Saturday, September 12, 2015

Strange New World Just Ahead, or: How to Make a Vulcan Feel at Home (Part 10 of 15)

10. Vulcan Rising, or: Can't See DeForest for the Trees 

Said to have been 1,933 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

(No, they didn't have photography back then. The above picture is a Hollywood recreation, from five years before Star Trek first went on the air.)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). And so, a badly-damaged Enterprise returns home from doing battle with Khan in a state of mourning. One crew member, though, may be in a state of lunacy. Dr. McCoy has broken into Spock's old quarters and is found mumbling something about a Vulcan mountain in a voice that's doesn't sound much like his. Meanwhile, a Klingon official by the name of Kruge (Christopher Lloyd, better known for such comic characters as Jim Ignatowski on Taxi and Doc Brown in Back to the Future) finds out from his underling/girlfriend that the Federation has a new weapon called Genesis. Of course, it's not supposed to be a weapon, but Khan certainly proved otherwise, didn't he?  Kruge, his girlfriend, pet alien dog, and sundry other Klingons head to the new planet created by Genesis in their Bird-of-Prey, a starship that kind of resembles a starving stork (the term was originally used to describe a Romulan starship in the TV version of Star Trek; that particular spacecraft looked more like a stingray, I've always thought.) Back on Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk is told that the Enterprise won't be repaired but decommissioned, much to his disappointment. He's just getting over that blow when he gets a visit from Spock's father, Sarek (played by Mark Lenard, as in the TV version) asking where is his son's katra and won't he please give it to him now. It doesn't take a mind meld for Sarek to realize Kirk has no idea what he's talking about. As is then explained, the katra is a Vulcan's living spirit, and needs to be laid to rest on top of the mountain McCoy was babbling about. Sarek also assumed Spock would have mentally transferred the katra to Kirk, his best friend. But Kirk knows the dying Spock couldn't as there was a glass wall between the two. So could he have transferred it to anyone else? After reviewing a tape, it's revealed that the katra instead was transferred to McCoy--hardly Spock's best friend--now locked away in a mental ward ranting about the illogic of it all. Sarek then informs Kirk that a human can carry a Vulcan katra only for so long before they die of having too many consciousnesses in one brain. I don't know where Carol Marcus is during all of this but son David is still part of the Genesis project, now joined by Saavik (Robin Curtis replacing Kirstie Alley.) David seems to be trying to flirt with Saavik, who shows no interest. Of immediate interest to both of them is the detection of an unexpected life form on the Genesis planet. David and Saavik convince the captain of the U.S.S. Grissom, the starship they're boarding, to beam them down and investigate. They find Spock's open casket empty, save for the Vulcan's burial cloth. Back on Earth (as well as its orbit) Kirk, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura very easily spring McCoy from the brig, and swipe the Enterprise from Spacedock. Just before they're about to go into warp drive:

KIRK: My friends...I can't ask you to go any further. Doctor McCoy and I have to do this. The rest of you do not. 
CHEKOV: Admiral, we're losing precious time.
SULU: What course please, Admiral?
KIRK: Mister Scott?
SCOTT: I'd be grateful, Admiral, if you'd give the word. 

Off to Genesis they go! Except Uhura, who for some reason (such as there's only so many minutes in a feature film) is going to meet them on the planet Vulcan. Speaking of which, David and Saavik find a little boy who seems to be from that planet wandering around. They conclude it's Spock, his cells regenerated by Genesis. In the orbit above, the Klingon Bird of Prey happens upon the U.S.S. Grissom. Attempting to merely subdue it and then raid it for information, the Bird of Prey instead accidentally blows the ship to bits. A pissed Klingon commander Kruge subsequently blows his error-prone gunner to bits. Meanwhile, on the planet below, it's snowing! Seems David had added some unstable and untested "proto-matter" to the Genises device, and now everything is aging at an accelerated speed, including Spock. Taking shelter in a cave, David decides to leave it and patrol some, unknowingly leaving Saavik and a now-adolescent Spock to the, ahem, whims of "pon farr", the seven-year itch first mentioned in the episode "Amok Time" that every Vulcan needs to scratch, lest they die of carnal dissatisfaction. David returns none the wiser, not that it matters as the Klingons show up and take all three prisoner. In the orbit above the planet, the Enterprise also shows up and shoots it out with the Bird of Prey. Unfortunate, the former still hasn't been brought quite up to par after the events in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Knowing he's outgunned, Kluge orders Kirk to surrender, an order the latter predictably refuses. So Kluge, who lost his dog in the melee and thus in no mood to play games, orders that one of the prisoners on the planet down below be killed, and it looks like it's going to be Saavik, but David jumps in front of her and takes the fatal knife to the gut instead. Kirk is devastated. He may be the only one. He recovers enough from his grief to play a little trick on those murderous Klingons. He tells Kluge he's ready to surrender to whoever wants to come aboard to get him. After which he sets the Enterprise on auto-destruct (first mentioned in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield") and then he, McCoy, Scott, Sulu, and Chekov hastily beam off the ship just as some Klingons beam on it. BOOM! No more Enterprise, but no more Klingons, either. Well, Kluge's still around. He beams down to the planet, where he engages Kirk in hand-to-hand combat, which he of course loses along with his life as he falls into a lava flow on the rapidly dissolving world. The Enterprise crew along with Saavik and a now middle-aged Spock beam up to the Bird of Prey, toss the one remaining Klingon aside, and head to Vulcan. It's there that Kirk's greeted by Uhura and Spock's father Sarek:

SAREK: Kirk, I thank you. What you've done is--
KIRK: What I've done, I had to do.
SAREK: But at what cost? Your ship. Your son.
KIRK: If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul.

But what good is saving Spock if he's just a vegetable? In order to remedy that situation, they need to get his katra out of McCoy's head. That's where T'Lar, a Vulcan priestess played by Dame Judith Anderson, comes in. I want you to re-read that sentence. Not specifically Anderson (though she was very good as creepy Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film Rebecca) but the part about her being a priestess. It's ironic how pagan these supposedly logical Vulcans carry on in this movie and the earlier TV episode "Amok Time". And things are going to get more pagan yet. In order to restore everybody to the right brain, Spock and McCoy have to under a dangerous ritual called fal tor pan which, if it doesn't go right, could kill them both! A resigned McCoy agrees to participate. It takes all night, but by daybreak, Spock is out of the good doctor's head and back into his own body. But will he be all right? As Sarek says, "Only time will answer". About a minute of time, actually. As Spock passes by, he recognizes Kirk:

SPOCK: My father says you have been my friend...You came back for me.
KIRK: You would have done the same for me.
SPOCK: Why would you do this?
KIRK: Because the needs of the one...outweighs the needs of the many.
SPOCK: I have been...and ever shall be...your friend.
KIRK: Yes! Yes, Spock.
SPOCK: The ship...out of danger?
KIRK: You saved the ship...You saved all of us. Don't you remember?
SPOCK: Jim...Your name is Jim.
KIRK: Yes.

Uhura, Scott, Sulu, Chekov, and McCoy happily gather around Spock at that point, much to the Vulcan's bemusement, as he raises his eyebrows in response (I almost stood up in the theater and cheered when he did that), another sign that he's going to be OK. The film ends with McCoy tapping his forehead.

On his inaugural directorial effort, Leonard Nimoy manages to craft a film that comes closest to the rhythms of the TV show, which some critics at the time actually carped about, though it got generally good reviews. No carping from this corner. Though I won't go so far as to say it's the best, The Search for Spock is my favorite Star Trek movie (despite the title character being largely absent) because it's exactly what I found so appealing about the TV version: it's a somewhat foreboding journey into the Unknown accompanied by people you're quite comfortable being around. Spock's resurrection does rob the ending of The Wrath of Khan of some of its power, but then killing off the character in the first place robbed us of him!

