Reviews of Star Trek (1966) and related work

Star Trek (1966Moving picture, 67 hours)

Seen in 2019.

According to the eighth feature film in the franchise (First Contact, 1996), there was a devastating war on Earth around 2053. Ten years later, the first human travelling faster than light was detected by a friendly intelligent species. This inspired all of humankind to end “poverty, disease, war” over the next 50 years. A couple of centuries later, humankind is united under some vague archist US-libertarian democracy, living mostly in a post-scarcity economy and interacting with more than a thousand other sapient races. The vast majority are humanoid and many are human.

In this first iteration of the franchise, that back story is not prominent. There is little consistency in things like stellar cartography, “stardate” chronology or uniform colour, but there are references to a future history starting in the 1990s. The most consistent threat is that Captain James T. Kirk might somehow lose the legal right to command his crew on the Enterprise, but he never does.

Episodic science fiction with minimal science content. Also known as TOS for “the original series”.

Because it was forward-looking and because it was on TV, at a time when TV was more popular than books or film, this series helped popularize science fiction as something distinct from horror. The show’s vision of a future multi-system, multi-species government—the Federation—is bright compared to horror-imbalanced 1950s SF cinema, but there is no shortage of monsters, oppression or physical violence. Fist fights in particular are weirdly common, this being the era of Batman (1966) and the waning Western.

The franchise is closely associated with specific snippets of technobabble invented earlier, like “transporter” for a teleporter (coined by H. Slesar in 1957), “warp speed” (1952), and “Prime Directive” (a 1940 phrase given special meaning in SF in 1947; all according to the HDSF). Captain Markary’s log entry in Planet of the Vampires (1965) prefigures Kirk. On a deeper level, there are traces of Way Station (1963): Teleportation enabling cosmopolitan understanding amid fear of the looming Cold War. The ideological foundation is otherwise insipid: In this utopia, the “best” people want to join the navy and live like soldiers. There is a bit of Heinlein in that. It is essentially Thorby’s ambition in Citizen of the Galaxy (1957); his Hegemonic Guard is vaguely similar to Starfleet.

US TV in this era targeted broad audiences for advertising. Each episode of the series strives to be unsustainably self-contained so that the franchise can continue to appeal to casual viewers and kids. This results in a small fraction of interesting thought experiments patterned after short-form literary SF, and a lot of duds. TOS’s astrophysics are just as weird and poorly informed as Aniara’s. Because it is set up so as to make internal consistency and viewer knowledge unnecessary, the ontology is messy. Teleporters malfunction in ways that imply the universe is broken, but the people don’t care. What passes for science here is a plastic backdrop for poorly scripted anthropomorph drama and fuzzy thinking, but as long as you’re prepared to add some daydreaming of your own to the scripts, there are a couple of good ones.

On the whole, this particular entry in the franchise has aged into a decent flavour of kitsch. Watch it for the grain of truth in the myth that creator Gene Roddenberry tried to improve the standing of the genre while promoting gender equality and ethnic diversity in a clever and reasonably effective way. From the start, the series had Uhura, an intelligent black woman working as a hero on US television in 1966. That’s awesome, even though her role was reduced in submission to racist viewer complaints. The second-season opener added a Russian. The third season had a somewhat early interracial kiss.

I am grateful to my Trek-loving friend Andreas Skyman for correcting some of my misunderstandings and typos in reviews of this franchise.

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References here: Sutter’s Cloud, Time Enough for Love (1973), A Song for Lya (1974), Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Hidden (1987), Battlestar Galactica (2004), Lost (2004), The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (2010), Iron Sky (2012), Pacific Rim (2013), Ex Machina (2014), Ghostbusters (2016), USS Callister (2017).

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Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973Moving picture, 9 hours)

Seen in 2021.

Cel animation is a better medium than live action for this subgenre of science fiction. It enabled the writers to use a wider variety of alien environments and anatomies, instead of only studio floors and humans in makeup. As a result, instead of constant fist fights, there are large monsters and heavier use of ray guns. The plotting is otherwise of the same general type.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a budget, the director of the first season was colour blind, the writers were poorly paid, and animation was stigmatized as kids’ stuff. The sound design is frequently terrible for some reason, lazily looping the screeches and growls of various beasts. Gene Roddenberry authorized this series to cash in, but didn’t take it seriously himself, and retconned it out of the canon when he got to make movies. It failed commercially and was quickly axed. For all that, TAS has a higher percentage of gems than TOS, mainly because it is often very silly.

