Christmas is nearly upon us once again and another year is nigh on spent. Soon I shall be compiling my traditional (if you can have traditions after only five years) end of year blog round up; but until then, may I amuse you with an ill-thought out treatise on the highs and lows of the Classic Trek films?
I may? Why, thank you!
You must have heard of the ‘Curse of the Odd Numbered Trek Films’?
If you haven’t it’s probably because you’re not interested, and fair enough, but in a nutshell: of the original six films, the second, fourth and sixth films are great while the first, third and fifth films aren’t.
Some people expand the theory to fit the Next Generation films, but since they start mediocre and wobble off into mundanity fairly quickly (with First Contact being a partial exception), it’s probably safest to ignore them. Or at least, it’s safest if I ignore them for the purposes of this blog.
So, if the odd-numbered Trek films are bad (or possibly merely poor by comparison to their even-numbered cousins) … why?
What can we learn from this? What qualities do 2, 4 and 6 share which are absent from 1, 3 and 5? Or vice versa?
Personally, I think it’s to do with connecting the overall goal of the film to an emotional goal for the protagonist, Kirk.*
The main questions I think you need in order to ask to understand why some of the films work and some don’t are:
Does Kirk have to be there? Is this story personal and unique to him? What would have happened if Kirk hadn’t been there or got bored halfway through?
Breaking that down, into internal and external goals or dramatic questions:
STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE
Kirk struggles with his promotion, he’s given up the job he’s destined to do and feels a bit lost.
At the same time, something vaguely hostile is en route to Earth.
Do these things connect?
Yes, the something hostile is a macguffin which puts Kirk back in command of a starship; but … has he got anything personal at stake here? Do we, at any point, believe if he sorts this out he’ll get his command back; but if he fails … he’s destined to rot at a desk forever?
What about if Kirk wasn’t there? Could anyone else have done the same job? Yep, Decker looks like a pretty sensible, decent guy. If Kirk hadn’t turned up … probably would have worked out the same.
Result: protagonist has no connection to villain, no need to be there and nothing really at stake. Bit dull really. Which is a shame, because there are some great character moments – this was probably better suited as the first episode of Star Trek Phase 2 or The Next Phase or whatever the series was meant to be called.
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN
Kirk struggles with pretty much the same things as he did in the first film, plus he’s now getting on a bit – basically, he’s getting old and feels like he’s not resolved issues with his youth.
At the same time: a decision he made in his youth puts his ex-girlfriend, his son and his own life in jeopardy: a weapon of devastating proportions falls into the hands of a man intent on killing him and everyone he loves!
Kirk has no choice but to be involved – Khan is coming for him. His own issues are intimately tied in with his son and his ex and the villain and the theme and … it’s just great. Kirk’s life and his loved ones are in danger – it’s a film about him.
STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK
Personally, I don’t think this is a bad film. I like number three … mostly. It’s kind of halfway there; but I didn’t go and see it as a child because the title felt like a desperate and pathetic attempt by the film makers to write themselves out of a hole. I mean, come on! Spock’s dead! His death was awesome and seminal … and now you’re telling me it didn’t happen? Fuck. Right. Off.
But anyway …
Kirk’s newfound youth is torn from him when he learns his ship (his home for many, many years) is to be decommissioned and he’s being forced back into his desk job.
At the same time: he learns his living best friend has his dead best friend’s memories – a situation which might drive one mad and cause the other’s soul to be lost for all time.
This is a deeply personal problem … but it only peripherally affects him. Remember that in the first film, they hadn’t seen each other for years … so, yeah, it’s upsetting that his best mates are a bit screwed … but he could, theoretically, get over it. There’s no life or death threat to Kirk (apart from the Klingons, which is a mild irritant near the end of the film).
There are some superb character moments: Kirk’s going to lose his two best friends (one’s already dead, but he’s going to lose him again). He loses his son (but that’s never threatened until seconds before it happens, so not really a driving force of the film) and he has to sacrifice his ship, his home, the very symbol of the life he’s still mourning. On top of that, he sacrifices his career, once and for all turning his back on ever getting his command back.
All of these things are great, amazingly powerful scenes … but they’re just scenes. There’s no dramatic question which runs from the beginning of the film to the end.
Or rather, there is: will Kirk get Spock’s body back and save McCoy’s sanity?
Okay, so this turns into resurrecting Spock … but that possibility isn’t there for Kirk until right near the end. There’s little potential for loss – once he’s given up on his career and stolen the Enterprise, all he has to do is wander over and pick up the body. It’s a taxi run, pick up and drop off … not really the stuff of legends.
