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'Star Trek' in retrospect: the best and the worst of the classic films

By Emily Herbst
On March 3, 2014

While the two newer additions to the series "Star Trek" (2009) and "Into Darkness" (2013) have been met with acclaim, nothing screams "classic" (and sometimes "corny") like the Original and Next Generation films of the 1980s and 90s. A longtime out-of-closet Trekkie, I find nerdish pleasure in all chapters of the sci-fi series; yet, there are definite favorites-as well as "flops." Whether it's the satisfyingly dark and villainous "Wrath of Khan," the nail-biting Borg action of "First Contact," or the absolute flakiness found in "The Final Frontier," there is something for everyone in this very special saga. Therefore, for the benefit of both fans and newcomers to the series, it's only necessary to celebrate the best and the worst.
The Best...
1) "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982)
If the idea to reintroduce a plot from a 1968 Original Series episode alone wasn't clever enough, it couldn't have been done with more finesse. In this sequel to the original motion picture, Ricardo Montalban plays the cold and rancorous Khan, the genetically-engineered antagonist from the episode "Space Seed," who is discovered alive and well on Ceti Alpha VI, a neighbor planet to Ceti Alpha V-on which Captain Kirk had made a home for Khan and his evil crew as part of a plea bargain following their hijack of the Enterprise. The planet, originally deemed deserted and open for human habitation, has been destroyed, causing Khan and his gang distress and a festering hatred for Captain Kirk and his crew. So when the sister ship of the Enterprise (the USS Reliant) lands on Ceti Alpha VI to conduct the revolutionary Project Genesis, Khan shows up and crashes the party-totally unexpected. Through the leechlike brain implantation of crew Chekov and Terrell, Khan grabs Kirk's attention (and ship) and won't let go. Since "Space Seed" ends with Spock imagining the wonder of an eventual meet-up with Khan, this movie couldn't fit more perfectly. The plot is almost pristine, with acting by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy that tops the movie off with emotion and a sense of crewmate camaraderie. Additionally, there's enough squirm factor for the gore-inclined and enough villainy for anyone delighting in Khan's reappearance.
2) "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986)
Possibly one of the most humorous and Spock-orientates of the series, this one switches up the setting and hurls the crew of the Enterprise into modern-day, 1980s San Francisco. We get the classic grumblings of Doctor McCoy, some Enterprise crew disobedience, and a lot of Vulcan-isms. The crew makes their way through sticky situations, all the while trying to maintain the Prime Directive and save some whales in the process. Spock's awkwardness enhances most scenes, i.e. "Gracie is pregnant" and other whale-to-Vulcan mind readings. There's even a little romance between Kirk and aquarium tour guide/marine biologist Gillian Taylor (played by none other than "7th Heaven"'s Catherine Hicks). With a plot half as serious as "Wrath of Khan," this film still makes it into my book as one of the quietly funny, and very unique chapters in the Trek films.
3) "Star Trek: First Contact" (1996)
The second feature in the Next Generation film series, "First Contact," delivers in every way we'd expect, drawing in hints of both the 1980s Original Series films, as well as the TV series starring Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes. Intertwining memories of Captain Jean-Luc Picard's experience on the nightmarish Borg cube-ship (see: "The Best of Both Worlds"), the film features time travel, an Enterprise infestation of Borg-bots running amok and a look at the creation of warp drive. There's also some risqué exchanges between Data and the Borg Queen, as we witness his kidnapping and attempted Borg-conversion. Brent Spiner attaches human traits and realism to his android character, while also demonstrating an affinity-much like that of Capt. Kirk and Spock-between him and Jean-Luc. The Enterprise has never looked more futuristically cool, and some would argue a stronger cohesion between Next Generation crewmembers than even the Original Series.
The Worst...
1) "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1989)
The problem here is largely due to a strange plot. From the start, the film seems to have potential. Although goofy-Kirk climbing a mountain and Spock flying up to greet him-"The Final Frontier" offers a little more interesting intro to the story than many of the other movies. It starts with shore leave: Kirk, McCoy, and Spock head to a campsite in Yosemite and attempt to sing songs-with the usual McCoy-Spock bickering. The movie seems simple and straightforward. Then it takes a turn for the worst. Following the Enterprise's distress call for Captain Kirk and subsequent end to the three's shore leave, we meet Spock's brother-who is a little crazy. Professor of religious ideas and wild metaphors, Sybok is everything Spock is not. From here, everything just becomes a whirlwind of talking clouds in the sky, phaser wars, and unnecessary drama. Silly is good, but this film just pushes the envelope.
2) "Star Trek: The Original Motion Picture" (1979)
The issue with the first installment of the Original Series films is not the content, but the pace. In other words, you might be asleep before anything good happens. Not to mention, Ilia is quite weird. If you can tolerate a whole lot of robotic ramblings and the repeated phrase "V-GER," maybe you can find a worthwhile story in there somewhere. On the one hand, it is truly amazing to witness the reunion of the Enterprise crew following a decade after the Original Series, something that most likely excited all fans of the time. I can appreciate the need for a recap, but an introduction that lasts over an hour loses nearly all Trek fans in the process. Robert Wise and Gene Roddenberry tried hard here, but the buildup to whatever point this alien cloud is trying to make is agonizing long.
3) "Star Trek: Nemesis" (2002)
"Nemesis" might have the most convoluted plot of the entire series. In this film, the subject is helping Romulans who are being taken over by a dangerous Reman, a species not familiarized to us at all throughout "Next Generation." The enterprise must intervene to stop Shinzon, who has also been designed/formed to look and act like Captain Picard. We find out that it's Jean-Luc's position that Shinzon is after, but things get much more complicated than they should. The plot gets messy with the cloning of Picard and the self-contradicting schemes of the Romulans and the Remans. And to discombobulate us even more, the producers threw in a clone of Data and gave Shinzon the ability to enter Counselor Troi's mind. Sadly, there is too much happening and most won't keep up. 


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