The first 10 Star Trek films – in order of FUN-ness

22 October, 2010

… being the blog entry in which I come out as a Star Trek fan. I denied it for many years, because I thought “There is so much that is crap about Star Trek -> I am too critical to be able to call myself a fan.” But then I found out that the Trekkies can be critical, and it’s common for people to love one iteration of the franchise while hating another. So here I am.

I have ranked the films in order of how much I like watching them. I worked out the list not by assessing their flaws and virtues of each film, synthesising them and weighing the synthesised films against each other, but by asking “Which film would I be happiest to bung in the DVD machine and waste a couple of hours with?” And here is the answer to that question. (28 Nov 2014: Each comment followed by a note of more recent thoughts.)

1. (previously 2). II: The Wrath of Khan
Lots of good things about this. I don’t think I need to mention them again. I don’t know if this film has quite the same humour and charm as other original cast iterations, and I’m not a fan of Koenig as Chekov. I also find the line about revenge being a dish best served cold to be an example of Nick Meyer favouring a cool line over a logical one: I don’t think hot-blooded Klingons would especially like their revenge coldy calculated, giving the alternative of immediately ripping off their enemy’s face.
[Later thoughts: Still good.]

2. (previously 1). V: The Final Frontier
A lot of Trekkies despise this film, but at the same time there is a substantial underground movement that loves it. I guess I’m in that movement. This film for me has all the fun, the character, and the pseudo-philosophising of the original series (TOS). All the major characters get real development and great moments. As for the criticisms:
1) The weak effects work: whatever. It’s better than TOS, which I liked fine. I like good effects, but they rarely make-or-break a film for me.
2) Discontinuity: protests from fans who have no idea how the entertainment industry works. The entire Trek franchise is full of characters and incidents either forgotten, misremembered, or pulled out of the writers’ arse. That’s what happens when that many people work on a wide-ranging franchise for that amount of time. They forgot that Kirk had a brother in one episode of TOS? I don’t care.
3) The emotional Vulcan: I bought it. He was supposed to be an aberration. I can accept him much more easily than the Vulcans in Deep Space Nine and later shows, who were mostly nasty, deceitful emotional screw-ups, and not the cool rationalists implied by Nimoy’s performance and the earlier parts of the franchise in general.
4) They go the the god planet OMG how fucking stupid lame: Yeah, that’s about the level of the criticism at this point. This part of the plot ties directly to the allegorical nature of so many TOS stories (and in fact a number of Next Generation (TNG) stories as well). What’s the matter, don’t you like Star Trek?
[Later thoughts: TFF has serious structural problems, with the journey to the God Planet being much too short and easy – it should really have been an entire act. The real problem with the movie is the constant jokeyness. Virtually every scene is filled with ironic remarks and double-takes (mostly Shatner, but Nimoy is also an offender). Look at Spock meeting Sybok on Nimbus III – it should be a dramatic moment, but is undercut by cutting to Shatner et al., all with comedy “WTF” expressions. Cutting out as many jokes as possible, except for the camping scenes, would be a great improvement. The film still has many charming moments.]

3. (previously 5). VII: Generations
There are some nice ideas and performances here, but the plot feels like a bunch of unrelated things awkwardly jammed into the same film. There is also too much of the self-congratulation and overly-arch “humour” of TNG, particularly in the Riker and Troi scenes, but also, sadly, in the Kirk and Picard scenes. Those two captains really belong in separate universes, one of macho bluster and the other of effete bureaucracy. They don’t mix well.
The ending, with Kirk’s death, has been much discussed. The general feeling is it doesn’t work, and I agree. The “climax” feels small in scale and shabby, and Kirk doesn’t get to go out in a real hero moment, which is what the character deserves. Also (and this relates back to my love of ST:V, so bear with me), in Final Frontier, Kirk tells his friends he knew he wasn’t going to die, because they were with him, and he’d always known he’d die alone. I always loved that line, and believed it, I guess, and I wish they’d been true to it. A better ending would’ve had Kirk alone on a starship bridge (probably not Enterprise), flying the doomsday bomb into the sun, or something. His line “It was fun” was good, though.
[Later thoughts: I like this more than I used to. Part of this is just letting go of preconceptions and fantasies about what the film should be like (although the writers have admitted the script was terribly flawed). The cinematography and music are excellent, and I don’t think Trek has ever been better than the first 40 minutes of this film.]

4. (previously 9). X: Nemesis
This film looks much more cinematic than its predecessor (Insurrection), but the director (his first film; he was an editor by profession) has little to no sense of interesting or dramatic shot composition, nor ability to get strong performances from his actors. Also, the story gets choppy and very silly by the end, which makes me think there was a decent script which got hacked about. In all, it’s a waste of an interesting idea, some good production values, and excellent lighting.
[Later thoughts: Better than I remembered. Actually, I had forgotten everything about NEM, so it was like watching a new movie. It’s by no means a great film, but over all is … okay. I think Trek-dom should revise its verdict of this film upwards. There are some nice bits, including a look into Romulan culture. And although I am not a TNG fan, I found the character stuff enjoyable. The weakest point is after the 80 minute mark, during the big battle showdown, when the pace really sags. I think the problem is it just goes too long; also, Riker’s fight with the deputy baddy should be cut and integrated better with the rest of the action. My other main bugbear is that, when Picard looks at a photo of his young self (played by a different actor), they should have retouched the photo to thin that actor’s lips.]

