Friday, September 22, 2017

Movie Musings: The Strange Journey of the Star Trek Films - Part 2

Part Two - The Next Generation and Beyond

Troi proves the seats are as comfy as they look.
In 1994, three years after Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country was release in theaters, Star Trek: The Next Generation released the season finale. Fans were heartbroken. But Paramount had launched its new series Deep Space Nine the year before. The hope was to get fans to enjoy the new show and get the cast from The Next Generation to start a whole new film franchise. It was a calculated move, but one that made sense looking at the scope of the franchise.

The first venture to the big screen for the new crew would be Star Trek: Generations also in 1994. The cast and crew from The Next Generation found themselves working double time to finish the television series and work on the feature film all at the same time. To entice fans of The Original Series back into the theaters, Captain Kirk would appear in the film and play a major role in the plot. To pull off this time traveling adventure the script went through many revisions. The result was a film that was very muddled from a story perspective. In the end, the movie was a financial success, proving that The Next Generation was popular enough to continue with films. But critical reception was mixed. No one loved the film, and many found much to dislike. But few felt it was as poor as The Final Frontier, so that is something to smile about.

No better way to start the morning. Spot of tea and
a Klingon babe who can crochet.
The next year Star Trek: Voyager arrived on television. Paramount was going all in with this era of Star Trek entertainment.  This was about the time where Star Trek reached its apex of popularity. Paramount moved forward confidently with Star Trek: First Contact, arriving in 1996. The movie used one of the most popular and dangerous enemies of the Star Trek universe, the Borg. It mirrored The Wrath of Khan in many ways, driving up the stakes, making the characters the focus and injecting plenty of action. The impressive budget allowed for some top notch visual effects. Most impressive of all was the commitment to tone. This is a dark gritty movie that keeps things tense and intriguing. Director Jonathan Frakes used his familiarity with the cast and crew to execute an impressive film. Fans loved every minute of it. Critics were also kind, and found a lot to like about the movie and the cast. It was a financial success coming close to the high point reached by The Voyage Home. Everyone seemed pleased with the film and was looking forward to more.

"She's trying to kill him. I just caught her."
More was on the way. In 1998, with Frakes once again at the helm, Star Trek: Insurrection arrived in theaters. This time the decision was made to make the film lighter and a bit more action heavy. First Contact was very dark, and the thought was that fans of the series would like a breather after that. Unfortunately several rewrites of the script ended up with something that felt like an extended episode of the television series. But the high budget and some gorgeous location shooting gave the movie a big screen presence.  Critical and fan response was mixed. For many this felt like a step back, lacking the impact to the characters and storylines they were seeing in the television series Deep Space Nine which was heading into its final season and raising tension and stakes to ridiculous levels. Insurrection felt tame in comparison. General audiences enjoyed it well enough, and the film was financially successful. But Paramount was beginning to suspect that they had oversaturated the market with Star Trek and decided to hold off on any further films for longer than usual.

Titanic, Star Trek style?
Deep Space Nine and Voyager ended in 1999 and 2001 respectively.  While both shows had their fans, the two series never grew into the pop culture force that The Original Series and The Next Generation did. Paramount didn’t feel comfortable trying to leverage either storyline into a full blown movie franchise. So they decided to craft a new series, one that took place before Captain Kirk’s time. Star Trek: Enterprise (or Enterprise as it was first called) arrived on screens in 2001. It was Paramount trying hard to bring in new fans to a new series they could call their own.

Troi just loves putting her feet up... on the phaser controls.
In 2002, after an extended delay Star Trek: Nemesis arrived in theaters. Paramount made no secret that this would be the last film for the crew of The Next Generation. They wanted to try to cultivate what they hoped would be a new, more popular series of adventures with the folks from Enterprise. Once again the focus of the film would be based on The Wrath of Khan template. Romulans were the enemies this time, and the focus on massive space battles at the end promised visual spectacle. They also tried to take the dark visuals of First Contact and give the film a more gritty look. The final result was a movie that didn’t appeal to anyone. Critics felt it was mediocre at best. Fans really disliked some of the plot points and the paint by numbers script. Even the cast wasn’t happy with this one. Much like The Final Frontier before it Nemesis was released during an insane year for sequels. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Die Another Day and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets all came out the same year. To many folks Star Trek looked old next to these newer franchises.  Nemesis was a critical and commercial failure and ended the film tenure of the Next Generation crew on a sour note.

You can't see the green alien babe dancing behind
the camera.
Paramount also miscalculated on the appeal of their new series Enterprise. Long time fans were turned off by the inconsistency within the Star Trek cannon. Others disliked the recycling of stories from previous series in the franchise. Had the saga run out of things to say? Others found the ramped up attempts at sex appeal and action to be too different from what had been established in the tone of The Next Generation series. Producers tried hard to turn things around in the third and fourth seasons, but ratings kept dropping. Enterprise ended its run in 2005 with a series finale that pretty much pissed everyone off.

