For the fourth installment of the Star Trek Movie Marathon, I thought I’d do something different and liveblog the film. It’s been quite some time since I sat and watched the entire movie. I watched the bits with the Federation Council in 2004 when I was writing Articles of the Federation, a Star Trek novel that focused on the Federation presidency, but it’s probably been well over a decade since I last viewed the movie front-to-back.
I have to admit, I totally forgot that the film was dedicated to the crew of Challenger. Good for them. The film came out in 1986, which was not only the year we lost Challenger, but also the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek. (And, for that matter, the year they announced that there would be a spinoff called Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
The opening scenes are a smorgasbord of awesome voices. First we have Madge Sinclair as a Starfleet captain—the first female starship captain seen on Star Trek, as it happens. Then we have the Council scene where a Klingon ambassador verbally fences with Ambassador Sarek—played, respectively, by John Schuck and Mark Lenard. Honestly, I’d watch a movie of just the two of them arguing….
As menaces go, the probe fails on several levels. First of all “the probe” is a weenie name. Secondly, it looks like a log with a globe sticking out of it. Even past menaces that looked silly, like, say, the doomsday machine—which was a cornucopia with a fake fire inside it—at least had a cool name like, well, the doomsday machine.
“We don’t want to be shot down on the way to our own funeral.” That’s one of several bits of banter among Kirk’s crew that reminds you why this particular bunch was so successful for so long. The easy camraderie among the seven of them is tremendously appealing.
Then Saavik comes on board for the “you’re not coming with us because you have utterly failed as a character since we recast you with a more boring actor” scene. Seriously, there is no good reason for Saavik not to be going along with them except that Robin Curtis wasn’t as good as Kirstie Alley.
The Klingon Bird-of-Prey takes off from Vulcan just in time for the probe to start wiping out Earth. Kirk gets the message to stay away from Earth. The crew immediately does their thing—Spock theorizes, McCoy makes snotty remarks, Uhura plays with her console, Spock figures out that they’re trying to talk to humpback whales, which are extinct, and Kirk comes up with a crazy idea to travel in time. After all, if there are no humpback whales in the present, find some in the past! It makes perfect sense!
Interesting that when they go into time warp, the ship does, in fact, jump to the left. Also, the way they’re sitting, they have their hands on their hips and their knees are together.
Rocky Horror got it right!
Time travel apparently involves images that desperately want to be psychedelic but fail rather spectacularly.
Once the crew arrives in 1986—by a startling coincidence, the same year the film was made—the one-liners fly fast and furious.
- “Did you see that?” “No, and neither did you, so shut up.”
- “Everybody remember where we parked.”
- “Well, double-dumbass on you!”
- “What does it mean, ‘exact change’?”
- “We are looking for the nuclear wessels.”
- “Nobody pays attention to you unless you swear every other word.”
Ah, boom boxes. That takes me back….
As methods of conveying exposition and also educating the audience, you can do a lot worse than a tour given by a scientist, especially when the scientist is as engaging as Catherine Hicks’ Gillian Taylor when she talks about the systematic slaugher of Earth’s whale population. It falls around the middle of Star Trek’s subtlety scale (where the half-black, half-white peoples of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” are at the greatest extreme), and it leads nicely to the hilarious image of Spock swimming in a whale tank and mind-melding with Gracie.
Only slightly less hilarious is Scotty talking into the mouse of the boxy little Apple Macintosh right before he shows off the formula for transparent aluminum. Scotty as the bloviating professor from Edinburgh is pretty entertaining, too. (“Don’t bury yourself in the part.”)
A very nice, subtle touch is when Kirk finally does come clean to Gillian. (“No, I’m from Iowa, I only work in outer space”) He doesn’t even try to get into the probe and Earth being destroyed and the rest of it, but only tells her that their mission is to repopulate the humpback whale species. This has the dual benefit of not overcomplicating his story to Gillian, which is already straining credulity, but also is more likely to appeal to her sensibilities.
Because this is a movie, there needs to be a complication, so Chekov gets captured by the crew of the Enterprise (natch) while he and Uhura are stealing photons from the nuclear reactor in order to make the technobabble work right. While attempting to escape, he gets a head wound and is brought to a hospital, a complication that has the entertaining side effect of setting Leonard McCoy loose amidst 1980s health care. DeForest Kelley is always at his best when he’s ranting, and nothing makes Bones rant more than 20th-century medicine. (“Dialysis? What is this, the Dark Ages?” “Sounds like the goddamn Spanish Inquisition.” “My God, man, drilling holes in his head’s not the answer!”)
The sight of the Bird-of-Prey decloaking over the whaling ship is totally awesome. Also totally self-indulgent, but who cares? The only real problem is that the “suspenseful” lead up to it takes way too long—it’s the only real pacing misfire that director Nimoy makes.
Again, this is a movie, so Kirk must commit one last act of heroism. First he rescues Scotty and Gillian from the bowels of the crashed Bird-of-Prey, then he swims underwater (his weave flopping out of sequence with his movements) to free the whales.
George and Gracie talk to the probe, the probe heads back into deep space, Earth is restored, God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world.
Well, except for the court martial. The crew gets off the hook except for Kirk, who’s “demoted” to captain, with everyone assigned to the same ship and positions that they occupied three grade ranks ago. Right.
The final scene between Kirk and Gillian is charming—and it’s nice to see Kirk be the flabbergasted one—but the one between Sarek and Spock is a masterpiece. (“It is possible that I was in error.”) Damn, but I miss Mark Lenard.
My last memory of seeing this film was that it was horribly dated, but that was many years ago. I graduated high school the year this movie came out, and watching it in the 1990s reminded me a little too much of awkward adolescence and big hair. Watching it in 2011 with even more distance and (presumably) maturity, I found it just as enjoyable as I did as a teenager.
And double-dumbass on you, too!
Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of a buttload of Star Trek novels, including the aforementioned Articles of the Federation, in which he gave the president in Star Trek IV the name of Hiram Roth, and established that he died during the reconstruction of Earth following the film. Keith will also be providing the Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch right here at Tor.com as soon as this movie marathon ends. You have been duly warned. Follow Keith on Facebook and/or Twitter under the username KRADeC, or read his blog. Or, y’know, don’t, it’s really not that exciting.