Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Where to Start With Star Trek, Part Two: The Movies

My first real foray into Star Trek was watching the movies. My dad used to watch The Next Generation when I was much younger but basically all I remembered from watching some of those episodes with him was the look of the bridge, Geordie’s VISOR and that Captain Picard was played by Sir Patrick Stewart. My entire life I’ve always known about Star Trek through cultural osmosis and the few episodes I watched with my dad but in truth the first bit of Star Trek I actually remember watching is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I would watch it about once a year during my teens and as much as I didn’t like the movie over all, I loved some parts of it. Mostly the parts about the crew interacting and how they all seemed a bit too old for the kind of adventure they were having. I wouldn’t see all the other movies until my 20s but once I did, I was more than hooked. For a time I was simply happy to watch and rewatch The Wrath of Khan and First Contact but eventually I wanted more and I watched the rest of the movies, several episodes of The Original Series and finally TNG.

While it might seem unlikely that I eventually became a big fan of the franchise considering my first foray into Star Trek was with the second worst movie, I think it served as a good introduction. The reason being that Star Trek is the kind of series that, at its best, stands proudly with some of the best science fiction stories in any medium, but, at it’s worse, is absolute drivel that isn’t even worth the virtual ink used to write about it. As such, The Final Frontier isn’t the best place to start out with the franchise as it gives us many of the lows and barely enough good moments to keep you interested in the crew of the Enterprise. It never reaches any highs but it’s apparent, even in such a bad movie, that Star Trek could serve as the vehicle to greater stories.

Out of the five TV series I believe there are two series that could act as good introduction points, TOS and TNG. They both have problems which I stated above but really, it’s often hard to find a better starting point than the two series that so greatly influenced the others that followed. As such, it’s hard to beat TOS or TNG. Certainly, any episode of Star Trek could and certainly has served as a starting point for someone but based on the episode and the person watching it, the results can vary. Certainly I would have preferred a number of episodes from later seasons of TNG instead of the sub-par work found in the first season but, at the end of the day, the first season had the same problems as many other television shows have in their first seasons. In short, the show is finding its footing. I would also be remiss to point out that that tie-in media such as Star Trek comics and novels could have served as introduction to some fans but I wouldn’t recommend starting there, mostly because they often act as sequels of sorts to the various television series. According to me, the best way to introduce new fans to the franchise is with the movies. You might immediately disagree with that because the movies don’t accurately reflect what Star Trek television is about. The movies offer something that the television episodes don’t do often: spectacle. The movies can hook you based solely on their imagery. They’re more likely to impress non-fans or new fans because they’re simpler than the TV series and they offer something more familiar to the potential viewers but, it’s still distinctly Star Trek and that should suffice to get them hooked.

The best Star Trek but is it new
viewer friendly?
Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – Surprisingly Good Introduction:
Older versions of the crew from TOS make for a fascinatingly entertaining subject. I love the pathos and the history the characters (and the actors) bring to the screen. You don’t need to know much about Star Trek to be able to enjoy these movies. That’s even true of The Wrath of Khan which I first saw while still being unaware of the existence of “Space Seed”. You can easily pick up on the details you need to enjoy the movies in the movies themselves, even when they act as sequels to other elements introduced in TOS. They’re surprisingly accessible.

Some of the worst and some of the best Star Trek movies are contained in the six TOS films. I would say that the first movie, The Motion Picture, has a lot of slow moments thanks to the extended and far too long camera sweeps of various starships. It’s starship porn, basically, but there is a good message to the movie and it’s well acted but its glacial pace will likely turn away potential fans. What will likely be appealing to new viewers is that it feels very much like a beginning and that’s exactly what it does because it kicks off the movie version of Star Trek. Certainly the movie makes mentions of a previous history between the main characters but it doesn’t require any actual knowledge of that time. As such it works well as an introduction but the slow moments might put off viewers that want more action and less thinking. Really though, if you’re that put off by this movie you’re probably not cut out to be a Trekkie anyway.

A better movie to start with is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan but it’s not without its own problems. Newcomers to the franchise might wonder why you’re looking to introduce them to Star Trek with a move that is called Star Trek II. Why not start with the first one? The answer is simple. The Wrath of Khan is nearly unanimously considered the best Star Trek movie and rightfully so. It’s excellent. It can easily be discussed along some of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, regardless of whether or not a conversation includes films that are part of a franchise. This movie, more than any other in the franchise, employs gravitas like it’s nobody’s business. The fight between Kirk and Khan is grounded in the characters’ motivations and their personal beliefs. It’s superbly acted and the characters are given the chance to actually feel emotions on screen. While there is a lot of action it also takes time to establish strong character moments. There isn’t really anything about this movie that gives me reason to complain. I love it unabashedly. It also kicks off an excellent three part movie sequence within the movie franchise and it’s one of the high points of the franchise, in my opinion.

