STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)

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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Rated PG 
(for sci-fi violence, brief sensuality, and some language)
Released: December 6, 1991
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Christopher Plummer, Kim Cattrall

Star Trek: Original Cast Movies – A Look Back

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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a pretty badass movie. Not because of some rock and roll attitude, but rather a Shakespearian one.

Starting off with a literal bang, the final movie of the original cast era does not self-consciously waste time reestablishing its bona fides following the poor reception of Star Trek V. With confidence, it boldly goes from the jump and never lets up. Wielding brains, brawn, wit, and relevance, Star Trek VI – the last adventure for the first crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise – is quintessential Trek in every respect, and even better than I’d remembered.

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The Undiscovered Country explodes full force into a Cold War metaphor, with Star Fleet and the Klingons serving as the U.S./Soviet ciphers, with a Chernobyl-styled incident (and global warming-type implications for good measure) that accelerates the likely doom of the Klingon race.

A glasnost is struck between the enemy factions, with Klingon Chancellor Gorkon filling Gorbachev’s shoes (and sporting Lincoln’s beard) while Spock is more Reagan-esque than Kirk, who still clings to hatred over the Klingon murder of his son. (The tension of the guarded, and barbed, dinner conversation between the two sides is brilliantly written and performed.) Then when the action finally kicks in, it does so in rather dramatic (even shocking) fashion.

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There’s an inventive adrenaline to this spectacular curtain call, from the onslaught of clever Cold War parallels (both broad and specific) that boasts a thematic and philosophical ambition that wouldn’t even dawn on the reboot of today.

The closest the new Star Trek gets to real-world significance is having a generic terrorist. The original Trek, by contrast, would fictionalize our entire response to terrorism by mirroring the Left/Right ideological divides, how we confront the global scourge (or don’t), and the prickly political implications.

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In this case, The Undiscovered Country sought to contemplate what brokering peace between two giant enemy powers would look like, and how that challenge is complicated by bad actors on both sides who want to keep the war going.

Raising the stakes is an ingeniously plotted murder mystery, and then another plot that plays beneath that mystery – one that can’t even be seen until it’s revealed in the film’s second half. In total, it all engages the mind while cranking the suspense, showcasing Spock at the peak of his logical powers (see Trivia below for how Spock links himself as a descendant of Sherlock Holmes).

Plus, Kirk gets to brawl in a few last fistfights and steal one last kiss in playful homage to the swaggering Captain of the initial five-year mission (Shatner is game for self-deprecating jabs at his own ego, too).

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Also nifty: not just the fact that Sulu is now Captain of his own Starship, but also how his leadership of the Excelsior is intrinsically woven throughout this narrative (and adds to the film’s aforementioned badass nature).

Director Nicholas Meyer returns for the franchise farewell, bringing the literary depth he infused into The Wrath of Khan – but this time he swaps Melville for The Bard. Just as Khan spat some of Captain Ahab’s most literate jabs, so too does Klingon General Chang revel verbatim in quotes from Hamlet, The Tempest, Henry V, and more. They’re bandied about with delicious conviction by Shakespearian trained screen legend Christopher Plummer.

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This sixth and final chapter also restores Star Trek to its rightful place among the elite visual effects blockbusters of the time, after being sorely undercut (along with Shatner’s directorial efforts) in Star Trek V. Right off the top we see that the Star Trek universe has returned to superior sci-fi form, with effects that are as good as (and arguably better than) ever. The opening Praxis effect even set a new industry standard (see Trivia below).

It’s a sweet moment of redemption, too, for producer Ralph Winter who bungled the post-production process on The Final Frontier. As the lead producer here, Winter allows the original cast to bow out with pride over the spectacle they’re in (particularly given the modest $30 million budget he had to work with).

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Composer Cliff Eidelman provides a rousing space opera of a score, with textures both nautical and sentimental, that follows in the grand tradition set by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is like the most rewarding TV series finale you could ever hope for, one that plays to our nostalgia (capped by granting the crew a literal standing ovation) without ever coasting on it, instead giving us as vital and ambitious an original story as the franchise has seen, and that stands alongside its best. Then as the final credits begin to roll, Star Trek VI becomes a literal love letter signed to the fans.

Wrapped up with high drama, deep sentiment, and pure class, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is so good and so satisfying that it leaves you wanting more – which is exactly how a saga of this stature should end.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (Currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • The subtitle The Undiscovered Country – which is derived from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy – was originally considered for Star Trek II before that was finally labeled The Wrath of Khan. Both movies were directed by Nicholas Meyer.
  • During the story’s mystery, Spock tells the crew, “An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the solution.” The “ancestor” that Spock quotes is actually Sherlock Holmes. Writer/Director Nicholas Meyer was a Sherlock aficionado, and his novel “The Seven Percent Solution” is considered by many to be the best non-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock story ever written.
  • The visual effect for the explosion of the Klingon moon Praxis became a popular one repeated for other similar explosions, including in the 1997 special edition versions of Star Wars and Return of the Jedi. It was called “The Praxis Effect”.
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  • The role of Vulcan Lt. Valeris (played by Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall) was originally written as Lt. Saavik from films II, III, and IV. But Gene Roddenberry objected to that interpretation and arc for Saavik, so it was changed to an original new character.
  • The Klingon lawyer Worf seen here played by Michael Dorn is Colonel Worf, not Lieutenant Worf of The Next Generation. The Colonel is the grandfather of the Lieutenant.
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  • In his brief cameo scene, Christian Slater wears the uniform trousers that William Shatner wore in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
  • The Al Pacino/Michelle Pfieffer movie Frankie & Johnny was being filmed at the same studio. For a scene in which Pacino has to act surprised after opening a door, director Garry Marshall had Shatner and Nimoy dressed up as Kirk and Spock on the other side of that door.
  • The year this takes place is 2293, established by McCoy’s comment that he had served on the Enterprise for 27 years. This means that the events of Star Trek VI occur six years after the events of Star Trek V (although the films are only two years apart) and twenty-two years after the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (but only twelve years between those films). Given the degree to which most of the aged, the Trek timeline looks more authentic than the real one.
  • Producer Harve Bennett was passionate about making a Star Trek prequel movie next, set in their academy days, which would re-cast the roles with younger actors. He even had a script written by Star Trek V writer David Loughery and was openly considering Ethan Hawke and John Cusack for the roles of Kirk and Spock. Fans, the studio, and Gene Roddenberry all objected. Bennett was so disappointed he left the series. Executive Producer Ralph Winter was promoted to lead Producer.
  • David Warner, who plays Klingon Chancellor Gorkon, also played a Starfleet ambassador in Star Trek V.
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  • Jack Palance was originally offered the role of Gorkon, but he had to pass because the shoot dates conflicted with his work for City Slickers, the movie that would garner him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
  • Both Warner and Christopher Plummer gave notable stage performances of Hamlet in the 1950s and 60s, and Shatner was a Plummer understudy early on in his career for several Canadian Shakespeare productions.
  • This was the first time that the “T” of James T. Kirk was ever stated as “Tiberius” on-screen, despite having been well known with fan culture. It’s also the first time that Sulu’s first name Hikaru is spoken. Uhura is the only character to never have had her first name spoken throughout the entire television or film series. It’s Nyota, and it was final spoken in the 2009 reboot.
  • Director Nicholas Meyer originally asked composer James Horner to return to the franchise, and then Jerry Goldsmith, but both refused. He eventually hired Cliff Eidelman because Meyer felt his demo submissions had the perfect mix of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” grandeur and the styles of Horner and Goldsmith.
  • Many of the Enterprise sets were redresses of Enterprise D sets from The Next Generation, which was still being produced at the time.
  • This was the last screen appearance for DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy. It was also the final canonical appearance for Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, although she reprised the role in the 2004 fan fiction series Star Trek New Voyages: Phase II.
  • In his capacity as Executive Producer, an ailing Gene Roddenberry viewed the first rough cut of the film to give notes. Less than 48 hours after that screening, he passed away.

STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)

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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Rated PG 
(for sci-fi violence, some language, and some sensuality)
Released: June 9, 1984
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: William Shatner
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Laurence Luckinbill

Star Trek: Original Cast Movies – A Look Back

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I not only have an affection for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I actually admire it.

The most maligned of the Original Cast entries (considered by many the worst of all the Star Trek films), Star Trek V is certainly a problematic movie. But it’s not a stupid one.

Directed by William Shatner (with a story concept and arc outlined by him as well), The Final Frontier was going for a Star Trek brass ring, seeking to combine the philosophical reach of Star Trek I with the action, humor, and sentimentality of Treks II, III, and IV. Forget the search for Spock. This was the search for God.

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And while Shatner can’t quite corral his ambitions into a cohesive whole, he succeeds far better (and more consistently) than the film’s unfortunate reputation suggests. The failures of Star Trek V aren’t so much those of a director who was in over his head; they’re of producers who didn’t have their director’s back. (We’ll get to that.)

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Everything about this chapter feels like it was clearly designed to be the last one. As if the subtitle The Final Frontier wasn’t declarative enough, there was the quest for the Almighty (it doesn’t get any bigger than that), the entire cast was clearly beginning to age, and they even brought back the main theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (and its composer Jerry Goldsmith, who delivers another first rate score in a saga filled with them).

All the pieces seemed to be placed together as if to put an exclamation mark on the fact that this movie would be the grand finale. There’s even a moment early on at a campfire in which Kirk’s death is possibly foreshadowed.

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Shatner’s aspirations can be felt immediately in the opening pre-credit sequence, with a character entrance drawing epic inspiration from an iconic moment in Lawrence of Arabia. By scene’s end we’ve been introduced to a villain: Sybok, a Vulcan who’s not just emotional but messianic.

Back on earth, the Enterprise crew is on shore leave. Sulu and Chekov are literally lost in the woods, Scotty and Uhura engage in some PDA on the Enterprise bridge (who knew?), while Kirk, Spock, and Bones are camping out at Yosemite National Park where Kirk “relaxes” by doing a death-defying free climb ascent up El Capitan.

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(Side note: it’s even in the little character choices like this that the spirit of exploration permeates the franchise. It’s not just found in space travel, or even inherent in that; it’s in the fabric of who these people are – Kirk especially – whether in a starship or on terra firma. These fundamental traits are missing from the new Star Trek reboot).

The charismatic Sybok has taken Federation hostages on the desert planet of Nimbus III (which has a whole Mad Max vibe going on), so Kirk and the gang are called back early because the Enterprise is the only ship in the quadrant (that old chestnut). They soon learn, however, that Sybok’s intentions aren’t evil but spiritual, even if his methods to achieve his goals are radical, and illegal.

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Shatner does all the core Star Trek things right – the humor, the sentiment, the camaraderie of the crew and the bond of its core Kirk/Spock/Bones trio – even if he does amp them up a few notches too many at times.

And in one of the series’ happier ironies (given the infamous tensions between Shatner and the non-Nimoy/Kelley cast mates), Shatner generously gives his old supporting crew more range to express their characters beyond how they follow orders (Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura especially; exotic moon dance, anyone?).

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Interestingly enough, the first cut of the film shown to the studio heads – prior to any visual effects work having been done – was received with great enthusiasm. Everyone loved it. They were excited, and even wondered if they had a bigger hit than Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home on their hands. Then in post-production, things began to fall apart.

The top visual effects studios (including ILM, which had done the three previous Star Trek movies) were maxed out with other Summer 1989 competitors like Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Ghostbusters II. Executive Producer Ralph Winter began to look elsewhere and ended up going with an untested visual effects team in New Jersey, one that had never worked on a feature film level before. Effects shots continually came in late and far below expectations (although to be fair, they were given nearly half the time of industry standard). They were in over their heads but the producers, at this point, had nowhere else to turn.

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This history is all detailed in the DVD’s “Making Of” half-hour documentary, one that’s surprisingly candid for a studio sanctioned extra. The producers (and Winter especially) let Shatner and the film down by not having his post-production ducks in a row, and the studio let the franchise down by not protecting it as they should have along the way. Compounding the situation was a Writer’s Guild strike that delayed production from starting until late 1988, yet Paramount refused to move the release date from early June of 1989.

The end result was the shoddiest looking visual effects of the series, by a long shot. The spaceships were marred by flat two-dimensional movement, there no added visual textures to blend the compositing between miniatures and backgrounds…

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…and Shatner’s vision for various galactic sequences (The Great Barrier, especially) had to be drastically simplified in order to be completed in time for the release date, as did the whole action climax. Star Trek V spent more money than its predecessors to far less results, all because of decisions that were made entirely out of Shatner’s control.

That’s not to say Star Trek V’s shortcomings are all in the visual effects department. There are uneven aspects for which Shatner is directly responsible, namely:

  • Some of the humor is clunky.
  • Some of the sentiment is flat-out corny.
  • The featured actors in smaller roles are almost uniformly flat and simplistic.
  • The Klingons have never been less compelling.
  • Sybok hypnotizes and converts an entire starship crew with too little resistance.
  • The climatic God sequence is ambiguous in all the wrong ways.

Plus, the crew is starting to look too old to be doing this.

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When visual effects are good, problems like this are minimized and easily dismissed. When visual effects are bad, problems like this are maximized. They stick out, and become an albatross.

And yet the script had great core strengths, too.

  • The bond between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is finally explored on familial terms.
  • The idea of deep personal pain being a “formative good” rather than strictly a “burdensome bad” is an intriguing philosophical theme (explored through an intriguing central scene that gets very personal for Spock and McCoy).
  • As Sybok, veteran theatre actor Laurence Luckinbill gives a mesmerizing performance marked by its vast range, one that is passionate, nuanced, and always spontaneous. It warrants comparison to Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, it’s in that league. (Yes, I just said that.)
  • The grand narrative stakes weren’t based on stopping another apocalyptic threat (as so many effects driven spectacles are, particularly now). Rather, the stakes were in seeking something out; the greatest Being of all, no less.

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And yet when visual effects are as bad as they are here, these merits are compromised and understandably missed. So, too, is the fact that much of the humor actually is funny, and much of the sentiment actually is sincere, and some of the character moments are among the series’ best.

There’s a lot of good work here tainted by cheesy special effects that undercut the vision Shatner had planned (and had been promised) – including a Rock Men element in the climax that had to be scrapped altogether because their effects work hadn’t been priced or scheduled correctly (again, that’s a producer’s job).

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Look, even if the special effects had all come through as planned, Star Trek V at its best still may have ended up being considered the least of the six Original Cast entries, but it wouldn’t have been deemed a disaster. Its strengths, I believe, would’ve been more easily apparent (as they were during that initial studio exec screening), and it’d likely be judged more as an intriguing if overambitious curiosity, even a cult favorite.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier didn’t hit a home run but, my goodness, it sure swung for the fences (a virtue that Star Trek Beyond, for example, sorely lacks). Yes, it’s the worst of the Original Cast movies, but only by a thin margin, not a vast one.

