On twitter, Trekmovie.com asked a very good question: if you could remove one thing from Trek Canon, what would it be?
*Star Trek will be honored by the Television Academy and receive the Governors Award in recognition of its storied legacy in advancing science, society, and culture. The award will be presented during the Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony on 8 September 2018. (Memory Alpha)
*Here’s a cool picture from the new book Star Trek:Lost Scenes
Focus on Themes in the First Six Movies
For year now I’ve had this quasi-theory rolling around my head that one of the reasons why Star Trek lasted in the public consciousness is that the franchise, and especially the original crew movies, have always had this uncanny ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of the moment while still maintaining its own thematic identity. And one of the ways this is seen is through the coincidence that many of the original Trek movies correlates to one or more other hit films in a way that is fortuitous.
TMP, of course, looks and feels like 2001: A Space Odyssey. This isn’t completely unintentional. Before Star Wars, 2001 was THE sci-fi film that every other film wanted to be. And 2001 has enough Trek themes that it was a pretty easy fit. Both films explore what it means to both rely on technology and not trust it. Both films ask questions about what it means to be human and whether that identity is static. And both, in retrospect, can seem sterile and more concerned with ideas than characters.
TWOK is a much more personal film. It’s also a darker, grittier film about a group of friends just barely holding on in the face of insurmountable odds. And it ends with Spock being lowered into carbonite as Kirk whispers to him “I love you” and Spock replies, coldly and logically, “I know.”
Oh wait, I’m getting that confused with The Empire Strikes Back. Because, you see, in my mind the films are remarkably similar — thematically speaking. Both take pre-established characters and push them outside of their comfort zone to the point where the only way to win is to sacrifice. And along the way, they recontextualize who they are in terms of the relationships around them. Luke discovers his father, Kirk discovers his son. David Marcus is the most Luke Skywalkeresque character TOS ever had, a bright but somewhat whiny and hot-headed young man who is a little too quick to judge first impressions. TWOK is all about creeping darkness. ESB has a similar dark streak in its theme as Luke understands that neither good and evil nor the right path (rescue Leia or stay with Yoda?) are as clear as he thought.
1983’s Return of the Jedi and 1984’s Search for Spock both turn the corner and re-establish the light in similar ways. The beloved character is rescued, there is time for humor, and by the end the tragedies of the previous movie are all undone.
1986’s The Voyage Home was a light-hearted “fish out of water” time travel romp with just a touch of love interest, strangely similar to Back to the Future the year before.
1989’s The Final Frontier was about facing one’s own pain and coming to grips with one’s view of god. This might sound like a stretch, but I think it makes a nice companion to Indiana Jones and the Final Crusade, another buddy-trip movie (of a sort) that climaxes in a spiritual moment.
And Star Trek VI is clearly “The Hunt for Red October” in space. It’s cold war era Tom Clancy through and through, except it does Clancy one better by actually having arcs for the characters that teach them to be better people.
I’m not proposing these as hard and fast, but as one way to look at the themes of the first six movies. Put simpler, this is what I would say the themes of Star Trek I-VI are:
TMP: Man can become more than he is right now
TWOK: Life is change and loss, but change and loss can add to who we ultimately are.
TSFS: Friendship means the group looking out for the one
TVH: Don’t kill whales! But also, sometimes you have to go away to find who you are.
TFF: Our greatest guide is ourselves, and we lose something when we expect someone else to save us
TUC: If we want the world to change, we have to examine ourselves first
Do I have it right? Did I get the themes wrong? Did I miss some big ones?
And do these themes do a good job connecting with each other? Are the various themes a boon to the franchise, or does whiplashing from big picture enlightenment to small and emotional relationships cause a disharmony?
ItBegins2005 has some thoughts particularly on the themes of Star Trek III and how it compares to the other films:
“So I think I know why Star Trek III: The Search for Spock doesn’t quite work as a good Star Trek film, despite having a lot of elements in its favor.
For one thing, a good deal of the film focuses on Vulcan mysticism and metaphysics– with the tortured plot device of Spock’s katra and the suggestion that EVERY Vulcan passes his-or-her “soul” on to someone else right before death. For another, the central theme of the Genesis Planet storyline (in THIS movie, unlike the previous one) is the basic Frankenstein’s Monster narrative: science overstepping its bounds and creating something dangerous and unstable in its hubris (the “Dr. Frankenstein” in this case– David Marcus, Kirk’s son– even gets killed for his arrogance).
Both of these themes are DIRECTLY OPPOSED to the basic guiding principles of Star Trek: the advancement and betterment of humankind through rationality and science.
The film is basically pushing against everything Star Trek is supposed to be about, whipping up a quasi-fantasy, backwards-looking adventure in order to contrive a storyline that pulls Spock back out of the grave.
That kind of a theme doesn’t harmonize well with the basic premise of the series; it can be done, sure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t, on some fundamental level, discordant.
That’s why it’s hard to pin down why this movie isn’t a GREAT Trek film, despite seemingly having all the ingredients to be one. There are tons of fantastic moments in this movie– blowing up the Enterprise, the death of Kirk’s son, everything with Christopher Lloyd– but it doesn’t add up to something as good as II or IV because of that disconnect between the broader themes and the premise of the franchise. As a result, the movie feels like less than the sum of its parts.”
What do you guys think? Star Trek is known for actually trying to have something to say, so thematic cohesion even if not crucial is to be appreciated. Does Trek really achieve any consistent themes, and to what extent should every individual entry be expected to abide by the larger philosophy of the universe?
And now, a random image from Memory Alpha