Boldly Going...Nowhere? -- Star Trek's Last Motion Picture Gasp

Commentary by James Berardinelli
November 13, 1996

Let's go back in time...

It's Friday, December 7, 1979. I'm standing in a long line somewhere in the bowels of a mall. The Christmas shopping rush is well underway, and there seem to be people everywhere. Especially here. The line isn't moving because the theater hasn't opened its doors yet. Behind me, more and more people are extending the tail of this single-file snake around a corner and out of sight. No one is unhappy with the length of the line or the wait -- after all, most of them have been waiting for this moment for the better part of a decade. The air is charged with a special kind of electricity. Everyone is excitedly chatting to whoever is in front of them or behind them, regardless of whether they've known them for years or just met them a few minutes ago. The camaraderie is special, and everyone is being incredibly nice to one another. Then, to the accompaniment of cheers from the front, the line starts to move.

Twenty minutes later, I'm sitting in a packed theater, fourth row from the front. Most of those in line behind me have to wait for a later showing. There are some grumbles, but not many. The theater manager has an avaricious smile on his face -- he's already projecting ticket sales for the entire weekend. The level of excitement within the theater is greater than it was outside. Now, we're all waiting, counting down the final few moments. The theater is playing some music over the speakers, but it's too soft to be heard over the chatter. Someone derisively sniffs that it's Star Wars.

The lights dim to a thunderous ovation. On screen, the Paramount logo appears. No previews -- good. Next comes the title logo: Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The crowd goes wild.

Skip ahead thirty months...

It's Friday, June 4, 1982. Different mall, different theater, same sense of excitement. Today is the premiere of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Some of the men and women around me are dressed in costumes. There's a Vulcan, a bunch of Starfleet officers, and even a Klingon. Once again, people are talking to someone they've just met like they're old friends. Of course, the question of the day is whether Spock will die. There have been rumors to that effect, but no one is quite sure whether they're true or not. Everyone seems to agree that bringing back Khan is a great move. Hopefully, having a strong central villain will give this film the energy and momentum that The Motion Picture lacked. We talk a little about that ill-fated cinematic venture. While it was great for nostalgia purposes, it fell short of most expectations. Perhaps we'd been hoping for something that no movie could possibly give us.

I get a better seat for this showing than I did for The Motion Picture, but this is a much bigger theater. It seats about 2000, and the screen looks huge. The last film I saw here was The Empire Strikes Back. I'm hoping for a similar experience. By showtime, the theater isn't quite full -- the first three rows are still empty, but 95% capacity is a lot of people.

The buzz is incredible. People, whether in jeans and a t-shirt or full uniform, are juiced. The film has gotten a lot of good press. Siskel and Ebert both gave it thumbs up, Merv Griffin did a special show devoted to it, and the commercials (complete with impressive-looking battle scenes) have been on TV 'round the clock. Paramount has been pushing The Wrath of Khan. If this audience is any indication, their publicity blitz has been successful.

Once again, the lights dim. This time, there are previews. But, after a six or seven minutes' impatient wait, the movie starts. And, wonder of wonders, instead of Jerry Goldsmith's march from The Motion Picture, there's an updated rendering of Alexander Courage's original music. Of course, everyone in the theater is cheering so loudly, it's difficult to hear.

Two years later...

It's Friday, June 1, 1984. Same mall, same theater (sort of -- in the intervening months, the 2000-seat theater had been subdivided into two 900-seat theaters). Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. It's early afternoon, so the crowd hasn't really started to build. The small group of 200 in the lobby talk excitedly about how Spock might return. No one doubts that he'll actually be in the film, especially with Leonard Nimoy directing. The Wrath of Khan had re-invigorated Star Trek, and every fan is enjoying the thrill of wondering what's next. We all know some of the basics: the Enterprise would be destroyed, there would be a battle with the Klingons, and McCoy would be driven nearly insane. Everything else was speculation, but speculating is more than half the fun.

