For so much of my life, Star Trek has been a gap in my knowledge. I’d seen the recent Kelvin timeline films and the first season of Discovery, but had never watched the iconic original cast stories or any of the other shows. However, I recently finally took the plunge and bought a Blu-ray boxset of the first 10 Star Trek films spanning the casts of the original series and The Next Generation. For this post, I’m going to run through my brief reviews for the first six movies of that original cast led by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, which start with The Motion Picture and end with The Undiscovered Country. I’ll probably review the other movies in a separate post in the future!
All in all, I’m disappointed I took so long to get around to these first six films, because I had a brilliant time with them! They’re (mostly… ) intelligent, character-driven stories with imaginative concepts. There are certainly high and low points, but many more of the former! My next quest might be to catch up on the TV shows, which I haven’t done yet, just because of the time investment they’ll need. Anyway – I’m getting ahead of myself as normal… Let’s dive into my thoughts on these films!
So here I am, at the start of the Star Trek films (finally!). This first film definitely shows its age, but in a way that’s one of its strengths. Director Robert Wise delivers long, loving shots of the Enterprise that are 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque in how refreshingly patient they are, encouraging you to let yourself sink into the universe and the story being told within it.
Picking up after the original series, Kirk (William Shatner) is called back into action to explore a mysterious energy wave which has already claimed multiple Klingon ships and is nearing Earth. There isn’t really a figurehead to this threat, which does cost the film some urgency, but it’s intriguing enough to watch Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and crew tackle the situation and figure things out; they’re a group of characters which are easy to root for.
Yes, the film is slow and looks dated by the standards of today, but it still works as a fascinating space opera and time capsule. The origin of the threat is an imaginative reveal, and the film lays a fantastic foundation for these characters, and by the end I felt familiar with who they were, despite having not seen the TV show yet. This certainly pays off in future films.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture undoubtedly could’ve been edited to be at least slightly more energetic than it is, but there’s an earnestness in how methodically it presents the story to us. The climactic moments do provide a rewarding payoff when we finally get to them, too. Yet, compared to the subsequent peaks of certain sequels, The Motion Picture is certainly a less entertaining journey and one I’d be much less inclined to watch again.
I mentioned how well Star Trek: The Motion Picture sets up the sequels to come; and in The Wrath of Khan, that pays off immediately. From the first scene, this film pairs a new sense of energy and stakes with the beautiful, thoughtful universe that the first film showed us.
This is on display straight away when Kirk strides into the bridge after new character Saavik (Kirstie Alley) fails the Kobayashi Maru test; Shatner appears to be newly enjoying himself in the role of a confident, charismatic, but troubled Admiral. However, going up against the formidable threat of Khan (Ricardo Montalbán), Kirk and co. are soon pushed to their limits to survive. Khan originally appeared in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed”, and continuing that into this film is an inspired idea.
It’s impressive how well they sell the rivalry, considering Kirk and Khan never meet in the flesh. They’re two leaders, desperately attempting to outsmart the other, sometimes unnecessarily and to their own detriment. This is a film about the idea of death and sacrifice, and the means to which you’ll go to in order to avoid it.
The returning and new cast all shine in the way these themes apply to them, especially Spock and Saavik. I quickly grew to love watching the crew of the Enterprise interact, and how character often takes precedent over action in this franchise. It makes the events at the end of the film even more impactful (which I won’t spoil, even if the name of the third film might do that anyway).
In addition, the effects in The Wrath of Khan hold up a lot better than in the first film, and much of the practical work is very impressive (I’ll never think about ears the same way as I did before… ). The space battles are more of a strategic chess match rather than quick-paced dogfights, and that fits the tense sci-fi setting.
Just think how thrilling it would’ve been to watch The Wrath of Khan when it first came out. It’s smart, it’s exciting, and it stands the test of time. There are so many quotable lines, but let’s end with perhaps the most iconic, because it’s just so fun to say: “KHAAAAAN!”‘ been to watch The Wrath of Khan when it first came out. It’s smart, it’s exciting, and it stands the test of time. There are so many quotable lines, but let’s end with perhaps the most iconic, because it’s just so fun to say: “KHAAAAAN!”
Whilst The Search for Spock doesn’t reach the same heights as The Wrath of Khan, I do like how it’s essentially an entire film based on the consequences from that prior film. In my eyes, there’s enough time and cost associated with bringing Spock back that it works and doesn’t badly dilute his sacrifice in the previous film.
