In fourth grade, I sold tribbles to my classmates. On Star Trek, they were cute alien creatures that gave Captain Kirk and his crew no end of trouble. In real life, they were balls of fake fur stuffed with foam rubber, sewed together with Mom’s help and marketed to my friends as ideal gifts. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even mention the TV show in my sales pitch. I didn’t need to – the tribbles themselves were a great idea.
At its heart, Star Trek revolved around ideas and inspiration. On screen, the tribbles were just a bit of fun, but their story can be seen as a commentary on population control and diplomacy. At its best, Star Trek specialized in social and political commentary. Some have even argued that the series as a whole represents America’s idealistic faith in the universal appeal of liberal democracy.
A somewhat mystical approach fueled the show’s first reinvention, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which tried to marry 2001: A Space Odyssey’s cerebral pace and cinematic visuals to a character-based adventure. Unfortunately, while the result is watchable – largely due to the power and majesty of Jerry Goldsmith’s stunning musical score – the movie failed to capture the spirit that made the original series so beloved.
On the other hand, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was everything the first movie wasn’t. Well-paced, well-acted, and centered around one of the series’ best episodes, the second Star Trek film raised the stakes for the characters and the franchise as a whole. 1984’s underappreciated Star Trek III: The Search for Spock played almost as Wrath of Khan part 2, while Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) embraced a lighter approach that translated to broader public appeal.
In 1987, Star Trek returned to television with a new generation of stars and a continued embrace of culturally relevant stories. On the big screen, the original crew stumbled with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier before going out in a blaze of glory for 1991’s détente-themed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
The Star Trek: The Next Generation crew’s first foray into movies, 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, gave us an unsatisfying (and probably unnecessary) melding with some of the original crew, while their next film, the somewhat derivative Star Trek: First Contact (1996), gave them a better chance to shine. Their final two films, 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection and 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, attempted some depth and originality, but nearly killed the franchise with tepid box office returns.
In 2009, JJ Abrams re-envisioned Star Trek as a straightforward action picture. While it made some fans angry, I thought it was a rip-roaring good time – then again, I may have let the tribble cameo sway me too much. The most recent entry, 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, attempts a small return to social commentary while also ramping up the action. It’s also, much to its detriment, slavishly tied to Wrath of Khan. Like Nemesis before it, there seems to be too much looking backward, almost to the point of pastiche.
The original series sought to “boldly go” forward, and ended up inspiring people to become astronauts, to invent flip phones, and, in my case, to make their own tribbles. I have to wonder: will kids today get the same charge from the current action movies that are called Star Trek? Will today’s generation boldly go into the final frontier, or just munch some popcorn and move on to the next fad? Let’s hope that any future entries will once again explore strange new worlds.
Image from Think Geek.