A bold, somewhat controversial, question, I know, but hear me out…
I’m not a Trekkie. I have a nostalgic fondness for the original series, which I watched as a child as a kind of Doctor Who methadone, but I haven’t seen an episode of it in something like twenty years. I watched most of Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine during brief periods of TV-owning communal living in the late 90s/early 2000s, but couldn’t tell you the plot of a single episode except Trials And Tribble-ations (while I could make a good go to this day at enacting Charley X, City At The Edge Of Forever, The Trouble With Tribbles, and half a dozen more from childhood viewings). I watched Enterprise right up until the Diane Warren song came on, then turned it off and never bothered with it again.
No, my Star Trek, to the extent I have one, the Star Trek I remember, is the films.
Not the two most recent ones — no, even someone as relatively distant from Star Trek as I am could see that they got the character of Kirk horribly, painfully, wrong, and that in itself was enough to sink both of them for me, even ignoring other things like the totally nonsensical plots. And not the Next Generation films — I actually watched Insurrection something like four times when it came on TV because I kept thinking “I’ve not seen that one”, and then watching it and thinking “Oh, I have seen it, I just thought it was a longish episode of the TV series”.
But the films featuring the original cast were on TV pretty much constantly during my childhood and teen years, and I watched them every time they came on, and I quickly came to the same conclusion that the majority of fans did, that the even-numbered ones were clearly the best.
By this what fans meant, though I at least didn’t realise it, was that films involving Nicholas Meyer were the best ones. Meyer directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and wrote (uncredited) the final script for it, he co-wrote the script for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and he co-wrote and directed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Clearly there was something about Meyer’s work that made it stand out from the rest — but did it stand out as better, or worse?
I hadn’t watched any of these films for about fifteen years, until March this year, when I got an urge to watch Star Trek IV again, and discovered that the box set of all ten films (including the Next Generation ones) was only twelve pounds on Amazon. So I ended up watching all six again.
The first thing I noticed is that they all follow pretty much exactly the same formula. They concentrate on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to the almost complete exclusion of every other character — George Takei, for example, sometimes barely gets more than one or two “Aye, Captain”s in a film, and it’s honestly hard to see for the most part why they brought back any of the cast except the big three, for the amount of screen time they get. The big three get to interact with some younger “good” characters, who are initially suspicious or resentful but soon come to realise that in fact they’re great. They try to do some big, important, obviously good thing, and meet resistance from the Klingons, for no apparent reason other than that Klingons are arseholes. There might also be resistance from Starfleet command, because Starfleet command are arseholes. They succeed, but only manage to do so by making a terrible sacrifice which no-one should have to bear. And it’s all wrapped up in ninety minutes or so, to get the maximum number of showings per day. The plots are very, very linear, and there are few or no subplots that can’t be summarised as “Klingons”.
They still, though, all work, at least to an extent, and almost entirely because of the chemistry between the three main actors. Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley really are incredible together, but the odd thing is that they’re all fundamentally comic actors, which creates a real disconnect between the Star Trek the fans — and apparently Gene Roddenberry and a lot of people at Paramount — thought they were experiencing, a serious meditation on post-utopianism or something like that, and the Star Trek that actually appeared on the screen, which was a series of what amounted to B-movie action comedies.
So how do the films stack up compared to my memories, after fifteen years or so away from them?
The Motion Picture — when I watched this, I was amazed. This was a much, much better film than Trek fandom has ever given it credit for. After looking in Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham’s Star Trek guidebook, which I picked up at the same time I bought the box set, I can see why. Star Trek fandom has, for much of the last thirty-plus years, actually been watching a different film than the one Robert Wise made. The TV edit of The Motion Picture, which is also what was released on VHS (and possibly on other formats, though I may be wrong there) adds in an extra eleven minutes of footage onto what was already a sluggish film. The original cinematic release is a tighter, better film by far. It’s also a film that was clearly meant for the cinema — those long tracking shots of the Enterprise would look great on a big screen, but are rather less impressive at the size of a TV (at least the TVs we had when I was growing up — TVs now seem to be the size of small countries). It’s not a great film — there are huge problems with the script, which is trying to be philosophical and meaningful — but it’s perfectly watchable.
The Wrath of Khan — this isn’t very good.
