I've been watching episodes of Star Trek, both The Original Series and The Next Generation, and I'm struck by how many of the stories are about exploration and the wonder of the unknown. It's right there in the opening sequence: The Enterprise's mission is "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." The military aspects of the mission (and the show) are downplayed. The voiceover doesn't include "To protect the Federation" or "To defend liberty throughout the galaxy." That's a subtle but important point, and I'm sure Gene Roddenberry made it deliberately.
But what about the films? They have to be larger, more important, more exciting stories. And no one would say that Wrath of Khan or First Contact aren't Trek at its best. But how many of the movies deal with encountering the unknown in some form? And does that make them better movies?
Here's a survey of every Trek film, including the major new stellar phenomena or alien species that the crew encounters. Let's see if there's a correlation between discovery and an entertaining story.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
New Phenomenon: V'Ger, a 20th-century NASA probe that was found and upgraded by a race of mechanical creatures. V'Ger absorbed and/or destroyed everything in its path, eventually gaining sentience. Commander Decker of the Enterprise helped it evolve into an advanced plane of existence.
Movie Quality: V'Ger is a pretty cerebral idea for a villain. Certainly it kept the crew and the audience guessing as to its actual origin, and fits in with Trek's mission of discovery. But the film itself is too long, with effects shots that go on forever and, frankly, not enough action in the form of chases or combat.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
New Phenomenon: The Genesis Device, which can both destroy and create entire worlds.
Movie Quality: This is perhaps the best Trek film, period. The stakes raised by Genesis help, but it's really the crew dealing with mortality and the off-the-charts villainy of Khan that make it so great.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
New Phenomenon: Spock's katra, his spirit, which he manages to infuse into Dr. McCoy via a mind meld before dying in Khan. The idea was introduced in one TOS episode but never mentioned again.
Movie Quality: The katra concept is a little mystical for the hard science of Trek, but it helps propel the mission to find Spock's body. The idea of Spock's personality inside the body of his nemesis is a great opportunity for comedy and commentary, but it's largely missed here.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
New Phenomenon: The Probe, which can only communicate with humpback whales, and whose transmissions disrupt Earth's atmosphere and weather.
Movie Quality: The scenes of panic at Starfleet HQ show the destructive power of the the Probe, but—in true Trek fashion—it turns out not to be hostile. The concept drives one of the best Trek movies.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
New Phenomenon: There are two here: Sybok's ability to recreate people's most traumatic memories, and the Great Barrier at the heart of the galaxy, which is actually a prison for a powerful alien entity.
Movie Quality: How others are able to see one person's painful memories is never explained. Even in 1989, we knew there was no barrier at the galaxy's center. The idea that, if someone wipes away your mental pain, you become their devoted follower, is not very convincing. Two more reasons for the film's failure.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
New Phenomenon: A Klingon ship that can fire while cloaked.
Movie Quality: While the ship provides the film's central mystery, it's not very exciting. It raises the question of why future Klingon cruisers can't fire while cloaked.
Star Trek: Generations
New Phenomenon: The Nexus, which allows you to live out your wildest fantasies... and travel through time?! It's so powerful that no ship can survive it; you can only safely enter it when it passes through a planet.
Movie Quality: Soren's plan to alter the Nexus's trajectory by destroying a sun is cool; the astrometrics lab scene where his plan is discovered is good, hard-science Trek. But the deus ex machina of being able to use the Nexus to travel back in time is inexcusable.
Star Trek: First Contact
New Phenomenon: The Borg have time travel.
Movie Quality: Trek has been doing time travel since The Original Series, so the Borg's use barely qualifies. First Contact is a great movie, but it's an action film with little about exploration or discovery.
Star Trek: Insurrection
New Phenomenon: Two here—the "Briar Patch" which isolates the Ba'ku planet from the rest of the Federation; and the planet itself, which has healing, Fountain-of-Youth qualities.
Movie Quality: These two concepts are interesting and unique, but don't elevate the film above the quality of an average TNG episode.
Star Trek: Nemesis
New Phenomenon: Remans! They're like space slave goblins!
Movie Quality: It's cool to introduce a new race and explore more about Romulan society, but the Remans aren't very interesting or scary and the whole movie is rather terrible.
New Phenomenon: Red Matter, which can ignite a singularity. Nero uses it to destroy the planet Vulcan. The Enterprise then uses it to create a black hole that destroys Nero's ship.
Movie Quality: Red Matter drives the plot, and makes the destruction of Vulcan and time travel plausible, but it's never explained, which seems very unlike Trek.
Star Trek Into Darkness
New Phenomenon: None, really, except the new bad-ass ship Vengeance.
Movie Quality: Cool ship aside, nothing can forgive this tortured, unnecessary reboot of Wrath of Khan.
Star Trek Beyond
New Phenomenon: Perhaps the massive Starbase Yorktown qualifies, along with Krall's ability to absorb the life-force of other creatures.
Movie Quality: Yorktown is beautiful, but it has little to do with exploration or the wonder of the unknown.
So, are the Trek movies that emphasize exploration and discovery better films?
Films that emphasize discovery
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
- Star Trek: Generations
- Star Trek: Insurrection
- Star Trek (2009)
The answer is no. For whatever reason, these five films are not the strongest in the canon; only the 2009 reboot is particularly beloved today. Apparently, more intelligent, science-based stories don't translate well to the needs of a two-hour movie meant for general appeal.
But that's OK. As of now, there are 726 episodes across all Star Trek series, with more to come in 2017. They allow for plenty of stories about exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations.
Agree? Disagree? Beam your answers directly to the comments.