Trekkie Thoughts

We’re getting a new Star Trek film tomorrow. I’ve been trying to avoid any expectations, but I can’t help it. I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember, since watching reruns of the original series on Channel 17.

Given tomorrow’s launch, I thought I’d finally publish my blog post on the Trek movies.

Here is how IMDB ranks the Star Trek films:

Star Trek (2009): 8.0
The Wrath of Khan: 7.7
First Contact: 7.5
The Voyage Home: 7.2
The Undiscovered Country: 7.1
The Search for Spock: 6.5
Generations: 6.5
The Motion Picture: 6.3
Insurrection: 6.3
Nemesis: 6.3
The Final Frontier: 5.2

You can see the divisions right away, can’t you? The users easily divide the films into three categories:

  • Great: Star Trek, Wrath of Khan, First Contact, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country.
  • Servicable: Search for Spock, Generations, Nemesis, The Motion Picture, Insurrection.
  • Garbage: The Final Frontier
  • Even is we assume that the IMDB ratings have some play in them (and I would say the 2009 movie is a bit over-rated right now), most people would agree with the broad strokes of that analysis. And while I would agree with it in principle, I can’t just leave it at that. I need a couple of thousand words to say what the IMDB users are saying in 11 numerical ratings before I get into the main point of this post: a breakdown of the 2009 film in anticipation of this year’s sequel.

    Here is how I rate them, from worst to best (Note: non-Trek fans should knock a point off all of my ratings.):

    Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is ranked dead last on IMDB at 5.2 and deserves to be there. I rank it a 6 but that’s almost entirely because of Jerry Goldsmith’s score and the earnest efforts of the cast to make it work. But there’s no escaping that this was a bad film: poorly directed, badly plotted, upending much of the series’ mythology and simply sloppy sloppy sloppy. Agony Booth has a very long breakdown of everything this film does wrong. There are simply too many things to get into and this post is already at 2000 words.

    The thing is that I think there actually was a good motion picture in here somewhere. Somewhere deep down, I grant you. But the idea of Sybok isn’t totally bad and Luckinbill tries very hard to make the character work. In fact, some of the scenes with the four leads just talking work quite well (although a bit Dr. Phil-ish for me). But the entire middle act and climax just fall apart.

    Star Trek: Generations: Ranked 7th at 6.5. I give it a 6. Another Agony Booth target, I am not fond of it. It just had too many of the things that annoyed me about TNG, especially the goofy promotion scene. This is a subject for a bigger post, but I often found TNG to be a somewhat schizophrenic series. Sometimes it was incredible, especially when they let Patrick Stewart carry the show. At other times, it could be pretentious and irritating. Generations has way too much of the latter, way too little of the former.

    It also annoyed my scientific sensibilities. I’m willing to let a lot slide in sci-fi movies, but not when I’m punched in the face by it. The nexus energy ribbon circles the galaxy in 75 years but takes minutes to cross a solar system. Gravitational fields change instantly in response to exploding stars. And the Enterprise is taken out by one of the most insanely stupid bits of technobabble in the history of the show (and the battle scenes reuses footage from a far superior film, The Undiscovered Country).

    One other point that affects my viewing: I was only a casual viewer of TNG at the time and when I watched Generations, I felt like I was missing quite a bit. There were several aspects — Data’s emotion chip, the Klingon sisters — that only made sense to fans of the TNG show. Indeed, three of the four TNG films had the problem of feeling like an episode of the show they were charging me $7 for.

    This was never the case with the old series. I had not seen Space Seed when I saw Wrath of Khan but never had that feeling of alienation. In fact, I assumed that the whole Khan thing was a Noodle Incident until my dad enlightened me.

    Star Trek: Nemesis: I rank this a 6 to IMDB’s 10th ranking and 6.3. It tries very hard. And when it relies on Spiner and Stewart, it does OK. Tom Hardy does about as well as he can with a poorly written and entirely unoriginal part. Frakes’ direction is solid.

    But again it feels like an episode and not a particularly good one. Data’s death, surprisingly, has almost no emotional impact. And the rip-offs of Wrath of Khan are not only obvious but make one long for the superior picture.

    Star Trek: Insurrection: Ranked 9th at 6.3, I rate it a 7. This one was the third and final target for The Agony Booth. The big problem, again, is that it feels like an episode of the series, not a movie.

    There are a few things that work for me, notably the romance between Picard and Anij. Again, like Final Frontier, I can look at this and see the outlines of a good movie. Frakes’ direction is fine. Stewart is his usual self. But the ridiculous villains, the nonsensical plot and the sloppy script drag this down.

