Star Trek movies
Original release dates: December 1979 – July 2016
Producers: Gene Roddenberry, Harve Bennett, Leonard Nimoy, Rick Berman, J.J. Abrams
Captain’s log. With the five-year mission having been completed, the three main characters are initially cast out to the nine winds. Kirk is promoted to admiral, Spock and McCoy both resign, the former to study Kolinahr and become more emotionless and logical than he already was, the latter to go into civilian practice. Meanwhile, Enterprise has a new captain and a major facelift, and everyone else has been promoted.
A threat to Earth brings the band back together, mostly at Kirk’s insistence and with no regard to that new captain, and Spock shows up on his own, too. His encounter with V’ger allows him to embrace both halves of his heritage, and the gang saves the Earth, with the only casualties being new characters we don’t actually care about (and who we’ll see again on TNG, more or less…)
However, while everyone stays in Starfleet this time, they still move on, with Kirk staying an admiral, Spock now captain of the Enterprise, Chekov now first officer of the Reliant, and McCoy, Sulu, Scotty, and Uhura returning to the Enterprise for a training cruise—which turns ugly when Khan returns and wreaks havoc before he can be stopped, albeit at the cost of Spock’s life. The rest of the crew then move heaven and earth, risk their careers, and destroy the Enterprise in order to resurrect Spock thanks to the peculiar qualities of the Genesis Device and Vulcan telepathy, and the only reason the risk pays off is because they then travel back in time and save the Earth from a probe that wants to talk to a couple of whales, and the only place to find them is in the past, what with whales having gone extinct.
A new Enterprise is built, and they’re all assigned to it, though it doesn’t really work very well. That doesn’t stop them from being sent on a mission to save some hostages that results in a journey to the center of the galaxy to meet God, kinda. Then Sulu gets his own ship and watches a Klingon moon blow up—three months later, the Federation and Klingons open talks to ally after years of war that’s almost sabotaged by Cold Warriors on both sides, but luckily Spock is there to save the day by mind-melding with his protégé against her will in order to get information that actually does them no good whatsoever, since the information they need instead comes from Sulu, whom they can just ask. Nonetheless, they expose the saboteurs and the day is saved, and now we know why Worf got to serve in Starfleet in the 24th century.
Kirk goes out in a blaze of glory saving lives on the Enterprise-B, but he didn’t really die, he went into the Nexus, from which he was rescued by Picard eight decades later in order to help save a planet, which he does, but not before a bridge falls on him and kills him.
Then Spock tries and fails to stop a supernova from blowing up Romulus, and a Romulan miner named Nero chases him into a singularity to enact revenge—instead, both ships wind up in the past. Nero kills Kirk’s Dad on the day Kirk is born, and all of history is changed so that Kirk is now a punk. Nonetheless, he is goaded into joining Starfleet by Pike after losing a bar fight and is made first officer of the Enterprise despite not having finished his term at the Academy. He stops Nero, with the help of two Spocks, and gets to keep the Enterprise for no compellingly good reason.
Admiral Marcus works with Section 31 to militarize Starfleet and also finds Khan and blackmails him into helping. This backfires, and Khan kills Pike, Marcus, and Kirk, though the latter gets resurrected by Khan’s magic blood. Then Kirk goes on a five-year mission that is cut short by a former MACO turned life-sucking vampire named Krall who destroys the Enterprise. But it’s okay, they get a new one after they take care of Krall.
Lowest-rated movie: The Final Frontier with a 1. Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain, why is he climbing a mountain?
Most comments (as of this writing): The Wrath of Khan with 216, which, by the way, was the first time a Trek rewatch entry has broken 200 comments. Honorable mention to the 2009 film, which also cracked the two-century mark with 203.
Fewest comments (as of this writing): At present, Beyond is the only one of the ten movies to not go three figures in comments, though at 93, it’s likely to lose that distinction within the next week.
Favorite Can’t we just reverse the polarity? From The Search for Spock: Apparently, David used protomatter in the Genesis matrix, which makes it unstable. According to Saavik, no reputable scientist would ever use it. How he blew this past his mother and all the other scientists, not to mention the people who approved their Federation funding after Marcus made her presentation, is left as an exercise for the viewer.
Favorite Fascinating. From The Voyage Home: At the end of the movie, Sarek mentions that he disapproved of Spock’s entry into Starfleet, and now—decades later—he admits that he might have been mistaken in that disapproval. Real fucking generous there, Dad.