The acting. Christopher Lloyd is only so-so as the bad guy, especially when compared to Ricardo Montalban's Khan. But then this movie isn't The Wrath of Kluge, is it? Nimoy's fine in what's technically a small role that paradoxically is the whole point of the film. William Shatner is most like the Kirk from the TV show, which I for one consider a good thing. It's also an amazingly contradictory thing when you consider the Kirk of the TV show wasn't as much of a lawbreaker as he is here. But he's marked by the same sense of duty, whether the mandate comes from Starfleet Command, or his best friend's father. However, the Best Actor award has to go to DeForest Kelley, this film's neurotic, discombobulated avater.  McCoy has never been funnier, never been more likable, hell, never been more mesmerizing as he is in The Search for Spock. With varying degrees of success, he manages to hold onto his wits, as well as his wit, dealing with an alien intruder, his longtime logical nemesis/colleague, who's taken up unwelcome residence in the irascible doctor's soul ["That green-blooded son of a bitch! It's his revenge for all the arguments he lost."] It's a hoot hearing Spock's voice occasionally come out of McCoy's mouth, but not nearly as hilarious as when it's Kelley doing all the talking, his character channeling Nimoy's quite against his will. Here he is in a bar ordering a drink:

MCCOY: Altair water.
COCKTAIL WAITRESS (giggles) That's not your usual poison.
MCCOY: To expect one to order poison in a bar is not logical!

In the same bar looking to book an illegal space flight when a Federation Security agent happens upon him:
AGENT: Sir, I'm sorry, but your voice is carrying. I don't think you want to be discussing this subject in public.
MCCOY: I'll discuss what I like and who the hell are you?
AGENT: Could I offer you a ride home, Doctor McCoy?
MCCOY: Where's the logic in offering me a ride home, you idiot! If I wanted a ride home, would I be trying to charter a space flight?

McCoy then attempts to give the agent the Vulcan nerve pinch, but to no avail. He may possess Spock's katra but not his fingers.

It's not all laughs. Here's a heartfelt scene of McCoy trying to get through to an unconscious Spock:

"Spock. For God's sake talk to me! ...You struck this damn thing in my head, remember? Remember? Now tell me what to do with it. Help me...I'm gonna tell you something that ...I never thought I'd hear myself say. But it seems that I've missed you. I don't think I could stand to lose you again."

Truth be told, I laughed at that, too.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (another box office hit) ends happily. Until you consider that these people are now fugitives from justice. They'll have to go back to Earth and face up to their misdeeds. First, though, they'll take a little detour--to the 20th century.

Next: Through the Past Darkly (and Lightly!)




Friday, September 4, 2015

Strange New World Just Ahead, or: How to Make a Vulcan Feel at Home (Part 9 of 15)

9. Hail the Conquering Hero

After Paramount Pictures told Gene Roddenberry that his services, other than that of a consultant/figurehead, were no longer needed, you might have expected his replacement to be some hack. In fact, his removal paved the way for the Star Trek franchise's third great writer-producer, Harve Bennett (as far as the original cast was concerned.) Bennett was no hack, but that wasn't immediately apparent at the time. There was nothing in his resume prior to 1982 to suggest he was any kind of visionary (but then you could say the same thing about Roddenberry's and Gene L. Coon's pre-Trek efforts.) Bennett had been knocking around network television--and not motion pictures--for about a quarter of a century at that point. He got his start at CBS, and then moved to ABC where he eventually became Vice-President of Daytime Programming, and was later Vice-President of Programming, period. Poor Harve. Always the Vice, never the President. He then went from supervising producers to being an independent producer himself. That might seem like a step down, but it possibly allowed him to flex his creative muscles. As a producer, he helped bring into being such popular--and dissimilar--shows as The Mod Squad, The Six Million Dollars Man, and the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man. These weren't bad shows, the best I can remember them, but were they so good that they qualified Bennett to take over Star Trek, already considered a pop culture phenomenon by 1982? Plus, he had never written or produced a movie (though he had graduated from film school, so his ambitions did point in that direction.) It may be that the Paramount executives, which at the time included Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, did want to kind of downsize the next Trek movie, bring back a kind of TV sensibility while keeping it on the big screen. Star Trek: The Motion Picture really had more of a feeling of a series finale than a series launch, whereas the four films Bennett produced, and the fifth that was produced by an associate of his, ended up constituting a kind of fourth season of Star Trek, even if you had to wait a year or so between episodes. More importantly, there was something about a bunch of people traveling through space that brought out the visionary in Bennett, as it had earlier to Roddenberry and Coon. A slightly different vision, however. If Roddenberry was H. P. Lovecraft, and Coon Jonathan Swift, Bennett seemed to take his cue from the great Old Hollywood director Howard Hawks. In such films as Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo, and The Thing from Another World, Hawks would present us with a set of disparate, individualistic, often very quirky characters who, as contradictorily as it may sound, would come together to accomplish some goal, be it delivering air mail, taming the West, or defeating a monster from outer space. This may have existed in at least muted form during Coon's run, as it best describes the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship. The three may not have much in common, but it's more than what they have with anybody else. But Bennett expanded on the idea, so that it was now those three against the world, or, this being Star Trek, the universe. I'm not just talking evil aliens. Whereas Roddenberry came to see the Enterprise crew as representing the best ideals of the Federation and Starfleet, in Bennett's telling, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy got the job done in spite of the Federation and Starfleet, whose sorry asses always needed saving. As for Chekov, Scotty, Sulu and Uhura, you got the sense they were misfits too, their only loyalty to Kirk, who wasn't above asking them to commit a felony or two.

First, though, Harve Bennett had to familiarize himself with the show, which he had never seen. Also, he had to convince Leonard Nimoy to play Spock one final time. To those ends, Bennett screened all 79 Star Trek episodes. One in particular, "Space Seed" from the second season, jumped out at him.

