How Do You Define 'Worst'? Part Two by Alan Decker

How Do You Define “Worst”?  (Part Two)

Last week, I wondered how the gathered fans at a recent Star Trek convention in Las Vegas could decide that “Star Trek Into Darkness” was the worst Star Trek film ever.  In case you missed it, Part One of the discussion, where I examined whether or not “Into Darkness” qualifies as a good movie, is HERE.

The statement made by the fans voting at the Las Vegas convention isn’t that “Star Trek Into Darkness” is just a bad movie.  They declared it to be the worst Star Trek movie.  Perhaps there is something inherent to a good Star Trek movie different than what makes a good movie in general.

Once again, here’s the list of films as ranked by the fans at the convention along with their critical approval ratings on Rotten Tomatoes:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan                90%
Star Trek: First Contact                             92%
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country   83%
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home                85%
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock          78%
Star Trek (2009)                                         95%
Galaxy Quest                                             89%
Star Trek Generations                               47%
Star Trek: The Motion Picture                    44%
Star Trek Nemesis                                     37%
Star Trek Insurrection                                55%
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier                   21%
Star Trek Into Darkness                             87%

Now as I pointed out last week, the fans and the critics are in general agreement except for “Into Darkness,” but maybe it’s just a coincidence the good Star Trek movies at the top of the list were all well-liked by film critics as well.   So let’s look at the top four movies on the list to see if we can distill them down to their basic elements and determine what the essential components are of a good Star Trek movie.  What defines their Star Trek-ness?

We’ll start with some horribly-oversimplified plot summaries:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – A foe from Admiral James T. Kirk’s past returns hell-bent on revenge.

Star Trek: First Contact – Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the Enterprise crew must go back in time to stop the Borg from preventing the first warp flight by humanity and Earth’s First Contact with the Vulcans.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered County – With the Federation and the Klingons on the brink of peace after decades of hostilities, Captain Kirk is framed for the murder of the Klingon Chancellor.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – When Earth is threatened by transmissions from a mysterious probe, Kirk and crew must go back in time to obtain the only creatures that can answer the probe’s call: humpback whales.

All right then.  Surely now it will be easy to pull out those commonalities that separate good Star Trek from bad Star Trek  What have we got?

One thing the Star Trek TV series are known for (especially The Original Series (TOS for Trekkies) is using science fiction as commentary on a social issue.  Perhaps the most famous (and ham-fisted) example of this from TOS is “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” which dealt with racism through an alien species that had two races on their world.  One was white on the left side and black on the right, the other had that reverse.  In the end, the planet’s population destroys itself in a global apocalypse fueled by racial hatred, leaving behind only two survivors, one from each race, that go on trying to kill each other.  Subtle, it was not, but the commentary was definitely there.

Going back to our top four movies, only two of them really have this (or any) kind of commentary.  “Star Trek VI” is an allegory for the end of the Cold War, while “Star Trek IV” has more of an environmental message, specifically Save the Whales.  But while social commentaries are in these two movies, our top two, “Star Trek II” and “First Contact,” do not include them to any substantial degree.

What both of our top two do include, however, is a revenge plot.  Khan wants revenge on Kirk, and Picard is out for a kind of revenge against the Borg.  And both movies use a number of “Moby Dick” references to drive home this point.  I don’t think anyone would seriously make the argument that Star Trek is all about revenge and the works of Herman Melville.  

But what about time travel?  “First Contact” and “Star Trek IV” both include it.  Of course, “Star Trek II” and “Star Trek VI” do not.  Ship battles?  Only three of the four films have them.  High drama?  Not really.  “Star Trek IV” is more of a light comedy.
I could go on, but I think the point is becoming evident.  There really isn’t a single plot element that defines good Star Trek versus bad Star Trek.  Looking at the reviews of the films along with comments from the fans, what stands out about the top films are the character moments and the storylines.  The fans really didn’t like “Star Trek Nemesis” because the story was weak, and the characters didn’t feel right.  “Star Trek V,” while containing some wonderful character moments (Kirk’s “I need my pain” speech is still one of my favorites.), generally misuses many of the characters to the point of character assassination and has several story elements (Spock’s heretofore unmentioned half-brother and the search for God) that just don’t work.

Meanwhile, “Star Trek II” does a wonderful job of showing Jim Kirk dealing with growing older and mortality.  “First Contact,” while more of an action film, still gives Picard solid material about overcoming what the Borg did to him and introduces a very fun take on the inventor of warp drive, Zefram Cochrane.  “Star Trek VI” shows Kirk dealing with his own prejudices as he and his crew reach the end of the Starfleet careers, and “Star Trek IV” puts the crew in a fun fish-out-of-water situation as they try to deal with San Francisco in the 1980s.   All four films surround the characters with exciting stories that keep audiences engaged while not feeling like overblown episodes of the TV series.

So based on all of this, what makes a good Star Trek movie comes down to character and story.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s true of every good movie.  With that being the case then, why are the fans so against “Into Darkness,” a film that critics and general audiences liked (audiences gave the film an “A” according to Cinemascore polling.)?

