Promising a roller-coaster ride of action and adventure, “Star Trek Into Darkness," the latest offering in the Star Trek movie franchise, is the 12th film in the series.
With the release of the new film, it's a good time to take a look back at the ups and downs of this film series.
After the cancellation of the "Star Trek" TV series in 1969, creator Gene Roddenberry had hopes that one day Paramount would consider exploring the further adventures of the Starship Enterprise in a feature film. After several failed attempts, Paramount announced that it instead preferred a new series, tentatively titled “Star Trek: Phase II.” After the success of major science-fiction films like “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” however, Paramount ultimately decided to green light a feature film.
The result was 1979's “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” The film saw Captain Kirk, Spock, Leonard McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew on a mission to stop an energy field on a collision course with Earth.
Despite the best of intentions, an acceptable box office take and a thoughtful twist ending, this first film adventure of the Enterprise and its crew is a drab, meandering affair. The film lacks action, kinetic energy and the story just plods along. Missing also is any kind of major villain to root against. (In 2001 Paramount released Robert Wise's director's cut that tightens up the story and is on the whole much more watchable than the original theatrical cut.)
For the sequel, Paramount wisely brought on board producer Harve Bennett and writer/director Nicholas Meyer. The result was 1982's “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” This film had everything that “The Motion Picture” lacked: plenty of action and starship combat, as well as one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history: Khan Noonien Singh. Played with evil glee by Ricardo Montalban, Khan was a villain motivated by vengeance against his old nemesis, Captain Kirk. The film also addresses the realities of aging and the enduring power of friendship. I defy you to watch Spock's death scene and not shed a tear.
Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock himself, directed the third outing of the franchise, 1984's “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” This film sees Captain Kirk and his crew going rogue, stealing the Enterprise and venturing to a forbidden planet in hopes of finding a resurrected Spock. While not the greatest film in the series, “The Search for Spock” is far from the worst. It offers some genuine comedic moments (such as when Mr. Sulu knocks out a security guard twice his size), and continues the story of the previous film beautifully. Also, Christopher Lloyd and John Larroquette as the Klingon antagonists are a lot of fun.
Nimoy again directed 1986's “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” Known to casual fans of the series as “the one with the whales,” “The Voyage Home” sees the crew of the Enterprise operating a hijacked Klingon vessel en route for Earth when it encounters a powerful, destructive alien probe. When it turns out that the probe's destructive signal is trying to contact humpback whales, Kirk and Co. go back in time to rescue the extinct species from 1980s San Francisco. Arguably the most comedic of the film series, “The Voyage Home” is a fun time-travel adventure that wonderfully concludes the story arc that began with “The Wrath of Khan.”
In 1989, William Shatner, aka Captain Kirk, took the reigns as director for “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” For many, “The Final Frontier” represents the low point in the franchise. This heavily flawed film introduces Spock's half brother, who hijacks the Enterprise and attempts to take it to the center of the galaxy, where he hopes to find God. The special effects were not up to par with this film, which supposedly suffered from a rushed production, and the story largely failed to connect with fans. Despite its problems, however, there are some good moments in “The Final Frontier,” such as when Kirk, Spock and McCoy find themselves locked in the Enterprise's brig.
“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991) saw a return to form for the franchise. Returning as director, Nicholas Meyer offered a story that paralleled the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Klingons experience a natural disaster, their government decides to seek a peace treaty. Captain Kirk and Co. must stop determined assassins who want to sabotage the peace process. The last film to feature the entire original cast, “The Undiscovered Country” is a wonderful adventure story that borrows from classic war films like “Stalag 17,” “Run Silent, Run Deep” and “The Day of the Jackal.”
In May, 1994, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” ended its television run. In November of that year, “Star Trek: Generations” was released. Directed by David Carson, “Generations” featured only cameos by William Shatner and other original crew members, and the torch was passed to the “Next Generation” Enterprise crew. Fighting a madman who sought to destroy stars in the hope of diverting an energy ribbon, Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Mr. Data and the rest of the crew give a solid film adventure, but much of the Star Trek magic just isn't there.
“Star Trek: First Contact,” from 1996, remains the only truly great film featuring the Next Generation Enterprise crew. Directed by Jonathan Frakes, aka Commander Riker, “First Contact” sees the Enterprise in battle with its greatest foe — the cybernetic Borg. When the Borg sends a probe back to the mid 21st century, Picard and crew follow them back in a race to save the future and prevent the assimilation of Earth. With its zombie-like tenacity, the Borg Collective prove a genuinely chilling adversary and the ship-under-siege theme of the film presents some of the most tense and thrilling moments in all of Star Trek.
Also directed by Frakes, 1998's “Star Trek: Insurrection” proved a major disappointment after “First Contact.” Here, the crew of the Enterprise must save a peaceful community on a faraway planet from forced relocation by a race of genetically altered madmen and a rogue starfleet admiral. Though occasionally offering fun moments, such as when Data pilots a shuttlecraft while singing “A British Tar” from Gilbert & Sullivan's “H.M.S. Pinafore,” the film never really lives up to its promise, and far more often seems listless, predictable and dull. Though not a complete disaster, “Insurrection” is undoubtedly the worst of the Next Generation films and, in my opinion, trumps “The Final Frontier” as worst film in the series overall.
Like “First Contact,” “Star Trek: Nemesis” takes the franchise into darker territory. Directed by Stuart Baird, this 2002 outing begins with the political destabilization of the Romulan Empire, and the rise of a charismatic new leader named Shinzon, bent on war with the Federation. It turns out that Shinzon (Tom Hardy of “The Dark Knight Rises”) is actually a younger clone of Captain Picard, and needs the starfleet officer's DNA in order to stabilize his own genetic code. While this film is definitely a step up from “Insurrection,” it borrows far too heavily from “The Wrath of Khan.” Both films employ an unstoppable super weapon, a villain driven by revenge, and the death of a much-loved Enterprise crew member. “Nemesis” is a good Star Trek film, but falls short of becoming a great one.
With “Nemesis” only offering a modest showing at the box office, Paramount had to decide in what direction to take future Star Trek adventures. When successful TV and film creator J.J. Abrams announced his desire to take on the Star Trek franchise in some capacity, it seemed a match made in geek heaven. Fans rejoiced as the creator of such hits as “Alias,” “Lost” and “Mission Impossible III” stepped up to take the Star Trek franchise where no man had gone before.
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Rather than moving the franchise forward, however, director Abrams elected to completely revamp the original series in a bold, new way. The result was 2009's “Star Trek,” which completely recast all of the original characters and offered an altered timeline where new adventures onboard the USS Enterprise could exist beside established Star Trek canon. The new film was not without controversy, however, since it saw radical changes like the destruction of Spock's home world, Vulcan. While some maintain that the new “Star Trek” got by largely on its flash and charm, the film successfully addressed themes like friendship and humanity. Every character in the film stood out as someone who had gotten to where they were through hard work and academic achievement, something else the Star Trek universe continually emphasized.
And at the end of the day, 2009's “Star Trek” was just a lot of fun.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org