Star Trek: A film-by-film primer
In a sci-fi scene overrun with pessimistic -- often apocalyptic -- visions of humanity's future, Star Trek has illuminated the dystopic darkness for almost 50 years.
Created by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek is about a space-faring future where humanity has united to explore the universe. Rather than warring over patches of land and squabbling about celebs in internet talkbacks, humanity has devoted ourselves to exploring strange worlds and seeking out new life and civilizations.
Because of that optimism, Star Trek has risen above its cheesier qualities (like alien races distinguished only by their forehead ridges, or Captain Kirk battling a Gorn lizard man) and become a pop-cultural touchstone for people who believe that humanity should aspire to more -- and can achieve amazing things through teamwork.
On Wednesday, director J.J. Abrams's highly anticipated Star Trek: Into Darkness beamed into theaters (in 3-D, the film opens nationwide this Friday), after an ad campaign that highlighted its edgy action and moody color palette. It also disguised its villain's true identity (what a CON!).
As a pre-show Star Trek primer, we've reviewed the new flick's cinematic forebears for you. Classic characters only. Sorry, Picard.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Tagline: "The human adventure is just beginning."
Summary: A HAL-like intelligence named V'Ger is threatening Earth, and Admiral James Tiberius Kirk, having left his command after the Enterprise's original five-year mission, resumes his captainship to save us all. The jumpsuited team's all here; Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, and Sulu all pop in.
Why It's Awesome: After a 10-year hiatus, this movie was a bad way to restart Star Trek. It's a total snorer whose late-'70s creation was motivated by Star Wars. Unfortunately, there's not much fun here. "The motion-less picture" is more interested in lingering on beauty shots of the Enterprise than in telling a good story. We get it, guys, you spent a lot of money on special effects!
Cheese Factor: A hot bald woman in a skintight jumpsuit. A climactic light show that wishes it were a scene from Stanley Kubrick's 2001.
Importance to Canon: Neither as fun as Star Wars nor as intellectual as 2001, it's mostly important because it required an immediate reboot of the Star Trek movie series.
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Tagline: "Beyond the darkness ... beyond the human evolution ... is Khan ... "
Summary: Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered cult leader wronged by Kirk and his cohorts 15 years ago, escapes from exile and exacts his revenge on the Enterprise. He also shows off his man boobs.
Why It's Awesome: Director-writer Nicholas Meyer returned Star Trek to its roots. In Khan, we get a Star Trek movie that has plenty of swashbuckling space action, like the original series, but that also examines important sociopolitical issues (like genetic supermen and their hurt feelings) on the down-low.
Cheese Factor: High, but manageable. Everybody loves Kirk shouting "KHAAANNN!!!" into the inky depths of space. Also awesome: Khan's hilariously huge, bare pectorals, and his affinity for hamming it up Shakespeare-style as Kirk writhes on the deck of the Enterprise. Between Khan and Kirk, this movie has so much cheddary ham.
Importance to Canon: While good, Khan established an unfortunate trend in Star Trek, similar to James Bond films, where there's always an over-the-top big bad who has a dastardly plan.
Oh, by the way, [SPOILER ALERT (not really)] Spock dies at the end.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Tagline: "The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many."
Summary: It turns out that, before Spock died, he transferred his soul (or "katra") into "Bones" McCoy. When Kirk and co. learn that Spock's body has re-generated on the terraformed planet of Genesis, they steal the Enterprise to return Spock's freaky katra to his revitalized Vulcan body. In the meantime, they fend off a band of Klingons led by Christopher Lloyd (as Commander Kruge).
Why It's Awesome: Directed by Leonard "Spock" Nimoy, Search is the centerpiece of a Star Trek intra-trilogy opened by Khan. You gotta admire a movie that, after it dubiously resurrects a major character, has the balls to destroy the Enterprise. You win some, you lose some. The shot of the Trek crew watching from Genesis as their iconic ship explodes above them is stunning.
Cheese Factor: Medium-stink cheese that includes Bones' possession by the spirit of Spock and Spock 2.0's hyper-dramatic re-birthing. Christopher Lloyd's climactic blue-screen plunge into the flames of Genesis is also great.