The argument could be made that because The Wrath of Khan is a sequel to the TOS episode titled “Space Seed” that it shouldn’t be used as someone’s first Star Trek viewing experience. I don’t think so at all. There is nothing wrong with starting with the best movie, even if it’s a sequel to an episode. I first watched this movie without the knowledge of “Space Seed” and the movie still works very well. I later took the time to watch “Space Seed” and while that’s a very good episode in its own right, it added depth to the events that take place during The Wrath of Khan. That doesn’t mean that the movie and the episode are dependent of each other. Even if you choose to continue your introduction to Star Trek with the third and fourth films, without taking the time to watch any other movies or episodes in between, an attentive viewer will be able to follow along without any trouble. The powerful story told in the second Star Trek movie is, I believe, one of the best places to start because any way you cut it, the movie grabs you and doesn’t let go. It’s enthralling, majestic and reflective in ways that we rarely get to see on the big screen, especially within a science fiction franchise. It also has a damned good novelization by the great Vonda N. McIntyre.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, though very good movies, aren’t new-Trekkie friendly. Not unless you’ve seen The Wrath of Khan, as I briefly mentioned above. These two movies really embrace their roman numerals of III and IV. They are parts of a larger narrative and because they’re not the first part of that larger story they work best when viewed in order, by which I mean after the previous installments. Don’t believe me? The Search for Spock begins by recapping (read: spoiling) the end of The Wrath of Khan. Right out of the gate this movie doesn’t let you ease into the universe of Star Trek and already you’re dealing with continuity. However, if you started with the first and/or second Star Trek movies, I’m confident that the third and fourth movies will help convince to explore even more movies or television episodes.

Please, don't make the same mistake I did.
Stay away from this movie.
I might be the only person in the world that has a bit of a soft spot in their heart for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. To be blunt, it’s a piece of shit. To be fair, this could still be turned into a good movie but I really don’t see the benefit in trying to do that when you could more easily come up with a better idea for a Star Trek story. While it’s not the absolute worst that Star Trek has to offer (it’s rather sad how true that statement is) it’s far from being an enjoyable film from start to finish. I personally find it difficult to completely dismiss it for reasons stated above but newcomers should absolutely avoid it. This is the kind of movie that could easily turn people away from a franchise and I wouldn’t be surprised to say it has. The few enjoyable moments to be found in this movie simply don’t do much to make it enjoyable in anyway. It shouldn’t just be avoided by people who are new to Star Trek but it should be intentionally skipped when watching the TOS movies. Do not take my introduction to this post as indication that this is a good movie. It’s not. I only rewatch it occasionally because of nostalgia or because I’m too dumb to follow my own advice.

The sixth and final TOS movie, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, is yet another good movie. It’s also yet another poor place to start your exploration of the franchise, mostly because of the heavy reliance of Klingons as a main story element. That’s not a bad thing for the movie or for Trekkies. I quite like this movie because it makes good use of Klingons (and Shakespeare) but being good isn’t enough to attract or impress new viewers. Not only would I not recommend starting with this movie without watching previous TOS movies, I would also not recommend watching it unless you’ve seen some of the Klingon-centric episodes of TNG. By the time The Undiscovered Country was released, TNG was in its fourth year on the air and some of the elements introduced or further developed in the TV series developed the franchise’s canonical information regarding Klingons beyond what was established in TOS (both the TV series and the movies). That matters because The Undiscovered Country is basically a political thriller with Klingons as main characters. It’s easy to become acquainted with the crew of the Enterprise but Klingons are more of an acquired taste. I find it hard to believe that people who do not like Klingon like this movie. I find it even harder to believe that people who haven’t seen at least a few Klingon-centric episodes of TOS or, preferably, TNG are able to like Klingons. Stay away from this movie when first discovering the greatness of Star Trek. If you’re starting with the other TOS movies make sure to circle back to this one once you’ve familiarized yourself with Klingons and their culture.

Star Trek: Generations to Star Trek: Nemesis – A Mix Bag, But Could Be Effective:
Star Trek: Generations isn’t a terrible movie but it’s not much better. In essence, Generations is fan service which often doesn’t amount to much aside from surface pleasures. The whole point of this movie is to have a passing of the torch between both captains of the Enterprise, Kirk and Picard. It acts as a movie that is unsuccessful and unnecessary at bridging the TOS movies and the TNG movies. In addition to the multiple problems that already plague this movie, the idea of having two series of the franchise come together in one film isn’t something that would appeal to new fans. Consider also that the whole idea of Star Trek is poorly communicated in this movie you have something that you really should keep away from until you’re more familiar with TOS and TNG. It’s hard enough for me to find things to enjoy about this movie that the idea of initiating a non-Trekkie to Generations sounds like a sure way of steering them clear of the franchise for the rest of their life.

