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The endless Star Trek franchise ages in reverse

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

Star Trek is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a movie in theaters and a new TV show in production. All of this, alongside its seemingly permanent place in the pop-culture landscape, makes it easy to forget that in its original form, Star Trek was cut short. Contemporary replays of the original series practically advertise it after the fact, describing the “five-year mission” of the Starship Enterprise that wound up chronicled over only three seasons’ worth of adventures. Later iterations and spin-offs bolstered Star Trek’s presence on television starting in the late ’80s, but the real, official franchise revival came in 1979, when the original cast got back together for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, kicking off a film series that would endure for decades, logging nearly as many entries as the James Bond series over the same period.

For many Trek fans, the movies amount to bonus material—extra hours with characters they love, with a bigger scope than the TV versions could afford. Plenty of Trekkers feel, perhaps rightly, that Star Trek ultimately belongs on television, where it can explore a variety of stories, tones, and issues while developing its characters in more detail. But I am not most Trek fans; by most measures, I’m not a true Trek fan at all. I’ve seen at least a handful of episodes of most of the TV shows (sorry, Enterprise!), and enjoyed them (Voyager always seemed underappreciated), but I’ve never immersed myself in any of them. I mostly know Star Trek through the movies. And despite the references, deeper continuity, and in-jokes that I don’t always get on first viewing, the Star Trek films do stand reasonably well on their own, both as general entertainment and as humane science fiction.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Of course, they all do play with the history between the various Trek character—particularly The Motion Picture, which had to re-introduce them all after a decade gone. Compared to later movies, those characters look relatively young in the 1979 film, but they’re all significantly aged up from the original series, which started when most of the actors were already in their 30s. Inevitably, then, much of the original Trek movie-series trajectory has to do with the continued aging of its characters, following Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest through the ennui of middle age and toward a retirement that is frequently implied but only really shown briefly, in the opening of the bridge film Star Trek: Generations. As the Trek series continued past this point, it began to age in reverse, from the older first six movies to the spry middle age of the Next Generation films to, finally, the youth and energy of the J.J. Abrams-produced revival, which has been classified as a reboot but, in clever Star Trek fashion, also remains in a sort of continuity with its predecessors.

That Star Trek needed a soft reboot at all should not come as a surprise. Despite their consciousness regarding aging wisely and gracefully, the movies have repeatedly brought themselves to the brink of destruction, much like the Enterprise (though they’ve actually blown up far fewer times than that venerable ship). Plenty would probably point to The Motion Picture as an instant example; though it was a hit in its time, it caused a major course-correction for its three-years-later sequel and remains ill-regarded to this day.

But The Motion Picture has plenty to recommend it, beyond even its glorious adherence to the rule that movies picking up with male characters after a long absence must show at least one of them having grown an impressive hobo-style beard (here belonging to ship doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy). It is undoubtedly a slow movie—after a decade of longing to see their favorite characters back in action, Trek fans were treated to a film that takes 45 minutes just for the Starship Enterprise to get out of park. The long, loving shots of this process establish a series-long appreciation for the majestic big-screen sight of the Enterprise. But none of the movies, not even the iconography-obsessed Abrams revivals, can match The Motion Picture’s obsession with the Enterprise’s docking and launching; later entries, perhaps seeking to rebel against their eldest installment, became just as interested in destroying various iterations of the ship.

Production of The Motion Picture was supposedly kickstarted by the success of Star Wars, but if anything, the film heads back in the opposite direction, toward the slow-paced trippiness of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The crew—Captain (now Admiral) Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Bones (DeForest Kelley), Scotty (James Doohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei), and Chekov (Walter Koenig)—reunites to investigate a mysterious and threatening energy cloud, eventually grappling with notions of consciousness, God, and artificial life. In telling a sci-fi-heavy, action-light story that doesn’t fully turn on the characters’ advancing age, The Motion Picture also feels like something of a last hurrah of the original Trek form. Later Star Trek adventures would be more apt to re-cover old ground while musing on the characters’ mortality. The Motion Picture accelerated that process by presenting a thoughtful, painterly, expensive Robert Wise-directed film whose reception demanded a less costly solution to future films.

Luckily for fans, that solution was Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, one of the best-regarded sci-fi sequels of all time, and pretty much the undisputed champion of Star Trek movies. Making a sequel of an episode of the TV series in a way that makes it perfectly accessible for neophytes like myself, Khan is somewhat less stylish than The Motion Picture, but it’s a lot more exciting, with a great villain in Ricardo Montalban’s Khan and a strong emotional core based on the friendship between William Shatner’s Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s stoic half-Vulcan, half-human Spock.