Ostensibly a cautionary tale about the dangers of genetic engineering, "Space Seed" is actually a mordant meditation on our mixed feelings toward such conquering heroes as Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, how we tend to admire them until we find ourselves in their paths (or the paths of those whom admire them even more than we do.) The Enterprise comes across what they regard as an old-fashioned spaceship called the "Botany Bay"--apparently named after the one in the former penal colony known as Australia. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Lieutenant Marla McGivers, who's a historian, beam aboard, where they find 73 bodies in suspended animation. One of the bodies (actor Ricardo Montalban) begins to stir, but maybe not for long as the man's vital signs are weak. He's beamed back aboard the Enterprise, where McCoy treats him, and almost dies in the process. Not the patient but the doctor, as the de-suspended visitor wakes up out of his stupor and clutches McCoy by the throat. Showing admirable, and arguably uncharacteristic, grace under fire, the MD replies, "It would be most effective if you would cut the carotid artery just under the left ear." Impressed by McCoy's chutzpah (come to think of it, that is kind of characteristic of him), the visitor lets go. After that, everything's cool for a while. The visitor, whose name we find out is Khan, is allowed the run of the ship, encouraged to comb the computer memory banks to catch up on the last couple of centuries, and is even given a banquet welcoming him to the future, which he uses as an opportunity to expound on his Might Makes Right philosophy, a philosophy that strikes almost everyone else at the table as an amusing, harmless anachronism. The banquet itself was the idea of Marla McGivers, who realizes this Khan is none other than the great Sikh warrior Khan Noonien Singh, who during the 1990s Eugenics War (I believe I was paying too much attention to O.J. and Monica Lewinsky to take much notice of it at the time) ruled a quarter of the Earth, mostly in Asia. It seems Ms. McGivers has a thing for warmongers--her quarters are decorated with pictures of Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Richard the Lion-Heart, and Leif Erikson--and is so turned on by Khan that she agrees to do his bidding for him. And once they find out it is indeed Khan the historical figure who's on their ship, Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty get a bit turned on themselves! In a scene rapt with romanticized rationalizations, the three go on about how Khan wasn't really all that bad of a guy, that he was strong, brave, daring, and ambitious, and while he may have relied on a bit of bloodshed to obtain his own sovereign state, things were peaceful once he got what he wanted. Before anyone can bring up that Khan got the trains to run on time, Spock notes that he was a tyrant who curtailed freedoms. Kirk reluctantly agrees, and assigns a guard to his quarters. Here's where the genetic engineering stuff comes in handy. Possessing superhuman strength, Khan easily knocks out the guard, returns to his old ship, and wakes up the 73 other genetically-engineered warriors. With their superior minds, they have no problem gaining control of the Enterprise, even if the technology is way beyond their heyday. First Khan gasses all those on the bridge, and then just Captain Kirk to the point of asphyxiation, threatening to go further if the crew doesn't agree to mutiny and follow their new genetically-improved leader. The lovestruck McGivers, who's allied herself with Khan up to this point, has a change of heart and frees the slowly suffocating Kirk from a decompression chamber. Spock then fights gas with gas by releasing some throughout the ship to knock out the 73 other warriors, while Khan and Kirk duke it out, with the physically-inferior latter defeating the former, as he's done in the past, with a lucky blow. Most shows would have ended the episode right there, but "Space Seed" has a wry epilogue in store. Despite almost dying at his hands, Kirk is still in sufficient awe of Khan not to want to see him rot away in some Starfleet version of Spandau Prison, and opts for an Elba solution instead. Khan and his followers (along with Marla McGivers in lieu of a court-martial) will be allowed to settle on Ceti Alpha V, a harsh but habitable world. The episode ends with Spock remarking, "It would be interesting, Captain, to return to that world in a hundred years and to learn what crop has sprung from the seed you planted today." As it turns out, Spock won't have to wait that long to find out. And it will come close to being the very last thing he ever finds out.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). In the 23rd century (it's official now) a young Vulcan woman named Saavik is at the control of the Enterprise, which is under attack by three Klingon warships. An impossible situation to escape from, she orders the starship evacuated. It's then that an amused Admiral James T. Kirk steps out from behind the scenery. No, this isn't Six Characters in Search of an Author you're watching. It's actually the "Kobayashi Maru" a training simulation test that all Starfleet Academy students have to take to in order to test their mettle. It seems Kirk is only person ever to pass the test, a fact that he loves reminding people of (though not on the original series, in which it never comes up.) Captain Spock, now in charge of the Enterprise, found Kirk's solution rather unique, but we won't learn why until later in the movie. For now, no more simulations. The students will take the Enterprise on a three-week training tour of the Federation, with Kirk along as an observer. Meanwhile, on another starship, the Reliant, Captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield), and his First Officer Commander Chekov, have been instructed to assist Project Genesis, an effort to develop a device that will reorganize matter so as to instantly terraform a previously uninhabitable planet. The two beam down to such a planet, and find themselves in a middle of a dust storm. They also find an abandoned space ship, which they then go inside to check out, only to find Khan Noonien Singh, whom Chekov instantly recognizes, an extraordinary feat, given that his character doesn't appear in "Space Seed". So what happened? I don't mean Chekov but to the planet to which Khan and his followers were exiled. Seems another world in the same star system exploded and ruined the environment of Ceti Alpha V, eventually leading to the death of Khan's wife (presumably Marla McGivers.) Craving revenge, Khan puts a couple of mind control eels into both Terrell's and Chekov's ears to get them to talk. Finding out just where Kirk is at, and now aboard the Reliant, Khan sends a fake message to the Enterprise ordering his nemesis to take possession of the Genesis device. It doesn't take Kirk long to find out that Starfleet Command gave no such order. As the senior officer aboard the Enterprise, Kirk now has to take command of the ship to find out what happened, getting much less resistance from logical Spock than he did from Decker in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Before they can do anything, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy need to find out what this Project Genesis is all about. It's on what's best described as a promotional video that they see an old flame of Kirk's, Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), head of the project. Spock seems to know her too, forcing me to go on a fruitless search to see if the character ever appeared on a regular Star Trek episode. No, she makes her debut in this movie, as well as a relative whom we'll learn more about later. On route to the space station where the project is based, they encounter the Reliant, now in Khan's command. The two ships shoot it out, with the bulk of the casualties inflicted on the Enterprise, though Kirk manages to deliver at least one photon bomb of a blow to the Reliant. Kirk, McCoy, and Saavik (who kind of invites herself along) beams down to the space station where they find many dead but Terrill and Chekov still alive. All five beam down inside the Regula asteroid, but not before Kirk instructs Spock to take the Enterprise somewhere else, lest Khan still be lurking. Inside a cave inside the asteroid, Kirk is attacked by Carol Marcus' peacenik son David (Merrit Bukrit), who believes the slaughter of the Project Genesis scientists (other than him and his mother) was the work of Starfleet! Meanwhile, the mind control eels go to work. Terrill points a phaser at Kirk, his superior officer, and is about to pull the trigger (or whatever they have on a phaser) when he summons enough will power to point the weapon at himself, an act of self-sacrifice that foreshadows an even more shocking (as it involves a familiar face) act of self-sacrifice at the end of the film. Chekov, for his part, merely passes out, and the eel takes leave of his ear, no doubt wanting a breath of fresh air. Kirk manages to get Khan on his communicator, and this memorable exchange takes place:

KIRK: Khan, you bloodsucker!! You're gonna have to do your own dirty work now! Do you hear me? DO YOU?!
KHAN: Kirk...Kirk, you're still alive, my old friend...
KIRK: Still...'Old friend!'' You've managed to kill just about everyone else, but like a poor marksman, you!
KHAN: I've done far worse than kill you. I've hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left me. As you left her. Marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet. Buried alive. Buried alive.

Like yelling's going to help. Khan takes off, with the Genesis device in tow. Meanwhile, Kirk and Carol have some catching up to do. Outside of David's hearing range they talk about his father, who just happens to be Kirk. That such an otherwise unmemorable character should be his son is a minor flaw of this film, one that would be remedied in a later sequel. Meanwhile, Kirk's hungry. Carol and David lead them all into another cave that turns out to be a Genesis-created underground oasis. With plenty now to eat, Kirk feels it's good enough table conversation as any to explain how exactly he beat the Kobayashi Maru. After failing the first two times, he reprogrammed the test, and received a commendation for original thinking. David accuses him of cheating, and Kirk replies that he just doesn't believe in no-win situations. At least not for himself. To prove his point, he contacts the Enterprise. Seems he had left a coded message telling Spock when to return to pick them up. Kirk, McCoy, a woozy Chekov, Carol Marcus, and David all beam back aboard the Enterprise, which is still badly in need of repair. Before they have time to fix anything, Khan and the Reliant show up. Kirk lures him to a nebula where an ion storm hampers both starships, ironically evening the fight. Another shootout in space. Heavy damage on both sides, but it's Khan who's mortally wounded. Determined to get one last lick in before he dies, Khan shoots into space the canister containing the Genesis Project, now set to activate. That might not seem like such a big deal. After all, Genesis is supposed to create life, not take it away. Except it creates new life by reorganizing matter, destroying any old life that happens to get in the way, which would include the crew of the Enterprise. Genesis in now a rapidly evolving planet headed right toward the starship. Kirk needs to get the hell out of there. Except the Enterprise's warp drive is knocked out. Might be a simple thing to get it going again if the engine room wasn't filled with lethally high levels of radiation, and it's not like you can just open up a window and air it out. Spock has a plan (the last plan he'll have in quite a while.) Without Kirk noticing, the Science Officer calmly gets out of his chair and walks over to the engine room. McCoy, however, does notice, tries to stop Spock, and is not surprisingly knocked unconscious by a Vulcan nerve pinch. Spock then places his hand on the unconscious McCoy's head, and says "Remember!" Actually, I think a nerve pinch is something the doctor would prefer to forget! Anyway, Spock walks into the radiation filled room, and fixes the engines. Warp drive is now possible, and the Enterprise quickly gets out of harms way. Kirk, clueless as to how this was achieved exactly, is nevertheless pleased with himself for once again cheating death. A grave-sounding McCoy voice is heard over the intercom--the Vulcan pinch apparently having worn off--telling Kirk he needs to get to the engine room, and fast. There he's shocked to finds a dying, radiation-scarred Spock on the other side of a glass partition, struggling to give the Vulcan salute.

SPOCK: Don't grieve, is logical. The needs of the many...outweigh--
KIRK: (grieving anyway) --the needs of the few.
SPOCK: Or the one...I never took the Kobayashi Maru test...until now. What do you think of my solution?
KIRK: Spock!
SPOCK: I have been...and always shall be...your friend...Live long...and prosper.

Man, I got choked up just typing that.