Importance to Canon: Spock is back. The Enterprise is kaput.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Tagline: "They travelled back where 23rd century man had never gone before. To a mad, crazy, outrageous time. 1986."
Summary: Hungover from enduring the wrath of Khan and searching for Spock, the crew of the Enterprise (now transplanted to a dump-tastic Klingon Bird of Prey that limps through space) vacations in 1980s San Francisco. Plus, they must kidnap a humpback whale to prevent the destruction of future Earth.
Why It's Awesome: After two serious Star Trek outings, Voyage Home is the series' much-loved retreat into comedy. The movie's dramatic thrust -- getting a humpback whale onto a Klingon ship, bringing it 23rd century-ward to save Earth -- is low-key compared to the villainous madmen of films II and III. The flick also contains a solid message about protecting the Earth and preserving wildlife.
Cheese Factor: Everybody loves time-travel and fish-out-of-water humor. We get Spock giving a mohawked punk a Vulcan nerve pinch. We get '80s-era suspicion about Chekov's Russian accent. We get Scotty giving orders to an (uncooperative) Apple Macintosh: "COMPUTAH? HELLO COMPUTAH?"
Importance to Canon: This concludes the trilogy introduced by Khan and returns Spock to full-fledged characterdom.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Tagline: "The Enterprise is back. This time, have they gone too far?"
Summary: Sybok, Spock's renegade half-brother, commandeers the Enterprise to reach the center of the galaxy, where he believes God resides.
Why It's Awesome: After the creative highs of parts II-IV, from the action of Khan to the comedic relief of Voyage Home, it's understandable that Star Trek dipped in quality with the fifth installation, especially with ole hambone William Shatner assuming the directorial reins. This is a Marianas-trench descent in quality, though, and it's pretty awful from scene one to exeunt, where the "god" that Kirk and gang encounter is a gigantic floating head whose eyes shoot laser beams.
You would send Kirk on a mission to find god, William Shatner. You would.
Cheese Factor: Final Frontier is a block, a brick, a wheel of cheese. With Spock's rocket boots, Uhura's sexy dance in the desert, and Scotty's pratfalls, Final Frontier is pure self-parody and embarrassing for all involved.
Importance to Canon: At this point, everybody involved began to think such thoughts as, "Maybe we should give this Star Trek movie thing a rest."
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Tagline: "On the verge of peace. On the brink of war."
Summary: After decades of conflict, the Federation is close to making peace with the Klingons. Its emissaries are, of course, Captain Kirk and his aging band of enterprising explorers. But when the Klingon ambassador is assassinated by masked spacemen, Kirk and McCoy are ruled responsible and sent to a Klingon gulag. Will they escape and determine the ambassador's true assassins? Will the Klingons and the Federation ever make peace? Will Kirk get his groove back?
Why It's Awesome: Set your phasers on "fun." This is the highest-quality entry the original-series crew has to offer. Action, mystery, political intrigue -- basically everything all our dads want from a movie. Nicholas Meyer (who first rescued silver-screen Trek with Wrath of Khan) sailed in with Undiscovered Country to save the day once again.
Cheese Factor: Like Meyer's Khan, Undiscovered Country has a major ham (Christopher Plummer in badass Klingon makeup) delivering his favorite bits of Shakespeare to punctuate action beats. Cheesy, but effective. Who knew lines from The Merchant of Venice would so perfectly complement spaceship explosions? Nicholas Meyer did. Applause.
Importance to Canon: Undiscovered Country was the classic cast's swan song.
Between 1991 and 2009, before the reboot, we watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise. Talk about diminishing returns. With each new series, and with four (let's be honest) sub-par Next Generation movies, Star Trek went further and further up its own Ferenghi erse. Star Trek (2009) cleared the atmos with a fresh cast and an action-packed story that, while good, didn't feel quite Trekky enough. We still dug it.
We are withholding judgment on Into Darkness until we see it... this weekend.
[Editor's note: Or not! Read our review of Star Trek: Into Darkness here.]
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