Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Star Trek Retrospective I: 1966-1986

Dude at Rotten Tomatoes is doing this retrospective thing where he spends each day leading up to May 8th watching the 10 Trek films for the first time and reviewing them, from a non-fan perspective. Thus, I copy him, albeit from a mucho-fan perspective & including the five TV series.

The Dawn of Greatness
We begin with Star Trek (The Original Series), airing on NBC from 1966-1969. Earnest and honest even at it's cheesiest, this is one of the more watchable, enjoyable TV dramas ever created. In the midst of a tumultuous decade, just as Science Fiction was taking a turn for the apocalyptic with Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, et al, Star Trek presented denizens with hope. It envisioned a future where mankind has outgrown its petty differences and set out across the galaxy on a mission of peaceful exploration. Poverty, disease, and (human-vs-human) war have gone the way of Bubonic Plague. We're not saints, we're still driven by emotion and greed, but to a more controlled extent.

At the end of the day though it was the characters that made this series the classic it became. Spock, Bones and Kirk, the logic, the emotion and the mediator respecitvely were all instantly-relatable badasses who we loved to watch kick Klingon butt week after week. They were the original Bromance. If there was one reason Trek went off the rails in the past decade, it could be pinned on losing sight of that important fact: it's the characters, stupid.

All in all, a flawed but rightfully beloved masterwork that was ahead of its time and relevant still today.

Best Episodes:
- "City on the Edge of Forever" (giant glowing donut sends a drugged Bones back in time, Spock & Kirk travel back to the 1930's to stop him)
- "Balance of Terror"
(the Enterprise must hunt down a rogue Romulan ship, gets pummeled)
- "Errand of Mercy" (Kirk must convince a planet of pacifist hippies to resist a Klingon occupation, the hippies end up pwning both Kirk and the awesome Klingon captain)
- "The Trouble with Tribbles" (revenge of the furballs)

How it ends:
Cancelled abruptly after its 3rd season due to "low" ratings despite an Emmy nom for Best Dramatic Series. Neilsen calculated its ratings differently back then with less weight placed on demographics; it is said that had they calculated the way they started calculating just a year later, Star Trek would've regularly cracked the top 10.

"Cancelling that show was the worst mistake we ever made."
Almost imediately following its seeming-death, Star Trek reruns rapidly found a massive audience in the "right as kids get home from school" syndication timeslot. Throughout the 70's it amassed more and more popularity to eventually absurd magnitudes. Paramount's eyes lit up. In Trek, they saw an opportunity to replicate Fox's then-recent success with Star Wars, thus was born:

The First Four Movies
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) - Cobbled together from remnants of an abandoned Trek spinoff pilot, this ambitious monster was a respectable failure. It tried to be a Grand Cerebral SciFi Masterpiece (tm) in the vein of 2001, with a record-breaking budget to match, but Star Trek isn't 2001. "It's the characters, stupid," which is where TMP goes awry. High-concept ideas about machines and humanity and pretty-looking spaceship models take precedence over emotion and leave us with little to do except watch the crew stand around the bridge looking really worried about the admittedly impressive visuals flashing by on the screen. The result isn't terrible persay, merely very boring and stilted. A robotic affair worth one viewing but not another.

Best Line:
"V'ger!" - Ilia

How it ends:
"The Human Adventure is Just Beginning" (with a box office tally clearly warranting a sequel)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - That's more like it. Until allegedly now, this was Trek's one *great* classic movie. It's an old, simple tale of revenge, death, love and life... all character-oriented stuff that gets us back to what made the Original Series so great in the first place. The cast is back on their game, Shatner's voice echoes through eternity and our tears are undeniably jerked. It's clearly more of a campy B-movie than an Oscar vehicle, but there's no shame in that.

One of Countless Best Lines:
"Of all the souls I've encountered in my travels, his was the most... (with difficulty) ...human..." - Kirk

How it ends:
One of cinema's singularly great death/funeral scenes.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) - Okay, a little bit bumpier of a ride here, but not terrible. Clearly struggling to fill Khan's big shoes, this film of mostly middling-quality salavages itself with one of the greatest 3rd acts in the series. Most of the time it's slow, cheap-looking and not all that interesting if you're unfamiliar with the mythology. When it finally takes off about 50min from the end it becomes suddenly unexpectedly AWESOME, like a switch was flipped, but never enough to redeem the hobbled beggining. Merits include a terrific, at times heart-wrenching performance from Shatner, some terrific one-liners and an intriguing mystical tone to the whole thing. Cons include the distracting Genesis Planet set and the aforementioned snooze-inducing first two-acts. A very mixed but lovable bag.

Best Line:
(in the aftermath of a kick-ass action piece)
Kirk: "My God Bones, what have I done?"
Bones: "What you had to do, what you always do, turn death into a fighting chance to live."

How it ends:
A "series finale" type ending + box office take warranting a further sequel:

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) - aka "the one with the whales", as sleak as it is silly. After three sobering, bittersweet stories, in particular the 3rd one, it was time to lighten the mood. This is a straight "fish out of water" comedy with a lightweight save the Earth moral, chronicling the crew's hijincks in 1980's San Fran. It's also probably the best looking of the bunch with Oscar-garnering cinematography. My verdict: I'm more a fan of the sobering drama character stuff, so while I recognize that this is a clever, well made and funny film, I don't really love it. But other peeps might & do.

Best Line:
"Is this a time for another 'colorful metaphor'?" - Spock

How it ends:
"Let's see what she's got..."

Further reviews in due time.

1 comment:

  1. You forget the greatest of all Star Trek quotes:

    "Exhilarating, isn't it?!"