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References here: The Transformers (1984).

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979Moving picture, 132 minutes) – previously

The movies have two advantages: Budget, and an exception to the franchise’s aversion to serialization.

This one has good Mead, an unusual amount of interior greeblies and easily the best plot seed in Star Trek movies, remaking “The Changeling” (1967) with a better ending. Its qualities are illustrated by fan Patrick Collins’ 22-minute recut with the music of TRON: Legacy (2010), entitled “Star Trek: Legacy” (2017), not to be confused with the 2006 video game of that title or the 1990 episode of TNG.

References here: Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), “Heart of Glory” (1988).

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982Moving picture, 113 minutes)

Khan?

A sequel primarily to “Space Seed” (1967), but it does not deal with the interesting parts of its premise. No attraction but the kitsch.

References here: “Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible” (2010).

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Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984Moving picture, 105 minutes)

Seen in 2013.

The anti-scientific mysticism reaches intolerable levels. The mere fact that a space station is built as a giant greebled garage makes my brain burn. This is even dumber than Trumbull’s “dry dock” in the first film. Still, I appreciate the somewhat nuanced portrayal of the Federation, the fact that plot threads are carried over and resolved in a sometimes sane manner, and Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon captain.

References here: “11001001” (1988), “Family” (1990), “Reunion” (1990).

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Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986Moving picture, 119 minutes)

Seen in 2013.

A more pure and honest form of kitsch than the earlier films. A comedy, as befits the premises.

References here: “New Ground” (1992).

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Star Trek: The Unseen Pilot (1965/1986Moving picture, 70 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

The original 1965 pilot episode for TOS (first-unit filming completed in ’64), framed by Gene Roddenberry on the set of the latest movie in the franchise, outlining the production context.

The plot of the episode (“The Cage”) is that aliens insist that Captain Pike pick an “Eve” out of a non-haram harem, to live in captivity. Much of this was reused as hypodiegesis in “The Menagerie: Part I” (1966) and “Part II”.

Even ignoring Roddenberry’s spiel, the pilot is genuinely more impressive than the series it spawned. Just to name three positive differences, the first officer is a woman (albeit unnamed), the team beaming down to the planet put on suitable clothes over their pajamas, and they openly state that it would be stupid to send down both the captain and the first officer together, so they don’t do that. Even so, and in spite of Roddenberry’s lament that fist fights were added to the series because the studio wanted a space Western, there is still a long hand-to-hand combat sequence in here, which is pretty dumb. One of the last lines also tips Roddenberry’s hand in regard to the harem. Yeoman Colt says “Just curious, who would have been Eve?”, suggesting multiple attractive women circling Pike without resolution: an egotistical male fantasy prefiguring Tenchi Muyō (1992).

“The Cage” is also interesting in relation to the fear, recurring throughout TOS, that the smug Kirk will lose his command. Pike is a more realistic leader, less confident, openly lamenting the stress of the job as if anxious to step down. This, too, would have been a better choice for the series, provided that he did eventually step down. The only thing that’s clearly worse about this pilot is that Leonard Nimoy hasn’t found his groove as Spock.

References here: “The Menagerie: Part I” (1966), “Ménage à Troi” (1990).

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Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987Moving picture, 129 hours)

I saw mainly the 2012 retouched and remastered edition.

This second series is commonly called TNG. It, not The Motion Picture (1979), is the Empire (1980) of Trek: More ambitious and more serious, it saved the franchise and simultaneously doomed it to a long decline.

The Vulcans—one of TOS’s bad ideas—are marginal in TNG. They are replaced chiefly by an android, who provides deadpan comedic incongruity in the manner of Spock, and by the inclusion of Klingons (retconned with brow ridges) as allies of the Federation. This latter choice, foreshadowed in “Errand of Mercy” (1967), is very good; it’s the same trope as in stereotypical shōnen manga where erstwhile enemies develop into friends. This development is another grain of truth to the myth of Star Trek as constructive science fiction.

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References here: Sutter’s Cloud, Red Dwarf (1988), Legend of the Galactic Heroes (1988), The X-Files (1993).

