Sunday, August 22, 2010

Trek Movies - Of Gods and Whales

The fourth Star Trek film, The Voyage Home, was written as a continuation of the previous story arc in which the Enterprise crew had stolen the ship against Starfleet's orders and then sent it crashing to a fiery death. They are now on their way back to Earth in a Klingon warship to face the consequences. Lucy, you got some splainin' to do! Naturally, in order to redeem themselves, they would have to save the Earth from some horrendous disaster, and that becomes the focus of the film. The producers decided to take a more light hearted approach to the script, which was quite a departure from the more serious offerings of the previous trilogy, a daring proposal indeed.

After seeing the film, I remember feeling quite disappointed as I left the theater. It wasn't just because of the sometimes silly situational humor that pervaded the film, even at the expense of continuity. If this time around the goal was to let up on the heavy for a while, as long as it didn't become the focus it was tolerable. I could even forgive them for creating a story designed to preach a message about the need to preserve endangered species, with Humpback whales as their obvious proxy. Sure, it was kind of cheesy and not nearly as inventive as the prior scripts, but at least it was somewhat in line with what was often seen during the television series. No, what tipped me over the edge was the amount of incredulous nonsense that was presented as science fiction. Can we really imagine that the whales were visited by an ancient alien race and could intelligently communicate with them? If the probe they sent out can hear the whale song from space, as at the end of the film, then why did it need to evaporate the oceans in search of them? Let's move on from the whales and mention the highly problematic idea, actually taken from an earlier TOS episode, that you can travel back in time using some combination of warp drive and gravity. I'm sorry, but both of those phenomenon would take you into the future, not the past. Believing in the Klingon's cloaking device was tough enough in empty space, but how about it making the entire vessel invisible on the ground at close range? Absolutely no thought was given to credibility except that which was borrowed. Probably the most shameless ploy of all was the tongue-in-cheek way the script poked fun at all the cast members. That was like selling out the fan base for the sake of wider popularity. As a fan myself, I think perhaps my expectations had gotten too high to have avoided such a reaction. I was not alone. Many Star Trek fans didn't receive the film well, but it gained huge traction with general audiences, and perhaps that was the plan all along.

Leonard Nimoy was asked to direct again, but given more freedom regarding the content. I don't know if it was primarily Nimoy or Harve Bennett, but what was with all the favorite liberal references? Greenpeace style rescues of the whales from the evil whaling vessels, the liberated female who finally tells Kirk she doesn't need him around, choosing to land the ship in San Francisco, Spock's hippie outfit and reference to LSD, and even a side bar involving nuclear energy. The pattern was too obvious to ignore. Perhaps it was some sort of tribute to the fact that the original series came out in the 60's, or maybe just an attempt to showcase the writer's favorite politically correct causes. In short, the fourth film tried to make Star Trek into something other than it had been up to that point, and so it has to stand apart from the other films, despite the peripheral story line connection.

Two more movies would later be produced following the launch of The Next Generation. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, proved to be even worse than the fourth. This time, it was William Shatner that was given the role of director and was able to influence the script as well. The jokes are corny and bad, the script is filled with silly psychoanalysis, and the entire premise of the story is more theological than science fiction, in a way that satisfies neither. On the whole, it is, in my opinion, an embarrassment to the franchise.
I almost want to believe that Nick Meyer, who directed Khan and helped salvage the script of The Voyage Home, went on to direct Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as a means of redemption. The sixth film was more like a traditional action sci-fi story and although not anywhere near the caliber of the earlier films, at least held up to the original series. The only thing that made me cringe was the stupid Shakespearean quotations uttered at inopportune times by the Klingon commander. Hey, that worked with Khan because he really believed what he was quoting, and he was a fellow human as well. The sixth film was also designed to fill in some history created by TNG, which is that Starfleet eventually makes peace with the Klingons. This film did a decent job of recording that part of the new lore and explaining how the new Enterprise could have a Klingon head of security (Wharf). It was at least a nice way of handing the baton from the old series to the new one, better than the few attempts at doing this in the subsequent Star Trek TNG films.

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