A Sense of Cosmic Scale (in the TOS/TNG Trek movies)

27 November, 2014

Trying to get my thoughts in order…

Over the weekend I watched four Star Trek films: 5 (The Final Frontier), 6 (The Undiscovered Country), 7 (Generations), and 8 (First Contact). I hadn’t seen any of them for at least a couple of years, and I found my reactions to some had changed, and some had stayed the same.

TFF I still like, though of course it has serious flaws of structure (too jokey in the middle, and the journey to the God planet too short and easy). But I like the character stuff, and the way they are tearing down idols in the manner of TOS.
TUC I find I like less than I did in younger years: apart from dinner with the Klingons and the “are we obsolete” scene, I find it hard to like. There are a lot of things about it that niggle at me, but then we could say that of almost any Trek film. I haven’t been able to figure out why this one rubs me the wrong way, but there it is.
GEN was a lot better than I previously thought; much has been made of the plot problems of the Nexus and Kirk’s death, but if we can accept these then there is a lot to like. The first 40 minutes are great; after this the level remains, on average, very good. We could wish for Kirk to end another way, but the intentions of the writers and actors were sincere, and I find that counts for something.
FC doesn’t impress me as much as it used to, now that I’ve become familiar with its plot; the various strands of the plot don’t add up to a lot, and I find I don’t much care about Picard or Data’s encounters with the Borg. (And once again the “we don’t use money in the future” speech seems unbelievable to me)

Now, what elements are there in common among the films I like, and the films I don’t? I think a large part of it may be to do with grandeur of scale, both physical and thematic.

TUC and FC feel relatively small in scale:
Despite the distances supposedly travelled in TUC, it seems like all the locations are in ready reach of each other (Earth, Kronos, Rura Penthe, Khitomer), and travel between them is easy and brief. The Kronos court room, the mines, and the conference hall all feel too small in scale (though for some reason the Klingon ship interior is HUGE). The interior of the Enterprise is widely explored, but only in the bathetic search for boots (and mashed potatoes).
FC is set on Earth, admittedly Earth of the past, but as usual with time travel stories the mechanism is basically ‘press X for past, press Y for future’. The lack of effort in the travel means I don’t feel impressed by the change in time-location. Also, the new Enterprise feels very cramped and small in scale for some reason.

Both these stories are very grounded in politics and military operations. Cochrane’s flight should be an exception to this, but unfortunately it is commandeered by Riker, who barks orders at Cochrane and gives off the attitude that space flight is mundane.

TFF and GEN by contrast deal with larger things:
In TFF, Nimbus III feels like a neglected outpost very remote from civilization. Just the look and attitude of things there suggest it’s a long difficult journey to reach it. The subsequent journey to galactic centre is sadly much too easy, but there is still a sense of moving from one kind of space to a very different one, and then stepping onto an alien world.
GEN has its roaming anomaly, which regularly traverses the entire galaxy every few years. The initial encounter has an impressively vast appearance, and the later stellar cartography scene gives a sense of the interstellar distances and forces that are involved in this story. The crash of the saucer-section is not as impressive as the film-makers hoped, and neither is the part of the story set in the Nexus, but the mountain peak Soran has chosen as his launch site is convincingly arid, rugged and remote.
There is also an unusual sense of temporal scale, with long-lived (immortal?) characters connecting the two periods of the story, and Kirk meeting Picard not by travelling through time, but by a kind of shortcut through “God’s waiting room”.

In contrast to the previous mentioned films, TFF and GEN are concerned with metaphysical themes:
TFF is essentially about a religious pilgrimage, along the way raising questions about the nature of God and faith, and the necessity of suffering, and it also touches on Vulcan philosophy.
GEN too is essentially a religious investigation: what is Nexus if not a physically observable Heaven? The harmonious wish fulfilment of heavenly life is compared unfavourably with the potential moral advancement of reality, in which suffering is balanced by the possibility of “making a difference”. Confining the minds of those caught in the Nexus, Heaven is smaller than the universe, rather than being infinite.

I guess we can deduce from my speculations the sorts of stories that interest me. Although I’m not much interested in morality tales of the ‘tolerance=good!’ sort, I like stories that reflect on the nature of life and humanity. OTOH I imagine that these same contemplative aspects might be, for other Trek fans, irrelevant or even a source of distaste.

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