This week has left me mentally and emotionally exhausted with talking politics, so now I’m going to steer my blog towards one of my other passions: science fiction movie criticism.
I’m a huge Star Trek fan. It kind of pains me that Star Trek is no longer on television, and that Dr. Who seems to be the franchise that mainstream nerd culture focuses on, because it means I really don’t have a lot of people to talk to about Star Trek anymore. Last month, as a gesture of renewing my faith, much like a good Christian reads his bible, I celebrated the month of Spocktober by watching all 6 movies featuring the Original Series’ cast (not all in one sitting, though, only a REAL loser would do that). Over the course of doing so, I came to the conclusion that the Star Trek movies would be an ideal series if only, somehow, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier could be retroactively scrubbed from continuity.
I wondered why those two movies in particular kept sticking out to me as the ones that didn’t fit, because it didn’t necessarily have to do with them being bad movies. Well, don’t get me wrong, The Final Frontier is garbage. The storyline is hokey (even for science fiction), the special effects are sub-par, and William Shatner and Laurence Luckinbill seem engaged in a competition to see who can be more hammy and melodramatic, but The Motion Picture is a fine film. The pace really slows down at some points (several minutes of long panning shots of space ships have made fans give it nicknames like “The Slow-Motion Picture” and “The Motion Sickness”), and it does feel like an overblown episode of the Original Series (which it technically is, since the story is taken from an idea for the rejected Star Trek: Phase II sequel series), but it was acceptable as the first attempt to do Star Trek on the big screen, especially since it was attempting to compete with popular sci-fi movies of the time like Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So why lump the two together? I think it’s because, if you manage to ignore those two, and view The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country (all of these, perhaps not coincidentally, works born of the collaboration and influences of Leonard Nimoy, Harve Bennet, and Nicholas Meyer in some capacity or another) as a contiguous, uninterrupted unit, you get a series of films that explores and encapsulates American post-nuclear, post-Cold War anxiety: the anxiety that if mankind is to be destroyed, it will be by its own hand.
You’re undoubtedly saying “Wait, you’re including The Voyage Home in this? The one with the whales?” I do personally enjoy the film more than some, but I will make an honest attempt to relate it to my thesis. Not immediately, though, so bear with me.
Among these four films, you have two major plot elements: the Genesis device, and attempts to make peace between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. This chronology fits well with that of the real world, as the introduction of nuclear weapons gave way to the Cold War, and eventually to US/Russian peace, as tenuous as it may now be.
We are introduced to The Genesis Device in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It is originally presented by a group of scientists as a terraforming device: it can be launched onto a moon or dead planetoid, and instantly transform it into an inhabitable world. Of course, the story gives way to the reality of human nature that any advancement of technology and science will be exploited by some for destructive ends, as it is revealed that if the device were to be used on an inhabited world, all life would be erased in favor of the new life the machine would create. Much like Einstein hoped his theory of relativity would yield mankind’s betterment, but instead yielded the hydrogen bomb, Genesis is hijacked by Khan Noonien Singh with the hopes of using it as a weapon of terror.
The fact that Khan is a product of genetic engineering only underscore’s the movie’s fear of man’s own scientific capabilities. Nuclear destruction and the dangers of cloning were often treated independently in science fiction before this film, but here we saw them combined to prove how our innovations can end up being our own undoing.
Of course, Khan is defeated, Spock sacrifices himself, and all the nerds cry until the next film when he is brought back to life. But it is in The Search For Spock that we see the bridge made between the importance of the Genesis device and the attempt to end hostilities with the Klingons. Of course, the film focuses primarily on the drama of reviving Spock and the emotion of, as McCoy puts it, “using death to make a fighting chance to live,” so it is a seemingly minor piece of dialogue when the main villain, the Klingon commander Kruge (played by Christopher Lloyd), states that “while [the Klingons'] emissaries negotiate for peace, [they] will act for the preservation of [their race]” by attempting to obtain Genesis for themselves.
