For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.
Ah, Star Trek. Star Trek, Star Trek, Star Trek. Whatever are we going to do with you?
I was ten years, five months old exactly on 5/25/77, the day Star Wars came out. I was the perfect age, and the precise demographic: a ten-year-old suburban boy raised on The Lord of the Rings and Bob Heinlein. Star Wars was the greatest thing I had ever seen.
Unfortunately, that meant I spent the next ten years dissing Star Trek. The show was stupid. The acting was bad. (Imagine a Star Wars fan complaining about acting.) The sets and effects were cheap. Everyone looked like an escapee from Laugh In. It was as if one couldn’t be a Star Wars and a Star Trek fan at the same time – a common delusion, but one I shared.
In 1979 I went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, because it was a science fiction movie and I went to see every science fiction movie. It did not change my opinion about Star Trek. Wrath of Kahn was much better, and I was excited for Search for Spock — more disappointment there. Voyage Home seemed like the best of the bunch, but I still wasn’t a fan.
During this period, I briefly encountered Gene Roddenberry at a comic book convention. I didn’t think I liked Star Trek, so I didn’t care, and didn’t speak to him. Idiot!
A few months before Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, my friends and I went to an anime convention in Burbank. Next door was a Trek convention, and you could get in on the same ticket, so we stopped by. It was the first, and last, time I set foot in a Trek-specific con. I thought everything was stupid. There was already a Brent Spiner fan club. What losers.
Then Next Generation premiered, and I realized something. I had been a Star Trek fan, and not a Star Wars fan, the whole time.
I fell in love with Star Trek. I got caught up on the original 1960s series, and discovered that it was, at times, brilliant. It was possibly the most uneven show ever made, as far as writing quality, but the best episodes were classics in the true sense.
Star Wars was not a science fiction franchise. It was about knights and samurai, noblesse oblige and “hokey religions.” It was loud and cool and pretty, but it wasn’t about the future.
Star Trek was about the Cold War; the Chinese (Romulans), Russians (Klingons) and Americans (Federation). It was about racism (the Cherons), sexism (Janice Lester), hippies (Dr. Sevrin) and the nuclear arms race (Gary Seven).
But it was also about the future, while Star Wars was about the past. The Star Trek universe was something of a hodge-podge of conflicting ideas until Next Generation ironed things out. But basically, future humans lived in peace and mutual understanding within a large federation of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. They possessed free energy, faster-than-light travel, wonderful technology, and a socialist economy that had eradicated money and poverty. Outside enemies were held at bay by a dedicated quasi-military Starfleet composed of highly trained, highly principled men and women of all races and species who were more interested in exploration than fighting.
Star Trek may be a silly space opera, but it’s not as silly as Star Wars. And it’s (often) thoughtful, (sometimes) brilliant and (occasionally) transcendent. Star Wars is rarely any of those things.
And yes, I became a Brent Spiner fan.
The question is, when should Star Trek have ended? When did the franchise jump the shark, or as the new idiom goes, nuke the fridge? Should Paramount have called it quits at the end of Next Generation? Then we would have missed Deep Space Nine finding itself in its excellent final three seasons. There were also some wonderful moments in the last couple of seasons of Voyager. The Next Generation films were never great, but contrary to popular belief, never terrible. First Contact was the best; Nemesis the most disappointing, but not impossible to enjoy.
Enterprise was… well, almost unwatchable. Certainly, the franchise should have ended, proud and whole, before Enterprise ever assaulted the world with its power ballad opening theme. And as far as the Abrams Trek film goes, well, I don’t have enough information to form an opinion. It sounds terrible. Then again, I loved Cloverfield.
Some people would argue that Trek never has to end. They’re wrong – The Star Wars prequel trilogy proved that. If the wrong people get hold of an intellectual property (Braga *cough cough* Berman *cough*), if they lose respect for it, if they wring every possible plot line and permutation out of it, if they let it migrate too far from it’s core principles, then the franchise is ruined. Like Star Wars. Like the X-Men films.
