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Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 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 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.

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.

Novelists and central casting

It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen.  Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines.  I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself.  It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader.  It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books.  But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to).  Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement.  Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see:  Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art:  a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on.  The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality.  Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you.  What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique?  When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles.  On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned.  On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it.  My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair.  I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow.  (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader.  I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)

I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree).  I’d rather that you cast the part yourself.  You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights.  You need to be able to claim her too.  With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her.  Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie.  Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom.  Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available.  There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better.  I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead.  (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)

What, then, is the point of the preceding rant?  As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say:  well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version.  Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken.  It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.

So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written?  Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan.  I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:

berenicesmile

You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.

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.

Connery. Sean Connery.

I’ve delved into some serious stuff in my last few posts – fate of humanity and all that.  I thought it was time enough for something a little on the lighter side.  And today’s the perfect day to do it.

Bet you didn’t know that today was “International Talk Like Sean Connery Day.”  In honor of Sir Sean’s 81st birthday, voicemails across the English-speaking world are offering up such bon mots as “Greetingsh.  I’m shorry I can’t take your call thish inshtant,” while the man himself probably relaxes at his Bahamas home with a good stiff drink after a round of golf.  He’s been out of the limelight since 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the throes of whose making upset the actor so much he decided to pack it in.  Interesting story about that movie, was that Connery had turned down roles in both The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings because he didn’t understand them.  When the script for League came along he confessed to not understanding it either, but decided to take the part just in case he might miss out on something spectacular.  Turns out he should have trusted his earlier instincts.

After an almost 50-year career in show business, it’s not like he had anything left to prove.  Coming from a poor background in a suburb of Edinburgh, working jobs like milkman and coffin polisher by day and honing his physique at the gym by night, this lad who his friends called “Big Tam” went in a few short years from one or two-line extra parts in British movies nobody saw to defining masculinity for an era as James Bond – setting a standard that tends to make the toughest of us look like effete pretenders.  He had the sense to walk from Bond before it got ridiculous, when he could still manage to carve out a career for himself in different roles, although some of those 70’s movies of his really haven’t aged well (and if you don’t believe me, try sitting through Zardoz.)  Artistic recognition came for him with his Oscar for The Untouchables, and he managed to get in a great line in his acceptance speech:  “I first appeared here thirty years ago… Patience is a virtue!”  Oddly enough it was the period that followed that offered up his most popular movies since the Bond days – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, The Rock – each a runaway boxoffice smash with Connery headlining the movie poster.

As the director Nicholas Meyer tells it, there are two kinds of actors in the movies.  There are those actors who pretend that they are the people they are playing, and actors who make you think the people they are playing are like them.  Someone like Daniel Day-Lewis disappears into his character (does anybody outside his immediate family know what Daniel Day-Lewis is really like?) while Sean Connery is always Sean Connery.  And that’s not a bad thing.  It’s patently ridiculous that a Soviet submarine captain should speak with a Scottish accent, but we buy it because of the presence of the man.  We like spending a few hours with him.  As men, he makes us want to stand taller, to puff out our chest and to stare down every challenge with unflappable swagger.  The old “men want to be him, women want to be with him” tagline rings true.  Go on – put on one of the old Bonds and see if you don’t find yourself walking a little differently after it’s done.

So here’s a good tumbler of Lagavulin to you, Sir Sean… hope your 81st finds you in good health and a few strokes under par.  We miss you, but thanksh for all the memoriesh.