Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

October 12, 2021

Spock and McCoy are worried about Kirk. He’s moping around, he’s depressed on his birthday, he’s constantly talking about getting old. Spock advises Kirk to regain his active command, rather than continue his work as a desk jockey. Bones tells Jim, over a bottle of Romulan Ale, to get his act together. But nothing stirs now-Admiral Kirk out of the dumps – until, during a routine in-space inspection of the Enterprise, a curious call comes in from Kirk’s old flame. The resulting diversion leads to a confrontation with his old nemesis, Khan, in what, as many reviewers have pointed out derogatorily, is little more than a basic TV plot from the old TV show. That may be so, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan sure is an enjoyable episode in the ongoing mission of the starship.

It’s about ten times better than the stuffy first movie, with the cast looking very relaxed; William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForrest Kelley are back in their old rhythms; there’s a cute new Vulcan crew member called Mr. Saavik (Kirstie Alley); and Ricardo Montalban is mercilessly hammy as the evil Khan. Actually, he’s not really the superior intellect he pretends to be, and it’s too bad there are no face-to-face showdowns between him and Kirk, but with a wig (and a fake chest?*) like the one he’s wearing, it’s tough to complain.

Director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time) allows the humor to develop in the same vein as the series (funniest line: the second time somebody asks about the length of a crewman’s hair), and he fearlessly pursues and exploits every kernel of corn available. There are many, because the spirit of Star Trek is still that old humanistic message; the resourceful Kirk still believes there are no no-win situations. I’m afraid I was believing it too; and when a black box is jettisoned out of the Enterprise to seed a new planet to the strains of “Amazing Grace” – well, I got a little misty-eyed. Temporary suspension of critical faculties brought on by weightlessness? Too much Romulan Ale? Dunno. Maybe I’m just getting old, too.

*I have been assured that the well-preserved chest on display here does indeed belong to Mr. Montalban. I had suspected that he might have constructed a falsie out of that rich Corinthian leather you hear so much about, but I am glad to be corrected.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

I was 23 when I wrote this, so I guess I was getting old. Fun movie, and even at the time everybody knew that the Star Trek ship had righted itself, having come close to extinction with the ponderousness of the first movie – excuse me, motion picture. In retrospect, many universes were hanging in the balance with this one.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

July 15, 2021

No one will accuse the makers of the Star Trek movies of originality. After 20 years of success with the starship Enterprise (in what was supposed to be a five-year mission), the Trek people know what pleases. Their latest film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, sticks closely to the elements that have worked before.

That duly noted, it is a pleasure to announce that IV is a thoroughly enjoyable outing: cleverly entertaining, reassuringly familiar, and still packing a resolutely humanist message.

When we last saw our trekkers, they were left on the planet Vulcan, having been reunited with the once-dead Spock (Leonard Nimoy). As IV opens, the crew is stuck with a broken-down Klingon vessel – the Enterprise having gotten charred beyond recognition in III – and Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is wanted for intergalactic violations.

A skeleton crew dresses up the Klingon ship and heads back to face the music on Earth. They are, of course: Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Mr. Scott (James Doohan), Sulu (George Takei), Chekov (Walter Keonig), and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols).

As they approach Earth, they see that the planet is getting its ions zapped by a weird space probe. It seems the probe is attempting to communicate with a long-extinct Earth species: the humpback whale.

Huh? There’s more: The only way to communicate with the probe, and call it off, is to grab a real whale and bring it to Earth – and the only whales are way back in the primitive 20th century. Faster than Kirk can say, “Spock, start your computations for time warp,” the gang is embarking on that most beloved of science fiction concepts: time travel.

Thus we find ourselves in the San Francisco of now, where the crew desperately tries to beam up a couple of likely whales, with the help of a biologist (Catherine Hicks) who must suspend even more disbelief than the rest of us.

This is a kooky premise, to be sure, yet the environmental stuff is perfectly in line with the series’ old message-heavy thrust. Luckily, the movie is so niftily made, you don’t feel you’re sitting at a Greenpeace lecture (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I would guess the environmental orientation of the film came from Leonard Nimoy, who directed this installment (as he did III) and also worked on the script. Nimoy’s direction is brighter here than in the previous film, and in fact much of the movie plays as comedy.