Like Star Trek.
So when should Star Trek have ended? I don’t know. But I know when it hit its low point. And it was not the Next Generation episode where everyone “devolved” into animals (although that was close). It wasn’t even Enterprise, because Enterprise had Jolene Blalock, so it can’t be all bad.
The low point of the franchise occurred on June 9th, 1989, when Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, William Shatner’s directorial debut, hit theaters in the US.
BEGIN BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS (spoilers)
We open on Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace. No, really, “Nimbus III.” Might as well be Nimrod XII or Dorkwad XC. Or Naboo.
Anyway, Nimbus III. The funny-looking guy who played Wyatt Earp’s brother on the Original Series is digging holes in the desert and filling them with dry ice. No motive is given for this. He’s interrupted by Spock’s brother on horseback, a Vulcan who is supposed to shock us by laughing. There’s a name for Vulcans who laugh – Romulans.
Meanwhile, some fat guy is free-climbing El Capitan. This is Captain James T. Kirk, a man whom we can easily believe would be climbing 3,000 foot rocks without a harness, even in his old age. But Captain James T. Kirk would never have allowed himself to get fat. Or have worn a toupee.
Spock arrives wearing levitation boots, a nifty little gizmo that would have been really useful the dozens of times the crews of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine and Voyager had to climb up and down non-functioning turbolifts. He inexplicably goads Kirk until the man falls off the rock, and in one of the worst visual effects since Jason of Star Command, catches Kirk just before impact.
This is hilarious.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy spend some time bonding over marshmellons and old camp songs. Kirk says that he expects to die alone, with no one at hand but a Frenchman with a British accent and that guy from A Clockwork Orange. Amazingly, this turns out to be true.
Some other hilarious things happen, involving Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, which I won’t ruin for you. Hilarious.
Meanwhile on Nimbus III, a fat old Klingon, a sexy Romulan who can’t deliver a line read, and David Warner are hanging out together in a third-rate reproduction of the Mos Eisley Cantina. I’ll point out here that David Warner is the only actor in this movie, and he’s given absolutely nothing to do except suck on an anachronistic cigarette. Why doesn’t he pinch snuff or chew opium, fer crissakes? It’s the 23rd Century!
Spock’s brother invades the cantina and takes all three characters hostage, which would be exciting if we cared about them at all. Okay, we care about David Warner, a little, but only because we’re expecting him to sic a Recognizer on Spock’s brother so we can be spared the rest of this movie.
Starfleet orders Kirk to Nimbus III to handle the situation, despite the fact that the Enterprise-A, gloriously gifted to Kirk at the end of Star Trek IV, is a total piece of shit. Why the Enterprise-A is a total piece of shit, or why the much-lauded shipyards of Utopia Planitia would produce a piece of shit, is not explained. But it’s hilarious.
The Klingons send a Bird of Prey to Nimbus III, because the Bird of Prey interiors from Star Trek IV were just sitting around and didn’t cost anything. It’s commanded by that old Trek staple, the maniacally villainous captain who ignores the sensible advice of his sage First Officer. This one is a smooth-foreheaded Klingon with skin the color of baby poo. I’m sure he has a name. It’s here we learn that while every other species targets enemy ships with computers, Klingons use a ginormous shoulder-mounted periscope. Yes, I said “shoulder-mounted periscope.”
Kirk takes his good ol’ time getting around to heading to Nimbus III. When the original, thin, full-head-of-hair 1960s Kirk heard about a crisis in the Neutral Zone, he was off in a flash. Fat Kirk dilly-dallies. Anyway, after much hilarity of a most hilarious nature, they arrive at Nimbus III, which in typical Trek fashion takes about 10 minutes. The Enterprise-A has no transporters, and no one at Starfleet thinks to have a working ship meet Kirk to help out. Oh well. So everyone flies down in a shuttlecraft. Then they steal horses, because this is Shatner’s movie, so there have to be horses (see Generations).
