These reviews will contain spoilers.
David’s Log, stardate 13 February 2019. I have docked onto the Enterprise four times now and am getting to know its crew well. I’ve come to appreciate their strange ways and customs, along with suddenly getting a whole load of Futurama reference I never understood before. Star Trek is a property like no other – that the name prevails between several incarnations, with few shared characters, is a testament to how rich a galaxy the makers have created. But, as the films have kept reminding us, all good things come to an end. And sooner or later each generation must give way to the next – even if it’s just another old, stale, male captain giving up his seat for another. This time we decided it’d be a good idea to finish the adventures of the original crew, climaxing in Generations where the torch gets passed to the Next Gen team. While I’m familiar with Patrick Stewart from other things, including Dune and American Dad, I’ve never knowingly seen Captain Jean-Luc Picard outside a series of sarcastic memes. Still, going in I understand he’s more by the books, and contemplative, than his predecessor, though every bit as heroic. Keen to see him for the first time, I saw The Guys for more whiskey (this time the Irish Bushmills – hence the irritating ‘e’), pizza and a triple bill of movies to make it so.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
How many ears does Captain Kirk have? Three! The left ear, the right ear and the final frontier. Hur, hur hur. This is the one everyone seems to hate. It’s not hard to see why either. We got Uhura flirting with Scottie and doing an almost aggressively unsexy fan-dance, garbage special effects (ILM were busy on Ghostbusters II), Spock sporting levitation boots and the derpy addition of a long unmentioned cult-leader brother Sybok. Then there’s his band of disciplines, who’ve got all the charm of the last people to plow your mum. And while the plot itself isn’t bad, with the Enterprise going to the uncharted centre of the galaxy to find God, it’s introduced so late as to undermine its importance. Its climax is also laughably underwhelming, despite Kirk’s very quotable question “what would God need with a starship?” (a line which logically should have gone to Spock). So don’t get me wrong, there’s a big case for this movie being among the ship’s very worst outings.
Yet the character work is spot on. Kirk, Spock and Bones are all at their most watchable, with their scenes in Yosemite providing the film’s strongest moments. There’s comedy mileage from the three old grouches sitting round the fire shooting the shit about how much they dislike each other. But also a real tenderness behind how much they love each other. As they reflected on their friendship, their fear of death, and how they’ve grown old together, I almost didn’t want to see another space adventure: just them waiting for Godot. Granted, their much-maligned singsong of “row, row, row your boat” is a bit naff. Though the thought that these are three fairly naff, now middle-aged, men taking time out from their intergalactic escapades to spend quality time together gives it a poignancy.
Similarly, the bit where Sybok teases out the sources of trauma in each of their lives is probably the most powerful scene in the series so far. And even though the step between identifying these and converting them to his side is completely unclear, it does an admirable job of cutting to the core of the characters. Especially when Kirk defies him, responding that he needs his pain – and if he loses it he loses himself. It’s a neat way of capturing at once his strength and vulnerability. Way better than anything The Motion Picture, and even Search For Spock, has to offer.
It’s worth mentioning a big part of why I’m lenient may be because I’m a horror reviewer, not a Trekkie! (see what I did there?) Hence I’m maybe more forgiving of The Final Frontier than long term fans, because I lack the exhaustive knowledge to see where it shits on its source material. As such, things like the Enterprise reaching the centre of the galaxy in 7 hours don’t really matter to me. Nor have I heard enough about Shatner’s ego to see him taking on “God” as stroking it. And whilst I’d like to say these things don’t matter, given the movie is stand alone, it’s simply not true for a film contributing to a franchise already decades old. Some of these are comparable to Freddy Krueger revealing he has kids (wait…) In that respect, despite my rating, I can see how they may have Shatnered the bed with this one.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
The one everyone seems to love. Opening on an ominous score, that could put even hardened fans on edge, it’s clear this will be a different, more exciting Star Trek experience than the last few. If the last 5 films have taught me anything, it’s that there’s no single blueprint to building adventures for the Enterprise’s, and the series is eclectic as they come. So far I’ve seen a long-winded space opera, a cerebral battle between arch enemies and something weird about whales. And now, to round off the original series, it’s a cold-war submarine film set in space. It’s very much a product of its time, with The Federation’s old enemies The Klingons being in deep space. One of their moons has gone the way of Chernobyl, and now the whole civilization faces being wiped out in a generation unless they can broker a truce. Given the graveness of the situation and its sensitivity, it’s maybe not the best idea to assign the somewhat jaded Kirk as the envoy. It’d be like sending Bones to Vulcan.