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‣‣ “The Trek Not Taken” (2013Moving picture, 14 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

Early choices made for special effects in TNG.

The choices were good. I regard Harry the woodworker in “When the Bough Breaks” (1988) as a sign of how awful TNG would have been with CGI ships, removing the craft itself from production.

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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989Moving picture, 107 minutes)

Seen in 2013.

The script has two distinct phases: It’s a somewhat competent Star Wars (1977) imitation up to the point where Sybok’s vision is revealed. Then the film becomes a travesty of intellectual and philosophical science fiction, to its end. Themes usually left in the background and best left entirely by the wayside are foregrounded as plot points, particularly the leap of faith. Do not trust a charismatic fanatic whose rousing speech includes the falsehood that Columbus proved the Earth is round. On the plus side, Spock is not constantly stating the obvious: things are illogical.

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Star Trek 25th Anniversary Special (1991Moving picture, 93 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991Moving picture, 113 minutes)

Seen in 2014.

Interesting production history. It’s a pleasant attempt to re-examine some of the previous idealism in a sober light, after TNG hit its stride, but it is not entirely successful. The ending shows just how much stupidity is being dragged along: The old crew endures a martyr’s torpedoing without injury, before abruptly saving themselves with hand-waved “innovation”, beaming down to rescue everyone through physical force and say a few incoherent words.

References here: “Unification: Part 1” (1991).

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993Moving picture, 130 hours)

Seen in 2021.

Viewing in progress.

Life on a relatively poor old space station between two military spheres of influence, orbiting a planet under a provisional world government made unstable by the diversity of its recently liberated constituent nations.

In the 1960s, 1970s and on through the 1980s, Star Trek was dominated by the production model of 1950s television: Episodic narratives for a disinterested audience. The faces were recognizable, but there was a new story every week and very little change over time. For decades, it had been assumed that televison and continuity were mutually exclusive. Producers and advertisers reasoned that, in the ephemeral medium of broadcast and syndication without a guaranteed time slot, continuity would lead to a shrinking audience, as more and more viewers failed to catch an episode on the air and lost track of an evolving plot. A self-consistent plot is also harder to write: It takes planning and leaves writers in stronger position relative to producers. To get new scripts, Star Trek had always relied on small-scale thought experiments, similar to short stories in the magazines of literary science fiction, which were not constrained by a consistent setting. Scripts could be contributed even by teenage fans.

VHS and Twin Peaks (1990) changed the game. TNG had a slowly growing number of two-episode story arcs (two-parters) and personal stories that would resurface through up to half a dozen episodes, but it was in 1993 that Star Trek TV finally broke the chains of status quo ante. It happened in DS9. This is the only series in the franchise that’s genuinely impressive in its quality, not merely historically significant or ironically enjoyable as its crappier predecessors often were. Its successors were serialized by default.

Among the bold steps taken with this series, the boldest is poverty. At first, the station has insignificant weapons, no cornucopia machines, and jerry-riggable but weak propulsion. It depicts a believably dirty world where personal loss, politics and even religion are made meaningful, both by continuity and by the inability to escape from every situation using either mobility or Clarke’s third law. At the same time, the basic progressivism of the franchise is still present, including the anti-racist choice of a person of colour to lead. His rank is lower than Kirk’s, Picard’s or Janeway’s, but that too is a good thing. Commander Sisko surrounds himself with people who are not all members of Starfleet, significantly reducing the hiearchical and military atmosphere of previous series, while allowing for meaningful politics.

Another bold step was to tone down the allegory. There is no Spock or Data figure who embodies a poorly conceived emotion-reason dichotomy and computes the optimal solution. Instead, there is a weird melty alien guy: A low-power, angry-old-man version of a T-1000 from Terminator 2 (1991), which is much better. The special effects on him are necessarily digital, but there is still enough analogue work to give it all some grounding.

Unfortunately, there is still an allegorical basis in the Western. Just as TOS was pitched as “Wagon Train to the stars”, DS9 was pitched as a remake of The Rifleman (1958). Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who wrote the campy Western “A Fistful of Datas” (1992), commented on a DVD release of DS9 that the arrogant Bajoran militia officer Kira Nerys was “the Native American” in the allegory of the space station as a frontier town. This distasteful remark probably reflects the intent of the producers, in that the Bajoran culture is fractious, mystical, weak and generally backward compared to Starfleet, resembling the prevailing stereotype of native Americans in 1950s Westerns.

