Saturday, December 09, 2006

Star Trek movies: then and now

Over on TrekBBS, someone asked for our pocket reactions to each of the "Star Trek" movies, our first reactions and whether the movies had stood the test of time:

ST: The Motion Picture (1979)
My age then: just turned 21
Where seen: the beautiful retro-art deco Paramount Theatre, Sydney

Note the age above: this film was very much my "coming of age". I'd managed never to have seen "Star Wars" and had just finished up three fun-filled years at teachers' college - including writing and performing in skits, making teaching aids, critiquing kids' TV shows, etc - and along came TMP, a reunion movie of characters I knew mainly only from breakfast television reruns of Filmation's TAS!

So TMP, based on a friend's review at my 21st birthday party, of then-recent gala opening night, became a fascination to me. During that week, the newspaper had carried a serialized "My week on the Star Trek set" item by Aussie journalist Jim Oram.

I encountered the novelization in the local supermarket (read it in a weekend), bought the soundtrack with a birthday gift certificate, and finally went (by myself, when its general run finally started) to see the movie - and was blown away by it. I have since worked out that it had to be a daytime session on Christmas Eve, and I came home with second hand copies of several Blish and Foster adaptations of TOS and TAS episodes. (I recall showing my grandmother my already-expanding collection of Trek stuff on Christmas Day!) With TMP, I felt like I was on that starship; thanks to director Robert Wise, whose direction made the whole film so real to me. I needed to see the movie about four times before finally spotting the cool, new aliens I'd seen in the program book, the LP inner sleeve and "Starlog".

Later, discovering organised ST fandom via the monthly ANZAC House episode marathons, I was shocked that most diehard TOS fans hated the movie and called it "boring". For me, I was ready for the sequel the next week, and how did I scream when I realised TMP was originally to have been "Star Trek: Phase II", a weekly TV show! Oh well, I spent the next few years reading ST novels, catching up on old TOS and TAS I hadn't seen and researching details on ST II.

It's still my favourite ST movie (now equaled by the 2009 film), and perhaps my favourite movie of all time.

ST II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
My age then: 23
Where seen: the ornate State Theatre, Sydney (preview and gala premiere)

A very solid TOS movie-era outing. I was thrilled this one got critical acclaim, though I really missed the costumes and cinematography of TMP. Saavik (Kirstie Alley) was very cool - and yay, Mr Kyle (John Winston)! - but where were Rand and Chapel? Khan was a very impressive guest villain. Loved the Ceti Eels, but missed McGivers, whom I'd enjoyed so much in "Space Seed". On opening night, they deliberately had no "II" in the title, avoiding the memory/stigma of negativity about TMP as much as possible. Sad to read about Nimoy's directives to Robin Curtis (in ST III) which seemed so intent on blotting out Kirstie Alley's interpretation and popularity with the fan base.

CaptTherin

My fan club friends all made new costumes for the premiere of ST II and we booked out the entire cinema. This was the beginning (for me) of ST fandom at its most interactive and creative, with plenty of time to build excitement for the next sequel.

ST III: The Search for Spock (1984)
My age then: 25
Where seen: the Pitt Centre (aka "the pitts centre"), Sydney (previews and gala premiere). This alternative venue was due to the fact that there was still a giant hole in the ground where they'd torn down the Paramount and Rapallo Theatres in 1983

I loved all the "will he or won't he" publicity about Nimoy returning as Spock (not to mention directing and, as "Frank Force", the voice of Excelsior's elevator voice) - and it was fun seeking out all the gossip. My friend Jill was a set visitor on the very day (the new) Saavik and David opened Spock's casket, and she came home to tell us that the torpedo tube had been... empty! And that Merritt Butrick, whom she'd hated in ST II, because he was a Kirk wannabe, was actually very cute in person. I was then in New York in January 1984 and saw Paramount's Eddie Egan give his ST III slideshow at a Creation Convention.

