Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SIFLW: Original Star Trek Movies as a Non-Trekkie


On this week's episode of Something Interesting From Last Week: The original Star Trek movies!

So yeah, last week I marathoned all the original Star Trek movies. I rather enjoy J. J. Abrams's new reboots of the franchise and—with the vague notion that they somehow broke with tradition—I wanted to see if the original films were accessible to someone who hadn't seen any of the television episodes. The short answer is yes. For the most part I didn't feel like there was something I should have known or something the movies weren't telling me. It was easy to pick up on who the characters were and what parts they were supposed to be playing. I think my understanding and appreciation may have been enhanced if I knew more about the series, but it never felt like I was missing out on anything major. 


So here's a quick run-down of the movies. The basic layout of the twelve movies is this: the first six movies feature the original crew of Kirk, Spock, McCoy (Bones), Scotty, etc; the next four movies feature the Next Generation crew of Picard, Riker, Data, Worf, etc; and the final two movies feature the rebooted original crew. The first movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is interesting in that it features the original crew of the Enterprise but almost none of the world they would usually inhabit. Some of the characters are given new backstories and many of the star Trek visual coordinates are missing (eg. the Romulans). 

The second, The Wrath of Khan, is pretty uncontested as the most beloved, in part for its central villain (Khan, who originally appeared in the television episodes and who was rebooted in Into Darkness) and for its generally solid construction both in terms of the writing and production value. Every subsequent installment in the franchise would basically be living beneath its shadow, highlighted by the fact that the next two movies (Search for Spock and Voyage Home) simply continue where it left off rather than starting fresh. The Voyage Home is also an interesting case since it took the risk of being a comedy more than an adventure and placing the crew of the Enterprise in 20th century California (it is largely considered a success).

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is where the foundation of these movies started to really feel shaky. It was directed by William Shatner himself (the actor who played Kirk) and his overconfidence really shows. The movie attempts to tackle enormous questions like the existence of God against an occasionally comedic background composed of McCoy's silly one-liners and Kirk and Spock's bromance. Fortunately they got it back together for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and reteamed with Nicholas Meyer, the director of Wrath of KhanUndiscovered Country succeeded in filling the void left in the wake of Khan by presenting a well-written story based on developed characters and fully utilizing all the tools in the Star Trek arsenal.

From here we transition to the Next Generation crew, and Star Trek: Generations had the unenviable task of uniting the two timelines (it stars both Kirk and Picard). It is a bit of a divisive film as it significantly improves on the failure of Final Frontier but doesn't nearly reach the greatness of Wrath of Khan or Undiscovered Country. Fortunately the series made a quick recovery with the excellent First Contact, a movie that used established and effective character arcs to tell a more action-based story. Afterward however the series struggled to find its feet again, with Insurrection apparently imitating (unsuccessfully) the structure of the television shows and Nemesis presenting a flat rehash of the Wrath of Khan story (Nemesis was the first to not make it's budget back at the domestic box office, barely breaking even after international).

And this is where the J. J. Abrams reboots come in. These two movies were also rather divisive, with fans and critics alike unable to agree on the question of their quality. They stand out from the rest of the franchise not only in their story, but in their structure. Both reboots are longer than any other Star Trek movie besides the first (Motion Picture), and both received a much larger budget and made significantly larger profits (even if you take inflation into account). Compared to the original series movies they're less thematically dense but more action-packed, and compared to the Next Generation movies they're more character-driven and less action-packed.

Here's some raw data:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Director: Robert Wise
132 minutes
Budget: $35 million
Gross: $129 million

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Director: Nicholas Meyer
113 minutes
Budget: $11 million
Gross: $97 million

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Director: Leonard Nimoy
105 minutes
Budget: $18 million
Gross: $87 million

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Director: Leonard Nimoy
119 minutes
Budget: $24 million
Gross: $133 million

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Director: William Shatner
107 minutes
Budget: $30 million
Gross: $70 million

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Director: Nicholas Meyer
109 minutes
Budget: $27 million
Gross: $97 million

Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Director: David Carson
117 minutes
Budget: $35 million
Gross: $120 million

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Director: Jonathan Frakes
111 minutes
Budget: $46 million
Gross: $150 million

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Director: Jonathan Frakes
103 minutes
Budget: $58 million
Gross: $118 million

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Director: Stuart Baird
116 minutes
Budget: $60 million
Gross: $67 million

Star Trek (2009)
Director: J. J. Abrams
126 minutes
Budget: $150 million
Gross: $385 million

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Director: J. J. Abrams
132 minutes
Budget: $190 million
Gross: $467 million

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