Star Trek: Start to Finish

One man's attempt to watch the entirety of Star Trek canon, from start to finish.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Curmudgeons

Star Trek VI (Netflix; Amazon Memory Alpha) is a finale. The first words on screen are “For Gene,” dedicating the film to the memory of the then-recently-departed Roddenberry. But really the movie is in memory of this show that made the people in it stars and that made all of us dedicated fans.

You’ve gotta come see this crazy show on TV! It’s Star Trek with people my age!

It is a fond look back at a simpler time, when you knew who the bad guys were and you could count on the Neutral Zone to separate them from you. The story starts with a very literal bang, and proceeds from there into the most explicitly political of any of the Trek films. In 1991 everything was on the brink of really changing, and so everything on stardate 9521.6 would, too. The Klingons wanted peace; their economy was in tatters and the Empire was facing its end. It’s a fitting end for the films, which shifted the original series’ focus on one-off baddies to the Klingons, who easily filled the evil slot in the audience’s Cold War mentality.

Aside: that the Neutral Zone has moved from separating the Romulans and the Federation to separating the Klingons and the Federation bugs me a little, but the Romulans– who were a bigger protagonist in the series than the Klingons– lost a lot of mindspace when Trek moved to the big screen.

Klingon dance parties tend to get out of control.

So we throw our heroes into this and ask if we can trust these aliens. Spock stands in as the better angels of our nature, while Kirk takes McCoy’s traditional role as the hot-blooded speaker of the things we feel but shouldn’t say. McCoy falls back on his secondary characteristics, leaning heavily on his “best friend” role, but occasionally slipping into the old-man role his real-life frailty made all too easy. Sulu gets his own ship and gets to make excellent use of it, but most of the others are still in their old jobs, typecast in character as in real life.

McCoy misheard the verdict and thought it was another dirty joke.

Speaking of real life, we see the return of Nick Meyer, whose presence makes Khan, Voyage Home, and this last film the favorites they deserve to be. But we also see the loss of producer Harve Bennett, who gave films two through five the care they needed to look like a series, and so the feel of this movie is ever so slightly wrong compared to the others.

So we have a good idea that hooks in the time period, we get the whole gang back together, and we make the movie. It’s… just okay.

Begin Spoilers

It spends too much time doing so many things it can’t be any of them well: it has a state dinner where the conversation is skipped over; a courtroom drama (with Michael Dorn!) where our heroes get to make no defense; a soviet gulag where the heroes escape through no cleverness of their own; a main bad guy who spends the latter half of the film saying nothing but lines from Shakespeare plays; a brash rush into an impossible battle the Enterprise crew has no plan for; said space battle, where the winning blow makes all future uses of cloaking devices suspect; and an assassin whose plan is so ill-defined that he would assuredly be caught and his goal ruined.

End Spoilers

Goodbye, old friends.

And yet… I like this film. It does a fantastic job of showing off that Trek could encompass all of those things but not be a slave to any of them. Trek is about humanity using the best in us to overcome what seems impossible, and they do that in this movie over and over again. That this is self-evidently the original crew’s last hurrah on the silver screen makes all of that more poignant: you’ve seen these guys save the day so many times that it’s sad to see them look out into the middle distance for the last time, but you know, without a doubt, that they were happy with the final chapter of their story. And I am, too.

Grade

B

The plot distilled into one animated GIF

 

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

So that’s what an invisible barrier looks like

Star Trek V (Netflix; Amazon; Memory Alpha) is somewhere between “not as bad as I remember” and “offensive and hurtful”.

On the one hand, they start out with beautiful spots in Yosemite and have a terrific time playing with the characters: Kirk, Spock and Bones get to be grumpy old men together; Sulu and Chekov get lost; Scotty is busy fixing everything; Uhura is getting them all back together. They all shine.

Hey you! I’m the MacGuffin in this here movie and you’d better not forget it…

On the other hand, there’s this terrible plot going on. There’s a crappy planet where everything is un-Star-Trek-ishly sad and terrible, and some guy there is plotting something. So the Enterprise un-Star-Trek-ishly sends down commandos, who steal horses from destitute people, and then raid the compound, killing people and destroying things. Spock nerve-pinches a horse. Some Klingons become involved for no apparent reason. The plotting guy turns out to be Spock’s brother Sybek, which kind of breaks Spock’s backstory. There’s some kind of mind control thing Sybek does, but it seems to have no permanent effect and isn’t very well explained in any case. Then they all go meet God but he’s not God so instead the Klingons shoot him.

