Tag Archives: Gene Roddenberry

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
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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.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

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The Search for Spock is a bad title.  Not in the sense that it doesn’t look good on a poster, or that it doesn’t have a pleasant, iambic pentameter sort of lilt to it.  The biggest issue is that it represents a contract with the audience that the filmmakers have no choice but to fulfill.  You can’t label your movie as a quest to find one of the franchise’s most beloved characters without having that quest succeed, even if it’s after a few bumps and hurdles.  If none of the Raiders had ever found the Lost Ark, we would have been hurling our popcorn at the screen and kicking over trash cans whilst stomping our way out of the theater.  There is a certain sense of tedious inevitability that goes along with a story where you already know the ending.  I think this goes a long way towards explaining why if you ask a Star Trek fan which of the twelve movies is his or her favorite, The Search for Spock rarely, if ever, tops the list – nor does it fester with the dregs (reserved usually for Star Trek V).  It’s not a great movie, but there’s nothing in it that you can point to as spectacularly bad, either.  It’s serviceable entertainment, but at the same time feels like a stopover on a more interesting journey, a commercial break in between two much better acts; a push of the reset button on the growth and change in the characters we saw in Star Trek II and a way to assemble the gang back at square one for a (hypothetical at the time) Star Trek IV.

In 1982, after The Wrath of Khan scored both critical and box office acclaim, there could be no doubt among the suits at Paramount Pictures, led now by Michael Eisner (of future Disney fame) that a Star Trek III was a done deal.  Harve Bennett was retained as the movie’s producer again and even though Spock had gone out in a blaze of glory, Leonard Nimoy was approached to gauge his interest in participating in the next installment.  Nimoy, who had enjoyed his time working on The Wrath of Khan, had begun to feel misgivings about walking away and so decided not only to glue on Spock’s ears one more time but to somewhat brazenly ask to direct the movie as well.  Eisner was agreeable at first, but began to waffle.  When Nimoy asked him why, Eisner explained that he could not support the notion of an actor who hated his character so much being placed in charge of a major production, citing Nimoy’s insistence at having Spock’s death guaranteed in his contract.  Nimoy, perhaps raising an eyebrow as Spock himself would have in the same circumstances, said there was no such clause and if Eisner didn’t believe him, to have a flunky go to Paramount’s legal department and pull the Star Trek II contracts to see for himself.  One quick visit to the archives later, Nimoy had the job and production could commence.

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Mourning the loss of Spock, a battered U.S.S. Enterprise limps back to Earth from its battle with Khan to grim tidings:  the aging starship is to be decommissioned and its crew split up.  Not only that, but Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) is acting oddly, breaking into Spock’s quarters and mouthing oblique requests to be taken home to the planet Vulcan.  Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is facing the winding down of his career, until he is paid a visit by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), who reveals that before dying, Vulcans are able to place the essence of themselves, their katra – or soul, if you will – into another being.  A quick scan of the Enterprise‘s logs reveals that the only person available was McCoy.  Kirk vows to retrieve Spock’s body from the Genesis Planet and bring them both back to Vulcan.  However, the controversial Genesis is currently restricted to scientific personnel, so getting there won’t be quite within regulations, and to complicate matters, McCoy’s loose lips in a local watering hole have landed him in the custody of Starfleet security.

Meanwhile, Kirk’s son Dr. David Marcus (Merritt Butrick) and Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis, taking over for Kirstie Alley) are part of the crew of the science vessel U.S.S. Grissom and are exploring unexpected signs of life on the Genesis Planet when they locate a Vulcan child sobbing in the snow.  David thinks that the Genesis wave could have regenerated Spock’s cells.  But the young Vulcan seems to have no consciousness, no awareness of who he is or any ability to communicate.  Before the three can beam safely off the planet, the Grissom is destroyed by a Klingon ship commanded by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) who wants the secrets of Genesis for himself.  Kruge sends a team to the surface to locate the last survivors of the Grissom expedition.  As David and Saavik try to stay ahead of the marauders, they notice that the planet’s rotation is speeding up, periodic tremors are wracking the ground, and the mindless Spock has grown rapidly into an adolescent.  Something is not quite right, and David reveals that the instinct to change the rules runs deep within the Kirk bloodline – he used an unreliable, unstable substance called protomatter in the Genesis matrix, and that substance is now causing the entire planet to age at an accelerated rate.  They may have only days, perhaps even hours, until Genesis destroys itself.  As day breaks abruptly, David, Saavik and Spock are captured.

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Back on Earth, Kirk and his crew break McCoy out of jail, hijack the Enterprise, sabotage their pursuers and make a warp speed beeline for Genesis – only to encounter Kruge’s ship and suffer an attack that cripples their patched-together ship beyond repair by even Scotty’s miracle-working hands.  Kruge forces Kirk’s surrender by ordering his men to murder David in cold blood.  Heartbroken, Kirk gathers himself and executes one final gambit, tricking Kruge’s crew into beaming aboard Enterprise under the pretense of surrender before using the self-destruct to destroy it.  The two commanders confront each other down on the planet, which is beginning to break apart.  Kruge has everyone except Kirk and Spock beamed up to his ship, and demands that Kirk give him Genesis.  In a fistfight echoing the mano a mano faceoffs on the TV series which would usually end with Shatner’s shirt getting torn, Kirk kicks the murderous Kruge into a sea of lava, grabs the now-adult Spock and does his best Klingon impersonation to get them beamed onto the Klingon ship.  The good guys seize the vessel, throw the last Klingon into the brig and flee the exploding Genesis planet on course for Vulcan, where a high priestess (Dame Judith Anderson) performs a ritual to extract the katra from McCoy and place it back into Spock.  Spock is still not quite himself, and is only vaguely aware of what has happened, but as he achieves a glimmer of recognition in remembering his friend – “Your name is Jim,” the movie comes to a close with everyone reunited and a subtitle indicating that the adventures will continue.

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Star Trek was born on television; it was created and designed for the limits of television, and while it is a universe rich enough to suit the broad canvas of a movie screen, it has often struggled to inflate itself to that larger, more theatrical sensibility.  The Wrath of Khan did that very well – that is a movie from top to bottom, and feels like a movie at every stage, both in the scope of its themes and in the execution of individual scenes.  The Search for Spock, while promising a grand adventure in its title, feels more confined, smaller in its ambitions and more hesitant to push against the frame.  Some of this can be traced to the respective screenplays:  Nicholas Meyer, who wrote The Wrath of Khan, is a more literate voice, steeped in traditions of the great novels and big operatic moments suited to motion pictures, while Harve Bennett, who penned The Search for Spock (and who commented that any one of a dozen people could have written it) approaches story with the TV producer’s mentality of hitting beats with clipped efficiency and never daring to stray from the path lest next week’s episode be compromised.  The character moments in Star Trek III are good, but fairly perfunctory, and we never really peel back more than the most superficial of layers.  We see TV tropes such as the “previously on…” recap that opens the movie and a reset button ending where the character evolution from II is completely dialed back.  As a first time director, Leonard Nimoy is effective at keeping things moving (albeit at a more leisurely pace), but there’s nothing here that suggests of daring, of risking alienating the audience with anything truly unexpected – not that we should have hoped for such with a gang of studio executives undoubtedly peering over his shoulder the whole time, worrying that the novice was going to cook their golden goose.