After the funeral, the casket containing Spock's body is placed in a torpedo tube and shot into orbit around the new planet that Genesis created. Kirk and David bond.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also did some uncredited work on the screenplay. Meyer first gained attention with his best-selling 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution, which had Sherlock Holmes, looking to kick his cocaine habit, as a patient of Sigmund Freud. Meyer got into film making when he was allowed to direct his own screenplay for Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper visit 1970s San Francisco. Obviously, Mayer wasn't attracted to low-concept projects, which made him a good fit for Star Trek. He was willing to go all-out-pulp while making sure the project had an overall intelligence. Arthur C. Clarke by the way of Jack Kirby, which pretty much describes the original TV series. The spartan look of the Enterprise in the first movie is gone, the IKEA store having been replaced by a video arcade. The color red in particular is a recurring motif, the crew's new uniforms matching the pyrotechnics that occur throughout the movie. Ironically, this movie has almost as much highfalutin pontification--e.g., Kirk and Spock discussing the meaning of Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities--as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The pontificating is just punctuated by explosions this time around.

The acting. Lets start with Khan himself. Though he played a lot of different types of characters early on in his Hollywood career, Ricardo Montalban eventually became best known as the embodiment of suave. The suave Mr. Roarke of Fantasy Island. The suave Chrysler Cordoba pitchman. The suave villain in The Naked Gun. And he was a suave warlord when he first played Khan in "Space Seed". His second take at Khan was considerably less suave and more gritty, reminding everybody that this was yet another actor who could have had a much more varied, more interesting career if he hadn't fallen victim to typecasting. As the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said of Montalban, the second Trek movie "was the only validation he has ever had of his power to command the big screen." That said, I can't help but think there was a bit of a diminution from the first Khan to the second Khan, even as the screen got bigger. In "Space Seed" we're told Khan is a world-historical character on par with Napoleon Bonaparte. That fact is barely mentioned in the movie. Instead, the genetic engineering aspect is played up, asking us to regard Khan more as a monster running loose in the countryside. That has more to to do with the script than with Montalban, who still manages to invest his monster with a bit of dignity. Moving on, Paul Winfield's bravura performance as Captain Clark Terrell was somewhat overlooked at the time. If his character's self-sacrifice didn't resonate with Star Trek fans as much as Spock's later on, it's only because he was a newcomer (and destined to stay a newcomer) to the franchise. More about this a few paragraphs from now. Bibi Besch is OK as Carol Marcus. Kirk's had so many ex-flames (more so than current flames, as a matter of fact) that it couldn't have been easy to stand out from the rest, even if she is the only one that we're aware of to bear him a child. Speaking of the child, I didn't much like Merrit Butrick's David Marcus, but that may be more due to the script than with the actor, whom I remember playing a very funny New Wave high school student in the short-lived '80s sitcom Square Pegs. There's so much going on in this film, that there's really not a lot of time for a subplot about a long-lost son (purposely lost; Kirk knew about him from the beginning but was asked to stay away at Carol's request.) Petulance is the first, and not very attractive, glimpse we get of David, until near the end of the film, when he's suddenly compassionate. A person can be both, of course, but the sudden change of heart needed more exposition to be carried off convincingly. Kirstie Alley as Saavik. Long way from Rebecca on Cheers, huh? Well, she's a good actress. Some have complained about her character shedding tears at Spock's funeral, but I chalk that up to my Vulcans-have-emotions-but-supress-them theory. More interesting to me is her literally having let her hair down in the elevator she shares with Kirk. Only literally, but she seems to know that it turns Kirk on. As for the regulars, Walter Keonig as Chekov gets an unusual amount of screen time, which he puts to good use. Keonig was in his mid-40s when this was made, and had become a tad pudgy, but whenever he opens his mouth, he's that boyish young Russian all over again. Most of the humor in the movie once again centers on DeForest Kelley's Dr McCoy, though he doesn't get the wittiest lines this time around. That honor goes to Kirk (when it's implied in the cave that a rescue's unlikely, he replies, "Now it's your chance to get away from it all.") But McCoy doesn't really need jokes. "Who's been holding up the elevator?!" has no discernible punchline, but I still laughed out loud anyway. Leonard Nimoy has a great death scene that he plays just right, and it ended up being the centerpiece of the movie, but, curiously enough, I don't know that he got all that much screen time otherwise. It's important to remember that The Wrath of Khan, unlike, arguably, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, isn't told from Spock's point of view. He's not in the middle of an identity crises as he was in the first film. In fact, he seems at peace with himself even while he's dying! Still, it would have been a lot more interesting if Spock had beamed down into the Regula asteroid along with Kirk, McCoy, and Saavik. Scotty could have manned the Enterprise, as he had in all those past episodes. Why the long absence? Some books about the original series claimed that William Shatner had it written into his contract that he got more lines than anyone else, but I doubt if he would have had that much clout a decade-and-a-half later when producers and studio execs were practically begging Nimoy to appear in these films. It must have been the actor's own decision. After all, Nimoy didn't really want to do this movie, only agreeing to appear in it if his character was killed off. Maybe there were other reasons. I remember seeing a Barbara Walters interview with Bing Crosby where the crooner claimed that whenever appearing in a movie with an actor of equal stature--Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra--he insisted on second billing. He figured there was less overexposure, more longevity that way. Perhaps something like that figured into Nimoy's thinking. The Spock character had some amazing longevity indeed, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. Finally, William Shatner is OK in the lead, but what lead exactly is he playing?

DAVID: Every time we have dealings with Starfleet, I get nervous. We are dealing with something that...could be perverted into a dreadful weapon. Remember that overgrown Boy Scout you used to hang around with? That's exactly the kind of man-- 
CAROL: Listen, kiddo, Jim Kirk was many things, but he was never a Boy Scout!

Not in this film he's not. In preparation for The Wrath of Khan, Harve Bennett is said to have screened all 79 episodes of the original series. I have to wonder if he was watching the same starship captain I was. While the TV Kirk certainly radiated self-confidence, I don't recall him as being as hung-up on himself as the vainglorious fool we meet in this film. The smug smile on his face as he steps out from behind the scenery to chide poor Saavik for flunking the Kobayashi Maru test! The Vulcan lass should have nerve pinched him. And to find out he cheated--"I changed the conditions"--on that very test! Starfleet hands out commendations for that? Do they also give an A if you program an android to do your homework? Where Kirk gets particularly obnoxious is the exchange that immediately followed his admission:

KIRK: I don't like to lose.
SAAVIK: Then you never faced that situation...faced death.
KIRK: I don't believe in a no-win scenario...Kirk to Spock. It's two hours. Are you about ready?
SPOCK (on intercom): Right on schedule, Admiral. Just give us your coordinates and we'll beam you aboard.
KIRK (smugly smiling): I don't like to lose!

What's so obnoxious about his behavior, you may ask? After all, it ain't bragging if it's true. Except this conversation takes place not too long after he witnessed Captain Terrell take his own life in order to save his! Kirk didn't change that particular condition, Terrell did. Yet Kirk doesn't even acknowledge Terrell's sacrifice. He wants the attention to be all on him! Plus, he's only just met Terrell. It's different when Spock does something similar later on. They're old friends. Actually, I think it's a bit more impressive that the first time around it was a stranger sacrificing his life. Kirk's just impressed with himself.  The film, curiously, does suggest Kirk is going through a mid-life crises. He even tells Carol that he's "tired...worn out." Worn out from bragging, I bet! Besides, future films will suggest that hubris has always been part of Kirk's makeup. Jumping a bit ahead to Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, Kirk non-nonchalantly states near the end, "Once again we've saved civilization as we know it." Star Trek: Generations has Kirk telling Picard: "I don't need to be lectured by you. I was out saving the galaxy when your grandfather was in diapers. Besides which, I think the galaxy owes me one." And it continues into J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot that has Kirk, now played by Chris Pine, getting into bar fights, merely a prelude to a Starfleet promotion. Kirk, the maverick saver of galaxies! That where the character now stands, and he first took that stand in The Wrath of Khan. Harve Bennett and others that's come since (including Shatner himself) seem to have taken their inspiration from Old Hollywood swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. I like both those guys, but that's not the Kirk I remember from the TV show.

