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Posts Tagged ‘William Shatner’

I know there’s a sense in which this is comparing apples and oranges, but it is interesting to compare the audience size at the screening I attended of Mortal Engines (when the auditorium was mostly empty on the Friday night of its opening weekend) with that of the lunchtime screening of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo I went to, which practically sold out a rather bigger venue.

Free Solo is a documentary, made under the auspices of National Geographic, and would therefore usually qualify as counter-programming, showing as it is in a small semi-independent cinema. Yet it manages to be funny, thrilling, thought-provoking and chilling in a way which few films of any stripe manage; no wonder the word of mouth on it is so good.

The subject of the film is Alex Honnold, a reasonably personable young man who has risen (literally) to a sort of celebrity status in the world of climbing. Alex’s speciality, as the title of the film suggests, is a style of ascent known as a free solo, where the climber is alone and unencumbered by all those tedious ropes, harnesses, and other pieces of safety equipment – it’s just hands, feet, and a bag of chalk against the mountain. The major hook of the documentary is that it promises to depict Alex’s attempt to become the first person to free solo a cliff face in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitan – a feat only previously attempted on film by William Shatner at the start of Star Trek V.

What makes this so exceptional is that El Capitan is basically 3200 feet of sheer, almost completely vertical rock. The idea of going up it without a safety rope may sound alarming to you or I, but hardened professional climbers, who fully understand the nature of the challenge, are left pale and shaken by the prospect. The film doesn’t attempt to minimise the dangers involved, observing that most of the world’s great free solo climbers are no longer with us, having met with abrupt vertical demises. Free soloing El Capitan, someone suggests, is an athletic feat of the sort which would normally win someone an Olympic gold medal – with the important addendum that in this case, if you take part in the event but don’t perform perfectly, the result is certain death.

Cracking stuff for a documentary, I think you will agree, and yet what makes Free Solo so utterly engrossing isn’t just the climb itself as its portrait of Alex Honnold and its attempt to discover just what in the world makes someone like him tick. For Alex it seems relatively simple: climbing high objects is what gives his life its greatest moments of pleasure. But it seems like more than that, and wondering if there might be something genuinely different about him, the film-makers send him off for a brain scan. It turns out the amygdala of his brain (basically, the fear centre) is less-than-normally responsive to external stimuli, meaning he just doesn’t get scared in the same way a normal person does.

More telling insights come from the film’s portrait of Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanni, a life coach by profession (according to her website she helps people ‘stop making fear-based decisions’, which doesn’t strike me as a problem for Alex), and a young woman with seemingly almost superhuman reserves of restraint and forbearance – early on Alex says quite matter-of-factly that he would always choose climbing over a relationship, and makes it quite clear that any commitment he may make to a relationship will not make him feel obliged to do fewer insanely dangerous things. This intense level of focus (is monomania too strong a word?) and Alex’s lack of social intelligence makes the relationship challenging – there’s a charming and illuminating sequence where the couple go out to buy a fridge together, while when asked what it’s like to have Sanni visiting him in his van (despite being appreciably wealthy, Alex has lived out of a van for the last decade), he seems initially nonplussed, before offering that ‘she’s cute and small and she livens up the place’. A certain set of flags was already waving for me before the moment when Alex’s mother casually suggests that his late father had Asperger’s syndrome. No-one raises the possibility that Alex may have inherited more from his father than just his complexion, but it’s impossible not to at least consider drawing certain conclusions.

Some of Free Solo is a conventional documentary film, but much of it is not – the climbing sequences are captured by a mixture of drone cameras and cameras operated by professional climbers. This is a technical achievement in and of itself, but more interesting are the film-makers’ own concerns – they have been cautious about doing a film about free soloing in the past, and Chin himself appears on camera to express his worries that it may be the presence of a camera that causes Alex’s concentration to slip, with fatal consequences.

Preparations for the climb are lengthy and do not go smoothly – Alex falls and badly sprains an ankle (the next day he is tackling the climbing wall of a local gym while wearing an orthopaedic boot), and an initial attempt at El Capitan is called off on the grounds that he’s ‘just not feeling it today’. This comes almost as a relief to one of the crew, who suggests that it’s like learning that ‘Spock has nerves after all’ (those Star Trek connections just keep coming).

In the end, though, it’s all systems go for a final assault which Alex seems to thoroughly enjoy from beginning to end, even though some of the cameramen can hardly bear to watch. (Is it a spoiler to reveal that Alex Hannold does not plummet to a gory death at the climax of his own movie? I think you could probably have guessed as much.) I can sort of empathise as there are many, many moments and images in this film to churn the stomach and weaken the knees: the camera may be focused on Alex as he makes his way up the rock face, but your eyes are irresistibly drawn to the immensity of the drop beneath him. (There are also some lighter moments, such as a bizarre encounter with someone camped out on the cliff face in a unicorn costume.) It drives home the fact that the climactic ascent is as close to a superhuman achievement as any I can think of.

Yet the film works as well as it does because it never loses sight of Alex as a human being, albeit one who is wired up a bit differently to most people. He is someone lucky enough to have found that one thing which makes him utterly and perfectly happy – it’s just that this happens to be an insanely dangerous pursuit that kills most people who take it up. Should we envy him, pity him, or just see about getting him therapy? The film stays silent on the questions it raises, content to be a fascinating portrait of Alex and his life. Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan has been called one of the greatest achievements of human athleticism, and Free Solo does both him and it full justice. One of the best films of the year.