There are several implications there. First, that there had already been some attempts to turn the fragile armistice between the Klingons and the Federation, which had started with the Organian Peace Treaty in the episode “Errand of Mercy,” into a full-fledged alliance, and that, since Kruge was so desperate to obtain info about Genesis, there had been an arms race going on at the same time between the two parties. There had been some threads alternatively picked up and dropped during the original series about cloaking technology being part of a competition between the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans, but this movie was the first sign that it was as desperate and heated as the nuclear arms race of the 20th century.
We actually see the moment when Genesis literally blows up in all of their faces, as the living planet created by the device’s detonation at the end of the last film becomes unstable and deteriorates. David Marcus, one of the scientists who worked on the device (and also Kirk’s son), admits the instability is because he used “proto-matter,” an unpredictable (fictitious) substance, to complete the device, since otherwise it would have taken years to finish. Saavik, his Vulcan shipmate, responds with this question:
“ How many have paid the price for your impatience? How many have died? How much damage have you done, and what is yet to come?”
The camera zooms in on her face when she says it, and by having a non-human character say this line to a human one, the movie essentially asks this question directly to the audience. Our impatience to become more advanced and more powerful has led to our own downfall, and we do, indeed, ask ourselves, “what is yet to come?” It is then fitting that David himself is killed by the end of the film, stabbed by a Klingon soldier who took him hostage, his quest for something too great for him to handle becoming his undoing. Perhaps, if he had known, he would have become a watchmaker instead.
That carries us into the fourth film: The Voyage Home. I’m not yet ready to talk about how the whales fit in, so I will just talk about the plot elements surrounding that part. The movie is introduced by a Klingon ambassador addressing the Federation Council about Kirk being the supposed creator of the Genesis project and declaring that “there will be no peace as long as Kirk lives.” We then cut to the planet Vulcan, where Kirk states the crew must return to Earth in their hijacked Klingon Bird of Prey because “it has a cloaking device that cost [them] a lot.” So, in Kirk’s mind, whether or not Genesis was a failure, the whole ordeal will yield some chance to gain a technological foothold over the Klingons.
So then let’s skip over The Final Frontier, which features The Enterprise shooting God in the face with a photon torpedo, and proceed to The Undiscovered Country, which leads to the real trigger of Klingon/Federation peace: the explosion of the Klingon moon Praxis, their chief mining facility.
Now, I’m not breaking any new academic ground by saying Star Trek VI is a metaphor for the Cold War. Nimoy and Meyer both described it as “the Wall comes down in space,” and some critics of the film say it’s too ham-fisted and blatant an allegory, with lines such as “in space, all warriors are cold warriors.” What I’m saying is that the more obvious allegory of this film is actually just the more subtle allegory presented to us in II, III, and IV coming to a head. While our universe had Hiroshima, followed by the Cold War, and then Chernobyl, followed by the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the Star Trek universe had Genesis, the bitter struggle to attain its secrets, and then the explosion of Praxis and the Khitomer Accords.
Now, whereas II, III, and IV dealt with larger and more cosmic kinds of destructive power, VI, being at heart a political thriller mystery, caps off this story arc by showing that the ultimate destructive power is human scheming and treachery. The would-be founder of Klingon-Frederation peace was Gorkon, the Klingon High Chancellor, who was the movie’s stand-in for Gorbachev. Now, where it diverts from being a straight-up allegory here is that Gorkon is assassinated, which threatens to derail the peace talks entirely. Kirk is found guilty of the assassination and imprisoned, but eventually freed, leaving the heroic crew of the Enterprise to reveal the true culprits.
It is discovered that the murder was the product of a conspiracy that involved both Klingon and Federation personnel, particularly two higher-up military figures: Admiral Cartwright and Colonel West (a nod to Oliver North, one of the key figures in the Iran-Contra scandal). However, beyond a few scenes, we really don’t see the Federation side of the conspiracy investigated or paid attention to. The principal villain of the film is presented as General Chang, the Klingon played by Christopher Plummer. Perhaps this was done to make the story less on-the-nose, so the movie doesn’t seem like it’s grabbing the audience by the ears and screaming “HEY, HUMANITY, LOOK AT YOURSELVES!” It also made more dramatic sense because it played on Kirk’s prejudices, and makes Kirk realize that he has to overcome his racism if he is to become a better person, unlike Chang, who never let go and was killed in the end because of it.
