, ended Stuart Baird’s directing career, and kicked poor Tom Hardy – of whom you can at least say was trying his absolute best here – back into movie purgatory until he hauled himself out again years later with Bronson, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises among others, and just this year got his first Oscar nomination for The Revenant.  (I somehow doubt he looks back on this one with much fondness.)

In summary:  If you don’t feel like reading through 3700 words, this image of Worf from Riker & Troi’s wedding reception says it all.

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Next time:  Over to you, J.J. and friends.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  0 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

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What does the ninth Star Trek movie have in common with Apocalypse Now?  Would you believe they were based on the same book?  Those of you who have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may be pained to recall any stretchy-faced aliens in it, but the concept of going up the river to find a long-lost colleague who has gone native is indeed what sparked the imaginations of producer Rick Berman and screenwriter Michael Piller as they bandied about concepts for what Captain Picard and company, triumphant in their victory over the Borg, could do next.  The dark tone, elements of horror and catastrophic stakes in the previous film had proven very successful, but no one on the production side, studio side or even the acting side wanted to explore down that alley any further.  (Piller, in his unpublished book Fade In, likens it to pitching.  No successful pitcher can get away with only throwing fastballs; sometimes you have to throw a curve.  Patrick Stewart, for his part, used a cricket analogy of a shot straight back at the bowler.)  Early discussions were geared more towards emulating the tone of The Voyage Home, which remained the shining pinnacle that every subsequent Star Trek movie had attempted and failed to reach.  Piller wanted to tap into Star Trek‘s optimism, and, inspired by the Rogaine he was spraying on his bald patch one morning, decided to do a Fountain of Youth story and blend it with Heart of Darkness – “Heart of Lightness,” as he called it.

In Piller’s initial treatment (called Star Trek: Stardust after the Hoagy Carmichael song) the movie would open with a flashback to a young Picard at Starfleet Academy with his libertarian best friend, Hugh Duffy, and then fade to thirty years later, where, in the midst of a galaxy-wide shortage of an important medical ore called “sarium krellide,” Duffy has gone rogue on an alien planet and begun attacking Romulan ships and colonies.  Picard is assigned to hunt him down through a treacherous area of space known as the Briar Patch, accompanied by a smarmy half-Romulan, half-Klingon named Joss who likes to leer at Troi and pick fights with Worf.  When Duffy/Kurtz is found, he looks as young as he did at the Academy, because the entire planet is made of this sarium krellide stuff and it turns out the Federation has made a deal with the Romulans to exploit the planet for its ore, displacing the natives that Duffy is trying to defend.  Picard and crew turn their backs on the Federation and help the natives repel the Romulans and kill Joss, at the cost of Duffy’s life, and in an epilogue Picard has a speech-off with a Vulcan admiral (whom Piller hoped could be played by Ian McKellen) about morality and so on, fade to credits.  Berman didn’t like the politics in the story and requested that Duffy be changed to Data to keep the drama within the established family.  He also worried that the de-aging story might be offensive to Patrick Stewart, as it was essentially telling him that he was an old man.  Piller’s rewrite eliminated the fountain of youth aspect and instead played up the aliens on the planet, a race of telepathic mutes without immune systems who are protected from illness by the much-needed sarium krellide.  This version was more warmly received by almost everyone… except the man who was going to have to say the lines.

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Patrick Stewart, named an associate producer on this movie in thanks for his work on First Contact, was uncomfortable with almost everything.  He did not want Picard in deep emotional turmoil for a third straight movie (this time about possibly having to kill Data), he thought the Romulans (and particularly Joss, as conceived) were uninteresting villains, he didn’t think there were any compelling guest roles to attract decent actors, he criticized the sarium krellide concept as asking the audience to get excited about a bunch of rocks, etcetera, etcetera.  Ironically, Stewart turned out to be tremendously excited about the dropped fountain of youth idea, and the actor laughed off any concerns as to how his age would be portrayed.  The Romulans and the widely panned character of Joss were replaced with a race of tremendously old aliens called the Son’i (ultimately changed to the Son’a to avoid sounding like Sony Pictures) and their leader Ru’afo (played by Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham), the telepathic mutes were made plain humanoids called the Ba’ku, and the magic rocks became the more intangible “metaphasic radiation” present in the rings of the Ba’ku planet which would create a fountain of youth effect.  The plot would now revolve around a “Sorvino Switch” (a reference to a Next Generation episode, “Homeward,” where Worf’s foster brother played by Paul Sorvino tries to save a doomed alien culture by beaming them into a holographic recreation of their planet).  The Federation would be conspiring with the Son’a to forcibly relocate the Ba’ku in order to exploit the rejuvenating properties of the planet’s radiation.  Data would discover this and go rogue trying to protect the aliens, and Picard would disobey direct Starfleet orders to do the same.  With Jonathan Frakes back as director, and an increased budget of $60 million in place, the ninth Star Trek film was ready to go, even if no one could agree on a title yet.

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Fade in on a Vietnamese forest that explodes into flame as Jim Morrison sings “this is the end…”  sorry, no.  Wrong Heart of Darkness.  Fade in on a utopian lakeside village on the world of the Ba’ku, where the inhabitants are tending to their morning chores while a beautiful woman strolls about and children play in the fields.  The pastoral scene is being observed in secret by Starfleet in invisible isolation suits, managed from a “duck blind” concealed by holograms.  The Starfleet crew are being supervised by aliens we have never seen before:  the Son’a, beings with sagging skin stretched taut over aging faces.  A sudden explosion, and panic, as one of the crew begins attacking the others.  It’s Data (Brent Spiner), who rips off his invisibility suit and fires his weapon at the duck blind, exposing it for the frightened villagers to see.  In another sector of the galaxy, Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew, including Worf who has stopped by from Deep Space Nine, are hosting a reception when they receive a message from Vice Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) aboard a Son’a ship in the middle of a turbulent area of space known as the Briar Patch, advising that Data has taken the planetary observation team hostage.  Picard decides to bring the Enterprise into the Briar Patch to see for himself.   Descending to the surface in a shuttle, he and Worf are attacked by Data in a scout ship.  Picard tries appealing to Data by engaging him in a singing round of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “A British Tar,” which distracts the android long enough for Worf to subdue him.  Picard then leads a “rescue mission” to the Ba’ku village, finding both the Starfleet personnel and their Son’a allies sitting down with the Ba’ku for a cordial dinner.  He is introduced to Sojef (Daniel Hugh Kelly), the friendly leader of the small settlement of 600, and the lovely Anij (Donna Murphy), who is suspicious of off-landers.  The Ba’ku are as technologically sophisticated as the Federation, but have chosen to eschew such advancement and live a simple agrarian life instead.  Admiral Dougherty is satisfied that there has been no violation of the Prime Directive, and is eager for the Enterprise to be on its way, even though he and the Son’a will be remaining – to tie up “loose ends,” as Dougherty puts it.

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As the Enterprise lingers in orbit around the Ba’ku planet, the crew start behaving oddly:  Worf gets zits and oversleeps, Riker and Troi flirt like teenagers and even Picard notices a spring in his step.  Geordi discovers that Data’s odd behavior was triggered when his program was reset to function on strict interpretations of right and wrong – by being shot by a Son’a weapon.  Data is returned to normal and he and Picard head back down to the surface.  Journeying to the last location Data remembers, and accompanied by Anij, they discover neutrino emissions coming from the middle of a lake, which turn out to reveal a cloaked ship.  Inside the ship is a holographic recreation of the Ba’ku village, the purpose of which seems to be to move the Ba’ku off the planet; they would go to sleep one night and be beamed into this holo-ship, then flown to another, similar planet and left there without ever knowing what had happened.  Picard does not understand why, and the camera lingers on Anij’s face just as they are attacked by Son’a soldiers.  Picard and Data overpower them, and Picard orders them taken into custody until he can speak with Dougherty and the Son’a leader Ru’afo, who are on their way back from the outer rim of the Briar Patch.

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A midnight walk with Anij reveals the reason why the Federation and the dying Son’a are so interested in this planet:  she and the other Ba’ku are centuries old.  They came to this world from the ruins of their warring civilization to establish a new life, and found that the metaphasic radiation from the planet’s rings slowed their aging and led them to develop tremendous mental acuity; Anij herself has the power to slow down time.  Picard is envious of the existence that the Ba’ku lead and suspects that someone is planning to take it away from them.  After watching Geordi witness a sunrise with restored eyes for the first time in his life, Picard confronts Ru’afo and Dougherty aboard the Enterprise and is informed of the truth:  the Son’a have developed a method to collect the metaphasic particles from the planet’s rings for individual medical use, but the process will render the planet itself uninhabitable.  The Ba’ku world is in Federation space, and so the Federation Council has authorized Dougherty to transport the Ba’ku off the planet aboard the holo-ship before collection begins.  Dougherty argues the revolution in medical science that metaphasics could bring, doubling lifespans and curing disease.  Picard says that forcibly relocating the Ba’ku will destroy their culture.  Dougherty says that they are only moving 600 people; Picard asks how many people it takes before it becomes wrong.  Dougherty shuts down the debate by ordering Picard and his ship out of the Briar Patch.  A chastened Picard returns to his quarters and removes the pips from his uniform, deciding to betray his government to save the Ba’ku.

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Picard leaves Riker and Geordi to take the Enterprise to the edge of the Briar Patch to call for help, while he and the rest of the crew descend to the surface aboard the captain’s yacht.  Figuring that the Son’a will not begin their procedure while the planet is still populated lest a public relations disaster result, Picard’s people set up transport inhibitors and lead an evacuation of the Ba’ku village.  With Dougherty’s consent, Ru’afo sends drones to tag the villagers with homing markers that will allow them to be beamed up, and orders two of his ships to stop the Enterprise before it can reach communications range with the outside.  A battle in space leaves the Enterprise without its warp drive, but some fancy maneuvering by Riker destroys one of the Son’a ships and leaves the other crippled.  On the Ba’ku world, Sojef is taken by the drones, leaving his young son Artim (Michael Welch), who fears technology, in the care of Data.  The Ba’ku are shepherded into caves where the mineral deposits will blind the Son’a sensors, but the Son’a begin dropping charges on the mountainside to force them out, and a resulting cave-in crushes Anij.  Picard helps her to use her time-slowing power to keep her alive until medical help arrives.  Anij is saved, but shortly afterwards she and Picard are tagged by drones and beamed aboard the Son’a ship.  There, Picard reveals the final twist to Dougherty and the assembled group:  the Ba’ku and the Son’a are the same race.  Sojef says that a century earlier, a group of Ba’ku youth eager to embrace technology again tried to take over the colony, and were exiled when they failed.  Those youth have become the decrepit Son’a.  Dougherty has been unwittingly helping the embittered Son’a take revenge on their forebears – in the name of the Federation.  Ru’afo decides to go ahead with collecting the metaphasic radiation even if there are still people on the planet, and murders Dougherty to keep him from telling anyone.

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Picard manages to sway Ru’afo’s second in command, Gallatin (Gregg Henry), who was once known as Gal’na when he lived among the Ba’ku and clearly has misgivings.  With the assistance of Gallatin, Data and Worf, Picard has Ru’afo and his crew beamed to the holo-ship and presents them an illusion of the collector activating and draining the metaphasic particles.  But the savvy Ru’afo realizes it is a trick, and figures out a way to escape the holo-ship and transport to the collector to restart the countdown for real.  Picard beams over as well and the two leaders battle it out with fists, with Picard quoting Danny Glover, saying “we’re getting too old for this.”  Ru’afo’s crew manages to recapture his ship’s bridge and take Worf and Gallatin prisoner, but the Enterprise returns from the edge of the Briar Patch and disables them.  Picard activates the collector’s self-destruct just in time for the Enterprise to beam him off and leave the mad Ru’afo to be consumed by the explosion.  The remaining Son’a surrender before their air supply gives out, and Riker advises that the Federation Council has called an indefinite halt to the Ba’ku relocation project.  On the surface, the aging Gal’na is reunited with his still-youthful mother and they share a tender, forgiving embrace.  Artim bids goodbye to his new friend Data, Picard promises Anij that he has nearly a year of shore leave he’d like to spend with her, and the Enterprise crew beams away to head home as Marlon Brando whispers “the horror, the horror…” – sorry, I did it again.  Bad reviewer.