The number of times Scotty saves everyone is inversely proportional to the worth of the film

Scotty’s prison break is pretty awesome, though. I’m still undecided if the rocket boots are cool or lame. They’re right on the edge.


The ship’s navigator getting lost is classic

But putting aside all the lameness, let’s just note that this plot also makes no sense. If the Klingons, the Federation, and the Romulans decided to have a place to get together, wouldn’t they choose a place that didn’t suck? And even if they did, why is Sybek there? Why is anyone there but the ambassadors? And what’s with this Great Barrier: it’s mentioned that it has stopped others, and Sybek claims that his mind control thingamajig will let them through, but Kirk doesn’t do it and he suffers no ill effects. Then they go meet God but he’s not God… so who is he? Who imprisoned him there? Why? Answering that could be a neat movie.

It is at this precise moment that you realize Sybek is actually just a redshirt with a backstory

It’s tempting to say that the problem with this movie is that Nimoy stopped writing and directing and Shatner started. The emphasis on action and fights and special effects is a decided shift, but I don’t think we can attribute it all to the new guy on top: this movie came out after The Next Generation went on air, and this movie now has to use the big screen to full effect in order to distinguish itself from its new small-screen offspring.

The Klingon ship probably has a canonical name, but in my mind it’s named the Deus Ex Machina

But what makes classic Trek good is that it’s a cerebral show about ideas and interesting situations, and the leading man is obviously able to punch his way out. But instead he engages, connects, and learns from his environment. That’s the balance in the Original Series that makes it great: it’s not just a monster of the week show where shooting it with a bigger gun is the climax, but is instead a show about discovering the world as you live it and figuring out what to do about it. Star Trek V misses this balance completely, with a plot that carries the characters into the finale against their will and then sputters through the finale until an until-now-useless Klingon ship blasts the baddie with a bigger gun.

Grade

D

The reason to watch Trek: the three guys at the center

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

"Hello, Computer"

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Memory Alpha) is the funny one. Where they go back in time. With the whales. Where Scotty says “hello, computer” into the mouse.

And it’s great. It is legitimately fantastically good. It manages to take a plot about extinction and make it light and interesting and a little bit alarming without bludgeoning you with the message. It manages to be an adventure movie without violence. It takes characters that by all accounts should be worn through and makes us interested because there’ in such a radically different environment.

Kirk deploys the dreaded Photobomb Maneuver

But let’s stop a moment and realize that it manages to do all this because it is running the same plays, cleverly disguised so you don’t notice. Oh, you went back in time to the ‘present’ and found a nearly-extinct species because a mysterious probe (or is it a big mysterious probe) is threatening to destroy all you hold dear? Oh no!

The trick is that none of that matters, because they pull off mixing and matching so many ideas with the connective tissue of being damn hilarious. At some point it was decided that this movie would allow the occasional bits of humor found in most Trek to range freely, and the freewheeling antics of all the characters allowed to speak their minds and interact in this new way is so magical that you can forgive the movie its shortcomings.

Looking Causal

Amazingly, the crew understands long-extinct whales but not what nuclear power was used for.

Even if these sins are forgiven, though, let’s list them for completeness sake. The size of the Bird of Prey shifts from being rather claustrophobic to easily fitting two humpbacks and no one notices. Saavik is even more wooden in this movie than the last, which is a neat trick since she’s barely on screen. Scotty actually says (I swear!) “Captain, there be whales here!” in a giddy little burst. Some of the whale reaction shots linger far too long. Last, everyone wears 80s clothes, which I suppose is understandable, but I’m only barely able to forgive it.

McCoy is basically the XO; he makes sure work actually gets done and no one is stuck.

The actors are given some new character opportunities to play with, too. Kirk interacts with a woman but doesn’t try to seduce her. Spock is remembering how to be himself, even as that self is shifting in new environs. McCoy gets to fully commit to his role as ship conscience, wandering about making sure people do what they need to do. Scotty is free of the lower decks, finding the materials he needs to make everything everyone else does possible. And Chekov shines as the suspected spy without a clue about what he did wrong.