How do they steal the horses? Get out the eye bleach — Uhura performs a strip tease for the men guarding the animals. No offense to Nichelle Nichols, but this is the second lowest point in the worst Star Trek film. Yes, lower is on the way.
The Enterprise crew defeats Spock’s brother’s army, but is captured by the fat Klingon, the sexy Romulan who can’t give a line read, and David Warner, who are now working for Spock’s brother. We still don’t know that Spock’s brother is Spock’s brother, because Spock has never seen fit to mention it. Neither, at this point, does Spock’s brother. Both men seem to understand that they can’t mention this incredibly pertinent fact, otherwise the upcoming scene in the Enterprise-A shuttle bay won’t make any sense.
Spock’s brother’s name is Sybak or Spibok or Spigot or something, so we’ll just call him Spock’s brother. He forces Kirk to take everyone who has so far had a speaking part back to the Enterprise-A on the shuttle. Just then, the Klingon warbird attacks, because this is how the Klingons avoid open war with the Federation and the Romulans — by attacking them every chance they get.
Allow me to mention the first of two glaring logical inconsistencies I have noticed in the Star Trek universe. If the Klingons are so obsessed with honor and glory in battle, why do they employ cowardly cloaking devices?
Kirk orders an emergency crash landing in the shuttle bay, which has never been done before except for all the times it’s been done before. Once the shuttle’s in the bay, Chekov orders the room filled with a harmless neuralizing gas. Kirk, Spock and Bones are rescued, and Spock’s brother and all his little buddies are locked up in sickbay until the situation can be ironed out.
No, not really. Kirk attacks Spock’s brother, and Spock picks up a rifle. Kirk orders Spock to kill Spock’s brother, but he does not, because Spock’s brother is his brother (gasp!). Instead he wounds his brother, incapacitating him until this whole situation can be ironed out.
Not really. Spock hands the rifle to his brother, who invites him to join his cause and come to the bridge. Spock does so, because he knows he can do more to help Kirk and Bones from the bridge than from the brig.
Not really. Spock goes with Kirk and McCoy to the brig.
The brig is apparently the only part of the Enterprise-A that works. This is because the plot calls for it. Kirk is mad at Spock, even after he learns that Spock’s brother is Spock’s brother.
Scotty, who has gotten so fat he looks like he has two William Shatners stuffed down his shirt, rescues our heroes from the brig. He refers to the Klingons as “Klingon devils,” which is really racist or species-ist and I think it would really hurt Worf’s feelings. Then Scotty heads off on his own, and for reasons I’ll get into below, bangs his head on a girder and drops unconscious.
This is the lowest point in the worst movie in the Star Trek franchise.
Now Spock, Kirk and McCoy are running from Sulu, who works for Spock’s brother, and they end up climbing up a – wait for it — non-functioning turbolift. Spock produces his levitation boots from his ass and rescues his two friends. This is hilarious.
Seriously, the boots weren’t anywhere nearby. It wasn’t even established that they were on the Enterprise-A. Maybe Spock had rented them at the levitation boot concession at Yosemite, who knows? He just suddenly produces them, light years away, in a Jeffries tube, while on the run from armed men. But it’s hilarious.
Well, they get to the observation deck, which inexplicably has an emergency transmitter hidden in the floor. But Spock’s brother is on to them, probably because he read the script in advance. Wait, this thing has a script?
Spock’s brother chooses to reveal how he has brainwashed the Nimbus III folks and the Enterprise crew. It involves the victim standing very still for a complex, extended hallucination, instead of doing the obvious thing and running away, or hitting Spock’s brother in the nuts.
Spock’s brother reveals that McCoy administered euthanasia on his own father, just weeks before a cure for his disease was found. This is what makes McCoy experience the most emotional pain, and not the whole thing with Edith Keeler. Or the whole thing with Nancy Crater. Or the whole thing with Spock’s ghost living in his head.
