My 2nd favorite Star Trek movie

As I said in my gushing post about Star Trek II, the movies elevated Kirk and Co. to the rank of titans. They’ve become folk heroes. And this movie invites us to join them on one last adventure.

This movie used to switch with Wrath of Khan when I was younger. I still love it, and it still gives those goosebumps at every one of its big moments. This is my second favorite Star Trek movie.

Conclusions are usually a tricky business to get right. In all my years of media consumption, I’ve never seen a franchise go out on a note quite as sweet and satisfying as Star Trek. Meyer succeeds in this endeavor with a few tricks:

He gives this story a good conclusion.

All the players converge on a two-pronged attack for the final scenes.

Traitors are exposed, bad guys stopped, and the heroes make it in time for a last-minute rescue (or two).

If this one story didn’t have a satisfying conclusion, then the conclusion given to the first cast would have felt lacking. Even with all the sad music and warping off into the sunset.

He provided a coda to the loose trilogy formed by II, III, and IV.

Meyer was arguably the main creative force on Wrath of Khan. Though he didn’t work on The Search for Spock, that movie is basically a response to its predecessor, so the hand of Meyer is felt. And he co-wrote The Voyage Home. This trilogy was Star Trek to me for many years. I like the TV shows, but I loved these three movies. And Meyer’s familiarity with them made his version of Kirk’s last voyage perfectly aligned with my wishes for what Kirk’s last voyage might look like. Giving the bulk of the movie series a nod added to the feeling that this movie was more than just a single 2 hour adventure.

This film acts as a segue to the politics of The Next Generation.

Before even Star Trek V came out, we knew that it was going to be okay to have a Klingon on the bridge. Is Worf a member of Starfleet because of events that happen after Kirk’s time? This movie reveals that peace between the Klingons and the Federation started with Kirk’s last adventure.

There is a poetry to this. It reminds me of the John Wayne movie The Searchers. Wayne and Pike save Natalie Wood, but they have to become somewhat savage and uncivilized to achieve that. When John Wayne delivers her to her parents, he never even enters the house. He drops her off and walks off, into who-knows-what. He tamed that little part of the world, but what it cost him to do so prevents him from living in it. And here is Kirk, the last of the cowboys, sealing the peace that would make the universe ready for Picard and simultaneously unsuitable for himself.

Kirk’s final captain’s log (*sniffle*) is an overt passing of the center seat to Picard. Not only is the next crew referenced, but Kirk even corrects his famous closing phrase: “boldly going where no man…where no one…has gone before.” Besides omitting the “5-year mission” part of the speech, the only change in Picard’s opening monologue is the pc “man-to-one.” And Kirk’s final delivery alters that too.

Worf’s grandfather played the bridge between the Klingons and the Federation first.

There is a sterility to this movie that is not present in previous stories featuring the original cast. Everything looks very tidy, like Kirk hovers over the captain’s chair of the Enterprise-A and never really felt at home. This sterile feeling recalls The Next Generation. It is as much to do with the ship feeling tidy as it is to do with the galaxy feeling smaller. Maybe it’s the peace with the Klingons, or the fact that the Excelsior could travel from Klingon space to Federation space in the span of a movie, but the world feels small somehow. Watching the Original Series, the world feels infinite. If they wanted to go home, it could take weeks or months. Enterprise captured that same feeling. In this movie, and on The Next Generation, the galaxy is not being explored as much as it is being charted and managed. And duplicating that feeling for this final movie sets it apart from all previous adventures.

Classic Star Trek is referenced all over this thing

First of all, the whole plot is a cut-and-paste of the end of the Cold War, which was in full swing when Star Trek first premiered. In fact, the whole US space program on which Star Trek is based, got a lot of its momentum from the Cold War with Russia.

The structure of the movie feels like two Star Trek TOS episodes bookended by a movie. The Klingons coming over for dinner is easy for me to picture as an episode of the old show. And the trial and imprisonment feel like another episode. These stories are tied together for the movie masterfully, but it’s easy to imagine them as individual episodes from the 60s.

The most Star Trek-y scene is Kirk vs Kirk. In perfect Meyer’s fashion, this scene not only recalls a great tradition in Star Trek (duplicate Kirks!), but also comments on it. In perhaps the funniest exchange in any episode of Star Trek, real Kirk says, “I can’t believe I kissed you.” And faux-Kirk retorts, “Must have been your life long ambition!” I’m chuckling just typing that out. Is that Shatner saying that line to himself? (“I’m in on the joke.”)

Peace with the Klingons has been achieved, fulfilling a prophecy from Ayelborne in Errand of Mercy, answering the question of Klingon/Federation peace that we already knew the TNG era was enjoying, and ending a racial feud that had been ongoing between the Federation and the Klingon Empire since the TV show and between Kirk and his newly-grown racism since his son was murdered in Part III.

But classic Star Trek isn’t constant

Change hovers over the whole movie like the Phaser of Damocles above Kirk’s head. Despite many familiar details, so much has changed and is changing. The movie starts with another captain and another space ship. It’s Sulu, so we don’t feel totally lost, and Janice Rand is sitting behind him, which is nice. But it’s the Excelsior, which threatened to end the further adventures of the Enterprise once or twice. And it’s not Captain Kirk. We saw the previews and knew Kirk and Spock would be here, but the fact that the movie opens with another captain and ship starts the whole thing off with an edge of imminent change.

It’s not as serious as I or III. It’s not as funny and light as IV. And it’s not dark, like II. It nears the edge of being dark like II, talk of getting too old, etc. But this one’s not about the bitterness of middle age. It’s about the bittersweetness of being old. It is time to stop playing Star Trek and everybody in this movie knows it. I swear, every time a character sits at their post on the bridge or says, “Aye, Captain,” or flashes a phaser, they have a look behind their eyes that says, “This could be the last time I ever do this thing…”

Meyer lays it on a little thick.

Echoing scenes from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan, this one starts with a “getting-the-band-back-together” sequence.

Kirk and Spock are first seen in a meeting. On earth. About politics. This is a different chapter in the lives of these characters. When they get on that space ship it does not feel right like it did back in Part I and Part II. In fact, the modern looking ship accentuates the age of the team.

Anything less than peace with the Klingons would seem a small task for the final adventure.

But they get to blow up a few Klingons one last time, for old times’ sake.

Everybody clears the bridge for the final shot. It’s just Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov on the bridge. Sulu even anticipates Kirk’s retirement: “Nice to see you in action one more time, Captain Kirk.”

Uhura tells us that the Enterprise itself is being put down. (I don’t really like the “Go to hell,” line they give to Spock. That is like, Data-level tackiness.)

The space ship actually flies off into the sunset, after Kirk gives that wonderful, “Second star to the right,” line.

And, in case you somehow missed the finality surrounding this whole movie, the cast all sign off, one by one.

This movie has more going for it than just providing a conclusion to the adventures of the original crew. It’s also a fun little (not-so-mysterious) murder mystery. It’s got some of the best space action of the first ten movies. The story takes a few surprising turns, but somehow remains really tight. It’s genuinely funny, unlike the movies on either side of it. The music is great, which is an achievement after Goldsmith and Horner developed some of the most memorable work of their entire careers on previous Trek movies.

This is a very good movie and a great Star Trek movie.


The list so far:

The Wrath of Khan

The Undiscovered Country

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