Though writer-director Nicholas Meyer stepped out after Khan and Leonard Nimoy tried his hand at directing, the second film put the series on a streak. The second, third, and fourth movies are often packaged together as a trilogy, and it makes sense; they can run together more or less continuously. They also repeat certain themes and phrases—Spock “shall always be” Kirk’s friend; self-sacrifice; the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few—enough to feel a little repetitive, probably exacerbated by the way future Star Trek installments tended to rehash or rephrase these ideas.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (top) and Star Trek Into Darkness (bottom)

In some ways, then, the triumph of Khan may have done the series more harm than good. Multiple later entries would sabotage themselves attempting to chase the emotional high of Spock sacrificing himself for his friends. Star Trek: Nemesis hastily throws Next Generation’s android Data into the sacrificial role, while Star Trek Into Darkness can’t resist the urge to remake and remix the Kirk/Spock/Khan dynamic, undermining its potential to use an alternate-timeline Khan to tell a different story. But before Khan solidified itself as the be-all, end-all of the Trek movie universe, Meyer, Nimoy, and the rest of the filmmakers fashioned a decent trilogy that manages to play up the slow march of time even as it hurtles forward at a decent pace.

Sometimes the ideas aren’t as well-realized as they could be. In Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, the revival of the titular half-Vulcan via the Genesis Planet has a great sci-fi hook: Both the planet and Spock’s body are renewed, then rush through their life cycles at an accelerated speed. This takes Spock from childhood to 1984 Leonard Nimoy age over the course of the film, as the planet deteriorates around him, but it plays more as a secondary subplot than the thematically rich centerpiece it might have been. Still, these moments resonate, as do the lighter scenes in fourth installment The Voyage Home, wherein everyone travels back in time to then-contemporary 1986 San Francisco. Despite a story heavy on both antics and shenanigans, Nimoy treats his fellow cast members with dignity behind the camera. (This is especially impressive given the Starfleet costumes of the first six films, distressingly many of which bear some kind of resemblance to sweater vests and/or terrycloth robes.)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, directed by Shatner himself, throws the balance between capabilities and encumbrances way out of whack. As such, the movie is most interesting for the sight of Shatner raging at the dying of the light, careening between the avuncular and the aggressive. If there’s any continuity to these oscillations, it’s that Shatner casts himself as a beacon of masculinity, capable of leaving his more slapstick-prone shipmates behind. Hence Kirk fighting his way through a major shoot-out in the same movie where Scotty hits his head on a doorway and knocks himself out. Watching Kirk, Spock, and Bones on a vacation together should be a fan’s delight, but there’s a poky softness to scenes like the one where the central trio attempts to sing “Row Row Row Your Boat” around the campfire.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

It’s a shame, because Final Frontier is the film that most closely resembles the underrated Motion Picture, albeit in a feebler, cash-poor incarnation. In telling a story about the Enterprise hijacked by Spock’s half-brother Sybok on a quest to find God, it places Shatner in a fight against the aging of the franchise as well as himself. To his credit, he sometimes does so nobly, even as he indulges his own worst instincts as an actor. Say this for one of the worst Star Trek movies: It has an evocative cold opening introducing Sybok on the desert planet Nimbus III, and some cool sights at a poor man’s Mos Eisley cantina. Technically speaking, Shatner isn’t a bad director (though some of his compositions are weirdly underlit, especially early on—something Final Frontier shares with the recent Star Trek Beyond). But the movie’s slashed budget is visible with the weakest special effects of any Trek movie; it’s rare that a major franchise entry looks like it’s literally falling apart on screen as it goes along.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

By the time the series picked back up with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in 1991, there was no further delaying or sidestepping the inevitable: Everyone in the original cast was much older, verging on elderly, and the movie sets most of the original crew a few months away from retirement from duty on the Enterprise (though Sulu now captains his own ship). The characters have lived long enough to see the dawn of a new era where peace with the Klingons may be achievable. But when the Enterprise is framed for the assassination of a Klingon leader that may derail the peace talks, Kirk and Bones are thrown into mining prison while Spock leads sort of a locked-room mystery on the ship, trying to figure out the true culprit. Bringing Meyer back into the fold, The Undiscovered Country restores the series’ graceful balance between acknowledging the characters’ past-prime lot in life and sending them on cool adventures anyway. It’s a lovely send-off for the original cast members that’s nonetheless not all that consumed with the task; this is a Star Trek story first and a swan song second.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