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The same can be said of the performances that Nimoy elicits from the actors.  Meyer was able to get Shatner to dig deep beneath the persona of the movie star to get at the fragile human lying within; here, Shatner is back in his comfort zone puffing out his chest again and reaching for the rafters, and while it’s more in the vein of the Kirk persona we know and love, it’s still a letdown when we’ve seen the depth of his range in the previous entry.  (Admittedly, the scene where he collapses with grief upon learning of the death of David is a powerful moment, if a bit overwrought and too easily overcome.)  The standout among the cast is DeForest Kelley, and with Nimoy off camera for ninety percent of the running time, he gets a rare opportunity to show some versatility beyond McCoy’s usual single note of irascibility.  Gene Roddenberry once wrote that he expected Kelley would win an Oscar one day, and like the fate that befell many of the Star Trek cast, it’s lamentable that he had become so identified with the character of Bones McCoy that he never got a role that would give him the chance to earn one.  In The Search for Spock he’s the heart and soul of a movie that fundamentally doesn’t have much of either, and it’s fun to see him impersonate Nimoy in scenes where Spock’s personality has taken him over.   Everyone else is pretty forgettable:  the “other four” (James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols) hit their marks with varying degrees of interest, and the supporting players are largely a who’s who of 80’s TV actors giving TV-caliber performances (Doogie Howser‘s dad shows up as the captain of the starship Excelsior, and Dan Fielding from Night Court is buried under makeup as the last surviving Klingon!).  Even the wonderful Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon captain Kruge, who won the role over runner-up Edward James Olmos, is a bland thug with little nuance to him, and Lloyd’s usual larger-than-life charisma buried under the latex.  Kruge is drawn from the TV model of the “villain of the week,” where a bad guy has to show up out of nowhere and be single-dimensionally evil because there simply isn’t the time nor the inclination to delve into his motivations.  He’s nothing but a plot obstacle, and as there are no lasting consequences to his actions (even David’s death is largely glossed over), we’ve forgotten about him the moment he plummets into that river of bluescreen… sorry, er, lava.  (On that point, a real weakness of the movie was the choice to shoot the entirety of the Genesis Planet on indoor sets.  I suppose you could say that this subtly reminds you that the planet was artificial in origin given that its environs look equally artificial, but it unfortunately just makes it seem like the budget couldn’t handle a location shoot.  Shame.)

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Though it’s a well that has been plumbed deeply since (and appears to be again in the forthcoming Star Trek Beyond), this was the first time we saw the Enterprise destroyed on screen.  There was a reverence given to the big ol’ girl throughout the original series that has become less and less prominent as succeeding generations of writers have grown up farther removed from the era where the vessels in which men flew were as much a part of the humanity of the experience as the flesh and blood creatures at their controls.  In Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, the camera caressed the Enterprise as lovingly as it ever has any starlet.  In The Wrath of Khan, the ship protected its crew valiantly under blow after merciless blow.  Here, the Enterprise is pummeled into submission by one torpedo hit and sacrificed to take out half a dozen fairly clueless Klingon soldiers.  The problem isn’t necessarily the decision to destroy the ship – in a story about sacrifice, it’s a logical, important beat – as it is the precedent it set for lazier writers to rely on.  The characters should always be the heart of the story, not the surroundings, but in Star Trek, the ship has always been a character in itself, and to see it rendered as disposable as a redshirt in only the second act must have felt to Gene Roddenberry as if the inheritors of his legacy were doing everything they could to expunge him from it.  Like Spock, the Enterprise turns out to be a temporary sacrifice remedied by the end of the next movie – and in hindsight, this effectively neuters the impact of the moment.

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By the end of The Search for Spock, the contract implied by the title has been fulfilled and everything is more or less back to normal.  The new members of the family we welcomed in The Wrath of Khan are gone, save one who has been recast and relegated to the sidelines, and one (Carol Marcus) didn’t even show up to the party.  The intriguing promise of the Genesis Project has been proven to be a fraud and the planet itself has been blown to smithereens.  The ship is gone, but the crew managed to score itself a temporary replacement.  The slate has been erased and the band is reunited and ready for a brand new gig – it’s a bit like the tale of the man who hears of a fabled land of prosperity down the river and sets out on a journey to discover it, only to find that the river is circular and has brought him back home.  As I said in the introduction, there is nothing egregiously wrong with any of this, it just makes the movie kind of a non-event.  There are certainly more than a few pluses within:  it’s great to see the planet Vulcan given a big-screen makeover, any movie earns points for a James Horner score (even if a lot of it is recycled from The Wrath of Khan), Sulu’s “Don’t call me tiny” scene is terrific, and that Klingon babe at the beginning was kinda fetching in a mysterious, alien sort of way.  And inasmuch as Star Trek III sets the table for the merry romp that is Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, it’s a necessary step – just not one that you find yourself compelled to take again and again.

In summary:  Meh.

Next time:  No dying, no sacrifice and not even a bad guy:  Star Trek takes a cinematic U-turn and hits new heights of popularity – after a momentary ill-advised detour with Eddie Murphy.

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

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

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As they have unfolded on parallel big screen paths over the same four decades, Star Trek and Star Wars have competed for affections from the same pool of science fiction fans, often challenging said audience to pledge its troth to one or the other.  It’s rather like what Quentin Tarantino cannily observed in Pulp Fiction about the twin phenomena of Elvis Presley and the Beatles:  you can like them each to a certain degree but nobody likes both equally; in the end you’re either an Elvis person or a Beatles person.  From the perspective of the care and feeding of movie franchises, Trek and Wars are also case studies in how a series can evolve for the better beyond the participation of its creator.  We saw with Star Trek: The Motion Picture how the stoic and lyrical story that Gene Roddenberry wanted to tell ten years on from Star Trek‘s more colorful television inception was out of step with the fast-paced space battles that had enraptured the world in Star Wars.  A decade after Roddenberry’s passing we bore witness to George Lucas failing to understand what his audience wanted from Star Wars as well.  The Force Awakens clearly saw tremendous benefit from having Lucas hand over the reins, and bearing witness a Star Trek person would nod, smile and ask wryly, “where have I seen this movie before?”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture made enough money for its studio to greenlight a sequel, but with a caveat:  factoring in the costs of the abortive attempts at a TV series relaunch that preceded it, the final budget came in at $45 million ($149 million in 2016 dollars), which for that era was demonstrably insane.  (By comparison, Star Wars in 1977 cost $9 million which is a paltry $35 million today when adjusted for inflation.)  It’s said that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan, but in this case, paternity was assigned, Maury Povich-style, to one Eugene Wesley Roddenberry.  It was determined by Paramount Pictures that Roddenberry would be removed from any future Star Trek movie and that responsibility for the series itself would be transferred to the more budget-conscious television division.

Going forward, Roddenberry received a token screen credit of “Executive Consultant” and retained the right to comment on aspects of production, but for all intents and purposes he was a figurehead with any significant influence stripped away.  Harve Bennett, a veteran TV producer with credits like The Mod Squad and The Six Million Dollar Man, would take over the center seat, famously winning himself the job by speaking truth to power and telling then-studio head Charles Bluhdorn that TMP was really boring and that yes, he could absolutely make a better movie for less than $45 million.  Bennett watched all 79 episodes of the original series and found himself intrigued by a genetically-engineered villain from a first-season episode who had been left by Captain Kirk to fend for himself on a distant planet.  Thus were planted the first “space seeds” of what would become Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan.