Spock’s pain, it turns out, comes from the fact that his father was a racist anti-human asshat who inexplicably married several humans. But then, we already knew this.
We see in the hallucination that Spock was born in a cave. Now I get that Vulcan is a volcanic planet, hence the name. But Vulcans are hyper-logical scientists. They would not live in caves. They would live in gleaming white supercities, laid out in perfect grids or concentric circles. Spock would have been born in a sterile medical chamber, midwifed by robots, his every cell studied by experts in alien hybridization logically suppressing their thrill at witnessing the birth of the first human-Vulcan hybrid. Not in a cave.
Here’s the second glaring logical inconsistency I have noticed in the Star Trek universe. Supposedly, Spock has trouble achieving pure logic because of his dual Vulcan-human nature. But Vulcans pursue pure logic because they are naturally more illogical and emotional than humans, and they consider these super-strong emotions to be dangerous. Spock’s human descent should help him behave more logically than other Vulcans, not less.
Kirk turns down Spock’s brother’s offer to show him his pain, presumably because Merritt Butrick was unavailable.
Now successfully brainwashed, McCoy and Spock still resist the urge to aid Spock’s brother, raising the question of why Sulu and Chekov aren’t later court-martialed and shot. Seriously, it’s far too easy to get Chekov to turn on Kirk – all it takes is a crazy Vulcan, or a Ceti eel, or his ex-girlfriend Irina. The next thing you know, he’s stealing the ship, or starring on Babylon 5.
Spock’s brother takes the Enterprise-A to the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy, which is about as scientifically plausible as canals on Mars, Nazi planets or “fluidic space.” It is established that no ship can penetrate the Barrier. Everyone who has tried has died. It’s a long, dangerous, arduous journey no one in the history of the galaxy has ever, ever completed.
The Enterprise-A does it in about 13 seconds.
Just on the other side of the barrier is a planet that looks like an oversized blue Q-Tip. This is Sha Ka Ree, the mythical Vulcan heaven, where Spock’s brother expects to find “God.”
Spock’s brother betrays David Warner, hot chick, fat Klingon, his Nimbus III army, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura by leaving them behind, and taking only the three main characters down to the planet. The three main characters that want to throw him in the brig. Those three.
They arrive in the Mojave Desert down on the planet, but there’s no one there. Just when Spock is about to suggest they give up, giant stones burst out of the ground! Suddenly we’re on an indoor set with a flat floor, and the stones are sitting on that floor. What, the set dresser couldn’t afford any dirt?
God actually appears, and has a chat with Spock’s brother. The deity demands use of the Enterprise-A. This raises Kirk’s hackles, and he asks incredulously, “What does God need with a starship?” Surprisingly, this line is one of the best and most memorable lines the entire 40-year Star Trek franchise, and Shatner delivers it so perfectly that you remember for one brief moment, in the midst of this turd of a film, that Kirk is THE MAN.
Spock’s brother immediately realizes the error of his ways, which you know is ridiculous if you have ever met an actual religious person. He tries out his Dr. Phil routine on God, giving the others time to escape. Scotty beams up Spock and Bones, but you know that piece of shit Enterprise-A is soooo unreliable, and Kirk is left behind.
God chases Kirk around the desert for a while, inspiring that great scene in Galaxy Quest with the rock creature. Meanwhile, the Klingon ship (remember that? the subplot?) reappears. Spock, taking his first sensible step in the whole film, asks fat Klingon to order the ship to stand down.
Look, in the background. David Warner is snogging the sexy Romulan! Go David Warner! Maybe he can teach her how to give a line read.
God is just about to kill Kirk, when the Klingon ship appears and kills God. The Klingons killed God! That is so cool.
Kirk comes aboard the Klingon ship, thinking he’s a prisoner and that they’re going to read him their poetry. But fat Klingon forces baby poo Klingon to apologize – hilarious! – and then we see who’s manning the guns. For no reason whatsoever, it’s Spock!
