The eighties were a golden age for sci-fi movies. Whether or not you consider the "sci-fi eighties" having started in 1977 with the release of Star Wars, it's hard to find a decade with more science fiction classics. The eighties gave us Blade Runner, Aliens, (most of) the Back to the Future trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Amid all that, there's one trio of sci-fi films that sometimes gets overlooked.
We're talking about the three Star Trek films released from 1982 to 1986; an interconnected trilogy that defines the best of cinematic Trek, and some of the best science fiction storytelling of the eighties. Here's why you should binge the Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home before all three leave Hulu (and probably Amazon Prime) at the end of December 2020.
Yes, there is a "Star Trek trilogy" — Even someone who has never seen a Trek movie is probably aware there are more than three Star Trek flicks. In total — counting the three reboot films and the four Next Generation feature films — there are 13 Star Trek movies. But, with the exception of three back-to-back movies in the eighties, there's no string of Trek movies that actually tell a story, chapter by chapter. This makes Star Trek II, Star Trek III, and Star Trek IV, unique in the franchise.
If you start watching Trek movies with II, you won't be confused, and if you keep watching III and IV, you'll be rewarded, because the movies all rely on each other. No other Trek movies are like this. Sure, if you watch Star Trek V or First Contact without knowing anything about Trek, you might be a little confused, but the ten movies that aren't in the "Star Trek trilogy" are, for the most part, self-contained.
The trilogy represented a radical change in how Star Trek was made — After the critical failure — and mixed box office — of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, Paramount hired new producers to oversee the project that would eventually become The Wrath of Khan. This included Harve Bennett and Robert Sallin, critical additions to the cinematic Trek team, and instrumental to taking these kinds of movies seriously. For example, it was Robert Sallin who suggested that Paramount hire Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic to oversee the VFX on The Wrath. Meanwhile, both Sallin and Harve Bennett took an outsider's approach to The Wrath of Khan, which eventually led to the hiring of author-director Nicholas Meyer as the director of that film. Although Meyer wasn't involved with the subsequent film, The Search For Spock, he did co-write The Voyage Home. Meanwhile, Harve Bennett effectively took over all of Star Trek films for the entirety of the '80s. This Star Trek legacy is this trilogy of films.
The Search For Spock also marked the first time a Trek actor — Leonard Nimoy — directed one of the films. Nimoy then directed The Voyage Home and helped develop the story. This started a tradition in the franchise, one that resulted in Jonathan Frakes directing the smash-hit First Contact in 1996, and continues to his day, with Patrick Stewart serving as a producer on Picard.
The Star Trek trilogy represents a huge spectrum of great sci-fi — Broadly, The Wrath of Khan, The Search For Spock, and The Voyage Home tell the story of the Enterprise crew losing Spock, losing their famous starship, and then, coming all back together. But within each film is a unique sci-fi trope that each gets unpacked in exciting ways.
- In The Wrath of Khan, the sci-fi premise is basically: What if terraforming was treated like a nuclear missile?
- In The Search for Spock, a classic sci-fi body-switching premise is expanded to include the question: What happens if your body dies, and your mind is trapped in another person's head?
- Finally, in The Voyage Home, you've got a time travel caper that involves an endangered species that need to communicate with an advanced alien probe in the future.
Even if you divorced these premises from their Star Trek contexts, it's all great material for any science fiction story. Although The Wrath and The Search have memorable villains, the premises of these movies are not about interstellar space war between the armies of darkness and light. There's a subtlety to these epic space conflicts, and political realism, too. Just because a nifty piece of technology exists within these films, doesn't mean there aren't larger ramifications to characters and governments outside of our core characters.
The "Star Trek trilogy" — The Wrath of Khan, The Search For Spock, and The Voyage Home — represent a rare balancing act in any sci-fi movie franchise. The films are funny, deeply exciting, emotionally heartbreaking, and they all look great to this day. Marvel Studios boss Kevin Fiege has often cited these films as an inspiration in creating stakes and emotional beats for the MCU. And when you rewatch the "Star Trek trilogy" you'll see why.
Where is the Star Trek trilogy actually streaming? Well, here's where it gets complicated: As of December 1, 2020, The Wrath of Khan and The Search For Spock are both on Hulu, but not The Voyage Home. That one is on Amazon Prime and CBS All Access. Also, it's possible right now to watch the whole trilogy — The Wrath of Khan, The Search For Spock, and The Voyage Home — on Amazon Prime.
Will these Trek films also leave Amazon Prime on December 31, 2020? We know The Wrath and The Search will leave Hulu at the end of 2020, so there's a good bet they will also leave Prime at that time, too. Here's why: sometime in early 2021, CBS All Access will become Paramount+. All the Star Trek movies are Paramount titles, so, it makes sense they'll all end up there. But, that's not confirmed. It's possible the "Star Trek trilogy" might still be on Amazon Prime in January 2021.