There was another wrinkle to be dealt with as well in that Leonard Nimoy had been a reluctant draftee to the previous film and showed even less inclination to sign on for the second.  Nimoy harbored a great animosity towards Roddenberry and the studio stemming from unpaid royalties for use of his image in officially licensed products over the years, and while this had largely been settled to his satisfaction prior to the commencement of production on TMP, he, like many fans, had found the movie a frustrating creative experience.  Bennett’s pitch to get the author of I Am Not Spock to sign on was to give him a great death scene, modeled after Janet Leigh’s in Psycho:  it would occur about half an hour into the movie and act as a shocking but memorable punch to the gut for the audience, raising the stakes of the final battle to come.  That would both limit the amount of time Nimoy would have to spend on set and give him a final, merciful out from a role he was ready to move on from.  Nimoy was amenable, and production could commence with the entire cast intact.

Now, it was just a matter of coming up with a story.

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Roddenberry’s original proposal for the sequel was a time travel adventure that would see the Enterprise crew going back in time to prevent a malicious alien intelligence from interfering with the JFK assassination and thus corrupting human history.  After what was certainly a polite Hollywood “thanks but no thanks,” Bennett forged ahead on his own course instead, soliciting different writers to flesh it out into screenplay form.  What resulted was something of a mishmash:  one particular and no doubt peculiar draft involved the Enterprise crew going up against a superpowered alien man and woman from another dimension – think Captain Kirk vs. General Zod and Ursa from Superman II.  At one point there were five different versions of the same story floating about and nobody among the higher-ups was happy with any of them.  That’s when Nicholas Meyer came to Bennett’s attention.

Having recently made the H.G. Wells/Jack the Ripper time travel fantasy Time After Time, Meyer was introduced to Bennett by a mutual friend, and as Bennett explained the ongoing scripting difficulties, Meyer made a bold suggestion.  Let’s look at every single draft, he said, and let’s make a list of everything we like, whether it’s a character, an event, or even a section of dialogue.  Meyer then proposed to take all those elements and weave them into a coherent screenplay.  Bennett explained the tremendous time crunch facing them:  in order to maintain the movie’s release date, the effects house (George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) needed the script in twelve days.  No problem, said Meyer, I can write this in twelve days.  Bennett was skeptical but gave him the job, and indeed, twelve days later, Meyer finished his draft, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (a reference to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech).  A few tweaks to satisfy the actors aside, the twelve-day wonder was very much what we ended up seeing on the screen – apart from the title, which became The Vengeance of Khan until it was reported that the third Star Wars movie was to be called Revenge of the Jedi.

We all know how that turned out.

Moody and restless on the occasion of his birthday, and much like Sherlock Holmes in the absence of a new case (a deliberate allusion made by Meyer, who had written a Holmes novel), Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is watching a new generation of Starfleet cadets, led by the bright young half-Vulcan Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley, in her first movie) usurp the place of his much older crew at the forefront of space exploration.  Those crew have largely gone their separate ways:  Spock (Nimoy) is now captain of the Enterprise and serving as an instructor to the cadets, and Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) is first officer on the starship U.S.S. Reliant, which is searching a distant sector for a suitable lifeless planet on which to test the mysterious Genesis Project.  Apparently unable to read their star maps properly, Chekov and his new captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) stumble into the clutches of the exiled Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban), who had been left on what had originally been a lush and fertile world subsequently transformed by natural disaster into a wasteland, costing him the lives of many of his people, including his wife.  Khan uses the mind-controlling properties of a native eel to bend Chekov and Terrell to his will, commandeers the Reliant and sets a course to intercept the man he blames for his ruin:  James T.  Kirk.  But first, he wants the Genesis Project for himself.

Genesis, it turns out, is like its Biblical namesake a “weapon of mass creation,” which can terraform a lifeless planet into an Earth equivalent in a matter of hours.  It is being developed by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick) and an elite team of scientists at Regula One, a space laboratory above a lifeless planetoid.  When an oddly monotone Chekov demands that Genesis be transferred to the Reliant, a suspicious Marcus calls her old flame James Kirk.  The transmission is jammed and Kirk assumes command of an Enterprise filled with a skeleton crew of green cadets to find out what’s going on.  They are intercepted by Khan, who gets the upper hand with a surprise attack, cripples the Enterprise (killing Scotty’s young nephew Peter in the process) and demands all information relating to Genesis.  Kirk’s superior knowledge of starship operations allows him to deal a desperate return blow, and the Enterprise limps to Regula to find the scientists murdered, Chekov and Terrell stuffed inside storage lockers, and Genesis gone.  However, the transporter was left on, suggesting that someone escaped, beaming deep into the planetoid.  Inside the Genesis cave, an oasis of life beneath the surface of the dead world, Kirk meets up with Carol and David, who is revealed as his estranged son.  Another betrayal looms as Chekov and Terrell suddenly turn on Kirk and company, revealing themselves still under the control of Khan.  Terrell kills himself to avoid murdering a fellow officer, Chekov is freed, and Khan steals Genesis from under their noses.  Kirk is at his lowest – defeated, outmatched, and feeling old and worn out.

But thanks to some efficient repair work by Spock and Scotty, the Enterprise is patched up, rescues its commander and steals away to hide in a nebula where shields, visual readouts and weapons locks won’t work, and where they will be more of a match for Khan and the Reliant.  As the ships battle to a stalemate, Spock observes that Khan’s lack of experience shows in his two-dimensional perception of space.  Kirk orders the Enterprise to drop out of sight, only to rise again behind Reliant and deliver a punishing and fatal blow.  Khan will not be denied his wrath, however, and activates the Genesis countdown, knowing that the Enterprise won’t be able to outrun the blast without its warp drive.  Spock, mindful that logic demands that the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few, subjects himself to a lethal dose of radiation in order to repair the engines and allow the Enterprise to escape, as the Genesis detonation gives life to a new planet inside the nebula.  Kirk, who has made a career of cheating death, is brought face to face with it as he must say goodbye to his dearest friend.  Yet in sacrifice there is redemption to be found, as he makes peace with his son, and gazing upon the sunrise as it breaks over the Genesis planet, finds himself feeling young.  And with Leonard Nimoy narrating the famous “space, the final frontier” lines, the camera lifts our hopes as it sweeps through a Garden of Eden to find Spock’s coffin lying safe and sound, a hint that in the future, perhaps nothing is as final as it seems.

Gosh, where to begin in the critical analysis portion?  There is so much going on here that you could probably write a dozen posts about this movie alone.  (It took me three paragraphs to summarize the plot and it still feels like I left so much stuff out.)  It remains the yardstick by which every subsequent Star Trek movie is compared, and whenever a new Trek dares to crib from it in the hopes of recapturing lightning in a bottle (as seen in the plots of Nemesis and Into Darkness, specifically) the results are invariably inferior.  In The Wrath of Khan, every element is firing on all cylinders:  the literate, classical dialogue (the go-to Star Trek movie when looking to quote the franchise in its entirety), the gradual tightening of the tension in Meyer’s efficient direction, the seething and layered intellectual fury of Montalban’s performance, the welcome spark of the renewed interplay between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the seamless integration of new characters that we actually come to care about (Saavik, David and Carol), a then-unknown James Horner’s majestic nautical-flavored score.  It is a singular example, oft forgot in the modern age of CGI spectacle, that a movie is not necessarily made great by throwing an unlimited supply of money at it.  Forced by the studio into re-using leftover sets and costumes and even into recycling a few effects shots, Meyer compensated by giving the script the scope of an epic instead, using the characters to examine relatable issues like life, death and the inevitability of aging (rare in Hollywood films because movie stars hate acknowledging that they’re getting older).  The result is so engrossing that it feels much grander in scale than it actually is:  shot entirely on soundstages with roughly 80% of the movie taking place on either the Enterprise bridge or a redressed version of it.  You don’t notice any of that though, because you’re clinging to your seat wondering if Kirk and company are going to make it out of this one alive.