Nevertheless, when it was all said and done, two things were abundantly clear:

1. This crew needed to retire.
2. But not like this.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (Currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • Star Trek V boasted the biggest opening weekend of the franchise to that time, its $17.3 million topping Star Trek IV’s $16.8 million. It tanked fast, however, ending up with a series low of $52.2 million. (It has since been bumped up one from the bottom by The Next Generation movie Star Trek: Nemesis. That phased out at $43.2 million.)
  • It faced a lot of competition in the summer of 1989. Along with Batman there were also major sequels to Indiana Jones (i.e. the Last Crusade), Ghostbusters and Lethal Weapon (both 2’s), and James Bond (License to Kill).
  • Series producer (and writer) Harve Bennett plays the cameo part of the Admiral that commissions the Enterprise for the mission.
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  • Harve Bennett suggested that Star Trek: The Next Generation may have been partially to blame for this film’s lower box office performance. None of the previous films had to compete with a concurrently running (not to mention popular) Star Trek TV series. Bennett believed many Trek fans didn’t rush out to theaters because they were already getting Trek at home.
  • George Takei initially refused to reprise his role as Sulu in Star Trek V strictly because William Shatner was directing. Not only did he agree to return after a personal sitdown with Shatner, but after the production wrapped Takei praised Shatner’s creativity and the enthusiastic atmosphere he created on set, especially in the face of studio pressures, saying, “I have enormous admiration for his ability to block that kind of pressure from seeping on to the set,” adding, “despite our sometimes strained personal history, I found working with Bill as a director to be surprisingly pleasant.”
  • Uhura’s exotic dance scene was originally suggested simply as a joke by screenwriter David Loughery, but Shatner, the producers, and Nichelle Nichols loved the idea.
  • Originally, screenwriter Loughery had Spock and McCoy siding with Sybok, but Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley objected, saying neither would ever betray Kirk.
  • Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan who also did the final uncredited rewrite of that screenplay, was offered a chance to take a pace at this script but he declined.
  • Shatner asked Paramount for money to complete the film as he had originally intended, for the DVD release, but the studio refused.
  • The failed “Rock Men” that had to be ditched (after a disastrous screen test and no more budget) seem like an early incarnation of the Rock Monsters that appear in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which was also produced by Paramount. I am not aware if Aronofsky attributes any inspiration to Shatner’s concept.
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STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)

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Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Rated PG 
(for violence and language)
Released: November 26, 1986
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Catherine Hicks, Mark Lenard

Star Trek: Original Cast Movies – A Look Back

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Stardate: 1986

That attention-grabbing spin of the usually ambiguous star dates (branded atop the film’s posters) declared yet again that the Star Trek movie series was about to take another risk.

I have to say, it hasn’t been until this recent look back at the Original Cast Star Trek films that I’ve fully appreciated the gambles that each and every one took. Seeing the evolution, over time, of what’s considered to be a praise-worthy blockbuster (or, from my seat, how that’s devolved) helps provide a necessary perspective. When you compare the OC Star Trek movies to today’s Cinematic Universes, ones in which a “civil war” carries no more weight or stakes than a pyrotechnic game of superhero footsie (playing it predictably safe under the facade of spectacle), the creative brain trust behind the Star Trek original cast movies never gave themselves the easiest needles to thread.

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In the case of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the risk was taking a sharp turn away from the successful sentimental space operas of the previous two entries (that had delivered on big risks of their own) by making a follow-up that was, in effect, the saga’s version of a contemporary action comedy.

Imminently accessible even to the Trek novice, Star Trek IV fully embraces many of the popular sensibilities of its time, including a pop jazz track by The Yellowjackets that still jams (linked at the end of this review). Yet even while doing so, Star Trek IV never loses its footing as a philosophical franchise (and, thirty years later, subtly indicts some of the rigid arrogance of today’s New Atheism. More on that later).

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There was money to be had in that action comedy genre, which had become popular in the 1980s to the point of ubiquity. It was also an enticing tangent to make (according to Leonard Nimoy, who returned as director) following the heavy, raw emotions of Star Trek III. Based on early versions of Star Trek IV’s development, the end product could have been very different – like Eddie Murphy different (see trivia below). While I wouldn’t have put it past producer Harve Bennett to find a way to make that work, Star Trek didn’t reach its heights of artistic and populist success with that sort of desperate stunt casting.

As intriguing as the prospect of throwing Murphy into that mix would’ve been, I’m relieved we’ll never know the result. Instead, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home gave us the most purely entertaining adventure of the six-film series – and, I’d argue, in all fifty years of the entire franchise – not to mention the most financially successful (unmatched until J.J. Abrams‘ reboot).

And it did so entirely on the merits of its own cast. Rather than trying to make the Enterprise crew hip, which would’ve been all kinds of awkward, Nimoy’s movie wisely makes them Starfleet fish out of water.

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It was also the first of the features to bring back one of the TV series’ core essentials: tackling relevant contemporary issues. In the 1980s, “Save The Whales” was as trendy a cause célèbre as they came. But rather than getting up on some dogmatic soapbox, the screenplay (which received a full “Page 1” rewrite by Bennett and Star Trek II director Nicholas Meyer, who jettisoned nearly everything from the previous drafts by another screenwriting team) was very thoughtful in considering an unintended consequence from eliminating an entire species off the face of the planet – especially one with relatively high communication skills – and how it could lead to our own demise.

But before getting into all of that, the story first had some loose ends to deal with from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, namely the fugitive status of the entire Enterprise crew (who had broken multiple orders and regulations to rescue Mr. Spock) along with Spock’s status of needing to retrain his mind now that he had his Katra back (i.e. his mental and spiritual essence). Dr. McCoy, whose psyche had been its caretaker, was now free to be a sparring crumudgeon again.

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Working at this point like a well-oiled storytelling machine, the opening scenes of Star Trek IV are like a mini master class in scriptwriting exposition. Between the Federation council hearing (which recaps III’s central events) to Spock’s retraining on Vulcan to Kirk’s reflective Captain’s Log, the scenes not only distill everything we need to know but do so organically.

Then, too, are how these sequences simultaneously set up the fourth movie’s conflicts. Certainly the construct of each scene helps, but what elevates them to a sharp yet fluid naturalism is the quality of the dialogue. I don’t know how many drafts the script went through, but there’s an unforced virtue in what these initial sequences unpack and establish, particularly given the volume of information, that only comes through a disciplined commitment to rewriting.

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From there, the high concept narrative is actually pretty streamlined. The premise is a clever one: extinct humpback whales may be the solution to an alien probe aggressive actions that are destroying the Earth. To find some, Kirk and crew hazard a jump back in time (apparently that’s possible with a slingshot turn around the sun). Spock’s time warp computations prove accurate, of course, landing the crew in 1986 San Francisco.

Not exactly inconspicuous, the team splits up to find whales and supplies necessary for the return trip home, and hopefully by the end of it all the humpbacks will (in the singularly cranky words of Dr. McCoy) tell “this probe what to go do with itself.” These concurrent subplots create the most equal distribution of screen time for the supporting crew ensemble, with material that allows each of them to show off their comedic skills.

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Utilizing science also remains a staple in their problem solving, even as their repartee across the board has never been better (the “Yes/No” back-and-forth between Kirk and Spock in the truck scene is a highlight, and was entirely improvised). I should add, too, that composer Leonard Rosenman‘s Oscar-nominated score brought a welcome jauntiness to the nautical tone James Horner had established, providing some of the best, most enjoyable themes of the series.

Another TV staple that finally makes its first appearance in a feature is Kirk’s way with women. While not a full-on romance with passionate embraces, Kirk uses his charms on a local marine biologist who specializes in humpbacks, but it’s a connection that’s real for Kirk, not strategic. It’s played rather nicely between William Shatner and Catherine Hicks, and fits well into this film’s tone in a way that it wouldn’t have in previous installments. Suffice it to say, it’s fun to see Kirk flirt again. (Side note: given how Kirk winces at the taste of Michelob during a dinner-date scene, I now like to read that as a confirmation of how the 23rd Century has evolved past all forms of mass produced swill to embrace the superior craft beers that emerged in the 21st).

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In what so easily could’ve been just a comedy of errors, Star Trek IV maintains and thrives on the nobility of its characters, their commitment to a mission and, most importantly, their loyalty to each other (especially when it appears another crew member may have lost his life). These enduring qualities not only allow their chemistry to warm our hearts and make us laugh, but it also serves to drive a poignant character arc for Spock as he begins to rediscover his human half, its value, and its virtues.

To that end, for as much as Star Trek has always been a paean to logic, science, and a humanistic atheism, it’s striking to consider how its values differ to, say, some strains of today’s New Atheism (Richard Dawkins and the like). Where the New Atheists elevate science above all else (case in point: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent proposition for #Rationalia, a nation ruled by “the weight of evidence”), this Star Trek not only still admires human flaws, it has an actual respect for human emotion and illogic, one that even posits these “flaws” as necessary for our survival.

