What I learned from watching all the Star Trek movies in a row

I was a pretty unlikely candidate to marathon all the Star Trek movies. As noted when I started this Trek-a-Thon, I’m a casual Trek fan at best. Star Wars is my star jam. Trek is that other thing I sort of respect and kind of know because you can’t run in geek circles without knowing at least some Trek, but despite having seen many original series episodes, most of The Next Generation on TV, and all the movies through Generations, I’ve never been able to call myself a Trek fan.

Star Trek The Voyage Home 03Hell, I’ve playfully mocked it over the years because that’s what you do. All in good fun, but yeah. Poke poke.

So I was the last person who should have been revisiting these movies. Yet I’m glad I did, because it changed my perspective on all things Trek.

The first thing I learned from marathoning all these movies is that I probably can’t make the claim that I’m not a fan anymore. The reason is simple: the original crew is so damn good. Those guys are absolute legends. Even with little change in my fondness for William Shatner, or lack thereof, I cannot deny a blossoming love affair with this group of characters. There is something perfect about their uneasy chemistry that I always knew existed but that I never quite embraced until now.

Well, I am now in full-on embrace mode.

Star Trek 02The strange brotherly love between Kirk and Spock may be the central Trek relationship, but for me the real joy is in Bones’ and Spock’s uneasy friendship and in the seamless way the supporting cast creates a foundation for the Big Three to do their thing.

No, the movies aren’t perfect — The Final Frontier is genuinely awful — but the crew certainly is.

If it’s occasionally been a mystery to me why Trek engenders such loyalty in fans, it is a mystery no more. I’ll probably be watching some original Trek episodes for the first time since my youth, and I’ll be doing so without irony.

The other thing is that my previous love for The Next Generation, a show I watched regularly with my old man and which I remember liking quite a but, now comes with a recognition of the crew’s limitations. All fine actors and decent characters, to be sure, but in four silver screen outings the creatives behind Trek were never able to elevate TNG crew into the larger than life icons they needed to be to fill that big screen.

That’s not merely a problem with the movies, though. It’s inherent in the entire Next Generation concept. Film critic Zaki Hasan, a guy with far more Trek knowledge and fondness than I, explains it wonderfully in his piece on Star Trek: Generations:

The problem with being of the moment is that the moment eventually passes. Such is the case with Next Generation, which represented the zeitgeist but didn’t anticipate it. Twenty years out, its production aesthetic is rooted in an ’80s sensibility that feels more quaint even than the original series, while its depiction of perfected humanity is so far removed from anything resembling the actual present day human condition that it’s impossible to view with anything but cold detachment.

Well said.

Throw in the fact that Data’s “I’m a distant android trying to understand humanity” shtick is an old cliche that for some reason was a focal point of all four movies (ugh!), and the fact that no matter how awesome Patrick Stewart is (VERY awesome indeed) he is not meant to be the lead in big screen science fiction epics — even his pivotal role in the X-Men series is one of mentor, not lead — and you’ve got four movies where even the best of them would be mid-tier at best when set next to the original crew movies.

Also makes me disinclined to ever again revisit Next Generation episodes.

So basically, this marathon ruined The Next Generation for me, which in turned ruined a part of my youth.

But it gave me a new love and appreciation for the original crew and turned me into a bona fide fan. Seems like a fair tradeoff to me.

Thanks for reading along as this Trek neophyte said some stuff you already knew and offered some opinions you’ve already heard a million times before. May the Force be with.

26 Comments

  1. John Miętus

    The key to Star Trek for me is the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad. Kirk is the main character and as such is the problem solver — he must resolve the conflict of the story. He must weigh the options and deal with the consequences. Spock and McCoy are there to illustrate Kirk’s decision making process for the audience — Spock gives the rational, logical arguments for and against, while McCoy is there to present the emotional and philosophical consequences. This is why the dynamic between the three and the chemistry between the three actors portraying these characters and fulfilling these roles is so electric.

    And it’s one of the reason the Abrams movies have failed, for me, on a fundamental level — the writers only focused on the Kirk-Spock friendship.

    1. John Miętus

      (And one of the reasons TNG never fully, truly clicked with me.)

    2. Eric San Juan

      Your first point is, in retrospect, obvious. Your latter, about the JJA flicks, is not something I’d considered but which makes perfect sense. They lack the emotional COMPLETENESS of the originals because they are missing one third of the emotional resonance of those characters!

    3. John Miętus

      Exactly.

    4. John Miętus

      And this dynamic is illustrated in two key scenes in the original TOS cast movies — in TMP, the scene where Spock explains to Kirk and McCoy why he decided to return to Starfleet in his quest to understand V’Ger, and in WOK when Kirk shows McCoy and Spock the Genesis Device briefing. Those scenes feel the most like classic t.v. Trek to me.