Montalban and Shatner make for perfect adversaries – ironic given that they never share the screen – and neither gave a better performance anywhere else.  I’ve noted before how Meyer lamented Montalban’s underuse by the industry given his sublime talent, and he’s so good here at playing the villain he could have easily been the Alan Rickman or Gary Oldman of his day.  One of my pet peeves about younger actors playing bad guys is that they lack the life experience that lends a performer the gravitas in order to pull off true, unnerving malevolence, and fall into the trap of the emo tantrum instead.  With Montalban, aged 61 at the time of filming, you can see the years of hatred etched into Khan’s soul roiling behind sinister eyes as paraphrased Captain Ahab drips off his tongue like ambrosial acid.  Khan is quite simply terrifying, and no Star Trek villain actor since has been able to equal his work (I’ll wager most average people can’t even remember the names of the other villains across the series, let alone who played them.)  Shatner is great too, and proves (as he largely failed to do in the previous entry) that he can carry a movie as its leading man, delivering a performance that stands somewhat in opposition to how William Shatner is generally perceived:  there is effective understatement and nuance and quiet in James T. Kirk when we first see him rudderless and lamenting the life that feels like it is slipping away.  The return of Khan awakens the hero inside him, and the movie becomes his journey to reclaim the best part of himself – the unflappable, indefatigable, larger-than-life starship commander – as well as finally embrace his “first, best destiny” as a father and a leader.  The evolution in Kirk is as much of a joy to watch unfold as anything else about the movie, and although the death of Spock is deeply saddening, it is that last necessary step for Kirk to grow up.

To that most controversial aspect of the movie – that in hindsight really does seem the proverbial tempest in the teapot – Gene Roddenberry, who as I noted earlier was sidelined during the production, is alleged to have been responsible for leaking Spock’s impending screen death, resulting in a flurry of angry letters and threats to the production team from upset fans.  At that point, the script had Spock dying in Khan’s initial attack on the Enterprise in the first act in keeping with the intent to create a homage to Psycho.  With the Vulcan’s fate and the movie’s biggest surprise now lamentably public knowledge, Bennett and Meyer decided to move his demise to the end of the movie and add a fake-out to the opening scene, where Spock appears to be killed four minutes into the movie in what turns out to be a harmless training simulation.  That way, first-time audiences would shake their heads for making such a fuss over nothing, only to be tremendously moved when Spock eventually sacrificed himself for real in the climax.  Meyer said in hindsight that he owed Roddenberry a strange thanks for forcing them into a better movie.  But that was to be Roddenberry’s only contribution of any substance.  Like George Lucas thirty-three years later, he would sit idly on the sidelines and watch others take what he had created to new and unexpectedly greater heights.  There is a degree of tragedy in that.

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In summary:  Points for pretty much everything.  A few marks off because the wonderful George Takei (Sulu) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) don’t have very much to do, but that’s a minor quibble.  This is, without hyperbole, simply Star Trek‘s finest cinematic hour.

Next time:  Spock comes back, on the other side of the camera, and the bloom comes a little bit off the rose as the “odd number” curse starts to take shape.

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

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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Greetings humanoids!  As summer begins to scorch the green from the lawn, it’s time to resurrect a Graham’s Crackers tradition from a few years ago:  the movie series review!  You may not realize this, given the complete absence of advertising and hype thus far, but there’s a new Star Trek movie coming out at the end of July.  Star Trek Beyond, the thirteenth volume of films based on that obscure cancelled sci-fi series from the 60’s, is due to hit theaters on July 22, 2016.  Longtime readers may recall that back in 2012 I did a day-by-day recap of every James Bond movie leading up to the release of Skyfall, offering up a custom brew of trivia, anecdotes and commentary designed to whet appetites for what turned out to be arguably the best 007 movie of our generation – and Star Trek Beyond‘s pending premiere gives me a lovely excuse to do the same for the bygone silver screen adventures of Kirk, Spock, Picard, Data et al.  There are seven weeks remaining and only twelve movies to get through so the posting schedule won’t quite be so rigorous – but hopefully you’ll enjoy what I have to say, and perhaps you might be inclined to brush the dust off your DVD cases and pop them in again.

Without further ado, let us… engage!

Given the entrenchment of Star Trek into western popular culture as we know it today, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was nothing more than an old cancelled NBC space show with a robust group of dedicated fans who couldn’t let go – the Firefly of its day.  In the mid-1970’s, without the Internet to give viral life to the latest rumor, one could rely only on tantalizing hints of revival shared at conventions like a game of telephone.  For series creator Gene Roddenberry, a contradiction of a man whose lasting vision and humanism were always tempered in life by a healthy degree of Barnum-esque hucksterism, the notion of being able to squeeze a few more cents from a past success in a climate where his attempts to move on were flaming out left and right must have been powerfully compelling.  When he would show up and announce that he was working on a way for Star Trek to return, who knew how much of that was truth and how much was just baiting the hook so he could keep charging appearance fees and selling merchandise?  The short-lived animated Star Trek series was a taste, an ultimately unsatisfying hors d’oeuvre, but for fans, it was something – something to stoke the fire of hope for the return of the genuine article.

Eventually, Roddenberry got down to business and began writing, cobbling together a controversial screenplay provisionally named The God Thing that was subsequently given the green light for a very low budget – even for the penny-pinching 1970’s – movie.  But in Hollywood, there is no such thing as a straight road, and The God Thing would be rewritten, cancelled, revived as a TV pilot, cancelled again, scheduled as a TV movie of the week, cancelled, and then finally – after Star Wars exploded across the world, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on its heels proved that the popularity of sci-fi wasn’t a one-off fluke – given the go-ahead as a big budget motion picture.  The best effects houses in the country were hired to give it a sweep and scope equal to Star Wars, and the production secured the services of director Robert Wise – a filmmaker who had edited Citizen Kane, directed one of the highest grossing movies of all time (The Sound of Music) and won an Oscar for West Side Story.  And the movie was titled, to remove any sense of doubt as to its potential for epicness, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In the 23rd Century, an unspecified number of years after the conclusion of the USS Enterprise‘s five year mission to explore strange new worlds, a massive energy cloud that is vaporizing everyone and everything in its path is headed straight for Earth.  The highly decorated Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) undertakes some bureaucratic wrangling to get himself assigned as captain of his old ship, which is currently undergoing a massive refit in orbit.  In doing so, he displaces its current captain and his protege, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), and swiftly recruits his old crew to accompany him on this emergency mission – all with the exception of science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is back home on the planet Vulcan attempting to purge himself of his lingering human emotions, but at the same time is drawn to a consciousness at the heart of the energy cloud and in short order, finds himself back – albeit uneasily – amongst his old friends, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov.  Also signing on for this mission is the Deltan navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a mysterious bald alien woman who has a history with Decker.