Something has puzzled me ever since I first saw this movie in December of 1998:  why don’t I like it more?  It captures and reflects the optimism that makes Star Trek endearing, it has an intelligent script, it tells a fast-paced adventure story without racking up an enormous body count, it asks ever-timely and relevant questions about the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few, it has good performances, it has villains but not people being nasty just for nasty’s sake, it has a lot of sweet and funny and even touching moments, it has a Jerry Goldsmith score, and the gorgeous Donna Murphy steals breaths in every frame she’s in (and you get to see Marina Sirtis covered in soap bubbles, if that isn’t additional inducement!)  But for some reason the entire affair falls a bit flat.  I’ve wondered if it’s perhaps because there’s nothing here that is surprising, and it raises the question of whether surprises always require the risk of making people uncomfortable.  This movie, by contrast, was designed from the outset to be light-hearted and breezy, and anything that could have represented audience discomfort was snipped out.  (A scene was filmed where Riker and Troi went to the ship’s library to do research on the Son’a and were shushed by an elderly, glasses-wearing caricature of a librarian; deeming this possibly offensive to real librarians, director Frakes deleted it from the final cut.)

Making audiences uncomfortable doesn’t have to mean assaulting their senses and morals with blood and guts and sex and swears, but it does mean thwarting expectations by introducing irrevocable changes to the characters and the universe they inhabit, consequently leaving the audience actively guessing at what could possibly happen next.  This movie never does that.  It has the visual aesthetic and sweep of a major motion picture, but the play-it-safe mentality of an average TV episode.  When Picard, Data and Anij find the holo-ship and Picard describes the “Sorvino Switch,” we’re deflated because what is supposed to be a major plot twist turns out to be a retread of an episode we just saw a few years ago.  We don’t want the movies to recycle the TV plots; we expect better, more consequential events than that.  We’re paying to be here, after all.

Even the final title of Star Trek: Insurrection is a promise not kept.  I hear “insurrection” and I’m thinking wide-scale galactic rebellion among dozens of starships across hundreds of worlds, not just Picard and his crew disobeying the orders of one misguided Starfleet admiral – especially when there is never any legitimate doubt that Picard is in the right (wouldn’t it have been a more gripping  ethical dilemma if the audience were to question if the “insurrection” was valid?)  Part of the problem could be that, Donna Murphy’s beauty aside, the Ba’ku are not really that compelling an alien species to spin a story around.  We don’t always have to put Earth itself in jeopardy to have drama – witness Avatar – and we don’t even have to make the aliens eight-foot-tall and blue either, but they should have a little more meat to them than just coming off like a commune of well-manicured hippie California Democrats.  Call it a failure of worldbuilding, as my fantasy-writing friends will appreciate.  It’s unfortunate too that the Ba’ku were cast all white, which represents a deep valley in Star Trek‘s otherwise proud tradition of diversity, and I can’t find a logical reason as to why it was done that way.

Look, to echo Michael Piller’s baseball analogy, sometimes a curveball finds the strike zone, and sometimes, as Brett Cecil of the Blue Jays could tell you, the hitter smacks it over the left-field fence.  That doesn’t diminish the worth of the pitch, nor does it mean the curve won’t be more effective the next time you throw it.  Star Trek‘s curveball, Insurrection, isn’t a bad movie, but it never risks enough to potentially become a great one.  Yet you can’t bring yourself to hate it or its creators.  Everyone is trying very hard, and the effort is obvious.  But its greatest sin is in wanting so much to make us smile that it trips over its own good intentions.

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In summary:  This curveball, sadly, veers too far off the plate.

Next time:  The world gets its first major look at an up-and-coming actor named Tom Hardy.  Pity it’s in one of the worst Star Trek movies ever made.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

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You remember that great movie Star Trek: Renaissance, right?  The one where the Enterprise crew fights zombies on the streets of 1400’s Florence and Data teams up with Leonardo da Vinci?  Hmm, not quite.  Yet if not for a series of mindful rewrites and a certain actor’s demands regarding his costume, that’s very possibly the mess of a movie we might have been served in the winter of 1996 instead of what we and the people involved remember as the generally agreed-upon high-water mark of the four Next Generation features.

From humble beginnings, as the saying goes.

Star Trek Generations had the same aim (and issues) as Star Trek: The Motion Picture fifteen years earlier – get the awkward first inevitable stumbles from television to silver screen out of the way in a modestly entertaining fashion, and clear the decks for a carte blanche story going forward through the sequels.  With Captain Kirk laid to rest, the TV Enterprise in pieces and no requirement (or lingering desire for that matter) to shoehorn in the ancestral cast again, Captain Picard’s crew could go, much like in the Nexus, anywhere, any time.  Producer Rick Berman, given the green light to begin work on another sequel just as Generations finished its run in theaters, took this literally.

Recalling that time travel had been an element of some of the most successful Star Trek stories, including all-time top grosser The Voyage Home, Berman approached his Generations screenwriting team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga and requested that they dream up a time travel plot.  The two writers had been contemplating using the Borg instead; a virtually unstoppable cybernetic alien race whose modus operandi was not to kill, but to assimilate other beings and cultures into its hive mind.  They had become The Next Generation‘s most popular, catchphrase-ready villains, thanks largely to the third season’s famous cliffhanger finale episode, “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which Picard himself was transformed into a Borg.  So Moore and Braga wrote a story in which the Borg would travel back to the Italian Renaissance to disrupt humanity’s emergence from the Dark Ages.  The Enterprise crew would pursue them and battle Borg drones in Florence while Data assisted Leonardo da Vinci in his earliest breakthroughs.

This treatment was rejected for two reasons:  first, a survey showed that general audiences weren’t terribly familiar with what the Renaissance was (I’m guessing most replied that they thought it was a hotel), and second and most importantly, Patrick Stewart advised that under absolutely no circumstances would he be induced into wearing tights.

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Patrick Stewart in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  Clearly once was enough.

Forced to pick another era, Braga and Moore delved into Star Trek‘s own history instead and selected what they called its birth:  the moment in our immediate future when humanity broke the light speed barrier and contacted aliens for the first time.  The original series episode “Metamorphosis” had introduced a character named Zefram Cochrane, played by Glenn Corbett, who was credited with having invented warp drive; the revised story, now titled Star Trek: Resurrection (because somebody at Star Trek in those days had a fixation with titles ending in “-tion”) would see the Borg going back in time and attacking the missile complex in the town of Resurrection, Montana where Cochrane was assembling his prototype warp ship.  Cochrane would be injured, and Picard and Geordi La Forge would take his place at the controls for his historic first warp flight while Riker and the rest of the crew battled with the Borg aboard the Enterprise in orbit.

There were a few problems with this version; namely, that the character with the most personal involvement and history with the Borg never had anything to do with them over the course of the plot, and that Cochrane was a one-dimensional and disposable prop.  It was a simple matter of switching Picard and Riker’s respective places, and putting Cochrane back in the pilot’s seat of his own ship, with the twist that he starts out not as a divinely inspired legend but rather as a flawed, drunken mess more interested in money and women than achieving a place in history.  A savvy (for once) studio executive also observed that the Borg were essentially zombies (a decade before our collective cultural obsession with them began) and requested that there be a central character who could command them – from that directive arose the Borg Queen, the first (and to date, only) female villain in a Star Trek movie.

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Impressed, Paramount boosted the movie’s budget.  While Generations had been made for a modest $26 million, the new movie’s bottom line was penciled in at $45 million, allowing for more location shooting, more imaginative set pieces, more impressive visual effects, and – potentially – pricier, in-demand talent.  But as pre-production continued, a reminder of the Eddie Murphy debacle on The Voyage Home surfaced when the studio requested that the now-major guest part of Cochrane be offered to an A-list star; depending on whose account you believe it was one of the Toms (Cruise or Hanks).  Different era, but identical concerns that such a presence would eclipse the regular cast.  Attempts to land an A-list director were equally fruitless, as top choices like Blade Runner‘s Ridley Scott and Die Hard‘s John McTiernan were far too expensive or not the slightest bit interested in Star Trek.  Berman eventually assigned the movie to Jonathan Frakes (Riker), who had cut his teeth directing multiple episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and clearly knew Star Trek top to bottom.  Given a hand in assembling the guest cast, Frakes suggested his godmother Alfre Woodard as Cochrane’s assistant Lily, who would act as an audience surrogate for the non-Star Trek fans as she accompanied Picard in his battle against the Borg.  But someone still needed to play Cochrane.

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It was never a question of going back to Corbett, as he had died three years earlier.  And with neither famous Tom willing, able or available, James Cromwell auditioned for and was awarded the part instead.  At the time, Cromwell was not nearly as well known as he is now; a veteran of decades of small parts across both TV and movies (including three different guest roles in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), his star-making, Oscar-nominated turn as the kindly farmer in Babe was just peaking.  Alice Krige was cast as the Borg Queen, and Neal McDonough (a.k.a. Dum Dum Dugan for you Marvel Cinematic Universe fans) received a plum early role as the unfortunate redshirt, Lt. Hawk.  In a replay of The Wrath of Khan‘s title woes, “Resurrection” was dropped from the movie after Alien Resurrection was announced, and a couple of lousy interim titles (including the particularly uninspired Star Trek: Borg) finally gave way to Star Trek: First Contact.

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Aboard the newly-commissioned, Sovereign-class, U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701-E, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is having nightmares of his assimilation by the Borg several years earlier, triggered by their entry into Federation space on their way to Earth.  Initially ordered to stay on the sidelines because of his personal involvement, Picard disobeys and charges into battle, identifying a key weakness that allows the Starfleet armada (including the Millennium Falcon, which you can spot if you have a Blu-ray copy and a good pause button), to destroy the Borg cube and rescue Worf (Michael Dorn, dropping by from his regular duties on Deep Space Nine).  A spherical escape vessel emerges and plummets towards Earth while opening a temporal vortex to travel back in time, catching the Enterprise in its wake.  The effects are immediate:  the Borg change history, transforming Earth into an entirely Borgified planet.  Protected from the alteration in the timeline by the temporal wake, the Enterprise follows them back three hundred years to the night of April 4, 2063, where the Borg are attacking the Montana installation where the famous Dr. Zefram Cochrane is scheduled to make his warp flight aboard his converted nuclear missile, the Phoenix, the very next morning, which will lead to first contact with an alien species.  A spread of super-duper quantum torpedoes destroys the Borg ship, and Picard and crew beam down to the surface.  Many are dead, Cochrane is missing and his assistant Lily has radiation poisoning from the damaged Phoenix.  Picard leaves Riker in charge of repairs and returns to the Enterprise, where the environmental systems are haywire and crewmembers are going missing.

The drunken Cochrane is finally located hitting on Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) in a bar, and he is informed of the importance of his journey in the morning.  A skeptical Cochrane, summing up our heroes as “astronauts… on some kind of star trek,” agrees to help, but is overwhelmed by the attention and adulation he draws from the Enterprise crew – including the nervous Lt. Barclay, in a cameo from Dwight Schultz reprising his character from The Next Generation.  Aboard the Enterprise, as Lily is treated for her injuries, Picard figures out that the Borg have sneaked aboard and are working on assimilating the ship.  Data (Brent Spiner) quickly locks out the main computer and comes up with a plan to stop the invaders by puncturing the plasma coolant tanks around the warp core, which will liquefy the Borg’s organic components and kill them.  But when a team descends to engineering, Data is captured, and a mysterious woman’s voice taunts him as the Borg begin to experiment on him.  The voice is revealed as the Borg Queen (Krige), who, apart from trying to obtain the command codes to release access to the main computer, has a personal interest in Data as well, and offers him the temptations of the flesh – literally, in the form of organic skin grafted to his exoskeleton – to sway him to her side.  Meanwhile, Picard is also separated from the group and runs into Lily, and once he is able to convince the frightened 21st Century woman of her surroundings and the present situation, the two of them ambush a pair of Borg in the holodeck, where Picard’s long-simmering rage against them starts to emerge.  By analyzing a piece of circuitry from a fallen Borg – a former member of the crew now transformed – Picard discovers that the Borg are building a transmitter on top of the Enterprise‘s deflector dish to contact their home system and summon reinforcements.

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As repairs on the Phoenix near completion, Cochrane finds he cannot handle the burden of history and tries to flee the missile complex only to be stopped by Riker with a phaser stun.  He complains that he is nothing like the person that the Enterprise crew have read about, and admits that he built his warp ship only with the hope of financial reward.  Riker quotes Cochrane’s (eventual) words back to him:  “Don’t try to be a great man, just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.”  Cochrane grins, shakes off his hangover, and begins readying his ship for launch.  On the Enterprise, Picard, Worf and Hawk suit up and spacewalk onto the deflector dish, where the Borg are assembling their transmitter.  Worf’s suit is punctured and Hawk – befitting his red uniform – is captured and assimilated.  Picard is able to sever the deflector dish and the Borg transmitter from the ship, and Worf, who has tied his suit closed with a cable from a dead Borg’s arm, blows it into a bajillion pieces.  But the Borg are still advancing, and Picard’s officers recommend that he set the Enterprise‘s self-destruct mechanism as a last ditch effort.  Picard is incensed, and even calls Worf a coward for suggesting it.  After a tirade in which Picard reveals his history with the Borg and gloats in how he will exact vengeance upon them, Lily, who is not obligated to follow orders, takes Picard to task and compares him to Captain Ahab.  Picard comes to his senses, activates the self-destruct and orders the crew to abandon ship.  However, he remains behind to try to save Data.  Arriving in the completely Borgified engineering section, Picard encounters the Queen, who reveals their history:  it was she who arranged his assimilation years ago as she wanted a partner instead of another drone.  Picard volunteers to exchange himself for Data, but Data, now with human flesh covering half his face, is having none of it.  He wants to be the Queen’s counterpart.

