This week I watched commentaries for the first six Star Trek movies, the ones with the original cast. I know, I know, I’m supposed to be watching The Next Generation, but I suddenly realized I’d been sitting on collector’s editions of the movies from 2004 and had never even checked to see what kind of special features they had. Turns out a lot of behind-the-scenes documentaries, but also commentaries for each movie, which my fellow fans might find interesting. Summaries first, then overall thoughts:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture: Commentary with director Robert Wise, special photographic effects director Douglas Trumbull, effects supervisor John Dykstra, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and Stephen Collins (who played Decker). This commentary is almost entirely about special effects and how things were created. This is presumably a combined result of the commentator choices and the movie itself, but it’s just not that interesting unless you’re a budding effects wizard. They’re basically silent during any character conversations, which strikes me as more of a “meh, waiting for more effects to talk about” than a stylistic choice. That itself is more interesting as the movie progresses though, because that is really what this movie was about. It made me appreciate the beauty of the designs and the time they took, even if the overall movie ended up, er, bad.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: I knew seconds into this commentary that it was going to be way better than the first one. It’s just director Nicholas Meyer on his own, so it’s much more chill and relaxed, but also much more revelatory. At times it sounds like a rambling monologue, and yet it’s all supremely relevant to what’s onscreen and how the movie became what it is, demonstrating again why Meyer’s are the great Trek movies but also extending beyond them in significance. He’s talking about the movie, but the commentary gradually becomes an extended meditation on writing and how to put a story together, and its brilliant.
Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner on the Wrath of Khan set.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: Commentary by Leonard Nimoy, producer Harve Bennett, director of photography Charles Correll and Robin Curtis (the second Saavik actress). It’s a relaxed chat about the movie, but I don’t think they were talking to each other, it sounds more like they recorded statements independently. The main focus was on how they managed to make the movie on their budget, with a sub-theme of the characters’ motivations and how the actors worked. So, most of the information I already knew from Leonard Nimoy’s memoirs, but it was nice to hear him talk about the movie.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Ah, this is Nimoy and Shatner in the same room watching the movie, so it’s a pleasure. They jog each other’s memories of what word they’re looking for, they laugh at jokes in the movie, they express their feelings at watching DeForest Kelley after his death. They share some behind-the-scenes stories and insights into filming, but they’re also quiet for a lot of the movie, and it creates a kind of intimacy. I just love how entertained they still were at the humor here.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: This is William Shatner and his daughter Lisabeth, who served as his chronicler during the making of the movie. They mostly just describe what they see onscreen, and the tone here is much different from Voyage. Frequently Lisabeth reminds Shatner of a story or anecdote, and he just repeats what she says. I did, at a few moments, get a glimpse of the movie Shatner wanted to have made, and knew he hadn’t, and there’s something very poignant in that, especially combined with the “forgetful older man” dynamic he’s showing in the conversation, but otherwise there’s not much insight here.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Back to Nicholas Meyer, this time with his co-screenwriter Denny Flinn. So, there’s some of the pleasure and depth from Wrath of Khan, but a little more chat. I also enjoyed getting more details about the then-contemporary political allusions, because while I can follow “this is the Cold War and the Klingons are the Russians,” they actually had a few more layers and references that I didn’t catch because I wasn’t alive when that was the news, so it was cool to hear those and see how they added those resonances to a sci-fi plot with existing characters. Neither of them knew much about Trek before they got started, so their thoughts on writing longstanding characters, and now characters who aren’t young anymore, was really interesting.
In this collection — which is sometimes expensive but can also be found cheaply if you strike at the right time — Meyer’s Wrath of Khan commentary is absolutely the standout. The Undiscovered Country is a great complement to it, and The Voyage Home is a pleasure. The other three aren’t terribly compelling on their own, but I did enjoy watching them all as a unit. I especially noticed the difference between Meyer’s “constraints make the work better” attitude and the other directors’ litanies of what they couldn’t afford, and I’m fascinated by the way the commentaries matched up to the movies in terms of tone. Overly effects-laden and kinda boring, brilliant, technically good but not transcendent, funny and a bit touching, sad, and brilliant but a bit chattier. That’s the cycle of the movies, too.
These aren’t must-watches, certainly, although I recommend that second commentary to everyone. But if you’re a fan, I think you’ll appreciate the experience.