After a nearly fatal misadventure inside a wormhole thanks to Kirk’s unfamiliarity with his new ship, the Enterprise arrives at the energy cloud and manages to avoid being vaporized (thanks to Spock’s quick thinking).  The ship penetrates and journeys deep inside the cloud, seeking to make contact with the intelligence that is powering it, to try and convince it to leave Earth alone.  Abruptly, Ilia is abducted and replaced with a probe identical in appearance (but with a sudden penchant for high heels and short skirts) through which the crew can now communicate with the intelligence, which calls itself V’Ger.  V’Ger is a form of mechanical life travelling to Earth to locate its creator, with whom it plans to join.  After Spock goes rogue attempting to investigate further, he reveals his understanding of his connection to V’Ger – both incomplete and searching for someone who can provide answers.  V’Ger is having a crisis of faith – for a mechanized life form built to function solely on logic, this is an anomaly that it simply cannot compute.  The Enterprise is finally welcomed inside the heart of the energy cloud, where they discover what V’Ger really is:  a probe built by NASA and launched over 300 years ago, Voyager 6 (V—ger), which has grown beyond its 1970’s programming and become sentient.  Voyager has seen the universe, has learned the what and the where and the how, and now wants to understand the why.  The answer lies in the human equation:  Decker sacrifices himself to join with Voyager and Ilia, completing a trinity of sorts which causes them to ascend to a plane of existence beyond our comprehension and leave the Enterprise (and Earth) alone to continue its adventures.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (or TMP in fan shorthand) is most definitely not akin to Star Wars.  There is no swashbuckling, there are no action scenes to speak of.  There isn’t even really a villain.  This is less shades of Joseph Campbell on monomyth than it is a deeply philosophical pondering of essential questions of human existence – notions of faith and purpose and the meaning of it all, perhaps with the aspiration of the story far exceeding its capacity to reach it in the course of an economical running time.  It’s interesting to situate the movie opposite its sequel, The Wrath of Khan, as the two most literate and intellectual Star Trek movies ever made.  But where Wrath of Khan locates the philosophy in the hearts of its characters, TMP assigns them to a largely offscreen, unfathomable character that we, the audience, don’t really care that much about.  There are few personal consequences whether or not V’Ger gets its answers, other than the hackneyed “Earth will be destroyed!” gimmick.  The resolution of the crisis is also hived off to supporting characters that we’ve just met and haven’t invested that much in either.  Stephen Collins brings a great deal of likability to his thinly-written Decker, and Persis Khambatta tries her best but is stuck in a pretty dumb, borderline unplayable role.  (I have to roll my eyes at the description of her character – an alien beauty from a race that is supposedly so sexually alluring that members of her species have to take “oaths of celibacy” in order to serve safely with humans, lest they, I don’t know, sex them to death?  Such a creation would not be out of place in anything directed by Michael Bay, and speaks to irritation at the way Roddenberry and many, many artists and creators like him over the decades feel this puerile compulsion to flaunt their sexual fantasies publicly within their art.  Put it this way – a woman wouldn’t have come up with the idea of Ilia.)

What is striking about the regular cast is how uncomfortable they seem in their roles.  With the bulk of the movie’s runtime given to showcasing the effects work, the script is thin on character moments as it is, but even in those brief bluescreen-free scenes, there is a notable lack of energy to the interactions, stemming from the fact that Kirk just doesn’t seem like Kirk, McCoy is not McCoy, and so on down the line.  I’m sure not all of it can be traced to the ridiculous uniforms they were clad in (Shatner observes in his book Star Trek Movie Memories that the actors could not sit between takes without ruining the costumes, and an inadequate compromise was made with the crew providing boards that they could lean against instead).  It must have been a considerable challenge for each actor, returning to a part they had played ten years earlier – and never expected to again – and trying to recapture what was endearing about them in the first place while regurgitating technobabble and conjuring emotions at blank screens where effects would be inserted later.  This works for the story, to a point; the Enterprise crew is supposed to be uneasy at being reunited suddenly in a crisis after a long time on separate paths, not to mention worried at the fate of their home world, but for an audience, especially for a 1979 audience that had waited to see these people again for a long, lingering decade, it would have simply felt wrong, as if you’d showed up at someone else’s family reunion.  There is no sense of camaraderie; the interplay, even the familiar banter between Spock and McCoy, is forced and clunky.  The screenplay uses the characters only as props in service of exploring the movie’s larger philosophical canvas, rather than using the philosophy to explore the characters.  The dialogue is almost exclusively explanatory and plot-driven, “Morris the Explainer” writ large.  As such our emotional investment in the journey is minimal, and as the credits roll, we might be thinking about what we’ve just seen, but we don’t feel much of anything.  The motion picture has not moved us.

So what works about The Motion Picture?

Two major things.  The first and most obvious answer is Jerry Goldsmith’s music.  There had been a merciful pivot away from the deeply grating bleeps and boops that characterized 50’s and 60’s sci-fi, starting with Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cemented with John Williams’ brilliant work in Star Wars.  Given his turn at the podium, Goldsmith echoed Williams’ symphonic sweep in the creation of the famous main title theme which would appear in five of the films and serve as the theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation, but also craftily incorporated some electronic elements to underscore the eerieness of the mysterious cloud as the Enterprise travels through it, the music often the only element pushing the movie forward through long, silent stretches.  The visual effects, assembled by such industry heavyweights as Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, are sublime, and the odd wonky matte painting aside, hold up extremely well against their modern-day CGI equivalents.  They rival and arguably exceed the Star Gate sequence in 2001 in terms of their abstract beauty and the imagination infused into the imagery.  It’s not X-wings flying over the Death Star, but it’s art, and much of it is beautiful.  The only mistake with the effects is the fault of whomever decided that every penny that was spent had to wind up on the screen, to the detriment of pace.  (Wise had to cut the movie together without the effects in place, as they were still being worked on right up until almost the hour of the gala premiere.)

A criticism levelled frequently at Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it is boring.  A critic at the time complained that it had “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars.”  In hindsight, Roddenberry, Wise and the production team deserve some credit for not trying to make another Star Wars.  Their noble error was in going too far the other way, of giving us poetry when a prose exploration of the same subject would have been more in line with what the audience wanted.  In a sense, the entire movie functions not as narrative but as metaphor, and a rather vaginal one at that given the predominance of men in the cast:  it was observed by a smarter mind than myself that the Enterprise, a tiny speck soaring deep through the tunnels of a vast energy matrix in search of V’Ger, is a sperm bringing the spark of humanity to the egg waiting to be fertilized by it.  Throw in talk of the creator and creating God in our own image and you’re dealing with some heavy, heavy stuff, man, when perhaps most people just wanted to see some spaceships blow up.  Still, if you’re not going to press my thrill button, or try to stir my emotions, then at least challenge my intellect, and in that area, The Motion Picture succeeds.  I, too, have on occasion stopped to ask the question to the empty air just as Spock does at a critical moment in the third act:  “Is this all that I am; is there nothing more?”  Figuring that out seems to me to be the essence of what it means to be human – the fuel that has driven Star Trek in all its forms.

That, to me, is the polar opposite of boring.

The Motion Picture also works as a necessary stepping stone for what is to come; a cathartic purge, if you will, of the mess of false starts and dashed hopes that preceded its creation.  It dispenses with the awkward baby steps that were always going to accompany the first reunion of the characters and their transition from small screen to big and gives the series tabula rasa to move forward to much greater heights in a brand new era.  It is also, in its more stately approach to the solving of narrative problems, a template for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Where Gene Roddenberry had to include a fistfight to sell his show when NBC had dismissed Star Trek‘s first pilot as too cerebral, here we see that cerebral approach to storytelling in full, elegant display.  V’Ger begins the movie as a terrifying antagonist, doing seemingly villainous things, but its actions are not out of spite, and a crisis is eventually resolved without shots fired nor nuclear explosions set off (aside from the “heavenly” burst of white light that accompanies the creation of new life at the end).  There is a profound optimism in the message that understanding is the greatest means at our disposal to end conflict between enemies who seem implacable.  Today, when a presidential candidate bleats incessantly about building walls to keep the terrifying others out, we should take this message to heart, even if our cinematic appetites have always trended toward resolution by good old-fashioned shoot-em-up – as exemplified by the enduring appeal of Star Wars.

