Star Trek: Motion Picture Trilogy

[18 August 2009]

By David Camak Pratt

J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek arrived in theaters back in May of this year. Days later, Paramount re-released the six original films featuring the cast of the first Star Trek television series. Perhaps with the intent to drive innovation towards the 23rd century, Paramount only released the full boxed set of all six movies on Blu-ray. However, that majority of film fans who are still stuck in the DVD age were granted the opportunity to purchase half of the Star Trek collection (sequels II through IV) as one boxed set on DVD.

While the release of the full collection only on Blu-ray might be in part an attempt to push consumers towards more advanced home video technology, it is more likely an attempt to separate fans from their money. On 22 September, the complete Star Trek Motion Picture Collection will be released on DVD, suggesting that distributors might have hoped for fans to buy the Star Trek Motion Picture Trilogy thinking it was the only Trek available and then, four months later, buy the same movies again.

For those who already have copies of Star Treks II, III and IV, there is no compelling reason to seek out the Trilogy collection. For those who don’t, this might be a worthwhile collection if you don’t care about waiting for the complete set, which includes Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (the only film missing from this trilogy that’s worth its salt).

The films here are as they always have been (more on them shortly), though its worth noting that the picture quality of this set is particularly good. The special features range from somewhat engaging to pointless and, in one case, irritating to a degree that lessens the viewer’s appreciation of the film itself.

Each film has a commentary track with two commentators providing banter of varying quality. Of the six commentators brought on for this purpose, only one actually worked on any of these three films. That commentator, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer, fills the Khan commentary track with so much highbrow gasbaggery one can’t help but regret enjoying his film.

Meyer is apparently of the opinion that Western culture has been on the decline since Shakespeare, and contemporary culture does little more than whittle away at man’s fragile attention span. In his lengthy rant to this effect, he quite literally argues that Americans would all be listening to symphonies if not for the emergence of the three-minute pop song.

More damningly, he claims that “fans don’t know what they want”. That’s a hell of a thing to say on a commentary track for the most beloved Star Trek movie.

One would expect the director of the best Star Trek film to appreciate that the line between high culture and pop culture is blurry (or, really, completely artificial), but alas, it is not so. While none of the other special features top the Wrath of Khan commentary track in obnoxiousness, none of them quite compensate for it, either.

The other two commentary tracks are enjoyable enough, but since the commentators can only speak about the films as fans, they don’t have much to say. The most enjoyable special features are those that include Harve Bennett, producer and writer for all three films. Bennett is amusing because he has no problem talking himself up. He claims to have single-handedly “revived” the Star Trek film franchise, and further claims that “the age of the sequel may be blamed upon” himself.

Bennett may have influenced the proliferation of sequels through the ‘80s onward (though this phenomenon really started before the Star Trek films), but at least the sequels he made are solid pieces of cinema. Conventional Trekker wisdom has it that the even-numbered sequels to Star Trek: The Motion Picture are the ones worth watching, and I certainly won’t argue. However, despite its odd-numbered shortcomings, even Star Trek III: The Search for Spock has its kitschy virtues.

Presenting The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home as a trilogy is at once logical and dubious. The story of The Wrath of Khan stands on its own, but The Voyage Home relies on the viewer’s knowledge of the films preceding it and, like Back to the Future Part II, The Search for Spock is a totally dependent film—it basically exists to make The Voyage Home possible.

So in terms of story, these films most certainly comprise a trilogy. However, in tone, theme, and even character development, these three movies could not be more different.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was conceived as an attempt to save the Star Trek film franchise from its poor critical fortunes. The first film had done well at the box office, but it was not reviewed positively and seemed to fans to be disloyal to the spirit of the television series.

The Wrath of Khan certainly makes up for its predecessor. The characters ring true and the tone is more consistent with the original series, possibly because the story picks up where an episode of the show left off.