Thankfully the second TNG movie, Star Trek: First Contact, is a much better place to start exploring the franchise. The reason why this is a good starting is very simple. It, like Wrath of Khan, is so good in and of itself it will undoubtedly act as an irresistible hook for potential fans. On most days I would consider First Contact to be the second best Star Trek movie. The score by Jerry Goldsmith and his son Joel Goldsmith is enough to make me want to watch the movie. Add to that a strong story, excellent execution and stellar performances by most of the cast and it’s easy to see why it could work so well for newcomers. The only thing really holding this one back, again much like The Wrath of Khan, is that the primary conflict is the result of episodes form the TNG TV series. Specifically, the two part episode “The Best of Both Worlds”.

That leads us to what I think is the best movie for attracting potential Star Trek fans. A couple weeks I wrote about Star Trek: Insurrection at length. In order to avoid repeating myself, I’d suggest you take a read when you’re done with this post. The simplest reason that I consider Insurrection to be the best Star Trek movie to begin with is that of all (so far) twelve instalments in the franchise, it’s the most representative of the entire franchise. It uses humour, character moments, an interesting science fiction idea and uses them all to develop a Star Trek adventure that also has time to linger on fascinating thematic elements. It also has its fair share of action sequences though it’s by no means the most action pact movie. A lot of people have criticized this movie but I personally like it. It’s essentially an extra-long episode with high production values which gives it more spectacle than most television episodes. To top it all off, there isn’t really any need for prior knowledge of TNG specifically or Star Trek as a whole. I might just be a better starting place that most of the TV series as well. It’s incredibly new viewer friend and I can’t recommend it highly enough for being unabashedly Star Trek in its story and its execution.

The Last TNG movie and the last movie in the originally movie series, Star Trek: Nemesis has few if any redeeming qualities. The above list can be boiled down to the idea that the good Star Trek movies will generally serve as good entry points for potential Trekkies and bad movies are best left unwatched or saved for later. The exception to that rule are Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home because of their story closely follows the events of The Wrath of Khan. Still, if someone was to watch them before watching any other Star Trek, I’m sure they’d be entertained and curious to learn more about the franchise. I can’t say the same thing about Nemesis and the rest of the bad Star Trek movies. Nemesis is infamous for putting an end to the movie series due to being a terrible movie. The main problem for new fans isn’t that this story depends on the preceding movies and seven seasons of TNG. More so, it’s that it doesn’t really do anything with that series’ history and it tries to create, out of thin air, a villain worthy of the Enterprise and its crew. There are many reasons why this movie garnered the smallest box office returns of any Star Trek movie and starting your exploration of the franchise here is equal to a warp core failure.

Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) – Flashy Star Trek with Little Thought:
The best thing that can be said about the rebooted Star Trek movies is that they’ve brought the franchise back into the public’s consciousness after the end of the less than stellar Enterprise series. The problem is that Star Trek (2009) and Into Darkness, more than any of the other movies, are poor examples of what Star Trek is really about. It lacks the inherent optimism of the franchise and the characters are exaggerated characters of the TOS crew. They’re not different but they’re warped to the extent of being unrecognizable as the same characters. They’re caricatures of the TOS incarnations of the characters. Action and unnecessary melodramatic additions dilute the powerful themes that the series often had. It focuses on flash over substance but I would be remiss to ignore that Star Trek (2009) helped to make the series exciting again.

There was one other good aspect about the movies and it’s that they established their continuity in an alternate universe, allowing the rest of the franchise to continue existing without any canonical conflict. While the idea of canon isn’t supremely important to me, it often is to many fans of any given franchise. Interestingly, this idea opened up the franchise to tell unique stories without being limited by roughly 45 years of Star Trek presence. They had to go fuck it all up by rehashing and ruining one of the best TOS movie by making Into Darkness. The lack of originality and the poor handling of the story were bad enough but the movie seems to go out of its way to insult the audience’s intelligence and destroy the main premise of the franchise: exploration on a starship. The movie does this by increasing the capabilities of transporters which allows some of the characters to teleport huge distances, including from one planet to another. Interestingly enough, it’s an idea that Roddenberry considered for TNG. I’m extremely pleased that it was eventually abandoned for the show but to have the idea resurface in the movie is unfortunate as it proved just how bad an idea it is. It should have stayed buried with only a hope of being found by Trekkie trivia junkies.

There you have it, my recommendations on the best entry points for new fans or aspiring Star Trek fans. Even though we live in a time where binge watching television is common practice I’ve suggested ways to speed up your viewing of some of the series in order to put you or your friends on a fast track to some of the best that the series has to offer. Truly though, if you’re interested in the series you can basically start anywhere and the franchise will eventually take shape in your head but I wanted to offer something that present the best possible way to fall in love with one of the most beloved franchise of them all.

Do you think thing I missed something? Chime in the comments if you know of a better introduction point to Star Trek that I didn’t mention above.

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