In summary:  Points for score, effects, philosophical underpinning and aspirational reach.  Probably the best, if only, “hard sci-fi” Star Trek film. Marks off though for weak characters, expositional writing, languid pace and a lack of emotional depth.  It’s Star Trek, but it’s not enough Star Trek, if that makes any sense.

As the last thing you see before the credits promises, the human adventure is just beginning, and next time we’ll delve deeper into what is still regarded, justifiably, as the greatest Star Trek movie of them all, where we learn that it was the Klingons who said that revenge is a dish best served cold.

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

I have been, and ever shall be…

Nimoy

Our sky is a little dimmer today with the loss of someone who expanded the meaning of stardom out beyond the final frontier.  Leonard Nimoy, gone at 83, was an actor, director and photographer by vocation but at heart a storyteller and shaper of one of the most impactful fictional characters of our time, who helped remind millions of us feeling like aliens walking an often confusing planet that we were human after all.  And more than that, in an entertainment landscape overrun by buffoons and simpletons elevated by ratings popularity to aspirational figure(air)heads, Nimoy made smart and logical the coolest thing you could hope to be.  With his portrayal of Mr. Spock, Nimoy gave the pursuit and value of intellect a mysterious and, dare-one-say-it, sexy side.  He gave hope to those of us more comfortable with a math book than a bench press.  He showed that brain could be more magnetic than brawn.

When I first watched Star Trek at the age of 10 or so, Spock was the character I was most drawn to.  Sure, Captain Kirk was the swashbuckling hero and Scotty had a cool accent, Dr. McCoy was full of Southern charm and Lieutenant Uhura was simply stunning to behold, but Mr. Spock was, if one will pardon the pun, fascinating.  A teenage kid struggling with hormones and the associated emotional imbalance, particularly in the wake of the passing of his own father, will naturally find himself captivated by this unflappable figure who sets that troublesome turmoil aside and approaches each problem from the standpoint of clear and logical analysis – while never forgetting the all-important human equation, even if he hasn’t quite figured that out yet.  I wanted to learn more about Vulcans and try to emulate their approach to life, even if I didn’t think I would ever become a scientist.  More importantly I wanted to figure out if it was actually possible to neck-pinch someone into unconsciousness – would have helped with bullies back in the bad old days.

Our popular culture contains an infinite assortment of characters whose adventures and traits resonate within our collected consciousness long after they have exited the stage.  With respect to his successor Zachary Quinto, few characters and performers are as inextricably fused as Nimoy and Spock.  Surprisingly, or not, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s initial description of the USS Enterprise’s Vulcan science officer was the very definition of “broad strokes,” a sketch that could have applied to any generic alien from any cheesy science fiction program of the last century:

…Probably half-Martian, he has a slightly reddish complexion and semi-pointed ears…

As most fans know, NBC was so unimpressed with Spock as he appeared in Star Trek’s first pilot that dumping him was one of their conditions for agreeing to finance a second.  Roddenberry refused, of course, and over the original run of 79 episodes, Nimoy took those pencil marks and began to infuse him with depth, gravitas, and even a dose of Jewish mysticism (the source of the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute), creating a lasting icon.  As the Star Trek canon became ever more robust, Nimoy seemed to get its characters and the reason for its popularity more than the behind-the-camera talent did.  Blossoming into a fine director, he took them helm and helped guide Star Trek on its cinematic journey, and those times where it stumbled were those in which his voice was left unwisely on the sidelines.  It would seem strange to wish to try and do anything with Star Trek without the input of Mr. Spock, but so goes the human arrogance that Spock himself would rightfully disdain.

Like so many of his Trek co-stars, Nimoy the actor wrestled with the issue of typecasting.  In the 1970’s, he suffered through a bout of fan misgivings after the publication of his autobiography I Am Not Spock, proof that even before social media the public was apt to overreact to things not worth getting upset about.  Such was the loyalty to the character he had etched into so many millions of hearts.  (Sure enough, when rumors began circulating during the pre-production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that Spock was to die, a most illogical wave of threats began bombarding that movie’s producers.)  When he wrote his sequel I Am Spock so many years later, Nimoy reconciled with his alter ego and with the fans who wanted to see him as nothing else, perhaps recognizing that if one is to be known for just one achievement in one’s lifetime, the definitive portrayal of a character who inspires millions of people is not such a bad legacy to leave.

In his twilight years, as he explored his passion for photography and made the occasional TV or film appearance, Nimoy seemed settled into the idea of himself as elder statesman and philosopher.  A few days ago, after he was admitted to hospital, Nimoy’s Twitter account posted several moving messages about life and memory, perhaps from an accepting sense that the days were growing short.  It was, in effect, communicating a final wish to the world that it live long and prosper, as he did.  In the final scene of Star Trek II, the dying Spock’s thoughts and words are not for himself, but for his ship, his captain, and his friend.  “Don’t grieve,” he says.  “It is logical; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

In the end, Leonard Nimoy is that rare man who can move on from this life with no task left undone and no ambition left to prove.  It can truly be said of him that he left things better than he found them – we could wish no more for him, or ourselves.  And perhaps as his captain might have put it, “of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”

Star Trek, Superman, “coolness,” and truth

Cool.
Cool.

My friend George sent me a link to a really long (but interesting nonetheless) rant about Star Trek Into Darkness the other day.  The author of said rant was not in any way a fan of Damon Lindelof, the Hollywood screenwriter who co-created Lost and contributed to the scripts of both Ridley Scott’s misfired Alien prequel Prometheus and the most recent reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.  To paraphrase, it’s perhaps enough to say that the author’s main gripe with Lindelof is that his writing forgoes logic, rules and consistent characterization in favor of “gee whiz,” “cool” and giggling at boobies instead.  Even as someone who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness for what it was, I found it hard to dispute this point.  One of the biggest of my own gripes about it was the ending, cribbed almost note for note from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to the point where it came off as something like a cinematic exercise in karaoke.  Movies in this genre nowadays rarely, if ever, make you feel anything.  And the reason, plainly, is that they are being made by a generation of filmmakers who have not felt, but rather have experienced life only by watching other movies.

I don’t know Damon Lindelof and I can’t pretend to know what he’s gone through in his life.  Certainly his drive and his skill at achieving the career he has is to be admired and envied.  But he seems to be one of a breed of young writers and directors from the mold of Quentin Tarantino, who spent their formative years working in video stores, absorbing thousands upon thousands of famous and obscure movies into malleable brains, uploading raw data Matrix-style to that place where the memories of life would normally be stored.  The work they produce now as the chief drivers of the Hollywood machine is endless pastiche; pieces of other works recombined and reimagined for modern consumption.  I had a discussion with my uncle recently about the decline in quality of movie scripts and I told him it’s because foreign markets make up the majority of a movie’s profit potential, and vehicles driven by visual effects and explosions and “cool!” will do better overseas than more literate works filled with idioms and ideas and cultural mores that don’t translate into Mandarin or Hindi.  Studio executives hire filmmakers who can deliver dollars, not philosophy.  (If they can do both at the same time, fine, that usually means Oscars, but the former is always preferable).  This is where folks like Damon Lindelof find their wheelhouse.  (In fairness to him, Star Trek Into Darkness was co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, and certainly director J.J. Abrams had major story input as well).  They can deliver the popcorn with consistency and efficiency.  But that’s all.