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The evolved philosophy of Star Trek‘s idealized future recognizes that imperfect humanity has a strength, virtue, wisdom, and soul that logic and science can never have, let alone foster. To “science” them out of existence would be…well, illogical.

We also see the evolved cultural mores of these 23rd Century time travelers as they express bewilderment over of the more profane instincts of our era (an observation that seems even more timely thirty years on). Again, the tone is never preachy, thankfully, and Spock’s stilted attempts at using “colorful metaphors” make for some of the film’s best laughs, but in an age where coarse profanity is not only on the increase but even valued among (and proudly employed by) cultural and media elites, it’s nice to see a vision of the future that says the coarsening of our language inevitably coarsens our culture, and that the higher ideal of humanity would evolve past that.

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Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is, in a sense, the template of what the new cast reboots should aspire to. It shows just how flat out entertaining and accessible sci-fi can be (which Abrams has nailed) while still being more than simply a thrilling space adventure. Star Trek can (and should) still hold fast to its incorporation of science, love of philosophy, and contemplation of humanity beyond another boilerplate hero’s journey (which are increasingly coming off as vaguely narcissistic).

If Star Trek III could’ve served as a completely satisfying finale to the entire franchise (as I posited in my review), then Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – which completes an inter-saga trilogy that spans chapters II, III, and IV – feels like a jubilant curtain call.

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It’s not only fun, smart, and sentimental, but by film’s end it puts everything back into its rightful place within the Star Trek universe. Everything is as it should be – and none too soon, as the cast was really starting to show its age.

But with the series’ best box office haul by a long shot (the first to cross the coveted $100 million mark, which really meant something three decades ago), they just couldn’t leave well enough alone…

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (This is the only Original Cast Star Trek movie not currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)

“Market Street” – The Yellowjackets

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • Eddie Murphy was originally supposed to be in the film instead of Catherine Hicks (who played the marine biologist/Kirk love interest). Murphy was meant to play a professor concerned with UFOs who spots the decloaking Klingon warship. Paramount ultimately declined the script for two reasons: 1) They didn’t want to combine and confuse the stars of their two most profitable franchise, Star Trek and Beverly Hills Cop, and 2) Murphy had signed to do The Golden Child.
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  • Initially, William Shatner never intended to return to the series after Star Trek III. Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy were actually developing a prequel film involving Starfleet cadets. Those plans changed when Paramount offered enough of a pay raise boost to Shatner to entice him back. He was also intended to direct, but his involvement with his TV series J. Hooker caused that to fall through, so Nimoy stepped back in to the role.
  • Brock Peters, who plays Admiral Cartwright, is perhaps best known for his role as the ill-fated African-American Tom Robinson in the Southern Gothic classic To Kill A Mockingbird.
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  • Associate Producer Kirk R. Thatcher plays the punk rocker on the bus with the boombox; he also wrote and performed the song played in the scene, “I Hate You”.
  • The time distance between the story’s present (2286) and the past they travel to (1986) is exactly 300 years apart.
  • In 1986, Scotty helps a Dr. Nichols invent transparent aluminum. It would actually be invented 23 years later in 2009, by Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics.
  • Leonard Rosenman is perhaps best known to geeks as the composer of the late 70s animated version of The Lord Of The Rings.
  • On a personal note: my brother Chris and I were Takei fans long before it was hip, imitating his deep tenor with classic Sulu deliveries like “San Francisco. I was born there.” or, from Star Trek III, “Don’t call me tiny.”
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STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)

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Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Rated PG 
(for violence and some language)
Released: June 1, 1984
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Starring: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Christopher Lloyd, Merritt Butrick, Robin Curtis, Nichelle Nichols, Mark Lenard, Leonard Nimoy

Star Trek: Original Cast Movies – A Look Back

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  • “If there’s even a chance that Spock has an eternal soul, then it’s my responsibility. As surely as if it were my very own.” – Admiral James T. Kirk

Star Trek I was philosophical. Star Trek II mythic. But Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was deeply personal.

The Wrath of Khan ended with Spock living out that honorable Vulcan virtue in the most heartbreaking way: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Yet in Star Trek III, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise showed us that choosing to live out the inverse of that proverb can be even more powerful. It’s an elegy to friendship and loyalty, and to the bonds forged through the gauntlet of sacrifice.

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From start to finish, The Search for Spock is the most emotionally raw chapter of the Star Trek franchise. One scene after the next is weighted to some degree or other with the immeasurable loss of Mr. Spock (to the point where even the humor is layered with sentiment and pathos). The opening sequences alone – from Kirk’s Captain’s Log lament, to the somber return of the battered Enterprise, to the reveal of who has broken into Spock’s sealed quarters (and why) – all play out, as Kirk puts it, “like an open wound.”

How this wound gets healed is the film’s master stroke, conceived by the franchise’s head producing guru (and this story’s screenwriter) Harve Bennett. The “Remember” gesture by Spock to McCoy at the end of Star Trek II was an insert shot improvised at the last minute, just in case they wanted to give themselves a possible out for Spock to return. But it wasn’t until Paramount greenlit the sequel that the filmmakers began to ask themselves what the implications of that “Remember” could possibly be.

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Re-energized by the experience of filming Khan, Leonard Nimoy asked to direct the follow-up, particularly since his involvement as an actor would likely be limited. When Paramount agreed (what a marketing hook: Spock directs his own search!), Nimoy and Bennett started talking about possibilities. That led them to the concept of the Katra, the very essence of a Vulcan’s being (as the film puts it, “Everything that is not of the body.”), passed on to McCoy in that crucial “Remember” moment.

(For his part, DeForest Kelley takes full advantage of his most substantial turn as McCoy, who’s forced to confront his own conflicted relationship with Spock in the most intensely psychological way possible.)

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Now with Spock’s destiny inextricably tied to Bones, the emotional stakes were raised several fold. Ingeniously, Bennett’s script does not even make resurrection a hope (let alone a possibility). The crew does not know the effect of the Genesis planet (i.e. the terraforming “life from lifelessness” scientific planetoid experiment) on Spock’s remains, so when they decide to defy direct orders and multiple Starfleet regulations – in effect, to commit mutiny against the Federation itself – they’re throwing away their entire careers to be court martialed and imprisoned at best for the sake of a corpse. Not so that their friend might live, but simply that he may rest in peace.

This “lower stakes” basis, if you will (marked by a mission codename that even carries with it a wistful, reverent symbolism), makes the treasonous acts of Kirk and crew all the more noble.

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That leads to the centerpiece of this whole defiant endeavor (which, at the film’s halfway point, is fittingly the central axis of the entire Original Cast six film saga): the stealing of the Enterprise. I can’t overstate how brilliantly constructed and executed this whole sequence is; the way it’s set up, builds, and pays off.

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In terms of plotting alone it has palpable suspense (the beat-up Enterprise trying to escape from the elite Excelsior in a claustrophobic space dock with code-locked bay doors), but then it’s augmented emotionally – and exponentially – with how much is on the line (underscored by the Excelsior Captain’s final ultimatum before Kirk attempts warp speed).

I’ve seen this countless times and the scene still gives me chills (thanks in part, too, to another rousing cue from composer James Horner). Sure, the drama of it all is effectively thrilling, but then that drama is given weight and power by what it all means, and stands for.

This is what Star Trek is all about.

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Of course, by the time they get to the Genesis planet the personal sacrifices only mount – twofold for Kirk – as Star Trek’s ultimate bad guys finally take center stage as the movie’s villains: the Klingons.

Seeing the Genesis device as a weapon of ultimate power (mirroring the heightened Cold War nuclear race of the 1980s, a theme that would carry over three movies later), Klingon Commander Kruge becomes a formidable, ruthless obstacle in Kirk’s path to reach Spock, as well as to save Lt. Saavik (the Vulcan scientist) and David Marcus (Kirk’s son) from the surface of the steadily imploding planet.

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The standoff between Kirk and Kruge becomes an effective microcosm of the standoff between Kirk and Khan, but without even a whiff of smelling like a rehash. It affords William Shatner more moments to shine as an actor (just as the previous film did), far better and more nuanced than his reputation grants, including how he’s crippled by a figurative but debilitating gut punch by Kruge that comes out of nowhere.

