Busting an Old Wives’ Tale: Are odd-numbered Star Trek movies really that bad?

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Until the release of the all-new, re-branded, back-to-the-beginning Star Trek in 2009 (dir. J. J. Abrams) commentators all over the world, from hardened Trekkies to critics landed with the job of reviewing the next Trek movie, were unanimously agreed on one thing: even-numbered Trek movies were better than the odd-numbered ones. This could vary from a mild assertion that the even-numbered films tended to be more enjoyable to the insistence that there was nothing of any value whatsoever in the odd-numbered films, but the general point was agreed. Perhaps it’s true that the even-numbered movies have tended to be particularly good – but I want to suggest here that the reverse is not true, and the odd-numbered movies as a whole are not actually that bad.

It’s easy to see how this notion came about; the two worst Trek films by far are both odd-numbered movies. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (dir. Robert Wise, 1979) is commonly known as The Motionless Picture for a reason. Wise was presumably aiming for the heady heights of 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968), complete with pseudo-metaphysical plot involving the metamorphosis of man into Weird Space Thing and long, lingering shots of spaceships, star fields and the rather uninviting surface of Vulcan. Two problems arose with this. First, Wise was not Kubrick and failed to pull it off. Second, Star Trek is not 2001: A Space Odyssey. Trek fans are all for philosophy and deeper meaning, but it needs to come with a healthy side-helping of action and the plot needs to move quickly – after all, up until this point, every story except two-parter ‘The Menagerie’ had to fit into 45 minutes.

The worst Trek film of all, however, is easily Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. From cutesy campfire shenanigans to naked Uhura singing to Spock’s birth to Kirk killing ‘God’, there is only one good thing about this movie (it’s Kirk’s insistence that he’ll die alone, simultaneously touching as it affirms his faith in his friends, and sad, as it reminds him and the audience of his lack of family outside his ship, so if he does make it to old age, he’ll be alone on his deathbed). Spock’s birth nearly made it into Star Trek (2009) again, but thankfully was cut and is now only viewable as a deleted scene on the DVD. Kirk’s birth scene in the new film is a wonderful, moving scene because it introduces the plot and plunges us into the brand-new, George Kirk-less Trek universe (and there’s never a dry eye in the house). Preceding it with Spock’s much more normal (though, for some reason, open air) birth would have drained the drama and been entirely unnecessary, not to mention sending every Trek fan’s hackles up by reminding them of the dreaded The Final Frontier.

Conversely, the three best Trek films are, indeed, even-numbered films. Two of them were written and directed by Nicholas Meyer who, like J. J. Abrams, was not a devoted Trekkie. This point of view gives these directors the ability to stand back and look critically at the mythos, so they can bring out the best of it and gloss over the worst. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) stand head and shoulders above all but one of the other Trek movies. Khan, a reflection on life, love and death, is well known for Shatner’s incoherent rage, but his best performance as Kirk is filled with as many moments of quiet despair as the famous shouting (‘KHAAAAAN!’). It is also, of course, the film that killed Spock, whose death is one of the best on film, if not the best, a perfect blend of tenderness, sadness and nobility (just watch the way he straightens his jacket as he stands up for the last time).

The Undiscovered Country goes back to a major theme of the original series, the metaphorical re-telling of aspects of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War and the path towards a new peace between old enemies provides a perfect counterpoint to the final retirement of the original crew – though perhaps the most satisfying moment, after nearly twenty-five years, is still Kirk’s final command; ‘Second star to the right, and straight on ’till morning.’ Rounding out the trio of true greats is Star Trek: First Contact, the Next Generation crew’s first solo film (dir. Jonathan Frakes, 1996 – it’s no. 8). First Contact’s over-arching theme is the futility of mindless vengeance, and Captain Picard’s attempts to overcome his post-traumatic stress following a reappearance of the Borg, some of the series’ best bad guys who kidnapped and violated him back in series 3. It is probably the best action film in the Trek franchise, and, like Khan, features some impressive rage from its lead (‘The line must be drawn here! And now!’).