On the larger scale, the look of this movie is a little harder to pin down. It lacks the visual flair that Search had, where it was obvious that Nimoy was relishing the look of the scene, the framing of the shot; Voyage is much more utilitarian. The computer-generated images in the dream sequence also seem out of place; they have nothing about them that’s interesting other than their existence, which in 1986 was probably enough. Lastly, the swoopy letters are back, albeit in a less swoop-tastic form.

Apparently the Federation isn’t a military dictatorship. Good to know.

This movie also continues the trend of better defining the universe; we finally see that the Federation has a President and a whole hall-ful of well-costumed ambassadors, filling in the until-now-murky political aspects. We see our first black, female captain aboard the Saratoga (which, unfortunately, is fried by the probe). And we see the Federation’s nonviolence played out in a real but unspoken way throughout the movie.

The nonviolence plays on multiple levels. Easiest to see is that there is simply no fighting; Chekov failing to use a phaser on stun is as close as we come. There is some slapstick chasing, and the threat of force, but we see how solutions can be reached without resorting to the “easy” way. This contrasts nicely with Kirk’s warning at the beginning as the Bird of Prey flies toward Earth: “This is an extremely primitive and paranoid culture.”

Checkov’s moment of glory

That line is the summation of the movie. In the best Trek tradition, the movie is making its point by holding up the mirror and letting the audience see for themselves what is wrong. This movie is so confident that this trick will work– and it does, and it has, and it will in many more movies– that they can step up and call their audience out on what’s wrong, and know that the audience will spend one minute laughing, then the whole evening understanding that they were the butt of the joke, then a good long time wondering if they want to be.

That’s what Trek has always done so well, and pairing it with a healthy dose of humor makes it incredibly fun to watch.

New Voyages await

Grade

A; a departure from the typical, but incredibly well done

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Leather Jackets for Everybody

I watched Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (Memory Alpha) nearly a month ago. Some of the lag time is due to life taking more time than I had, but a lot of it is due to my not having much of anything to say about this movie. I will now spend a few hundred words telling you all about it.

The Good

Let us talk as men do: in dramatic lighting.

This movie marks the directorial debut of Leonard Nimoy, who is also the titular character of the film. Oh, and he starts out dead. That’s a promising back-story, and you can see how profoundly Nimoy makes his mark on the rest of the Trek universe in this film: his shots are beautiful, with great framing and a keen ability to draw your eye to what’s important.

"You ain’t seen nothin’ yet."

The cinematography serves the universe well by showcasing the world of Star Trek, which has until now been a motley collection of ideas. Search begins where Khan left off and tries to weave the various parts together, bringing the science into the warfare and the politics into the technology. This extends especially to the Spacedock, whose very size frames the already-massive Enterprise and lets us know that we’ve seen only a sliver of what’s on offer in this little universe.

The emphasis on the Vulcan culture is well-done and well-timed; Nimoy got a lot of control over something that was very dear to him, and he uses it to make the race he exemplified fascinating and alien.

His chance to be a badass

The minor characters all get to stretch their legs a bit here, too. Sulu and Uhura both get great vignettes (not, quite, whole scenes), and Rands makes an appearance for those in the know. Sarek returns and steals a few scenes from Kirk. Christopher Lloyd does a good job of being the baddie.

Begin Spoilers

The best scene in the whole of the movie is the loss of the Enterprise. She’s a member of the cast, and seeing her die is a moving sequence. Like Spock she sacrifices herself for her friends, and she gets as much effects on her as he did for his death scene. The shot of all of them standing on the mountaintop watching her burn up in the atmosphere is perfect, and the dialog is just right:

Kirk: My God, Bones. What have I done?
Bones: What you had to do. What you always do. Turn death into a fighting chance to live.

End Spoilers

The Bad

Doctor Emmett Brown, space alien.

The plot feels contrived from beginning to end. Spock is dead, but the title tells you there’s a search for him. So he’s coming back. Then there’s a whole movie where they kind of stumble around while you don’t get to see Kirk and Spock interact, except in weird sequences where Bones is doing a (well-acted!) Spock impression off-camera. And since Bones is busy being Spock, he doesn’t get a chance to be Bones as much as he should (the above-mentioned scene being a notable exception).

Who are these chumps, again?

Meanwhile, you have a split camera movie where David and a recast Saavik are wandering around searching for “Spock” and finding other actors who don’t play the roll well because it’s written in a way that all the Spock-like things about Spock aren’t present. So two characters you don’t really care about find a character you want to care about but he’s not actually the guy you care about. Great!

