We have The Original Series, which ended in 1969. We have The Animated Series, which ran in 1973 and 1974. That was enough for Paramount to make Star Trek the cornerstone of a proposed fourth network. Unfortunately, it never came about, but the work done setting up Star Trek Phase II triggered Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which led to five sequels, The Next Generation, and beyond.
But how does one approach the movies? Well, take them in order one at a time.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture – A strange little movie called Star Wars made a Star Trek movie a no-brainer. The effects could now make the Enterprise look more realistic. So now-Admiral James T. Kirk is called back into action as a “thing” eats three Klingon cruisers and a Federation outpost. He coldly takes command of an overhauled Enterprise from his own hand-picked successor as captain, Will Decker, and finds himself competing with him. The crew – Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov – are happy to see him back. McCoy has started swearing. Spock has his kolinahr interrupted by V’Ger. Punchline? V’Ger threatens to destroy Earth if it cannot join with the creator, only to reveal it’s an old NASA space probe heavily augmented by alien machines. Solution? It joins with Decker and his sexy bald girlfriend, Ilia to become… Something.
This movie often gets ranked low, above The Final Frontier and the later Into Darkness, and waaaaay ahead of the godawful Nemesis. It’s partly because Gene Roddenberry and company wanted to differentiate Trek from Star Wars. Also, based on some earlier script ideas and Roddenberry’s seventies work, they wanted to take Trek more toward 2001, Silent Running, and Solaris. Unfortunately, with big budgets comes the need for big action. As a classic scifi novel, The Motion Picture works beautifully. And had it tapped into more of the Close Encounters vibe, it might have engaged audiences better. But audiences wanted high action to go with their big budget effects. Yet it was enough to get a second movie greenlit.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Not just a classic Trek movie or even a classic science fiction movie, The Wrath of Khan is a cinematic classic. Ricardo Montalban reprises his TOS role as Khan, a twentieth-century (Now twenty-first, thanks to some careful tweaking) genetic superman and tyrant. Exiled to a wilderness planet, his band of survivors suffers the planet’s devastation. When Chekov arrives aboard the Reliant, at last, Khan has his revenge! (Tell me you didn’t read that in Montalban’s voice, and I’ll call you a liar.) He hunts down Kirk and demands the ultimate weapon, a torpedo that can remake a planet or moon into a lush paradise. His lust to kill Kirk results in an epic battle inside a nebula. Unfortunately, it also results in Spock’s death.
There’s a lot to love here. Kirk’s midlife crisis is better handled here, as is McCoy’s attempts to walk him through. The Kirk-Spock dynamic is defined here better than at any other point in Trek, save maybe Star Trek VI. Sulu and Uhura are no longer just Kirk’s subordinates. They’re almost Kirk’s equals. And director Nick Meyer introduces a compelling recurring character in Saavik. Originally scripted as a half-Romulan protege of Spock, she is a youthful mirror held up to Kirk, calling him out on his cavalier attitude toward the rules.
Roddenberry objected to the more militaristic look to Starfleet and the need for a space battle, but The Wrath of Khan was just great storytelling. And all the characters moved forward. Except Spock. Or did he?
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – So, how do you bring Spock back? Genesis. (Is planet forbidden!) Leonard Nimoy agreed to do The Wrath of Khan if they killed off Spock. During shooting, he changed his mind and said he’d come back if he could direct the next two movies. Oops. With one shot in The Wrath of Khan, he sets up this, the strangest of the Meyer-Nimoy movies. McCoy is going off the deep end. Kirk’s son (Merritt Butrick) and Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis) are exploring the Genesis planet. A Klingon named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) is obsessed with obtaining Genesis. Kirk wants to go to Genesis with McCoy to retrieve Spock’s body. Starfleet says no. He is therefore going anyway. Kruge destroys David and Saavik’s ship while they figure out what to do with a regenerated Spock. Kirk and company steal the Enterprise, stop Kruge, and kill his crew by blowing up the Enterprise as the Klingons board. Kirk is in a surprisingly merciful mood since Kruge had his son murdered. When Kirk offers a deal, Kruge opts to be a dick instead. Kirk. Has had. Enough. Of him! They flee to Vulcan in Kruge’s now hijacked bird-of-prey. Spock’s marbles are put back into his head.