Not that it’s his fault when it all goes wrong – in classic thriller mode there’s a framed political assassination, a false imprisonment and a (bloody obvious) hunt for a mole. It starts off so darn intriguing – with the negotiation-dinner being expertly written, thriving with tension, and the court scene representing a franchise highpoint for dramatic stakes. There’s some downtime when, despite its ace build-up, the prison planet mid-section passes with oddly little suspense. The thought that they won’t get out is simply infeasible, and the speedy solution means it never feels like they’re up against it. Still, the third act is exceptional – with a tense race against the clock followed by a fitting farewell. Returning director Nicholas Meyer has far more budget to work with than on Wrath of Khan, but thankfully doesn’t forfeit any of the tension for bloated spectacle. In short, he’s givin’ it all he’s got. The jocular comedy elements are still there too, with enough in-jokes and sly winks to keep it fun (the best gag goes to Kirk seconds before fighting himself) and not enough to make it twee. Its success may be down to the decades-long wait to see if the Federation and the Klingons can resolve their differences giving it the greatest emotional gravity of any entry.
It’s also rewarding to see Mr. Sulu commanding his own ship, reminding us all of the crew have their own lives and ambitions – even if they’re sometimes demoted to doing response shots. Star Trek is often lauded for the diversity of its casting, if not the time they get allocated (something I expect will see them branded “problematic” in future). Thus it’s good to see The Undiscovered Country promote our favourite lieutenant commander. Furthermore, the way he immediately comes to the rescue illustrates the strength of their bond and the tremendous respect Kirk’s followers have for him. Not even the strongest of enemies can compete with the full squad. It isn’t all heroics though. The cold war commentary is surprisingly balanced, with more nuance than other franchises attempting to evoke it (Rocky IV, I’m thinking of you). Particularly because it marks the first time in these films where the Federation has been at fault. And whilst they stay the villains, Klingon leader Gorkon is a more convincing representative than Kirk, showing a willingness to compromise an accept change. But then he undergoes growth here, showing even an old dog can learn new tricks. The closing lines, evoking Peter Pan, hint at further escapades to come – they need never truly stop. It’s also a fitting message for the audience – that as long as there are curious people, wanting to discover new worlds, then Star Trek need never grow old. It’d also make the perfect ending point for this generation of space explorers. On that point…
Star Trek Generations (1994)
Some people asked what would happen if Batman met Superman, others wondered if Alien could best Predator. There’s probably even some who preyed the Boa could meet the Python. Then there’s the Trekkies, who wondered what would happen if Captains Kirk and Piccard got to share the screen. As with all of the pair-ups mentioned above, and pretty much any non-Marvel or Freddy and Jason crossover, the result is underwhelming.
It starts off ok, with a comically awkward cross-section of the now retired crew (Kirk, Scottie, and Chekov) stumbling into a rescue mission. Despite sometimes cringe-inducing instances of Scottie speaking lines clearly written for Spock and McCoy, it holds together alright as a send-off, building to Kirk going out in a blaze of glory. But afterward, the pacing’s all over the place, with what seems like his untimely death being immediately undercut by a joyous Picard and co. dressed as sailors. Luckily it’s called short. To be fair, the film made me warm to the crew, even if its not as accessible an entry point as The Motion Picture. This is despite the lumpy script. The mid-section is unstable, as Piccard and co try to tangle with a renegade scientist intent on blowing up a planet so as to reach an annoyingly vague extra-dimensional paradise called The Nexus (a theme that’d maybe resonate more nowadays). During this, Data derps around in a subplot about mastering his new emotions i.e. being obnoxious to almost everyone he shares the screen with. It’s a whole load of nothing, with a tired plod where there should be hyperspace momentum.
As seems to be the pattern among the odd-numbered ones, the quieter character based bits are the best done. In this one, the central theme is the cost of duty and how the honour and privilege of being a space captain are incompatible with fulfilling family life (that is unless one takes Worf to be their honorary brother). The scene where Picard sees what Christmas could be like is a somber reflection on the loneliness that comes with never staying grounded. It’s further touched upon when he and Kirk finally meet in a fantasy ranch. Though the poor narrative structure diminishes its power by not allowing long enough for them to build a relationship that goes beyond symbolism and rank. Worse, this sit-down happens after we’ve seen the final threat: a punch-up on a rock with an ill-defined, aging bad guy trying to get to an ill-defined Heaven. So despite the threat of a planet blowing up, it’s still too small scale – amounting to three old men clumsily fighting each other. Consequently, the epic finale is not dissimilar to kick out time at your local Spoons. Meaning Kirk’s all too late return (and his subsequent sacrifice) goes completely wasted.
It’s frustrating, given the original cast got such an excellent, and literal, sign off with The Undiscovered Country. As such, it’s a bit a shame to see some of them back for a film that ultimately fizzles out. Part of the appeal of an open ending is you get to create what happens next in your head – maybe some of us picture an aged Kirk lounging by the pool with babes and beer. Others may see him as an ambassador for peace, occasionally showing up to inspire the next cycle of galaxy savers. Or out with the boys for an annual trip to the woods to sing by the fire. The point is, few would want to see him dragged out of retirement to die fighting 2 vs. 1 against a guy who’s just a bit of an arsehole. Still, as my buddy Al points out, given all the episodes that end with the captain on the bridge, there’s a humorous irony to his story ending with a bridge on the captain. Disappointed viewers with a sense of humour may seek solace in that. It doesn’t make it worthwhile though.