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References here: Crest of the Stars (1999).

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Star Trek: Generations (1994Moving picture, 118 minutes)

Seen in 2014.

Without having counted at all, I would say this is the record-holder in number of cuts where people on bridges are thrown about like rag dolls while sparks fly inexplicably from their instruments. Star Trek is frequently at its most interesting exploring its own creepy ideology of personal “improvement”, where Ayn Rand meets L. Ron Hubbard. In this ideology, the “Nexus”, where people are happy without having to clean the hallways of the Enterprise with a toothbrush every three hours, must be shown as flawed and consequently rejected. Utterly predictable since “This Side of Paradise” (1967), but it’s pretty well done here.

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“Star Trek: A Captain’s Log” (1994Moving picture, 43 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

Clip show with a few actor anecdotes.

Wishful thinking for the fans. It’s bad from the start: The list of advances in science and engineering that lead up to the series’ launch date include the V2 and Sputnik, but not the first human space flight, just the first “American” one. The presentation perpetuates the myth of redshirt susceptibility and adds nothing.

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Star Trek: 30 Years and Beyond (1996Moving picture, 90 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

An anniversary gala consisting of a clip show, cast anecdotes, celebrity fan anecdotes, a sitcom-style skit and a couple of musical performances.

Hollywood self-congratulation. DS9 gets short shrift, which is insulting. Ben Stiller’s speech is good though.

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Star Trek: First Contact (1996Moving picture, 111 minutes)

Seen in 2014.

A prequel to “Metamorphosis” (1967).

“First Contact” (1991) played straight. The interesting story here is the “Blue Marble” moment where a scientific achievement puts a dent in human narcissism. That is a science fiction story. Unfortunately, the grime and grit of this story feel completely fake on the cheap sets, the humour of it is childish, and the consequences are examined only at a 300-year remove. Much more annoying than this, the interesting story is purposely overshadowed by the glib overachievers of the Enterprise enhancing their glory by directing the historic moment and fighting an irrelevant war with the Borg from “Q Who” (1989). The first corridor warfare scenes are unusually suspenseful, but there is no getting around the silliness of the enemy: all drones are still humanoid, never move faster than a walk, are never armed, and are easy to kill with hands and bullets, unlike the one android member of the crew, whom the Borg were already calling primitive in “The Best of Both Worlds: Part 2” (1990). After 7 years there is still little thought behind the Borg as a faction, and it shows. I think the writers wanted only the emotional reaction displayed here by Lily: mindless disgust.

References here: Pushing Ice (2005).

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Trekkies (1997Moving picture, 86 minutes)

Contemporary Star Trek fandom.

Retrofuturism meets a fine example of how single franchises can generate self-perpetuating subcultures.

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‣‣ Trekkies 2 (2004Moving picture, 93 minutes)

Broader geographic focus (including Serbian fans), more musical fandom activity, and new visits with people from the original.

Less Schadenfreude. Not quite as awe-inspiring, but some moments are excellent. The deleted scenes are also worth watching.

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Star Trek: Insurrection (1998Moving picture, 103 minutes)

Seen in 2014.

About average for the series, despite the negative reception. As usual the crew of the Enterprise is forced to rescue the Federation by rebelling against it. It is interesting how the writers keep returning to that motif, evidently unsatisfied with the way that Star Trek is held up as a positive and hopeful vision of the future. Another interesting point here is the technophobia, greatly generalized from the phobia of the Borg exhibited in the previous film.

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Star Trek: Nemesis (2002Moving picture, 116 minutes)

Forgettable.

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“Really Bad Star Trek” (2004Moving picture)

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“The Final Frontier Revisited” (2004Moving picture)

Sweet camp; who cares about camera shadows anyway?

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Star Trek (2009Moving picture, 127 minutes)

I suppose this is where the tension and darkness of “Conspiracy” (1988), though not the body horror, became the franchise norm. There is nothing in it, not even a thought experiment. How curious that this retcon-prequel-remake hybrid would be made with so little concern for the highlights of the original and so much action instead.

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