Oh, it’s not bad by any means, and when you’re a teenager it’s absolutely great, full of action setpieces and confrontations and the general sturm und drang that characterises the teenage emotional life; but watching it again as an adult, this is a film that believes its own hype. It’s a campy B-movie, but Nicholas Meyer seems convinced he’s making Great Art and a Profound Statement. However, Meyer is one of those people who thinks the best way to create great art is to reference other works of Great Art, which is to say the “canon” of great (Western white male) literature, so what could be a decent little film about ageing and revenge turns into monologues where we’re hit over the head with how Star Trek, right, is just like Moby Dick, because they’re both about whaling ships apart from Star Trek. It’s the filmic equivalent of 90s Beach Boys songs with lines like “Way back when when our master plan was having fun fun fun as America’s band/We came out rocking with Rhonda and Barbara Ann, singing of surf and sand” — a cheap way of getting the emotional resonance from a better work without earning it, although at least in the Beach Boys’ case it was their own work.
If it only took itself half as seriously as it does, it could have been twice as good, but as it is it shoots for profundity and misses, and hits “unintentionally camp”. There are good things about it — a lot of good things, in fact, including most of the performances, especially Ricardo Montalban’s, and the insect going into Chekov’s ear is still genuinely nightmarish — but it comes off like a sixth former trying to impress girls with his knowledge of literature.
The Search For Spock is better. This is a B-movie that knows it’s a B-movie, and plays things accordingly. It’s a very, very, linear plot, but between DeForest Kelley’s rightly praised performance as McCoy possessed by Spock, and Shatner’s much-mocked but gorgeously hammy Kirk (and his reading of “You Klingon bastard, you killed my son!” is actually an extraordinarily subtle acting choice) the central performances are solid, and, as all good 80s family SF films must, it has Christopher Lloyd in it. The pon farr scene is problematic in all sorts of ways, but that’s the only real blip on a solidly fun, if utterly unambitious, film that does the job it intends to unpretentiously. It’s not ambitious, but it hits its target.
The Voyage Home is very, very, good, and oddly it’s the bits by Nicholas Meyer (the scenes in twentieth-century Earth) that are best. Not only is it genuinely funny, but it’s the only one of the films to actually make decent use of the supporting cast. With any of the other films, when you ask people what their favourite bit is, it’s nearly always to do with Kirk, Spock, or the villain — “You Klingon bastard”, “I have been, and always shall be, your friend”, “Khaaaan!”, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
Here, because of the structure, with the Enterprise crew splitting into multiple small teams, everyone gets a brief chance to shine, and so people are as likely to mention Chekov looking for the “nuclear wessels”, Scotty talking to the computer, or McCoy raging about the primitive medical techniques, as they are to mention Spock and Kirk’s setpieces.
The Final Frontier is less good, but much less so than most people will claim. It has faults, of course — the special effects are nowhere near the level of the previous films, the crew are back to their “aye Captain” supporting roles, McCoy’s anti-Vulcan racism in the camping scene is clearly written by someone who’s not even trying (though Kelley is good enough he almost sells it nonetheless), the scene with Uhura dancing “seductively” is actively painful to watch, Shatner’s obviously watched Star Wars too many times, and getting David Warner to be in your film but basically be an extra is criminal.
But on the other hand, Sybok is, bar none, the best villain in the film series (yes, better than Khan, who’s just a ranting megalomaniac), McCoy’s scene with his father is lovely (and works very well with his concern for the sanctity of human life in the earlier camping scenes), and the way Kirk has to fight his whole crew — and loses — makes the film worthwhile. No, it’s not great, but it’s not at all bad either. There are other films in the series with much worse flaws.
The Undiscovered Country is one of them. Again, there’s a lot to like about this — and it’s definitely better than Khan — but it shares Khan‘s major flaw. Here all the dialogue could be replaced with three lines — “Have you noticed how our situation parallels that of America and Russia at the end of the 80s?” “Have you noticed that Moby Dick is a book about ships, which are a bit like starships, sort of, except that they only go on the water, obviously?” and “Have you noticed that the writer William Shakespeare existed, and that several of his plays mention wars, ageing, or death?” — and 90% of the film would be unchanged.
It ranks above Khan , though, in that there’s a real dignity to the film’s treatment of age, and David Warner is given a proper, decent, role to make up for the travesty that was his treatment in the previous film. It’s genuinely enjoyable, and also shows Kirk’s actions having long-term consequences. It’s a good film, though not a great one.
So are the odd-numbered films better than the even-numbered ones? No… but they are more fun. And they’re not as po-faced, pretentious, and overreaching as either the second or sixth film.
In truth, all six of the original cast films are… OK. I could stick any of them on, watch them, enjoy bits, cringe at other bits, and have a moderately entertaining hour and a half. But none is significantly better than any other, and in the case of Khan the emperor is really wearing no clothes — its successes are no better than those of any of the other films, while its flaws are, to me, the most annoying.
But still, I enjoyed them all. I might have to get the original series DVDs. Maybe Spock’s Brain is an unsung masterpiece…