Could someone else go and pick up Spock’s body? Yes. Okay, sort of no because of the disputed territory argument, but … McCoy could have stolen a smaller ship and nipped off on his own. It’s McCoy’s journey with Kirk’s consequences grafted on.
Add to that there’s no danger on the journey, they just leave Earth and arrive at Genesis with no consequences … it feels like there’s something missing from the middle of the film.
The shame about this film is all the ingredients are there and they’re awesome … but without a strong through line, the film is less than the sum of its parts.
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME
If Kirk doesn’t travel back in time and save a few whales, the entire planet will be destroyed! Everyone he knows (except his bessie mates) will be killed! Kirk is the only person who can do this because all the other spaceships are knacked!
There isn’t really a whole lot to say about this one. There is some personal stuff tied into the premise, but generally it’s just a whole ball of fun. True, it has a very strong through line and Kirk HAS to be the one to do it; but it’s really just a string of really good scenes hanging off a random skeleton. Luckily, the scenes are so good and so funny that the result is a film better than the sum of its parts.
It’s not a big, dramatic action picture this one. It has drama and action in it, but for the most part it’s a comedy and is therefore exempt from needing more personal/dramatic tie ins. Like I say, the dramatic question is there and runs from beginning to end; but it’s just a macguffin for the fun: if you swapped the probe/whales for aliens/goldfish or space-cloud/meatballs … you’d have the same film.
STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER
Kirk is happy, relaxed and his mates are all fine. He’s got his ship and his career back, so he can just kick back and go camping.
At the same time: someone’s trying to find God; but instead of organising an exploratory mission, gets pointlessly weird and steals the Enterprise.
If Kirk wasn’t there … the weirdo would have stolen someone else’s ship.
If Kirk doesn’t stop him … doesn’t really matter. In fact, he doesn’t stop him – they trundle along for the ride.
Anyone thrilled by this concept?
Yes, Kirk saves the day in the end. Or maybe Spock saves the day and Kirk is just the catalyst for the day-saving?
Nothing personal for Kirk and no consequences for … anyone. No through line at all, I think? Apart from a vague family theme?
As an aside, there are some great moments in this film and some superbly memorable lines. Personally, I love the moment when everyone’s praising God and Kirk puts his hand up to ask a question. I fucking love that! That’s what makes Kirk, Kirk – he’s the only asking the right questions. I want to be like that!
Thinking about it, this might be the entire reason I get so prickly about iPhone adverts and homoeopathy.
STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
Kirk must deal with part of his raison d’être disappearing over night. There’s peace coming with his lifelong enemies and his place in the world disappears with it.
At the same time: someone frames him for murder and grants his wish by extending hostilities.
Kirk can’t not be involved – he’s been framed. If he walks away … well, he can’t walk away, he’s in prison. If he wasn’t there, it would be someone else; but since this is a ‘getting into trouble coincidence’ then it’s fine. It’s not like 1, 3 or 5 where Kirk could have stopped halfway through and handed the reins to someone else with no consequences – once he’s in, he’s good and fucked unless HE sorts out his problems.
He has to overcome his prejudice while at the same time fighting enemies who can’t overcome their prejudice. The theme and the story are the same thing and the result is a gleaming tower of immenseness with a beacon of fantastic on top.
All six films have something to say; but only 2, 4 and 6 tie the something to the plot and make Kirk the absolute central pivot about which everything revolves.
That’s what turns a good film into a great film: plot tied to theme and a hero who has to act or lose something personal.
If there’s ever a point in your script where the hero could just walk away, or tag in a replacement … you might want to have a rethink. Why is your story happening to this person at this time and what does he have to lose?#
There’s no odd-numbered curse (surprise, sur-fucking-prise), there’s just a level of thought or involvement missing from every other film.
“Why?” is a different question; but maybe it could have been avoided if everyone involved had a clearer overview of what makes a story worth telling.
At least, that’s my theory. What’s yours?
Here, have a photo of a green woman in her underwear:
Why? Because, that’s why.
*Incidentally, I think part of the reason ST:TNG films don’t feel so epic is because there are seven protagonists vying for screen time. True, Picard is the major protagonist throughout; but there are six minor protagonists as opposed to six supporting characters. Classic Trek has one major protagonist, two minor protagonists and a handful of supporting characters.
Seven story arcs is a lot to juggle and is much more TV territory. Maybe. I haven’t really thought that through.
#This is part of the reason I don’t really enjoy detective stories: if that detective doesn’t solve the case … someone else probably will. If no one else can, other people might die … but not people we know or care about, so … so what? If it gets a bit tricky in the middle, just give up and let someone else have a go.