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On the morning of April 5, as the Phoenix launches from Earth with Cochrane at the controls (blaring a Steppenwolf tune) and Riker and Geordi as his co-pilots, Data releases control of the computer to the Queen and locks torpedoes on the warp ship.  Humanity’s future is on the cusp of vanishing forever when the torpedoes abruptly miss their target, and Data, hissing the Borg’s catchphrase “resistance is futile,” smashes the coolant tanks and floods engineering with the deadly plasma.  Picard climbs out of reach while Data pulls the Queen down into the toxic soup, which tears her to pieces and causes all the remaining Borg to short out and perish.  The Phoenix blasts away into warp speed as it was always intended.  Surveying the remains of the invaders, Picard and a wounded Data contemplate the uniqueness of the deceased Borg Queen, and Data reveals that he had been tempted by her offer for a grand total of 0.68 seconds.  That evening, Picard and his crew witness the arrival of the alien ship that detected the Phoenix‘s warp signature, and its crew – revealed as Vulcans – step out to meet Cochrane and spark humanity’s future.  After Picard exchanges a final goodbye with Lily, the Enterprise slips away in the night sky toward its restored future as Cochrane entertains the Vulcans with his vintage jukebox recording of Roy Orbison, and the camera pulls back and pans up into the stars.

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During filming, Jonathan Frakes was nicknamed “Two Takes Frakes” for his efficiency in getting scenes in the can without the sort of Kubrickian perfectionism (and the emulation of such by insecure and considerably lesser directors) that can have productions dragging on for months and leaving everyone involved hating each other.  This movie, then, proves quite nicely that endless retakes are not the harbinger of quality, as there isn’t a single scene here that rings false or isn’t performed well.  Rather than just shoot the movie with the same subdued TV blocking and pacing as David Carson did on the previous installment, Frakes did his homework by screening Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and borrowing some of those techniques to bring much more life to his camera, assisted by his DP Matthew Leonetti.  Indeed, First Contact is full of dynamic shots and imaginative sequences that you would never, ever get on the TV series, and everyone involved from the screenwriters to the last guy clicking the last CGI pixel into place seems to be much more aware that they are making a movie on this go-around, and consequently giving each moment their all.

I remember seeing it for the first time, arriving at the scene when Picard says the Borg are building a transmitter on the deflector dish, and thinking okay, there’s no way they’re going to show that, they’ll probably just talk about it on the bridge and push a few buttons, problem solved.  I was gobsmacked to see the characters put on spacesuits and actually walk outside on the hull of the ship for the very first time, and when they put a button on a wonderfully suspenseful scene by having Worf do his best Schwarzenegger and growl “assimilate THIS!”, you couldn’t wipe the grin from my face.  We’ve become accustomed to Star Trek letting us down when it comes to the idea of spectacle, but this movie never does; instead, it doubles down every chance it gets.  The benefits of an expanded budget and an experienced crew are all there, bursting from each and every frame, with none of the obvious cost-cutting measures like re-used sets and recycled effects shots we so often find ourselves shrugging at over the course of these films.  And there are so many little treats for folks in the know:  Barclay’s cameo, for one; Ethan Phillips’ (Neelix on Voyager) uncredited appearance as a holographic maitre d’, Robert Picardo showing up as the Enterprise‘s version of Voyager‘s sardonic emergency medical hologram.  Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, and the energy radiates from the screen.

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Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore’s screenplay is so sharp and cracking after the plodding effort of Generations that I was certain – no disrespect intended – that someone else (maybe Carrie Fisher?) had done an uncredited polish.  The story benefits immensely from the characters of Zefram Cochrane and Lily as the outsiders and foils to our regulars, never afraid to poke a few sarcastic holes in the immaculate conception that is the Star Trek universe as we understand it (“Borg?  Sounds Swedish.”  “Don’t you people in the 24th Century ever pee?”) and Cromwell and Woodard are both perfect, especially the former as a revered Professor Stephen Hawking revealed as more of a crazed Doc Emmett Brown, who is wisely allowed to retain his lead role in history rather than being replaced by perfect people who’ve already saved the galaxy a hundred times over – as was the intention in the original draft.  Krige is very good as well, with the Borg Queen ranking ahead of Chang but just a shade shy of Khan in Star Trek villains, and certainly the most unique, bringing an unsettling mix of ice-cold technology and red-hot sensuality to what in lesser hands could have been a dreadful cliché.  And there is little more to be added to the copious esteem reserved for Sir Patrick Stewart, who carries the movie on his surprisingly muscular back (seriously – check out the guns in this movie) and gets to own the camera with some tour de force acting and character development as he reveals to us the flaws in the heart of our intrepid starship captain.  (I do wish, given that Moby Dick had been so notably employed in The Wrath of Khan, that Moore & Braga had gone to another text for Picard’s big emotional scene, but Stewart sells it so well this is a minor gripe.)

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In its latter years (seasons 5 to 7), the Next Generation‘s music was notorious for relying solely on repetition of bland, undulating, occasionally atonal strings, with percussion considered verboten by Berman.  But after a two-film hiatus, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith is back at the podium, assisted by his son Joel, and what a pure delight to the ears it is to have his music backing the twists and turns of this crew, from the surprisingly low-key yet melodic main title theme to the pulsing, metallic clangs of the relentless march of the Borg, and a welcome return of the Klingon fanfare to give Worf his very own taste of heroic leitmotif.  Goldsmith pere et fils deliver the scope and sweep that we’ve been so desperately craving, and was a bit beyond the reach of the well-intentioned Dennis McCarthy (who was perhaps still too locked into the style of the series in his thinking) on the last movie.  Thankfully, Goldsmith would continue scoring Star Trek movies until his death in 2004.

If there is fault to be found in Star Trek: First Contact, it’s that the movie is much darker than its predecessors, with scenes (and an enemy) that can be genuinely frightening to younger viewers, and that quite a lot of people die in pretty awful ways before the triumphant and hopeful conclusion (in the time-honored tradition of Star Trek, most of these are unmourned extras without dialogue).  If memory serves, it was the first Star Trek movie to be rated PG-13 for that very reason.  But for someone who grew up with these movies and watched them rise and sink in both their quality and ability to reach beyond their ambitions, this is a true peak in Star Trek‘s cinematic history, an occasion where everything went right and you are left wanting nothing more.  Until 2009, Star Trek: First Contact ranked second only to The Voyage Home in total Trek box office earnings.  The wild and snaking creative process that began with zombies on the streets of Renaissance Florence led us to the best Next Generation movie ever made.

And thank whomsoever you want to thank that we didn’t have to see Patrick Stewart in tights.

In summary:  I’m deducting half a point for the cribbing of Wrath of Khan, but otherwise, yeah, they nailed it.

Next time:  Building on the revelatory success that is First Contact, the Star Trek production team goes and does the exact opposite.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek Generations (1994)

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Back in 1991, as the Presidency of George H.W. Bush wound into its final year, and Canadians were still grumbling about Brian Mulroney and smarting that the Toronto Blue Jays had choked again in their third League Championship Series, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country made just shy of $100 million worldwide against a budget of $30 million and proved to the folks who track such things that Star Trek was a fairly dependable, if not exceptional, mid-grade box office earner.  Its fans were a solid bloc who could be counted on to swarm the multiplexes in regular numbers every couple of years as long as there was something with the Trek name on it to entice them.  As ’91 rolled into ’92, the movie series looked certain to continue, but the question was, with whom?  Shatner, Nimoy et al were considered too old and too expensive now, and The Undiscovered Country had been deliberately designed to close the book on their adventures.  With Gene Roddenberry dead and gone, and Harve Bennett alienated after his aborted Starfleet Academy project, the title of franchise guardian drifted to Star Trek: The Next Generation executive producer Rick Berman.  He was approached in the middle of TNG‘s fifth season to begin planning for Star Trek VII, to feature Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and his crew transitioning to the cinema.  Paramount was not keen on releasing a movie while people could still watch new episodes of the show for free on television, so the series was capped at seven seasons, to conclude in the spring of 1994, with the movie to follow that same Christmas.

Berman wanted to include the original cast in some capacity to make this event a true passing of the torch, and for the story he commissioned two different scripts, written independently, from which he could select the best.  Maurice Hurley, who had been the showrunner for TNG in its first two tumultuous seasons, penned one, while the prolific young team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, who wrote TNG‘s series finale “All Good Things,” collaborated on the other.  (A third was to be written by Michael Piller, but disliking being pitted against friends, he declined the invitation; Piller would write the screenplay for Star Trek: Insurrection four years later.)  Moore and Braga’s script was the winner.  Their original concept was based on an imagined poster of the two Enterprises battling each other, but, finding themselves unable to make that work, the duo instead came up with the idea of a mystery that would begin in Kirk’s time and end in Picard’s, with the character of Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) – already established on the show as an enigmatic, extremely long-lived alien – as the link between the two.  The movie’s prologue would feature the entire original cast (pared down through budget-conscious rewrites to only Kirk, Spock and McCoy), and then Kirk would return to team up with Picard at the film’s climax.  Of course, that would depend on whether or not the old gang was up for yet another “last ride.”

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Leonard Nimoy was sent a copy of the script and presented with an offer to direct as well, given his sublime track record.  However, this time Nimoy was not being invited to contribute to the story; he was being asked only to come in and shoot somebody else’s finished script, which were hardly his ideal creative circumstances.  After all of his extensive proposed changes were vetoed by Berman, Nimoy declined both the top job and the chance to wear the pointed ears on camera again, citing that Spock didn’t serve much of a purpose in the movie.  DeForest Kelley also turned Berman down, feeling that he’d already said his farewells in The Undiscovered Country.  James Doohan and Walter Koenig were hired in their place and Scotty and Chekov were assigned Spock and McCoy’s respective lines (which is why Chekov is the one to take charge of the unstaffed sickbay in the prologue despite no hints he’s ever had medical training).  But William Shatner was in, intrigued by the notion of playing Captain Kirk’s final hurrah, and admittedly flattered by Moore & Braga’s deliberate inclusion of several horseback riding scenes, Shatner being known for his love of horses and his expert riding skills.  At the request of the studio for a dastardly villain to rival Khan (a recurring theme, you’ll start to see), A Clockwork Orange‘s Malcolm McDowell was enlisted as an alien mad scientist, and David Carson, who had helmed several acclaimed TV episodes including “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and the two-hour pilot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was named the movie’s director.  To help set it apart from its predecessors, the number VII was dropped from the title and it became Star Trek Generations.

To assist Carson, Berman brought most of the behind the scenes personnel from Star Trek: The Next Generation onto the movie with him, including line producer Peter Lauritson, production designer Herman Zimmerman (who had designed the last two Star Trek movies, so he was not entirely new to features), makeup designer Michael Westmore, costume designer Robert Blackman and composer Dennis McCarthy.  Several actors and extras who had appeared in TNG as guest characters over the years were given bit parts in the movie, notably Tim Russ, the runner-up for the role of Geordi LaForge and the future Lt. Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager, who played a human member of the Enterprise-B bridge crew.  (Completing an interesting circle, Jenette Goldstein, best known as uber-tough space marine Vasquez in James Cameron’s Aliens, was cast as the Enterprise-B’s communications officer; during the development of The Next Generation, Vasquez had inspired the creation of the Enterprise-D’s security chief Macha Hernandez, who then became Tasha Yar when Denise Crosby got the part.)  In fact, the only member of the lead crew with significant feature film experience (but no Star Trek experience) was cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who had received an Oscar nomination for lensing Roman Polanski’s classic Chinatown and had also shot such notable films as Harold and Maude, Norma Rae and Scarface.  Alonzo’s list of credits was so long and his work so esteemed that he could get away with calling Shatner and Stewart “Billy” and “Patty” on set.  He was hired to ensure that although this was essentially an expanded TV production made by TV people featuring TV stars, it would at least look as much like a movie as it possibly could.