    (A number of people have commented that they don’t find the moral conflict compelling. Surely it justifiable to move a few hundred people to benefit millions? Oddly, I find the moral conflict equally clear — in the precise opposite direction. The planet belongs to the natives. Moving them off there, even if its benefits millions, is a big deal and a violation of their basic sovereignty.)

    Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is ranked sixth at 6.5, in the middle of the pack for Trek. That’s about where it belongs. It is mostly unremarkable, serving as a bridge between movies II and IV. It has some nice character moments, some funny lines and a good action scene or two. Christopher Lloyd is a wonderful villain. But it was mostly holding the fort, moving the story along. I give it a 7, mostly for personal reasons. It’s perfectly serviceable and I used to love having it on in the background while I worked. It’s also the first Trek I really remember seeing in the theater (I have vague memories of Khan.) Plus, any time my brother and I were fighting as kids, it would end up with one of us saying, “I. Have Had. Enough of You!”

    Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is ranked 4th at 7.2. I’m not as high on it as most people, ranking it a 7, equivalent to the bulk of the series. I don’t have a problem with it, really. It has a good plot, some great jokes and builds itself almost entirely around the characters. I think I just got Voyaged out at some point the 80’s, having seen it way too often.

    (OK, here’s an odd tangent. You know how movies and TV shows can come to be associated with certain memories? Well, anytime I think of Star Trek’s II-IV, all I can think about is Pizza Hut pepperoni pizza. We used to order pizza every sunday from whichever delivery service was having a sale. And if nothing else was on, we’d pop in a classic Trek film. Now anytime I think about them, all I can think about is greasy doughy pizza. Surprisingly, however, this has not killed my love of the films. After a while, I can block it out. Or eat some bad pizza.)

    Star Trek (2009): More below. This is a tentative rating, even now.

    Star Trek: The Motion Picture is ranked eighth by IMDB at 6.3, a rating that seems far too low to me. The film has its flaws: it is based heavily on episodes of the original series; it is somewhat cold in its approach; Spock starts out as a very different character; it seems to focus more on special effects than the crew.

    On the other hand, it also has tremendous strengths: Roddenberry’s optimism and humanism infuses the plot without being overbearing. It has intriguing ideas by the dozen, taking the seed of “The Changeling” and expanding it to a much grander notion. I really bought into Spock’s progression back to his old self. The love story between Ilea and Decker works for me (and I really wish one of the series had run with the idea of the sexually open Deltan race). And the film is enjoyable as pure spectacle, lifted by imaginative effects and Goldsmith’s magnificent score. The director’s cut is a big improvement, shifting the emphasis from the effects to the crew.

    The users rate this as being equal to Insurrection or Nemesis. I find that ridiculous. TMP is a much better, much more thoughtful, much more enjoyable film. I rate it an 8. There is much that is wrong with the film. But, in my opinion, it’s overwhelmed by what’s right with it.

    Star Trek: First Contact: Ranked 3rd at 7.5, I give it an 8. It is simply excellent, mainly because it puts the emotional and dramatic weight on Spiner and Stewart, the two best actors. There are just so many good moments in this one, such good supporting characters. The scenes between Alfre Woodward and Patrick Stewart shine. The actions scenes are done with skill and the script finds its heart in the very real conflict of Picard against himself. The Borg are, once again, a terrifying enemy. If Generations and the succeeding films had Trek’s worst aspects, this one had the best.

    Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is ranked 5th at 7.1 and I give it an 8. Nick Meyer saved the franchise by, once again, building a Star Trek film the right way. He took contemporary political events — the end of the Cold War — and threw it at the characters rather than the other way around. Some of the best parts of the film are the quieter character moments. And once again, we see that the action scenes become thrilling when we care about what’s going on. The final battle between two Federation ships and a cloaked Bird of Prey is one of the most tense of the series.

    Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is ranked second by IMDB users at 7.7, second only to the recent reboot. Given IMDB’s bias toward recent movies, that means it is universally regarded as the best of the series. I agree.

    I once said on Twitter that Nick Meyer, more than any other director, *got* Star Trek. He understood its rhythms and its construction. The Wrath of Khan is a basic revenge story with the serial numbers filed off. But the details — the references to classical literature, the interactions of the three leads, the Horatio Hornblower rhythm, the moral and philosophical dilemma at the heart of the climax — elevate it to a great picture. You throw in Montalban’s iconic performance and the most devastating moment in the history of the franchise and, well … I just don’t see how you can rate JJ Abrams’ light show — as good as it was — over it.

    I rate it a 9. It’s the only Trek movie that I would say transcends fandom.

    So, back to the 2009 reboot…

    Star Trek (2009 is ranked #1 by IMDB at 8.0. I rate it as 8. It’s a good film, the best since First Contact. But I think it’s ridiculous to place it above Wrath of Kahn.