It’s a shaky premise, but the movie depends on the chemistry of the cast. Uhura gets the last laugh on an arrogant ensign while Sulu and Chekov engineer McCoy’s escape from the loonie bin and Kirk’s theft of the Enterprise. And of course, Scotty makes it all happen. Though there is some speculation by fans of unseen help in Spacedock. Perhaps La’an Noonien Singh, still having a soft spot for Kirk and angry over her ancestor’s crimes, pulls a Hunt for Red October, shows up as Section 31, orders some poor ensign to let the Enterprise go, and informs said ensign, “Now, that was a malfunction. And I was never here.”
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – Or, Star Trek: The One With the Whales. Kirk and company must take their stolen Klingon ship home on the way to their own funeral. A probe pulls a V’Ger and threatens to destroy the Earth, but not because it wants to meet the Creator. Nope, it just wants to talk to some whales. Specifically, hump back whales. Which no longer exist in 2285. They do exist in the past, as in 1987.
This is a fish-out-of-water story and a comedic one at that. Part of the so-called “Meyer Trilogy,” director Nimoy opted to shoot a lighter story following two really dark entries in the Trek story. A lot gets tied up in this one, and if Star Trek IV was the end of The Original Series, that would have ended it on a high note. Kirk is “demoted” to captain. Spock reconciles with his father. McCoy gets his marbles back. Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and especially Chekov get a lot to do. Best of all, they’re returned to the Enterprise. Okay, it’s the Enterprise A, but it’s the Enterprise. It’s the cast’s chemistry that makes this work so well. They all know each other’s ticks and rhythms. You really believe these people have worked together off and on for twenty years.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – Sigh. Enteprise meets God, and he’s an asshole. (Also, not really God, just an energy being with constipation.) It’s Shatner’s turn to direct, and well, even he admits he could have done a better job. It’s too bad because Laurence Luckinbill is brilliant as Spock’s crazy half-brother Sybok. And the chemistry of the cast is the one thing that does work. But going to the center of the galaxy in a matter of hours? The new Enterprise still working out its punchlist? And let’s be honest, Klaa is the single dumbest Klingon in all Trek history, and I’ve always believed Duras was a moron. (A dangerous, clever moron, but a moron.) It ranks above Nemesis in most people’s worst-to-first, but Nemesis is a low bar to clear. The less said about this, the better.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – YouTuber Steve Shives calls this the perfect series finale. He has a point. We’re four seasons into Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which the Klingons are the boisterous, rowdy best buds of the Federation. But where the hell did that come from?
Why that came from Spock, who opened a dialog with the Klingon chancellor after a catastrophic disaster nearly destroys their homeworld. Producers rightly paired this with “Unification,” the TNG episode in which Spock begins the process of reuniting Romulus and Vulcan. (Ultimately paid off in both Picard and the latter seasons of Discovery.) Both stories have parallel cold-war ending themes.
Sulu is a captain (and a damn good one, from what we see.) Kirk must confront his prejudice against Klingons, challenged by Chancellor Gorkon’s olive branch. Spock is a better captain than a diplomat. (Cut him some slack! It’s his first interstellar upheaval!) McCoy is, of course, McCoy, but Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov collectively become Spock’s number one. Meyer originally wanted Saavik to appear, but given she betrays Kirk and Spock, they created Valeris rather than ruining a beloved character. Valeris seems to be the beginning of the snide, condescending side of Vulcans, which Enterprise and, to a lesser extent, Discovery and Strange New Worlds, make creative hay from. But the next time we see the original crew, it’s only Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov, and Kirk “dies” in the first fifteen minutes. (If only they’d waited until Tuesday.) TUC does ride roughshod over its own plot, but this is covered by the relentless pacing. It’s a ride to the end, and the original crew gets a proper send0ff.
The TOS movies took about four days to watch. It seems as though they ignore The Motion Picture even if some of its consequences remain. The Wrath of Khan anchors a trilogy with roots back to the show’s original run. The movie run itself folds the storyline nicely into TNG, which is up next. Unfortunately, I’ll have to watch seasons 1 and 2 before it starts to feel like Star Trek and not Buck Rogers with Klingons and phasers.