Thursday, October 24, 2002

STAR TREK Redux, part three.

(Introduction, Part One, Part Two)

:: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

With the release of the fourth Star Trek film, an odd pattern began to emerge: it seemed that the even-numbered films in the series were better than the odd-numbered ones. STIV:TVH was the most successful one yet, opting for a sense of fun and light-hearted adventure over the heavy-hearted dramatics of the previous two installments. Leonard Nimoy returned to direct this one, and he displayed a much more certain directorial hand than he had in The Search For Spock; the pacing was more even, the action sequences less rushed and much less fake-looking (with the exception of Chekov's attempted escape from the Feds). The Voyage Home was also the series's most successful attempt at telling a story that would appeal to Trekkers while also appealing to mainstream audiences who were not as well-versed on all the various bits of Trek lore that crop up.

The plot is fairly well-known: an alien space probe is dispatched from...somewhere, on a heading for Earth that is pretty disruptive of everything it comes across. It is broadcasting a very powerful signal and directing it at Earth's oceans, and it is actually threatening Earth with destruction. Meanwhile, the Enterprise crew, stuck on Vulcan with their captured Klingon Bird of Prey starship, decide it's time to go home and face the music for their actions in The Search For Spock. While on the way home, they learn of the alien probe, and in some of the wildest leaps of deductive logic ever shown in Star Trek, they learn that the probe is attempting to contact humpback whales...which are now extinct. This, of course, raises a few questions: How was this alien race communicating with the whales, anyway? Did whales have some means of interstellar communication? And why did they wait until two-hundred years after the whales' extinction to send a probe to find out what was going on? And, if the probe just wants to know where the whales are, wouldn't the probe realize that vaporizing the whales' habitat probably wasn't going to help matters? And I've always wondered just what the whales and probe talked about in the exchange at the end of the film. I picture the probe saying something like, "What do you expect me to do? You never call never write..." The plot is fairly absurd, but it's a lot easier to swallow than all that Katra-swapping from The Search For Spock -- even when Kirk decides that the best thing to do is go back in time, swipe a couple of whales, and bring them forward in time. (This yields one of the film's many wonderful humorous moments: when McCoy realizes what Kirk is thinking, and growls, "Now wait just a damn minute....")

A subplot of the film is Spock's struggle to put his mind back in order. In The Search For Spock, McCoy had said at one point: "It would seem that I've got all his marbles." As The Voyage Home opens, Spock's got all his marbles back -- but the bag has been shaken. All of the progress that Spock has made over the years of combining his Vulcan and human instincts has been undone, and he has to feel his way again. All of this provides an added dimension for the "fish out of water" stuff that happens when the crew goes back in time to 20th century San Francisco; not only are we watching the crew try to deal with a culture that is as alien to them as anything in their own time, but they have to deal with their friend who is not quite the way he used to be. There follows some inspired riffing on all of these themes, which would probably not work at all if not for the fact that for these actors, playing these characters by this point in their lives had become something like muscle memory. I suspect that Spock's attempts at profanity, for example, would have been excruciatingly painful in any other context than here.

Not all of the film's humor works; the jokes involving Chekov's pronunciation of "vessel" fall flat, for example, as does Chekov's scene where he is interrogated by some Federal agents. Sulu is short-changed, unfortunately; he doesn't really have a good scene of his own. (He was originally to have a scene where he meets a child in Chinatown who is his great-great-great-great-grandfather, but as I recall the scene was not able to be filmed for some reason.) The film also displays some continuity problems: why does the bridge of the Bird of Prey look completely different here than it had in The Search For Spock? Why is Saavik pretty much brushed away in an early scene, never to be seen again? (Fan speculation at the time was that Saavik should have been pregnant with Spock's child, after their bonding during his pon farr in The Search For Spock. Sadly, this was never mentioned or treated, or anything.) And what became of the tensions between the Klingon Empire and the Federation, which are hinted at in the film's opening scenes? In fact, whatever became of the whole Genesis project? The film probably didn't have room to address all of this, but I still find it odd that such strong plot threads pretty much disappear completely. (And for a total geek question, since when can a ship go to warp speed while in a planet's atmosphere?!) The film also boasts a music score that is hit-and-miss. Leonard Rosenman's main theme and "frolicking whale music" is quite good (although the main theme recycles a secondary subject from Rosenman's score to the 1978 animated film version of The Lord of the Rings), but a lot of the underscore during the central parts of the film is merely serviceable. It's also a shame that James Horner didn't return to musically complete this third installment in the trilogy formed by STII, STIII, and STIV.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home isn't my favorite film in the series, but on the whole, it may be the most satisfying of all the Star Trek films.

:: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

....and then we have the fifth Star Trek film.

This may be the most roundly-detested sequel ever made, at least until The Phantom Menace came along. People who hate STV:TFF have a lot of ammunition, too. This film has the worst special effects of the entire series, some truly awful character moments (Sulu and Chekov trying to convince Uhura that they've become lost in a snowstorm, Scotty banging his head and knocking himself unconscious), more uneven pacing, more continuity gaffes (Spock has a brother? Really?), and a number of other flaws. This is a very easy film to hate, and even if I don't consider it the mess that it's been generally agreed to be, I can't totally disagree with its detractors. I don't hate Star Trek V, mainly because it has one thing going for it: if it is a failure, it is at least an ambitious failure. A real attempt was made with this film to make a grandiose science-fiction adventure, to address some big themes, and to engage the ever-elusive "sense of wonder" that is so hard to come by in modern SF. I give STV:TFF a pass pretty much on that basis. Star Trek rarely reaches for the moon, and here, it did just that. Fine by me. "A" for effort is always admirable, even if one only gets a "C" for the results.

The film is not even a total disaster. There are some compelling moments to be found. The early "campfire" scenes are entertaining (except for the godawful effects during Kirk's mountain climb). Laurence Luckinbill's performance as Sybok is very well-done, skirting the edge of sanity and reason so that while we think this may be a madman, we are never totally certain of it. (Now, why they felt the need to make him Spock's brother is beyond me. It adds nothing to either the story or the subtext.) The scene where he tempts Kirk, Spock and McCoy -- by exposing "their pain" -- is one of the more effective scenes in all the Trek films, culminating in the wonderful Shatner moment: "I want my pain! I need my pain!" And the scenes preceding the meeting with "God" are the best in the film, up to and including the film's other wonderful Shatner moment: "Excuse me, but what would God need with a starship?" Of course, the air is let out a bit by the summation scene where Kirk reduces the entire quest for spiritual experience and reality to a facile kind of secular humanism; I would have preferred that the whole issue be left unresolved. And the film's best aspect is probably its music. Jerry Goldsmith returned to Trek, and he wrote a very fine score indeed, combining his Main Theme from ST:TMP with a more lyrical, Americana-style theme and some excellent "mystical" music for the film's concluding scenes.

William Shatner has taken just about all of the blame for The Final Frontier's problems over the years, but I think the problems are more script-related than direction-related. The film's acting is as good as in any Star Trek film, the individual scenes work well for the most part, and the action sequences are well-framed and shot. The problems with the film stem from writing, not from directing. I'm wondering if Shatner had a darker film in mind, but the producers required him to "graft on" more humor, since that's the element that made The Voyage Home so successful. Watching Star Trek V, I get the feeling of a good film lurking around the corner, just beyond the edge of the frame. It's too bad that film didn't get made, even if the resulting product isn't the horrible film everyone thinks it is.

Next: The Undiscovered Country, Generations.

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