I actually know the answer to the Spock question. Earlier today, I made an ill-advised perusal of the New York Times review of the film. While the text didn't give much away, the little box with the credits informed us that Spock at various ages would be in the movie. Fourth in the list of actors playing Spock was Leonard Nimoy.

By showtime, the theater is about half full. Sounds from the neighboring screening room, which is also playing Star Trek III (but shifted ahead in time by one hour), leak through the supposedly sound- proof walls. We can't make out much, but they sound like explosions. The sense of anticipation that had greeted the first two films is very much alive and well, as is the sense of camaraderie.

Twenty-nine months later...

It's a Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, 1986. Outside it's cold and rainy, but inside, the presence of so many closely-packed bodies is making it unbearably hot. Home from college for the holiday, this is my first exposure to the new 8-plex around the corner from my parents' house. I actually recognize a few friendly faces from the previous three Star Trek openings. Seven years later, they don't look any different than they did for The Motion Picture. As usual, the talk is about what might be in the movie -- time travel, whales, and how Kirk will beat the charges leveled against him by the Federation. Someone mentions that the Philadelphia Inquirer gave the film a glowing review. This is greeted with some high-fives. Someone mentions Good Morning America's week-long feature on Star Trek IV. Everyone seems to agree it was well done. Conversation briefly comes to a halt as the doors to the theater open and everyone piles in.

Less than a minute to go before the 7:15 start time. I look at my watch, which says 7:14:30. My friends decide to do a countdown out-loud for the final ten seconds. Not that they really expect the projectionist to start the film precisely on time, but what the hell... At the appropriate moment, they start: ten, nine, eight (the people around join in), seven, six, five, (more people in the theater add their voices), four, three, two, one, zero. Miraculously, as if on cue, the lights dim. It's a perfect cinematic moment.

Two and a half years later...

It's a steamy June evening at the same 8-plex where I saw Star Trek IV back in 1986. The crowd is sparse and not especially friendly. Maybe it's the bad advance word. Maybe it's the fact that Star Trek: The Next Generation has made new Trek available on a weekly basis. It's hard to put a finger on the specific reason, but this doesn't seem even remotely like a special event. There's a distinct lack of enthusiasm, as if all the air has gone out of the Star Trek balloon. Apparently, this is the summer of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman, not Star Trek V. People in the lobby aren't talking about Star Trek, they're commenting on James Cameron's upcoming movie, The Abyss. That, as far as I'm concerned, is a bad sign. Then again, I can't say I'm really all that excited about this movie, either.

The theater doors open and we shuffle into the screening room. By showtime, the 500-seat theater is barely half full. The applause that greets the dimming of the lights is anemic. At this point, it's apparent that something isn't right -- and that's before I actually see the film. In some way, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has sounded what could prove to be the death knell of the Star Trek motion picture series.

Skip ahead another two and a half years...

Friday, December 6, 1991. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I'm back at the theater where I saw Treks II and III for the supposed "final" adventure of the original crew. On TV, Star Trek: The Next Generation is going strong, and the rumor is that the next movie, which may be two or three years away, will feature the gang from that show. After all, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are getting pretty old. It seems like the end of an era. The atmosphere in the theater lobby is almost melancholy. None of the enthusiasm of years past. The average age of the crowd around me is somewhat younger than it was for the first few films in the series. New fans, I surmise, drawn to the movie by new Trek. Ironic, really, considering that this is the last bow for the crew that has been with us for the past twenty-plus years.

Does anyone still really care about Star Trek? The last movie was a box-office and critical disaster, but the mood for this one doesn't seem any more enthusiastic. Maybe we're outgrowing our fascination with pointy-eared Vulcans, dashing captains, and magic-making engineers. Everyone in the crowd is hoping for another Star Trek II, but dreading a continuation of the low quality represented in the last film. Personally, I'm just hoping to be entertained.

