On the 50th anniversary the latest Star Trek film has landed with a great response from critics and a good opening weekend at the box office. The franchise has been running intermittently since the sixties and has included several television series (included an animated series featuring the original voice cast), video games, fan-made movies, books and comic books. Since 1979 Star Trek has also appeared on the big screen and has amassed 13 official films which has seen the original cast give way to the crew of The Next Generation and then an alternate universe reboot. Join Musings… for a look back at the highs and lows of Star Trek on film.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
A stop-start production that was at one point intended to launch as a new television series, the first movie featuring the original cast was helped along by the positive reaction to Star Wars. However the movie veered away from the action of George Lucas’ universe and focused on special effects and an immensely powerful alien cloud called V’Ger, which approached Earth and destroyed everything in its path. Captain Kirk reunited with his crew aboard a recently refitted Enterprise in an attempt to stop the alien cloud. The film received mixed reviews, noting the over-reliance of special effects and lack of action and despite earning $139 million at the box office movie studio Paramount was reluctant to make a sequel, eventually agreeing on funding a second film with a much depleted budget.
Mark Lenard appears as a Klingon at the start of the movie; he had previously played the role of Sarek, Spock’s father, in the television series and would reprise that role in further films and The Next Generation series. He was one of the first actors to be reused for different parts in Star Trek, which would become increasingly common during the later television shows.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wrote a novelization of the movie which elaborated on several ideas in the film including Kirk’s struggle with confidence in taking command of the Enterprise again, establishing a link between the character of Decker and a previous starfleet officer named Decker from the series (his father) and adding more depth to several relationships. Surprisingly this was Roddenberry’s only Star Trek novel.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Arguably the best Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan brought back a villain from the television series and upped the action, creating a film that towed the line between personal conflict, emotional drama, tension and battle scenes. The film was universally praised by fans and critics, earning an impressive $97 million on a budget of $11 million (almost 20% of the budget of the previous film). Although some of the special effects were criticised (due to the lower budget), the role of Khan and the interactions between the characters made the film a hit and led to further sequels, although few would match up the this movie.
Spock’s death during the final scenes of the film were filmed over 3 days on a closed set however word soon leaked about the Vulcan’s demise and fan letters attempting to reverse the decision soon bombarded the office of Paramount.
Early in the film the character of Chekov and Khan meet, apparently recognising each other despite the fact that Chekov was not present in Khan’s previous appearance in the television episode Space Seed. This could be explained in that we simply didn’t see Chekov in the episode and he was present off-camera (despite the actor not joining the crew until the following season however no scene exists that states Chekov was new to the Enterprise). In reality writer Harve Bennett was not a fan of the show and while he had watched several episodes as research, he simply didn’t realise and nobody else questioned it.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
The death of Spock at the end of the previous movie was put in place as Leonard Nimoy was unsure if he wanted to continue the role yet he returned and also took on the role of director in this above-average film. The return of Spock was central to a story that also included Klingons and a terraforming device known as Genesis while the film itself focused on themes of friendship and sacrifice. Positive reviews and the success of the previous entry in the series was rewarded with another $87 million in takings against a budget of $16 million.
William Shatner dieted before production began but his weight fluctuated throughout filming- the costume department made 12 separate shirts for his character.
Nimoy was excited to return to the role after seeing The Wrath of Khan and stated his desire to direct. He enjoyed directing however one scene in particular proved difficult for the star- a scene in which McCoy speaks to an unconscious Spock meant the director has his eyes closed and found it hard to judge the quality of the shot and Deforest Kelly’s (McCoy) performance.