Is this the only time Uhura holds a phaser? I think it is.

But don’t worry; Kirk and the crew are stealing the Enterprise (you can run that thing with four guys, you know) and flying back to the Genesis Planet because… why, exactly? They need Spock’s body or something? It turns out they do, but it’s not clear why they know that beforehand.

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Kirk has a sad.

And then when the big turning point of everything comes and the Klingons go ahead and kill David, you get a brief moment where the two stories collide and Kirk does all the acting work (with, I must say, more subtlety than I thought he could manage). This is a big plot point, but David’s newness still made him feel expendible to me: it wasn’t an unexpected loss or an uncoverable blow. The impact could have been bigger had the character gotten to play onscreen for a while longer.

End Spoilers

And the whole atomic-bomb überweapon thing seemed avante-guard then, but it just seems tired now. This debate has played out in better movies and didn’t need to be the plot of a Trek movie, since it’s already been covered a few times in episodes.

And where the hell did Carol go?

Best Dialog

Bones: That green blooded son of a butch. It’s his revenge for all those arguments he lost.

As men do.

Kruge: No.
Kirk: Why?
Kurge: Because you wish it!

Bones: I choose the danger.

Grade

C; I’d watch it again just because it was such a pretty movie to watch, but there’s nothing to make me recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already like Trek.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

KHAAAN!

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan feels like “the Star Trek movie”, as if it were the film that took the successful, beloved franchise and put it in all its glory on the big screen. That it is not that movie but is rather the sequel to it is both the most interesting and least interesting thing about it: most because it gets so much right where The Motion Picture got wrong, and least because there is so much in The Wrath of Khan that is praiseworthy that spending so much time comparing it to its predecessor feels like faint praise.

So let us get the first part over with and then get on to the second.

Leaps and Bounds

Boldly go where no Star Trek movie has gone before: the planet Ceti Quality V.

There is a tremendous amount of difference between the first two Star Trek films, and nearly every change is for the better. Where TMP had too little plot, WOK has a complex, interweaving story told in three settings. Where TMP had too many abandoned subplots, WOK has myriad themes of life and death and rebirth and aging that support and augment the main story. Where TMP had Trekish exploration and discovery at its heart, WOK has space battles and chases. Where TMP had a problem taking itself too seriously, WOK has every character get in on the chance to be funny. Where TMP hinted that Kirk needed to return to the stars, WOK has Bones and Spock tell Jim to his face. Where TMP had a giant dangerous cloud with an unspeaking robot as its enemy, WOK has a passionate, well-spoken superhuman with glorious pecs and a truly sad tale of woe that makes his desire for vengeance seem almost noble.

Ladies.

In short, WOK takes the things that make TOS good and compounds them onto each other: the characters are thrust into an unknown situation (mysterious calls: check!) featuring people they already know (Khan: check!) and care about (Carol and David: double-check!), they use their wits (trickery and Federation backdoors: check!) and courage (hop in the transporter: check!) and expertise (nebula science: check!) to save the day (spoiler alert: check!).

This all comes from knowing that they were making a movie and figuring out what story they should tell in that context. Instead of trying to push as much of the cast onscreen as much as possible, new Producer Harve Bennett watched the entire series and determined the core of the show: “passion from Bones, logic from Spock, and Kirk in the middle, deciding what to do”. After discovering that formula, he picked a great bad guy and figured out a way to hit those points.

This is exactly what Kirk’s house should look like: guns, model ships, and a wet bar.

Let’s stop a moment and note the big elephant in that last paragraph: “new producer Harve Bennet”. The old producer was series creator Gene Roddenberry. And visionary as that guy was, he could never have made this movie. He was too fond of the Big Reveal and the Grand Idea. Looked at another way, the difference between TMP and WOK is that those two things drove the first (What does V’gar want? If robots become sentient, what do they believe in?) and are completely absent in the second (the secrets in WOK are over in the first half hour; the more primal revenge story isn’t up to snuff). Pushing Gene aside made Khan possible.

Plot

The plot, simply put, is “an old enemy wants revenge on Kirk, and only the crew’s smart thinking and vast experience can save them.” This is just about the most Treky a plot could possibly be. But there are more spoiler-filled points of interest, too.

