Saturday, October 26, 2002

STAR TREK Redux, part four.

(Introduction, Part One, Part Two, Part Three.)

:: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

After the debacle (or near debacle) of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, there was no Star Trek film for three years. During that time, The Next Generation established itself on television as the true Trek heir-apparent, and it was realized that in any case the original crew was really too old to continue soldiering on. Concepts were floated for a sixth film, including a flashback story to Kirk and crew's days at Starfleet Academy, in which the roles would have been recast with younger actors. Instead, though, one last film was made with the original crew intact, with that film also tying in loosely with a two-part TNG episode involving Spock ("Unification"). The film was intended to be a passing-of-the-torch to the new Star Trek crew and franchise. (I'm not sure on this point, but I think that Deep Space Nine was also under development at this time.)

The plot of The Undiscovered Country is a political allegory, at once explaining how it is that the Federation and the Klingon Empire are no longer mortal enemies by the time of The Next Generation and drawing clear inspiration from the end of the Cold War, which had come just two years prior to STVI's release. The film opens with some kind of large-scale disaster taking place in Klingon space -- the explosion of a moon called Praxis, which we are told is "their key energy-production facility". (The special effect that accompanies the destruction of Praxis is very impressive, and has since been called a "Praxis wave" when it has turned up in other films -- notably the Star Wars Special Editions.) The loss of Praxis reveals that the Klingons have depleted their ozone, and thus the Klingon Empire is about to go into serious decline, with the fall projected in fifty years. Thus the stage is set for the Klingon Chancellor, a man named Gorkon, to become the Klingon version of Mikhail Gorbachev: he opens a dialog with the Federation, wanting peace talks so that his Empire can stop spending money on its military and instead spend it on saving lives. And guess which ship, under which Captain, is sent to rendezvous with the Klingon Chancellor and escort him to the peace table? Yep -- Enterprise and Captain Kirk, who are apparently being pressed into one last mission before retirement.

All goes well -- a tense dinner scene in which barbs are traded and tempers flare notwithstanding -- until Gorkon is assassinated by a mysterious pair of killers. Kirk and Dr. McCoy are taken into custody for the murder, put on trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment on an icy prison-planet. This leaves Spock in command of the Enterprise, and he uses his time to logically figure out the details of the assassination and the uncovering of the conspiracy against the peace talks -- a conspiracy that is revealed to be very high up, and not just confined to the Federation, either. All this leads to a race-against-time to stop the next assassination, along with a thrilling space-battle against a Bird of Prey starship that can fire torpedoes while its cloaking device is engaged. (I've always wondered just why it is that ships can't fire while cloaked, but it's pretty much an article of faith at this point.)

Star Trek VI is my favorite of the entire series. I love its blend of large-scale storytelling with the personal interactions of the crew; the film ignores neither the advancing age of the cast nor the events of the previous films. The film's humor is more based in wit than in slapstick, a welcome change from STV:TFF. (The single biggest laugh I have ever heard in a theater during a Star Trek film is in this installment: just after the shapeshifting female alien plants a long, wet kiss on Captain Kirk, McCoy rolls his eyes and grumbles, "What is it with you?" The two lines after that were completely inaudible.) The film is imbued with the sense that this really, truly is the last time we're going to see these characters in action. In keeping with that, each character is given a moment to shine. George Takei as Sulu makes out especially well in this regard; he has finally earned his stripes as a commanding officer and spends the film not as helmsman of the Enterprise but as the Captain of the Excelsior. He even gets his own little "Shatner moment" when he barks to a crewman who tells him that the ship will fly apart if they go any faster: "Fly her apart, then!" There is also a very nice scene between Kirk and Spock, when the two discuss whether or not they have become obsolete. The film's final scene, a last shot of the TOS crew on the bridge of the Enterprise while Kirk delivers his last Captain's Log, strike the perfect note -- and the cast members' signatures appearing over the starfield at the very end is one of the classiest touches to a film I have ever seen.

Star Trek VI is not without its problems, most of which pertaining (of course) to the story's logic. I've never been entirely clear on why the explosion of one Klingon moon means the eventual fall of the entire Klingon empire, and certain other moments in the story are entirely too convenient -- Scotty's discovery of the exact air vent where the stolen uniforms were stashed and the subsequent discovery of the assassins' bodies, for example. The "revelation" of Lt. Valeris's involvement comes as no surprise whatsoever. These are fairly minor quibbles, though. Pacing is also a bugaboo, but thankfully a small one -- the film does drag in a couple of spots, but generally the film moves along at a fine clip.

As always, the biggest strength here is the acting -- particularly notable is Christopher Plummer as Chang, the main Klingon villain who has a penchant for quoting Shakespeare. ("I'd give real money if he'd shut up," McCoy growls at one point.) Kurtwood Smith is excellent as the Federation President, although I must admit that after years of watching Smith on That 70s Show I expect his character in The Undiscovered Country to bark out the phrase "dumb ass". In another nod to TNG, Michael Dorn turns up playing a Klingon -- the defense attorney for Kirk and McCoy. The music score, by Cliff Eidelman, is also superb -- rich and brooding, and with a very nice "starfaring" theme that captures the essence of the Enterprise in flight.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is, for me, the best of all the Trek films, beating out The Wrath of Khan.

