Home > Star Trek > The paradox of STAR TREK in movies

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.)

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  1. December 9, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Well said sir, and I agree- I think the natural place for Trek is on the small screen as a continuing adventure, and while I dearly love many of the Trek films (Wrath of Khan being one of the greatest films of all time, in my humble) and am glad they exist, I do think the problem you’re alluding to does put something of a straightjacket on the films- although with the caveat that both TNG and Voyager were pretty legendarily bad at progressing their characters forward even when given seven years to do it in!

    • December 9, 2009 at 10:13 pm

      Well, some series are about change, others are about maintaining the status quo. The paradox I was referring to is that movies are supposed to be big, transformative events, not merely episodes that leave things the way they were. But there’s a pressure in a long-running film series to keep the things viewers want to see, and that works against change. By trying to have it both ways, the Trek movies gave us big changes that were soon undone or forgotten, so that there was more an illusion of change than the reality of it.

      Which is pretty much what comic books do as well, constantly transforming or killing superheroes or changing team rosters in big-event stories and eventually bringing things back to the way they were before.

  2. December 10, 2009 at 1:48 am

    I always considered the movies to be brief glimpses into a much, much bigger narrative. Movies tell a narrow story (bigger than individual television episodes, but still relatively small) compared to the stories told in the books. Nicholas Meyers noted that the budgetary restrictions on WOK made for better storytelling. The movies and the television shows in turn do the same thing for the Star Trek books. Movies and television introduce small ideas that are absolutely fascinating, but have no time to explore it. Along come the books, and a wonderful narrative comes out of minor, almost offhand bits in the films. Writers connect the dots between the adventures. In the case of novelizations of the films, those tend to be better than the films themselves. Consider JM Dillard’s ‘Generations’: in that, you get the whole backstory for Soran, his motivation and explanation for his character and the loss of his family. Kirk has his moments with McCoy and Spock aboard the Enterprise-A, and the Riker-Troi-Worf triangle is addressed within the context of the movie plot.

    DS9 has produced some spectacular written stories. David R. George took ‘City on the Edge of Forever’ and extrapolated it into a great trilogy. Your own Ex Machina and The Buried Age were a lot more interesting than the television episodes that introduced Yonada and the Stargazer, and spoke a lot more about how those events shaped the characters.

    Undoubtedly, the stories in the movies will continue to be relatively static, as they were the first ten Star Trek movies. Look at Transformers and its sequel: the first movie ends with the autobots defeating (but not destroying) evil, and the guy gets the girl. The second movie has Optimus dead and the guy losing the girl, but it ends with Optimus alive again, and the guy once again with the girl. It will likely be the same with any Star Trek sequels: a grand adventure that ends up in the exact same place it started. I think that is ok, because the depth of the characters and exploration of ideas comes from the books anyway.

  3. Byron Bailey
    December 10, 2009 at 7:08 am

    This is absolutely something that I have mentioned to my wife many times, and I think one of the main reasons that I have enjoyed reading ST books so much. While I can’t deny that I have enjoyed all the movies for one reason or another – probably the main reason being that I was happy to see ‘everyone’ again, I often felt empty because of the lack of either growth or progress. Life isn’t like that. On the ST BBS, I once posted something to this effect regarding the death of Janeway. While I wasn’t particularly happy to see her die, I was happy to see such a great event – that frankly shocked the shit out of me (I hadn’t read any spoilers, thank God) – and the resulting fallout from that death. Same thing for Data’s death. Since Nemesis, I have enjoyed seeing what happens next. People get promoted, posted, retire, move, have babies…and on and on. I still enjoy watching and reading all the past incarnations of Trek; I enjoy the comfort and familiarity of it all. I do find myself, however, more excited than ever before because I have no idea what to expect in the future. I think that is one of the reasons that I liked ST XI. It is new and inviting to today’s generation (it has certainly got my not so young kids interested) and I look forward to seeing where those journeys take me.

  4. December 11, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    That “illusion of change” doctrine has been a pain in certain elements of the North American comics artform and industry for as long as I can remember…

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