Reeling and cornered, Kirk then makes a shocking decision that fans at the time likely deemed unthinkable (much in the same way that rumors of Star Trek II’s ending were perceived with outrage prior to its release). Star Trek III was faced with the quandary of “How do you top the death of Spock?” Well you don’t, but this twist (which I won’t spoil) is about as close as you could hope to get. It was another bold choice for writer/producer Harve Bennett, who had to compensate for moderate budgets with risk-taking narrative turns. The end result was another seminal moment in the history of Star Trek.

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And speaking of low budgets, Leonard Nimoy makes the most of his directorial debut. There’s a lot of emotional complexity (and density) that he perfectly meters, sequences that are keenly staged (such as the aforementioned Enterprise theft), and occasional moments of inspired instinct that amplify a desired effect (the extreme close-ups, for example, in Sarek’s mindmeld with Kirk – Sarek’s lips whispering Spock’s final words, Kirk’s tear-filled eye reliving the grief – was packed with potent intimacy).

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Despite being hampered by things like obviously artificial soundstages for the Genesis planet (the budget didn’t allow for enhancing actual location shoots) or a low-rent cantina compared to their Star Wars rival, Nimoy makes the most of what he’s given by crafting a visual language that intensifies conflict, character, and emotion.

It’s amazing, too, how large Spock’s presence looms over the film’s entire landscape, despite not appearing on-screen until the final act (again, credit to Nimoy’s style). It speaks to the power of that character and his singular impact that he had on the crew. And, more broadly, to his impact on popular culture.

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It boggles the mind, really, how this movie was ever perceived at any time as “lesser than”. It defies at every turn the completely bogus axiom that all odd-numbered Star Trek films are bad. Every last bit – to the tiniest, most specific detail – was thought through and played out to maximum emotional effect.

If the entire franchise had ended with this movie, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock would’ve served as an immensely satisfying final chapter (if also an intriguingly bittersweet one; they’re still fugitives at movie’s end). Within itself, this adventure provided a fitting thematic closure to the lives (and deaths) of these beloved characters.

But as we all now know, this series was far from over – and had a lot more to offer.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (Currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • Contrary to the saying “odd numbered Treks are bad”, nothing about this film’s initial release and reception could be deemed as anything other than an unqualified success. It opened to solid reviews, it had the biggest opening weekend haul yet for the series, and its total box office nearly matched that of hugely profitable Star Trek II, falling just $3 million short of the previous film’s mark. If Star Trek III were a dud, they wouldn’t have re-hired Nimoy to direct Star Trek IV.
  • Since Nimoy had absolutely no experience as a film or television director, he asked William Shatner if he could shadow and observe episode shoots of Shatner’s TV series at the time, J. Hooker. Shatner, of course, agreed, and this is how Nimoy said he began to figure out how to use a camera to tell a story.
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  • In the opening credits, there is an extra long gap between William Shatner’s and DeForest Kelley’s names, done so as a subtle memorial to honor the fact that Spock had passed and would not be physically present in this journey. Nimoy’s name only appears for the Director credit.
  • Two Klingons were played by sitcom stars of the day: Kruge’s Christopher Lloyd from Taxi, and John Larroquette of Night Court.
  • Robin Curtis replaced Kristie Alley as Lt. Saavik because of the oldest reason in the industry: Alley’s excessively high salary demands.
  • After the security breach in Spock’s quarters is detected, Chekov says something in Russian to Scotty as they look at the monitor. Translated, it means, “I’m not crazy! There it is!”
  • Dame Judith Anderson, he plays the Vulcan mystic in the final scene, was an old Hollywood legend whose most notable roles included her Oscar-nominated role as the creepy Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchock’s 1940 Best Picture winner Rebecca, and Nefretiri’s scheming maidservant Memnet in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments.
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  • A tribble, the infamous little replicating creature from the popular TV episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”, makes a cameo appearance in McCoy’s bar scene.

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Rated PG 
(for violence and some language)
Release Date: June 4, 1982
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Ricardo Montalban, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Bibi Besch, Kristie Alley, Merritt Butrick, Paul Winfield

Star Trek: Original Cast Movies – A Look Back

(Some brief thoughts about the Director’s Cut, recently released on blu ray, follow this review in a post script.)

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If the aspirations for Star Trek: The Motion Picture were philosophical and existential, then for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan they were literary and mythic.

It went for bold (and even for broke) at a time when the future of the entire franchise weighed in the balance, a fragile position from which playing it safe would’ve seemed the wisest move. Star Trek was, in a sense, facing its own Kobayashi Maru, and the mission found its Kirk – the one who could change the conditions of its most crucial test – in Trek-novice director Nicholas Meyer.

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William Shatner, the oft-mocked melodramatist, rises to the occasion, grappling with a character confronted by the life that could’ve been, but wasn’t. He delivers not only the best work of his career, but (infamous “KHAAAAAN!” scream aside) he gives a superb, nuanced, near-flawless screen performance by any standard. He had to, if for no other reason than Ricardo Montalban owns every moment of an Oscar-worthy turn that, due to genre bias, was robbed of a nomination. The fact that no one’s ever said Montalban steals the movie is a real testament to just how good Shatner is.

And then, on top of all that, to have the logical Spock end up serving as the film’s emotional core – in a moment that stands as the defining one for the entire franchise – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan didn’t just become the best Trek ever told; it took one generation’s cultural phenomenon and immortalized it across generations.

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There’s no doubt that after the mixed reaction to Star Trek’s cerebral debut on the big screen, the primary goal was actually less high-minded and much more practical. Newly-promoted producer Harve Bennett (given the reins after Paramount removed series creator Gene Roddenberry) was tasked to recapture the magic of what made the series so popular, and to do it on one-quarter of the first movie’s budget.

After five script drafts of trying to thread that seemingly impossible needle, Bennett wasn’t pleased with how the material was coming together. The only element he was certain of was his crucial, core decision to give the Enterprise crew an actual flesh-and-blood villain to contend with (something the first film lacked). The one that popped out to Bennett during a marathon review of the entire TV series was Khan Noonien Singh, played by Montalban, a genetically engineered super human foe that Kirk faced in the Season 1 episode titled “Space Seed”.

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After a brief flirtation with up-and-coming director Ron Howard (a huge Trek fan), Bennett hired Nicholas Meyer to helm the reboot, primarily for his impressive writing work in the highly regarded The Seven-Percent Solution, about a cocaine-addicted Sherlock Holmes who goes under the care of Sigmund Freud while trying to solve a case. Meyer made an uncredited (and unpaid) overhaul of the script and, in the process, layered it with thematic, literate, and theatrical elements that elevated the story to what is still universally regarded as the best Star Trek movie ever made.

Rather than belaboring a re-establishment of the Star Trek universe (despite how different it had become from Star Trek I) or getting bogged down in exposition about Khan, his crew, and the details of that episode, Meyer’s script instead approached the story and characters as a novelist would. Within the first scene alone, Meyer laid the groundwork of “no win scenarios”, age, and dealing with death, all referenced with subtle (even playful) winks but would later payoff in rather dramatic fashion during the film’s second and third acts.

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He also drew overt parallels to great works of literature ranging from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” to Melville’s “Moby Dick” and even, with Genesis and creation, the Bible itself. These allusions informed the characters of Kirk, Spock, and Khan, their journeys, their motivations, their angsts, and their arcs. It had a stylistic influence on the dialogue as well, which rose above being smart and witty to a level of poetic expression that was, at times, as literary as it was sentimental. These actors were given the kind of scenes and exchanges often found only in theatre, and certainly almost never in sci-fi (or when it is, it’s pretentious).

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In referencing such classic works (and in such clever ways), not only did Meyer elevate the material but he also allowed these familiar tales to establish depths and dynamics much more quickly than conventional storytelling could have. By the time he was done with his rewrite, Meyer had taken a glorified TV episode and crafted it into something truly substantial, boasting narrative and character stakes of a riveting scale.