Once again, the lights dim. This time, though, for the first time since The Motion Picture, there's no familiar opening fanfare. Somehow, the foreboding opening score seems appropriate to the crowd's mood.

Three more years...

Thursday, November 17, 1994. Special screenings the day before the "official" opening. A different theater for a Star Trek movie for me. I write reviews now, so I have my trusty notebook with me. Most of those in the throng around me seem to be Trek fans, although there are more Next Generation aficionados than champions of the original series. No matter, with Kirk and Picard both in the film, everyone should be satisfied. The mood of the early Star Trek films is a distant memory. There's nothing more special with this evening than there is for any highly-publicized opening. Two television series (with a third to start in a couple months) have sapped the life out of the Star Trek phenomenon. Both of the last two movies have shown a lackluster performance at the box office (Trek V earned about 40% of its total domestic gross in the opening weekend; Trek VI, 30%). But who would pay money for a Star Trek movie when there's so much available for free on TV? Fans used to go back ten, twenty, thirty times to see the most recent film. No more. Now, they see it once or twice, then go home and watch TV and videos. They'll see the film in six months when it comes out on tape. That's another thing that has changed since Treks I, II, and III -- VCRs are no longer just toys for the rich and frivolous. Hell, if you're willing to deal with the poor quality of a pirated copy, you can have the movie on tape today.

The theater is reasonably full, which I suppose is a good sign. But the advance word on Generations isn't good, and I'm beginning to wonder if this might be a fitting end to the series. If it continues to limp into the future the way it has been staggering the last half-decade, better to put it out of its misery. There's nothing sadder than seeing something once-beloved refusing to give up the ghost because there are still a few dollars to be made.

None of the conversations around me have anything to do with Star Trek. One couple is talking about Mary Shelly's Frankenstein; another, Interview with the Vampire. I sit quietly, waiting for the movie to start. No one says anything to me. It's not like the "old days", when strangers would walk up to you and ask you which episode was your favorite, or whether you preferred Kirk or Spock. I never thought I'd be waxing nostalgic about the early days of Star Trek movies, but it's happening. I miss the atmosphere. It's sad, really.

Move ahead, past today and ten days into the immediate future...

Friday, November 22, 1996. The movie is called Star Trek: First Contact, and everyone knows that if it does poorly at the box office, it may be the last Star Trek feature, at least for a while. The Star Trek market is oversaturated. Fans are turning away, finding something new and more interesting to absorb their attention. TV people are running (and ruining) the motion picture franchise -- not that it wasn't already in trouble before Rick Berman took the helm. The old crew is long gone. And, while I have no problems with the Next Generation group, the mystique isn't the same.

It's probably unfair for me to judge First Contact already, since I have yet to see it. Advance word is actually pretty positive, but if the last three films are indicators, it isn't likely to be anything special. Die Hard on a starship, indeed. Maybe the best thing for the series would be an enforced period of abstinence. It will never be like it was during the '70s -- the market is too different now -- but five or ten years without any new Star Trek on TV or in theaters will do one of two things: let the phenomenon die a natural (and possibly overdue) death or supply it with enough energy to make the return an event.

Too much of a good thing is not necessary good. It's an old maxim, but it has been proven true in the case of Star Trek. Over the course of eight feature films, opening day has gone from a fan's holiday to a hum-drum two hours. Star Trek no longer surprises and delights. And that's why it's boldly going nowhere.

Addendum (11/22), excerpt from review: "After three consecutive less-than-stellar adventures, First Contact has single-handedly revived the Star Trek movie series, at least from a creative point-of-view. If the box office results follow suit, there will be a Star Trek 9, hopefully with Patrick Stewart and his crew on board. Whatever the case, there's little doubt that First Contact has come along at the right time to ensure that Star Trek continues to live long and prosper."

Next: "No Reading in the Theater -- To Dub or Not To Dub?"

© 1996 James Berardinelli

Back Up