    First the good: Abrams’ Star Trek is anti-matter to most of the sci-fi movies made today. It does almost everything wrong. The lens flare film festival becomes aggravating. The Enterprise is a little soulless and has the internal workings, literally, of a beer factory. The Romulan ship is another of these hideous “tack on CGI fiddly bits” junkpiles. The plot is ludicrous and the science insane. And it ends with a freshly-graduated cadet being given charge of the Federation’s flagship (a point I’ll return to in a moment).

    And yet … it works. It works because the actors are good and carry the roles with conviction. It works because of its clear love for the characters. There’s a moment — a very quiet moment — after Spock kicks Kirk off the ship (I’ll pause a moment for that utterly ridiculous and out-of-character plot twist). Spock thanks McCoy for supporting him and McCoy says, “was that a thank you?” Urban’s voice, at that moment, is eerily like Deforest Kelley’s. The intonation, tone, accent and content are so dead on I was convinced it was a dub of some kind.

    And that’s why I like it. The film is filled with those sort of little moments where cast, script and director make you feel like you’re seeing the whole blessed, um, enterprise, start all over again. I bought it in a way that I could not buy, say, Transformers.

    You can contrast that against Tron Legacy, which does a lot right, production-wise, but does not reach the heights of Star Trek because it does so much wrong in writing and acting. You can contrast that against the whole Transformers franchise, which spends a billion bucks, works its heart out on CGI and falls on its face. Star Trek works. And it’s a delight because so little in film does.

    Now for the bad. A lot has been said about JJ Abrams’ love of lens flares, so there’s little to ad. He toned it way down in the very solid Super 8, which gives me hope that he learned his lesson. The science in the film is ridiculous. I’m sure a bit more technobabble could have made it a little more coherent, but really there wasn’t much to do. Science has rarely been Trek’s strong suit.

    The pacing is a bit of a problem for me, as well. The movie is very fast, very rushed and rarely takes time to let the audience soak in the moment. The death of Spock’s mother is little more than a plot point. Kirk’s uncertainties almost don’t exist. Most of the time, it doesn’t in fact feel like a Star Trek film but more like a random sci-fi movie. It only works because, occasionally, it has a moment that would be right out of Trek. Occasionally, it lets Quinto, Pine and Urban carry the moment. And when it does, it’s glorious.

    One other important point that I mentioned above: I think the big rush to get Kirk in the Captain’s chair was a problem. It made little sense in the movie’s culture and plot. Again, I can see why you’d give a brilliant cadet a command, maybe. But the flagship of the fleet? Since the cast were signed for three movies, why not spread that development out over three movies? Maybe it’s because I really liked Bruce Greenwood’s Christopher Pike so much, but a much better progression, to me, would have seen:

  • Movie 1 ends with Kirk as first officer.
  • Movie 2 see Pike either killed or wounded with Kirk finishing the movie in command of Enterprise. That would have given you an emotional climax to rival Khan.
  • Movie 3 sees the first real adventure under the crew we know and love, ending with Enterprise being assigned its first five year exploration mission.
  • You could have any variation on that, including keeping the Enterprise off-screen until the rousing finale of Movie 1 (as was done quite nicely in Star Trek IV). That, to me, is a more natural progression and ends the first three movies with a lead-in to either a TV series or more films.

    Still, for all its flaws, the 2009 reboot is a solid picture and I’m looking forward to Into Darkness. Hopefully, the returning cast and Cumberbatch can overcome Abrams frenetic lens-flare-bedecked directing and put together another solid outing. I do think Matt Yglesias has a point: Star Trek does work a little better as TV show than it does as a movie. But with the unwillingness of TV networks to do space adventure shows any more and the general Trek fatigue out there, I think movies are all we’re going to get.

    That’ll do.

    Addendum: My brother and I discussed the above and one thing we agreed on was that Trek films work best when they have a little bit of a hero’s journey for the characters: when their flaws and shortcomings are exposed, they face defeat and humiliation but then find a way to overcome it — through ingenuity, courage and teamwork. The Kirk-Spock-McCoy chemistry works so well because all three characters are flawed in some way but, when they work together, are unbeatable.

    Look at the best rated films and see the conflicts: Kirk fighting middle age in Khan, Picard overcoming his thirst for revenge in Contact, Spock rediscovering his human side in TMP. One of the best scenes in Khan is when Kirk has to watch Scotty’s nephew die and, in a restored scene, admit that the only reason he won was because he knew something about the ship that Khan didn’t.

    Characters are what drive drama. Characters are what have alway driven Trek. Save the CGI. Give me characters overcoming their own failing and a compelling enemy and I’ll watch you do a Trek movie with hand puppets.

    Star Trek 2009 had just enough character development to keep me watching. Hopefully, they will continue to build on that.