On the original series, James Kirk was a bit of a Boy Scout. He was Trustworthy (in "The Ultimate Computer" other Federation starships won't fire on a shieldless Enterprise, despite an earlier attack, out of their trust for Kirk), Loyal (he lets Spock kill him in "Amok Time"), Helpful (he instructs McCoy to heal the Horta in "The Devil in the Dark"), Friendly (he lets an alien take control of his body in "Return to Tomorrow"), Courteous (he doesn't kill Wyatt Earp in "Spectre of the Gun"), Kind (despite all the trouble it's given him, he decides to help the disabled alien ship at the end of "The Cobermite Maneuver"), Obedient (he has plastic surgery and steals a Romulan cloaking device, just as he was ordered to do in "The Enterprise Incident"), Cheerful (he takes it good-naturedly when Spock suggests he's Satan in "The Apple",) Thrifty (he makes a cannon out of bamboo in "Arena"), Brave (just about every episode), Clean (he and Spock tidy up Edith Keeler's basement in "The City on the Edge of Forever"), and Reverent (he extends full Presidential honors to Abraham Lincoln in "The Savage Curtain"). Also, keeping with Scouting policy until very recently, James Kirk was thoroughly heterosexual (examples too numerous to mention.) Here's something not out of the Boy Scout Handbook but the episode "Return to Tomorrow" that I think basically defines the TV version of Kirk:

"They used to say if man could fly, he'd have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to. Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn't reached the moon, or that we hadn't gone to Mars and then to the nearest star? That's like saying [to McCoy] you wish that you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut like your great-great-great-great grandfather used to. I'm in command. I could order this. But I'm not because Doctor McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this. But I must point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great. Risk. Risk is our business. That's what the starship is all about. That's why we're aboard her..."

Reading the above, the word "risk" stands out but so does "potential for knowledge and advancement". Kirk is just as much interested in the latter as Spock, risk is just the means to get there and not the ends. A student instructor at the Starfleet academy, Kirk was once described by friend Gary Mitchell as "a stack of books with legs". He really was a very serious guy in the original series and not this glib fellow in "The Wrath of Khan" and later movies who wisecracks his way through grave danger as if he's James Bond (yeah, I know, I compared the British secret agent to Spock in an earlier installment, but that was in a whole different context.) Sure, Kirk does have his light side, can be witty, the guy kind of guy you want to have a beer with. But that's when everything's going smoothly. That's when all of us tend to be more agreeable. It's different for the TV Kirk when danger approaches. He's no coward but that doesn't mean he's in for a fun time. The graver the situation, the graver Kirk gets. His brows furrow, his body stiffens, he clenches his fists (as well as his phaser). He's so tense you'd probably break your fingers giving him a massage. The man is trying to hold it all together. He sometimes erupts in anger, but tries not to, and those are the tics that Shatner brings to Kirk for which he's often been mocked, but that I find more realistic than the hero who looks unconcerned as bullets or phaser beams fly around him. Then near the end of just about every episode, once the danger has passed, if you watch closely, you'll notice his shoulders kind of drop, almost like the gravity has been turned up. It's not a sigh but rather a slump of relief that he's experiencing. I find that realistic too, and very different most (but not all) of the time from the Kirk of the movies. To be fair, the movies take place a little later on in his life. It's quite possible that evading death on a weekly basis did go to his head a bit, did make him a bit shallow (he was kind of boorish in "Requiem for Methesulah" which was aired near the end of the original series run.) The TV Kirk was in awe of Khan Noonien Singh. The movie Kirk is in awe of himself.

None of this is to say I didn't like The Wrath of Khan. On its own terms I think it's a terrific movie. I also see it as more than the mindless summer blockbuster that it was sold to the public as. Once you get past all the explosions, it's really a canny satire of 60 years of motion picture derring-do (even more years now; remember it came out in 1982) that has Kirk learning the hard way that how you throw a punch or acrobatically jump on a table doesn't automatically confer on you the rubric of hero. As he says to David after Spock's funeral: "I haven't faced death. I've cheated death. I tricked my way out of death, and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity." That's why I find the mid-life crises subplot so out of place in this film, which has Kirk at the end claiming everything that's just transpired finally has made him feel young. Spock's unintentional upending of Kirk's dauntlessness should have put him in a mid-life crises, not taken him out of one!

Nevertheless, it's now a very sober Kirk who delivers Spock's eulogy:  

"We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of a new life, the sunrise of a new world, a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one. And we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels...his was the most...HUMAN."

(Hmm...I just reread Kirk's eulogy. Forgive me, but I can't help but speculate. If Spock had been black instead of Vulcan, Kirk might have said, "Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels...his was the most...WHITE.")

(If Spock had been Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, he might have said, "...his was the most...CHRISTIAN.")

(If Spock had been gay, he might have said "...his was the most...STRAIGHT.") 

(If Spock had been Hispanic, he might have said, "...his was the most...NORDIC.")

(If Spock had been female, he might have said, "...hers was the most...WELL-HUNG.")

(If Spock had been a pauper, he might have said, "...his was the biggest...BANK ACCOUNT.")

(If Spock had been a beatnik, he might have said, "...his was the most...GRAY FLANNEL-SUITED.")

(If Spock had been a Furry, he might have said, "...his was the most...REALISTIC-LOOKING ANIMAL COSTUME.")

(If Spock had been a Trekkie, he might have said, "...his was the most...APPRECIATIVE OF LOST IN SPACE.")

(If there had been no difference in race, religion, gender, ethnicity, class, creed, association, subculture, or planetary origin, and Spock had merely been different, he might have said, "...his was the most...NORMAL." Say, you suppose that's what Kirk meant all along?)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a huge success, the sixth highest-grossing film of 1982. I was surprised to learn that actually made it less of a success than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was number five the year it came out. The execs at Paramount, however, were pleasantly surprised. The lower production costs meant the second movie actually earned more money than the first. Naturally, there would be a sequel.

As for Leonard Nimoy, a funny thing happened while making The Wrath of Khan: he enjoyed the experience. He began having second thoughts about his character's demise. Indeed, he was already having these thoughts when the film started doing boffo box office in theaters, telling the media at the time, "No one ever dies in science fiction." He asked Paramount execs about the possibility of being in the next movie. The execs just sniffed and said "You made your coffin and now you have to lie in it. We can get along fine without you. Humph!" I'm joking. They said nothing of the sort. Studio execs may be venal, but they're not crazy. OF COURSE, they were going to let him be in the next movie. And to sweeten the deal, they let him do something that hadn't been done in 2000 years. Nimoy would get to direct his own resurrection.

Next: Vulcan Rising, or: Can't See DeForest for the Trees


Monday, August 31, 2015

Strange New World Just Ahead, or: How to Make a Vulcan Feel at Home (Part 8 of 15)

8. Lights! Camera! Existentialism! 

Alexander Graham Bell. Invented the telephone 90 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

Thomas Edison. Invented the incandescent light bulb 87 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

Orville and Wilbur Wright. Invented the airplane 63 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

Charlie Chaplin. Produced, directed, wrote, and starred in the motion picture Modern Times 30 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

Speaking of motion pictures, here's an early ad for the first one based on Star Trek, an ad that was quickly rescinded. Note that it says "23rd century". The original series didn't necessarily take place in the 23rd century. Nor did it necessarily NOT not take place in the 23rd century. The TV show never exactly said when it took place, you were supposed to just assume "the future", that's all. The series hinted at times, but those hints were contradictory. In the time travel episode "Tomorrow is Yesterday", a 1967 Air Force Lieutenant, believing him to be a spy, threatens to lock Kirk up for 200 years, to which the starship captain replies, "That ought to be about right." Doing the math, that also ought to be the 22nd, and not the 23rd, century. In "The Squire of Gothos", the title alien, unaware the time it takes light to travel in space, believes Earth is still in the late 18th-early 19th century, or "900 hundred years past" according to Kirk, meaning the show should then take place in the 27th century. In the 1968 best-seller The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield (that a show on the verge of cancellation nonetheless could inspire a best-selling book demonstrates the cult-like following the series had during its original run) Gene Roddenberry is quoted as saying the Enterprise's five-year mission could take place as late as 1000 years in the future, or as early as 1999 (at the time three decades away, but still.) The trick, I think, is that you need it far enough in the future to account for things like interstellar space travel and molecular disassembly and reassembly ("Beam me up, Scotty") but not so far into the future that humans have evolved into floating brains (or, if you believe Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos, dolphins.) Somehow, someone settled on the 23rd century for the first film, except that date is never actually mentioned in the film itself, just the early ad campaign for it, which the producers then backed off of. Still, 300 years in the future sounded like it might be right. The date stuck.