Begin Spoilers

Bringing Khan back was smart, but bringing him back in the way they did was perfect: we’ve got an already-established character with a grudge against our heroes that they are as surprised about as we are, but that makes perfect sense when we hear about it. Making Ceti Alpha V a wasteland and Khan its ruler ties in smartly with the biblical illusions (“To Rule in Hell” is the official novel that tells of these years).

Leonard McCoy: comfortable in his own skin, and also in pleather.

Bringing the training crew in to man the Enterprise is brilliant: instead of displacing the current crew or weirdly being in all the same positions as they used to be, this gives our heroes an excuse to step in when the going gets tough, and lets us root for the little guys in over their head alongside the old hands.

Kirk and Khan never meeting is a stroke of (almost certainly accidental) genius. If they had met, Khan is one superhuman-strength punch away from ending the franchise. Instead you get the two of them circling like fighters warily watching one another, with each scuffle prefixed by banter and suffixed by recriminations. The advantage is constantly shifting, and the balance is always close enough that everyone is on edge at all times, which makes the circling simultaneously easier to understand and harder to watch. Each skirmish could tip the balance, and the stakes are always high.

The Genesis device is almost an afterthought. It is a McGuffin in the purest sense: everyone wants it because everyone else wants it. It drives the plot without being the central reason that anything is happening. It ties together the factions and ups the stakes without being seen for most of the film. It fulfills its duties perfectly.

They manage to make this funny every time they do it.

One of those duties is bringing Carol and David into the action. Trek's best trick is pulling characters into the plot using old acquaintances, rivals, and lovers, and here we get Kirk's own son as the ultimate draw. I'd almost say that David himself is underused, but his purposes are fulfilled nearly by his presence: he highlights Kirk's aging, he demonstrates the win condition of saving your family, and he forces and helps Kirk face death and life.

High Two Twice.

Speaking of death and life: killing off Spock is a ballsy move. Even with the caveats they put into the film and the various outs they left themselves, it is a way to turn the foregone conclusion of the good guys winning into an interesting mixed-emotion scene, with a price being paid for the troubles they’ve survived. That this is then tied into the themes of winning, life, and death is what moves this movie from being good to being great: the Kobayashi Maru becomes a way to understand the characters better (Saavik hasn’t yet faced death; Kirk wins in unorthodox ways; Spock knows that sacrifices must be made).

End Spoilers

There are shortcomings, of course. Lt. Saavik is oft-onscreen but seldom used. Carol is little more than an excuse for David’s existence, and her history with Kirk is far less than adequately explained. Khan’s “superior intellect” seems to get outgunned at every opportunity. These are, in the whole, minor sins, but they are sins nonetheless.

Design

Scotty plays the bagpipes.

From the moment the titles appear on screen you know that this movie is a departure. Gone is the loopy, terrible font of the first movie, and gone is the oh-so-familiar-sounding score from that film. The new look is firmly of the 80s, and it sets the tone that will carry this movie: everything you’ve seen before is in the past, and Star Trek is about exploring the future.

Everywhere you look, you see a significantly revamped production design in this movie. Director Nick Meyer tried to make “as many changes as I could get away with” and seems to have succeeded; the look is much more militaristic, which puts a rationale behind the sparse (aka cheap) lines of the original series. This naval influence becomes especially pronounced during the climax, which harkens back to the terrific submarine-warfare-inspired episode Balance of Terror.

He mighta pulled thru’ if’n I had’na dragged him up t’ th’ bridge ‘afore I got ta sickbay.

You can see, though, that The Motion Picture design language cannot be entirely shed: this movie reuses a lot of props, sets, and costumes, and so that style still appears with some regularity. Scotty’s ridiculous engineering uniform is one example.

Pretty.

But then you have a number of things that are very new. Aside from the groundbreaking use of CGI to illustrate the Genesis Project (Ed Catmull of Pixar fame is interviewed on the Blu-Ray) and the use of Industrial Light and Magic for all the (terrific and beautiful) model work, the new uniforms are an obvious step between the odd-angled Motion Picture attire and the later designs.

Shaggy hair, well known blight of the 80s.

One thing that stands out as particularly odd, though, is the costume design for Khan’s crew. They look like a glam rock band, which probably says loads about what Hollywood thought was the counterculture at the time. Putting them side by side with the Reliant's stuffy, middle aged crew makes the distinction even more pronounced. You see a similar interaction when the hippies come aboard or the tech-obsessed Borg become the boogie man in TNG.

