Progenitors: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

startrek41Two of the even ones. You know what that means. 

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Among the most fondly remembered Star Trek films and probably the most distinctive after The Motion Picture, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home finds Leonard Nimoy’s TV-bound direction in a vastly more snug, comforting mood than it was in the tragic The Search for Spock. With an original star directing, the film itself accompanies him down memory lane in a comedy that positively salivates with the unmuffled semi-goofiness of the original show.  By and large, the Star Trek films tackled the ‘80s with more-is-more elephantiasis, falling in line with the dictates of the time to varying results. The name The Voyage Home – so called because the heroes return to 1986 San Francisco, the location of the future Starfleet – also signals a certain journey home to the promised land of the original show, to the happy-go-lucky mid-‘60s. As in Gene Roddenberry’s original vision, The Voyage Home is a world where peace and problem-solving are intermingled and jubilant adventure is a well of possibility rather than a decree to blow things to smithereens. This is a comic plea of a film that almost feels defiant in light of the bigger-is-better norms of the ‘80s.

So with that, The Voyage Home decides not to rise to the occasion of Aliens or other exercises in ‘80s bombast from the same year of the film’s release. Instead, it simmers things down to a comic brew as the Enterprise crew are stranded in 1986 and culture-shock comedy replaces the sanitarium of deadening, deafening action. Rather than nullifying the film by turning it into ephemera, however, the comic interludes of this more free-associative, restful film brim with character moments lacquered in a free-flowing, zestful interplay on the cast’s part. While every other film from this time period was busy crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war, The Voyage Home relies on its relaxed tempo to embody a cry for peace, very much the spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s original show.

Even the cartoonishly terrible score – all ‘80s plinks and plunks – is a means to a comic end as the crew is doused and devoured by the omnivorous culture of the time period, with the outré costuming of the Enterprise crew cunningly sliding right into the bizarre amalgam of pastel lifestyles on display in society circa 1986. Watching Spock donning his monk-karate garb or Kirk engaging with a kooky red-and-pink jumpsuit that slide right into the cavalcade of styles and sub-cultures of the era, the film props up a cheeky suggestion that we’re all fish out of water in our own way.  A celebration of the eccentricities and proclivities of the Enterprise crew, this film is ultimately the only Star Trek film that actually attempts to breathe new light into the people at its center; for The Voyage Home, it is their differences, their weirdness, that makes them, well, human. Or Vulcan. You know.

Outside of the television show, the cast – finally getting to indulge in their ticks and abnormalities – were never better than in this film, with Shatner purring like a cat in search of a meal and Kelley and Doohan clearly snuggling next to their 23rd-century superiority about 20th century technical and medicinal practices respectively. Nimoy is enjoined to adore his long-time friends, or at least acquaintances, affording them restful, lengthy takes within which to reach out and define their characters rather than flattening them with the iron grip of a story. Kelley delivers a series of lines about Spock having to make a guess late on in the film, and it is virtually impossible to imagine a more empathetic reading from the character who has always served as the secret heart of the show. And, flaws aside, only Shatner could turn “No, I’m from Iowa” into a statement about the humane snark and raffish confidence of a man defined by his knowing, thoughtful disobedience even in conversation.

It’s Star Trek as Sunday afternoon hang-out movie, essentially, and the shaggy nature of the film is both unique in the Trek cinematic canon and liberating from the tendentious push forward implicit in most films. Even the “save the whales” message is delivered without chest-beating about it, all the message dynamics inextricably tied to the characters and comic interplay rather than exerted onto the film from above. For Star Trek, a television show about the democratic impulse and how it was embodied in the interplay of a group of different individuals whose beauty as a unit was inextricably defined by their differences, it is hard to imagine a superior cinematic accompaniment.

Score: 8/10

star-trek-the-undiscovered-countryStar Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

The almost-casual terror of an opening dialogue about the extermination of the Klingon race drops us into a decidedly high-minded Star Trek, although not one as willing as IV to denounce the big budget action-racket most of the Trek films have aspired to. An early line, “Only Nixon could go to China”,  just about closes the door on any non-allegorical reading as The Undiscovered Country reconfigures itself – quickly, I might add – as a Hunt for Red October in a different sort of unknown, an end-of-an-era commentary on the détente of the Cold War. An allegory that is a little hoarse and leaden, to say the least, but thank god for craft. Directed by Nicholas Meyer – returning to the fold as director for the first time since 1982’s franchise-defining The Wrath of Khan – The Undiscovered Country exhibits a visual sensibility for the material that has yet to be matched in the franchise, a sensibility that initially radiated with Wrath until being commuted when the show’s stars – Nimoy and then Shatner – overtook the helm of director during the ‘80s.

A thriller with action interludes, 1991’s The Undiscovered Country turns the peace-talks over Klingon-Federation harmony into fuel for a mystery as Captain Kirk’s (William Shatner) notorious hatred for the Klingons frames him for the murder of a Klingon ambassador after a failed peace negotiation. Kirk and DeForest Kelley’s countrified humanist doctor Bones McCoy are imprisoned by the Klingons, leaving the rest of the crew to scramble for the true culprit before further consequences. As conventional Star Trek, it’s questionable at best; the ramblings about peace are interrupted by what is, in practice, an at-times shockingly violent motion picture salvaged from an R-rating, I presume, only because the spray of Klingon blood is decidedly more nebulous and cotton-candy-like than the crimson red of humankind. That’s not Star Trek, but as cinema? This even-numbered Trek follows Wrath of Khan and Voyage Home in bringing the good name to the even-numbered pictures.

So while the film is feigning peace and making war, it’s at least raising a good enough ruckus with it. From the purple fugue and the ice-cold charisma of the mining planet Kirk and McCoy are sent to on through Christopher Plummer’s slimy turn as a delectable villain, there’s a nice roux of mixed elements on display here that don’t rattle the cages but do exhibit an oddly genuine, empathetic exploration of the passage of time – prescient, with this being intentionally mounted as the final voyage for the original crew – and the way that the elderly are threatened on all sides by the perilous march of progress. “How on Earth can history get past people like me?”, Kirk intones at one point, suggesting a certain melancholic dialectic between his better nature and his nagging past. So many Star Trek films explore the inspirational warmth of the human condition; it’s refreshing to find one with an ear for the craven, illogical hatred the same warmth can create.

It’s hardly revolutionary cinema, but it’s practically poetry after the once-in-a-lifetime debacle of continuous Shatner prick-waving that sabotaged Star Trek V. In comparison, this film’s willingness to question – and present Kirk questioning – his own unflappable virility is not only refreshing but consistently engaging.

Score: 7.5/10


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