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‘Classic Star Trek was that slightly rough girl who is a touch unrefined, dripping with sex appeal… and you end up wanting more. TNG was that more subdued, shy, refined girl… but innate passion and chemistry just isn’t there, and the entire experience feels a tad unrewarding.’ – Glen C Oliver, quoted in The Fifty Year Mission

‘My favourite bit was when Malcolm McDowell nutted Captain Slaphead.’ – Tony Parsons, Newsnight Review

Watching Star Trek: Generations in the UK was a slightly odd experience, simply due to the different ways in which film and TV operated back in those distant days of 1995. Nowadays, popular American TV shows arrive in the UK either simultaneously with their US transmission, or at most a couple of months later, but twenty years ago being a Star Trek watcher without a satellite subscription was a gruelling ordeal (I suppose you could say it was an exercise in character-building, but then that seemed to be other people’s rationale for every lousy experience I had in the 90s). There was, for instance, a two year gap between the transmission of the first and second episodes of series four, a period demanding strict spoiler management if you also read SF magazines. The cinema release of Generations in the US followed the conclusion of Next Gen‘s final season (after a decent interval, anyway). When it arrived in the UK shortly afterwards, we still had over a year of first-run TNG still to go, so it all felt a bit odd and a little premature.

(Still, it could have been worse: the first X-Files movie likewise appeared shortly after its US release, thus completely screwing up the intricate meta-plot for those of us who were a year behind due to only having access to the BBC broadcasts.)

Oh well. At least the movie itself seemed to pass the time fairly agreeably – at the time, anyway. Things get underway with the inaugural cruise of the Enterprise-B in 2293, overseen by Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and a couple of his old buddies, who are clearly not as retired as it was implied they were about to become at the end of Star Trek VI. Things go a bit amiss when the Enterprise encounters refugee ships caught in a mysterious energy ribbon, and Kirk apparently sacrifices himself to save the day and allow some of the refugees to be saved.

Before you can say ‘hang on, if the Federation was rescuing refugees from a Borg assimilation back in Kirk’s day, how come no-one had ever heard of them when the Enterprise met their first cube in second-season Next Gen?’, we find ourselves 78 years later aboard the Enterprise commanded by Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). The ship receives a distress signal from a research outpost which has been attacked by the Romulans, and one of the survivors turns out to be Dr Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell), whom we have previously met as one of refugees (he’s one of those conveniently long-lived kinds of alien). Investigations are hampered by Picard being distracted by bad news from home, and Data (Brent Spiner) deciding to instal a chip which gives him emotions, and by Soran turning out to be a bad ‘un.

Yes, Soran teams up with some renegade Klingons, kidnaps the ship’s regular whipping boy LaForge (LeVar Burton), and zooms off to execute his nefarious plan of blowing up various stars. But why? Well, it turns out the mysterious energy-ribbon is either a gateway to heaven, or basically intergalactic crack, or simply one of those metaphorical Trek plot devices, and Soran is keen to get back into it, and blowing up stars will help with this (it’s complicated). In order to put a stop to all this, Picard finds himself obliged to team up with Kirk, who has been stuck in the timeless world of the ribbon since the start of the movie. But can victory come without great sacrifices?

As I suggested, while David Carson’s movie seemed fairly satisfying on its first release, these days it just feels slightly off in all kinds of ways. It’s not that it’s totally without good things – the chief of these being Malcolm MacDowell, who is clearly having a whale of a time chewing up the scenery (I seem to recall him volunteering to come back and kill off the rest of regular cast in subsequent movies), but the vibrant cinematography also does a great job of making the film look very different from the TV series which was such a recent memory when it came out.

The problem, I think, is that the film plays it safe when it should be doing something new and surprising, and innovates when what we really want is something familiar. Doing a movie where the original crew and the Next Gen mob meet up was arguably too much of a no-brainer to be advisable, and yet here it is, albeit in a rather limited form. It doesn’t really help that the TNG writers don’t seem to have much feel for the original crew, or that the script was clearly written for different characters to perform – Scotty finds himself spouting all kinds of scientific bafflegab and Chekov ends up in charge of sickbay, and it’s hard to think of a way they could have made it more obvious that it was supposed to be Spock and McCoy in these scenes.

I suppose I should also mention that Kirk doesn’t really feel like Kirk in this film, despite Shatner’s best attempts to give him some of the old swagger and fire. The theme of the film requires Kirk to be a somewhat regretful, diminished figure, looking back on an unfulfilled life, and this doesn’t quite ring true somehow – yet the Generations take on the character seems to have acquired some traction, having a lot in common with the Kirk who appears in the ‘autobiography’ which came out a couple of years ago. It’s Kirk, but not as we know him, and perhaps this is why his death at the end of the film doesn’t have anything like the impact it should – it’s also the case that it feels like the writers are dotting an i, rather than concluding this character’s story. (Maybe they should have kept Shatner’s ‘bridge on the captain’ ad lib.)