I have my guesses.  Some fans have never accepted the J.J. Abrams reboot that started with the previous Star Trek movie in 2009.  While that film has a 95% critical approval score, the highest of any on the list, it was only voted the sixth best.  I’ll admit that I don’t have a lot of patience with those who feel that way because we’ve been here before.  Back in 1987 when Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) premiered, there was a vocal contingent of fans (as vocal as they could be without the Internet) who insisted that it wasn’t Star Trek.  Acceptance took some time to be sure, but TNG became a huge success and now that view is generally considered laughable.  

Abrams’ take is different to be sure, and, as I said last week, I have my qualms with it.  It has, however, been a success, and I feel he’s done a wonderful job finding new actors to take on these classic roles and introduce them to audiences that may never have seen TOS or any of the Original Movies.  

Obviously, though, considering the differences in rankings between “Star Trek (2009)” and “Into Darkness,” the Abrams take isn’t the only reason for the negative votes.  I can say for certain, but my feeling is the backlash is mostly because Abrams had the gall to remix and reuse elements of the revered “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” in “Into Darkness.”  

I’ll admit that I was hoping for a completely original story this time around, but I can’t fault Abrams and the writers for their decisions.  As I said before, I enjoyed “Into Darkness,” and I appreciated the homages to the original films in the spirit they were intended.  Abrams and his cohorts have said all along that this is a new universe running alongside the original, so we can expect some variations on events that have happened before.  The comic book series that started after “Star Trek (2009)” has done a number of these types of stories showing how various TOS episodes play out in the new universe.  As a long-time fan, I’ve had a lot of fun seeing the differences.

But let’s be very clear about something here: I’m in the minority.  I don’t mean about liking the comic book.  I mean about being a long-time fan of Star Trek.  Trekkies make up a small portion of the population, and an even small number of those have a lot of familiarity with TOS.  The last Star Trek series, Enterprise, went off the air in 2005.  It could be argued that the real peak of Star Trek was in 1994-95 when we had TNG ending, the first TNG movie (“Star Trek Generations”), Star Trek Deep Space Nine running, and the premiere of Star Trek: Voyager.  The original crew really ended their run in 1991’s “Star Trek VI,” and “Star Trek II,” the most popular film of all, came out back in 1982.  And TOS, which started it all, was over a decade before that, running from 1966-1969.

In entertainment terms, that’s a loooong time ago.  Audiences and styles change.  This isn’t to say that TOS isn’t good anymore.  I would say that it most definitely is, but it was made in a different era.  The style of the series can be a hard sell for someone born after its creation.  Hell, in many ways it seemed dated when I first started watching in 1986.  

It’s easy to blame the viewers for not appreciating the classics, but I understand the issue.  I became a fan of Doctor Who after the show returned in 2005.  Interested to see what came before, I’ve started watching older episodes, but I am finding it very difficult to get through the First and Second Doctor.  It’s not just because the episodes are in black and white (although, admittedly that doesn’t help).  The entire feel of the show is different, the pacing is slower, the production values are cheaper, and the performances feel really… stagey, for lack of a better term.  But these episodes were made almost half a century ago.  The world has changed.

CBS tried to address this issue in TOS a few years ago by remastering the episodes for HD televisions and updating the special effects.  Anecdotally, I can say that’s helped get them at least one more viewer.  I have a friend who is now working his way through TOS via the remastered episodes.

But he’s making that effort because he is interested in Star Trek.  For Star Trek to continue, new audiences must see it and, more importantly, enjoy it enough to become fans.  As good as “Star Trek II” is, you would not make almost half a billion dollars (The current worldwide gross of “Into Darkness” if you put it out in theaters now.  As fans, we can’t just sit around and say that people should just go watch the old shows and movies.

IT IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!

In 2002, “Star Trek Nemesis” made $67 million worldwide.  Three years later Enterprise went off the air due to low ratings.  At that point the franchise was pretty much declared dead as a popular concern.  But in 2009, J.J. Abrams and friends made a movie that brought in almost $400 million and prompted a sequel.  Star Trek is alive again thanks to that, and I am grateful.  It’s also creating interest in the older material.  One of my non-Trekkie friends asked to borrow “Star Trek II” after we saw “Into Darkness” together.  As fans, isn’t that what we want?

Or would we prefer to come across as an angry and intolerant bunch yelling for these young folks who make and like the new films to get off of our lawn…in space…our space lawn?  I think as time passes, Trekkies will re-evaluate “Into Darkness” and appreciate it more for what it is, an entertaining movie that has its flaws.  I also hope we’ll be grateful for the new fans the Abrams films bring to us.  I met a woman at a convention in August who just discovered Star Trek thanks to the 2009 film.  Since then, she has watched every episode of every incarnation of Star Trek and all of the earlier films, multiple times in some cases.  She’s far more of die-hard fan than I am, even though I have almost a 30 year head start on her.  I think that’s wonderful.

If you liked “Into Darkness,” don’t let the Vegas convention poll put you off.  It’s just one, and over the weekend of August 24-25, when Part One of this was posted, fans at a convention in Seattle ranked “Into Darkness” #6 (See the story HERE.).  We’ve got over 600 hours of Star Trek to share.  There’s something for everyone.  Welcome!

 

- Alan Decker (@CmdrAJD on Twitter)