Spock killed God! That actually makes sense.
Everyone has a party on the Enterprise-A observation deck. No, really, they all have a party. I’m not kidding. Even the Nimbus III rebels and the Klingons. An actual party. Rent the movie, I’m serious.
Also, they apparently have no trouble getting back across the Great Barrier. Nor do they perform a scientific survey of the Galactic Core.
Cut back to Yosemite, where our three heroes sit around a fire while Spock plays “Row Row Row Your Boat” very poorly on the Vulcan lute. Hilaaaaaaarious.
END OF BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS
Why was Star Trek V so monstrously bad?
When William Shatner agreed to star in Star Trek IV, he demanded he be allowed to direct V. The only thing he’d directed before was eight episodes of TJ Hooker. (He never directed a major feature again; just a low-budget sci-fi crapfest called Groom Lake, starring himself and Dick Van Patten, in 2002.)
So Shatner’s feature director debut was a big-budget, effects-laden $30 million major studio release that Paramount hoped would knock Tim Burton’s Batman off the top of the summer blockbuster charts. Which was Star Trek V’s second strike – it was rushed through production to get into theaters two weeks before Batman.
As you might guess, this clever scheme on the part of the empty suits at Paramount did not go off as planned.
Shatner wrote the treatment, which is why it features KIRK free-climbing and KIRK riding horses and KIRK fighting God, although surprisingly only David Warner gets laid. Huh. Nicholas Meyer, who wrote the two best Trek films (II and IV), was busy. So the studio picked David Loughery, whose only writing credits at that time were the forgettable Dennis Quaid-as-a-psychic film Dreamscape and one episode of Hart to Hart. Whatever meager talents Loughery may have possessed, he was forced to do rewrites by Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, which cannot have helped.
Then the 1988 WGA strike cut into production, and Industrial Light & Magic refused to do the effects, which showed. The VFX in Trek films have always been iffy, at least in the Original Series films. But the effects in Final Frontier are simply laughable, created by a company called Associates and Ferren that went out of business just after this film came out. I wonder why?
Furthermore the original script, in a ham-handed attempt to inject pathos, killed off Scotty for no particular reason (a la Joss Whedon’s unnecessary murders of Book and Wash in Serenity, but I digress). Test audiences hated this, so there were reshoots on dimly-lit rebuilt sets, and it shows. This is why Scotty hits his head on the girder. And it’s why that scene looks like it was shot without a cinematographer or a gaffer, as opposed to the very next scene, which is professionally lighted with the set properly dressed.
So the movie was inept in its conception, production, post-production and distribution. Did I forget anything?
Fortunately, it was followed up by Star Trek VI, which… Jesus, I know I saw Star Trek VI.
Nope. I’m drawing a blank.
Next: The Black Hole Actually I just watched The Black Hole, and although it’s really cheesy, and has the second dumbest ending of any sci-fi film (Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is number one), it’s nowhere near bad enough to belong on this list. So…
Next: Red Planet. Okay, I remember not liking Red Planet when I first saw it. Well, I just watched it again, and while parts are silly, and it belongs to the “everything’s red on Mars” school of nonsense, and some of the science is bunk, it still wasn’t bad enough to belong on the same list as Pluto Nash. Also, it stars Carrie-Anne Moss, and no movie can totally suck if it has Carrie-Anne Moss in it. So…
Next: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). Not that bad. Some of Stan Winston’s creature effects are a bit disappointing, and the plot doesn’t always make sense. The guy who plays Professor Lupin is pretty good, and without Marlon Brando’s appealingly eccentric performance, we would never have had Mephisto & Kevin. I guess I’m having trouble finding movies bad enough for this list.
Next: Babylon AD. I liked this movie a lot better when it was called Children of Men, and was better acted, better written and better shot. Unmemorable, but not heinous.
Which takes us, finally, to: Alien3.