With the coming Star Trek Into Darkness, Adam Clarke looks back on the U.S.S. Enterprise crew’s past adventures on video.
I’ve long held a fondness for Easter, despite growing up in an ardent atheist household. that’s what Papa Clarke raised me in, barring an unsuccessful flirtation with both Zoroastrianism and Druid quilting circles. Papa raised his two mutant children (whom he lovingly called “the cabbages”) in front of his god of choice: a Zenith™ floor model set which we’d spend the holidays gawking at and watching Star Trek marathons.
Having no religion, I assumed Easter was about the death and resurrection of Spock. For it was written (in the script) that he would die for our sins as he did in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. And lo, he did rise again in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. A five year old Adam Clarke looked on it, and it was good.
Star Trek, like so much episodic television from TV’s golden and silver ages, had its characters in an endless cycle of syndication-ready adventures where the heroes always cheated death (death itself was reserved for extras and guest stars). That comfort zone of syndicated Groundhog Day syndrome was shattered when the original Star Trek crew took their adventures to the big screen from 1979 to 1991. The Star Trek film series proved that there was an audience for stories that showed how these characters grew older and more interesting in the process.
The Motion Picture stumbled creatively and tried to pretend as though little time had passed between the 1979 premiere and the 1969 cancellation of the original series. Wrath Of Khan dropped the facade. Khan is universally-loved, and rightly so. It’s a tightly-plotted adventure film that addresses the looming mortality of our heroes through the perfect metaphor: Captain James Tiberius Kirk cheated death in every scenario, including a simulation specifically designed by a computer to get its commanders to face that inevitably. He and his crew cheat death once more in Khan, but only after the loss of the friend he considered a brother.
But Spock returns, of course.
Sometimes called a cheat, Search For Spock is a wonderful entry in the series, overlooked because it preceded the most popular (The Voyage Home) and least popular (The Final Frontier) of the original film series. It couldn’t top the death of Spock. How could it? Instead, Search For Spock is a dark, episodic story that shows our characters struggling with death and having greater ties than just being shipmates. These characters had lives beyond the U.S.S. Enterprise now, which is why Kirk struggles to accept death in this film. By the end of the movie, Kirk loses a son, Leonard “Bones” McCoy (doctor and avid curmudgeon) and Spock are both nearly driven bonkers, and the entire ship is destroyed.
So, we have The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and 1991’s The Undiscovered Country forming an exciting trilogy about heroes who get old, make mistakes, and even become as prejudiced as the baddies they used to lecture on TV each week. Faced with the extinction of the Klingon race, Kirk snarls, “let them die!” And in this brief moment he becomes a caricature of himself: a twisted former do-gooder who has to adapt to a changing universe. It might seem small scale compared to the superhero deconstruction Alan Moore popularized in Watchmen, but it’s still gripping stuff. Undiscovered Country has Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew outgrowing their usefulness and struggling to do the right thing despite themselves. You never got that on TV, but it’s the logical final story for these characters. Their time had come and they get to retire with their dignity intact at the centre of one of their best stories.
Re-watching the films and the original series recently, those six films are what embody the Star Trek spirit best for me. It’s nice to see the characters as old soldiers instead of superheroes, and it’s especially rewarding to see a less cantankerous Dr. McCoy. DeForest Kelley was always a highlight of the original cast, but the mellower McCoy of the films is an actual character. Instead of the sometimes venomous tension between McCoy and Spock, they’re less combative, and, in one of the best sub-plots of the film series, he admirably guards Spock’s spirit in Search for Spock.
These characters were allowed to grow and acknowledge their mistakes in the Trek film series. This has become commonplace in the age of, say, James Bond in last year’s Skyfall, but these great Trek films stood out in a time when both Roger Moore and Sean Connery played James Bond in the 80s as if nothing was weird about that.
With their balance of character development, action, humour and the occasional outlandish plotline (Kirk tells God to shove it in the fourth sequel), the original Trek sequels have aged tremendously well. I enjoyed re-watching Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as much as I did seeing it on Christmas Day in 1991. Even if that holiday also wasn’t fully explained in the Clarke household.
Captain Kirk Collage by Kyle Bustin.