Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Movie Musings: The Strange Journey of the Star Trek Films - Part 1

Part One - The Original Series Cast

"So a Klingon, a Romulan and a Vulcan walk into
a bar..."
It is hard to argue Star Trek's legacy within pop culture. It’s characters and universe have endured almost as long as James Bond.  Every time I think we can count the franchise as down and out, along comes a new incarnation to bring it back to whole new group of fans yearning to explore strange new worlds.

One of the interesting things about the franchise is that its longevity is due in large part to the success of the feature films that were released starting in 1979 with StarTrek: The Motion Picture. While the television series is where the franchise started, if the films were not as successful as they were, Star Trek would be a fondly remembered relic of the 1960s.  In addition, we can see how Paramount, the studio that owns Star Trek, feels about the series depending on how they approach the films.

I think Decker wants his chair back.
In this two part blog, I’ll take a look at the ways the films were impacted by and impacted the franchise, and why they are important to its legacy. I won’t be going into too much detail on my thoughts on the films, but I will discuss critical reception (and perception of that reception) and how that affected the films.

The original series ended in 1969 after three seasons. While it was popular among science fiction fans, it never really exploded in popularity during its run. Instead Star Trek got syndicated and that is where the fanbase really started to grow. During the 1970s it was hard to avoid a rerun of Star Trek and even growing up in the 1980s, it felt like the series was always around.

Wait! There was a cat girl in Star Trek the Animated
Series! Sign me up!
An animated series followed in 1973 and 1974 that expanded the voyages a little bit, and allowed the writers to take the series in directions that would have been impossible with live action.  All this exposure of Star Trek in the 70s inspired Paramount to look into creating a new series of adventures with the same crew for Phase II. Production started and then a little movie called Star Wars erupted onto the screens, and suddenly Paramount shifted gears to turn Star Trek into a film franchise.

The increased the budget to a whopping 35 million dollars (of 1970s money). They pulled in acclaimed director Robert Wise and got their marketing into high gear. This was the turning point. If Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a failure, than the franchise was dead.

The moons of Vulcan are affecting her mind!
Critical and general response was average. But the combined fanbase of the 60s and 70s had been thirsting for new Star Trek adventures, and they went back to the theaters over and over again to see the film. For all it’s faults The Motion Picture has a huge visual scope, impressive visual effects and a wonderful soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith. Seeing it in the theater is a real experience (one I actually had the pleasure of revisiting in 2012). There was also a frenzy of interest in space adventures because of Star Wars, so I bet a lot of little kids dragged their parents to see the film. In the end, the Motion Picture was a financial success.

Paramount felt confident in continuing the series as a film franchise, and moved forward producing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But they reduced the budget to a little over 11 million, and asked director Nicholas Meyer to make sure there was more action in the film (a criticsm of the previous film they wanted to avoid). Meyere delivered a film that is more visceral, goes back to the roots of the original series, and cranks up the action with some excellent visual effects and high stakes. The Wrath of Khan was an immediate hit, with excellent critical response and fan approval. It also did very well on VHS, a new medium that studios were just beginning to explore in 1982.

"Is that a giant worm in your hand, or are you just
happy to see me?"
So Paramount kept the same focus when it came to The Search for Spock in 1984. Once again the budget was increased to 17 million. But the focus on characters and the quest to bring Spock back to life helped pull viewers in the theaters to find out how it was all going to shake out. Director Leonard Nimoy obviously knew the series inside and out, and crafted a solid follow up to the previous movie. The film got average critical response and most people enjoyed it well enough. But the film had a dark undertone that surprised many viewers.

Do you think he's using colorful metaphors here?
Gears were shifted in the storytelling for the next film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Nimoy was back at the helm and the budget was given a bit of a boost (to 25 million) for some really impressive visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic. But the script involving time travel, saving the whales, and the crew interacting with the denizens of San Francisco circa 1986 was a blast. It was a fun movie with plenty of laughs and adventure all mixed together. Critical response was full of praise. But it was the success of the film with a wider audience that gave Paramount a view of what a successful Star Trek franchise could be. This was the most financial successful Star Trek film until the reboot in 2009.

In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation arrived on television screens. It was a new cast, new starship, hell it was a new century! Paramount understood that in order for the franchise to continue it would need to evolve. To do this, they needed to inject it with new blood creatively. Obviously the film franchise was still profitable, but a new television series could create new fans and lead to a new series of films.

It is like that Depeche Mode song, reach out and touch
1989 brought the first good season of The Next Generation after its rocky start over the first two seasons. Meanwhile Paramount attempted to strike gold in the theaters again with William Shatner directing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Unfortunately the film was plagued with production issues, and arguments over the direction and tone of the script. Shatner wanted to go darker and more intense. Paramount wanted to keep it light and fun. The end result was a film that was critical and financial failure. Fans disliked the film for a whole host of reasons and rumor is that even Gene Roddenberry felt the film was not part of the official cannon. The movie also had the unfortunate release during one of the most crowded years in movie history. Batman, Ghostbusters 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Back to the Future Part 2 were all battling for seats in the multiplexes. Someone had to lose and Star Trek “won” that honor. While it did eventually recoup it's 28 million dollar budget, no one was really pleased with the final film.

"No, it's not Tribbles. The joke only works if
the Klingon asks the bartender first."
This did set off alarms at Paramount. They wondered if the aging cast was losing their audience appeal. But they also learned some lessons. Budget cutting your special effects heavy films is not a good option. So they turned back to Nicholas Meyer who did so well with The Wrath of Khan to helm Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In a cunning bit of synergy, the plot for the film directly impacted events in The Next Generation episodes Unification with Nimoy making a special appareance as Spock in the two-part adventure. Meyer brought back high stakes, tension and excitement to the series. The plot was inspired by world events, and with the increased budget (to 30 million) the movie looked great. Meyer’s script balances humor and tension better than the previous film did. Even with all that, the movie was also declared the final voyage of the full cast from The Original Series. All those elements stirred together made The Undiscovered Country a critical and financial success in 1991.  It was a win for Paramount and the franchise. But everyone knew it was time to switch gears.

In part two of this post, I take a look at the trails and Tribble-ations of the films featuring the case of The Next Generation and Beyond...

"Just imagine it. We are all animated, and there's
a cat girl in a red uniform! That is my vision."


  1. I’m one of those original viewers beginning in 1966, which probably makes me inordinately fond of the original series. All considered, TOS has aged fairly well, but no more than fairly. Viewers do have to make allowances for its era. Also, many details later taken for granted about the Star Trek universe were still being worked out, and some were later contradicted. It doesn’t evoke the chuckles of Flash Gordon (original serials), of course; some pretty good scripts see to that. The first film revitalized the franchise, as you say, and there is some irony in Star Wars having had an indirect hand in that. In addition to TOS, I’m also inordinately fond of The Wrath of Khan, not only on its own merits but because I saw it in the theater on a date that went rather well. Reason enough.

    1. Yeah I grew up with this crew too. I've mentioned before that my Grandmother used to watch it all the time when she lived with us, and that just made it a staple in our house. It always seemed to be on. I eventually warmed up to TNG cast. But TOS will always be my favorite. I'm revisiting the series now, and I'm surprised how many really great stories are in that first season. I really starts out very strong (especially compared to TNG's very rocky start).