Tuesday, October 22, 2002

STAR TREK Redux, part one.


:: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Following the amazing success that Star Trek: TOS became in syndication after the show's initial three-year network run, in the late 1970s the possibility of returning Star Trek to series television was explored, so much so that scripts were written (some of which would later be reworked for other Star Trek series) and casting was done. The entire original crew was to return, with the exception of Leonard Nimoy, who was then in his I Am Not Spock phase. The series, called Star Trek 2, was however abandoned in favor of a big-screen incarnation of the original series. The result was 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a film that overcame a lot of flaws to become a very successful launching of the film franchise.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is actually a better film than its reputation would indicate. It is the most directly science-fictional of all the films, and aside from the also-much-maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier it is the only film in the series that actually deals with Trek's main premise of voyaging into the unknown (although in this case the unknown is voyaging to them). The film occasionally engages the "sense of wonder" that the best SF evokes, and its plot is suitably complex and cinematic in scope. There is actually a great deal of nuance to the story (even if it is a reworking of the idea first explored in the TOS episode "The Changeling"), and thus Star Trek: The Motion Picture improves on repeat viewings.

The film's chief strengths are in its character arcs, and the best parts of the film are the early scenes, which establish the mystery of the V'Ger cloud, the threat it poses, and the hasty gathering of the Enterprise crew. James T. Kirk, who has now become an Admiral, pretty much steamrolls his way into command again, with occasionally embarrassing results as it turns out that he doesn't know as much about the new Enterprise as he should; his clashes with the displaced Captain Decker form the backbone of the main plot's eventual resolution. The other main character arc is Mr. Spock, who as the film begins is attempting to complete the Vulcan ritual that purges all remaining emotion from him. He is contacted by an alien intelligence, however -- the V'Ger cloud -- which, like him, is seeking answers to unanswerable questions. Thus, Spock is very cold throughout much of the film -- until the end, when he reaches a kind of epiphany. At one point, he weeps openly, a startling character moment for the steadfast Vulcan.

The film's other strengths are in its special effects (except for one terrible effect, the "shaft of light" probe that appears on the bridge of the Enterprise and kills Lt. Ilia) and in its music score, an epic creation by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith's music more than makes up for a number of effects sequences that go on too long....which leads to the film's biggest fault, its pacing.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the most unevenly-paced films I have ever seen. (Pacing problems would become something of a theme in the remainder of the Star Trek series; from my point of view, only two of the films don't suffer from pacing difficulties.) The opening is tense and dramatic, with palpable sense of menace and mystery; but then we almost forget about the mystery entirely as we watch the Starfleet Command scenes, with the five-minute Enterprise flyover which, despite all of his love affairs, is the closest we ever come to witnessing James T. Kirk having an orgasm. The tension is re-established somewhat when the V'Ger cloud destroys the Epsilon Nine space station, but then we're back into Enterprise test-flight stuff, in addition to the introduction of Lt. Ilia (Persis Khambatta, whose performance in the film improves later on when her character is actually replaced by a robot). There is a failed warp-drive incident, confrontations between Kirk and Decker, Kirk and Dr. McCoy, Kirk and Decker again, Spock's arrival, another warp-drive test -- and only then does the Enterprise reach the mysterious cloud. This is followed by some really interminable effects shots as Our Beloved Starship flies into the cloud, interspersed with reaction shots of the crew. There is some sense-of-wonder here, but the effect dissipates under the weight of continual effects stuff. The film's story does not so much ebb-and-flow as it starts-and-stops. It proceeds in fits, with "character" scenes taking place when the plot should be moving forward quickly (another fault which would rear its head in later Star Trek films). The film does not necessarily need to be shorter, but its structure should have been more evident. The result is an entertaining, but maddeningly meandering, film.

:: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Despite the somewhat frosty reception that Star Trek: The Motion Picture received, it did enough business to generate a sequel, although the reins were turned over to a new producer, Harve Bennett. Bennett knew nothing about Star Trek, so he did what a good Vulcan would do under the circumstances: he watched every single episode of Star Trek: TOS. One episode in particular intrigued him: "Space Seed", in which the Enterprise encounters a prison-ship in deep space that had been launched from Earth in 1996 with a group of genetically-engineered criminals on board, whose leader was a charismatic and megalomaniacal man named Khan (played by Ricardo Montalban). After averting a near take-over of the Enterprise by these people, Captain Kirk decides to deposit Khan and his followers on an unexplored planet, Ceti Alpha V, where they will be allowed to do as they will with the resources that they can coax from the world. After they are taken away, Spock says something like, "It would be fascinating to return here in twenty years and see what has sprouted from the seed planted today." That's literally what Star Trek II does. Unfortunately, it is revealed that Khan's exile took a disastrous turn when the planet next door exploded, causing his own planet to shift orbit, thus destroying the planet's ecosystem except for a rather nasty beastie with a taste for the human brain.

So, Star Trek II is a revenge story that begins when Khan manages to do what he failed to do twenty years before: take over a Federation starship, the Reliant. He then begins a hunting mission, with his prey being the Enterprise -- which is now an old ship being used only for training purposes. Also stirred into this mix is "Project Genesis", a scientific project whose aim is to create a torpedo which can convert a dead planet into a planet with a viable biosphere -- supposedly a device to be used to alleviate problems of population and food supply, but can also be used as a doomsday weapon. Thus begins a long cat-and-mouse game between Kirk and the Enterprise and Khan on the Reliant, ending in an extended sequence inside a nebula as the two ships seek each other out. I don't think I'm revealing anything shocking when I disclose that Mr. Spock ends up sacrificing his life so that the Enterprise can escape destruction.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is often ranked first in the series, in terms of quality. I don't rank it that high, but it is definitely a much stronger film than Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Its story is tighter, its characters more sharply drawn, the performances are all first-rate, and it features some crackling action sequences. (Who doesn't feel a thrill when the Enterprise finally gets the drop on Khan in the end, by taking advantage of his failure to think in terms of three dimensions in space?) It also features an excellent music score by James Horner that uses melancholy, sweeping melodies to suggest a kind of "seafaring" tone, which is in keeping with the film's nautical literary subtext (Khan keeps alluding to Moby Dick, for instance). The character arcs focus squarely on Kirk, who is suffering a mid-life crisis. We also meet the one woman -- aside from Edith Keeler -- whom Kirk has ever truly loved, Dr. Carol Marcus, who also happens to have Kirk's son working with her on the "Genesis Project". Star Trek II gets a great deal right: the introduction of the new character Saavik, for example; Kirstey Alley plays her with a wonderful sense that she does not know what her proper place really is. Half Vulcan and half Romulan, she had the most potential of any new character ever introduced in the Star Trek films. I also cannot say enough good things about Spock's death scene; from the moment when Spock considers his options and concludes there is really only one option and accordingly leaves the bridge to the conclusion of his funeral, everything is perfectly played -- and the final conversation between Kirk and Spock is a sublime moment, a wonderful synthesis of good writing and pitch-perfect acting by Shatner and Nimoy.

I do have a couple of difficulties with the film, though. Although its pacing is far better than that of its predecessor, it still suffers from a bit of uneven-ness -- especially in the scenes in the tunnels of the Regula planetoid, scenes which meander a bit (although they do feature the most wonderful Shatner moment in Star Trek history, when he nearly pops a vein from his forehead as he screams "KHAN! KHAN! KHAN!" into his communicator). The scene where Captain Terrell and Commander Chekov happen upon Khan and his followers really takes too long to play out, even if it does end in surprisingly horrific fashion.

My other problem with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that it really isn't that good a sequel. Not to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that is, but to TOS episode "Space Seed". The Khan in the episode is a man who believes he is destined to build an empire and to rule it; he even quotes Milton: "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." I find it highly unsatisfying that he should end up being an obsessed and homicidal man, bent on nothing more than killing James T. Kirk. I would have liked it better if Khan had actually been able to build a society from nothing, perhaps a society that would come eventually to threaten not Kirk by himself, not just the Enterprise, but the entire Federation. Better, maybe, if the story had been followed up not by the TOS crew, but by the Next Generation crew. I would rather have seen what the seed Kirk planted in "Space Seed" bore at maturity, rather than seeing what happened when it was stunted shortly after gestation. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is, by itself, a good film; but taken as a follow-up to one of TOS's best episodes, it is curiously lacking.

Stay tuned for Part Two....

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