The paradox of STAR TREK in movies
Star Trek has had a problem when it comes to motion pictures. On the one hand, a movie is supposed to be a big story — not just the episode of the week, but a transformative event in the characters’ lives. Particularly if a movie is spun off from a TV franchise, it’s supposed to be a story too big to be contained on the small screen. Yet on the other hand, people watch a movie series like ST because they were fans of the status quo that existed on the small screen — or at least the studio executives believe that to be the case. So you have a tension between the pressure for change and the pressure for stability.
Consider the results. In ST:TMP, we gained two new characters, Decker and Ilia, who were both gone by the end of the film. In The Wrath of Khan, Kirk was an admiral, Chekov was first officer of another ship, Spock died, Kirk gained a son, and a new character, Saavik, was added to the ensemble. In The Search for Spock, the Enterprise was destroyed. But every one of these changes was unmade within at most two movies. By the end of The Voyage Home, the same old crew was back in the same posts aboard the same ship (or a close facsimile thereof), the new characters were killed off or unceremoniously written out, and nothing else changed until The Undiscovered Country, which was the final film in the series.
In fact, when Saavik was introduced, there was serious thought being given to phasing out the original cast and gradually replacing them with a new, younger crew that would carry future movies. Instead, it was systematically the new, younger characters who got written out while the old cast continued perpetually in their old roles.
Then look at The Next Generation in films. Nothing much really changes here from the series, aside from the Enterprise-D being replaced with the E and Geordi finally getting prosthetic eyeballs — essentially cosmetic alterations. But there is one major, radical change to one character in Generations: Data installs Dr. Soong’s emotion chip and must deal with a profound, irreversible change to his entire existence. Or so we were led to believe. In First Contact, he’d learned to shut down his emotions when they became inconvenient, an easy way out of the life-altering challenge GEN tried to set up for him. In Insurrection, there was a passing reference to Data not taking the emotion chip with him, contradicting Generations‘ statement that it was permanently fused to his neural net. And in Nemesis, it was as though the emotion chip had never existed at all. Data grew less in the last three movies than he had in seven years on television; in fact, he grew backward.
And again, it isn’t until the final film in the series that the characters go through any real change — Riker and Troi marry, Riker finally accepts a captaincy, and Data dies. And perhaps the reason that last fact left so many viewers cold is that it wasn’t really the culmination of anything; Data had spent the last three movies being systematically deconstructed as a character, reverted to his earliest form. There was nowhere left for him to go anyway, once he’d been deliberately stuck into a rut.
All in all, the only serious character change that came early in a Trek movie series and really stuck throughout all that followed was Spock’s emotional epiphany in ST:TMP. Everything else was reversed; even Chekov’s move to security chief was abandoned in later films that plugged him back into the navigator’s post, trapping him in nostagic career limbo along with everyone else. But Spock’s reconciliation of logic and emotion endured — even surviving his death and rebirth (though he sort of went through a quick relearning process in The Voyage Home). Arguably it’s even survived into the new movie universe; not only is Spock Prime still the same serene, emotionally balanced character he’s been since the end of TMP, but his younger alternate-timeline counterpart has achieved a similar synthesis of his human and Vulcan heritage by the end of the film.
I wonder what the future holds in store for the new movie series. Since the Abramsverse is a new reality, all bets are off; the characters and situations don’t have to be bound by what came before. The fate of Vulcan was a bald assertion of that fact. But how will that freedom fare against the audience’s — or the executives’ — desire for nostalgia? For what it’s worth, J. J. Abrams’ TV shows have featured lots of changes in the characters’ status and relationships over time. But with Star Trek movies, will there be more resistance to tampering with the familiar formula? Will any major character change the filmmakers attempt in one film be negated in the sequels, sacrificed to the status quo?
I hope not. It would be nice to see these iconic characters grow and progress in ways that their original selves ultimately weren’t able to. And it would be nice for a movie series to live up to the promise of telling truly important stories with lasting consequences.
(Inspired by a comment by captcalhoun in a TrekBBS thread.)