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Saturday, May 16

No way to kick-start a franchise - 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan'

This one's for Vance...

Popping Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer) into the PS3 the other day was an enjoyable reminder of what a truly terrific film this is. The phenomenon that is Star Trek has an interesting history - the original television series ran for three seasons before being cancelled due to poor ratings, despite a hardcore fanbase. It promptly rose from the dead as a huge hit in syndicated re-runs around the globe, leading to the production of an animated television series (with most of the cast from the live action show returning) which ran for a couple of seasons in the early 70s. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was involved in an attempt to launch a second television series in the late 70s. The project - called Star Trek: Phase II - was abandoned after the huge success of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), with Paramount (the studio who own the property) deciding the time was right for a big screen version.

Many elements that were devised for the television project ended up being adapted for the first feature film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, Robert Wise). At the time the most expensive motion picture ever produced, the film - which is ponderous, humourless, and dull - became one of the notable box office disasters of its time. Despite the poor reception of the film, Paramount were willing to give the franchise another shot. The makers of The Wrath of Khan were fully aware that they were being given one final spin of the wheel, and were determined to go out with a bang.

The bang was big enough to re-ignite the franchise, which is actually kind of unfortunate: Khan is a great space opera/revenge story, but also a wistful meditation on growing old and facing mortality. Which didn't really leave the story much place to go over further films: the age of the main cast, having already been used for maximum emotional impact, is reduced to increasingly cheap gags in the following sequels.

Khan also boldly left the world of Star Trek in disarray - Kirk (William Shatner) is re-united with an old flame, Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), as well as meeting for the first time her son by him, David (Merritt Butrick), now a grown man who despises everything Kirk stands for. Not to mention having his closest friend Spock (Leonard Nimoy) sacrificing himself to save the USS Enterprise and her crew.

The following two films (which, with Khan, comprise a loose trilogy) are stuck attempting to create drama whilst restoring the status quo. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, Leonard Nimoy) takes everything back, with Spock resurrected via plot devices which had been planted in Khan (you know, just in case), Carol Marcus inexplicably vanishing between films, and David killed off by the Klingons - his death would be promptly forgotten until it resurfaces in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991, Nicholas Meyer) to motivate Kirk's deeply felt hatred of the Klingons, here manifesting as resistance to the failing Klingon Empire's attempts to make peace with the Federation.

Search for Spock does destroy the starship Enterprise - surely the most fetishised spaceship in all science fiction cinema. The ship is regularly showcased in indulgent effects sequences, the camera lovingly gliding across its lines and curves as it leaves spacedock. Composers Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner even create passable orchestral renditions of the sound of the ship zooming off at warp speed. The destruction of the ship in Search for Spock promisingly turns her crew into a group of vagabonds cruising the galaxy in a stolen Klingon warship, but again, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, Leonard Nimoy) demonstrates that no-one's playing for keeps.

The final scene of The Voyage Home has the crew (with Kirk demoted from Admiral to Captain, another step towards ensuring the status quo) presented with a brand new, identical Enterprise, this one with the letter A appended to the registration number. Similarly, potential romantic interest Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks) - who travels with Kirk and co to the 23rd century from her native 1986 at the end of The Voyage Home - did not appear in any further films. Which is probably a good thing - my recent re-viewing of The Voyage Home revealed her to be a remarkably unhinged character, valuing her captive humpback whales over human relationships, offering Kirk and Spock a ride when all the evidence she's seen of them so far points to them being a pair of possibly dangerous lunatics, and finally abandoning her entire life to travel three centuries into the future at the drop of a hat.

The Voyage Home was the one true box-office smash out of the films featuring the original cast, but it seemed nothing could make Paramount executives forget the amount of money they had lost on the first film, as they kept applying pressure to keep costs on the films down - Khan reuses several visual effects sequences from the first film, and The Voyage Home keeps the Klingon warship cloaked (and hence cheaply invisible) for most of the running time.

The confident teaser poster for The Final Frontier had
people talking. Of course, no-one had yet seen the film.

Or perhaps their tight fist on the budget of the 1989 Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was down to a lack of faith in debutante film director William Shatner. The completed film - an unmitigated disaster - is not helped by substandard visual effects work, the result of an unwise decision to look at more cost effective alternatives than Industrial Light & Magic, who had provided visual effects for the previous three films. In terms of narrative, The Final Frontier is the most negligible of the films - the series had jumped through hoops to essentially hit a huge RESET button on the story, and Shatner's film never even vaguely threatens to end in any manner other than the whole crew back together and sailing off in the Enterprise. More than any of the other films, it resembles a poor episode of the original show - it remains the only film which never even has aspirations to do anything grander for the big screen. Which in a strange way is kind of charming: the film may be shite, but it's affectionately made shite. With one blow the franchise had lost all the goodwill generated by The Voyage Home, which remained the only one of the films to appeal to an audience broader than the Star Trek fanbase.

By this time, the franchise had returned more successfully to television in the form of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), which would be followed by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) and finally (so far) Enterprise (2001-2005). The cinematic franchise, however, resembled a pull start motor that just wouldn't ignite - Khan was a reboot of sorts, throwing out most new elements that had been introduced in The Motion Picture, and the sixth film, The Undiscovered Country, was devised to give the cast a decent send-off and wash out the after-taste of The Final Frontier.