The next phase of the series would jump farther into the future while also jumping back to the onset of middle age. The cast of The Next Generation didn’t have to wait a decade before reviving their characters on film; Star Trek: Generations, a semi-transitional but mostly Next Gen film, premiered the fall after the series aired its final episode in syndication. But Next Generation also aired for seven seasons to the original’s three, so it probably wouldn’t be accurate to describe the four-movie series that followed as featuring these characters in peak physical or creative condition.

Generations acknowledges as much by having Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) grapple with his mortality, which is where his life intersects with Captain Kirk. Like the first Enterprise crew, Picard is aware that there are “fewer days ahead than there are behind,” and he catches a glimpse at a pacifying alternate life when he enters the Nexus, a sort of heaven/purgatory where Captain Kirk has been hanging out for nearly a century, riding horses, chopping wood, and presumably practicing his part of “Row Row Row Your Boat.” The two team up to stop a bad guy whose own desire to return to the Nexus may destroy anything in his path.

This is where Generations derives its modest emotional kick, eventually squandered by an overabundance of plot mechanics and Trek jargon, as well as the curious underpopulation that would later characterize the final Next Generation film, Star Trek: Nemesis. At least half of the Star Trek movies have been dismissed as playing like bigger-budget, overlong TV episodes; Generations is the one where that criticism actually applies, with subplots that feel like B-stories and an underwhelming climax that involves Picard, Kirk, and Soran (Malcolm McDowell) running around the side of a mountain.

The crew of Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Both of the superior Next Generation entries, First Contact and Insurrection, continue to deal with the passage of time under the helm of Jonathan Frakes (who plays Riker) carrying on the rich tradition of Star Trek actors taking charge of the films. First Contact sends the Enterprise back in time to 2063 to stop the collective Borg from derailing Earth’s first contact with the Vulcans. It’s far sleeker and more propulsive than Generations, and probably the best balanced of the quartet, in that most of the cast members get something cool to do and no one has to watch Riker take a bubble bath or have sex. Insurrection is, in turn, lighter and less muscular than First Contact, and has been accordingly dismissed as such. But in a lot of ways, it’s classic Star Trek—at least as the older movies have defined it, returning to the question of the needs of the few versus the needs of the many, and focusing again on the aging (and de-aging) process, this time more explicitly. Picard and company encounter a planet that functions as a gigantic fountain of youth, and defend it from shady Federation-backed interference while reverting to their younger selves. This means witnessing Worf’s rough Klingon puberty, as well as the aforementioned Riker-Troi bubble-bath. But on the whole, Insurrection is a zippy stand-alone adventure.

Star Trek: First Contact (top) and Star Trek: Insurrection (bottom)

It’s also charmingly dorky with a touch of creaky space-Western action, and the attempts by Nemesis to fashion a more traditional action-adventure movie show why those attributes are so valuable. Today, the way Nemesis downplays its own cast (supposedly a lot of character moments were cut out) and rushes to a big series-altering death recalls not the intended Wrath Of Khan but botched comics adaptations like X-Men: The Last Stand and Batman V. Superman. There’s still enough Star Trek charm to keep Nemesis from total disaster, and it’s fascinating to see a very young Tom Hardy attempting to play a young clone of Picard, but the movie insists far too vehemently on making the android Data into its version of Spock. In their movies, Spock and Kirk feel like equals; Picard’s fatherly relationship to Data sometimes makes him come off more like a sitcom kid or some kind of robot reverse-Poochie. Giving screen time to Data and blowing up the Enterprise are two of the lamest moves in the Next Generation movie repertoire.

After Next Generation whimpered away, Star Trek eventually returned in its youngest incarnation yet. In contrast with their older siblings, there are plenty of reasons to think of the newest movies, utilizing an alternate early history officially called the “Kelvin Timeline,” as faux-optimism produced with sheer cynicism. Initial director J.J. Abrams admitted early on that he was more of a Star Wars fan growing up, and pumped up his bigger-budget Star Trek efforts with special effects, set pieces, and, yes, lens flares. The series-within-the-series also indulges in trendy prequel-making, casting younger, sexier stand-ins for Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), and the rest, and sometimes seems more interested in exploring Kirk’s standard daddy issues in place of ideas and allegories.

