Asking someone to name a favorite Star Trek film is more or less a trick question, because 9.99999 times out 10, if a person doesn’t say Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan she’ll sound like a crazy heretic. In the aggregate, Star Trek films are very rarely good, and more alarmingly, almost never good Star Trek movies. Whether Star Trek Beyond is at all successful is almost beside the point. Here’s why you can still love it and all other Star Trek movies, even if they’re bad.
In his memoir, The View from the Bridge, Nicholas Meyer – director and writer of The Wrath of Khan – highlights the challenge of transferring Star Trek from television to film by quoting one of his mentors, director Elliot Silverstein: “…if you turn on the picture and turn off the sound, [the television show] becomes essentially a series of talking heads,” he writes.
What he’s saying is that the basic structure of the ‘60’s TV show was essentially something you could have experienced as a radio play: the dialogue and the concepts are mostly what drive everything, with the visuals a secondary concern. Sure, the original Trek has some memorable special effects for its time and some stirring action sequences featuring William Shatner smacking people around with Styrofoam, but if you’ve tried to watch an episode of the classic series in a movie theater (and I have), the results are less than stellar. Star Trek, in its undiluted form, is ruminative television, not a sprawling space epic on the order of Star Wars.
It’s a tiny bit apocryphal to claim the only reason Star Trek: The Motion Picture was made in 1979 was the success of Star Wars, but it’s true enough for our purposes, here. Because right at the start is where Star Trek movies started having such a hard time: how do you distill 79 hours of television, into two hours of film? Particularly when those episodes touched nearly all genres; from mystery, to horror, comedy, to melodrama, to cautionary tale, all of which happen in a sci-fi setting. What director Robert Wise, Paramount Pictures, and others settled on was giving the first Star Trek: The Motion Picture a somber 2001: A Space Odyssey tone. Here was a sci-fi film that could look as good as Star Wars, but would move at a more contemplative, adult pace. And everyone hated it.
The biggest crime of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that of all the Trek films, it’s the one that’s most like an episode of the original series. So, Robert Wise and everyone else involved succeeded in what they set out to do: they created a nice-looking, big-screen version of Star Trek, boring philosophizing and all. It just wasn’t well-received.
Here, we might have a totally amazing and possibly contradictory rubric for why certain kinds of Star Trek films are deemed good or bad: Star Trek movies are bad in general when they’re too much like TV Star Trek. But, they are good movies in general when they’re less like TV Star Trek. Depending on what kind of fan you are, this could mean you either love Star Trek: First Contact or hate it. Love it because its a fun action-filled movie with Star Trek stuff in it, or hate it because the idea of Captain Picard as a shoot-em-up action hero is distasteful and contrary to the character’s television persona.
Of course, all of this is pretty extreme, but that’s kind of how these conversations generally shake out. In the comedy show Spaced Simon Pegg’s character Tim says “Every odd-numbered Star Trek film is shite.” By and large, most people will tell you this is true. There’s a good number of exceptions, but what’s truer other than an even/odd superstition is the idea that the real formula for these things being well-liked is a perfect cocktail of just enough Star Trek but not too much.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the easiest example of a “bad” movie that is “bad” because it has probably too much legit Star Trek stuff in it. To be clear, this is a movie many people hate, but the premise — the Enterprise finds an alien masquerading as a false God — is right-in-line with the several plots from the original series. We can argue the production values, pacing and dialogue are to blame for it sucking, but as a Star Treky Star Trek film, it mostly succeeds. Plus, the character beats in this movie are great and consistent with the source material, too. Point is: you can like Star Trek V because it’s bad in exactly the way the original series was sometimes bad: it overstates its premise and leans heavily on your love of Kirk, Spock and Bones. If you want to hate it as a movie in general, you also can for the obvious awfulness of Shatner’s hair piece.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan also leans heavily on your love of those three guys. Plus, it honors the continuity of the original series by bringing back Khan,and has cool sci-fi stuff with the Genesis Device. Throw in some Moby Dick and Tale of Two Cities action and BOOM: you’ve got a classic movie that is also a wonderful Star Trek movie. Never forget however: The Wrath of Khan is an aberration! In fact, it’s basically a miracle.
One of themes of The Wrath centers on the idea of a “no-win scenario,” the message being that the way we face certain doom defines our character. Attempting to do a Star Trek film which satisfies a huge number of people is a no-win scenario, too. If you pander to one kind of fan, then you can alienate another. In 2013, a large number of Trekkies placed the pseudo-Trek spoof film Galaxy Quest ahead of Star Trek Into Darkness in an online poll about their favorite Star Trek movies. So, a movie that makes fun of Star Trek was more popular than one that tried to give people what they wanted. Clearly, a sane filmmaker would look at those demographics and just say, “no thanks.”
But like Captain Kirk on a motorcycle, Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond is coming whether you’re ready or not. Tons of fans are worried it will just be an action film with Star Trek characters. If that’s true, keep this in mind: that’s totally fine. Star Trek movies have been screwing up the basic notion of Star Trek since the beginning. If you truly love the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and its surrounding mythology, you’ll find a way to love Beyond, too. In The Final Frontier, Kirk says God isn’t “out there,” but instead, found within. And it might be a good time to remember that each fan’s conception of what constitutes good Star Trek is probably the same.