There’s a tendency in fandom — and I’m by no means calling it a bad tendency — to idolize the way a show “should” be. A certain arrangement of characters feels like the right way for them to be related, and that makes sense because the characters were designed that way. This was maybe more prevalent in shows of a certain era when the style was more episodic, less miniseries-like, but it’s certainly still present — Supernatural is the first example that comes to mind. For now though we’ll stick with Star Trek.
The clearest examples of what I mean are in The Next Generation, where it’s a little awkward (in a charming way) because TNG landed right in the middle of the transition from standalone episode shows to the current miniseries-inspired style. So many episodes present a challenge to the status quo when an officer is offered a promotion but return us to it at the end — usually with a handwaved explanation like “Ah, why would I want a command position anyway, that’s a lot of stress,” which clearly means (both within and without the confines of the episode) that they just didn’t want to change, that something felt right about the milieu as it is. Riker was offered three or four separate captaincies, particularly in “The Icarus Factor” and “The Best of Both Worlds,” but turns them down, and is unable to explain why except that those ships aren’t the Enterprise.
Riker in the captain’s chair, “The Best of Both Worlds”
In the original series, the circumstances and setting allow the milieu to attain almost mythical proportions. The show is more stylized, there’s no realism there to insist that people’s careers will grow and change, and the status quo is never challenged in the same way as in TNG. Instead it’s challenged more obliquely by violence or injustice (as in “Court Martial”), and the characters are always back to normal by the time the next episode starts. Fanworks and tie-in works go absolutely nuts with this — for TOS and just in general — about the way things should be. It should always be Kirk and Spock on the bridge of the Enterprise. Place a young Kirk in a situation where he has to work with a Vulcan, and you can bet he’ll mention that “something feels right” about it. (This happens often enough to be a trope, but one example is the first Trek graphic novel, Debt of Honor.) Even the new Trek movies, especially the third one, do it. Kirk and Spock are both thinking about leaving the ship, but in the end they decide to stay because it feels right.
We know that the reason characters do this is because they can’t leave the confines of the show without some external reason, but the characters will never understand that because they’re characters. They just know that something keeps them on the Enterprise, in the relationships established by the show. Enter the 1985 licensed novel Killing Time by Della van Hise. This book is rightly famous in certain circles of Trekdom, because Pocket Books recalled it after 250,000 copies to make changes that were supposed to have been made before publication… Specifically changes to make it less openly a Kirk/Spock fanfic. Van Hise was already known as a K/S author, and the edited version is still incredibly shippy.
The book is actually really interesting in itself, though. Rightness is built into the plot, into the very molecules of this universe. It’s hard to sum up fairly, but the basic idea is that Romulans go back in time and change the course of history to eliminate the Federation, but it doesn’t go quite the way they planned. Not only is the Federation replaced by a Vulcan-led alliance (which rightly terrifies the Romulans), the universe remembers the way it was and should be. People remember the way they ought to be, subconsciously and in dreams, and are going very quickly mad because their minds can’t reconcile their new identities with the old.
While there are several diversions into Romulan intrigue, the centerpiece of the book is Kirk and Spock’s relationship. In the new universe, Spock captains the Enterprise (now called the ShiKahr), and Kirk is a reluctant ensign drafted as an alternative to prison. I know, it’s fanficcy, but it provides an opportunity to do some creative worldbuilding about how the Vulcans and humans relate in this world. It’s also romantic in both senses of the word. The book is about their romance, it’s super obvious even in the edited version, but it’s also Romantic in the poetic sense, exalting nature and natural impulses above intellect. This is right, they are right, as a unit. It almost doesn’t matter if you ship it or not, although this is indeed the most overtly shippy licensed work I’ve ever seen. It’s about how they belong together; the universe itself insists on it. I can recommend the book (CN: dubcon twice) for shippers, but also for Romulan/Vulcan worldbuilding and a full-fledged in-universe examination of the whole status quo phenomenon we’ve been discussing.
Lest you think it’s just shippers being shippy though, don’t forget that the show is built like that. See: all the movies, where the crew somehow always shows up to recreate the iconic bridge. It wouldn’t be right without them. Spock’s absence in particular, as in the beginning of The Motion Picture, is fundamentally off, particularly to Kirk. Kirk is consistently shunted into the role of ship captain, bouncing up and down to admiral but always coming back. He’s the focal point, and usually the character with a narrative arc, whose internal thoughts we see the most, and in the movies they’re all about who he is and who he should be as he ages. It’s a powerful story about aging across the movies, and other things besides, but it’s also a metatextual trauma. The most pointed quotes are from The Wrath of Khan, the best of the movies:
Spock: If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.
Kirk: I would not presume to debate you.
Spock: That is wise. Were I to invoke logic, however, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Kirk: Or the one.
Spock: You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours.
This exchange echoes of course in the movie’s tragic ending, when Spock sacrifices himself to save the ship. Again, we could say so many things about this because it’s a great movie, but for our purposes Spock’s first line has been forgotten in the impact of the other two. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. That’s connected to both of the other quotes though: Spock sacrifices himself for the ship, but also for Kirk’s sake, his continuation, the needs of the one. And Kirk cannot live with that, the fans could not live with that, there cannot be another movie without both Kirk and Spock, so we had to have two more movies in service of bringing him back.
The Search for Spock
Of course, as shippers already know, the saddest part is that Spock does live on after Kirk’s death in Generations, knowing that Kirk was who he was and retiring would never be part of that, even if he wanted it to be. So that you can all be as sad as I am, I’ll leave you with a quote from an unfilmed Star Trek (2009) scene, in which we would’ve heard the message from Kirk that Spock carried the rest of his life:
You once said being a starship captain was my first, best destiny… if that’s true, then yours is to be by my side. If there’s any true logic to the universe… we’ll end up on that bridge again someday. Admit it, Spock. For people like us, the journey itself… is home.
It’s worth reading the whole thing.
Star Trek Movie Commentaries!
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.
William and Lisabeth Shatner, in this case discussing Star Wars.
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.
Posted in Movies, Watching
Tagged commentaries, James T. Kirk, Klingons, Leonard Nimoy, Nicholas Meyer, screenwriting, Spock, Star Trek, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek: The Original Series, The Wrath of Khan, William Shatner, writing