In the film, Admiral James T. Kirk is taken to task by the villain Khan, whom he left behind on a verdant, healthy planet that, for some reason, became barren shortly after Khan and his people arrived. While struggling to keep himself and the crew of the Enterprise alive in the face of Khan’s vengeance, Kirk also struggles with his advancing age, the pain of meeting a long-lost lover again and realizing her child (his son) despises him, and finally, the death of a shipmate and friend, Spock.

The Wrath of Khan is as emotionally dense as Star Trek gets, making it the most complex and human film in this set. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock approaches the franchise from a different angle.

While Star Trek II pits Kirk against his first true loss as a space captain and human being, Star Trek III swoops in to make it all better. Though Spock dies at the end of The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock contrives a scenario whereby he semi-plausibly comes back to life at the same age he died, with all the knowledge and memories he accrued over his first lifetime intact. The Search for Spock further kills or otherwise rids the franchise of the new characters (and planets) that first appeared in The Wrath of Khan.

In order to make The Search for Spock something more than a reset button, director Leonard Nimoy and writer Harve Bennett add exciting little flourishes to the movie, like the destruction of the Enterprise and the first on-screen occurrence of Vulcan hand-sex. All of the elements of this sequel should add up to a terrible movie, but considered on its own terms, The Search for Spock is pretty fun.

Essentially, Star Trek III is a movie with the heart of a comic book, much like a Buck Rogers matinee, and Leonard Nimoy embraces that comic-book heart as the film’s director. The movie is colorful and bright, and it trades emotional weight for cheesy, overblown adventure. It will never be canonized as great science fiction, like The Wrath of Khan might be, but it is definitely entertaining.

Also very entertaining, though again quite different from its predecessor, is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Having returned the crew of the USS Enterprise to their pre-Wrath of Khan state (sans the Enterprise itself), all that remains is for Kirk to return home and answer for some Federation laws he broke in order to bring Spock back from the dead. However, due to some vaguely explained plot device, Kirk and his shipmates first need to travel back to the late 20th century, retrieve two humpback whales and bring them into the 23rd century.

The plot of The Voyage Home allows the film to do two things: reach a wider audience than other Star Trek films by placing the heroes in the late-20th century, and provide an environmentalist message about the importance of protecting whales from commercial harvesting. As a result, Star Trek IV is the most immediately likeable of all Star Trek films.

The familiar trope of time travelers struggling to fit into the audience’s present day delivers plenty of laughs at the same time that it humanizes the Enterprise’s intrepid spacemen. Through its conservationist message based on Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner’s alliances with Greenpeace, the film flirts with being overly didactic. However, it is certainly better to present the case for conservation too strongly than it is to cast those who seek to protect the natural world as villains, as some films still do today.

The Star Trek Motion Picture Trilogy is unlike any other of the better-known American film trilogies. The first and third films in the set are probably the best-loved films in the Star Trek series, but they’re beloved for very different reasons. If it weren’t for the use of the Star Trek characters and the continuity of particular story elements, these three films would not be described in one breath. The first film in the set is a ruminative military epic in space, the second a cheesy sci-fi comic book, the third an early example of the environmentally-minded family adventure films that have become common over the past two decades.

All three of these films are worthwhile in their own rights, but the inconsistencies from one film to the next betray a carelessness on the part of Star Trek’s handlers. These three movies will never be thought of as a trilogy in the way the Star Wars films are because, even if story threads run from the first film through the third, the three films barely seem to represent the same franchise.

The six commentators on this DVD set have worked or do work for the Star Trek franchise in one capacity or another, and every one of them makes some comment about the too-intense demands that fans have for the television and film series. I don’t doubt that Trekkers are particularly outspoken devotees. But perhaps they would calm down a touch if Star Trek provided them a more consistent product.

And sadly, if the massive Star Trek product rollout of 2009 sends any message to Trekkers, it’s that what they pay for Star Trek is far more valuable than what they think about it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/109932-star-trek-motion-picture-trilogy/