 The Manhattan Project. 21 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

ENIAC. 20 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

Sputnik. 9 years before Star Trek first went on the air.

23rd century or whenever, Star Trek obviously takes place in a technologically advanced future. But to what extent do the characters think of that era as advanced? After all, technology is relative. Look at today. The Internet. Smart phones. GPS tracking. It's all beginning to make an era I once thought of as ultra-modern, and technologically advanced in its own right, the 1970s of my youth, seem vaguely quaint. Does Polaroid still make those cameras where the picture develops right before your eyes? Does Polaroid make anything anymore? In 1889, the 19th century seemed like such a age of marvels to Mark Twain that he was inspired to write A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in which the title character introduces the steam engine, gas lights, and the telegraph to the Middle Ages. 90 years later, Disney made a movie of Twain's novel titled Unidentified Flying Oddball. Except by 1979, 1889 seemed a little too much like the Middle Ages for the contrast to resonate much, so the title character was updated to a NASA astronaut (who still may have been from Connecticut for all I know.)  In between, there's the 1949 Bing Crosby version, which retained Twain's original title. Yet there's a curious bit of updating there, too. Instead of 1889 or 1949, that movie takes place in 1912. Why? Crosby plays an auto mechanic, a profession largely unknown in 1889.  23 years later, however, there were 500,000 automobiles on American roads, and presumably they occasionally broke down and you needed mechanics to repair them. 22% percent of those autos were the increasingly affordable and increasingly popular Model T Fords. But not nearly as affordable and popular as they would become in 1913. That year, Henry Ford had a moving assembly line installed in his Highland Park, Michigan plant. Moving assembly lines had been around for a while, but usually for simple things like putting sardines in cans. Oldsmobile had tried it with cars first, but still charged wealthy consumers through their turned-up noses, and so most Americans stuck to horses or their own two legs. Ford, who realized you could make more money by selling something cheap to a modest-income majority than something expensive to a well-heeled minority, was by the mid-1910s spitting out Model T's, displacing both the horse and the people of the world's own two feet, and turning the entire planet into the Indianapolis 500. Writer Aldous Huxley was so impressed--as well as alarmed and repulsed--by Henry Ford's achievement, that he set his 1931 dystopian novel Brave New World in 632 A.F.--"After Ford". Huxley was still alive in 1961 when Disney came out with The Absent-Minded Professor. In that decidedly non-dystopian film, the title character played by Fred MacMurray is kidded by friends and acquaintances for "still driving that old Model T." It seems no matter how stunning the technological development, something soon comes along to render it trite (which reminds me, I need to replace my cell phone.)

Star Trek, during its original run, examined both sides of this dichotomy. There are times where the characters do see themselves as technologically advanced. In "The Conscience of the King" a Shakespearean actor tells Kirk, "Here you stand, the perfect symbol of our technical society. Mechanized, electronicised, and not very human. You've done away with humanity, the striving of man to achieve greatness through his own resources." In "Errand of Mercy" Kirk himself says "We think of ourselves as the most powerful beings in the universe..." There are even Luddites in the future. In "The Way to Eden" Spock explains the goals of Dr. Sevrin and his followers: "There are many who are uncomfortable with what we have created. It is almost a biological rebellion--a profound revulsion against the planned communities, the programming, the sterilized, artfully balanced atmospheres. They hunger for an Eden--where spring comes." Yet there's also a surprising number of episodes where Kirk and co. encounter societies that are even more technologically advanced, or else they've given themselves over to technology to such an extent they make the crew of the Enterprise look Amish, almost always to ill effect. In "Return of the Archons" and "The Apple" computers set themselves up as gods to intellectually-stunted populations. In "A Taste of Armageddon" two planets wage a 500-year war via computer simulation, but the casualties are real. The title contraption in "The Doomsday Machine" munches on planets. As for "Mudd's Planet", a bunch of stubborn androids rule there. A scientist programs his personality into "The Ultimate Computer" and people die as a result. Some personality. A spaceship posing as a planet is set to collide into the real thing in "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky". In all of these episodes, the technological evil is defeated, and the crew of the Enterprise returns to their normal lives of interstellar travel and molecule-dispersing transporters. Now with this new film version of Star Trek, ultra-modern 1970s special effects would be put to use in telling yet another story about advanced technology. Whether this advanced technology was evil or not would all depend on who, or what, was asking the question.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) A giant space cloud destroys three Klingon warships, but not before we get to see the Federation's longtime foes with a new cool backbone-leading-to-top-of-the-nose appearance (in the original series they merely had bushy eyebrows and swarthy complexions.) The cloud is now headed for Earth, and Admiral Kirk, stuck in a desk job for the last couple of years, uses the existential threat as an excuse to get back in the Captain's chair of a newly re-fitted Enterprise, putting him at odds with the new captain, but now First Officer Willard Decker (the son of a character who appeared in the original series episode "The Doomsday Machine".) Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov (now weapons officer), Rand (now a transporter chief) and Chapel (now a doctor) are still part of the crew, but McCoy and Spock have apparently left Starfleet. Kirk has the former (briefly seen with a beard) recommissioned and dragooned back to the Enterprise quite against his will. As for the latter, he's back on Vulcan undergoing a ritual to purge all his emotions when he senses the presence of the space cloud and decides to put the expurgation on hold, once again returning to his old ship as Science Officer, though he's even more aloof than before. And so the Enterprise takes off to battle, or at least reason, with the cloud. Problem is, there's still a few bugs in the refitted Enterprise, as witnessed by a couple of crew members who melt or something while being beamed aboard. A second problem is Kirk's not familiar with all the changes done to his ship, and in fact almost gets everybody killed a couple times, saved only by Decker, who's then reprimanded by the new/old captain for "competing" with him. The Kirk-Decker feud basically falls in the background once the Enterprise catches up with the space cloud. Or the space cloud catches up with the Enterprise. A shiny probe appears on the bridge and abducts the ship's new navigator (and Decker's old flame) Ilia. She's either replaced, combined with, or turned into the probe who wants to know why there are so many "carbon units infesting" the Enterprise. Spock notices the probe is partial to Decker, suggesting it has retained some of Ilia's memories. Decker is assigned the task of wooing Ilia all over again, but to no avail. All she cares about is finding her "Creator" and feels the carbon forms on the Enterprise, and eventually on Earth as well are just getting in the way. Spock has some success mind-melding with the cloud, finding out it has a name: V'Ger. Quite on his own, Spock decides to get a closer look at this cloud. He nerve-pinches a guard, suits up, and spacewalks right into the heart of the thing, where he sees hundreds of planets and stars and the like. Upon his return, and after resting up in sick bay as the experience almost killed him, Spock reveals that in the heart of the cloud is a 20th century Voyager probe that's been missing for 300 years (NASA really did send up several spacecraft with that name though this particular one is fictional.) Seems it disappeared into a black hole only to end up on some planet populated by living machines. Sent back out to learn all there is to learn, it now wants to find its creator. V'Ger shows its bias by refusing to believe that the creator might be a carbon unit (the good people at NASA) rather than a machine. Unfortunately, not only is there no longer a NASA in the 23rd-or-whenever century, all of the computer codes that could be used to contact V'Ger have disappeared, too. The Earth defenses have now been rendered useless by the up-fitted probe, every man, woman, and child (as well as plants and animals) in mortal danger. Somehow this problem is solved when Decker--through one helluva whiz-bang light show--merges with the Ilia/probe, and they jointly merge with V'Ger, hurtling all three into some other dimension. Everything now back to normal, Scotty offers to return Spock to Vulcan, but he's gotten such an epiphany from the whole experience (even shedding tears at one point) that he's decided there's nothing left for him there.

