Last week Star Trek Into Darkness opened in theaters and with it a new generation of film goers have been introduced to the Star Trek universe. For those that got their first taste with the new film or the 2009 reboot, I offer a brief history of Star Trek on the big screen. There were Star Trek movies before 2009 after all. WARNING: plot summaries contain spoilers.
1979: Star Trek the Motion Picture
Believe it or not, the first Star Trek movie came out over 30 years ago! The film managed to get Robert Wise of The Sound of Music fame to direct. In addition, the legendary Goldsmith scored the film and the original cast all appeared. The plot is a little murky. A mysterious entity attacks Klingon ships and then heads for Earth. The Enterprise is the closest ship to intercept it, so the original cast springs into action! To make a long story short, the explanation involves and old Earth space probe wanting to merge with a human. Or something like that. If you want a better explanation rent the director’s cut. It’s a big improvement over the the theatrical version and the special effects look a little better. Overall, it’s a good start to the film franchise and captures the spirit of the show rather well. I just wish the story had been a little more engaging.
1982: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Now we come to what might be my favorite of all the Star Trek films. The plot? Khan, a villain from the original series episode Space Seed,is out for revenge against Kirk. In that episode, Kirk and crew discovered a sleeper ship and revived Khan, the ship’s leader. It turns out he had been asleep for 200 years and was a product of the eugenics wars in the 1990s. Khan was essentially superhuman and in the episode took over the ship and tried to kill Kirk. In the aftermath, Khan and his crew were left on a deserted planet to fend for themselves. Years later, Pavel Checkov is assigned to the Genesis project with Kirk’s son and ends up back on said deserted planet. Checkov and another crewman of course run into Khan. Khan then hijacks their ship and goes out looking for Kirk and the Genesis device (a torpedo that can literally make planets). In the end this movie is a chess match between Kirk and Khan that in the end costs Spock his life. That leads directly into the next movie.
1984: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
When we left the crew of the Enterprise, Spock had been killed in the Mutara Nebula battle with Khan. His dead body was placed in a torpedo tube and shot onto the planet Genesis. In the aftermath, Dr. McCoy has apparently lost his mind. He starts talking like Spock and generally not behaving like himself. When the Enterprise crew returns to Earth the ship is to be decommissioned and the crew reassigned. Spock’s father Sarek shows up to meet with Kirk. Sarek assumes that Spock transferred his katra (living spirit) to Kirk before he died. In reality he mind melded and transferred it to Dr. McCoy. Kirk is told he must bring McCoy and Spock (who has been regenerated on Genesis) to Vulcan to bring him back to life. The Enterprise crew get’s a no go from Starfleet, so they end up stealing the Enterprise to go on their mission to bring back Spock. After a run in with Klingons, the destruction of the Enterprise, the murder of Kirk’s son on Genesis, and the destruction of Genesis, Spock is fully-restored on Vulcan. The movie is not quite as satisfying as Wrath of Khan, but it is a stronger entry in the series than it gets credit for.
1986: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
This movie is high on my list and is also a good movie for people new to Star Trek. Voyage Home picks up right where Search for Spock left off. Spock finishes retraining his mind on Vulcan and the crew of the Enterprise prepare to return to Earth to face the consequences of their actions in the last film. So they board the Klingon bird of prey they stole in the last film and head home. Along the way they get a message telling them to avoid Earth at all costs because the planet is in peril. A probe orbiting Earth is destroying it by, among other things, vaporizing Earth’s oceans. Spock reasons that the probe is trying to contact humpback whales. Unfortunately the species is extinct. The Enterprise crew decides to go back in time by slingshotting around the sun. In Earth of the past they can get some humpback whales and bring them to the present to communicate with the probe and hopefully save Earth. Having the Enterprise crew put in 1980s San Fransisco leads to some pretty great results! This film acknowledges that the franchise has a rich history and we’re along for a ride with characters we love. The script has a lot of great humor and the story is just plain fun. Of course the crew is successful. When they go to Starfleet to answer for what they did in the last movie, all charges are dropped except one. Kirk is demoted from Admiral to Captain for disobeying direct orders from a superior officer. But it gets the crew all back together so all is not lost. This one is a must-see!
1989: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Now we come to what many consider the worst film in the series. To be fair, there was no way to top Voyage Home. The story is that Spock’s half brother hijacks the Enterprise in an effort to go to the center of the galaxy and find God. Really. This one is not great, but I don’t think it’s quite as awful as many say it is. It has some good Kirk/Spock/McCoy moments and the opening sequence of Kirk rock climbing is kind of fun. Check it out if you’re really into Star Trek and want to see all the movies.