Then the agonizing wait; Australian cinemas elected to delay ST III by about three months, whereas the previous ST films had been an almost-simultaneous release. Although I found the "live on set" planet FX to be rather hokey (fibreglass texture on cactus plants, chunks of earth on hydraulic lifts, falling trees rigged to fall again, multiple shadows from overhead studio lights), the film was exciting, funny, sad, nostalgic and satisfying.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock premiere

It was a great movie to see on premiere night in a cinema packed with diehard costumed fans. (I took in a box of champagne flutes, after seeing the "absent friends" scene at the first preview, and my whole row clinked glasses with the onscreen heroes and we got a roar of approval from the whole audience. A magic moment, repeated each time we went back that week.) I'd moved into a new apartment only days earlier - and, as the Genesis planet went down in flames on opening night, I remembered I'd left the iron on! Another agonizing wait

ST IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
My age then: 27
Where seen: Paramount/CIC Theatrette, Sydney (preview: work print!); State Theatre, Sydney ("Buspak" Awards and gala preview); Greater Union Centre, Sydney (finally), on the site of the former Paramount and Rapallo Theatres (opening night)

A very fulfilling film, although a risky first few minutes with yet another giant probe heading to Earth. Great comedy and use of all the main characters, and I thought most of the whales stuff was great. Wonderful to see ST being widely accepted by general audiences, and the renewed interest in licensed ST tie-ins.

I helped to organise a huge gala preview for ST IV that had Sydney "A List" celebrities, the first annual "Buspak" advertising awards, a disco after-party and free alcohol. The awards night section was terrible but the ST film was enjoyed by people who'd never seen a ST episode, although I had several diehard friends who felt ST IV "dumbed down" its ST messages for the populace. And it was a shame that Saavik was finally shunted aside and forgotten.

Buspak

ST V: The Final Frontier (1989)
My age then: 30
Where seen: Hoyts complex at Westfield Eastgardens Shoppingtown, Pagewood (premiere)

I'd have been more accepting of the plot had Sybok simply been a mentor/teacher of Spock's rather than a son of Sarek, since Shatner worried little about flying in the face of complaints from Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana. However, I did appreciate Shatner's attempts to recapture the format of a ST episode, and I actually liked some of his more unique directing contributions. The "field of holes" scene ("It's all I have...") was so poignant, and the approaching unicorn in a dust cloud.

I have had many belly-laughs reading "Captain's Log: The Making of ST V" by Lisabeth Shatner; an excellent insight into the ego of Shatner. A book which often says much more by what's between the lines. ST V was a disappointing follow-up to ST IV; a very much "contractual obligations" deal. TNG was already doing better FX on a weekly TV budget. Even more ironic: the pre-release poster of the seatbelt on a cinema chair.

ST VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
My age then: 33
Where seen: Paramount/CIC Theatrette, Sydney (preview); Ann Arbor multiplex, Michigan, USA (feature)

To think we almost didn't get this film, or almost got a "Starfleet Academy" movie instead. This was a fun experience in many ways, and the many blue-sashed UFP aliens at the end paid homage to TOS aliens we'd seen before. I loved the film's ties to "Unification" (TNG double episode, guest-starring Spock). However, although I'd have been devastated by Saavik being revealed as a traitor, as was originally planned, the Valeris subplot was no surprise at all... because Valeris was the only newbie in the team. (I tried to avoid all spoilers, for the first time. When a big "Cinefantastique" article came out, I decided to save the article till after the movie. I just read the captions - and that's where the editor chose to reveal that she was part of the conspiracy. Drat!)

Loved Sulu and Rand working together, and loved the big sign-off by the cast at the end. Some minor annoyances: spelling "Uhuru" in the closing credits was bad; forgetting which ship had been cataloguing gaseous anomolies; the phaser in the kitchen; books for translating into Klingon, etc. The local premiere night experience was bittersweet, as a new faction had taken over our ST club, most fans turned up in civvies, and I then went off on a US trip a few days later and missed out hearing about everyone's opinions. Watching the movie with my US penpals was fun, though, but it had been out a few weeks by then and the US Cineplexes were running so many sessions, each tiny cinema was almost empty. Hard to build atmosphere in such a tiny space! Loved photographing Mann's Chinese in Los Angeles (below), decked out for ST VI, although I didn't see it there.

ST Generations (1994)
My age then: 36
Where seen: Greater Union complex, Bankstown Square, Bankstown (premiere)

Almost the entire script, and most versions of each draft, were being leaked onto UseNet, and a friend used to print it all out for me. I wasn't sure I liked the idea of Scotty and Chekov parroting lines originally written for Spock and McCoy. Malcolm McDowell, whom I'd loved so much in "Time After Time" seemed too much like a bully - and he seemed to keep the silver haircut and angry face for every movie appearance ever after. I'd have loved for the film to explore the alien differences in El-Aurians. After seven fun years of TNG on TV, this movie seemed to have many missed opportunities, not to mention killing off Picard's Earth family, then not even using the same René for the "Christmas in the Nexus" scene.