Christopher Lloyd was approached to play the part of a Klingon villain in part due to Nimoy’s fondness of Lloyd’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
The fourth film in the franchise saw Leonard Nimoy return as director in a movie that featured more comedy and lacked an actual villain. The story involved the crew of the Enterprise, now using a Klingon Bird of Prey for transport, travelling back to Earth to face the consequences of their actions in The Search for Spock, namely the theft and destruction of the Enterprise. Meanwhile a large cylindrical probe has travelled to Earth, sending out a signal which causes havoc with technology and appears to be searching for a reply. As they approach Earth Kirk and his crew realise that the signal matches the sound of the extinct Humpback Whale and thus they time travel to the 1980s in the hope of retrieving a pair of the whales in order to stop the probe. This environmental message is well-delivered amongst multiple ‘fish-out-of-water’ gags including Scotty attempting to talk to a modern day computer and Russian crew member Chekov’s search for ‘Nuclear Wessels’ during the height of the Cold War. Despite the lack of villain and rather unusual story the film was a hit, amassing $133 million against a $21 million budget and gathering plenty of positive reviews.
Nicholas Meyer, writer and director of The Wrath of Khan, returned to help with scripting duties which needed final approval from Nimoy, Shatner and Paramount.
A scene in which a punk rocker is playing loud music on a public bus and is put to sleep by Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch (to applause from the other passengers) was based on a real life incident Nimoy experienced, in which he had wished he could have used Spock’s signature move to quiet the disruptive civilian. The punk was played by Kirk Thatcher, an associate producer on the film who, after reading the scene, begged Nimoy for the role and shaved his head into a mohawk once cast. Thatcher also came up with the idea that, once rendered unconscious, the punk’s face would hit the boombox and turn the music off.
The rising costs of the stars’ salaries resulted in Paramount wanting to make more money off the franchise, which led to a new series being commissioned with different (cheaper) actors- Star Trek: The Next Generation was born.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Spock’s half-brother Sybok forces the crew of the Enterprise to help him breach a barrier at the centre of the galaxy behind which the planet Sha Ka Ree, apparently where creation began, exists. Sybok hopes to meet God and will go to any length to achieve his goal while Kirk questions whether the force they encounter is God or just another powerful alien being. Expected to be a huge hit at the box office, The Final Frontier suffered from strong competition (including Batman and Ghostbusters 2) and poor reviews, taking in just $63 million on a budget of $33 million. The reviews were justified, especially in comparison to the recent The Voyage Home, with a script that lost its way and effects that simply weren’t that special.
William Shatner took the director’s chair for this installment and came up with the basic storyline. After editing the film Shatner attended a pre-special effects screening at Paramount and felt the film was well-recieved, later blaming the poor special effects for the negative reaction to the movie.
During filming of the original series Shatner and Nimoy arranged contracts that resulted in each getting whatever the other would obtain such as a salary rise or script control. Shatner applied this logic to the movies during the making of Star Trek IV, arguing that because Nimoy had directed the film versions he should as well- part of his contract for The Voyage Home included a promise that he could direct the next movie.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Nicholas Meyer returned to the director’s chair for another voyage with the original crew in a film which saw the Klingon Empire reach out for peace but those efforts are left in shambles when it appears as though the Enterprise fires on the Klingon ship that is transporting their leader. When the Klingon leader dies Kirk finds himself thrown into jail and must escape then, with the help of his classic crew, he must discover who exactly is behind the efforts to sabotage the delicate peace. The blend of humour and action resulted in a positive response from critics and the film took a worldwide total of $97 million against a budget of $27 million.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry passed away before the release of the film. After viewing an almost complete edit of the movie conflicting reports state that he either approved the edit or demanded that a quarter of the scenes be cut. Paramount considered sending Roddenberry’s ashes into space but decided against it; six years later his ashes were sent into space along with 22 others.
Michael Dorn plays Colonel Worf, an ancestor of his character Worf from The Next Generation.
This was the last film to feature all the original cast; William Shatner as Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, Deforest Kelley as Dr McCoy, James Doohan as Scotty, Nichelle Nicols as Uhura, George Takei as Sulu and Walter Keonig as Chekov. Grace Lee Witney also returned as Janice Rand, a former minor cast member from the first half of the classic series.
Come back soon for a look at the next six films which includes Kirk meeting Picard, the return of the Borg and the birth of an alternate universe.