Grade

A; this movie is great. I watched it yesterday and already kind of want to watch it again.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is too many things at once.

The whole cast, in ridiculous 70s costumes.

It is, first and foremost, a return. It brings back the Star Trek universe after a decade off the air, and the requisite pomp and circumstance for the occasion is all over the film. It drips with the excitement of the people who got to make this thing and celebrate together their love of the material. It is, through and through, a victory lap for the show and the cast.

It is also, sadly, not enough of a film. It is so tied to the series that its 132 minutes feels padded by long, silent special effects scenes where you can’t help but think that the writers were so used to pacing a one-hour show that they simply spliced in long pans to make up the difference.

This turns out to be a remarkably correct assumption. The script for STTMP was originally the pilot for Star Trek: Phase II, a planned reboot of the series with a few new characters. The pilot got slurped into this movie, and a lot of the leftover ideas (and even some of the used ones) got slurped into Star Trek: The Next Generation. Late delivery of the effects shots meant that they were edited in at the last moment, and the director was never quite happy with it (he released a Director’s Edition in 2001).

But enough behind-the-scenes; lets jump in front of the camera.

Design

Pretty.

This film had a ridiculously high budget, and it used it to great effect. Gone are the days of shaking walls, reused props, terrible wigs, and repeated effects shots. The model work in this film is great, and really makes the ships look great. The more cinematic lighting gives the inside of the Enterprise a darker, moodier feel that plays well with the feel of the plot, and the greater number of extras makes the ship seem more alive.

It’s also very obvious that this movie is where TNG got a lot of its design ideas. It’s a little odd that they aped this design instead of the original series design, but the classic look was likely too dated-feeling, and they needed to show a future that looked different than the one the audience had been seeing on reruns for thirteen years. That Paramount obtained design patents to protect these designs (and the Original Series would be out of a similar protective window) was likely a contributing factor as well.

The beard is supposed to shock, but the medallion is what got me.

But let’s note a few missteps, here. The costuming is odd in the way you expect late-seventies costuming to be odd. The sleeves are too short, the lines are all angled wrong, and there is just a little too much pad in those shoulders. Scotty inexplicably wears a stormtrooper bodysuit for most of the movie. The hairstyles look odd simply because I’ve grown accustomed to the ones these characters wore throughout the 60s. I should say something about McCoy’s ridiculous beard but instead I’ll focus on his ridiculous necklace and medallion. I will skip over the rainbows that fly out when the Enterprise warps because I’m pretending they never happened.

Lastly, it’s a shock to see what a decade did to some of these actors. I’m coming at this with a few weeks between the last TOS episode and the movie, so the effect is more pronounced, but Nimoy and Kelley look plain old in this film.

Plot

Begin Spoilers

There is a giant cloud coming at Earth that kills three Klingon birds of prey, mostly so that we can see the new design for the Klingons. Kirk gets the band back together and goes to stop it. It turns out to be a probe Earth sent out long ago that has reached sentience and returned home. That sounds familiar.

Joking aside, this is a fine plot that gives us an excuse for the old crew to jump back together and save the world. It puts huge stakes up to make this a bigger, more epic adventure than any episode could contain.

The best trick this setup gives, though, is that it presents a conflict that can be resolved in a very classic-Trek way. V’ger is too huge to fight, so no one even talks about fighting it. Instead, Kirk guides the crew closer and closer and they attempt to reason out what the heck V’ger is and what it wants, and then they solve the problem at hand by applying understanding and humanity. Written out like that it seems fluffy and silly and incredibly lame, but in the context of the movie it works. Also, I’m happy that Kirk doesn’t talk the computer into a logical loop.

End Spoilers

No one cares, people.

The plot I have just described is the main plot. There are several fragments of other plots that at one time or another tried to rule some version of the script and were jettisoned. Kirk is trying to get back into the action, but we’re never given any reason why he was taken out of it or left to wonder if he should stay out. Spock is given a destiny and Kirk wonders if he can trust his old friend, but we never see anything that would cause us to doubt. McCoy is brought back from retirement because Kirk “needs” him, and then he is entirely unused throughout the movie, neglecting to even fulfill his role as Cynic in Chief or Head Snark. Decker and Ilia have a love plot going, which would be interesting if it involved any character we cared about.