I admit to feeling underwhelmed by "the franchise" after all the fun and excitement generated by TOS movies every few years and the launch of TNG on TV. The premiere night I attended was run by a fledgling ST club recovering from all the old, long-running big ST clubs being obliterated by an Australian version of the Official ST Club, who were holding a rival screening in a different location. Although the movie was fun, I'd enjoyed "All Good Things" much more, and I think TNG on the big screen might have been more compelling if the characters had been unseen in all-new adventures for a longer chunk of time, a la the TOS crew in TMP.

ST: First Contact (1996)
My age then: 38
Where seen: Greater Union complex, Parramatta (premiere)

People certainly came out of this movie feeling like they'd gotten plenty of bangs for their bucks. It was an excellent grafting of: personal drama with SPFX space battles; TNG with its TOS roots; and use of popular themes (time travel and Borg) in fresh ways to maximise opportunities of pleasing audiences.

Again, nearly everything got leaked way before time - even preliminary sketches of the possible looks for the Borg Queen. Alice Krige, James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard all gave excellent performances. The cameos were funny (and welcome) too: the EMH, Ogawa and Barclay.

ST: Insurrection (1998)
My age then: 40
Where seen: Hoyts complex at Broadway Centre, Sydney (premiere)

I loved this. The cinematography and music were beautiful, and everyone gave strong performances, except maybe the development of Ru'Afo. The idea of two subjugated races - the Tarlac and the Ellora - to keep afloat what was actually a very small number of Son'a, was excellent, and would have been fun to explore in other films (or novels).

Once again, the scripts were leaked to the Internet - and I really wish I had not read the part in the script where it's revealed that the Son'a are just very wrinkled up exiled/renegade Ba'ku children, because I may not have realized until the film's Big Reveal. Gates McFadden must be wondering by now why she gets so little to do in these TNG movies.

ST Nemesis (2002)
My age then: 44
Where seen: Hoyts complex, Penrith Plaza (opening night)

Oh, so sad. The fans' ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy? This movie was castigated on Internet forums before more than a sentence or two had been written - and then to prove how much a failure it would be, US ST fans joined the general public to go see the opening weekend of J-Lo in "Maid in Manhattan" instead of supporting "Nemesis".

I'm talking about the many thousands of people in the USA who prejudged this movie. They had no intention of going to its first screenings, waiting for friends to tell them whether it was okay or not. Every previous ST movie had queues of fans to see it as soon as they possibly could, whether it turned out to be their favourite film or not. Many fans never even saw "Nemesis" once on the big screen, making their decisions from Internet rumours, or by a reading of the bootlegged script. So it's not just a drop-off in repeat attendees after opening weekend (such as with ST V or "Insurrection"). They didn't go even once! At least "Nemesis" won its opening in Australia, and performed well in the USA on DVD. We see more recent comments like, "Well, I finally saw 'Nemesis' on DVD and it's not as bad as I'd been dreading".

Data is my favourite TNG character and, under a more sensitive director than Stuart Baird, I might have enjoyed torturing myself by watching my favourite character sacrifice his eternal life for his captain, but ultimately the scenes fell flat. The lighting of the sets was dark and gloomy, too, and it would have been fun to get a little more canonical detail on the Romulan/Reman connection, but I actually liked Tom Hardy's performance as Shinzon, and how ironic/cruel the whole thing was turning out for still-lonely Picard. I'd have preferred more links to "Unification", and perhaps the involvement of Ambassador Spock? No big gala opening - just one work colleague who went with me to the local cinema on opening Thursday night...

This movie was no worse than other ST films (esp. ST V), but the whole exercise proved how jaded and bitter a large number of ST fans had become. After "Nemesis", they turned their ire on "Enterprise", and will no doubt lie in wait for JJ Abrams to put (any) foot wrong with his upcoming ST movie project.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

wow, it must have been being thatinvolved when all the original series films came out. i got into trek when i was 14 or so. i'm 28 now, so i'm a tng fan but i LOVE the tos films. all of them.
nice recap.
i got a posting about tng on my site now. check it.

Therin of Andor said...

Yeah, it was the heyday of ST fandom, I reckon!

Therin of Andor said...

Since then:

JJ Abrams' "Star Trek" (2009): I missed out on tickets to the Sydney Opera House world premiere night (only about 200 @ $100 each were available to the public), but a friend won me a double pass to a sneak preview a few weeks before the official start date.

Premiere night I saw it again, but locally, and the next night in the city with a small theatre party.

Managed to squeeze in six viewings during its theatrical run, probably about the same as ST:TMP.

Therin of Andor said...

My slideshow of the 2013 "Star Trek Into Darkness" premiere is HERE