    5. Eric San Juan

      There is also something about that holy trinity of characters that works because between the three of them, they cover all (okay, most) possible viewers as far as giving us someone to relate to or want to be or root for. They cover the personality spectrum. Most people fit somewhere within those three.

    6. John Miętus

      Superego (Spock), Ego (Kirk) and Id (McCoy).

    7. Eric San Juan

      With TNG, Data fills Spock’s role, obviously, but who is the Hero? It’s kind of Riker, sort of, but C level. Worf shares a bit of it, too. Who is the cynical but smart asshole in TNG? Bones is shafted once again. He doesn’t exist in TNG,

    8. Eric San Juan

      This is all stuff Trek fans have talked about a million times before, I’m sure. 🙂

    9. Eric San Juan

      Picard is a cerebral hero, which I LIKE A LOT, but it’s a different kind of role, isn’t it?

    10. John Miętus

      But he’s very much the protagonist, the problem solver. The triad was supposed to be Picard – Data – Riker, with Riker fulfilling both the McCoy Id role of the decision-making and the Action Hero role that Kirk had in the original (because why would a captain place himself in danger week after week?) — and since Riker is such weak sauce in TNG, it ends up being about Picard – Data in more of a father-autistic child relationship. Interesting in its own right, but not as dynamic.

    11. John Miętus

      And, of course, I like to joke about Picard being an Inaction Hero… usually when faced with a problem that Kirk would confront head-on, Picard would opt to let things be as they were and move along. Obviously this is a reflection of the times in which each shows were produced as well as Roddenberry’s increasingly bizarre changing attitudes on humanity in the future in the intervening years.

    12. Eric San Juan

      Riker was always my favorite TNG character, but I always wished he was MORE of what he was. He was the hero who DID something, but he rarely got a chance to DO because Picard (who I respected) was too busy being level-headed.

      As an adult I continue to respect Picard and tend to live more like him than anyone else on TNG — I don’t kick ass, I (try to) think about the right thing and do that — but Trek is fantasy, and in my fantasy I want to see Riker taking charge Doing The Right Thing like a goddamn boss.

      But that’s not what TNG was all about, and that’s why, as Zaki rightly points out, it does not stand the test of time.

    13. Eric San Juan

      Also, the humor at Worf’s expense SUCKS

    14. John Miętus

      As does the “wimpifying” of Worf — while I got that if they wanted to show a physical threat was impressive it was easy shorthand to have the Klingon warrior Worf rush at it and have it thrash Worf handily, but the overall effect ends up making Worf look like a completely ineffective warrior. Better that Data, who we knew definitively had Mary Sue levels of brute strength, be thrashed as handily.

    15. Eric San Juan

      They actually used Worf to name that common trope in storytelling: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheWorfEffect

    16. John Miętus

      Cool! Oh, tvtropes.org… is there anything you haven’t categorized?

  2. John Miętus

    Part of the reason, I think, that TNG does not hold up, is Roddenberry’s unreasonable and ridiculous insistence that humankind will have evolved past arguing and conflicting with itself, so there’s no personality clashes or arguments between human characters. The writers were not allowed to write a character like McCoy.

  3. Eric San Juan

    Even Arthur C. Clarke, who was just as much an absurd idealistic when it comes to imagining mankind’s future, was not so naive as to think we’d work our shit out that well. He pictured worlds where we came to terms with a lot of nonsense we accept today, but people were still PEOPLE. There will never be any escaping that.

  4. Chris Knight

    I have to disagree with TNG not standing the test of time. The 2nd and 3rd season is absolutely amazing science fiction, and I prefer to watch them over any of 60s episodes. The show lost its way after the 3rd season Borg cliffhanger, but there’s still amazing episodes scattered throughout the remaining seasons (including the finale). Plus, it and Babylon 5 allowed for Deep Space Nine – which I would argue is probably the best Trek series ever made (excluding all the episodes with Quark’s mother).

  5. Jeff Combs

    I love the reboots. Kinda disappointed you’re not doing those.

    1. Eric San Juan

      UGH!!! Don’t do that to me. I decided not to because I had seen them too recently. It would feel like work to do them, and I don’t take blog stuff seriously, otherwise I’d never do it. Ugh! Now I feel like I’m leaving things undone by not doing them … 😉

    2. Jeff Combs

      I mean… they’re epic. He reimagined the entire franchise.

    3. Eric San Juan

      I think I’ve thrown in the towel … for now. I may start watching Deep Space 9, though …

  6. David Powell

    You’ve reached Star Trek enlightenment. TOS Cast is why it became what it did, not Roddenberry, not the Next Generation. The only thing that came close to recapturing that feeling of an adventuring family was, IMO, the last season of Enterprise.

    1. Eric San Juan

      You couldn’t be more right! Ultimately, it comes down to those characters, not the concept. It did for me, at least.

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