And let’s wonder aloud for a moment why no one has had a promotion. Kirk got an Admiralty he didn’t want but Chekov is still at the conn? Sulu is still next to him? To show that they’re getting with the times, the women seem to have gotten ahead: Rand is back with a new, more technical but still non-commissioned job, and Nurse Chapel is Doctor Chapel now. Uhura gets passed over, though.

Even within the main plot’s arc we see the old weaknesses and tropes peek through: the Pretty Young Thing™ is taken by the alien force (in a scene far too long for it’s own good, which in an episode would be a two second “boing!”); the ship computer (voiced by some guy who is not Majel Barret!) speaks at random times to signal exposition; a wormhole appears, isn’t explained, is dealt with quickly, and is never mentioned again; the consistency of what Spock can do telepathically is once again stretched past the breaking point.

But the main problem is that the core plot is too small, and the leftover remains of old plots makes poor filling, unable to bring the movie together into a coherent whole.

At least it was fun to make.

They also completely forgot to bring the funny. Between the long 2001-esque space scenes and the nearly complete lack of McCoy being McCoy, this movie fails to bring the charm and humor that makes Star Trek so easy to like, that makes the future seem like a place full of people you’d want to hang out with and have adventures with. The fractured storyline would be a lot easier to ignore if the ride was more entertaining.

Grade

C; there’s nothing amazing going on here aside from the fact that the movie got made at all. It falls all over itself trying to do too much while not managing to fill the time it’s given. But it’s the bridge that connects TOS with the rest of the canon; it proved there was still life left in this idea, and for that it deserves some thanks.

Series Roundup: Star Trek

I’ve now completed Leg 1 of this epic journey: I’ve seen every episode of TOS. And I’ve got to say I liked it rather a lot more than I expected to. I thought it’d be good, and interesting, and have a few nice episodes, but it’s damn good, it’s got a ton of really great ideas, and it has some fantastic episodes.

Favorites

My favorites are the ones that everyone counts as favorites, as you can see by doing a search for those rated A and A+. Since Tumblr can’t actually search for plus signs (ugh!) here’s what I’ve rated A+:

That the number of episodes I rated F is only four is really rather striking. I suspect that the vast majority of episodes fall somewhere in a rather mushy middle.

Characters

I knew going in that I liked Spock and McCoy better than Kirk, but I was surprised by how much I actually liked Kirk. He’s the square-jawed hero-scientist and doesn’t back down from the role ever, and there’s something admirable about that.

But Spock and McCoy get all the best lines, and all the best interaction, even if they (almost) never get the girl.

And boy are there a lot of girls to be gotten. Star Trek has surprisingly few Monster of the Week episodes, but it suffers from no lack of Love Interests of the Week. Every planet has a pretty young thing in outlandish garb waiting to be swept off her feet, since women are lame and need to be saved. The amazing amount of forward thinking ideas in this series is counterweighted quite effectively by how incredibly sexist it is.

As for the B characters: Scotty is freaking awesome. Sulu and Chekov could use more screen time. A couple recurring female characters with more heft would be good (see above).

Setting

It came as no surprise that they played fast and loose with continuity and little things like where the Enterprise came from and what group it was a part of, but this goes to some crazy extremes. The autonomy of the crew swings wildly back and forth, their level of technology changes radically, and nothing implied or explicit can be taken for granted next week.

But there is still a grand world here. The Klingons are reliably savage and bad; the Romulans are reliably mysterious, noble, and bad; computers are easily confused; slavery is widespread but bad and easy to end. The broad strokes of this vision are very familiar without being very explicit, because they mirror the mindset you think about when you think about the 60s, when the nation thought that most problems could simply be solved by being the right people to give the right speech at the right time. It’s a simpler world, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. It is less nuanced, but its forthrightness is one of its charms: the world of Star Trek is custom built as a world in which Roddenberry could tell morality plays, and in this endeavor it performs with aplomb.

Shortcomings

The greatest shortcoming of the show is its inconsistency. This is somewhat of an effect of the disregard for what nowadays we call canon, but is more just a matter of writers coming and going and Roddenberry not having or not exercising any kind of power in this regard. That he had such specific ideas for some things– no mass fighting amongst the humans being the most famous example– and yet left so much up to the random assortment of writers is slightly mystifying.

A close second is the small matter of women, which I described thusly:

When a woman appears, she’s inevitably a love interest for someone, and she often has some special skillset that the crew needs but that she neglects because she’s smitten.