Whether it felt like a movie was another matter…

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In the late 23rd Century, Kirk, Scotty and Chekov are invited to the dedication of the U.S.S. Enterprise-B, under the command of freshman Captain Cameron Frye… er, John Harriman (Alan Ruck), and piloted by Ensign Demora Sulu (Jacqueline Kim), daughter of Hikaru.  Kirk himself is invited to give the order to get underway, but he is feeling restless and out of place on a bridge that clearly no longer needs him.  A few moments into the Enterprise‘s “quick run around the block,” a distress call comes in from two transport ships trapped in a strange, pulsing ribbon of energy that is traveling through the galaxy at high speed.  Harriman’s inexperience leads the young captain to set pride aside and ask for Kirk’s help.  Kirk advises the risky maneuver of moving the Enterprise into transporter range, where Scotty manages to beam forty-seven survivors aboard, including a wild-eyed man who pleads to be allowed to go back, and a silent, shaken woman we recognize as Guinan.  The Enterprise is caught in the wake of the energy ribbon, and without photon torpedoes, the only chance to escape is to reconfigure the deflector dish to simulate a torpedo blast.  Kirk volunteers to descend to the lower decks to carry out the last-ditch repair, and he succeeds in helping break the Enterprise free and clear – but a last charge from the ribbon blows apart the section of the ship in which Kirk was working, and he is sadly presumed lost.

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Seventy-eight years later, the crew of the Enterprise-D is celebrating Worf (Michael Dorn)’s promotion to Lieutenant Commander on a high seas holodeck simulation when Captain Picard receives a message advising that his brother Robert and nephew Rene have been killed in a fire.  The Enterprise also intercepts a distress call from a stellar observatory in the Amargosa system that is under attack.  The only survivor is the same wild-eyed man who was rescued in the prologue:  Dr. Tolian Soran (McDowell), a 300-year-old scientist who lost his family when his world was destroyed by the evil cybernetic Borg.  Soran asks to be allowed to return to the observatory to complete an experiment he is running.  Picard is reluctant until his crew’s investigation is finished, but Soran preys upon Picard’s obviously troubled feelings (“They say time is the fire in which we burn”).  Aboard the observatory, android commander Data (Brent Spiner) and chief engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) have uncovered some mysterious equipment hidden behind a secret panel when they are interrupted by Soran, who knocks LaForge out and pulls a weapon on Data.  Data, having recently undergone the implant of a chip that allows him to feel emotions, is frightened into submission.  Back on the Enterprise, an equally emotional Picard is confessing remorse over his lost family and his increasing feelings of mortality to ship’s counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) when the Amargosa star abruptly goes nova.  First Officer Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Worf beam over to the observatory to rescue their comrades, but Data is scared and cannot help.  Soran and LaForge are beamed away aboard a Klingon vessel that appears out of nowhere, the others return to the Enterprise and Picard orders it to warp speed as the shock wave from the dead star blows the observatory to atoms.

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Soran has allied himself with the nefarious Klingon sisters Lursa and B’Etor, bargaining transportation and equipment in exchange for information on how to make a weapon capable of destroying stars.  Guinan, who is from the same alien race as Soran, tells Picard that Soran’s true ambition is to return to the Nexus, a timeless dimension that is accessed by way of the mysterious energy ribbon and feels like being enveloped in perpetual joy.  By destroying the Amargosa star, Soran has altered the ribbon’s course.  It will pass through the Veridian system, and if Soran destroys the Veridian star, come into direct contact with Veridian III, allowing Soran to be swept into it since flying into it with a ship is impossible.  However, the star’s destruction will obliterate the entire system and its population of two hundred thirty million.  The Enterprise warps to Veridian, where the Klingon ship is already in orbit.  Picard proposes a prisoner exchange whereby the sisters return LaForge and Picard agrees to be their hostage provided he can speak with Soran first.  The Klingons agree, Picard heads to the surface, and LaForge is sent home – but the visor that allows him to see has been reprogrammed to transmit his field of vision to someone else.  The Klingons use it to discover the frequency of the Enterprise‘s shields and begin firing directly through them, battering the ship irreparably.  Our heroes manage to exploit a technological vulnerability and destroy their attackers, but not before the Enterprise’s warp core is critically damaged.  While the saucer section separates safely, the explosion of the warp core knocks it out of orbit and sends it down to a spectacular crash landing on the planet’s surface.

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Elsewhere, on a mountaintop on Veridian III, Picard attempts to talk Soran out of his plan, and when that fails, to fistfight him out of it, which also fails.  Soran launches a probe into the Veridian star, which goes dark, and the energy ribbon blankets the mountain, whisking Soran and Picard into the Nexus just before the star’s explosion destroys the planet and what is left of the Enterprise with it.  Picard awakens on an idyllic Christmas morning, with a loving wife and family and a very much alive Rene.  The illusion is seductive given Picard’s recent losses, but he soon realizes that something is not right, and suddenly Guinan appears; an echo of herself left behind when she was beamed away in the prologue.  Guinan explains that time has no meaning here, and Picard declares his intention to return to Veridian III and stop Soran – but he knows he can’t do it alone.  Guinan’s echo can’t return, but she knows someone else who can:  James T. Kirk, who survived the mission of the Enterprise-B after all.  Kirk is also initially reluctant to leave the Nexus, where it seems that he can right all the wrongs he ever committed in his life, and have a future with a woman named Antonia whom he wished he had married instead of returning to Starfleet.  But a leap on horseback across a gully that sparks no emotional response makes Kirk realize that the Nexus is an ultimately empty experience.  He agrees to help Picard to try to make a difference one last time.

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Time resets itself, the Enterprise crashes again, and the two captains emerge on Veridian III before its destruction, tag-teaming their wits and fists against Soran.  Kirk makes a daring – and real – leap across a chasm to retrieve a control pad from a collapsing bridge, giving Picard the chance to reprogram Soran’s probe to destroy itself on launch, and take the mad doctor with it.  The Veridian system is saved and the Nexus ribbon passes by harmlessly.  But what finally defeats the seemingly immortal Captain Kirk is rusty steelwork and gravity, and Picard bids him a thankful goodbye as he contemplates the undiscovered country and whispers an awed “oh my” before breathing his last.  Picard buries Kirk on a hilltop.  Later, he and Riker comb the ruins of the Enterprise‘s bridge for Picard’s treasured family photo album, and Picard speaks of time not as a predator but as a companion who reminds us to cherish our memories.  They beam away from the wrecked captain’s chair, and three starships carrying the survivors of the Enterprise careen away at warp speed to the triumphant sound of the Star Trek fanfare.

When I was fourteen, and Star Trek V had just come out, I tried writing a fan fiction story where Kirk and Picard’s crews would meet each other in a dimension outside space and time, and collaborate to defeat some Klingons and escape back to their respective eras.  It was called Star Trek: The Two Generations, and I don’t mind admitting that it was pretty dang bad.  I’d also be willing to bet that there were hundreds of fans just like me over the years prior to the release of this movie writing their own fan fiction versions of “Kirk meets Picard,” and no doubt the quality would vary from exceptional to barely literate.  It is a great disappointment that this movie, written and assembled by the professionals, also feels like fan fiction, pegged squarely in the middle of that range.  The best you can say of it is that it is competent, that it hits the marks you would expect it to hit, but it does so much like a puppy led by a leash from point A to point B, begging with wide eyes for an approving belly rub.  The screenplay bears the obvious trait of the committee approach, resulting in so many mandated events to plod on through that nary a single scene has the chance to breathe and register any emotional impact.

Not that any scene would anyway, given that the arcs for our characters are perfunctory and come off as though they were written by people who have only studied emotions rather than felt them (a common issue with young screenwriters).  In this series I have lauded the depth and literacy of the Star Trek screenplays written or co-written by Nicholas Meyer; Moore and Braga are simply not in his league.  They’re the Lansing Lugnuts to his Toronto Blue Jays.  We get technobabble about gravimetric distortions and confluxes of temporal energy instead of meaningful allusions to Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes – dialogue that is so hard to render truthful that the otherwise skilled cast are left flailing and sounding like amateur dinner theater hams.  (We are left to wonder at the substance of Leonard Nimoy’s extensive notes on the script as mentioned earlier.)  In syndicated television like The Next Generation, writers are generally not allowed to write serial arcs where a story builds from one episode to the next because the networks buying the episodes want the freedom to air them in whatever order suits them.  As a result, characters in syndication usually deal week-to-week with basic, surface problems that will have no lasting effect on them (Billy needs to study for his test but wants to go the baseball game instead!  Dad wants to have a romantic dinner with Mom but keeps getting sidelined by his boss!)  While Star Trek Generations tries to give us big events like the destruction of the Enterprise (in a sequence that is way too long and doesn’t advance the plot one millimeter) and the death of Captain Kirk, it handles them with all the gravitas of Marcia Brady worrying that she can’t go to the prom because she’s having a bad hair day.

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We felt the death of Spock.  It hurt.  Even in hindsight when you know he’s coming back, The Wrath of Khan hits hard.  That movie lets the emotions play out and follow us to the end of the credits and even into the theater lobby.  With Kirk’s death, we just shrug and get on with it, as do the other characters, who are back to wisecracking in the very next scene as if the loss of the great and storied hero was no more relevant than the loss of a pesky hangnail.  (Worse – Kirk’s death is juxtaposed with and given the emotional equivalence of Data finding his lost cat.)  I don’t know whether the movie would have benefited from an extended eulogy and funeral scene, given that nothing in the preceding hour and thirty minutes had legitimately led us to that.  Indeed, Star Trek Generations is a movie absent of consequence, refraining in every frame from asking us to dip deep into the emotional well, either because the storytellers simply aren’t that skilled, or because in its blatant desperation for the pat on the head, it’s afraid to.  Spock’s sacrifice meant something because it was to save people we knew and loved.  Kirk’s sacrifice (and that of the Enterprise herself) is to save two hundred and thirty million aliens we don’t know, don’t ever see, and can’t get worked up about.  Generations also owes too much to the continuity of the TV series, dragging arcs like Data’s emotion chip, the Klingon sisters and even Worf’s promotion in front of audiences who should not be expected (or even asked) to remember exacting details of episode five of season four in order to understand the plot.  Combine that with TV director Carson’s TV pacing and you get, sadly, what many critics of the time referred to this movie as:  an extended episode of The Next Generation, and not even one of the better ones at that.

In his review in 1994, the late Roger Ebert made special note of the extreme low-tech climactic battle between Soran and the two captains, observing that it seemed to be drawn from old Westerns, and accusing the writers of a failure of imagination.  And this was actually the second ending to the movie, re-shot in pickups months after principal photography after the first version, in which Kirk took a phaser blast from Soran to the back, blew chunks with test audiences.  It does seem strange that with the broad canvas of the entire galaxy to choose from, this was the best they could come up with for the long dreamed-about meeting of our two storied captains, shoving it out in front of us and hoping that the spectacle of “SHATNER!  STEWART!  TOGETHER!” would be enough to keep us from picking out the numerous flaws (including the legitimate question of why, if Picard can leave the Nexus and go anywhere at anytime, he doesn’t go back a month and have Soran arrested, instead of only giving himself a ten-minute window?)  Maybe Star Trek Generations was never going to be that great because there was too much riding on it; too many people with their own opinions of Kirk vs. Picard and how an onscreen meeting should unfold.  The movie is not entirely without its charms:  Brent Spiner is very funny as Data gets his emotion chip and becomes the comic relief, Stewart is typically brilliant and sells flimsy dialogue as though it were the most weighty words ever assigned to paper. The production gets more than its money’s worth out of John Alonzo who creates some lovely color palettes and brings fresh life to old cardboard sets.  And as weak as the overall execution is, only the irredeemably cynical Star Trek fan doesn’t feel a few goosebumps seeing Shatner and Stewart together.  But that old adage holds true:  if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.  Poor writing is the downfall of Star Trek Generations, and we shudder to think at how bad the Maurice Hurley version was if this script was the one that beat it.

In summary:  Watch “Yesterday’s Enterprise” or “All Good Things” instead.

Next time:  The Next Generation crew stands on its own as Moore and Braga get it right on their second try, ably aided by actor-turned-director Jonathan “Two Takes” Frakes.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  1 1/2 out of 4 stars.

P.S. Happy Canada Day!  :)

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

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William Shatner’s documentary Chaos on the Bridge is a fascinating look into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and why, to be blunt, it sucked.  A revolving door of writers that couldn’t handle the miserable working conditions imposed upon them by the increasingly ailing Gene Roddenberry and his impish lawyer Leonard Maizlish, and a novice cast struggling to navigate through the inconsistent, dramatically dull scripts that dribbled out, resulted in a mediocre series clinging to existence only by the loyalty of its fans.  But by the commencement of the third season in late 1989 and the arrival of new showrunner Michael Piller who moved the series away from aliens-of-the-week plots toward stories centered on the characters, momentum began to shift.  The Next Generation got good.  Really good.  And with Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier having proven a massive box office disappointment, the burden of leading the franchise itself had seemingly shifted to the new, fresh and suddenly vigorous series.  Was there room for another silver screen adventure for the aging Captain Kirk and company?