There is a semi-famous story (to Trekkers, anyhow) around the writing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  When Nicholas Meyer was hired as its director, he was told there were at least five different scripts for it floating around, none of which were suitable to shoot.  Meyer suggested a meeting whereby the creative team made a note of everything they liked from any of the drafts – a character, a scene, even something as minor as a line of dialogue.  Meyer took these notes away and wrote a draft of what would become the movie we saw in only twelve days, forsaking a writing credit simply to get the movie in shape to shoot.  In any other hands such a cut-and-paste job might have resulted in a hackneyed, disjointed mess, but Meyer’s literary background enabled him to infuse a theatrical quality into what was otherwise a straightforward story of revenge and sacrifice.  What was most remarkable about the screenplay was that it dared to present its hero as old, tired and washed-up – traits actors loathe playing because they think the audience will project them onto their real-life selves.  Meyer was young when he wrote the screenplay, but as a struggling artist he could empathize with those things.  Hotshot screenwriters who’ve bounced effortlessly from pre-sold blockbuster to pre-sold blockbuster as the new Star Trek team have done are incapable of this.  They don’t know what it’s like to fail, to come up against your own limitations and find yourself wanting.  They simply can’t dramatize what they have never felt.  And so they reach toward the only place they’ve ever found traces of those feelings – other, better movies.

When I picture Nicholas Meyer writing Star Trek II, I see an angsty face hunched over a typewriter, sucking down his twentieth cigarette, plumbing the depths of his soul as he agonizes over le mot juste, fighting to find the emotional truth of the story.  When I picture the story break sessions for Star Trek Into Darkness, I see a room full of young guys in baseball caps scarfing down pizza and Red Bull and trying to one-up each other with statements like “You know what would be totally awesome?  A shot of the Enterprise rising out of the ocean.”  “How about they come across this ship which is twice their size and totally painted black?”  “COOL!”  “Hey, guys, check this out.  What if the bad guy… is Khan?  And the end is exactly like Wrath of Khan only we switch Kirk and Spock’s places?”  “Yeah!  I love it!”  “It’s pretty good, but we need some hot alien chicks with tails.  And more Beastie Boys songs, that went over so well last time.”

I had the same problem with Superman Returns, which I watched again recently, and I chalk it up once more to a screenplay written by capable but very young scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (they have cameos in the movie as high school students) who were great at dreaming up “Cool!” trailer-worthy moments like a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye but not so skilled at crafting emotions or believable characters.  Superman is a difficult character to write even if you’re a seasoned pro, but the main reason that movie didn’t connect with audiences was because Superman really has no story in it.  He’s just… there, as lifeless as the dated-looking CGI used to render him in some of the flying scenes.  He talks about having been gone for a while but doesn’t seem to have been changed by his experience, or have any compelling reason to have come back (apart from using his powers to stalk Lois Lane in several unnerving sequences).  The movie is more interested in the “whiz-bang” spectacle of Lex Luthor’s overly complicated plot to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean using stolen Kryptonian crystals and kryptonite, which in the end Superman just ignores as he lifts the entire landmass into outer space (a point not lost on my young son who remarked “isn’t kryptonite supposed to make him weak?”)  And for a movie that directly raises the question of whether or not the world needs Superman, it never gets around to debating this point in a satisfactory way.  Compare the wafer-thin Superman Returns to the profundity in the Richard Donner original that it is paying homage to, and it comes up extremely short – because the young writers of the former simply don’t have the chops of the great veteran Tom Mankiewicz (whom they crib lines from in the movie’s only memorable scenes, just as Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman quoted Meyer’s famous dialogue verbatim in Star Trek Into Darkness).  Instead, we get dumb gags about dogs eating each other.

Someone once decimated Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace by pointing out that the plot was a series of scenes of characters going from meeting to meeting to meeting, a reflection of the life of George Lucas at the time.  I’m all for encouraging young screenwriters to get their shot at the big time, but as a lover of stories that matter I prefer the visceral resonance you’ll see in works by writers who’ve lived long enough to have had their asses kicked around the block a few times.  If you’ve never been the underdog, you can’t know what it’s like to be looking up at the mountain and be paralyzed with the fear of taking the first step.  In the absence of those memories you reach for what others have done in older, better movies, and cough up pale copies that rely on flash and swagger to cover the absence of substance.  “Yeah, it doesn’t matter that none of these characters say or do anything memorable or touching, ’cause… cool badass aliens with frickin’ laser beams!  Like in that other movie that people enjoyed!”  The abiding irony in all of this is that as it concerns Star Trek, some of the most memorable dialogue in The Wrath of Khan was itself lifted from other sources, namely Moby Dick et al.  But in that movie, it didn’t feel so obviously recycled, because Meyer’s informed writing and directing (and terrific performances, by the by) sold the emotional truth of each word.

I’m not saying there should be some rule that you can’t write a movie unless you’re at least 40, have been divorced once and be suffering a deep psychological resentment of your parents for taking your favorite blankie away when you were four.  I’m saying that some of these young guys pulling in six and seven figures for rewrite jobs should perhaps look away from a screen once in a while, get out and live a bit of their lives.  Read some classic literature.  Rediscover what it means to feel something that isn’t necessarily just the high of sleeping with models after a gala premiere.  Worry less about what’s cool and more about what connects.  Recognize that what touches us about movies and stays with us long after we’ve left the theater isn’t the awesome shot of the ship tumbling end over end into the atmosphere, it’s the quiet dignity of man in his darkest hour and the deep bonds we forge to fight against our intrinsic loneliness.  It’s the humanity.  And if you can’t feel that in your own life, you’ll never successfully translate it to the page, let alone to the screen.

What’s the story, Graham?

Who is that guy?
And while we’re at it, who is that guy?

I’ve never been good at self-promotion.  Perhaps you can chalk it up to formative years surrounded by people telling me keep quiet, don’t boast and give someone else a turn.  Like most people, I enjoy attention, but excessive notice tends to turn my stomach inside out.  It’s why I had to stop reading the comments on the stuff I submit to Huffington (that and the occasional threat from a pissed off Tea Partier).  The problem is that these aren’t qualities that serve one well if one is attempting to establish a writing career.  Publishing firms are tightening their belts and seem to expect their authors to do most of the legwork in marketing themselves.  You see the results often on Twitter – writers following other writers in hopes of a follow-back, and relentlessly pushing their tomes through tweet after tweet.  Seems to work for some; I follow a few who haven’t published a thing yet have managed to build up their own expectant and admiring fanbases.  My attitude has always been that quality will find its own audience, but, after blogging for almost two years to a relatively stable but small (yet tremendously awesome) group of supportive readers, it’s clear that my modest approach isn’t working.  I need to give you more.

If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while you’ll know I’ve made some periodic and cryptic references to a finished novel that has been sitting on my hard drive for far too long.  A few years back I sent out some queries for it, received polite rejections all around, and then set it aside for a while.  (I had a nice one from a literary agent who represents a very famous series of books, who said that her decision to pass was not a statement on the quality of the writing, which, though it may have been a form letter, was still encouraging to a fragile ego.)  About two years ago I went back and rewrote large portions of it while painfully hacking out almost 60,000 words to get it to a publishable length.  Perhaps a dozen family & friends have read it from cover to cover; dozens more have seen excerpts and offered suggestions, some of which have been incorporated, while others have been welcomed but disregarded (you have to use your judgement after all).  Long and the short of it is that at this point it’s in the best shape I can possibly get it into, at least from my perspective.  And I have started sending queries out again.  So why have I not shared more about it here?