Favorite I’m a doctor not an escalator. From The Undiscovered Country: McCoy tries heroically to save Gorkon even though he professes right there as he’s doing it that he doesn’t know much about Klingon anatomy. So how much good was he supposed to be doing, exactly? He also helps Spock modify the torpedo, because why use an engineer to do technical work when you can have one of your main characters violate his Hippocratic Oath?
Favorite Ahead warp one, aye. From Beyond: Sulu is able to make the Franklin—despite never having been built for takeoff in a gravity well—take off. Because he’s just that awesome.
After all the pre-movie fuss about it, the scene that shows him with his husband and daughter is all of ten seconds, and just shows that he’s visiting family when he gets to Yorktown, one of several ways the crew takes shore leave. It’s actually a touching moment, one that adds texture to the scene, and anyone who says it’s gratuitous is showing their bigotry, because if he met up with and kissed a woman, no one would even consider calling it that. It’s also called back to later by the look of horror on John Cho’s face when they realize that Krall is targeting Yorktown.
(Also, the argument that the characters’ sexuality shouldn’t be shoved in our faces in a Star Trek story—which I’ve seen multiple times around the internet—is nonsense. Various characters’ heterosexuality is shoved in our faces repeatedly throughout the original series. Just looking at the first few episodes: “The Cage” is about forcing Pike to mate with Vina; “The Man Trap” is about McCoy’s old girlfriend, and the salt vampire appears as various people’s sexual desires; “Mudd’s Women” gives us three women who drive men mad with sexual desire; “Charlie X” gives us Charlie’s crush on Rand; and on and on and on. If you don’t want to see characters’ sexuality, you shouldn’t be watching Star Trek.)
Favorite Hailing frequencies open. From The Final Frontier: Uhura fares far worse, however. Not only is she brainwashed, prior to that she is conscripted to strip naked and do a fan dance and song to distract Sybok’s lookouts so they can steal their horses. Because the one thing that’s been missing from Star Trek all these years is a Russ Meyer moment.
Favorite I cannot change the laws of physics! From The Wrath of Khan: Scotty has to keep the Enterprise together with spit and bailing wire and with a staff of mostly cadets, one of whom is his nephew who dies. All things considered, he holds it together pretty well, though it’s never explained why he took the near-death Preston all the way up to the bridge instead of right to sickbay.
Favorite It’s a Russian invention. From The Motion Picture: Chekov is now chief of security and tactical officer. He also gets to scream when his console exploding burns his arm and also has the funniest non-McCoy line of the movie. When Decker tells him not to interfere with the probe (right before it kills Ilia), Chekov stares nervously at it and cries, “Absolutely, I will not interfere!”
Favorite Go put on a red shirt. From The Wrath of Khan: The Marcuses barely seem to even notice that their fellow scientists are killed—one of them is killed right in front of them, and he’s never even mentioned again. Similarly, Terrell is utterly forgotten the moment he phasers himself, which is odd behavior particularly from Chekov, whom you’d think would have some feelings for his captain being dead.
Favorite No sex, please, we’re Starfleet: From The Motion Picture: Decker and Ilia have a past from his time serving on Delta IV. When the probe arrives on board looking like Ilia, she’s in the shower and nude, so Kirk puts, not a uniform or simple civilian clothes, but a revealing sexy bathrobe on her. Sure.
Deltans have a very strong sex drive, and she has a goofy-inducing effect on the male members of the crew similar to that of “Mudd’s Women,” though this is natural rather than artificial. (Notably, this aspect of Ilia’s character is heavily downplayed in the director’s cut.)
Favorite Channel open. From The Voyage Home:
“Cloaking device now available on all flight modes.”
“I’m impressed. That’s a lot of work for a short voyage.”
“We are in an enemy vessel, sir. I did not wish to be shot down on the way to our own funeral.”
–Chekov being efficient, Kirk being impressed, and Chekov showing a knack for fatalism and humor all at the same time.
Favorite Welcome aboard. The Search for Spock had my favorite collection of guest stars, so I’m gonna go with that one.
Favorite Trivial matters: Probably for The Wrath of Khan, given the reach that episode had both to the past and the future.
To boldly go. “I have been, and always will be, your friend.” It’s weird, the movies are both the best thing and the worst thing to happen to Star Trek.