Most science fiction fans wept a tear that day, figuring that Star Trek had taken its final voyage. Many of us were ready to move on. But Paramount wasn’t. Star Trek was a money making franchise, even if they never really understood it. They let some time pass and also decided that it was time to go back to basics. Star Trek’s most popular incarnation (and still the financial high point for the films) was the original series. If they could somehow leverage new stories in that universe, with familiar characters, they could bring Star Trek back to life.

The impact of Batman Begins as well as Casino Royale in 2008 must have convinced them that a reboot was not only possible, but the most likely way to get people back into theaters. They could recast with younger actors, get a popular director who knew his way around television series and big budget films. They went to J.J. Abrams, who had just made Mission Impossible III a success for Paramount, and asked him to reboot the franchise.

"Did you just die on the first Goomba?"
It was a bold move. But hey, Star Trek is all about being bold, right? The film started from the ground up, redesigning nearly everything to keep it visually familiar, but still new and fresh looking. Careful casting and a story that combined plenty of action and character interaction was penned. Big budget visual effects were brought in. And a key appearance by Leonard Nimoy as Spock would hook the old timers who were curious but cautious about the whole endeavor. And instead of a hard reboot which would alienate the more cannon obsessed fans, they used time travel to create an alternate time line. So now both storylines could exist in the same universe. Very clever. Perhaps the biggest change was the shift of focus to fun. Star Trek would be a film focused on providing a good time to the audience. No deep themes. No navel gazing or long conversations here. Just witty quips, plenty of action and excitement, and a cast that sparkled. It all worked wonderfully. Star Trek was a critical and financial success. Nostalgia for the old series was tapped into, but new viewers were also engaged with the fun characters and action. Yes, some hard core fans grumbled. This wasn’t their Trek. But nearly everyone else enjoyed the film for what it was. It lead to Star Trek being the most financially successful film in the franchise. Paramount was ready for more.

Run toward the red foliage, you'll blend right in.
Abrams stayed on board for the next film Star Trek into Darkness in 2013. Once again the decision was made to mimic Wrath of Khan, but more than just in story structure, but in full on story. The visual style was kept, but leaned more toward grey and black to give the movie a darker feel. Popular British actor Benedict Cumberbatch stepped into the role of Khan. Like the previous film, there is plenty of action and space adventure. But the story is much darker, with actual ties to current events. The script does take lines and moments from previous films and attempts to spin them in unexpected ways. But this ended up doing more harm than good. The tonal shift ended up disappointing those looking for a fun time (and would get it in Guardians of the Galaxy the next year). The script similarities and recasting of Khan would really vex other fans, who called it a mockery of some of the best of classic Trek. Critics generally seemed to enjoy the film. But there was a taint around it in general fandom that persists to this day. Financially the film did extremetly well, eventually surpassing the previous film overall.

"I don't see any booze. You said there was going to
be booze."
This guaranteed a sequel. Abrams left to work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the franchised shifted to Justin Lin. Star Trek Beyond was due in theaters in 2015, the 50th anniversary of the franchise. Lin went back to the format of the 2009 film and focused on fun and action as the guiding force for the movie. He also had a script that tried to feel more tied to the spirit of The Original Series more than the previous two film had. There are plenty of references to the older series in the film, as well as nods to all kinds of Trek lore. Unfortunately the focus on big action and banter continued to rub some Trek fans the wrong way. Some viewers fun with the film, but felt it was too lightweight. Other felt that the series was hurtling further and further from the original vision of Star Trek, and felt Beyond was further evidence of Paramount not understanding the franchise beyond a money making machine. Critical response was mixed. But financially the film barely broke even. (and some estimate that it didn’t). It was a disappointment for all involved.

While Star Trek Beyond was in production, Paramout felt the financial success of Into Darkness meant it was time to start up a new television series based on Star Trek. The goal was create something new and exciting for their new online network, and Star Trek: Discovery got the green light. It seems to have had some changes in direction during production and trailers have received a mixed reaction. Visually it looks a lot like the J.J. Abrams films. But it is supposed to take place before the events of The Original Series. Sounds like Enterprise all over again, but I’m willing to give it a shot. We’ll see if Beyond’s financial performance impacts the series. Who knows, if the series does take off, we might have more Star Trek films in the future.

It takes a special kind of guy to fall
for a Borg Queen.


  1. Great photos. Maybe that Borg queen can can go back in time and correct the flaws in the movies.

    1. Yeah that one with Malcom McDowell and the Klingon knitting just cracks me up. It's like a warped version of those Taster's Choice ads.