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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary:  Meh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all know how that turned out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without further ado, let us… engage!

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what works about The Motion Picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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