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Final Frontier Five

February 16th, 2012 No comments

For no reason other than the fact that I’ve been listening to a lot of Star Trek soundtrack music in my car as of late, here are my choices for the top 5 Trek feature films. They aren’t necessarily the ones you’d expect.

However, the first one most certainly is.

#1 – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Every once in a while, someone may try to convince you that The Wrath of Khan isn’t the best of the Trek movies. This person is wrong, and should be shunned.

While Star Trek: The Motion Picture had its strong points–notably, its epic scope and interest in actually exploring strange, new worlds–it was rightfully criticized for its stiffness. It was missing the bombast and fun of the original series.

The Wrath of Khan has both of these, and how. The thunderous, scenery-chewing duel between Captain Kirk and his inadvertently wronged nemesis Khan understandably takes center stage, but the reasons for the movie’s emotional resonance are its central themes of age and the acceptance of death. Kirk’s past catches up with him on multiple fronts, and he learns that he can’t cheat fate indefinitely.

That doesn’t mean that he isn’t given plenty of opportunity to demonstrate that his real value to Starfleet isn’t his legendary alien-punching or -boffing prowess, but his ability to trick his way out of (almost) every desperate situation.

#2 – Forbidden Planet

“But wait!” I hear you saying, “Forbidden Planet is not a Star Trek movie!” To which I reply, “Hey, take it up with Gene Roddenberry.” The original Trek TV series cribbed a great deal from MGM’s feature film of the previous decade. You can see the show’s DNA in Planet‘s circular starship bridge, its colorful planetary environments and its scandalously short skirts.

The crew of the star cruiser C-57D doesn’t have the ethnic diversity of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but the familiar triumvirate of captain, science officer and medic are front and center.

And what really makes it a Star Trek story is the mix of gee-whiz space heroics with mystery, exploration and thoughtful examination of the human condition. Plus a hot babe and a robot.

#3 – Star Trek (2009)

The critical success and fan acceptance of 2009’s reboot is ironic given the enormous rage leveled against the first attempt at a Kirk-and-Spock origin story. In 1990 producer Harve Bennett, looking at both the box-office failure of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and the ever-increasing corpulence of the original crew, mooted a Starfleet Academy film with younger actors. The big difference back then, I suppose, was that the old cast were all more-or-less willing and able to continue in their roles. They spurred their fanbase into furious fury, and the project was scuttled in favor of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

With Roddenberry, DeForest Kelley and James Doohan all long gone, new producer/director J.J. Abrams encountered less resistance. This, it turned out, was a very good thing, as the casting of the 2009 Star Trek is spot-on. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana are uniformly excellent as Kirk, Spock and Uhura. Karl Urban as McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty channel the spirits of the departed Kelley and Doohan. Even John Cho’s Sulu and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov are given moments to shine.

The film itself deftly straddles two worlds, serving as a sequel to the original series (complete with extended Leonard Nimoy guest appearance) and a new reality which charts its own course. Pairing Spock and Uhura? Disintegrating the planet Vulcan? The most recent Trek boldly goes, and I can’t wait for next year’s follow-up.

#4 – Galaxy Quest

It may appear that I’m fudging here, but hear me out: Galaxy Quest is more Trekkish than most things with Trek in the title. A big, sloppy love letter to the original series, it’s a credible space adventure, a hilarious comedy and a clever examination of the relationship between sci-fi heroes and the fans who love them.

Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shaloub and Alan Rickman play the cast of a cancelled TV show forced to eke out a livelihood of embarrassing personal appearances.  A group of over-enthusiastic fans turn out to be members of an alien species unable to comprehend the concept of deception. They’ve mistaken the televised adventures of Galaxy Quest for “historical documents” and want “Commander Taggart” and his crew to save them from the warlord Sarris.

The conceit of interstellar fanboys and -girls doggedly re-creating a fictional TV spaceship is taken to its logical conclusion when the reluctant actors are required to navigate a dangerous corridor full of nonsensical “chompy, crushy things” that serve no purpose other than to reproduce a particularly bad episode.

While Galaxy Quest gently mocks Trek‘s tropes, it also allows “Taggart” to engage in some highly-Kirkian derring-do. Unfortunately, the further adventures of Galaxy Quest suggested by the film’s coda exist only in comic book follow-ups and unanswered dreams.

#5 – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

It’s a bit of a toss-up between this one and the Next Generation-era film Star Trek: First Contact, but I’m an old-school Trekkie and must give the nod to the final hurrah of Kirk and company. Having the actors (in their final appearance together as the Magnificent Seven) literally sign off at the end may be a bit much, but really, who can legitimately complain?

This one last ride into the sunset sees the Enterprise gang confront their own racism as they play unwilling hosts to an attempt to broker peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. There’s a political assassination, a jailbreak and a rousing battle with an invisible starship.

The murder mystery is not as strong as it could be, chiefly because of the failure to woo back actress Kirstie Alley to reprise her Star Trek II role of Spock’s protege, Lt. Saavik.

Still, it’s a final helping of all the stuff that made Shatner’s time in the captain’s chair so enjoyable, as Kirk beds one more alien, battles his evil twin and crosses wits with a Shakespeare-quoting villain.