Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Star Trek Movies

Yes, there was a time, a very long time between 1966 and 1987, when Star Trek was synonymous with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty. That time span overlapped my entire childhood up to and beyond high school graduation. Although I really liked watching The Original Series with my Dad, there was no such thing as a Star Trek movie until 1979 with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This came a few years after the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters, which managed to convince Hollywood that science fiction films could actually sell (again). At the time, it was a big deal, because after 10 years of silence, all the original cast members were going to reappear on the big screen, and Gene Roddenberry was coming with them! This state of affairs would continue for at least 4 feature films until Gene passed away, and then the cast would continue on for two more. The original series had established a working formula of characters and their relationships on a backdrop of great script material. Now with a larger budget, better direction, a more mature cast, and more time on screen to add depth to the script, those characters were brought to life in a way that could be more readily believed and accepted by audiences. This period of the Star Trek movie releases, particularly the first three (and partially the fourth), remains in my opinion the glory days of the franchise. What follows in the next several posts is my own impressions and experience of that period.

The first Star Trek film was a bit of a think piece. It was in fact inspired by one of the earlier episodes called The Changeling, about a robot probe named Nomad originally programmed for a science mission to investigate new life forms. It was abandoned to drift through space and got mixed up with another alien probe designed to sterilize soil samples on other planets. The more advanced probe beefed up the other's capabilities and the two missions melded. Nomad now thinks its purpose is to sterilize planets of imperfect life forms, including humans. Many elements, such as Spock's mind meld with the probe and Kirk's logical argumentation with it are included in the film, although now integrated into a much deeper and more complex story. It was definitely my kind of film, but not as easily consumed by general audiences.

I remember first seeing it with a good friend of mine named George Dimen who is a bit of an amateur philosopher and still my friend to this day. He loved it too and we spent a good deal of time discussing the philosophical implications that it raised. I think I remember us identifying about four different layers of meaning, each at a different level of abstraction, written into various lines that were spoken in the movie. Today I think we might have been reading more into it than was there. Somehow I managed to see the film four times (this was before VHS tapes), not because of any loyalty to Star Trek, but to go back and try to capture all those layers we had talked about.

I also bought the soundtrack and found that I really liked some of the pieces, which were written by Jerry Goldsmith, who also did Logan's Run and Alien. He chose to leave behind the famous opening from the TV series and write his own new theme piece, which later became the theme for the new series, The Next Generation, and is now what most people associate it with. One of my favorite pieces was the second track which accompanied the Klingon attack at the beginning of the movie. At the time I was experimenting with piano so I learned to play a simple rendition of it (amazing how much time you have when you're a teenager). I used to listen to it and imagine watching the entire attack sequence in full detail. It's such a good piece I once heard it playing on a classical radio station. This Youtube link has the complete orchestration from the soundtrack, and below is the movie clip including the opening titles - although the dialog track is missing.

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