5. (previously 6). III: The Search for Spock
The problem with this film is Nimoy’s lacklustre direction. The whole thing feels very slow and stiff, and the best bits are the clips from Wrath of Khan. Some of the guest performances feel a bit too “TV”, as well. I think the effects-heavy nature of this story was a burden on Nimoy, as he did much better in more down-to-Earth stories. There are some nice world-building bits, especially when they finally get to Vulcan.
[Later thoughts: As with GEN above, to enjoy this you really need to ignore the weaker points, though the good points are not as good in compensation. There are some weird lighting choices: the Klingon ship interior is lit in pastels! Nimoy is not good at handling ensemble scenes, and the weakest actors of the ensemble get too much to do in the “stealing the Enterprise” section. The costumes of the Vulcans are awful Flash Gordon stuff, not at all appropriate. The Big Three deliver nice performances, though.]

6. (previously 3). VIII: First Contact
Some people think this is a weak film, which I think is weird. I am not a Next Gen fan, but I like this film. It has an exciting story with interesting elements and sequences, and it looks really nice too. It is also nice to see Trek pre-history filled out in various ways. The only thing I can really hold against it is that Next Gen blandness, which is still not entirely absent, but is really at its lowest level in their history.
[Later thoughts: I don’t like FC as much as I used to. It’s still quite enjoyable, but the two plot strands don’t add up to much together, and I don’t much care about Picard or Data’s angst about the Borg.]

7. (previously 4). IV: The Voyage Home
This film has a lot of nice character moments, but there’s something shabbily 80s about the whole look of the production, and the story rarely feels particularly consequential.
[Later thoughts: I still don’t like this as much as others do, and I wonder if young fans would have the same reaction, now the film looks older and a lot of the humour has dated. A lot of the business before they actually get to Earth seems like a waste of time. TVH also features Shatner at his absolute smarmiest when he is laying the charm on the female guest actor.]

8. (previously 8). I: The Motion Picture
Some nice effects, and the original cast is less wrinkly than in the later films, but MY GOD IT’S BORING. Most of it is relentlessly, depressingly po-faced, and the 70s “futuristic” uniforms and sets have dated much more badly than the 60s ones. Also, the new secondary characters are worthy, wooden and dull, in anticipation of the TNG ideal of beige-trek.
[Later thoughts: Robert Wise, in his “Director’s edition”, added some fragments which strengthened the Decker/Ilia relationship, added a lot of unnecessary CGI elements, and did not deal with the main issue, which is that the film is just too slow. The big Enterprise fly-by is 6 minutes long FFS, and the encounter with the wormhole is actually in slow motion! Thus the journey into V’Ger isn’t a grand ritardando, just more of the same. There are some nice things here, but a serious re-edit is needed before this can be called a good film.]

9. (previously 7). VI: The Undiscovered Country
This one is often called the best Trek film, or the second best (after Wrath). I remember being impressed the first time I saw it, but on subsequent viewings, its flaws were conspicuous.
The biggest problem is that the film has an engaging first act, but then gets progressively worse in terms of writing, acting and plot. Even the first act I have problems with, a couple of lines in particular:
1) (In Charlie Chan voice): “Old Vulcan saying: only Nixon can go to China. Ah so.” No, the Vulcans would in fact not have a saying about Nixon. In fact, it’s unbelievable that anyone this far in the future would remember Nixon off-hand. It’s a cheap joke, basically. Which leads us to:
2) Shakespeare is better in the original Klingon – Another of Meyer’s cheap cracks. A Cold War joke, about Russian defensive boastfulness, which was outdated even in the year the film came out.
[Later thoughts: Last time I watched this I found I disliked it, to be honest. The parts I really enjoyed were dinner with the Klingons, and the K/S “Are we obsolete?” scene. The rest does nothing for me, and my previous points stand, with the addition that Kirk’s line “You should have trusted me” makes no sense.]

10.(previously 10). IX: Insurrection
The general criticism of this film is that it is like an average episode of TNG, rather than a movie, with the visual and dramatic scale expected from the big screen. I agree with this, with the addition that I’d say this film is as bad as the average TNG episode. Which is pretty bad. After an intriguing opening, we get shabby acting from the guests, cheesy alien colony sets, too much hokey “comedy”, too much Troi and Crusher, and the whole thing has a dull washed-out look, almost as though it was actually filmed on the TNG TV stages back in the late 80s. And F. Murray Abraham is absolutely wasted as the villain, when he had the potential to be awesome, perhaps even on the level of Khan.
[Later thoughts: When I tried to watch this recently, I had to turn it off with disgust after 10 minutes. Some fans say “It would have made a good TV episode”, but I disagree – INS encapsulates most of what I hated about the TNG TV show. The visuals are overlit and beige, beige, beige. The tone is extremely arch, smug, sanctimonious, and self-regarding. The story revolves around a utopian rural settlement, a setting which consistently brings out the worst of Star Trek. The natives are all simple and wise, somehow “above” technology, dressed in awful beige smocks, and with Hollywood soap opera-standard hair and makeup. The village is incredibly clean, ordered and new-looking (no peasant village in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe or the Americas looks like this). Our heroes get stuck in the village, help with the planting/harvest, and have a coy romance with a local pretty. That’s what happens in all those episodes, and that’s what happens here. The subtext is that these noble primitives are really leading the perfect life (albeit tainted by some plot device our heroes have to fix), what with their platitudes and wholesome values, and if only our heroes didn’t have to carry the White Man’s Burden, they could be perfectly happy too!]

So there you go.

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