The old supporting cast had a much greater presence this time around, too, despite also needing to balance the new additions of Khan, Captain Terrell (Chekov’s leader on Reliant), Kirstie Alley’s Vulcan officer Lt. Saavik, and Kirk’s old flame Carol Marcus who, along with her son David, was the lead scientist behind the Genesis device. Chekov’s role is most prominent of the second tier (and Walter Koenig is strong in it), but the rest of the crew – Scotty, Sulu, and Uhura – each get their moments.

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Dr. “Bones” McCoy continues his role as the cranky moral conscience for Kirk, but DeForest Kelley and Shatner share such a distinct chemistry that Kelley is able to make Bones a full-fledged person with opinions and views, not just a catalytic sounding board for Kirk (which is mostly how he’s written). Their shared winks and sly smiles to each other remain those priceless intangibles that say everything about the closeness shared between them (and, no doubt, the actors as well).

The story, too, is so ingeniously constructed, working perfectly to heighten tension and suspense while also heightening the various layers working in subtext. Plot, character, and theme are brilliantly intertwined all the way through to absolutely absorbing effect, driven by Khan’s superior intellect and Kirk’s ability to match it (eventually, anyway, as he also gets “caught with his britches down” on occasion).

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It’s a thrilling cat-and-mouse game of vengeance, with Khan less interested in acquiring the ultimate power of Genesis than he is to wield revenge on Kirk in as cruel a way possible. It’s truly palpable, made all the more impressive by the fact that Kirk and Khan are never once in the same room, only briefly facing each other through on-screen communication.

Their intergalactic chess match is shrewdly played on both sides, as brainy as it is brawny, with a climactic standoff between their battered vessels, adrift in a nebula, that allows Kirk (with the guidance of Spock) to maximize his strengths of employing cool-under-pressure psychological warfare and thinking outside the box.

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It’s all amped up by Khan’s deeply felt personal rage towards Kirk as it devolves into a relentless, psychotic obsession, articulated with Montalban’s thespian flare and Meyer’s ingeniously tweaked citations of Melville’s Captain Ahab.

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Composer James Horner’s contributions, too, can’t be overstated. The first major work of his career, Horner’s rousing nautical score seamlessly weaves a heroic cue for Kirk and an aggressive cue for Khan back-and-forth throughout their standoffs, helping us to more easily track who has the upper hand at each and every stage. More touching cues countered these, most especially the one for Spock that also served as the theme of his friendship with Kirk.

And then there’s that ending. The one that had grown Trekkers crying and even casual fans moved through breathtaking gasps. The one that still gives me chills no matter how many times I’ve seen it (which may only be second to the Indiana Jones trilogy). It was an overwhelming gut-punch, resonating because of Spock’s decision, yes, but more so because of how nobly his selfless valor is expressed (“The needs of the many…”). The heartbreak is amplified by the fact that Kirk and Spock are separated by glass; Jim stunned, speechless and powerless, as Spock affirms the eternal bond of their friendship.

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Then, too, is how it causes Kirk to face death in the most personal of ways (and, in effect, allows Khan his victory), a level of tragedy that (only a few scenes earlier) Kirk had, with his smirking swagger, boasted about having always cheated; “I don’t like to lose.” But this time he couldn’t cheat. This time he did lose, even in triumph. And it was at the expense of his closest friend. Kirk’s crushed. He’s humbled. And yet, it’s also how he grows. The beautiful pathos here is that Meyer allows Kirk’s greatest loss to resurrect his own sense of purpose, identity, youth, and possibility.

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The whole scene (and its moving epilogue) is the most iconic moment of Star Trek’s fifty year history. It is the apex of the whole saga’s ongoing mythos. The immediate subsequent films would live up to this moment’s legacy, but nothing would – or will – ever match it.

Director Nicholas Meyer and producer Harve Bennett – two men who had never seen a single episode of the original series before prepping for this movie – brought their literary and cinematic instincts to bear on the Star Trek universe in a way that only fresh eyes could. After requesting the series vets to submit what they felt a Star Trek story really needed…

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…Meyer took those “must haves”, applied them, but then ultimately also followed his own axiom: rather than giving the audience simply what they want, it was his job to sell them on what he wanted – which included taking the biggest of risks. The kind that diehard Trekkers said they’d never accept. But Meyer did so with the conviction that, as a storyteller, he could do anything he wanted so long as he did it right.

The fact that Star Trek is still around today, thriving at warp speed with popular new incarnations, is proof that Meyer most definitely did.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (Currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)

  • Post-Script: regarding the Director’s Cut, which recently debuted on blu ray. It’s only three minutes longer, but every additional second makes the movie a lesser one. Each bonus scene is either poorly played, belabors already established beats, or actually undercuts the surprise of future revelations. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but the Theatrical Cut is definitely the superior one, which makes the so-called Director’s Cut nothing more than a crass marketing tool rather than a fulfilled artistic vision. It’s a journey that only Star Trek completests should boldly go on.

Or better yet: just watch this YouTube video that shows and gives context to these additions, but (thankfully) outside the context of the full viewing experience.

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • With the perceived success from both fans and critics, most people don’t realize that Star Trek II still didn’t make as much money as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Yet despite Khan’s $79 million falling short of TMP’s $82 million, Star Trek II was far more profitable given that its budget was a little over $11 million compared to TMP’s $40 million.
  • Given the film’s far lower budget, the production was forced to re-use a lot of props and visual effects from the first film, as well as leftovers from the failed series reboot attempt called Star Trek: Phase II. Examples include:
    • The opening Klingon visuals in the Kobayashi Maru are from the first film, as is the footage of the shuttle docking with the Enterprise, the Enterprise leaving space dock, and other random shots of the Enterprise.
    • The bridge’s computer display of the Enterprise showing its shields being raised are graphics developed for Star Trek: Phase II.
    • Science Station Regula 1 was a space station model from Star Trek I, just turned upside down.
    • Chekov and Terrell’s environmental suits were the space suits from TMP.
  • The film takes place in late March of the year 2285. This specificity was determined by having the story open with Kirk celebrating his birthday (his 52nd), which is on March 22.
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  • The film’s original subtitle was “The Undiscovered Country”, which is derived from Hamlet, before it was changed to “The Wrath of Khan”. That rejected subtitle would famously be used for Star Trek VI, also directed by Nicholas Meyer.
  • Prior to prepping for Star Trek II, producer Harve Bennett and director Nicholas Meyer had not seen a single episode of the original series.
  • DeForest Kelley was so displeased with the early script drafts that he was seriously considering not signing back up for the second film.
  • In one of Bennett’s early drafts, titled “The War of Generations”, Kirk and crew is tasked to confront a rebellion on a distant planet that is led by Kirk’s son. Kirk comes to discover that the real mastermind who fomented the rebellion is Khan.
  • Co-screenwriter Jack B. Sowards’ initial draft had “The Omega System” which was the Federation’s ultimate weapon. Deemed too negative for a progressively evolved Federation, art director Michael Minor is the one who suggested changing the ultimate weapon into terraforming tool, which is what became the Genesis device.
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  • The sequence for the Genesis effect was the earliest fully realized CGI animation in film history. The division of LucasArts that produced the sequence would eventually become its own studio – called Pixar.
  • Khan’s muscular physique was so striking that it became popularly assumed that Montalban’s chest was fake. After those rumors became so rampant as to be accepted as common knowledge, director Nicholas Meyer went on record to confirm that the chest was all 100% Montalban, who worked out regularly.
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  • Amongst the collection of antiques in Kirk’s apartment is an early Commodore computer.
  • People who go back to watch the original “Space Seed” episode – which comes from the series’ first season – see that Walter Koenig’s Chekov was not yet a member of the series, despite Khan recognizing him in the movie, even by name. Koenig likes to theorize that Chekov was actually a lower level ensign on the Enterprise at the time, and crossed paths with Khan off-camera.
  • The film’s story takes place 15 years after the events of “Space Seed”. It also debuted in theaters 15 years after the original episode aired. That episode ended with Spock pondering how fascinating it might be to revisit Khan’s new civilization in the future to see how it evolves.
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  • In the series second pilot episode titled “Where No Man Has Gone Before” that introduced Captain Kirk, helmsman Gary Mitchell (who would become the story’s villain) admits to collaborating with a “little blond technician” to distract Kirk with a romance. Fans have come to theorize that the blond technician, who is unseen, was actually the young scientist Dr. Carol Marcus.
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  • Of all six Original Cast feature, Star Trek II is the only one in which a Federation starship fires phasers. In the other five films, Federation ships exclusively use photon torpedoes.
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  • It wasn’t until this film that the Original Cast Star Trek universe was established as taking place in the 23rd Century. Prior to Star Trek II, the Stardates were numbered so as to have kept the time period intentionally vague.
  • The web site Trek Core noticed what must certainly be an error on the Director’s Cut blu ray and not intended by Nicholas Meyer. It’s an insert glitch in the opening scene that must’ve simply gotten past the eyes of those involved. To read about it in detail, click here. Unfortunately, the error appears on both the Director’s and Theatrical cut on that blu ray edition.

