Star Trek: The Needs of the Two

Khan Borg Star Trek Jokertoon

As sequel Star Trek into Darkness rides high in the charts – and eventually zooms into America – a look at the other ‘second’ Star Trek films

IT’S ALMOST CRUEL THAT THE NEW STAR TREK FILM, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS IS OPENING IN AMERICA ONE WEEK AFTER THE UK AND A FEW OTHER LUCKY COUNTRIES.  Possibly the most hyped Star Trek film in the franchise’s 12 film career – the film has created anticipation as much as it seems to have been shaped by it.  You can read into that as you will if you’ve seen it – but no spoilers here.

A few months ago I took a look at the possible identity of the new film’s villain, John Harrison, not at all seriously.  But I also highlighted the importance and legacy the on Star Trek of the ‘Number Two’.  That’s not just in Trek lore but also apparently in the boardrooms of phaser twitching execs as well.  Two hangs heavy over Star Trek history and with good reason.

The anticipation for the new film owes a lot to the series’ history – and uniquely that ‘history’ includes two previous ‘second films’.  Not only is Into Darkness the third ‘second’ film in the franchise, but both of its predecessors are rightly regarded as Star Trek classics.  The pressure was very much engaged as soion as 2009’s Star Trek was a success.

1982’s The Wrath of Khan (TWOK), remains the pick of the 12 film bunch.  It’s a tightly wound film, propelled by relationships and tension which improves with every viewing. As the second big screen voyage of the Original Series crew, upon its release it set box office records and makes assembling Star Trek films look effortless.  Kirk’s struggle with Khan, the genetically enhanced and time-displaced despot quickly spread its influence far and wide, sinking into popular culture like few other pieces of science fiction – from Kill Bill to Family Guy.

Beaming forward 14 years, Star Trek: First Contact (FC) entered a whole new world.  Entering a vastly different film environment, riddled with the CGI that TWOK had pioneered, it was time for a new ship and a new crew.  The Next Generation had arguably delivered the success that The Original Series had failed to.  Generating vast quantities of money over seven series, spawning another three spin-offs and contributing some of the best television moments of all time (the superb Best of Both Worlds), its crew had inevitably moved on to the big screen in 1994.  That first film, Generations, is a bit of an anomaly, including as it does a starring role and rather unfortunate farewell for Captain James T Kirk.  However, it must stand as the first Next Generation film, with 1996’s FC hurling them full throttle into a fight with their most definitive nemesis, the Borg for the sequel.  Having already set a high benchmark on the small screen with those villains, the challenge was again a difficult inevitability.  However, with phasers blazing, FC was the most action packed Star Trek film since TWOK, and really hasn’t been challenged until Into Darkness.

In 47 years, with Star Trek’s version of ‘regeneration’, it’s no surprise to find the reboots making their way to the big screen. What’s interesting is not so much the long ruminated, but ultimately false, theory of even Star Trek films being better than their odd brothers – but that the second instalments of each sub-franchise are always so damned good.

As Star Trek Into Darkness proves however, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The shadow of TWOK hangs so heavily over the franchise that references bordering on riffs and remakes can seem essential to guarantee success.  TWOK will always be the benchmark, no matter the crew or century involved.  FC certainly held TWOK in high regard, with many common links filtering through the two films.

The Code of Two

Both films share a theme of retribution as their heart and in both cases, this links back to events in their earlier television incarnations.  Both feature ships as plot devices and highlight the military implications of space exploration and Starfleet itself.  Both, in their own way, are bloody well made films as well – from relatively young and inexperienced directors.  TWOK was Nick Meyer’s second film as a director and FC was Jonathan Frakes’ first – although both had been involved behind the camera in various capacities before.  Both films also carry a supreme confidence… But despite the many similarities, most interest lies in their differences.

Star Trek: Second Contact

Following the bloated Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a superbly realised film, but one that missed the inherent comedy of Star Trek – TWOK got a lot of decisions right.  By moving the action forward 15 years, TWOK not only matched the comparative age of its actors but built the acknowledgement – or ignorance of – aging in as a crucial part of the narrative.  TWOK works along the heavy lines of consequence, age and foreshadowing.  Of many significant contributions to the Star trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru test is one of TWOK’s masterstrokes.  It allows for a brilliant opening where most of familiar Enterprise crew are annihilated and then proceeds to link and weaves through the film as an exploration of Kirk and counterpoint to the main plot.  Commander Saavik becomes one of the franchise’s most effective guest characters, perhaps all the better because she is Vulcan.  Her main role is to constantly pester Kirk about how he beat the test until, when it appears all is lost, he finally reveals his secret.  He doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario.  Cue Act III.

By its end TWOK had revealed itself as a full-blown submarine film.  The increased military feel of Starfleet had been well realised throughout, with sharp and effective new uniforms and strict procedures about the only think that’s allowed to linger on screen.  The final act is pure war film, where the cat and mouse game between the USS Reliant and USS Enterprise that may just as well be acted out in the North Sea in 1941.  Part of the finale’s effectiveness is the brilliant special effect work provided by ILM, the George Lucas owned company wisely brought on after its Star Wars revolution.  Perhaps the main reason for the film’s effectiveness is its most astonishing one:  For all the wrath, history, hatred and battling, Khan and Kirk never meet.  Not many films have proved to be as powerful, effective or influential under those circumstances.