Producer Harve Bennett, who had shepherded the movie series since The Wrath of Khan, did not think so.  Asked to come up with an idea for a sixth film, Bennett enlisted The Final Frontier‘s screenwriter David Loughery to write an origin story that would involve the first meeting of Kirk and Spock at Starfleet Academy and let them be played by younger and presumably cheaper actors (John Cusack as Spock was floated as a possibility – get your heads around that one.)  Paramount executives were keen but wondered if it would be at all possible to include the original stars in some way.  Loughery added book-ending scenes that would feature Shatner and Nimoy in cameos, and set the main story instead as an extended flashback.  Bennett received the green light and was beginning pre-production when he found himself victim to the Wrath of the Fans.  Roddenberry, who had learned of the concept as it was developed, railed against it at conventions as akin to the execrable Police Academy movies.  The supporting cast (Doohan, Koenig, Nichols and Takei) who would find themselves out of work if this movie went ahead, were equally and publicly disdainful.  Pressure began to build.  Finally, when studio head Martin Davis was informed that the next Star Trek movie would not involve the regulars but rather a new group of younger actors with Shatner and Nimoy appearing only briefly, he put his foot down and demanded a full classic Star Trek movie.  Bennett was asked to shelve his Academy concept for the time being and produce Davis’ requested movie first.  Bennett chose to walk.  In a panic to try and put a movie together in time for Star Trek‘s 25th anniversary in the fall of 1991, Paramount went back to the man who had had a direct creative hand in each of the most successful Star Trek movies to date:  Leonard Nimoy.

Appointed the executive producer of Star Trek VI, Nimoy reached out to Nicholas Meyer to collaborate on a story ripped from the headlines of the day:  the Berlin Wall coming down in space, with the role of the Soviet Union being played by the Klingon Empire.  Nimoy was also the first choice of the studio to direct, but as Shatner was also alleged to be keen on another shot to atone for the misfired Star Trek V, Nimoy suggested Meyer as a compromise instead of himself to avoid bruising his longtime friend’s ego.  That would not be the toughest battle the movie would face before a single frame could be filmed, and in our blissful ignorance as fans merely waiting out the expected few years before the inevitable next movie, we came very close to not getting a Star Trek VI at all:  studio politics reared its hideous hydra head, with meddling executives forcing Nimoy to accept a pair of unproductive writers he didn’t want to work with (the writers and the executives were eventually fired, though the former did ultimately get screen credit thanks to the rules of the Writers’ Guild), and nickel-and-dime bickering on the budget between Meyer and other studio suits until finally, the entire production was cancelled.  In a last ditch effort to salvage the movie, Meyer went hat-in-hand to Paramount president Stanley Jaffe, who in a snap gracious decision granted him every cent of the budget he needed – and shortly thereafter, the suits who had tried to strangle Star Trek VI in its crib were themselves shown the door.  Nimoy, Meyer, and screenwriter Denny Martin Flinn could get on with the business of crafting the script to everyone’s satisfaction.

Not that this was any easier.  This was to be a movie about the old soldiers of the Federation coming to terms with their prejudices about their mortal enemy, and as such, the script included our heroes speaking racist dialogue about the Klingons – an unappetizing task for the minority actors in the cast.  Nichelle Nichols refused to say lines like “Would you want your daughter to marry one?” and “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” while Brock Peters, returning from The Voyage Home as Starfleet Admiral Cartwright, could not get through his speech about Klingons as alien trash and bringing them “to their knees” in a single take.  For his part, William Shatner had huge problems with his line “Let them die!” and asked for a reaction shot to indicate that Kirk was embarrassed at having blurted that out (it wasn’t – the movie cuts immediately to Spock).  Gene Roddenberry, his health giving out after decades of living large, was appalled by the militaristic and angry tone of the script – hard not to empathize with if you were watching the characters you had created being turned into bigots – and he was especially upset at the proposed reveal of Lt. Saavik as a traitor.  Meyer dismissed Roddenberry’s objections, arguing that he created Saavik and could do whatever he wanted with her, but the point was rendered moot when Kirstie Alley declined to return, Robin Curtis was not even asked, and Saavik became Valeris when Kim Cattrall was cast instead.  Roddenberry’s objections were noted and filed, and shooting finally commenced in April 1991, on re-dressed sets from The Next Generation, while it was on its summer hiatus.  Roddenberry would get one last look at the nearly-completed film in late October; he was wheeled into a screening attached to an oxygen tank, and while he left giving a positive review, he immediately got his lawyer Maizlish involved and tried to have almost a quarter of the movie cut out.  Two days later, Roddenberry was dead, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country premiered in December 1991 without any cuts, but with a brief opening dedication:  For Gene Roddenberry. 

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Taking the suggestion that one should always start a story with a bang somewhat literally, Star Trek VI opens with a massive explosion amidst an endless backdrop of stars:  the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility, goes full Chernobyl (a deliberate allusion) and disrupts the travels of the starship U.S.S. Excelsior, now under the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) on a mission to catalogue gaseous planetary anomalies.  Two months later, Captain Kirk and his remaining, soon-to-retire crew are summoned to a briefing at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, where the Federation’s special envoy – Spock – advises that the Klingon economy has been crippled by the Praxis explosion and that they have requested negotiations with the Federation to end the fifty-year cold war between the two galactic superpowers.  Captain Kirk and the Enterprise have been assigned to escort the Klingon Chancellor to Earth for a peace summit, despite Kirk’s history with the Klingons, because of the old Vulcan proverb, “Only Nixon could go to China.”  Kirk berates Spock for putting him in this position, when as the father of an only son who was murdered by Klingons, he is content to let them all die.  Orders are orders however, and the Enterprise, with its new helm officer (and Spock protégé) Lt. Valeris (Kim Cattrall) sets a course for the Neutral Zone.  The first meeting with Gorkon (David Warner), his daughter Azetbur (Rosana DeSoto) and his Shakespeare-quoting chief of staff General Chang (Christopher Plummer) is an uneasy one:  despite Gorkon’s progressive outlook toward the “undiscovered country” of the unknown future, old prejudices simmer during a diplomatic dinner, and Gorkon advises a wary Kirk that if there is to be a brave new world, their generation will have the hardest time living in it.

In the middle of the night, the Enterprise abruptly seems to fire two photon torpedoes at Gorkon’s ship, crippling its gravity.  Two men wearing Starfleet uniforms and walking with magnetic boots beam aboard, murder several of its crew, and gravely wound the chancellor.  An enraged Chang threatens to fire back; Kirk keeps the Enterprise‘s shields down and surrenders, then beams over with Dr. McCoy to help.  Gorkon’s wounds are too deep and McCoy doesn’t know the Klingon anatomy.  Gorkon dies, but not before pleading with Kirk with his last breath, “Don’t let it end this way, Captain.”  Chang has Kirk and McCoy immediately arrested for Gorkon’s murder, and Azetbur, appointed chancellor in her father’s place, agrees to continue with the peace talks in his memory at a secret location, but on the promise that the prisoners will not be extradited, and Starfleet will make no attempt to rescue them.  At a subsequent show trial where they are defended by the same-named grandfather of The Next Generation‘s Worf (Michael Dorn), a recording of Kirk’s log in which says he will never trust or forgive the Klingons for the death of his son is played, and he and  McCoy are found guilty.  They are spared the usual sentence of death and instead condemned to the prison planet Rura Penthe, the “alien’s graveyard.”

Back on the Enterprise, Spock and the remainder of the crew play for time with Starfleet Command by claiming engine trouble.  They still have a full complement of torpedoes, so someone else must have fired on Gorkon’s ship from beneath them to make it seem as though it was the Enterprise.  Because the Klingons did not notice it, it might have been a cloaked Bird-of-Prey; normally Birds-of-Prey cannot fire when cloaked, but this (hypothetical) one can.  And since someone altered the computer records to indicate the Enterprise fired the torpedoes, there must be a conspirator or conspirators in their very midst.  The search is on for the two pairs of magnetic boots the killers were described by witnesses to have been wearing, and when Chekov discovers a trace of Klingon blood on the Enterprise‘s transporter pad, the search expands to uniforms.  The boots are subsequently found in the locker of an innocent alien ensign (whose broad webbed feet reveal he couldn’t possibly have worn them), stalling the investigation.

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Meanwhile, Kirk and McCoy struggle to survive the harsh conditions of Rura Penthe, with some unexpected help from a beautiful shapeshifting alien named Martia (the late David Bowie’s wife Iman).  She uses her abilities to facilitate their escape from the underground prison camp and across the glaciers beyond the magnetic shield that prevents transporter beaming, while the Enterprise warps through Klingon territory to find them before they freeze to death, aided by a tracking patch Spock placed on Kirk’s back before they boarded Gorkon’s ship.  It turns out Martia is a plant, offered a pardon to make it look like Kirk and McCoy were killed attempting escape, and the prison warden arrives with his men and disintegrates Martia for her trouble.  Before the warden can reveal who wants them dead, Kirk and McCoy are beamed to safety aboard the Enterprise.  Scotty finds the missing uniforms stained by Klingon blood, and the bodies of the two assassins are discovered:  two racist, low-ranking crewmembers we saw being berated by Valeris earlier, phaser-stunned to the head at close range.  Kirk tries a gambit of broadcasting a bluff over the ship’s intercom indicating that the two assassins are alive in sickbay and ready to give statements, and when someone arrives to finish the job, it turns out to be Valeris herself.  Valeris arranged for Kirk’s log to be used at his trial, and reprogrammed the computers to suggest the Enterprise had fired the torpedoes.  Spock is angrier than we have ever seen him at his student’s betrayal, and when Valeris will not reveal her co-conspirators, he extracts the names from her mind via mind-meld:  General Chang, Starfleet Admiral Cartwright and the Romulan ambassador.

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Kirk contacts Sulu to learn the location of the rescheduled peace conference which is beginning today:  Camp Khitomer, near the Romulan border.  The two ships proceed to Khitomer at maximum warp, but as another assassin sets up his sniping post in the Khitomer auditorium, our heroes are waylaid in orbit by Chang and his cloaked Bird-of-Prey, which batters them invisibly until Uhura has the notion to use the gaseous planetary anomaly cataloguing equipment (there’s a mouthful!) to sniff out the Bird-of-Prey’s tailpipe.  Spock and McCoy reprogram a torpedo as the Enterprise‘s shields collapse and the assassin takes aim at the Federation’s President (Kurtwood Smith).  The torpedo is fired, Chang sees it coming and with a last quote of Hamlet (“To be… or not… to be”), his ship is destroyed by a barrage from both the Enterprise and the Excelsior.  Kirk beams down to the conference and jumps on the President to knock him out of the way of the fatal phaser shot.  Scotty stuns the assassin and knocks him from his perch to a plunging death, and Sulu arrests the fleeing Admiral Cartwright.  Kirk addresses Chancellor Azetbur and the assembly and gives a conciliatory speech in which he admits his faults and says that for some people, the future and change can be a very frightening thing.  Azetbur replies that he has restored her father’s faith.  Kirk says that she has restored his son’s.  The assembly – including a reluctant Klingon delegation – gives them a standing ovation.

In orbit again, Kirk says thank you and farewell to Captain Sulu and the Excelsior, and when a message from Starfleet comes in ordering the Enterprise home for decommissioning, Spock advises a cheeky reply of “go to hell.”  Kirk asks for a course set “second star to the right, and straight on until morning.”  In a shoutout to The Next Generation, his final log entry addresses a future crew who will continue the voyages to all the undiscovered countries and boldly go where no man… “where no one…” has gone before.  And in a final “sign off,” the signatures of the original cast of seven fly across the screen before the credits roll.

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As a finale to the adventures of the original Star Trek crew, and one that studio meddling almost kiboshed before it even began, The Undiscovered Country is an immensely satisfying experience, proving that the stumbles of the previous movie aside, there was still a fair chunk of dilithium left in the tank.  I wouldn’t even say it’s bittersweet, in that there is very little bitterness left once the last credit slides by.  As fans, we knew it couldn’t go on forever, and this is a near-perfect goodbye.  In a time when The Simpsons was airing Star Trek XII:  So Very Tired gags, this movie uses the advanced age of its cast as a starting point for its story, asking – even point-blank in one third-act scene between Kirk and Spock – if we are all fated to reach a point in our lives where we become so entrenched in our ways that we cannot adapt to an era that is starting to evolve beyond us, and if that constitutes a joke.  It would not have done to have these people running around acting like twenty-year-olds; not only would that be embarrassing, but a waste of a storytelling opportunity that is rarely presented in films that are so often geared largely toward the appetites of the young.  Nimoy, Meyer and Flinn aren’t afraid to talk about the challenges of growing old, and the accordingly assured cast is not afraid to play it either, framed by a whodunit, a morally ambiguous mystery that is unique among Star Trek films usually more straightforward in their narratives with the roles of good and evil clearly defined.  With Meyer’s hand in the script, we can again play our game of Spot the Literary Reference with nods to Sherlock Holmes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Peter Pan, as well as almost the entirety of the First Folio thanks to the verbose General Chang.  Meyer includes nods to recent history as well, evoking Hitler, Nixon and even Adlai Stevenson, and the screenplay sounds so much richer for it, making this a high-stakes, consequential drama populated by intelligent, educated characters pitted against one another by political point of view.