One more film must be mentioned that contributes to the even-numbered films’ excellent reputation. While Trekkies tend to name The Wrath of Khan or First Contact as their favourite Trek movie, non-Trekkies are much more likely to say they really enjoyed ‘the one with the whales.’ They mean Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (dir. Leonard Nimoy, 1986). All the best Trek films have moments of lightness (drunken Troi in First Contact, Spock observing he’s ‘been dead before’ and Kirk’s brush with a shape-changer in The Undiscovered Country, David’s wry ‘we appear to have plenty of time’ in The Wrath of Khan). The Voyage Home, however, is more comedy than anything else – a cute, warm comedy-action film taking place in a then-contemporary setting. It’s hilarious, sweet and has a solid environmental message behind it, making it a perfect Saturday afternoon movie.

So much for the extremes, and so far the received wisdom seems to be holding up. However, when we move into the realm of the somewhat more mediocre Trek films, neither brilliant nor terrible, things get a bit more complicated. We are left with four odd-numbered films (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek: Generations, which is no. 7, Star Trek: Insurrection, which is no. 9 and Star Trek, which is either no. 1 or no. 11 depending on how you look at it) and one even-numbered film (Star Trek: Nemesis, which is no. 10). Well, first of all Nemesis (dir. Stuart Baird, 2002) is often acknowledged as the film that broke the pattern, because it’s not good at all. Tom Hardy may be a fine actor but you’re never going to convince me he’s a clone of Patrick Stewart, finally getting Troi and Riker married only to have her mind-raped is a bit of a kick in the teeth to the audience and Data dies but don’t worry, they’ve got a physical lookalike as a spare (even though the whole point of killing him was that Brent Spiner is getting a bit too old to play him any more). And with that, a fantastic run of even-numbered movies is broken.

What I really want to do, though, is rehabilitate The Search for Spock (dir. Leonard Nimoy, 1984), Generations (dir. David Carson, 1994) and Insurrection (dir. Jonathan Frakes, 1998). None of them reach the heights of the best Trek films, but they’re far from the worst and they’re all certainly better than Nemesis. Insurrection is fairly insipid and usually accused of being a two hour-long episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but there’s nothing really wrong with that if you happen to like The Next Generation. Generations features some really cheesy stuff, but it also gives the original series a very funny final tip of the hat (through a recognisible bureaucratic nightmare where everything important is due to arrive on Tuesday) and I have never understood the problem many have with the death of Captain Kirk. The fatal injury occurs when he is alone, as predicted, though Picard is there when he actually dies, and his final lost-sounding ‘oh my!’ may not sound like Kirk, but it does sound like someone who is dying. And he died saving the day, of course (twice, if you count his disappearance at the film’s beginning).

As for The Search for Spock, I would make a case for this one being a really high quality Trek film, not far behind The Voyage Home. This is the film that kills Kirk’s son (providing a narrative balance for the almost miraculous resurrection of Spock) and blows up the Enterprise, a moment that really shocks. Spock’s return to life is joyous, plausible and clearly not repeatable while David’s scientific disappointment followed swiftly by chivalrous death is truly tragic. It also gives us Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon, a perfect bit of casting, and a considerably naughtier bit of ‘insurrection’ on the part of our heroes than the later film of that name. I see no reason it shouldn’t be counted among the best Trek movies – except, perhaps, to acknowledge that, as a direct sequel to The Wrath of Khan, it is the least accessible to a non-Trekkie audience.

That brings us to Star Trek. Trek fans are now faced with the dilemma Doctor Who fans have been wrangling with since Russell T Davis reinvigorated the show in 2005 – is this number 11 or number 1? Either way, there is no doubting that this is a good odd-numbered film. Action-oriented (in direct opposition to The Motionless Picture) while still character-driven and placing itself firmly in a different universe, this film represents a fresh start and confirms once and for all that odd-numbered Star Trek movies are not always terrible. I rather hope, though, that the sequel will reinforce the idea that even-numbered movies are the best, for the film was far from perfect. There was a bit too much being-chased-by-gooey-space-monsters for my taste – more metaphor and perhaps slightly less action please! Fingers crossed, Star Trek 2/12/fnarg will cement this old wives’ tale in the popular imagination.

– Juliette Harrisson





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