Star Trek: The Wrath of Picard

In contrast, FC chose to abandon subtlety for all out action chuck-in-the-replicator action.  Not attempting to ape TWOK’s submarine claustrophobia for long, FC quickly descends into an all out assault film.  Within the first 15 minutes, the crew of the Enterprise has reformed, a new ship introduced, a Borg Cube engaged and defeated and time travel to the Earth’s past undertaken.  It rarely comes up for breath, propelled both by a fantastically villainous race done justice and also an unapologetic ethos of chucking everything at the screen that Star Trek fans have ever wanted.  I recall seeing it in on release in 1996 and having to constantly higher the bar under an onslaught of brilliant set pieces.  Just when I was marvelling at the time-travel, danger-uninhibited Holodeck and phaser rifle assault missions, they went and raised the ante yet further with an upside down space walk.  Then again with a ship-wide evacuation.  Subsequent viewings (many) have put a strain on the coherence of the breakneck pace, but it still endures as a very well realised film.

Perhaps most interesting is the way the Borg are expanded.  A continuing topic in this blog seems to be the necessity of expanding antagonists, but also the inherent dangers in doing so.  Assimilating the big screen, the Borg had an effective upgrade in the make-up department.  It was also the first time we could see wholesale assimilation and Frakes and co had many inspirations to draw on.  Body-horror is a necessary part of the Borg impact and in FC it is very much put to the fore.  Not only that, the expansion to include a Queen figure is a bold concession to horror in design and dialogue.

While the two pronged neck injecting of Borg virus makes it clear that assimilation is akin to vampirism, the Queen’s dialogue moves quickly from biblical to Hellraiser Cenobite.  The dark body horror stylings of the race can’t help break that association.  In many ways, this is teenage Clive Barker but a precedent for trek horror combined with action was set by TWOK, itself a violent and occasionally sadistic film.

“From Hell’s Heart…”

The broad difference between TWOK and FC however, comes from motivation.  While FC draws on rage that comes from a frankly understandable human feeling of frustration and helplessness, it is siphoned into Picard.  His is a single-minded and cold vendetta for most part, albeit one that we had already seen the roots of in The Next Generation two-parter The Best of Both Worlds.  That vengeance triggers most of the character points in the film – whether driving a wedge between Picard and Worf’s relationship or providing an injustice for random guest star Lily to fight against.  Along with the rather flat Pinocchio and friendship messages Data carries, this rather crude characterisation is perhaps the film’s only downfall.

In contrast, TWOK carries many intricate lines of development, with emotion hanging on every beat.  The Father-son sub-plot may be its weakest, but lines of friendship and consequence run through every scene until the tragic finale.  A fairly simple plot allows room for themes to layer on each other.  There’s also space for what may be the definitive Kirk, Spock and McCoy clash.  TWOK allows its themes to breathe, while FC never does.

Another contrast comes in the root of the films’ plots.  TWOK is effectively a sequel to the Original Series episode Space Seed, with vengeance mainly springing from events in the interim that we have not directly seen.  In fact, it was retconned into Star Trek history, and very well done it was too.  The vengeance in FC however, is based on events and fear that we have experience of.  While in 1982 we truly watched the wrath of Khan, in 1996 we witnessed the wrath of Picard.

“We Fall Back…”

Interestingly, both films choose to hang their main themes on literature, and perhaps because of TWOK’s success, they share one source of inspiration.

TWOK works two main strands into its story.  While Kirk is presented with Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities on his birthday, Chekov stumbles on Khan’s ship the SS Botany Bay where the rogue has for years been feasting on not only Moby Dick, but Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost among others.  The themes of A Tale of Two Cities become crucial not only at the film’s climax but also as a central tenet of Trek from that point forward: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  Also, what better reflection on the continuing voyages of the Enterprise than that book’s opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

Of course, Moby Dick has the most significant impact on the film.  In his rage, focussed through super-intelligence, Khan appears simultaneously obliviousness,  and almost perfect in the self-analysis of his own obsession.  The result is a chilling  disconnect.  Montalban must have chewed through hundreds of copies of the novel.  He quotes and paraphrases Moby Dick  constantly, while filling the gaps with barbed nonsense lines like “Let them eat static” and moments of scripting  genius such as a certain influential Klingon proverb…  Despite its rather full on approach – Khan may as well hijack the USS Analogy – those literary roots are neatly woven into the story.  It’s a trait common to many Meyer scripts, and he would  successfully repeat the trick, although with less impact, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

That literary super-allusion was the main carry-through to FC, where Lily’s correct, albeit lucky, comparison of Picard to Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab is the moment that  The Next Generation Captain’s growing obsession is broken.  Quote-wise, its effect is not as pronounced; plot-wise its impact it is far more significant.  Star Trek is about many things.  From western, to frontier exploration, to comedy, to adventure…  But those atavistic ideas of the mythical and powerful beast that creates and feeds obsession and those associated dark places of humanity that man must go are also fair game.  In fact, it’s essential.  Where No Man has Gone Before is also where man has always ended up going.

In some ways it was impossible for the current third ‘second’ Star Trek film to go anywhere but to  Into Darkness.  At least commercially, that’s the place that works for Star Trek films – especially when they’re even-numbered.  If anyone has any problem with the direction the latest film has taken it well be worth remembering  TWOK and FC and asking whether there was really any other choice.  Parallel universe or not, there are beats and themes that, quotes notwithstanding, certain Star Trek films just have to follow.

To paraphrase what might be the first novel of the Twentieth Century, in respect of one of that century’s most enduring fiction properties: these too have been some of the dark places of the universe.

Find the Tweetnotes of both films Storified here – concessions should be made for a far too conscientious autocorrect… Messrs Khan, Borg and Mellville have been informed.

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