Talking of the characters, there seem to be so many of them even given the movie’s restricted budget, and this is arguably the deepest bench of guest cast in any Star Trek film before or since.  After being a glorified prop as a human ambassador in Star Trek V, David Warner gets a second try in the Trekverse as the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (named after Gorbachev) and brings great gravitas to a brief role; we wonder how this thoughtful liberal ever managed to achieve the premiership of the extremely conservative Klingon Empire, and lament his not seeing his last dream made real.  Rosana DeSoto as his daughter-turned-successor effectively brings the inspired yet weary qualities of a born statesperson to her role as well.  The lithe and lovely Iman injects a welcome dose of sinister sex appeal into the second act – even in yellow contact lenses – and Kurtwood Smith, who had just scared the hell out of everyone in Robocop, makes for a contemplative and believable Chief Executive of the Federation.  Kim Cattrall as Valeris does well in charting a transformation from a young idealist to an embittered cynic undone by the perversion of her idealism – and she wears the Vulcan ears rather beguilingly at that.  The biggest accolades do of course go to Christopher Plummer as the everything-dialed-up-to-11 Chang, who sinks his teeth into each Shakespearean tidbit, tears off the flesh and gnashes it into powdery bits, becoming the most grandly theatrical villain of the Star Trek canon.  Where Kirk recognizes his prejudices and refuses to let them interfere with his sense of morality, Chang is Kirk tipped over that fuzzy gray border, sticking to the hardest of lines even in the face of death.  Unlike Khan, Chang’s history doesn’t matter.  He just blows onto the screen and (nearly) blows everyone else off it.  There is also something patriotically amusing in watching the fate of the galaxy being played out between two legendary Canadian actors.

The movie is often described as one of Star Trek‘s darkest – it probably has the highest on-screen body count, the sets are cold and metallic and lit dimly, and Cliff Eidelman’s score begins with an ominous main title theme reminiscent of Holst’s Mars movement from The Planets and rumbles about the bass side of the scale for most of the running time.  The shift in comportment of our main family of characters is a bit jarring, too.  We’ve seen them in conflict with the Klingons before, but we’ve never seen them this embittered:  you’ll recall Kirk tried to help pull Kruge up from the collapsing cliff on Genesis even after he’d ordered the death of Kirk’s son.  Here, we get Klingons compared to animals and derided for their smell, and even lovable old Scotty casually refers to Azetbur as a bitch.  It’s difficult given those examples not to agree with the late Gene Roddenberry’s objections to the tone of the screenplay.  But confronting one’s prejudices is always uncomfortable, and recognizing the swaths of ugliness present in otherwise beautiful and beloved characters is a challenge to ourselves, the audience, to dislodge our own asses from the well-shaped groove of stereotypes that we may hold regarding some of our fellow human beings.  Roddenberry harbored a hope that in the future we would evolve beyond our pettiness, and seeing his aspirational creations fall back into those hated patterns must have represented an infuriating triumph of everything he had fought against during his years of battling with the studio to protect what remained of his vision.  However, in that Star Trek VI shows Captain Kirk learning to grow beyond hatred of even his most reliable enemy, it stands as a tribute to what Roddenberry wanted for humanity, and what he wanted Star Trek to be.  It is a more than fitting farewell to both the original cast and the man who first brought them together.

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In summary:  Points for the unique mystery aspects of the story, the amazing guest cast (even Christian Slater’s cameo is fun!) and a tremendously exciting, edge-of-your-seat finale coupled with a poignant and hopeful goodbye.  Points against:  the obvious budget-saving reuse of too many Next Generation sets (the President’s office is just Ten-Forward with some drapes), the fairly obvious reveal of the lone new character on the bridge as the traitor.  But we digress, the movie is still one of the best of the bunch.

Next time:  Captain Kirk passes the baton to Captain Picard and then has a bridge dropped on him as The Next Generation makes an awkward transition from small screen to big.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

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“‘Why are they putting seatbelts in theatres this summer?’  To keep the audience from leaving!” – a critic, dissing Star Trek V‘s tagline

Star Trek‘s popularity has waxed and waned over its five decades of existence (!), but one indisputable zenith was late 1986/early 1987, when it was the reigning king of filmed sci-fi entertainment, with rival franchise Star Wars in the midst of a long coma.  Not only had The Voyage Home been a critical and box office success, drawing in new fans who previously couldn’t have told you the difference between tribbles and Triskelion, but appetites were further whetted by the announcement of Star Trek‘s return to weekly series television in the form of The Next Generation, scheduled to premiere in September with an all-new cast aboard an all-new U.S.S. Enterprise.  The film series was certain to continue as well, to capitalize on this new, warp speed momentum.  However, there would be a shuffling of creative personnel behind the scenes first.  On the strength of both The Voyage Home and the massive comedy hit Three Men and a Baby, Leonard Nimoy had become one of the hottest, most in-demand directors in Hollywood, and his schedule didn’t permit assuming the reins for the long production process that a new Star Trek movie would entail.  Not only that, someone else was champing at the bit to step behind the camera.

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William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s respective contracts with Paramount Pictures included what Shatner called “favored nations” clauses, where whatever one received, be it in terms of salary or specific privileges, so would the other.  Since Nimoy had now directed two Star Trek movies in a row, Shatner exercised the clause to secure himself the director’s chair for Star Trek V.  Freed of the story constraints of the concluded “Genesis Trilogy,” his pitch for a fresh adventure was based on a very 80’s phenomenon:  the rise of the televangelist.  Though it’s hard to imagine now when a vast majority of us recognize them as money-swindling charlatans, there was a time when the likes of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell were ubiquitous on the airwaves and exerted tremendous influence on the course of world events, with politicians eager to cozy up to them and the ranks of voters they commanded.  Shatner had in mind an alien holy man named “Zar” who would be such a powerful, persuasive presence that he would even be able to turn the crew of the Enterprise against each other, with only Kirk able to resist his influence.  Zar would engineer a hostage-taking in order to commandeer the ship and set it on a course for the center of the universe to find God – who would turn out to be the Devil in disguise, and Kirk would have to descend into the depths of Hell to rescue Spock and McCoy.  Star Trek had employed subtle Christian allegories before, but this was going full-tilt Old Testament, and while Shatner’s story was accepted by the studio higher-ups, it was abundantly clear that elements would have be toned down to satisfy the broadest possible audience.  Especially since Paramount was more or less insisting on another movie in the light, airy and funny mode of The Voyage Home – hard to reconcile with Shatner’s operatic vision of winged cherubs transforming into monstrous demons.

Favorite son Nicholas Meyer was unavailable, so Shatner and returning producer Harve Bennett, after approaching acclaimed fantasy novelist Eric van Lustbader (who allegedly wanted an unaffordable $1 million for his services), hired David Loughery (Dreamscape, Flashback) to write the script.  The three began extensive revisions on Shatner’s initial treatment to soften the potentially offensive religious tones and inject the laughs deemed critical to retaining the crossover fans who had embraced The Voyage Home.  Zar was made less overtly villainous to avoid duplicating elements of Khan, and the revelation of the object of his quest was moved to later in the movie to address Bennett’s caveat that the concept might come off like “Tonight on Star Trek:  Captain Kirk meets God!”  At one point God was removed entirely, as Bennett and Loughery did a rewrite without Shatner’s participation that had Zar looking for the galactic equivalent of Shangri-La instead, a place they named Sha Ka Ree (a takeoff of the name of Sean Connery, who was Shatner’s first choice to play Zar.)  In an echo of Zar’s ability to sway people to his cause, a determined Shatner turned his collaborators one by one back toward his original vision, and they compromised by having Sha Ka Ree become the name of the mythical planet at the center of the galaxy (since there is no scientifically identifiable center of the universe) where God was fabled to reside.

One obstacle the charismatic actor-director couldn’t overcome was his old friend Nimoy.  As originally scripted, Spock and McCoy would betray Kirk to aid Zar, and only by healing the rift in their friendship would the three be able to escape Hell in the movie’s climax.  Nimoy said there was simply no way Spock would ever betray Kirk, and no matter how much Shatner argued for the potential dramatic impact of the twist, Nimoy was firm.  Even changing Zar to Sybok and making him Spock’s half-brother couldn’t persuade Nimoy otherwise – in his view, the bond between Kirk and Spock could not be broken by anything or anyone.  DeForest Kelley was equally adamant about McCoy, and so the script was changed again to have Kirk, Spock and McCoy braving the unknown together as always.

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With the script – interrupted briefly by the 1988 Writers’ Guild strike – finally taking something resembling shootable shape, the next challenge was the movie’s budget.  Like many first-time directors, Shatner was awash in dreams of grand, sweeping camera moves and thousands of extras swarming massive DeMille-inspired sets, a wave which soon broke against the unyielding wall of the studio bottom line.  With a relatively modest total of $32 million allocated for Star Trek V, and $12 million of that split by the two lead actors, Shatner had only $20 million for everything else – the rest of the regular cast, any guest stars, and the entirety of the production.  Quashed immediately were any illusions of casting the pricey Sean Connery, or Max von Sydow (Shatner’s second choice) as Sybok.  Armies of extras were reduced to handfuls.  Sprawling sets and scenic vistas would have to be replaced by matte paintings and camera cheats.  And in a crippling blow, the visual effects would have to be provided by someone other than the reliable, gold-standard Industrial Light & Magic.  Bran Ferren and his Hoboken, New Jersey-based company Associates & Ferren, best known for the trippy visuals in the weird Ken Russell movie Altered States, were hired instead after impressing Shatner and Bennett with a lower-cost, “in the camera” approach where effects could be shot live on stage instead of being added in later.  Concerns lingered at how the Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque finale would be pulled off, but time was growing short and shooting had to commence in order to make the movie’s June 1989 release date.  In late 1988 Shatner finally got to call action on the movie’s first scheduled scene:  unlikely for Star Trek, it was a commercial featuring a skeezy, Herb Tarlek alien type selling worthless plots of land on an alien planet.

Perhaps it was a harbinger of how audiences would eventually receive the movie.

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A cold open places us on Tatooine… er, sorry, Nimbus III, the “Planet of Galactic Peace,” a dried out wasteland of a world in the Neutral Zone between the three dominant galactic powers:  the United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Empire, who have agreed to develop it together but have instead let it fall into disarray.  A mysterious Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill, the son-in-law of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), arrives and begins gathering followers, converting them by using his mental abilities to free them of their innermost pain.  Sybok and his army storm Paradise City, the capital of Nimbus III, take hostage the Federation, Klingon and Romulan ambassadors, and demand that a starship be sent to negotiate their release.  On Earth, Captain Kirk is enjoying a vacation in California’s Yosemite National Park with Spock and McCoy, while Sulu and Chekov are getting lost exploring Mount Rushmore and Scotty and Uhura are left to patch up an Enterprise which has revealed itself to be a lemon following its shakedown cruise.  While free-climbing the forbidding face of El Capitan, Kirk loses his grip and falls to a certain death… until he is saved by Spock with the aid of some rocket boots.  Kirk ruminates later by the fireside that he knew he wouldn’t die because Spock and McCoy were with him, and that he’s always known he’ll die alone.  A round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” whose lyrics Spock struggles to understand, is interrupted by Uhura, who brings word of the hostage crisis on Nimbus III.  Despite its mechanical issues, the Enterprise is chosen for the rescue mission because it has the most experienced commander.  The starship warps to Nimbus III, while Spock is haunted by the familiar face he sees in the hostage video but is elusive in explaining who it is.  Meanwhile, Klaa, a young Klingon captain craving glory in the possibility of defeating the legendary Captain Kirk is ordered to take his ship to Nimbus III as well, and if all else fails, to destroy the planet.