Writing about the very first Star Trek movie, I mentioned its similarities with early TNG, and the crucial mistake it made by not presenting the characters in a way that was recognisable from the TV show. Certainly the movie assumes the audience will have a certain degree of familiarity with the TV show – recurring villains the Duras sisters show up, for instance – and the whole thing is to some extent plotted and structured like a big-budget episode of the series. But they also come up with a story where Picard starts crying like a baby and Data can’t stop laughing like an idiot, and neither of these are things which I really want to see in a TNG movie (or indeed in any form of TNG). That said, at least they get interesting things to do, which isn’t the case for everyone in the cast – some of the junior members of the crew just seem to be there to meet contractual obligations, and even in these minor roles their performances radiate that comforting MDF quality we have come to expect.

I suppose I also have a problem with a couple of faults which recur throughout the TNG movies: whether or not they actually have a planned economy in the 24th century is the subject of fierce debate, but it seems certain beyond doubt that they have totally run out of subtlety. Like many of the TV episodes, they take a theme or a piece of subtext and then belabour you with it at quite extraordinary length, in the form of characters making long speeches or engaging in lengthy discussions about it. Yes, the film is about mortality and growing older. This is clear by about ten minutes in. And yet they keep on and on and on about it, without ever actually managing to say anything surprising or especially subtle about it, until the plot crashes into the assumption that, because Star Trek is ostensibly SF, a Star Trek movie should resolve like most modern SF blockbusters (i.e., with an action sequence). Hence the concluding scenes of three men in late middle age clambering around on some rocks.

I’ve never really been anything like as fond of the TNG movies as I was the original series movies from the 80s. Maybe it’s because I saw those early films when I was younger, or maybe it’s because I’m generally much fonder of the 60s TV series than I am of TNG. But I also think it’s the case that the TNG films feel constrained, somehow, obliged both to stay true to the ethos of the TNG TV series and respect the integrity of the rest of the Trek brand. They just don’t feel especially cinematic, and if a film doesn’t feel cinematic, what’s the point of it? This film includes lavish bigger-than-TV moments (the bit on the sailing ship) and supposedly significant developments (the business with Data’s chip, the destruction of the Enterprise-D), but ultimately it doesn’t really feel like anything other than a carefully-assembled brand extension.

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The time has come for a confession, and not one I ever recall making before. Here we go; brace yourselves. I have never really understood what all the fuss is about when it comes to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I mean, I’m not saying it’s actually an actively bad film, and it’s certainly an improvement on Star Trek V, but I get the sense it’s considered to be some kind of cinematic triumph, a return to form to match the best films from the 1980s. (That said, looking at the Rotten Tomatoes percentages for the Star Trek film series is very nearly enough to make you lose your faith in the human race anyway.) And I’m afraid I just don’t get it.

Nicholas Meyer, writer-director of Star Trek II and co-writer of Star Trek IV, came back to oversee the proceedings. Apparently this was partly a political decision, as it was thought that giving Leonard Nimoy the gig might annoy William Shatner, but this seems to have been a troubled production in many ways – the future of the film series had been thrown into doubt by the failure of Star Trek V, and it was only the looming 25th anniversary of the TV show, and the desire to do one last movie with the original cast, that led to this movie being given the green light. Even so, Harve Bennett, the writer-producer who had overseen all the 80s movies, walked away from the series after his idea for a prequel showing how all the characters had met was rejected (it is customary at this point to crack wise about how this idea eventually resurfaced in 2009; feel free to do so if you wish). In short, this was a movie made on a punishingly low budget and brief production schedule – I suppose the fact that it is reasonably accomplished does qualify as something of an achievement.

Well, anyway: the political settlement of the late 23rd century is thrown into turmoil when a major industrial accident deep within the Klingon Empire threatens to render Qo’NoS uninhabitable and bring about the collapse of Klingon civilisation. This does however give the visionary Klingon chancellor (David Warner) the opportunity he needs to negotiations with the Federation, with a view to ending decades of hostility and bringing about a new age of galactic peace and unity.

The Enterprise senior staff, who are months away from retirement (the film has a tendency to get a bit meta about this, not to mentiona sentimental), are rounded up and given the mission of escorting the Klingon diplomatic party to Earth. (The only person not back at his post is Sulu (George Takei), who – unusually for a long-running Trek character – appears to have developed a career and is now in charge of his own ship.) Kirk (Shatner) is less than delighted that Spock (Nimoy) has volunteered him for this, as he still has issues with the Klingons killing his son a few movies ago. But duty is duty.

An uneasy atmosphere between the two groups degenerates into open distrust and hostility when the chancellor’s ship is attacked, apparently by the Enterprise, and the chancellor himself is murdered. Kirk and McCoy are arrested, put on trial, and packed off to the Klingon equivalent of Siberia, and it’s up to Spock and the others to solve the mystery of the murder and work out who is trying to sabotage the peace settlement…

When The Undiscovered Country came out in 1991 (or 1992, depending on where you were living at the time), the world was a radically different place to that of five years earlier. The TV show The Next Generation, initially viewed by some members of the original cast as a preposterous upstart, had become well-established as a popular and (eventually) critical success, and the failure of Star Trek V seemed to have proven that the future of Star Trek really lay with the Enterprise-D and its crew (you could argue the movie acknowledges this by giving a cameo role to Michael Dorn, playing an ancestor of his TNG character). Bearing this in mind, Star Trek VI seems like a bit of an indulgence, one last chance to see the old gang, an opportunity for them to leave the stage gracefully and with a little dignity. And you can’t fault the sentiment behind that, but it’s not necessarily a recipe for a great movie.