This is a constant theme of the show, leading inexorably to the last episode's women-are-too-weak-to-command-starships plot line. If I could change one thing about the show this would be it. I'm very interested to see how TNG fares in this matter.

Statistics

It took me two years, three months, and twenty-one days to watch all 80 episodes of the original series. That’s 844 days. That’s an episode every 10.55 days, which isn’t that bad, except that I way front-loaded things and finished the first half in 53 days. If I’d kept that pace (an episode every 1.325 days!), I’d be on episode 637 today and well into Enterprise.

Conclusions

I’m happy I’ve passed the first major milestone; now it’s on to the original-cast movies. Time to break out the Blurays!

After the Starship Captain thing didn’t pan out, Kirk tried to be a mime for a while, but he never really found his artistic voice.

After the Starship Captain thing didn’t pan out, Kirk tried to be a mime for a while, but he never really found his artistic voice.

Turnabout Intruder

TOS’s final episode, Turnabout Intruder (Netflix; Memory Alpha), gives the whole crew a chance to go out acting, and all but the most important role does great.

The Enterprise finds a decimated colony whose lead scientist is Janice, an old Starfleet flame of Kirk’s (who isn’t, right?). She’s still mad because women can’t be captains and she wanted Kirk’s life, so she uses Alien Technology™ to switch bodies with James.

Let’s pause here and count the bits of free-floating silliness we’ve already got. First, what the hell with the sexism, Starfleet? You guys are the future but you’re still doing things that are obviously on the way out in the 60s? Second, why is that Alien Technology never ever mentioned again? Last, Kirk is put into the body of a woman and not once does he play with that. That’s an opportunity Kirk wouldn’t miss.

Begin Spoilers

But back to the episode. Janice-as-Kirk gets Kirk-as-Janice put into sick bay, but Janice-as-Kirk is obviously acting weird. Spock and McCoy get suspicious, but they can’t prove anything. Spock mind melds with Kirk-as-Janice and then makes an ill-considered jailbreak attempt, which leads to a courtroom bit and mutiny charges for everyone and a sit in and another jailbreak and a silly resolution involving special effects and no sense.

This episode is basically the archetype of Season 3: it takes characters you love, puts them in a slightly new odd situation, then completely fails to deliver anything resembling a logical resolution while nevertheless churning out a few perfect moments.

Let’s go over the best one before we return to trashing the episode. Scotty and McCoy are outside the aforementioned mutiny trial. They’re two thirds of the jury tasked with convicting or acquitting Spock, and they discuss what will happen if they go against the increasingly deviant Captain. The weight of the decision is obvious, and they know both what they have to do and the insanity and labor ahead. It’s well written and well acted, and you can tell how comfortable these two are in their roles.

End Spoilers

But it’s got, buried in the brilliance, this line:

Scotty: “I’ve seen the captain feverish, sick, drunk, delirious, terrified, overjoyed, boiling mad. But up to now I have never seen him red faced with hysteria.”

That they actually use the word ‘hysteria’ is the kicker. This episode, see, is one long tirade about how women are weak. Let’s return to Starfleet’s apparent sexism. It’s not clear who we’re supposed to be mad at about this. The policy seems crazy and stupid to my mind, and I initially assumed I should feel a good women’s-lib vibe and blame The Man for all our woes. But the episode resolves around how obvious it is that Janice isn’t cut out to be a captain anyway. And it’s not too big a leap from there to why the policy exists, except for Kirks throwaway line at the top of the episode that he’s against the rule, too. Are we supposed to blame Janice’s insanity on this rule, and think that if she was allowed to become a Captain it would have all been fine? That seems ridiculous, not only because Kirk says she’s not fit for the post “temperamentally or by training”. We see this theme echoed with Nurse Chapel being a willing patsy to keep Kirk-as-Janice locked up in sickbay, with Uhura missing and a weaker woman in her chair, and with repeated focus to Janice’s womanly wiles and petty grievances.

And don’t even get me started on the scene where Janice-as-Kirk uses a nail file while talking to senior staff, or I might have to kill someone.

Grade

C-, but only that high because Scotty and McCoy get a great scene.

After one too many Atavachrons, Kirk spent the night cooling off in the tank.

After one too many Atavachrons, Kirk spent the night cooling off in the tank.