Well, in a strange way, I have.  There is a lot here about the book.  And no, you haven’t missed it.  Let me explain a little.

We live in a spoiler-addicted culture.  Everybody wants their appetite sated immediately; we all want to flip to the last page to see who did it.  I went through that phase myself – because I am fascinated by the process of film production (an interest that probably stems from wishing in idle moments that it’s what I did for a living) I devour news about scriptwriting, casting, principal photography, and yes, spoilers.  I had to give myself an intervention of sorts this past summer when I ruined The Dark Knight Rises for myself by reading the Wikipedia plot summary before seeing the movie.  I realized I’d become what I despised – I’d often railed about being able to figure out the ending of rom-coms simply by looking at the two stars featured on the poster.  For Skyfall, I purposely kept myself spoiler-free, and as a result I enjoyed that movie a lot more than I would have had I known how it was going to end.  Trekkers have been driven up the wall over the last several by J.J. Abrams’ refusal to offer specifics on the identity of the villain “John Harrison” played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness.  Is it Khan?  Gary Mitchell?  Robert April?  Harry Mudd?  Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  In promoting his projects, Abrams has always embraced the idea of the “mystery box,” never showing his hand until the night of the premiere.  And controlling the conversation by keeping it where he wants it, in the realm of speculation, is, if managed properly, a great way to keep interest high.  It’s a dance though – give away too much and you spoil it, but say nothing, or remain stubbornly evasive, and people grow bored and move on to the next thing.  My more introspective nature simply lends itself better to Abrams’ way of thinking.

I’ll crack open the mystery box a little:  My novel is a fantasy.  It’s the first part of what will hopefully be a trilogy.  The main character is a woman with magical abilities.  She encounters a mortal man.  An adventure ensues.

Whoa, you’re saying.  Back up a sec.  This is basically Beautiful Creatures, right?

Argh.  As writers we need to support each other and rejoice in each other’s successes, so I’m very happy for Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  We all dream of seeing our epics translated to the big screen and I’m sure they’re bursting with joy at their enviable accomplishment, as would I.  But privately I’m suffering a few gutfuls of agita.  You can’t help feeling like the guy who was late to the patent office when Alexander Graham Bell released the first telephone, even though our stories are completely different.  Theirs takes place in the modern day; mine is set in the past in a fictional world.  Their lead characters are teenagers discovering themselves; mine are world-weary adults.  And of course the supporting characters and indeed the plot bear no resemblance to one another.  But to the casual observer, they’re treading similar boards, and even though I could have written a story about a lawyer or a doctor or cop without garnering so much as a whisper of comparison, I have no doubt that someone will now accuse me of trying to cash in on a trend, particularly if Beautiful Creatures does become “the next Twilight” and thousands of lesser imitators flood literary agents’ inboxes (I’m fortunate I didn’t choose to write about vampires.  Luckily, I find them tiresome.)  Indeed, witches are all the rage in pop culture at the moment – we had Hawkeye and Strawberry Fields hacking their heads off a few weeks ago and we’ve got Mrs. James Bond, Meg Griffin and Marilyn Monroe bandying their magical wiles with James Franco coming up in March.

Well, it is what it is and no sense sulking about it now.

I’m going to sidestep into politics for a moment.  My beloved federal Liberals are conducting a leadership race right now, and candidate and former astronaut Marc Garneau has recently fired a shot across presumptive favorite Justin Trudeau’s bow by accusing him of failing to offer up concrete plans.  But Garneau (and those who are praising this as a brilliant strategic move) should understand that people don’t respond to plans, they respond to ideas – the why, not the what.  Our current PM came to power not because he had a thoroughly researched and scored eighteen-point economic agenda, but because his campaign message was that the previous government was corrupt and he wasn’t.  It worked.  His two subsequent election wins have been based on similar themes – I’m reliable, the other guys are scary unknowns.  I go back to Simon Sinek’s brilliant observation that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  It was the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.  The trick, when it comes to trying to pitch a book through a query letter, is that you’re required to try and hook the agent through what is more or less a 250-word encapsulation of the basic plot.  But the plot isn’t why I wrote the book and it’s not why I want people to read it.

For argument’s sake, and I’m certainly not trying to make a comparison here, but let’s quickly summarize the life of Jesus Christ:  A baby is born to a virgin mother and grows up to become a carpenter, lead a vast group of followers and spread a message of love to his fellow men.  This offends the ruling powers who condemn him to torture and death, after which he is miraculously resurrected.  If you had no knowledge of Christianity or the substance of Jesus’ message, you would never believe based on what you just read that these events would inspire a worldwide religious movement that would endure over two thousand years and counting.  The plot doesn’t make you want to read the book.  You get no sense of the why.

After an enormous detour, we now come back to my novel and its why.  The why is here, all around you, in the archives of this site.  It’s in my values, the things that matter to me and that I ponder as I type, post and share.  My opinions on politics, conservatism, the Tea Party, faith, spirituality, organized religion, charity, economics, ecology, literature, women, love, the loss of our parents, the shifting nature of good and evil, even James Bond, the Beatles and the writing of Aaron Sorkin as a part of the entire human experience – they are all represented in some form or another in my novel.  Gene Roddenberry taught me that a great story can’t just be a journey from A to B to C, it has to be about something more.  So mine is an adventure story that is as much an exploration of my personal philosophy and observations on the human condition as it is sorcery, chases, narrow escapes, explosions and witty repartee.

It is written in first person, from the point of view of the sorceress.  Why did I choose to write as a woman?  Part of it was for the challenge, I suppose, to see if I could do it without falling into chick-lit clichés about designer shoes, the appeal of sculpted abs and struggles with mothers-in-law and PMS.  But more to the point, if the story is to connect with an audience, its themes must be universal, as must its emotions.  Men and women both know what it is like to feel alone, to be consumed by a longing for something or someone you cannot have, and to make any kind of connection, no matter how meagre.  We can both crave intimacy so deeply that we don’t care who we receive it from – even if we know we are asking for it from a person who is absolutely wrong for us.  My fictional leading lady has tremendous powers, yet she remains vulnerable to the stirrings of a long-closed-off heart and the desire to be accepted, even by a man who despises everything she represents – a married man, to complicate matters further.  The evolution of their relationship is the absolute center of the plot, their interactions the driver of all the events that follow.  I avoid a lot of the external mechanisms common to fantasy like endless prophecies, quests, magical objects, creatures, specific rules about the casting of spells and complicated mythologies.  Sorry, no Diagon Alley or Avada Kedavra or Quidditch or even white walkers, folks.  The progression of my story hinges on emotions, personal choices and consequences, not getting the Whatsit of Whatever to the Mountain of Something Else before the next full moon.  The people are what matter and everything else to me is background noise.

Does it sound like something you’d like to read?  I hope so.  I hope if you’ve come with me this far you’ll want to come a little further, and maybe invite a few friends along.  Over the next few months I’ll post periodic updates on how we’re doing submission-wise, and maybe a few more details like character names, excerpts of scenes, even (gasp!) the title.  We’ll see if we can get a couple more folks interested to the point where we reach critical mass and something truly amazing happens.  It’s a story I’ve put a lot of heart into and really want to share in its completed form.  But as I said, if you’ve been following this site and listening to what I have to say, you already know much of what you’re in for.  Think of it as a buffet table of themed appetizers leading to a sumptuous main course – one that I promise won’t leave you with indigestion.

As they used to say on the late night talk shows, More to Come…