This is a film which is dealing with some powerful themes – intolerance, racism, fear of the future – and you would expect it to go into some fairly dark and intense places. Yet it doesn’t. There are some fleeting moments of genuine drama – Spock tells Kirk the Klingons will die if a peace treaty is not agreed, and Kirk snarls back ‘Let them die!’, there is the scene where Spock uses a mind-meld to tear information from the brain of the traitor Valeris – but much of the time this is trying too hard to be a fun, light-hearted romp. I think it was Kim Newman, reviewing the movie in Sight and Sound, who suggested how much more effective it would have been as a drama had, say, Scotty turned out to be one of the conspirators, but that would have run totally counter to the purpose of the film, which is not to provide complex drama, but nostalgic fun. As it is, the tone of the film never quite feels right.

I think that to some extent Nicholas Meyer’s lack of grounding in Star Trek is a little more on display here than was the case in his earlier scripts for the movies. Quite apart from controversial innovations such as putting a kitchen on the Enterprise (apparently that’s controversial, if you’re a Trekkie), it doesn’t feel like he ever quite gets the Klingons exactly right – they’re not the mostly irredeemable villains of the TV show, nor really the slightly more nuanced and alien culture that had been established in The Next Generation by this point. That said, he does write a good villain in Christopher Plummer’s General Chang.

Instead, Meyer’s Klingons are transparently based on the Soviets – they have show trials, a gulag, and so on. However, this does make sense when you consider that the whole film operates as an allegory for US-Russian geopolitical relations in the late 80s and early 90s. It opens with a deep space version of the Chernobyl accident, and goes on to cover what Meyer described as ‘the Berlin Wall coming down in space’. Fair enough, but it’s hardly handled with the greatest of subtlety, or really much subtlety at all. And it never really touches upon the central paradox of the plot, which is that humans and Klingons find the prospect of peacefully co-operation so objectionable that they co-operate together to stop it happening. Nimoy himself later admitted that they had missed a trick in not taking the opportunity to explore just why the Klingons had always been so implacably hostile.

Still, as I say, it’s not what you’d call an awful movie, just a little underwhelming. I think that by the time it reached the UK, we knew that Next Generation movies would eventually be coming, Deep Space 9 was on the way, Gene Roddenberry had died, and there was a general sense that Star Trek was moving on, away from the original characters. I think it may be the film’s very affection for Kirk, Spock, and the gang that keeps it from giving them the really memorable swan song they surely deserved. A curious problem; I’m not sure how it could have been solved.

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As you grow older and wiser, you kind of reach a point where you believe that you will never find yourself intentionally sitting down to watch Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ever again. But clearly this moment has not quite yet arrived. Look at that, two sentences in and I’m already putting the boot into the movie – but then few movies seem to be quite as eminently bootable as Star Trek V. Certainly, the first time you see it, it doesn’t just come across as a bad film, it seems almost bafflingly, inexplicably bad.

I remember my own first contact with Star Trek V. It was the Earth Year 1989 and this was the first Trek film I went to see with friends rather than family. It was the Monday afternoon showing on the first day of the Autumn half-term break. Three or four months had gone by since the film’s US release (believe it or not, this was extremely common at the time, young ones), and yet I seem to recall very few plot details had crossed the Atlantic – I don’t even recall having seen a trailer. So we settled down in the cinema, only marginally distracted by the presence some seats along and a row back of a girl I had been trying to impress for some weeks (the smallest member of our party was despatched to offer popcorn and other sweeties as propitiatory gifts until she told us to stop it). Well, the movie rolled, our excitement fizzled away, and at the end, subdued, we separated and wandered off into the rush-hour traffic in search of our buses. Possibly my most vivid memory of the whole afternoon is of something that happened at the bus stop: a somewhat frazzled-looking father was there with his bemused young son (telltale signs, I now realise, of recent exposure to Star Trek V). My ears pricked up as I heard their conversation.

(Plaintive incomprehension.) ‘Daddy, I don’t understand. I thought God was supposed to be a goodie?’

(A terrible weariness.) ‘Well, yes, but that wasn’t God, was it? Because God wouldn’t have tried to kill Captain Kirk.’

There are obviously things wrong with Star Trek V, but it is perhaps its contribution to the field of theology which makes it such a problematic film. Certainly its start is, well, not too bad. We open on the wasteland planet of Nimbus III, in the Neutral Zone between the major space powers, where everyone seems to be having a fairly miserable time. Fertile soil for interstellar cult leader, Vulcan revolutionary, and previously unmentioned long-lost brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) to gather a following, then. Sybok takes over Nimbus III and captures the ambassadors posted there.

Well, for once it isn’t quite the case that Starfleet doesn’t have any other ships in the area, but the admiralty reach the conclusion that a fully-functional ship with an experienced crew is not what the situation requires. A ship which is falling to bits, crewed by new and untested personnel, is a much better bet, just as long as the ship is commanded by James T Kirk! (You can tell that William Shatner wrote the story for this film himself, can’t you?) Shore leave is cancelled and the Enterprise warps off to Nimbus III in an attempt to get there ahead of some angry Klingons.