A nice try. That's my opinion of this film. Costing $44 million dollars (adjusted for inflation, today it would be...well, I have no idea but even not adjusted for inflation I could still buy a lot of pizzas with it) this film should at the very least be nice. Robert Wise, who had his biggest hit was The Sound of Music but whose science fiction cred rests with the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed this in an impressionistic style that enhances the sense of wonder we've come to expect from Star Trek. The special effects are more than nice, they're FANTASTIC, but that may be part of the problem. Trek has never been solely about the wonder (it couldn't be, given the original series shoestring budget) but also the people doing the wondering. Everything is so grand (including a San Francisco of the future) that it's hard not to blame V'Ger for wanting to eliminate the carbon units. They get in the way of the sheer spectacle. Except for the antiseptic interiors of the Enterprise. The whole ship now looks like Sick Bay. The new uniforms are either light blue or light beige, darker, gaudier hues having been banned. The old series, for all its high-mindedness, had at least a flirting relationship with the pulpier forms of sci-fi. Whereas this new version has sworn off trolling for tramps in a trailer park, married a nice girl with impeccable (if a tad austere) taste in fashion and furniture, and moved to the suburbs.

Even if they're overwhelmed at times by all the pyrotechnics, the actors all do good work. As a newcomer to Star Trek, Stephen Collins sometimes seems unsure exactly how he fits it with this crowd, but then that's pretty much the whole point of his character, Williard Decker. Collins is at his best in his scenes with Bollywood actress Persis Khambatta, who's both Ilia and the probe-that-looks-like-Ilia. She does a nice job playing two characters who occasionally are one and the same. However, keeping with the TV show (as well as pulpier forms of sci-fi) she's also this movie's sex symbol, but with a twist. Beautiful, nubile, with a great pair of gams--except she's bald! For all its highfalutin philosophy, this is the film at its most provocative. The feminine form literally topped by something our culture considers anything but feminine. The movie dares you to not find her attractive, challenges you not to be turned on. The kind of erotic contrariness that Lady Gaga knows all too well. Or Sinead O'Conner, who obviously looks more the part. Who knows? Maybe O'Conner caught this film back in '79 and was inspired by it. As for the cast from the TV version, they've all settled back into their old roles as if the original series had just gone off the air the day before. In fact, Barret, Doohan, Koenig, Nichols, and Takai, as, respectively, Chapel, Scotty, Chekov, Uhura, and Sulu, have about as much to do in this movie as they did in the TV show. In the first half-season in which she appeared, Grace Lee Whitney--Janice Rand--actually did have more to do than those other players. As James T. Kirk's incipient love interest, she was the focal point of several early episodes. Now just seen briefly as the frazzled transporter chief, the interest seems never to have gotten past the incipient stage. William Shatner is good as Kirk. His acting style is often made fun of, but I thought the fits and starts and even the occasional sputtering of the Enterprise captain as a not unrealistic response to the dangers he faced on a regular basis. Being chased by a different monster every week could make anyone appear bipolar. At least in this film Shatner has an extra hour to pace himself. He's a more conflicted character here, with a bit of melancholia about him in his desire to be relevant, a desire that possibly exceeds the need for his particular brand of relevancy. All of which, of course, makes him a more sympathetic character. When Kirk tells Decker not to compete with him, we know he's wrong (as Decker has just saved the day) yet our heart goes out to him all the same. Since he neither figures out what V'Ger is all about nor makes the sacrifice/physical transformation that sends the space cloud on its computer programmed way, Kirk is a surprisingly passive figure here, though his "thataway" that ends the film signals a determination to propel the narrative (as he noisily will in several succeeding films.) Now, every transcendent science fiction epic needs an Everyman. 2001: A Space Odyssey had Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). Close Encounters of the Third Kind had Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). Star Trek: The Motion Picture has...Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley)! Except whereas Bowman and Neary were in awe of the wondrous things of which they bore witness, McCoy is as always annoyed and unsettled and eager to escape from anything that doesn't smack of the familiar. Consequently, Kelley has some of the best, certainly the funniest lines in the movie. When, after a near-disaster, Chekov informs him there are no casualties, McCoy replies, "Wrong, Mr. Chekov, there are casualties. My wits! As in, frightened out of!" When Spock suggests Ilia/V'Ger probe be treated as a child, McCoy's response: "Spock, this child is about to wipe out every living thing on Earth. Now, what do you suggest we do? Spank it?!" In his own cantankerous way, McCoy is even more logical than Spock.

And what of Spock?

 I think, therefore I am.

--René Descartes

One might compare the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often in the relations between the ego and the id we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go.

--Sigmund Freud

What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.

--Jean-Paul Sartre.

There are times when all the world's asleep,
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.


Leonard Nimoy's performance is really at the heart of this film. I said in an earlier installment that of all the Enterprise crew members that we're aware of, Spock is the most open-minded, the most tolerant toward life-forms other than his own. The one exception is the human race, which he finds constant fault with: "Curious how often you Humans manage to obtain that which you do not want." "Your whole Earth history is made up of men seeking absolute power." At the end of "Mirror, Mirror" when asked what he thought of the parallel universe versions of Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura, Spock replies: "...I had the opportunity to observe your counterparts here quite closely. They were brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous, in every way, splendid examples of homo sapiens, the very flower of humanity." You can argue Spock's every bit as bigoted as McCoy, except toward those who ears happen to be rounded. Remember, though, as a Vulcan he's outnumbered 7 to 1 among the Enterprise crew members we see most often. The extras and one-shot characters seem to be human, too, so it's really about 400 to 1. Spock's criticisms are really a survival tool, a way of maintaining his sense of self in what to him is an alien culture: "Doctor, I am well aware of human characteristics. I am frequently inundated by them, but I've trained myself to put up with practically everything."  My theory is that the inundation finally gets to Spock. So he parts company with what he sees as a starship full of Stanley Kowalskis and returns to Vulcan to undergo "kolinahr", the expurgation (suppression?) of emotions to get that sense of self back. 

Problem is, having been inundated in another environment for the past five years, he can now see Vulcan from the outside and recognize it for what it is: artifice. A cultural construct. Not necessarily a bad cultural construct. Maybe the best cultural construct around. But it's like if you go off to college or the army (or, in his case, Starfleet) and return home, that home is never quite the same, even if nothing's changed, because it is YOU that have changed. Your horizons have been expanded. Spock probably could commiserate with the three returning servicemen (actors Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March) in the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives. Their horizons expanded to an often horrific degree thanks to World War II, they're met with indifference, bafflement, and impatient pleas to just "snap out of it" by the folks at home. Spock, of course, has seen his share of horrors as a Starfleet officer, but even when a particular adventure has been more "fascinating" than lethal, it could still be beyond the ken of the average non-spacefaring Vulcan, who, whenever we're allowed to glimpse one, seems more interested in paganish ritual of the meditative sort and little else.  So what's a returning serviceman, be he from Earth or Vulcan, to do? Well, you can once again take leave of the place, as Dana Andrews attempts to do toward the end of TBYOOL. Or you can take to drink, Fredric March's solution. Or you can do your best to fit in. Harold Russell's personal best is marriage to his childhood sweetheart. Spock's already tried that and it didn't work out too well ("Amok Time") so he opts for kolinahr. If anyone's going to meet Spock's newly expanded horizons with indifference, it might as well be Spock himself. Bye, bye, emotions.

