It’s no secret among anyone who knows me that I have a lot of passion for Star Trek. In my sort-of-humble opinion, it’s one of the greatest pieces of science fiction to have ever been created, and the reason for that is simple: it’s about us. Humanity. Star Trek gives us a future where we struggled through our pettiness and wars to come out stronger in the end. Disease and hunger are all but wiped out, and the universe is ours to explore. As a humanist, this message resonates strongly with me, so I decided to do my part as a fan by going through all of the Star Trek movies leading up to J.J. Abrams’ new entry coming out in May. Let’s talk about the first two Trek movies, shall we?
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Picking up around 11 years after the original Star Trek went off the air, The Motion Picture is a slow-burning tale about a mysterious, destructive entity on a course for Earth. Along its path, it has killed quite a few people, so the Federation sends Kirk and the Enterprise to investigate. The story is pretty straightforward, actually, and while some people call it boring, I like to think of it as a great jumping-off point for the series.
As the entire principal cast returns to reprise their roles from the show, it hardly seems like more than a decade has passed since they last shared a bridge together. Right off the bat, Kirk’s character takes an interesting turn as he basically steals the ship out from under the nose of its new captain. It’s an obvious dick move, and while the movie tries to tidy up that aspect toward the end, I can’t help but feel like Kirk doesn’t deserve to be there. His need to captain a ship is greater than any other feeling he possesses, and it definitely shows–to me, at least–a low point in his decision making. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the character work. To complain about him giving in to ego every once in a while would be foolish, since, after all, he’s a captain of a damn starship. If his ego wasn’t inflated a bit, he’d be the cook or something. The Casey Ryback of cooks, minus the Aikido and ponytail, perhaps. Or maybe he would have been a redshirt and I never would have even known his name. So, I’ll forgive him his temporary lapse in judgment, since the series is all about humanity and its flaws. Just like you and me, Kirk isn’t perfect.
While Kirk is busy being a dick, Spock ends up on the Enterprise after quitting the Kolinar ceremony, or the Vulcan equivalent of being knighted in logic. He somehow feels drawn to the thing hurtling toward Earth, which is sort of confusing. His connection to the entity is never explained, so I’m forced to call his presence contrived, although not to the point where it really bothers me. Everyone else from the original cast is still serving on the ship, so it makes more sense for them to be around. I think Scotty took a few too many beers to the gut over the years, but it doesn’t seem to hinder his engineering skills. Or does it?
It’s worth mentioning again how slow The Motion Picture can be at times. Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain) makes every move by both people and machines epic in nature, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score only serves to amplify the effect. One of my favorite scenes indicative of the mood is when Kirk and Scotty are shuttling to the Enterprise for the first time. It lasts for several minutes and shows many views of the ship as they pass through the space dock, but the lingering shots and glorious soundtrack turn it from a boring shuttle ride into an amazing reveal that rivals anything the series has done since.
For those of you looking for action, you won’t find it here. Even so, I’d argue that the nature of the main threat makes for good science fiction even if its origin isn’t fully explained. You might think it’s spelled out at the end, but there’s plenty left untouched. For one, the theme of purpose in the universe is explored, albeit shallowly. I can forgive that, though, because time was taken to set up the characters instead of dropping them all in a whirlwind situation like a lot of movies do nowadays. When it’s all said and done, Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t my favorite of the original cast movies, but it rekindled the public’s love of a series that deals with humanity and the possibilities our future holds. That’s not too shabby in my book.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the polar opposite of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The director, Nicholas Meyer, does away with the space pajamas (come on, that’s what they all wore in the first movie), the philosophical nature of the narrative, and the lingering pace all used to mostly great effect by Robert Wise three years earlier. In their place, Meyers constructs a very tightly-focused character piece that, although the action and suspense is ratcheted up, still manages to keep the Star Trek spirit intact.
Make no Bones (maybe capitalize since it’s a character reference?) about it (haha) – The Wrath of Khan is all about Kirk and Khan. The story is actually a continuation of an original series first season episode, entitled “Space Seed.” In that episode, the Enterprise stumbles upon a centuries-old ship carrying cryogenically frozen passengers. Among them is Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically enhanced human being and product of the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. He ruled over a quarter of the world at the height of his powers, but with defeat looming over him, he and around a hundred of his followers got the hell out of dodge and took their chances in cryo-sleep. When Kirk awakens him two hundred years later, Khan wastes no time trying to take over the Enterprise in order to facilitate his second coming. Long story short, Kirk ends up marooning Khan and his people on a random planet. I think he was a little too nice about it, but I guess I’m not a starship captain.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and Starfleet officers accidentally find Khan while looking for an uninhabited planet to test their new Genesis machine on. The Genesis machine can basically terraform a planet in a matter of days, which turns out to be a double-edged sword. As these things typically go, one could either use it for good (terraforming) or evil (blowing shit to kingdom come). Well, once Khan learns that Kirk is alive (and an admiral now! Hah!), he hatches a plan to repay Kirk for all the years he cost him while imprisoned on the desert planet.
For the first time in the series, Kirk is shown as old and vulnerable. This time around, he didn’t really want to command the Enterprise, and at one point, he even says something about gallivanting around space being a young man’s game. Soon enough, he’s forced into a duel of one-upsmanship with Khan, as the former tyrant will do anything to watch Kirk suffer. That right there is Khan’s biggest character flaw: he has superior intellect and physical strength, yet he can’t get past simple revenge and a desire for power. For a supposed super human, he’s nearsighted to a glaring degree; the point being that it’s not about what our genes are, it’s how we use them that matters. In his blind rage, he even uses the biggest life-generating apparatus in existence as a weapon to kill one man. It’s sad and pathetic, and Khan knows it all too well. He even sees fit to cast himself as Ahab while quoting lines from Moby Dick that read, “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” If Khan wasn’t such a giant asshole, I might actually have a small pang of sympathy for his tragic life, but…eh. Not so much. I shudder to think that we would behave that way if we were given better minds and bodies. The “Space Seed” episode furthers that notion by commenting on Khan’s character traits. Along with his other enhancements, ambition was also brought to larger-than-life proportions, and it’s that quality inside of Khan that ultimately causes his downfall.
Kirk, on the other hand, has a lot more going on inside his mind. Mid-movie, he finds out (very minor spoiler) that not only does he have a son, David, but David is also working on the Genesis project with his mother. That revelation leads Kirk to examine his life and what could have been, and it understandably makes him feel old and used up. What would he have done differently if he had known about his son? Would he have been so eager to be on a starship and in harm’s way? He doesn’t get too long to contemplate the past, though, as the confrontation with Khan comes to a head shortly after the familial revelation. In fact, the aftermath of it all leaves Kirk feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle life once again.
Arguably the best original cast Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan is a science fiction classic. It expertly balances a character-driven plot with excitement and tension, and while the ending ham-fistedly sets up the next movie, I’ll deal with that debacle when it comes up in my review of The Search for Spock.
– George Bell
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