By Bob Clark
Though it began and broke new conceptual and thematic ground on television, and wound up thriving in spin-off after spin-off years later, the Star Trek franchise only really took hold and proved itself as something viable once it channeled its creative energy onto the big screen. That’s not to say that The Motion Picture was a resounding success– despite the talent and pedigree of director Robert Wise, special-effects guru Douglass Trumbull and of course the entire returning cast of the television series, that first film venture proved itself just a little too remote for most audiences. Amounting to something of a high-concept, somewhat more linear cousin of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie has quite a lot going for it if you want a piece of hard science-fiction that could stand tall with any of the speculative episodes that came before it on television (its script began as a pilot for a return to the small-screen, which wouldn’t happen until The Next Generation). But it was a little too slow for the mainstream crowd, and even a little trying on the patience of fans, who missed the adventurous, swashbuckling style that William Shatner cut on television as Captain Kirk, and that’s what they got in droves in The Wrath of Khan, perhaps the one movie perhaps that lives up to its reputation as a sequel that doesn’t just match the original, but handily outpaces it.
Since then, it seems that nearly every succeeding Star Trek theatrical venture has tried to imbue itself with at least some of the swaggering manner of Khan, or even pattern itself after its basic structure of space warfare and revenge storylines, this in a series that began as a vision of mankind coming together from all differences to reach a better society, free of hatred or conflict of any kind. In a sense, it’s only natural that the franchise should rely upon it as a standard narrative, as it provides a very nice way to contrast the high-minded social themes and concerns inherent in Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful look into the future with more personal motives, allowing an audience to better appreciate the sometimes more distant utopian aspects. The fact that the film also married this with the killer sci-fi MacGuffin of the Genesis device, capable of bringing life to a dead planet or wiping out the existing natural order of an inhabited world, and was moreover willing to take real chances with the status-quo of the series and add legitimate life-or-death stakes to the mix helps it stand above even the better imitators in the franchise. First Contact places a worthy, if distant second, mostly thanks to Patrick Stewart’s commanding lead and the genuine menace of the Borg, as well as a nifty inversion of the Captain Ahab tropes, but it’s by no means the only Trek film that attempts to resurrect the vengeance-themed goalpost of Khan, most of which have been middling affairs. But none have been so direct in their appropriation or as epic in their failure as Star Trek Into Darkness.