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Rated PG 
(for sci-fi action and mild language)
Release Date: December 7, 1979
Runtime: 132 minutes
Director: Robert Wise
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Stephen Collins, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Persis Khambatta

Star Trek: Original Cast Movies – A Look Back

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The lingering perception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it was a sluggish misstep from small screen to big, primarily because of the inevitable comparison to Star Wars. That was the initial impression, too, as it was branded with sarcastic nicknames like Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture and The Motionless Picture, despite a box office haul that more than doubled the film’s sizable budget for the time (read more in the trivia below).

The comparison to that galaxy far far away was (and is), however, demonstrably unfair, one that the original movie posters tried to face head-on with the tag line “There Is No Comparison”. It’s not only unfair on principle but, more particularly, because the two films’ ambitions were entirely different. Moviegoers went in expecting Star Wars, which is why they didn’t know what to do with a more brainy effort aspiring to be 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead of getting George Lucas, they had to wrestle with Stanley Kubrick. The result is not only the most undervalued Star Trek voyage ever made (one that exists in its own vacuum, never to be referenced in the canon again), it’s one of the best sci-fi films ever made.

It is, to echo Mr. Spock, fascinating.

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The television series Star Trek, much like Star Wars, sought to elevate B-movie material (albeit in different ways; Star Wars with scale and scope, Star Trek with science and philosophy). Yet Star Trek: The Motion Picture boldly set those action-adventure “cowboys in space” elements aside, and also jettisoned Kirk’s more base if endearing impulses (nary a kiss is smacked or a punch thrown). Instead, ST:TMP reached for an A-level sci-fi brass ring, a cerebral contemplation about our place in the universe, and even about the possible evolution of consciousness itself.

Better, more holistically satisfying Star Trek films would follow, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains the purest, highest expression of Gene Roddenberry’s intellectual and philosophical ideals for the series he created. On those terms, no other movie or TV iteration over the franchise’s now 50-year history can match it. At its core, this is what Star Trek was always supposed to be about: the exploration of space that would always circle back to the exploration of humanity, and how the two were inextricably linked.

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The film’s aspirations could be seen even before viewing one frame, boasting a story by legendary science fiction author Alan Dean Foster and directed by Academy Award winning filmmaker Robert Wise, who made classics ranging from multiple Oscar-winners The Sound of Music and West Side Story to smart sci-fi like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain. Those two creative choices alone declared the seriousness of the movie’s goals, as did opening with a stirring pre-credits overture that harkened back to old Hollywood epics.

The premise is a pretty familiar one – there’s a threatening anomaly approaching Earth and the U.S.S. Enterprise is the closest ship in the quadrant – but the script uses that as a launching pad (or space dock?) for a complex study of character, faith, and philosophy far beyond a safe “let’s get the old gang back together” lark.

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Perhaps the most stark expression of that early on is seeing how Admiral James T. Kirk is portrayed. Rather than having fun with his iconic winking swagger, this is an indictment of Kirk’s arrogance and sense of entitlement. He’s not asked to take command for this mission; the opportunistic Kirk uses the emergency to his own selfish advantage, forcing his way back into the Captain’s chair of the newly refurbished (but not yet fully overhauled) Enterprise.

Following a 5-year absence to an administrative position, Kirk usurps the command of Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), now demoted to Commander, who is an eminently capable and qualified leader that Kirk, no less, recommended for the post.

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Rather than making Decker an in-over-his-head newbie whom Kirk must rescue, the script allows the reverse to be true. Kirk’s behind the times (more than he’s willing to admit), and it’s Decker who must make up for Kirk’s deficits – even, at one point, saving the entire ship.

The whole dynamic makes for a compelling deconstruction of Kirk, looking at the negative (even dark) side of his innate leadership virtues (something that diehard fans may have understandably bristled at), but his arc also allows for us to see his strengths, and his uncanny ability – rooted in a deep, instinctive understanding of human nature – to come up with ingenious and intuitive solutions, even in the face of impossible odds.

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Suffice it to say, William Shatner must’ve been fascinated as an actor by the prospect, and his performance steps up to every challenge the script requires – which includes not sentimentalizing Kirk’s worst traits; when he’s a jerk, our sympathies are squarely with Decker (played with a sincere integrity by Collins, who serves as a great foil for Kirk’s flaws).

Instead of the confident leader, Kirk pushes his crew too hard, overcompensating for his own inadequacies (and the guilt of his effective coup). It’s a bold choice to establish Kirk in such a negative – but real, and interesting – light.

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Not to be short-changed, Leonard Nimoy is given his most substantial turn as Spock. The half-human/half-Vulcan finds himself on a spiritual quest for meaning, seeking answers to life’s biggest questions: “Who am I?” “Why are we here?”

For Kirk and Spock, both men are at midlife crossroads; it’s a test that brings out the best and worst of each of them. For Kirk, especially, as it’s a crisis of identity (one that would continue in Star Trek II as he’s confronts the life that could’ve been, but wasn’t).

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The rest of the old crew is here, too, if largely relegated to simply-drawn supporting roles (though done with the chemistry that endeared them to an entire culture). Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) – a.k.a. “Bones” – is understandably the most integral of the remaining ensemble, serving as the cranky moral conscience to Kirk, the one guy who can call Jim on his B.S. and have it carry some weight (plus, their reunion captures the unique bond the two share, and that fans were nostalgic for).

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Even so, ST:TMP ultimately lacks the fuller, richer camaraderie and sentiment that the crew shared in the original series (the core trio especially). Now with the passage of time, when the need to satiate nostalgia doesn’t feel so immediate and necessary, this film’s more cerebral disposition is both an effective and welcome risk. It displays a depth and reach that feels particularly satisfying and distinctive today in our a world of safe and calculated Cinematic Universe tentpoles.

It also reflects a noble high-mindedness that the new Star Trek reboot would do well to emulate, because it’s what J.J. Abrams‘ new alternate history most glaringly lacks. Even so, given the mixed response that this severe and unexpected shift away from a populist tone received, it’s understandable that Star Trek II would intentionally remedy that issue (and for the long haul, the series was better for it).

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture is also quite a spectacle, basking in its grandeur rather than constantly warp-speeding through it. This tone was in direct contrast to the visual effects thrills that Star Wars revolutionized; instead, it was true to the Star Trek spirit of exploration.

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Many have griped about the pacing. The initial shuttle flight to the Enterprise, for example, was often dinged for being excessively drawn out (though it also had the virtue of re-establishing Kirk and Scotty’s unique relationship). The slow, patient trek through the high-tech cloud of V’Ger (that threatening anomaly) was also characterized by some as too laborious. Yet that pace reflected the very soul of the franchise, one that looked out at the vastness of space with awe and wonder. Thankfully, the actual visuals are worth all the gawking, with only the “wormhole” effect coming off as simplistically dated.

