Tag Archives: Harve Bennett

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.

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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.)

whales

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.

goodbyetospock

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.

Grand Allusions or, Where Many Men Have Gone Before

"I have been... and ever shall be... a metaphor."

I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for probably the fiftieth time last Friday.  The significance of experiencing a movie about sacrifice and the promise of hope and resurrection on Good Friday did not escape me, either.  In a previous post I discussed the writing lessons learned from Gene Roddenberry, about the need for a story to always be about something; to that I’d add The Wrath of Khan as a further lesson, for not another science fiction film comes to mind with more of a pedigree so indebted to classical literature.  Where Star Wars is the most famous embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, The Wrath of Khan is steeped like the finest blended tea in the traditions of Shakespearean drama, and its famous finale borrows greatly from the story of Jesus Christ.  As writers we need to be aware of the traditions of storytelling, the recurrence of specific themes and motifs throughout history and the capacity of allusion to elicit powerful emotional reactions from our audience, for these notes will tend to seep into our own work whether we are conscious of it or not.

It is interesting to observe, as we delve into the Christian parallels at work in this particular tale, that The Wrath of Khan in many ways represents the “New Testament” of Star Trek, as it was the first Trek to be produced without Gene Roddenberry as its guiding hand.  He was removed from day-to-day supervision of the film by Paramount studio executives who blamed the massive cost overruns of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Roddenberry’s working style.  The Wrath of Khan was instead produced by Harve Bennett, who came out of the penny-pinching tradition of 70’s television, and written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, a beginning filmmaker whose biggest success to that point had been a series of Sherlock Holmes continuation novels.  Meyer is a studied intellect with a well-stocked library, and he packed the screenplay with references to A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, the Horatio Hornblower novels, King Lear and Paradise Lost, eschewing complicated special effects unavailable to this movie’s reduced budget in favour of character development and deep thematic exploration.  As a result, even though the movie cost a third of what it took to mount the first one, it feels substantially more epic.  Meyer dared to tackle what tends to be taboo among movie stars forever worried about their image – growing older.  He elicited from the infamously hammy William Shatner tremendous depth, nuance and vulnerability, arguably the best performance Shatner has ever given.  Actors love Shakespeare, and Meyer gave his cast the next best thing – a brilliant pastiche, set, despite its futuristic trappings, firmly in the Bard’s thematic wheelhouse.  (On the DVD director’s commentary, Meyer relates how he tried to convince Ricardo Montalban that he would have been a magnificent Lear, and regrets that such a performance never came to be; I know I would have loved to see it.)  Although they never worked well together (or by any reports even liked each other that much), Meyer knew the same basic truth as Roddenberry, and by extension Shakespeare – that the weirdest, strangest, most alien people can be relatable on the basis of their emotions.  A laugh and a tear are literally universal.  This is where the use of allegory comes so strongly into play.

The best allegories operate invisibly.  We don’t exactly know why something we are reading or watching is resonating with us so much, other than it seems to appeal to something deeper in the unconscious mind, or in the heart.  The power of the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sins and his eventual resurrection touches the instinctual fear of death held by all living things, and to the human need to find nobility and purpose in what can seem like the meaningless end of life.  The three-act structure of drama parallels this instinct as well:  in the first act, you introduce your character(s), in the second, you drag them down to the lowest possible point of total collapse, and in the third, you show their climb from that abyss and ultimate triumph.  In this too we find the Greek concept of catharsis – the emotional release found in an audience’s experience of a character’s pain and suffering.  Interestingly, in the original cut of The Wrath of Khan, there was no hint that Spock’s death might somehow be overcome.  It was observed by the powers that be following an ambivalent test screening that the movie featured Good Friday, but not Easter morning.  The end of the film was then reshot (against the wishes of Meyer, it should be noted) to provide more uplift and hope, including a concluding shot of Spock’s coffin at rest in a Garden of Eden-like setting on the Biblically named Genesis Planet.  Whether or not one is Christian, the cycle of sacrifice and rebirth (whether that rebirth is literal, or metaphorical in terms of the reborn spirit of those left behind) has a primal appeal, and when one of the pieces is missing, as in Wrath of Khan’s original ending, things feel out of sorts – the emotional experience is incomplete.

The issue I have struggled with in my own writing is when does allusion and allegory venture over the line into imitation and duplication?  When so much of our creative world at present feels like karaoke, the value of true originality escalates into priceless.  Yet audiences both literary and cinematic have this need for the reassurance of the familiar, the sense of being able to connect with the story on a visceral level, that commonality of hope and fear shared by all of humanity.  Campbell observes that we have always been telling each other the same story over and over again; his titular hero of the thousand faces.  Writers need to accept this basic truth or they will never even get started:  they will be crippled, as South Park so wittily showed, with “Simpsons Already Did It” syndrome.  And not just accept it, but come to embrace the idea that by infusing these ageless themes into their own work, they are taking part in a tradition that dates back to cave paintings and the fireside tale, and deepening the emotional experience of their story for the reader who will bring to it those same instinctive feelings about life and death.  They will recognize the thread linking your words, their life, and the lives of all those who have come before and will come afterwards.  And your work will truly live long and prosper.