1991: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek was always at its best when it put real world issues in space. That’s one of the reasons why this is one of the best entries in the film franchise! The plot is basically the Cold War in Space. As the film opens, the Klingon moon Praxis has an environmental disaster. It’s the space version of Chernobyl. The Klingon Empire can no longer afford to be mostly militaristic. Kirk and crew are sent to escort the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon safely through Federation space to Earth to negotiate peace. Along the way the Chancellor is assassinated, Kirk and McCoy take the blame, end up serving time on a Klingon gulag, and, after their escape, reveal a plot against the peace process. In the end peace wins out and the original cast signs off for the last time. This is a wonderful film that sends the original actors out on a high note. I won’t lie, seeing their signatures over the end credits gets me every time. It’s a great allegorical story and a great Star Trek tale all around. See it!
1994: Star Trek Generations
This is the first film with the cast of Star Trek the Next Generation. In the opening we see Kirk and several other original characters christen the new Enterprise by going along as guests on its maiden voyage. In the process there is an accident and Kirk ends up in something called the nexus. It’s basically a time portal/ribbon. Captain Picard and his crew have to stop a madman from destroying people and planets in his quest to enter the time ribbon. Along the way Picard ends up in the nexus and meets Kirk. The two of them team up to stop the madman. In the end, Picard and his crew are successful, but Kirk is killed. This movie is simply dreadful! Aside from some good scenes between Picard and Kirk, it’s unwatchable. It tries to have the humor of Voyage Home, but the script isn’t nearly as smart. See this only to see Picard and Kirk finally meet.
1996: Star Trek: First Contact
After the disaster that was Generations, the Next Generation crew got their strongest entry in the series and one of the best of all of the Star Trek movies. In this film, the Borg are the villains. Captain Picard was once assimilated by the Borg, and as a result, Starfleet doesn’t want Picard to get involved when the Borg attack Earth. Picard and crew elect to violate orders and get involved anyway. They follow the Borg back in time where they have gone to prevent Earth from making first contact with the Vulcans. This film has so many great things in it, but my favorite is James Cromwell Zefram Cochran. He is the inventor of warp speed that makes first contact. Cromwell has a lot of fun with the part of the wacky inventor. There are also great performances from the rest of the cast, especially Patrick Stewart as Picard. Stewart, a classically-trained actor, brings real gravitas to the part of Picard. This is one of the absolute best films in the franchise!
1998: Star Trek: Insurrection
This is not a great film or an awful one. It’s in the middle. Captain Picard discovers a Federation plot to remove people from a planet where the air is kind of a fountain of youth. Basically, if you live there you can live forever. Picard decides to help the native people stage an open rebellion so they can stay on the planet. The story has some interesting political overtones, but ultimately it’s a mediocre film. Check it out if you’re desperate for a Star Trek fix.
2002: Star Trek: Nemesis
While many consider Star Trek V to be the worst in the series, this is the one that I think is the biggest embarrassment. Captain Picard and the Enterprise are sent to Romulus to supposedly negotiate a truce with the Romulans. It turns out they have been tricked and in reality the Romulans are planning to attack Earth. What follows is a bunch of mindless action that ends with the death of my favorite Next Generation character. This is less a Star Trek film than an action film with Star Trek characters thrown in it. The story has no imagination whatsoever, it’s a waste of all the talented Next Generation cast members’ time, and the ending is cheap. This is the worst of them all! Avoid this film like the plague!
2009: Star Trek
After the disaster that was Nemesis, my expectations were low for Star Trek. If this film bombed, I would never go to a Star Trek film again. That’s a hard thing for a Trekkie to say. Thankfully, it turned out to be the best film since First Contact! This film was a prequel to the first film in the franchise. It shows how the original Enterprise crew got together and formed their relationships. Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Simon Pegg as Scotty… all stellar! We really get a good look at how they became the characters we came to know and love. Then there’s the matter of Vulcan being destroyed by a vengeful Romulan named Nero. He blames Spock for the destruction of Romulus. Nero travels through time to destroy the Federation by creating black holes. The Enterprise crew do prevail and the characters are developed in such a strong way that there’s plenty of room for a sequel. This one is a must-see!
That bring us to this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness. I can’t really discuss it without spoilers. All I will say is it’s a film Trekkies and newbies can enjoy. If you get a chance see it in IMAX. This concludes the history of Star Trek on film.