The character of Chang himself, however, is a very clever device. He distracts us from thinking about humanity but simultaneously directs our focus right back towards it. Some of the reasons for this came about serendipitously. General Chang is, aesthetically, different from many of the Klingons we have seen in this film and in previous films. He is bald, save for a tiny ponytail in the back, whereas most Klingons have rather wild manes of hair, and his forehead ridges are severely diminished compared to the others. I’m sure some fans have tried to create a canon explanation relating to the Augment virus introduced in the prequel TV series Enterprise (which explained why the Klingons of the 60′s TV series had no ridges at all), but the real reason for this was simply because Plummer himself asked for it, saying he didn’t want to have to act through the heavy makeup prosthetics, so he could give the nuanced performance he wanted (and definitely delivered). What his choice yielded, though, was a very human-looking alien. It was indeed, very easy to look past the head-ridges and imagine Chang as one of us.
This aesthetic choice ended up being very consistent with Plummer’s performance of the character as well. By the time this movie came out, Star Trek: The Next Generation had been on the air for several years, and Michael Dorn’s performance as the Klingon Worf had given audiences a pretty fleshed-out and consistent characterization of what Klingons are like: gruff, blunt, and to the point. Chang, on the other hand, is quite eccentric and florid in the way he speaks. He uses every exchange with Kirk to indulge in quoting Shakespeare (which he suggests is best read in “the original Klingon,” reinforcing the metaphorical link between the Klingons and humans) and be blustery and bombastic in a way that severely distances him from all of our preconceived notions of Klingons and brings him so much closer to our notions about ourselves. Chang is human because he represents everything Kirk and the audience fears they could become, something just as frightening as Khan or Genesis.
So with all of that, it might seem less of a stretch to see how the whale story in Star Trek IV fits in with this. After the threat of the Klingon ambassador that “there will be no peace,” an alien probe approaches Earth, beginning to evaporate its oceans and de-power any starships that approach. Kirk’s crew, returning in the Bird of Prey they hijacked, figure out that the probe is speaking in the language of humpback whales, which, by the 23rd century, had long been hunted to extinction. That is what leads them to travel back to 20th century San Francisco and retrieve a pair to bring back to their present time. The message here is pretty blatant that, if they had not been able to get those whales, humanity would be destroyed and it would be its own fault, due to its lack of foresight and greed.
At the time of the movie’s release, it seemed more like this was Star Trek’s chance to do a more timely and topical story about environmental issues, but when viewed retroactively as part of our four-movie story-arc, it starts to have a little more meaning within Kirk’s own time. The movie starts with the Klingon ambassador’s admonition, and the starship where most of the action takes place is a Bird of Prey, so that, even though the Klingons are not the villain of this story, we are subtly reminded of them throughout. It then culminates with the Klingon vessel as the very instrument of human salvation, as it carries the whales in its cargo hold until they return to the 23rd century, where it crashes into the ocean and sinks, but not before Kirk is able to release the cargo hatch and let the whales swim out. The Bird of Prey, with its animal-inspired shape, ends up symbolically giving birth to the whales, like a compassionate act of sacrifice before it succumbs to its fate in the depths of the San Francisco Bay.
Again, if we were able to block out Star Trek V and see VI as immediately succeeding IV, this would make the whole story of The Voyage Home seem to foreshadow The Undiscovered Country, since in both, humanity might seem doomed to die from its own follies, but is rescued when it learns to embrace the Klingon otherness and use it to better itself.
So that is how those themes present themselves in II, III, IV, and VI, and act as the thread which joins them all. You could say TMP had a bit of anxiety about humanity potentially destroying itself, since V’ger threatens to destroy Earth before it’s revealed to be Voyager 6, Earth’s own creation, but the movie ends up establishing V’Ger as, like Spock calls it, “a child.” So its threats to destroy Earth end up coming off as more petulant and not as serious. TMP is more about a personal journey of discovery and evolution, and ends up being more about optimism than anxiety, clearly showing the legacy of the emotional feel of the original series. Then, Oof course, The Final Frontier… Look, God lives at the center of the galaxy and the Enterprise shoots him in the face with a torpedo. I think it’s best if we all ignored it.
Jesus. If you read all the way through this entire essay, let me know so we can sign the suicide pact.