:: Star Trek Generations.

Fans hoping that a change from the TOS crew to the TNG crew would also indicate an end to the weird tradition of the "even" Star Trek movies versus the "odd" ones. Sadly, that was not to be. Generations makes so many mistakes that I can't think of where to start.

The problem here lies, I think, in a fundamental misconception on the part of the film-makers. The film was made by pretty much the same people who produced The Next Generation on TV, and given that show's general competence from a storytelling standpoint, I have to wonder how the film could err in its storytelling to such a degree. My theory is that the producers got "blinded by the lights": they were making a movie, by Gosh, so obviously they had to make the thing Huge! Epic! Gigantic! They had to pack it with as much pathos as they possibly could. So, in less than two hours, we get: a midlife crisis for Captain Picard, a plot by some Klingons to destroy the Enterprise, a villain bent on getting into "the Nexus", an emotion-chip for Data, the Enterprise crash-landing on a planet, some holodeck stuff set on an 18th-century sailing ship, the first adventure of the Enterprise-B, and (last but not least) the death of Captain James T. Kirk. I think the failure of the "everything but the kitchen sink" approach can be best illustrated thusly: The Wrath of Khan is four minutes shorter than Generations, and yet its story feels bigger. Anyone who has ever cooked anything knows that the more ingredients one uses, the more careful one must be to make sure all those ingredients work together -- otherwise, the resulting dish is a melange with no distinct flavor or synthesis of flavors. That is precisely what happens here.

Just to take one example, the business with Data's emotion chip adds nothing whatsoever to the story other than running-time (and, like the "Spock's brother" business in The Final Frontier, an excuse for Data not to fight back in an instance when he should). True, there are a couple of humorous moments that arise from Data's new emotions -- I like the scene when he tries drinks in Ten Forward and realizes what it's like to hate a flavor, and the moment when Data realizes that he genuinely enjoys scanning for life-forms is hilarious. But this business also makes for an interminable scene between Data and Picard in "stellar cartography" -- a neat looking set that is wasted on a scene that could as well have taken place in Picard's ready-room. Data's emotions play no role in the ultimate outcome of the film's story, so the whole thing is mere filler.

Other elements of the Generations story are annoying, from the standpoint of a Star Trek fan. The "big moment" here is, of course, Kirk's death; and I suppose it's fitting that he would go out in one last fistfight with a bad guy; but really, why?! Kirk's demise as depicted here seems so arbitrary, so...insignificant. Yes, he stops the destruction of a planet filled with millions, but we never see those millions, and we don't really get any sense that Kirk is that invested in what's going on. The feeling is "OK, I'll do you a favor this time, Picard, but please don't bother me again." And to be honest, I'm not sure Kirk's death should ever have been shown. James T. Kirk seems to me the kind of guy to take a shuttlecraft through that wormhole in DS9, never to be seen again...maybe he has adventures galore, maybe he dies of old age on some unknown world, maybe he leaves the galaxy and becomes Emperor in Andromeda -- I don't know. But for him to die when some ricketty contraption on some backwater planet buckles and collapses with him on it...and when he doesn't even get to deliver the blow that defeats the bad guy? Ugh. I will say this: the actual moment of Kirk's death is well-done. He gets this "awestruck" look and whispers, "Oh my...." and then he's gone, without so much as a slumping of the head or a closing of the eyes. He's going where "no one has gone before", in the truest sense. But the whole surrounding circumstance of Kirk's death are lousy. And for that matter, why we needed to see Kirk again in the first place -- or any of the TOS crew -- is beyond me. We've already said goodbye to them, in The Undiscovered Country; the torch is passed -- and yet, we apparently need one last time. Well, fine -- but I want to know what became of Chekov and Uhura.

Generations fails on science-fictional grounds, as well. We're in the Era of Technobabble now, with a miracle substance called "trilithium" that can "halt all the nuclear reactions within a star", causing it to nova. That's hard enough to swallow, but the device that accomplishes this goal is about the size of a Patriot missile -- and, in the single worst SF moment in Star Trek history (which includes "Spock's Brain" and that TNG episode where the crew "de-evolves) -- the missile is launched from the planet surface, and we watch the missile soar up and into the sun, leaving a handy contrail in its wake. What a staggeringly awful moment! Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but it doesn't mean that one should have to check one's brain at the door.

So Generations is a colossal disappointment, even moreso than The Final Frontier, because at least that film showed some idea of what an epic-scale story involves, even if it was not successful in pulling it off. Generations confuses a "busy" story with an "epic" story. That would be bad enough, if not for the fact that the Star Trek producers not only had demonstrated knowledge of what an epic story is, they had actually written one and shot it when they made Generations. It was the final episode of TNG, "All Good Things", which told a better story with more "sense of wonder" than Generations is able to muster even in its promising opening scenes. Had they made "All Good Things" into the first TNG movie and left Generations alone as an unexplored plot idea, things would have been better for all concerned.

To be concluded: First Contact and Insurrection.

No comments: