In Simon Pegg’s brilliant sitcom Spaced his character Tim declares certain things he knows to be universally true including the acknowledged fact that “every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is shite.” And yet, Star Trek (2009) was technically the eleventh Star Trek film, and Into Darkness the twelfth. And like post-Phantom Menace trauma, it’s probably taken too long to admit this, but Into Darkness was complete and utter shite.
So, the odds versus evens of Star Trek films certainly no longer applies, but maybe never has. Instead, look at the subtitle, and you’ll know everything!
Because its ideal format is as an episodic television show with (possibly) unrelated stories featuring the same characters, Star Trek films are always experiencing an identity crisis from the get-go. They never seem quite comfortable as big-budget action films, and it's only getting worse as the series goes on. Why was there a scene at the end of Into Darkness in which Spock brutally punched someone in the face over and over again? Well, as a friend of mine pointed out, “it seemed like it was about that time.” The growing forumulic nature of tent-pole action movies is getting ridiculous, and it's pretty obvious that Star Trek Into Darkness is just following that prescriptive formula.
But we know all that, right? So what does this have to do with the Star Trek franchise, specifically? Well, ideally Star Trek shouldn’t be a movie. Even the best Star Trek films are NOTHING compared to the source material on television. True, The Wrath of Khan is better made than episodes of the TV show, but for this idealistic Trekkie (yeah, Trekkie. Trekker sounds dumb, y’all) it’s a TV show always. Meaning the translation into film is always tricky. But since Hollywood says we must have Star Trek films, what should they be about? The answer is: they should be about something specific.
And here’s how you can tell if a Star Trek movie is going to suck or not. If the subtitle of the film references something specific, then it’s going to be good. If it’s vague, or unclear, the chances of it sucking are way higher. Here we go:
The Motion Picture
Way too vague. And though I love the primary concept of this movie, I will admit it doesn’t work as film. It’s thoughtful, and similar to an episode of the TV show, which actually means it’s title is fairly accurate. It’s like Star Trek, only a “Motion Picture.” This subtitle is not lying to you.
The Wrath of Khan
Though Nicholas Meyer wanted to call this one “The Undiscovered Country,” I think the powers-that-be were right to change it. The Wrath of Khan is about the wrath of Khan. This movie features Khan, his wrath, the consequences of said wrath. This is why is rocks. It’s a story about one thing and that thing is in the title. (Don’t say “what it says on the tin.” Nobody remembers things that came in tins. It’s a silly statement.)
The Search for Spock
Again, this is what happens in the film. And despite being an odd-numbered Star Trek movie, The Search for Spock is awesome! The characters are literally searching for Spock, and (spoiler!) they find him. Great movie, accurate title.
The Voyage Home
Now, while I might have called this one Star Trek Saves the Whales, the subtitle is not at all inaccurate. The crew of the Enterprise needs to get back to Earth and face the music of all the stuff they’ve done. And though they take a long and-winding road to get home, this movie does chronicle that voyage.
The Final Frontier
Is not the human heart. Nor is it God. It’s space! Duh! That’s the deal. Again, I have a soft-spot for The Final Frontier, but its troubled thematic message is right there in its weird, overly generic title. What’s the final frontier? Is it climbing a mountain? Why is he climbing the mountain?
The Undiscovered Country
Well, here I might be wrong. The Undiscovered Country is a great movie, and a good Star Trek movie. The reference is from Hamlet and is all about death. And because I guess The Undiscovered Country is kind of about death, this sort of works. At the very least, Gorkon (David Warner) actually says “the undiscovered country” out loud, and Christopher Plummer quotes from Shakespeare a lot too. I suppose if I were to re-title this one, I’d call it Star Trek: Into Shakespeare, and it would be slightly more accurate.
Okay. Here we go. What does that mean? There’s going to be more than one “generation” featured in this movie? Well, that’s true. But, really, this title just felt like they took part of the title of the TV show away to make a snappier movie title. And the movie feels exactly the same way. Where’s that TV show I loved? Has it been turned into a lame movie? Yes.
This movie is about the Borg traveling back in time to stop First Contact. And while the Borg’s plan makes almost no sense, the title does. Consequently, it’s a pretty good movie, and still the best of the TNG films. The title also sounds cool, and when the event of First Contact is actually depicted in a movie called First Contact, it’s super satisfying. Since The Voyage Home, this is the first Star Trek film to have a subtitle actually telling you what the movie is about.
Insurrection and Nemesis
Yeah. Both these titles are super generic and indicate a total desperation on the part of the franchise to fool people into thinking these movies were “bad-ass,” a word here which means “generic.” And while I’ve defended Insurrection many, many times, it is a bad film and has a bad title. Let’s not even get started on Nemesis. If it had been called The Wrath of Shinzon, well, maybe.
Star Trek (2009)
This was a new Star Trek movie which was about old Star Trek. Its title wasn’t confusing at all. It was perfect. Good job, J.J. Abrams!
Star Trek Into Darkness
A meaningless title for a movie about nothing. If the movie gradually lowered the lights until Kirk, Spock, and Cumberbatch were whispering to each other in darkness, then I’d understand where the title came from. “Into Darkness” betrays just how generic and carefully made this film was. The title is weak and unclear, which is exactly what the film feels like. While io9 called it “Star Trek Into Dumbness” a better title could be “Star Trek Into Vagueness” because the themes and plot of this film are so muddled! Some fans recently voted this the worst Star Trek movie ever, and while I’m not sure that’s true, it does have the worst title.
What does everyone think? Does this new rubric of detecting the quality of Trek films work? Hailing frequencies open!
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and thinks the next Star Trek movie should just be called “Strange New World” and not have “Star Trek” in the title.