Except V'ger is hardly indifferent. Spock senses it way out in space and the Vulcan elders don't. Think they'd be a bit jealous of Spock's unique ability, but jealousy is an emotion and that would be illogical. Really, though, why is Spock able to do that? Just as the half-human, half-Vulcan is now too self-conscious to be completely comfortable in his own homeland, apparently (as it will soon be revealed) the half-NASA, half-alien V'Ger is going through its own identity crises. So Spock returns to Kirk and co. Not that he's any more comfortable doing that. He's now a returning serviceman reluctantly returned to service. Spock may be newly-aware of Vulcan as a cultural construct, but he's always felt that way about the Enterprise. I'm thinking here of the scene where, shortly after arriving at his former workplace, Spock, Kirk, and McCoy adjourn to a side room designed in Danish Modern (well, it'd be retro to those three.) Standing erect as a flagpole, Spock's discomfort is palpable as Kirk urges him to sit down. When he finally does, it's the most awkward acquiescence to a request I've ever seen.  McCoy, of course, is ready with a wisecrack: "Spock, you haven't changed a bit. You're just as warm and sociable as ever." Spock, of course, has a good comeback: "Nor have you, doctor, as your continued predilection for irrelevancy demonstrates." But, unlike every other instance, he takes no satisfaction on getting a good one off the doctor. Indeed, it's a bit of a chore, the comeback slowly oozing out his mouth like the last bit of ketchup out of a bottle. Now, let's jump ahead to just after Spock's spacewalk into the heart of V'Ger, when he ends up in Sick Bay. Clasping Kirk's hand, he says:  "I saw V'Ger's planet, a planet populated by living machines. Unbelievable technology. V'Ger has knowledge that spans this universe. And, yet, with all this pure logic, V'Ger is barren, cold, no mystery, no beauty. I should have known [...] This simple feeling [clasping Kirk's hand] is beyond V'Ger's comprehension. No meaning, no hope, and, Jim, no answers. 'Is this all I am? Is there nothing more?'"  Spock is obviously dismayed by this lack of beauty and mystery and the simple act of clasping a hand. The question is, why? The obvious answer is that it's Spock's human half that's dismayed. And that his human half is probably equally dismayed at the push for pure logic on his own home planet of Vulcan. I'm sure anywhere from 3% to 10% of you folks out there--the statistics stubbornly refuse to stay put--can probably relate to a biological urge at odds with societal norms. No, I'm not saying that Spock is gay--he gets it on quite readily with both Leila Kalomi (Jill Ireland) in "This Side of Paradise" and Zarabeth (a scantily clad Mariette Hartley) in "All Our Yesterdays", two episodes where his emotions, and possibly his libido, get the best of him--only that his paradoxical genetic makeup could give rise to a similar set of challenges. In that respect, kolinahr can even be seen as a kind of conversion therapy.  Except Spock isn't just dismayed but surprised that there's no beauty or mystery or simple acts of hand clasping on V'Ger's planet. And that surprise makes me think those things indeed must exist on Spock's own home world, albeit in muted form, furthering my belief that Vulcans are really just a bunch of poseurs (as is true of any culture, be it a New Guinea tribe, the Middle East, or the United States of America.) Vulcans aren't machines, they just wish they were machines. With horrifying clarity, Spock has seen just what would happen were that wish ever to come true. That's not to say he's now ready to embrace the violence-ridden, angst-ridden, heartbreak-ridden Earth Human lifestyle, and, in fact, he never does (There's GOT to be some other alternative, he's probably thinking.)

The only real problem with Star Trek: The Motion Picture is it goes on too damn long. At 132 minutes, it's...let me's a whole three minutes longer than the average blockbuster film made in the late '70s. Um, let me amend my first sentence. Star Trek: The Motion Picture SEEMS to go on too damn long. Though the themes may be complex, the actual plot is simple enough. The whole thing could have been told in under an hour, the length of a typical Star Trek episode. In fact, it WAS a Star Trek episode: "The Changeling" from the series second season. The Enterprise receives yet another distress signal (think by now they'd learn to ignore those things given all the trouble they cause) and arrives at a planet that should have a population of four billion but is now devoid of life. Here today, gone tomorrow. The culprit turns out to be a space probe named Nomad, sent from Earth a few centuries earlier. Nomad is much smaller than V'Ger, so much so that it can be beamed aboard the Enterprise. Otherwise, it very much resembles V'Ger. It's looking for its creator, and refers to people as "units". Spock mind-melds with the probe and finds, like V'Ger, it came into contact with another space object from a more technologically advanced society. The two somehow merged into one, and now feels it must exterminate anything that gets in the way of its stated goal. The similarities between "The Changeling" and Star Trek: The Motion Picture are so great, some fans have referred to the latter as Where Nomad Has Gone Before.  The episode was written by John Meredyth Lucas, but Executive Producer Gene Roddenberry was obviously taken with the idea of a machine in search of its creator. He used the idea again in the TV movie The Questor Tapes (though that machine was much more agreeable toward human beings) and now made it the subject of the first feature film. However, "The Changeling" had a much different ending. Temporarily mistaking Kirk for its creator, it decides to help him out by eliminating such inefficiencies as Uhura's memory and a couple of security guards. Needless to say this was help Kirk did not need. The Enterprise captain points out the errors of Nomad's ways to it, and the machine decides to destroy itself, but not before Kirk manages to have it beamed back out into space, where it explodes. As I said in an earlier installment, ending an episode with a bang was the commercial way of solving that week's dilemma in Star Trek's second season. So it's odd, and refreshing, to discover that, even with all the money being spent, the feature film wasn't going to take the easy way out and have V'Ger similarly blown out of the sky. According to the onscreen credits, science-fiction author Alan Dean Foster, who had written a series of books based on the animated series, came up with the story, and a producer by the name of Harold Livingston wrote the teleplay. Note I didn't say screenplay. Originally this was meant to be the pilot for a new TV show, Star Trek: Phase Two. So maybe the promotion to feature filmdom allowed for greater consideration on how to end this thing. In Livingston's words:
 "We had a marvelous antagonist, so omnipotent that for us to defeat it or even communicate with it, or have any kind of relationship with it, made the initial concept of the story false. Here's this gigantic machine that's a million years further advanced than we are. Now, how the hell can we possibly deal with this? On what level? As the story developed, everything worked until the very end. How do you resolve this thing? If humans can defeat this marvelous machine, it's really not so great, is it? Or if it really IS great, will we like those humans who do defeat it? SHOULD they defeat it? Who is the story's hero anyway? That was the problem. We experimented with all kinds of approaches...we didn't know what to do with the ending. We always ended up against a blank wall."

NASA to the rescue! The then-director of the agency had mused that mechanical forms of life were someday likely in an interview in Penthouse (a once-popular girlie magazine that in recent years has come close to going under thanks to that mechanical form of life known as the Internet.) And that became the ending to Star Trek: The Motion Picture as Decker, Ilia, and V'Ger become one. And a good ending it is, no matter how many extra minutes it takes to get there.

Though they went to the The Motion Picture in droves, Star Trek fans were divided on its merits, and, judging by the Users Reviews on the IMDb, they remain divided, some comparing it favorably to the TV version, others complaining it bears no resemblance whatsoever. What I think both sides overlook is that the individual episodes of the original series didn't always resemble each other. "Arena", for instance, is very different from "A Piece of the Action", and both were written by the same guy! Whatever its flaws, Star Trek: The Motion Picture deserves another look.

The execs at Paramount, however, had seen enough. Sure, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a hit, in fact, the fifth biggest hit of 1979. But it had cost so much to make, there was barely enough money left over for those execs to refurbish their hot tubs or build additions onto their mansions. If there was going to be a sequel--and, of course, there was going to be a sequel, after all, it was the fifth biggest hit of 1979--then a change was in order.

Gene Roddenberry never owned the classic series he created. The original proprietor was Lucille Ball, who sold it and the rest of Desilu studios to neighboring Paramount Pictures during Star Trek's second season. After the show went off the air, Roddenberry tried to buy it off them, but the price was too high. Still, when it came time to make a movie, they let him produce the thing. Figured he knew what he was doing. Star Trek, Star Wars, as long as the kids liked it. Now the kids were falling asleep during this expensive piece of psychobabble. That's not what they asked for! Give the public what it needs, bread and circuses (action figure tie-ins would be nice, too.) Actually, Roddenberry was perfectly capable of giving them that. Remember, the artistic first Trek pilot, "The Cage" had been followed by the relatively lowbrow "Where No Man Has Gone Before". Yeah, well, he should have done it that way in the beginning, the execs probably thought. Roddenberry was, in William Shatner's words, "kicked upstairs". For the rest of the movie franchise's decade-long run, he would be "executive consultant", except no one ever consulted him.

Next: Hail the Conquering Hero