Well, Sybok proves a tricky fish to land, and succeeds in swaying the Enterprise crew to his cause. He reveals his true intent – he has had a vision of the fabled planet of Seanconnery (well, not quite, but the in-joke becomes blatant once you’re aware of it), at the heart of the galaxy, where resides the infinite wisdom of the Almighty and perhaps even God Himself…

The problems with Star Trek V surely started with the lawyers, back in the 1960s. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy struck a deal where they had a ‘favoured nation’ clause inserted into their Star Trek contracts, basically meaning that whenever Shatner got a pay rise or a bigger trailer, Nimoy automatically got one as well, and vice versa. So, when Nimoy was given the opportunity to direct a Star Trek movie, the producers were legally obligated to give Shatner a go, too, regardless of whether they thought it was in any way a good idea or not. It is safe to say that not everyone on the production was overjoyed at the news – George Takei’s response, on hearing the tidings, was a cry of ‘Oh, God! What are we going to do?!?’ (although to be fair he apparently found the experience of being directed by the Shat less gruelling than expected).

A lot of what’s wrong with Star Trek V boils down to Shatner’s original vision of the Enterprise going in search of God and having various encounters with spiritual beings – it seems like everyone he spoke to about this told him in no uncertain terms that this was a terrible premise for a movie, hence its slight modification in the final version (Shatner still seems pretty insistent that if he’d been permitted to make his original idea, rather than a film compromised by studio demands, budget requirements, fractious co-stars, and so on, it would have been much better – you have to admire the guy’s cojones, if nothing else).

So we can blame Shatner for the flawed central premise of the movie (and also for the casting the great David Warner and then giving him virtually nothing to do), but in the interests of fairness we should also consider the fact that culpability also lies with other people. If you look at the history of the Star Trek film franchise, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that Paramount Pictures viewed the series solely in terms of its money-making potential, with most of their decisions intended to maximise box office while reducing costs.

That policy really starts to bite here – this is a notably cheap-looking film with flat cinematography, and painfully primitive special effects – ILM were booked up doing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II that year, forcing the production to engage a cheaper effects house. The climax had to be completely reshot when the initial monster suit just didn’t work. And, perhaps more insidiously, Paramount concluded that the huge take of Star Trek IV was down to it being full of jokes, with the result that this film is, too, regardless of whether they’re tonally appropriate or in character – hence the utter, wince-inducing wrongness of those scenes where Scotty knocks himself out by walking into a bulkhead, Sulu and Chekov get lost on a hiking trip, and Uhura does a fan dance (the main troika emerge more or less unscathed, and director Shatner ensures actor Shatner’s gravitas remains uncompromised throughout).

But, what the hell, it’s not as if Shatner gets everything wrong – for one thing, he hires Jerry Goldsmith to do the soundtrack, so that’s pretty good. There’s a new take on the Klingon music, and the main theme from The Motion Picture returns (although this may have been a branding decision, given The Next Generation had been running for a year or two when this film came out). And, the character scenes with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy together do work – much better than most of those in The Motion Picture, if we’re honest.

Nevertheless, few films are as actively loathed as this one – never mind the movie’s impressive haul at the Golden Raspberry Awards, Gene Roddenberry himself announced parts of it had to be considered ‘apocryphal’, and at least one officially-licensed book has announced these events never actually happened (what we are seeing is an in-universe film made by aliens from the Roman planet in Bread and Circuses, which is why the characterisations are a bit off, not to mention some of the laws of physics). Perhaps it just reflects our somewhat ambiguous attitude towards Shatner himself these days.

Given the combination of 1989’s heavyweight summer release schedule (Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, License to Kill, Lethal Weapon 2, amongst others) and the fact that Star Trek was back on TV, Star Trek V would have to have been something pretty special in order to cut through and achieve the same kind of success as previous entries. If it is special, then that’s not in a good way, but you can’t lay all the blame on William Shatner. A good-sized chunk of it, maybe. But not all of it.

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I trust I am not revealing too many secrets of the scrivener’s craft if I briefly tweak the curtain aside and reveal that some things are easier to write than others. Give me something truly awful, misconceived, or objectionable to review, and I am as happy as can be; the thing about Hampstead practically wrote itself. Something a bit more indifferent – or, even worse, boring – and it can be quite hard work getting my thoughts in order, or even finding enough to say. Worst of all can be writing about something which seems really good, or which I really like (not always the same thing, of course) – how to avoid just a string of ‘this bit is really good… this bit is also really good… this bit is really good too’?

I mention all this because we are about to look at Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which was for quite a few years my favourite of the series (since displaced by The Wrath of Khan), and which remains to this day not just my father’s favourite Star Trek movie but almost certainly his favourite science-fiction film, full stop (his absolute favourite film of any kind may be The Muppet Christmas Carol, which he will happily sit down to watch on a broiling August afternoon). ‘The one with the whales’ is how it is known in my parents’ house, which is as good a description as any, I suppose.

Nevertheless I feel it is incumbent upon me to look at Star Trek IV with a slightly more objective eye than I have customarily done in the past, hopefully not just to be critical for its own sake, but to see what makes this film so distinctive and a bit of a landmark for the series.

This movie was released in 1986 and, like its predecessor, was directed by Leonard Nimoy. To be honest, it gets off to a slightly rattly start: the action opens a few months after the end of Star Trek III, and finds an alien probe of immense power heading directly for Earth (again), swatting aside all resistance and generally causing consternation and outright panic. On Earth, the Klingon Ambassador is demanding Kirk’s extradition for crimes against the Empire (this is a decent scene, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the movie). Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the gang are still holed up on Vulcan (or possibly, to judge from the hats, in Tibet) getting ready to fly home in their captured Klingon vessel, because apparently Starfleet can’t send a ship to Vulcan to collect them.

