Note: This article was originally published as a freelance piece for Space.com. They have removed the article from their website, so I've reposted it here.
In the previous installment of "The Deeper Side of Trek," I mentioned the "source material" for Star Trek culture — namely, the hundreds of television hours spanning The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. But, not at all surprisingly, some important chapters in Star Trek emanate not only from the small screen, but also from the big one, in the form of feature films. So ... what about these movies, anyway?
The Trek film franchise has often been described as "uneven." Many followers of the series will cite the infamous "odd-numbered curse," which alleges that the even-numbered films are generally better than the odd-numbered ones. Overall, I tend to agree with that assessment (which isn't the point), but I find that when scrutinizing the film series as a whole, it's important to also consider larger sweeping trends in terms of the characters and the series' evolution rather than simply each isolated story at hand.
The passage of time
The precedent was set from the very beginning in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Before the plot was even fully under way, we saw that the filmmakers had made a key decision that would bring a new slant to the Trek proceedings: In real life, 10 years had passed between the time TOS went off the air and the time ST:TMP opened in theaters, and in the story a similar amount of time had also passed. The Enterprise crew we knew had, to some degree, broken up; key characters had basically moved on to other things. Kirk had been kicked upstairs, Spock had returned to Vulcan, Bones looked mighty different with that beard, and the Enterprise had a new (if temporary) captain. By reuniting the major players as a function of the story, ST:TMP played like a reunion picture both on and off the screen.
That's a path that the filmmakers didn't automatically have to choose, but they did, and I'm glad they did. They broke Star Trek out of the episodic format it had maintained during its three-season TV run and proved that although Trek was back, it was not looking back — it was moving forward.
The Wrath of Khan took things even a step further. Early in the film Kirk is moping about his birthday, and in a funny scene we see that Bones' birthday gift to him is a pair of reading glasses. Kirk's reaction is priceless exactly because it's such a wonderfully simplistic little human touch. As the characters grow older, we find ourselves growing closer to them. Their vulnerabilities, perhaps even more so than their strengths, are what continue to entertain us.
In fact, it's the overall ebb and flow of the first four Trek films — particularly Treks II, III, and IV — that make them stand out as a true film series. We had some major events that would have consequences down the road, the key event of course being Spock's death in Trek II. It's a pretty big deal when a major character can die at the end of a film and we're left in doubt between films as to whether that character will return.
At its core, The Wrath of Khan — steeped in a lore of creationism meets sci-fi (via the Genesis Project) — was about mortality. Kirk said he had never really faced death until he lost Spock, and a case can be made that nor did the audience ever really realize the mortality of Star Trek and its characters until that moment.
Trek III flowed directly from Trek II and reunited Spock with the rest of the family, but only after Kirk and his crew stole the Enterprise and risked their careers. Kirk himself had to make still more sacrifices, losing his son and being forced to destroy the Enterprise. The fourth film, similarly, followed logically from the third. Yes, it headed in a new direction of hip self-awareness (and featured a comic touch that many, myself included, found successful), but a lot of the consequences from the previous film(s) still loomed overhead.
In short, the first four films pushed the original cast in new directions and to new heights; it wasn't simply episodic but also epic. The filmmakers were telling four separate stories, but they were all on the same wavelength and collectively conveyed the passage of time.
Of course, we then get to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, a problematic film on just about every level. Aside from being a lousy movie, Trek V returned the series to a sense of episodic routine. All the changes to the crew — the way some characters had gone in different directions in Trek II — were erased (something that admittedly was hard to avoid), and the story lost its epic edge. Shameless forays into comedy seemed dictated more by calculated attempts to follow in the footsteps of Trek IV's success than in telling a real story. Unfortunate indeed.
The next generation of movies
In 1991, Kirk's final voiceover log as captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country also served to pass the torch to the crew of The Next Generation. Star Trek VI itself retired the original crew with dignity and affection, and in the details of its story of diplomacy it revealed the beginning of the end of hostilities between the Klingons and the Federation — which, of course, was already a part of the Trekkian history books from the time perspective of TNG, whose further-in-the-future TV adventures had already been running concurrently (in real life, that is) alongside the final three original-cast Trek movies.
In 1994, the cast and crew of TNG wrapped production on the TV series and literally within days were stepping into movie roles for Star Trek: Generations, the seventh film in the series, which wisely chose to abandon the series' numbering system. Generations was not a great movie — it was maybe not even that good a movie — but in terms of trying to bring about change to the series while providing the literal torch-passing via time-travel connections (assuming the final line of Undiscovered Country was too subtle), it did some things adequately. It provided Kirk a heroic death scene (perhaps even two depending on your point of view) and assured that any future of the film franchise would belong to the TNG cast exclusively. Big events like the destruction of the Enterprise-D and Data's adventures with his emotion chip seemed to raise the stakes out of television and into cinema.
Theoretically, Generations could have been the catalyst for a new TNG movie era that would see our crew struggling with the issues of aging and moving into new roles. (Indeed, Picard's dilemma in Generations revolved around his awareness of mortality, but it was unfortunately lost in the film's shuffle of elements.) It's probably asking a lot that we give the crew new things to do; after all, it's hard to juggle so many characters — let alone send them in new directions — while also trying to tell a coherent story in less than two hours. Still, I think it could've been possible.
Instead we got First Contact, which chose to maintain the "status quo" format but was nevertheless one of the best in the series. The success of First Contact lay in its ability to render Trek as good science fiction, but more importantly, it permitted itself to explore Trek's own legends and lore by placing its characters in the middle of one of the Federation's most important historic events. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that maybe the characters don't have to grow if the movies can tell good stories that understand the nature of Star Trek.
The beginning of the end
Then again, maybe that's not the case. If Star Trek: Insurrection proved anything almost two years ago, it's that the TNG film series has not been able to convey a larger epic sense the way Treks II, III, IV, and VI managed. Insurrection was as inconsequential as an average TV episode and displayed the characters spinning their wheels.
We're left with the fact that the actors are aging, but the characters are not. At some point, probably a long time ago, we realized that Riker has held the rank of commander for well over a decade. Data was supplied his longed-for emotions in Generations, but the storyline has been all but abandoned, regressing his character back to a time predating his role in the movies.
The TNG cast seems frozen in time, while time itself is running out. The TNG film series looks to be approaching its final stage. Plans for a tenth Trek film, targeted for late 2001, are now under active discussion. It's an almost certain beginning of the end. Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner have become extremely expensive, and both have expressed that they intend the next feature to be their last.
After that, will the movie franchise as we know it be retired? It's hard to say, but it's definitely a possibility, especially with the franchise at a crossroads in terms of direction and its somewhat fragmented popularity. What began in 1979 could very well see its end within the next 16 months.
Knowing that is probably a good thing for the filmmakers. It seems that everyone takes the Trek movies for granted these days, operating under the assumption that with every two or three years automatically comes a sequel. It might be this very assumption that has given the TNG movies their unrealistic sense of on-screen immortality and their inability to move forward. Erasing that assumption could lead to exciting things. The film series, if it is ending, needs to go out on a note of finality. These characters need to move on. After all, we in the audience will be.