But the original-cast Trek movies aren’t always enormously thought-provoking; they focus more on the characters and their relationships, and the headier sci-fi installments, the first and fifth, are not particularly well-liked. In a sense, the Kelvin Trek movies continue the mission of the original films, if not necessarily the original TV series. They are also a pleasure to look at, with bright colors, an endlessly moving camera that seems engineered to capture pulpy hero shots, and those Abrams lens flares. The latter are a classic case of a cinematic technique catching flak simply because a bunch of people found out what it’s called; it’s a perfect visual representation of the series’ shining optimism. Star Trek Beyond, the generally delightful newest entry in the series, could have used a few more to brighten up some of its underlit moments.

The Abrams-produced films in particular offer something no previous Trek movie could: The sight of an Enterprise crew in their youth. By virtue of its seven-person primary cast, Star Trek movies will probably always be accused of giving some character or another “nothing to do,” but even if its actors sometimes get the short shrift, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) both have much more prominent roles in the new films than they do in most of the older ones. The new movies have also introduced memorable supporting aliens who work beyond sight gags, including Scotty’s diminutive sidekick Keenser (Deep Roy) and Beyond’s alien ally Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who so enjoys the “beats and shouting” of late 20th-century music.

Keenser (top left) and Jaylah (bottom)

All in all, the first Abrams Star Trek in particular is one of the best recent pop-culture origin stories, and one of the most purely entertaining Trek movies, showing off Abrams’ rightfully vaunted facility with casting. This includes the masterful extended opening sequence, showing the death of Captain Kirk’s father (Chris Hemsworth) with Abrams’ signature mixture of propulsion, humor, and emotion. As a filmmaker, Abrams tends to try skipping to the good parts whenever possible, a sensation-driven approach that works beautifully in his first Trek movie, particularly the headlong plunge of its opening set-up. (For better or for worse, an earlier Star Trek movie probably would have spent a solid 25 minutes painstakingly walking through the time travel element that sets Star Trek ’09 into motion, and it would probably involve two or three more ships for some reason.)

The bad side of Abrams’ ADD tendencies emerges toward the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie that rockets along enjoyably until Abrams and his screenwriters decide they simply cannot let pass the opportunity to remake Wrath Of Khan at double-speed. It’s especially frustrating because until that point, the movie works pretty well, with a great opening, exciting action sequences, some terrorism-related parallels to our world, pleasing levels of Keenser, and a seemingly new take on Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch). Rather than moving forward, though, Abrams chooses to circle back to signature moments from Wrath—something that kind of makes sense looking at Into Darkness as the continuation of a time-travel story, but can’t satisfy audiences who need at least a little bit of the future in Star Trek, rather than endless revisiting of the past.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

That’s a crucial distinction in the best Star Trek movies: Many of them deal with the characters’ ever-advancing ages, but they tend to look at this process in terms of the future, rather than the past. Trek movies are set hundreds of years past our own purview, yet their characters, too, are looking toward the future, whatever it may hold. That’s true of the recent Star Trek Beyond, which finds Pine’s Kirk feeling restless midway through the Enterprise’s five-year mission (in modern prequel fashion, the series spends two full entries preparing the crew’s start to this five-year mission, and then skips to the middle of it). Kirk is about to pass the age his father was when he died, and, along with Spock, he’s reconsidering his future with Starfleet. The adventure that follows might seem minor by modern blockbuster standards, but like Insurrection, there are pleasures in its stand-alone storytelling. (And if it is now a given that the Enterprise will be destroyed at least once per sub-series, Beyond offers one of the better sequences on that front, as the ship is torn asunder by an enormous fleet of small, bee-like ships.)

After the homage-obsessed Darkness, the series feels fresh and forward-looking again, and the new characters still a ways off from middle-aged stodginess. (Sadly, any future adventures won’t include the wonderful Anton Yelchin, who died after completing work on Beyond). At 50, Star Trek itself is well into its middle age, and about to embark on a new TV-series mission. But the film series shouldn’t be scared off by its own advancing years; for the most part, it provides plenty of tips on how to age gracefully.

Final ranking:

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982)
2. Star Trek (2009)
3. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
4. Star Trek Beyond (2016)
5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
6. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
7. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
8. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
9. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
10. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)
11. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
12. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
13. Star Trek: Generations (1994)