Khan director Nicholas Meyer returned for this film. Again, the studio applied downward pressure on the budget, forcing set pieces to be scaled back and mandating the use of existing sets from the then in production television shows. The character of Saavik - a Vulcan cadet introduced in Khan and played in that film by Kirstie Alley (Robin Curtis played the role in the following two films when Paramount was unwilling to meet Alley's asking price, and the character was left behind on Vulcan at the beginning of The Voyage Home) - was originally included in the script in an attempt to lure Alley back to the role. Alley was unwilling to return to the role, and the character was re-written as Valeris (Kim Cattrall), which made it pretty obvious that she was a member of a conspiracy to prevent the Federation and the Klingons making peace - anyone who appears on the bridge of the Enterprise and is not part of the main cast ultimately exists to die, or be a bad guy, or both. Had the character been Saavik, her betrayal would have perhaps carried more emotional weight - in any case, Nimoy and Cattrall make the most of the situation. Cattrall - who was a livewire presence in many films in the 80s (many of them silly comedies) before belatedly coming to superstardom as Samantha Jones in Sex and the City - certainly demonstrates a greater commitment to the idea of playing a Vulcan than Kirstie Alley ever did. Where Alley was unwilling to sacrifice glamour and feminine allure, retaining her own Brooke Shields eyebrows and long flowing hair, Cattrall presents with shaved temples, angled Vulcan eyebrows and a dark bob.

Kirstie Alley as Saavik in The Wrath of Khan
- unwilling to lose her glamour to play a Vulcan.

Kim Cattrall as Valeris in The Undiscovered Country
- showing a bit more commitment.

It was safe to break some things for good by this time - Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) is finally given the command of his own starship, an idea which had been considered as early as the third film but abandoned when William Shatner protested, wanting to remain Captain to the entire crew. It was, after all, intended as the final film to feature the original cast, and anyway the drama of the Klingons wanting to become part of the Federation was preempted by The Next Generation, which is set some 70 years after the original show (but had been running for a few years when The Undiscovered Country was released) and has a Klingon officer serving on the Enterprise D. Nevertheless, rather than acknowledging that the crew of the Enterprise might have at some stage retired, lived the rest of their lives, and died, The Undiscovered Country wraps up with them sailing off into the blinding sunlight in the starship, before the signatures of the main cast are animated on screen (signing their own names rather than that of the characters) to the fanfares of Cliff Eidelmen's score. The suggestion seems to be that they sailed straight into myth.

Three years later, The Next Generation also made the transition to the cinema - Star Trek: Generations (1994, David Carson) was the first of four films which went through a familiar cycle of destroying and promptly replacing the Enterprise, making empty promises to develop character relationships, giving the Captain - this time around, Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) - one-film-only special guest love interests, and giving cast members the chance to direct. The films played to an increasingly disinterested public and disappointed fanbase, with only one box office hit - Star Trek: First Contact (1996, Jonathan Frakes), another time travel story directed by a cast member which matches Jean Luc Picard with the appealing Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard, another potentially good addition to the cast who gets left behind at the end of the film). The advertising material kept promising that each film was bigger, better, and more action packed than the previous one, but the truth is Paramount was always a bit timid with the marketing of a new Trek film, at least until the currently screening J.J. Abrams reboot of the franchise, simply titled Star Trek (2009).

It is easy to imagine Paramount's marketing department breathing a huge sigh of relief that they are no longer saddled with trying to sell a cast mainly aged in their sixties to the much coveted youth demographic. This time around, those form fitting Starfleet uniforms adorn the hot young bodies of the likes of Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), and Zoe Saldana (replacing Nichelle Nichols as Uhura). As a reboot, it's a step in a promising direction, although it remains to be seen if the inevitable sequels will attain the sort of storytelling boldness which eluded the previous run of films.


Vancetastic said...

An excellent recap/compendium. I agree with all your points, with one exception: The Final Frontier did try to do more than an episode, I think, with the idea that they were searching for God -- in a way, that's the most more you could do than an episode. Which doesn't AT ALL mean they were successful.

Anyway, well played.

I feel like I should go back and watch some of these again. I saw Generations about two years ago to jog my memory in order to review it, and I saw Khan around the same time, but I haven't seen any of the others in eons.

By the way, if you're interested in my reviews of Trek films, I've reviewed The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, The Final Frontier and Generations. I did also write the original review for Insurrection, but it was replaced by another writer's work, and I freakishly lost the original Microsoft Word copy of the review (something that never happens to me), so this may be the only review I've ever written that I have lost entirely.

I should also mention that I now recant my declaration in the Voyage Home review (which I believe I wrote in 2001) that it is the "best" in the series. That honor clearly belongs to Wrath of Khan.

Lord Vader said...

Thanks for reading, and your comment... I stand by my assessment of 'The Final Frontier' - the crew met a being with godlike powers at least a couple of times a season in the original show, so narratively, Shatner's film offers nothing new. You should check the better films out again - they hold up well. I look forward to having a look at your reviews. :)