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With the transporters out of service thanks to them still running Windows Vista, one supposes, Kirk leaves Chekov to masquerade as the Enterprise‘s captain and stall for time while he leads an “old-fashioned” commando raid aboard the shuttle Galileo down to Paradise City to rescue the hostages.  Kirk’s marines attack the compound on (alien) horseback, but swiftly lose the battle with Sybok’s army when the three captive ambassadors reveal themselves to be in league with the renegade Vulcan – who is excited to see Spock again, hinting at a deeper connection between the two.  As the Galileo, now under Sybok’s command, returns to the Enterprise, Klaa’s ship arrives, and Kirk orders Sulu to execute a risky maneuver to rocket the shuttle manually into the hangar bay while dodging a Klingon torpedo.  In the aftermath of the crash, Spock grabs a weapon, aims it at Sybok and orders him to surrender.  Sybok refuses, and despite Kirk’s direct order, Spock cannot bring himself to shoot.  Kirk, Spock and McCoy are thrown in the brig, and Sybok takes his followers to the bridge to seize control of the starship, seduce the crew to his cause, and set them on a course to the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy and the fabled planet of Sha Ka Ree rumored to lie beyond it.  Behind bars, a furious Kirk cannot believe that Spock would betray him, and Spock finally admits the truth:  he and Sybok are brothers.  They have the same father, but different mothers; Sybok’s mother was Sarek’s first wife, a Vulcan princess.  Sybok has rejected the Vulcan way of logic and embraced emotions, for which he was banished from the planet.  While the three heroes sulk, a Morse code message tapped on the wall advises them to stand back, and an explosion set off by Scotty sets them free.  Spock suggests sending a distress signal using the emergency equipment in the forward observation room, but that’s several dozen decks above them, and the crew, including Sulu, Uhura and Chekov, is now entirely under Sybok’s influence.  Spock’s handy-dandy rocket boots prove the solution, and the signal is sent – only to be intercepted by the Klingons and their excitable captain who is determined to have Kirk’s head.

Sybok tries to sway McCoy and Spock by showing them visions of their innermost pain:  McCoy’s decision to euthanize his dying father, and Spock’s rejection by his own father for his human half.  He then tries to do the same for Kirk, who refuses by insisting that pain isn’t something to be taken away, it’s what makes us who we are.  Spock also tells Sybok that he has long since resolved his inner conflict about his heritage and found his place, and McCoy realizes that he too belongs with his friends.  Kirk insists that the ship will not survive the passage through the Great Barrier, while Sybok believes otherwise because of a vision he has received from God, who awaits them there.  Sybok’s faith proves the winner as the Enterprise breaches the Barrier with only a mild bit of shaky-cam turbulence and arrives in safe orbit of the glowing blue world of Sha Ka Ree.  Sybok permits Kirk, Spock and McCoy to accompany him by shuttle to the surface, which appears at first to be an abandoned, rocky landscape until the sky suddenly darkens, stone pillars shoot up from the ground and a shaft of light bursts into space, inside which appears a figure seemingly drawn from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel itself.

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Is this God?  An enraptured Sybok seems to think so.  God asks how the foursome came to find him, and declares his intention to make use of the Enterprise to carry his “wisdom” beyond the Barrier to the rest of the galaxy.  An abruptly skeptical Kirk asks the pertinent question, “what does God need with a starship?”  God responds with a blast of Force lightning into Kirk’s gut.  It becomes clear that this is no god, but rather a malevolent alien who has been imprisoned on the planet behind the Great Barrier and wants to use the starship to escape.  A remorseful Sybok takes responsibility and challenges “God” to share his pain, sacrificing himself to allow the others to escape as the Enterprise fires on the entity.  The transporter is only partly functional (only upgraded to Windows 7), and Kirk orders Scotty to beam up Spock and McCoy first, leaving him alone on the planet with the alien who has been weakened by the torpedo strike but is still very much alive.  Before Scotty can beam Kirk up, the Klingon ship commanded by Klaa arrives and attacks the Enterprise, destroying the transporter.  Spock tries to persuade the Klingon ambassador, who outranks Klaa, to order his subordinate to stand down.  Down on Sha Ka Ree, Kirk runs from the angry “God” alien right into the hovering Klingon vessel, which delivers a crippling blow to the entity before beaming Kirk aboard.  Kirk is shocked to receive a formal apology from Captain Klaa, and to see Spock in the gunner’s chair.  Kirk says he thought he was going to die, and Spock assures him that he was never alone.  Back aboard the Enterprise at a friendly reception, Kirk, Spock and McCoy contemplate notions of friendship, family, and whether God is really out there among the stars.  Kirk offers the moral of the movie by opining that maybe the true location of God is within the human heart.  A reprise of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around the campfire, this time with Spock leading the refrain on his Vulcan harp, sends us up into the stars and into the strains of the end credits march.

Good storytelling should always raise questions, but when the answers aren’t forthcoming, or they are answered by way of cop-out, the storyteller should be well prepared to dodge the incoming barrage of rotten vegetables.  Accordingly, Star Trek V was a voyage of the damned.  Gene Roddenberry’s initial concept for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The God Thing, involved the crew’s encounter with an alien intelligence that would be revealed to have inspired the entire concept of religion on Earth and taken many forms throughout the centuries, including that of Jesus Christ.  Captain Kirk would then destroy the alien, thereby “killing God” and establishing that humanity had outgrown the need for religion and the belief in supreme beings.  No studio was going to try to sell an atheist treatise in the most evangelical market on the planet, and so when William Shatner tried telling his variation on the same story in Star Trek V with the full intent of having Kirk encounter the real God (who would turn out to be the Devil), he too had to water it down to the idea of a mere alien impersonator instead.  When Sybok announces that his vision was “given to me by God.  He waits for us on the other side,” we’re as skeptical as Kirk, not because we’re siding with the hero but because our suspension of disbelief has suddenly been shattered.  There’s no way they’re going to meet the actual God, we say to ourselves.  This is a Star Trek movie, not The Passion of the Christ.  They don’t have the balls to go there, not for real.  For Shatner and his storytelling partners, it’s lose-lose.  Depicting the Judeo-Christian God just upsets everyone who isn’t Judeo-Christian.  Depicting God at all upsets humanists.  Not depicting Him/Her/Them when you announce you’re going to smacks of cowardice, even if the assertion that God is to be found in the heart is a worthy observation.  There’s simply no way for this story to end in a satisfactory manner, and so the entire journey to The Final Frontier has ultimately been a wasted trip.  You can’t fault William Shatner for his ambition, indeed, there is a certain amount of admirable daring in the choice to pursue these sorts of questions in a popular studio franchise film.  But the execution just isn’t there; flawed, weak writing (and dodgy special effects compounding its sins) undermines the best efforts of the rest of the cast and crew.

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Despite what general consensus would have you believe, this is not a movie without a solitary ounce of merit or virtue.  There are a few standouts to appreciate herein and make it worthy of a rewatch or three on a rainy day.  Some of the location shooting is quite lovely, and it’s always welcome in a franchise usually restricted to soundstages.  Laurence Luckinbill, a veteran stage actor who was cast as Sybok after Shatner saw him on PBS in a one-man show about Lyndon Johnson, projects a great deal of charisma and surprising empathy as the ostensible villain.  When Sybok is persuading others to share their pain, yes, he’s doing it to manipulate them into helping him, but you still get a strong sense that he genuinely cares about the people and wants to free them of their burdens.  He is, in his Vulcan heart, a good man doing the wrong thing for noble reasons, and his recognition that he has erred and placed possibly the entire galaxy in jeopardy makes him not so much a villain but a tragic, misguided hero.  This creates a rather paradoxical effect where Sybok becomes in fact the protagonist of the movie, as it is his arc pushing the plot forward, while Kirk, Spock and McCoy become the antagonists trying to stop him at every turn.  This reversal of roles didn’t sit particularly well with the audiences of the day as it’s not the position we’re comfortable seeing our heroes in.  We want them leading the adventure, not dragged along by somebody else.  But if we have to be, then we’re at least glad to have the legendary Jerry Goldsmith scoring our journey.  His music is more romantic and melodic here, with a few pops of ethnic percussion instruments for alien flavor, rather than the icy, electronic tones that backed the voyage of V’Ger in The Motion Picture, and Goldsmith, unlike his immediate predecessor Leonard Rosenman, knows when to stay the hell out of the way of the action and when it’s appropriate to strut boldly to the forefront.  Goldsmith also provides some welcome musical continuity by reprising both the opening march and the Klingon theme from his first effort.

Ultimately though, and disappointingly, the virtues of the movie are too few to rate a final judgment in favor.  Bran Ferren’s spare effects are no substitute for ILM’s mastery of the sci-fi genre, and his low-cost approach only makes the movie look patched together and small.  This is particularly glaring once “God” enters the scene, and the final chase between “Him” and Kirk is a haphazard mess of flipped shots and half-finished effects that are substituting for an even worse effect that never made it to the screen – where “God” was to assume the form of a hulking, lumbering creature of living rock that would have embarrassed Ed Wood (photos of it do exist online – Google and beware).  When the whole movie has been building to this point, and we’re still prepared to grant it some goodwill, to have it finish so crappily and cheaply is a huge letdown.  The decision to include humor in the screenplay again wasn’t necessarily misguided, but the approach certainly is, with the warm character-based humor of The Voyage Home being usurped by lame wisecracks about “marsh melons” and slapstick gags that have us laughing at our heroes, not with them.  I recall many guffaws seeing Scotty knock himself out on a pipe in the trailer, but in the movie the moment just seems sad, as does watching the noble and inspiring Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) reduced to doing a naked fan dance.  This character inspired Martin Luther King, for God’s sake – she deserves so much better than what probably split sides in the all-male writers’ room but is a real embarrassment to Star Trek as a whole.

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Audiences of the day agreed, and Star Trek V, released in the same summer slot as Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, took in less than half the box office of Star Trek IV, with critics panning it top to bottom and William Shatner earning the dubious honor of that year’s Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Actor and Director.  Unlike Nimoy, Shatner would never get the chance to direct another major feature, and would turn his attention instead to television and documentaries.  Piling on to The Final Frontier is easy – as I said it’s the go-to punch line for all that was ever terrible about Star Trek, but I certainly wouldn’t categorize it as the worst would-be blockbuster movie released in 1989 (Ghostbusters II was pretty phone-it-in abysmal); in the end the best that can be said of it is that it is something of a noble failure.  You certainly get the sense that everyone involved (except maybe Ferren) is trying their absolute best to make a great movie that is telling a meaningful story.  But the odd-number curse holds true here, and with The Next Generation slowly increasing in popularity it seemed for a time that The Final Frontier would be the final frontier for the original cast.

In summary:  Points for ambition, Luckinbill, Goldsmith, location shooting and the best of intentions.  Major demerits for making fun of our characters instead of embracing them, Ferren’s shoddy effects work, and a leaden premise with an unsolvable ending.

Next time:  First inklings of an origin story for Kirk and Spock give way to an exciting whodunit that brings the original cast together for the last time, led by the redoubtable Nicholas Meyer in his (then) farewell to Star Trek.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

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Before we begin:  the Star Trek universe was rocked with a tragedy this week, as actor Anton Yelchin (Pavel Chekov in Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond) passed away suddenly at the age of 27.  This post and the remainder of the “Countdown to Beyond” series are dedicated to his memory.

Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock made $76.4 million at theatres in 1984, which was only a slight dip from the $78 million pulled in by The Wrath of Khan.  Paramount Pictures’ studio executives, sensing a reliable trend and being notoriously averse to change, greenlighted a fourth movie with the same production team in place:  Leonard Nimoy directing, Harve Bennett producing and supervising the writing.  One would also think that the aforesaid suits would expect a story in a similar vein as the previous two films:  grand, epic struggles with life and death, steered by an implacable villain seeking to rain galactic destruction down upon the intrepid crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  However, Nimoy was having none of that.  Tired of dramatically heavy outings, he wanted to go in the opposite direction and tell a story where nobody died, nobody fired any weapons, nobody beat each other up, and there would be no “villain of the week.”  Nimoy also wanted to go back to the social commentary that the original series had become known for, and push a strong environmental message in the guise of a sci-fi action adventure.  He and Bennett came up with the notion of a time travel story in which the crew would have to go back to our present to retrieve something that had gone extinct.  (Gene Roddenberry, upon hearing that the focus of the new movie would be time travel, tried to pitch his JFK assassination story again, but was ignored.)  An initial concept revolved around the sudden strike of a plague whose cure had been wiped out centuries ago with the Amazon rainforests, but the spectacle of people coughing and dying wasn’t going to make for a very uplifting story.  Instead, Nimoy hit upon the idea of going back to retrieve a pair of extinct animals, and humpback whales were chosen because of their size (creating logistical problems for the crew to solve) and for the mysterious nature of whalesong.  Development was proceeding, ahem, swimmingly, until Nimoy and Bennett were advised that a certain famous comedic actor and Star Trek fan had requested a role in the film.  His name:  Eddie Murphy.