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I haven’t delved into the actual plot details here, but intentionally so. Not because there’s little to discuss; on the contrary, Star Trek: The Motion Picture compels discussion, not only immediately afterward but even to pause and debate while watching. Yet those riches – and narrative surprises – are best left to an initial viewing, one that I wouldn’t want to spoil for the many who’ve never given it a shot (or for others that should give it a much-deserved second chance).

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But as a tease I will say this: the plot, rather ingeniously, calls back to the 20th Century and our own initial first steps into space exploration. It does so in a way that’s not only clever but actually meaningful, so much so that it should make any viewer lament how much we’ve digressed from the halcyon days of NASA’s Mercury, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions.

Yes, Star Trek has always prided itself on a love and respect for science, of integrating that passion into its own fictional fabric, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn’t exalt science as an end. For even as atheistically humanist as Roddenberry was, his characters were inevitably on spiritual quests.

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That came from the acknowledgment that science, no matter how much of it could be known, was incapable of answering all of our questions. It’s a humble recognition that logic is not enough. That the core of what makes us human is mystically intangible, and therefore requires contact and communion with something greater than what we can ever possibly grasp.

That’s pretty heady stuff. That’s deeply spiritual stuff. That’s the stuff Star Trek: The Motion Picture is made of.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video. (Currently free to stream for Amazon Prime members.)

NOTABLE TRIVIA

  • Though seen as a box office disappointment, Star Trek: The Motion Picture more than doubled its (then) near-record $40 million budget with a domestic gross of over $82 million (and went on to pull in nearly $140 million total worldwide). Its opening weekend haul of nearly $12 million in early December of 1979 was, at the time, the biggest debut in Paramount’s history.
  • Leonard Nimoy initially turned down any involvement in resurrecting the Star Trek franchise, either for television or the movies. It was the signing of Oscar-winning director Robert Wise that caused him to reconsider.
  • The Director’s Edition is currently available on DVD but not on blu-ray. While only about 4 minutes longer, it includes the scene of Spock crying while waxing philosophic, as his heart breaks for V’Ger’s longing to communicate with its creator (a longing similar to Spock’s own existential crisis in the film, thus the tears). Perhaps deemed “too emotional” for Spock, it’s actually one of the best moments of the entire film – even a highlight in the franchise’s history – and it’s a shame that it was cut from the original theatrical release.
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  • Along with stylistic and tonal influences from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a more direct tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 classic Solaris can be seen in the character of Ilia, as well as the V’Ger cloud. Solaris features a scene in which someone talks about moving through the fog and seeing a giant replica of a human — and which also features a normal-sized replica of a dead woman visiting the dead woman’s lover (and, along the way, punching through a metal door on the lover’s ship). Rumour has it that a scene in Solaris was inspired by a scene in Robert Wise’s The Haunting, and it’s possible that Robert Wise was returning the homage with this film. (Thanks to Peter L. Chattaway for that fascinating trivia submission.)STI_IliaBreaksWall
  • Before the success of Star Wars, this version of Star Trek – complete with Commander Decker – was being developed for a new television series called Star Trek: Phase II, following the immense popularity of the show’s reruns in the 1970s. But once Star Wars revived big screen sci-fi adventures as a viable genre, the project was quickly shifted to feature film status.
  • Decker and Ilia served as templates for Riker and Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, the TNG episode “The Child” from 1988 was based on an unproduced script for Star Trek: Phase II.
  • The redesign of the uniforms between the first and second film was done, in part, to sort of “reboot” the franchise after the first movie’s perceived underwhelming reception. But mostly it was due by demand of the cast, who found the new costumes to be too uncomfortable and difficult to put on, wear, and manage in throughout a shoot day. For the entire cast, signing up for a sequel was contingent on new Starfleet uniforms.
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  • One of Spock’s lines is, “Any show of resistance would be futile, Captain.” Given the similarity of that line to the Borg’s infamous catchphrase, many Trekkers now in hindsight like to theorize that perhaps V’Ger would eventually evolve into the Borg, the arch nemesis of the Next Generation crew. As an author, William Shatner actually played with this idea in one of his Star Trek novels, although his book is not considered canon.
  • Though never stated in the film, Commander Decker was intended to be the son of Commodore Matthew Decker from the Original Series episode titled “The Doomsday Machine”.
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  • Composer Jerry Goldsmith’s new Star Trek theme – which would go on to serve more famously as the series theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation – almost never was. The first main theme he submitted was rejected by director Robert Wise. This “redo” has since become an iconic staple of the Star Trek universe.
  • Goldsmith had a protégé he was mentoring who sat in on most of the film’s scoring sessions. It was a young James Horner, who would go on to score the next two Star Trek films.
  • This film served as the basis for McDonald’s first ever movie-themed Happy Meal.
  • A V’Ger “Memory Wall” sequence was infamously scrapped from the film. This link details the scene, per it’s script pages, with on-set photos.
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STAR TREK Original Cast Movies: A Look Back

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Star Trek: Original Cast Movies – Film Reviews

The internet ink was barely dry on my “30 Days Of Spielberg” retrospective when I dove into this marathon. It was, thankfully, a far less ambitious one, covering a mere 6 films instead of 30-plus.

For the month of July 2016, I wrote about the Original Cast editions of the Star Trek movies. It’s a series that doesn’t actually follow the over-simplified yet common axiom of “Odd-numbered movies bad, Even-numbered movies good.”

I’ve long held an affection for these films, and July 2016 really seemed like the perfect time to look back. Not only did it see the release of the upcoming third film in the cinematic reboot, Star Trek Beyond, but more importantly it was right smack dab in the middle of Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary year.

I’ve never been a Trekkie. Or Trekker. Or whatever it is they want to call themselves. I watched the reruns as a child, enjoyed them, but was not a diehard that felt compelled to go to conventions or learn to speak Klingon (let alone go all Star Trek Cosplay before cosplay was officially a thing).

Then the Star Trek movies came along and it was a whole other thing entirely.

The television episodes were fun, yet the movies captured everything the TV show did so well but in a grander, deeper way. The fact that the movies only made winking references to Kirk’s womanizing (rather than playing it up to the level of the series) was one clear indication that their aspirations were much more lofty, and sincere.

There was something unique and singular to Star Trek, not just in sci-fi (or just in contrast to Star Wars) but really in all of pop culture. Its spirit of exploration is very American, yet its vision of how that looks is universal.

Set hundreds of years in the future, Star Trek was more than just Cowboys and Indians in space. It was about journeying into the unknown, driven by the innate human drive to see what lies just beyond. It was about science, too, aspiring to knowledge and discovery, and not just cool futuristic toys. It was a self-reflection and examination on humanity itself – all of humanity – and its highest ideals that emerge even despite (or as a direct result of) our shortcomings. And yes, there was adventure too.

But at the heart of it all was this tight knit, diverse crew, at the core of which was a bond of friendship between three unlikely people – Kirk, Spock, and McCoy – that gave the series its heart, its humor, and its soul.

As good as the television series was on each of these counts, the movies elevated them all.

Most importantly, these six Original Cast films captured my imagination not simply for nostalgia’s sake (as I had none). They did so because, at their best, they were great movies.

Looking back, we also see what the recent J.J. Abrams reboot lacks (three films and counting that, to be clear, the first two I was a big fan of – yes, even the oft derided Into Darkness). In remaking the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise for a 21st Century sensibility, Abrams focused squarely on two of the series traits: action-adventure, and the Kirk/Spock/McCoy bond. He also added another, a previously non-existent inter-crew romance. But even as a fan of these recent movies, one has to acknowledge that the spirit of exploration, the fascination with science, and the philosophical introspection about humankind’s place in the universe has been lost.

The Original Cast films are richer, smarter, nobler, and better. Even if not always successful, their ambitions were always higher. And they even proved just how good of an actor William Shatner can be. (Yes, I’m dead serious.)

So in this 50th Anniversary year, it’s the perfect time to look back, re-evaluate, and give the Original Cast Star Trek movies their due.

Set your expectations on stunned and prepare to beam up to the “I Can’t Unsee That” movie blog as it boldly goes where it’s never gone before.

Star Trek: Original Cast Movies – Film Reviews

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