The best part is obvious: after ten years where the only new screen Trek was a (sadly easily dismissed) Saturday-morning cartoon, the movies provided new Trek for an audience that was starved for it, as the franchise really found its audience belatedly in syndicated reruns throughout the 1970s. While the novels and comic books produced during the period between 1969 and 1979 were okay, the tie-in material didn’t really come into its own until after the movie series started. And it was the success of the first three movies that led to Paramount giving the go-ahead to The Next Generation, which got Trek back where it belonged: on television.
And when TV Trek petered out in the early 2000s, it was once again bringing it back as movies that led to there being a new TV series, which will debut in September.
But the worst thing is that the movies are, generally, lousy Star Trek. At best, they’re okay stories. The three strongest—The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and Beyond—have good themes, at least, and mostly deal with them decently enough. Khan has a nice recurring motif of aging and indiscretions of the past coming back to haunt, plus the tragedy of Spock’s sacrifice. Voyage is a fun little time-travel romp. Beyond deals with the theme of the soldier being unable to adjust to peace, and the crew coming back from a devastating defeat.
Several people have accused the Bad Robot films of being triumphs of spectacle over substance, which ignores the fact that that’s true of all the others, too. The Motion Picture is one big “hey lookit all the money we got to spend on effects now!!!!!!” plastered over a derivative story, abysmal pacing, and some of the worst acting in the five-decade history of the franchise. The Wrath of Khan reduces the complex villain of “Space Seed” to a revenge-obsessed loon and whose theme of Kirk facing death for the first time flies in the face of the dozens and dozens of times he’d already faced death that we’ve seen on screen. The Search for Spock has a lot of great individual bits, but they are far greater than the sum of their parts, which is a nonsensical bit of claptrap that puts all of Wrath‘s toothpaste back in the tube, which is about as messy as that sounds. The Voyage Home is great fun, but ultimately disposable, and resets the status quo at the end in a manner that is tiresome. Both The Final Frontier and The Undiscovered Country warp the main characters to a degree that goes from absurd to pathetic to repugnant, all in the service of plots with holes big enough to drive the Enterprise through. Generations is a vaguely promising first draft rushed into production, with the seams showing badly. The 2009 film reboots the franchise with strong acting and good pacing, undone by spectacularly horrible scripting. Into Darkness doubles down by improving the acting but making the script even worse. And Beyond is the first movie to feel like Star Trek in a very long time, but still comes across as inconsequential for all that.
It’s because of the movies that people think of Kirk as a rules-breaking maverick. It’s because of the movies that Khan is considered a major villain, even though the original series had more compelling antagonists. Hell, it’s because of the movies that the notion of there being a big-ass villain took root, as the original series wasn’t at its best when it was about fighting bad guys, it was at its best when it was about compassion and humanity bettering itself. The best Trek episodes have villains that turn out not to be such, or at least are more complex: “Arena,” “The Devil in the Dark,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” “Errand of Mercy,” “Balance of Terror,” “By Any Other Name,” “Is There In Truth No Beauty?” etc.
The movies are a part of the franchise, and not an unimportant one, but they’re the least of the franchise as well. Since 1977, science fiction movies have defaulted to the big-ass action formula, and that’s one that doesn’t reward intimate character pieces. It’s certainly possible to do a big-ass action movie that also can develop character, but it’s not easy, and there’s rarely room for it. Nothing done under the Star Trek banner for theatrical release has come close to the power of “The City on the Edge of Forever” (that episode used time travel to tell a tragic love story; The Voyage Home used time travel to save on sets and tell jokes) or “Amok Time” or “The Enemy Within” or “Tomorrow is Yesterday” or “Day of the Dove” or “The Tholian Web” or “The Doomsday Machine.” Hell, the TV show did humor better, as neither The Voyage Home nor The Final Frontier can hold a candle to “The Trouble with Tribbles” or “I, Mudd” or “A Piece of the Action.”
And yet, so many of the touchstones people have for Trek are the movies. Which is really too bad.
This brings us to the end of the Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch, and also brings me to the end of my Star Trek rewatching generally. I’ve been reviewing Trek TV and movies for six years now, and it’s been an absolute joy. It helps that you all have continued the conversation in the comments, and I’ve truly been blessed to have some thoughtful, fascinating (ahem), and best of all polite discourse on this thing that we all love so much.
It’s not the end of my Trek coverage here on Tor.com, as I will be reviewing Star Trek Discovery each week after its debut, and I’ll be writing other stuff as well (keep an eye out for pieces on Marvel’s The Defenders later this month), as well as a new feature in this space. Keep an eye out for the announcement of the latter later today.
Thank you all for reading, and remember—the human adventure is just beginning…
Warp factor rating for the movies: 3