(Hmmm. I mean, hmmm. In four out of the first five Star Trek movies, the plot is driven by the fact that Starfleet ‘doesn’t have any other ships in the area’. Just how big a fleet is this? Exactly how enormous is Federation territory, if Starfleet is always spread so thin? It compares very oddly with latter episodes of Deep Space 9, admittedly set about a century later, in which dozens of Starfleet ships routinely appear.)

Oh well. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is almost back to his old self, though perhaps a little flakey (and Harve Bennett, who wrote this section of the film, appears to be under the impression that pure-blood Vulcans don’t have emotions at all, rather than exercising control over them). Nevertheless he decides to go back to Earth with everyone else. Inevitably, news of the probe’s attack on Earth causes a change of plan. (Apparently Leningrad is back on the maps in the late 23rd century – maybe all those complaints that the Federation is a communist superstate are true.) Spock figures out that the alien probe is trying to talk to humpback whales (the Klingon ship’s databanks are remarkably detailed when it comes to Terran marine biology), which were wiped out centuries earlier, and comes up with a somewhat outlandish plan.

You’re proposing that we go backwards in time, find humpback whales, then bring them foward in time, drop ’em off, and hope to Hell they tell this probe what to do with itself! That’s crazy!’ cries Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Nevertheless, that’s what the script has been setting up (in its own, somewhat contrived way) and so back they zap to San Francisco in the mid 1980s. Save the whales – save the planet!

The meat and heart of the film is the visit to the present day by Kirk and the gang. As you might expect, the general tone is rather comic, with various scenes of the Trek regulars being baffled by public transport, profanity, the attitudes of the locals, and so on. The 20th century portion of the film is written by Nicholas Meyer, who had form with this sort of thing, having written Time After Time, another time-travel adventure story set in contemporary San Francisco, a few years earlier.

Apparently the general intention from the start was to ‘do something nice’, and the decision to play much of the film for laughs may well have been influenced by the fact that for part of its development, this film was going to star Eddie Murphy alongside the Star Trek regulars. Quite why this never happened is a little unclear – some sources indicate Murphy wanted to play a Starfleet officer or an alien, others suggest that the studio realised that releasing a Star Trek film and an Eddie Murphy film would be more profitable than a single movie combining of the two brands. In the end the Murphy character ended up being re-gendered and played by Catherine Hicks, who does as well as anyone in the thankless role of Trek movie guest character/love interest.

Much of what goes on is genuinely funny, even today, with everyone involved clearly having a – hmmm – whale of a time (well, George Takei was apparently distraught when an uncooperative child actor meant his big scene in the movie had to be abandoned). The movie continues the trend, which began in the previous film, for Star Trek to now be specifically focused on these seven characters as a group, rather than Kirk and Spock, or the voyages of the Enterprise. And it works well, even if Meyer arguably pushes it in search of the laughs he’s clearly going for. The crew’s familiarity with 20th century idiomatic English is preposterously selective, given that’s basically what they’ve been speaking for the previous three movies and seventy-odd TV episodes – although I suppose most of the jokes are at the expense of the slightly-addled Spock (Chekov is still slightly too much of a dipstick to be credible). The problem, of course, turned out to be that the studio got the impression that cramming jokes into their Star Trek movies was a sure-fire boost for their box office, which would prove to be bad news for Star Treks V and VI.

In the end the film is so good-natured and funny, and its general message about saving the whale so unexceptionable, that it would take a titanic effort of will not to cut the film some slack and enjoy it on its own terms. (Even if the music, by Leonard Rosenman, is not even close to James Horner’s standards.) And there is a pleasing sense of the world returning to its proper state at the ending, with Captain Kirk back on the bridge, his friends around him, new adventures awaiting a new Enterprise.

Of course, new adventures were awaiting a new Enterprise, only not this one, and not for this crew. It was a few weeks before the release of Star Trek IV that Paramount announced the production of what would eventually become Star Trek: The Next Generation, the long-term popularity of the series now seemingly proven (and, apparently, a new crew of unknown actors being a more appealing prospect than the ever-more-expensive Shatner and Nimoy). The next six films in the series would all be released into a world in which Star Trek was back on TV, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they feel less cinematic, more narratively constrained, than the first three or four films in the series. I still feel that II, III, and IV are the highpoint of the Trek movie series, simply because they are Star Trek when it manages to be very true to itself, and yet also truly cinematic. The Voyage Home may be the most indulgent and soft-centred of any of them, but that doesn’t make it any less likeable.

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We have previously touched upon the received wisdom of the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered Star Trek films and the extent to which this colours people’s perception of them (presumably it doesn’t apply to the Abrams movies, which are – strictly speaking – 11, 12, and 13 in the series). I think the existence of the ‘curse’ is questionable at best – I completely agree that by far the best films of the lot are even-numbered ones (II and IV for me; your mileage may differ), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the odd numbers are flat-out bad or worse than the less-impressive even-numbered films.

For me, the film that really doesn’t deserve to be tarred with the brush of the curse (I apologise for this somewhat baroque metaphor, by the way) is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984 and directed (following much fun and games between the studio and the director’s representatives) by Leonard Nimoy. Does it reach the same standard as the films on either side of it? Well, no; but, as mentioned, there is space between excellent and mediocre, and it’s this space that the film confidently occupies.