Most of the funny lines sound suspiciously like the work of Nicholas Meyer, a good filmmaker in his own right. Meyer, who directed Star Trek II, also did some doctoring on this screenplay, and his sprightly touch is evident.

There are some wonderful moments, especially for the Trekkies out there. Each cast member, even the aging, paunching underlings of the crew, has his turn in the spotlight, and all fulfill their usual expectations. Much fun is had with culture shock, as with McCoy’s disgust at Dark Ages medical procedures in a hospital sequence, and Spock’s offhand reference to the literary greats Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins as “the giants” of our time.

It is, quite simply, a well-crafted, neatly trimmed entertainment. Not much more need be said of it, except that Star Trek V may confidently be predicted beaming into your galaxy sometime in the next two years.

First published in The Herald, November 28, 1986

I know this will sound terrible to some people, but I have rarely re-visited Star Trek properties over the years, although I will watch an episode of the original show any time one pops on. This one, though, I think I actually went back to see in the theater, such was the pleasure of the voyage. (This, despite my famed allergy to Catherine Hicks.) I had forgotten that Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s plays a small role. John Schuck is in the cast, and his wife married Leonard Nimoy not long after this film. I don’t know the details.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

July 6, 2021

Once upon a time, there was Star Trek, a TV series that captivated millions of people and lived a short, enjoyable video life. Then there was Star Trek – The Motion Picture, a big-budget return to the ongoing mission of the starship Enterprise. It was reverential, humorless, and pretty boring.

Then came Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Made with love and playfulness instead of reverence, this sequel recaptured the spirit and fun of the TV series. It also killed off the mystical center of Star Trek: Leonard Nimoy’s Spock sacrificed himself or the good of his fellow men.

But wait just a minute. When last seen, Spock’s body was setting down gently on the surface of a newly-vitalized planet called Genesis. The new sequel takes up right where the previous one left off, and you can guess by the title – Star Trek III: The Search for Spock – that the resilient Vulcan may not be down for the count.

Turns out that Spock left a little of himself back on the ship. As the Enterprise heads back home, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) notices that “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) isn’t quite himself. Bones walks around muttering things like, “most illogical,” and Kirk soon discovers that Spock put the Vulcan mind-meld on McCoy before he died. That means Spock’s brain (or at least his memory) is within McCoy’s head.

Spock’s father (Mark Lenard, who played the same role in the series) shows up to tell Kirk that Spock’s body must be recovered and returned to Vulcan. There, with McCoy’s help, Spock can be restored.

Fine. Except that Kirk’s bosses at the Federation have declared that Genesis is off limits. We all know that isn’t going to stop Kirk, though, just as we know those crazy Klingons (led by Christopher Lloyd, who is both menacing and funny) will get their just deserts after causing trouble around the forbidden planet.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie. All the stars are quite comfortable in the roles; the gang’s all there (as usual, the supporting crew members don’t have a heckuva lot to do).

This entry has been directed by Leonard Nimoy, who does rather well by it. Search for Spock doesn’t have the hipness or spunk that director Nicholas Meyer gave Wrath of Khan, but it’s told clearly. And Nimoy has a good feeling for the Trek brand of pop mysticism.

Once again, this sequel harks back to the traditional themes of the TV show: technology is fine, but human instincts will carry the day; friendship and loyalty may be worth more than sensible behavior; etc. Listen, the TV series’ main attraction was never the scientific gadgetry; it was the cornball excitement of watching Kirk get by on his inexhaustible supply of gut instincts and crazy hunches.

The series always insisted that, for all of his voyages through the stars, man’s greatest achievement was simply the ability to remain human. When someone marvels at the fact that Kirk has lost everything – his command, his ship, and more – in the search for Spock, Kirk replies simply, “I would have lost my soul if I hadn’t tried.” Star Trek may not matter much in the vast scheme of things, but that’s a decent conclusion for a modest, escapist entertainment.

First published in The Herald, June 2, 1984

I mean, I didn’t get it wrong. For movies that have become cultural monuments, it’s funny to think back at the times when you’d just seen it for the first time and had a couple of hours to come up with a review. This piece doesn’t say a whole lot about the movie itself, but I’m all right with the way it ends up.