Doing a six-movie (Kirk-and-Spock) Star Trek marathon in a weekend can shed a lot of light on Stockholm Syndrome. I did a great deal of laughing and scoffing and eye-rolling, which I insist is the proper response for any reasonable person watching these films for the first time today. And yet, as the final credits rolled for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country -- fashioned in the style of the cast members' signatures -- I found myself wiping back tears.
As I explained in this motivating post last Friday, my goal was to bone up on my Star Trek in anticipation of J.J. Abrams' reboot, due May 8th. I had seen the last four films, plus most of The Next Generation and all of Voyager (which I love, damn you), but virtually nothing from the original series. The Castro Theatre in San Francisco was screening all six of the original-series films over one weekend. This seemed perfect -- if arduous. I committed (publicly, no less) to the full complement. I should clarify that the amount of eye-rolling I did wasn't uniform throughout the marathon. The conventional wisdom is correct about the even-numbered films faring far better than the odd-numbered ones, and I enjoyed the gleefully hammy Wrath of Khan, the witty and lovable Voyage Home, and the thoughtful, vaguely Hitchcockian Undiscovered Country. But gee, I thought: Kirk is awfully one-dimensional, isn't he? Aside from Spock, the crew doesn't have much to do besides stare at Kirk in slack-jawed admiration. And I didn't know Uhura was basically a glorified receptionist.
I still think the movies' dynamic is impossibly hokey and stilted, with the cast doing more public speaking than acting. It's hard not to laugh: at Walter Koenig's ludicrous Russian accent, which for some reason turns v's into w's and w's into v's; at James Doohan's overemphatic, catchphrase-spouting Scotty (probably the franchise's most-caricatured personality); at the gotta-see-them-to-believe-them digressions into Vulcan mysticism. But like many before me, I was won over by the obvious affection of the movies for the characters, and by the characters for each other. I think it helped that the movies became increasingly self-effacing as they went along, complicit in their own absurdity. I loved that Kirk's first line in The Undiscovered Country is an incredulous "What are we doing here?", seemingly delivered on behalf of the entire aging cast. And of course the entirety of The Voyage Home is one long, funny joke at the crew's expense.
I think I was even won over by the undeniable awfulness of the odd-numbered entries, which possibly explains why I thought the much-maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier -- the one with Spock's half-brother and some sort of weird acid trip masquerading as the Almighty -- was actually the "best of the worst," just as goofy as The Motion Picture and The Search for Spock, but livelier. (Maybe it was the campfire scenes.) For the record, it seemed to me that the Leonard Nimoy-directed Search for Spock was the weakest of the films, hung up as it is on The Wrath of Khan's skimpy "Genesis" storyline, while adding nothing of its own.
But as a constant defender of later Star Trek efforts -- particularly First Contact, which I think ranks among the best modern sci-fi -- I have to point out that The Next Generation and even Voyager (which I know no one but me likes) held up without forcing fans to justify them as amiably silly or self-mocking. Sometimes their plots credibly explored moral, ethical and philosophical issues, and more often they stood on their own merits as serious science-fiction. It's hard to fault the original series for this too much: it pioneered the franchise, after all. But after seeing these six films, I must admit I'm skeptical of the claim that the original series was "better" than its successors. I wonder if watching episodes of the TV show would change my mind.
Another problem -- a more serious one -- is that Star Trek mistook fearlessness for courage. Shatner's Captain/Admiral Kirk was afraid of nothing: he plunged into battle with barely contained glee. Compare Jean-Luc Picard, who was mortally afraid of (for example) the Borg, but did what had to be done. I think the latter is a lot more interesting -- and is part of what made The Next Generation so consistently rich over two decades.
Anyway, I think I'm ready for the J.J. Abrams film now. I'm kind of well-positioned for it, actually: I liked the characters the first time around, but think some things were missing that Abrams could fill in. He might start with character arcs and some genuine gravitas.