Star Trek has dallied with the idea of huge stunt casting in its movies, and it has never panned out, often for the same reasons.  This was the first (and regrettably not last) attempt.  In the mid-1980’s, after the success of Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy was arguably the biggest movie star in the world, and he also happened, like Star Trek, to be under contract to Paramount.  The possibility of combining these two proven moneymakers must have indeed been tantalizing; Murphy might bring in an entirely new audience for what was being counted on as one of Paramount’s tentpole productions for 1986, boosting its ticket sales.  At the same time, would the end result really be a Star Trek movie, or would it be an Eddie Murphy movie with the Star Trek characters in it?  Regardless of those misgivings, a screenplay was duly crafted by two comedy writers that would have Murphy playing a marine biologist and staunch believer in aliens who sees the Klingon bird-of-prey flown by our heroes de-cloaking over the Super Bowl and is the only person to realize it isn’t a mere stunt.  After a series of comic misunderstandings he winds up helping Kirk and Spock and returns with them triumphant to the 23rd Century.  Depending on whose account you believe, Murphy either didn’t like the script or was talked out of appearing in the movie, and went on to star in The Golden Child instead.  The comedy writers were fired and Nicholas Meyer, considered Star Trek‘s own golden child after saving The Wrath of Khan, was brought in to rewrite the screenplay from scratch with Harve Bennett.

Following a dedication to the crew of the lost space shuttle Challenger, we begin again in the 23rd Century, where a massive probe is heading toward Earth broadcasting an unintelligible signal and rendering every vessel that comes into contact with it inert (echoes of Star Trek:  The Motion Picture).  Upon arrival at the planet, its transmissions begin to tear apart the Earth’s ecosystem and vaporize its oceans.  Meanwhile, still in exile on the planet Vulcan from the end of the last movie, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the crew have decided to return to Earth to face judgment for their illegal actions in rescuing a still-recovering Spock (Nimoy).  En route aboard their salvaged Klingon bird-of-prey, cheekily renamed the Bounty, they intercept a distress call sent by the President of the United Federation of Planets advising any passing vessels to avoid Earth at all costs.  When Spock makes note of the effect of the probe’s transmissions on the oceans, Uhura modifies the signal to reveal what it would sound like underwater:  the songs of humpback whales.  Unfortunately, humpback whales have been extinct since the 21st Century, so there is nothing on Earth that can respond.  Spock suggests, and Kirk concurs, that with defeating the probe impossible, the only option is to find some humpback whales – in the distant past.  The Bounty rockets around the sun at high warp (faster than 88 miles per hour, presumably) and plunges back 300 years.

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Arriving in the “extremely primitive and paranoid culture” of San Francisco in 1986, the crew is presented with a number of dilemmas:  the ship’s power is giving out, they’ll need to construct a whale tank in the cargo bay, and oh yes – they need a pair of humpback whales.  Scotty plays fast and loose with history (conjuring the formula for “transparent aluminum” on a first-generation Macintosh) to acquire a supply of six-inch plexiglass for the tank, Chekov and Uhura come up with a plan to extract fuel from the nuclear reactor of the aircraft carrier Enterprise, and Kirk and Spock visit a local aquarium where they are introduced to a pair of humpbacks, George and Gracie, by a marine biologist named Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks, playing the role originally written for Eddie Murphy).  Spock causes a scene by swimming in the tank to mind-meld with Gracie and ask for the whale’s help, which Kirk is forced to defuse by awkwardly invoking his patented starship captain’s charm and inviting Gillian for dinner.  There he learns that George and Gracie are scheduled to be released from the aquarium at noon tomorrow and shipped to the Arctic to spend the remainder of their lives in the wild – presuming that they can elude the widespread whaling fleets.  Gillian is shocked when she returns to work the next day to find that the whales were released ahead of schedule.  She pleads for Kirk’s help and finds herself beamed about the Bounty, where a more immediate crisis is pressing:  assumed to be a Soviet spy, Chekov has been captured and wounded while stealing fuel from the Enterprise and is scheduled to undergo surgery under heavy guard.  Kirk, McCoy and Gillian have to break into the hospital’s operating theater to save him from what McCoy calls “dark ages” medicine before the ship can go anywhere.

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With everyone back on board, the Bounty races to the Arctic to find George and Gracie, who are already being chased by a whaling vessel.  After planting the ship in the path of the harpoon – and decloaking overhead to give the whalers the fright of their lives – the crew beam the whales up and prepare to make the hazardous trip back to the future with Gillian in tow (handwaving the potential impact on history by pointing out that she will be the only person in the future with any experience with living humpback whales).  The return to the 23rd Century is more than the old Klingon ship can take, and it crashes in San Francisco Bay in the middle of a hurricane, where Kirk has to swim deep into the sinking Bounty to release the whales before they drown.  He is successful, and in a poetic, dialogue-free sequence, the whales sing to the probe and convince it to depart and leave the Earth unharmed.  The day is saved, and at their subsequent hearing, Kirk and crew are pardoned of all charges except one:  Kirk is held responsible for disobeying orders of a superior officer, reduced in rank to Captain and granted command of a starship:  the brand new U.S.S. Enterprise, registration NCC-1701-A.  “Let’s see what she’s got,” says Kirk, and the ship blurs away into warp and whatever new adventures await.

The Voyage Home completes what is called the “Genesis Trilogy” by fans, by picking up exactly where The Search for Spock ended and tying off each loose thread laid beginning with The Wrath of Khan.  As the film begins, following the appearance of the probe, the story starts to feel very much like a serialized, exposition-heavy episode, with the Klingons lodging formal protests at the Federation Council regarding Kirk’s actions and the Genesis Project, following a replay of the footage of the Enterprise being blown up (though likely unknown to the writers at the time, plot elements are also being laid here for what occurs later in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).  Even as the action shifts to Vulcan and the introduction of our heroes, we are still dealing with fallout from II and III – they’re even still wearing the same outfits from the last movie, and we get a very awkward, extraneous moment with Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis) as she tells Kirk how brave his son David was in facing his death (it was implied in scenes eliminated from the final cut that Saavik was pregnant with Spock’s child).  Perfectly fine if you’ve invested in the previous films, not so great if you’re coming to this universe for the first time.  But as the crew finds out about the probe and the wheels of the plot start to turn, the film’s energy picks up, and once they arrive in San Francisco, it explodes into fireworks.

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Tonally, The Voyage Home couldn’t be more opposite to The Wrath of Khan, but what makes it work isn’t the fact that there are a lot of laughs, it’s that those laughs are not gained at the expense of the characters.  No one is made to look foolish or subjected to dumb gags; it’s true character-based humor which we laugh at because we love these people and we get a kick out of watching the advanced humans of the future being stymied by the likes of fascist bus drivers, oblivious pedestrians, bureaucratic government functionaries, unhelpful doctors and in one particularly memorable sequence, an obnoxious punk rocker (featuring the immortal song “I Hate You”) – the same infuriating types every one of us has had to deal with at some point in our lives.  (Seriously – who has not ever wished they could neck pinch the odd mouthy yahoo into oblivion?)  Refreshingly for a time travel movie, and coming on the heels of Back to the Future, which came out just a year earlier, the plot has nothing to do with changing or restoring history.  Earth of 1986 is merely another alien culture for the Star Trek crew to explore – possibly the most alien one they’ve ever faced, and the foibles of 80’s culture are duly poked with the skewers they deserve, most notably our complete (and sadly lingering into 2016) disregard for our environment, in the movie’s strongest and most lasting message.

As a director, Leonard Nimoy has shed his training wheels here, and he feels more confident to let the camera run and let his actors enjoy the material that they are clearly having a lot of fun with, with each of the supporting players given his or her individual moment to shine.  Nimoy also populates his movie with a terrific guest cast and a refreshing dose of diversity:  we have our first black female starship captain (Madge Sinclair), our first captain from India (Vijay Amritraj, whom you may remember from Octopussy) and Starfleet Command itself headed by a black man (Brock Peters from To Kill a Mockingbird).  Catherine Hicks, later to be best known as the mom from 7th Heaven alongside Star Trek: The Motion Picture alumnus Stephen Collins, is a sharp and bright sorta-love interest for Shatner’s Kirk, and it’s always clear that whatever feelings she may have for the admiral are absolutely secondary to her passion for her work and her devotion to see her beloved whales kept safe.  I like the way that Kirk, the 23rd Century’s greatest womanizer, seems a bit stunned at the dismissive little kiss on the cheek and “see ya ’round the galaxy” line she lays on him at the end of the movie, as if he can’t believe that she’s turning him down – a remarkably progressive and feminist character beat given the era.

Afforded the privilege of shooting outdoors and in environments that for once don’t have to be redressed to hide the evidence of modern life, Nimoy and director of photography Don Peterman, who got an Oscar nomination for his work here, are able to give the movie a visual depth and sweep that shooting on soundstages in front of fake trees and matte paintings just can’t match.  There’s a shot in the movie that really stands out for me, and it’s not even that remarkable a moment:  Kirk and Spock walking along the shore of San Francisco Bay with the Golden Gate Bridge far in the background, where you can really sense the scope of the whole world here, and Star Trek suddenly feels out in the open in a way it never has.  Claustrophobia worked for The Wrath of Khan, but hindered The Search for Spock and made the latter feel like a glorified made-for-TV movie.  No such criticism can be leveled legitimately at The Voyage Home, even if the odd fan would be happier exploring strange new (artificial) worlds rather than wheeling a gurney wildly down hospital corridors.

Speaking of artificial – the footage of the whales, created entirely through models and special effects work as real life whales don’t like posing for the camera, is flawless and absolutely convincing, and garnered the effects team a well-deserved Oscar nomination (which it lost to Aliens).  Stunningly, the Paramount higher-ups, presumably the same types who thought putting Eddie Murphy in the movie was a brilliant idea, insisted that subtitles be added to the scenes in which the whales are speaking to the probe, worried perhaps that the rubes in the theater seats would not be able to infer what was going on.  Nimoy hit the roof.  He was right, of course; Spock points this out when he says on screen that “only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for Man.”  We don’t need to have what is being said spelled out for us – it would utterly compromise the movie’s message that there are things in this world beyond what we can understand and that we should not be so callous and cavalier in how we treat them.  Thankfully, Nimoy, coming off the success of The Search for Spock, had sufficient clout to win that battle.  (If you were really desperate to know what the whales were saying, down to the very last syllable, writer Vonda McIntyre provided one possible interpretation in her novelization of The Voyage Home, but her take is not any grand revelation.)

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This was the very first Star Trek movie I ever saw in the theater, in December of 1986, when I was all of eleven.  None of my family had any interest in Star Trek.  I seem to recall I had to offer to pay for their admission to get anyone to come with mebut my grandfather finally took one for the team and decided to tag along (and buy my ticket).  I was absolutely riveted.  I bounced back through the door and recapped the plot and all the great jokes at a mile a minute to a gaggle of uninterested ears.  I bought McIntyre’s novelization and read it obsessively until the spine cracked into shards, while waiting a desperately long year for the movie to come out on the pay TV channels (which we naturally didn’t get) so a friend could procure me a static-ridden, warbly, Betamax bootleg copy that I could screen over and over again until the tape demagnetized.  I was absolutely enthralled with this movie in a way that only kids can be, and I often wish that movies today could make me feel again.  Forty-year-old eyes can of course recognize the flaws in the film, forty-year-old ears can cringe at the blatty and occasionally goofy Leonard Rosenman score, and familiarity from having seen it probably thirty times since that cold 1986 night naturally softens the impact that it once had.  But the goodwill it engendered thirty years ago resonates today.

There is a popular Christian allegory that likens The Wrath of Khan to Easter, with Spock’s sacrifice on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday.  If we carry that a step further, then The Voyage Home is Christmas Day – complete with chimes and bells announcing its opening title march.  It is a gift to the Star Trek fan – a movie that succeeds in its director’s intentions to be positive and uplifting in every frame and sends us out cheering with a healthy dose of hope that we can correct the destructive course we have set upon in our treatment of Nature.  In 1986, that appeal extended far beyond merely the dependable core of Star Trek fans, as audiences responded to the tune of a whopping $109 million at the box office, cementing The Voyage Home‘s position at the top of Star Trek‘s cinematic earners and placing it as an aspirational benchmark for the other films to follow.

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In summary:  Big points for sweep and scope, a lasting positive message and a great sense of fun that suits the aging, beloved characters like old, comfortable leather.  A smidge of a point off for getting bogged down in the beginning by too much exposition, and Rosenman’s take-it-or-leave-it score.  Overall though, the happiest time you’ll have watching a Star Trek movie.

Next time:  Captain Kirk goes looking for God, only to be thwarted by budget cuts as first-time director William Shatner’s reach exceeds his grasp and the otherwise dependable Star Trek franchise receives its go-to punchline.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Parables on publishing, politics, pop culture, philosophical pondering and pushing people's limits.

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