We find ourselves once again in the year 2285, with the damaged starship Enterprise limping home following the climactic events of the previous film. The sense of contentment felt by Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) seems to have faded, and he is troubled by the death of his best friend Spock. His other close friend McCoy is acting erratically, too. Orders from Starfleet Command that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned and that they are not to return to the Genesis Planet, where Spock died, do not help his mood much. The situation becomes acute when he is visited by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), and they deduce that before dying Spock effectively placed his soul into McCoy’s body (which explains his strange behaviour). Kirk finds himself compelled to go against Starfleet orders, steal his own ship, and return to Genesis in search of Spock’s body.

Of course, it isn’t even only as complicated as that – for a Klingon warlord named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) has got wind of the Genesis Project and is heading for the new planet, too, intent on terrorising the Federation science team already on the scene, as well as a revived and rejuvenated Spock…

Star Trek III was written by series producer Harve Bennett, whose work is of course not quite up to the standards of that of Nicholas Meyer (writer of Star Trek II) , but still solid. The main problem with it, once you accept the mystical properties of the Genesis effect (raising the dead) and Vulcan, um, mysticism, is that it’s never made quite clear why Kirk goes back to Genesis, rather than just taking McCoy straight to Vulcan for some kind of psionic detox – not only is he completely unaware Spock has come back to life until after his arrival there, he presumably believes his body has been incinerated (this was the original intent, after all).

That said, the movie barrels along cheerily enough for you not to notice this on the first viewing. The movie has a confidence and swagger that the previous movie didn’t actually possess – Star Trek II was considered the absolutely final roll of the dice for the series (why else would they have killed off the most popular character?), and was produced on a minimal budget, with re-used special effects and most scenes being shot on just one set. Here you do get a sense of people realising that the old dog might have much more life left in it than anyone could have guessed, hence much more lavish special effects and sets throughout.

It also feels rather more comfortable in its identity as a piece of Star Trek, perhaps because Bennett had made an effort to steep himself in a series of which Meyer was never a particular fan. The script is happy to bring back Sarek, a recurring but fairly obscure character from the various TV series, insert a tiny cameo for Grace Lee Whitney, include some Tribbles, mention the pon farr undergone by Vulcans, and so on – although without letting any of these things get in the way of the story.

Perhaps the most obvious result of this desire to take Trek back to its roots is the presence of Klingon antagonists at the heart of the story. We should recall that this is the only major appearance by the Klingons between the end of the original TV series and the beginning of Next Generation, and it’s not surprising that the depiction of them is in something of a state of transition – though still depicted as ruthless, sadistic villains (‘I hope pain is something you enjoy,’ says Kruge, shortly before ordering the execution of a prisoner as a negotiating ploy), they are much more obviously alien (they appear to be stronger and more resilient than humans), and they show signs of the obsession with honour that would define them through the Next Gen and DS9 era. Plus, of course, this film marks the first real appearance of tlhIngan Hol (better known to us tera’nganpu’ as the Klingon language). Inevitably, there are still some oddities – everyone, even Saavik, addresses Kruge as ‘my lord’, which isn’t the case with any other Klingon character in the series, no matter how distinguished they are. That said, Christopher Lloyd’s full-on performance as Kruge certainly demands respect.

As does that of William Shatner, to be honest. Joking about Shatner’s ego, waistline, musical career, hair, and line readings has become so much de rigeur these days that we can sometimes overlook what an effective performer he can be with the right script and appropriate direction. Shatner reports feeling initially uncomfortable being directed by Nimoy, but the final product contains some of his finest moments as Kirk – the ‘Klingon bastards’ scene (usually edited out when this movie turns up on TV nowadays) had the potential to be unintentionally comic, but Shatner and Nimoy turn it into something genuinely affecting.

The one thing about this movie that everyone seems to like is James Horner’s music (he did the previous film as well, of course). Horner’s predilection for, um, paying homage to other people’s tunes in his work has been much commented upon, but he’s far from alone in that, and he makes a huge contribution to the movie – Horner’s music manages to make a spaceship reversing out of a garage feel like a moment of epic high adventure.

As I mentioned, Star Trek II was made with the real expectation that it might be the end of the line for the series. Perhaps as a result of the creative licence that gave them, it turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be the start of a whole new lease of life for the series. The Search for Spock is the first piece of Trek to be made in this new atmosphere of confidence and possibility, and it marks the beginning of a roll which continued for the next two decades. Not to mention being a very entertaining movie in its own right.

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It was late in the Earth Year 1979 (or possibly early 1980) and my father announced that he was taking me to the cinema. This was unusual enough to be noteworthy, but to my father’s credit, most of the films I remember him taking me to without my having to ask were generally pretty good – the first couple of Christopher Reeve Superman movies, for instance. On this occasion, I remember hanging around outside a Blackpool seafront cinema for a bit on a rainy day (there may have been a queue), and then taking our seats to enjoy the latest movie by Robert Wise, a man who I have since come to regard as one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. The good news was that Wise was helming a lavish and ambitious epic SF movie. The bad news was that it eventually turned out to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I found the movie somewhat baffling, but my father’s dissatisfaction was both palpable and loud. Ever since that day, TMP has had a toxic reputation in our house for being long, slow, boring, and dry, and it’s a view I suppose I automatically stuck with myself for many years. Not that we were alone, of course: I suspect the received wisdom that ‘odd numbered Trek films are no good’ is largely the result of TMP‘s perceived flaws.

Of course, the movie has picked up its defenders in the meanwhile – ‘much to enjoy,’ says the Encyclopedia of SF, noting that the subsequent movies are a ‘sentimental mishmash’ whose popularity is ‘mystifying’. Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think that if you look more closely at TMP you can see most of its problems arise from a clash between very different agendas and creative sensibilities. Is to understand really to forgive? I’ve never been completely convinced, but it can’t hurt.

Two and a half years have passed since the return of the Enterprise from its original mission (or so it is strongly implied). Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to the Admiralty, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has gone into retreat and is attempting to join the Vulcan Logic Club, McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has retired from Starfleet, Scotty (Jimmy Doohan) has been busy rebuilding the ship, and so on. Then an alien object of incredible power appears, on a direct course for Earth – despite the Federation becoming aware of it while it’s still on the other side of the Klingon border, the only ship that can be scrambled to intercept it is the Enterprise, which suggests to me that Starfleet need to start building a lot more vessels.

Well, Kirk decides to lead the mission himself, royally ticking off the Enterprise‘s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and gets the old gang back together for this crucially important mission. Can they rediscover that old chemistry before the whole planet is toast?

The first thing to be said about TMP is that it was, after all, directed by Robert Wise, he of The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story fame, and he really does seem to have been trying to make a proper SF movie. The movie has a scope and a willingness to visually innovate that you don’t really find in the rest of the series, and there are some wonderful sequences – the opening battle between the alien probe and the Klingons being one of them, although I do recall being thrown by this at the time – while this sequence played a huge role in reimagining the Klingons for the 1980s and beyond, it’s only in retrospect that we are aware of this.

Of course, Wise’s own ambition, coupled to the unorthodox way in which this film was made, trips him up just as often. The special effects sequences for this movie were completed heart-stoppingly late and could not be re-edited or modified in any way before being inserted into the final print, and the result is sequences like Kirk’s trip to the Enterprise in spacedock via a cargo pod: this takes nearly five minutes, with no dialogue, just long, slow shots of the Enterprise, Kirk looking lovingly at it, the pod slowly flying past the Enterprise a bit more, Scotty looking with indulgent fondness at Kirk, more long, slow, shots of the Enterprise… the music is not too bad, but you inevitably start huffing and looking at your watch. Elsewhere, like many other ‘serious’ 70s films, the yardstick is obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, with journeys into the heart of the alien probe obviously designed to recall the star gate sequence from Kubrick’s film.

On the other hand, you wonder how much of the pseudo-mysticism and laborious philosophy in this movie has been put there by its producer and co-writer, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry by this point was keen to be viewed as some kind of visionary thinker as well as a TV and movie writer-producer, and this is perhaps why, every time he got his hands on Star Trek after the cancellation of the original TV show, he was very keen to impose his vision of the future on it, in an unadulterated form. So much of the life and lightness and wit of the TV series came from the work of writers like DC Fontana and Gene L Coon; you can draw a fairly solid line from The Cage (Roddenberry’s original pilot for the show) to TMP and then on to early episodes of Next Generation – none of these are light and zippy entertainment, all of them feature main characters who (initially at least) are best described as ‘stolid’, and the first two take place largely in shades of grey and brown – one wonders if the maroon command uniforms in Next Generation are only there to suggest continuity with the similar hues on display in the movies around that time.

These days it is well-known that TMP was, for part of its tortuous development process, intended to be the introductory episode of a TV series to be entitled Star Trek: Phase II, in which Kirk and a mixture of old and new characters (not including Spock) would set off on a series of new adventures. If you ask me, many of the problems with TMP become much more comprehensible if you consider that this was originally intended to be a TV pilot rather than a feature film.

For one thing, the key characters of the movie are not really recognisable – Kirk starts off driven and chilly, and only very gradually starts to warm up and become a sympathetic hero as Spock and McCoy slot into place around him. Spock himself is distant and conflicted for most of the movie. Only at the end of the story, in the concluding tag scene on the bridge, do the trio seem to have rediscovered the chemistry which made them so magical in the TV show. This would make perfect sense in the pilot for a new weekly TV show – the story shows them getting back together and remembering who they are, preparatory to further adventures in the rest of the series – but in a one-off movie, not having characters more identifiable from the original show is a serious misjudgement. Needless to say, Decker and new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) were also intended to be regulars in Phase II; Roddenberry appears to have been very attached to these characters and their relationship, seeing as he gave them the lightest of reworkings and stuck them in Next Generation under the new names of Riker and Troi.

Much of the creative DNA of The Motion Picture comes from its origins as a TV pilot, while the cinematic ambition of Robert Wise is a competing, rival influence. (I suppose we must also mention the way in which the movie recycles plots and ideas from TV series episodes, too, particularly The Changeling, though this is probably more an issue for your hard-core Trekkies than the average viewer.) No wonder it is a bit of a mess in may ways. Parts of it feel like the lavish, thoughtful movie it was clearly intended to be; other parts of it feel like a bad TV show. The main difficulty is that very little of it actually feels like original Star Trek, and that’s an immense problem for this kind of movie.

 

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