William Shatner really sells how utterly broken Kirk is by the loss of his close friend Spock. Particularly early on, he just looks broken, and I’m glad the film gave us those quieter scenes and allowed itself a more melancholy tone. When Kirk finds the glimmer of hope that Spock can be brought back, though, he springs into action, and it was fun to see him lead the Enterprise crew to steal back their ship. Especially as the rest of the crew got more moments to shine within that sequence, including Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) utterly schooling another member of Starfleet!
The weak points of this film are mainly connected to the Klingon antagonists; Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) and his crew are after the Genesis planet as a potential weapon, and clash with the Enterprise, which is going there in search of Spock. The Klingons are serviceable enemies and do carry a threat, but are nowhere near as striking as, say, Khan was.
Also, the action feels much less substantial here. There’s some corny, weightless fist-fighting in the final act that slightly broke my immersion, and the space battles feel a step down from The Wrath of Khan in terms of strategy and choreography. The effects remain at a high standard however, with some really powerful moments during when the Enterprise duels the Klingons.
As with all the Star Trek films I have seen so far, the characters are the driving force for why this is entertaining throughout. I care about Kirk, Spock, and crew, and there’re some real stakes here which aren’t treated cheaply. The imagery that Leonard Nimoy (now directing) conjures up is very emotional (if you’re not going to be in the film much, you may as well direct, I suppose)!
Overall, The Search for Spock is an engaging watch with ideas of its own, but not as cohesively absorbing as The Wrath of Khan was. I will say it’s a film I’ve grown to like more in retrospect, due to that aforementioned sombre feel and how it doesn’t shy away from taking these characters to dark and introspective places. It may well be the most underrated Star Trek film.
Well, this is just a delight of a film; The Voyage Home revels in the newfound joy of Spock returning to the crew of the Enterprise. The caveat to that is, well, they aren’t on the Enterprise, and are still left with the captured Klingon ship as their rout back to Earth!
That journey home doesn’t go smoothly, though. A mysterious probe arrives in space nearby Earth to communicate with the whale population, but with the species now extinct in the 23rd century, the probe receives no reply and proceeds to wreck havoc with the ecosystem of the planet. The only solution is for our crew to travel back in time to the 1986 and collect whales to bring to the future. Now, this plot sounds almost farcical on paper, even lacking a particular face to go with the threat ina vein simialr to The Motion Picture. In this case, The Voyage Home still manages to excel, due to how fully the film commits to the story and lets the characters thrive within the fish-out-of-water scenario.
Not only is the unique premise a clever way to commentate on the issues surrounding whaling, but it’s an excuse for the team to go on a brilliantly entertaining time travel adventure, in which they are unfamiliar visitors in 1986. So much clever, situational humour is mined from this, and it’s great to see the entire crew get a better share of the action within the mini-groups they split off into. The dialogue is so well-judged and smart, and it’s performed well by all of the cast, including Catherine Hicks in the crucial supporting role of aquarium worker Gillian.
These elements make Star Trek IV perhaps the most fun Star Trek, and there’s a lot of value in that. This isn’t to say the film doesn’t have stakes, as it definitely does – though there’s admittedly more ground-level scenes and less sprawling space sequences. For me, the strategic, tense feel of The Wrath of Khan slightly edges it ahead of this film in my personal ranking.
Yet, if you’re in the mood for a Star Trek movie that’ll have you consistently grinning throughout, they don’t come much more watchable than The Voyage Home. It’s a fantastic way to close out the pseudo-trilogy of Star Treks II through IV!
To put it bluntly, The Final Frontier is the weakest Star Trek film, and that is including the non-original cast films. I believe the film means well and had the potential to be much more captivating, but misjudged moments and a weakly executed, muddled plot get in the way of some genuinely fascinating themes being attempted here.
It starts with Kirk free-climbing in Yellowstone park as if he’s Tom Cruise at the start of Mission Impossible II, and this isn’t meant as an insult to William Shatner, but at this point, it’s quite the suspension of imagination. Then again, Kirk does end up falling in a spectacular falling stunt, only to be saved in corny fashion by a Spock wearing jet boots. Soon, Kirk and co. have their shore leave cut short when they’re called to respond to a hostage situation on a desolate planet.
It’s being orchestrated by Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), a Vulcan who’s using his empathic abilities to create a cult following, and is chasing after means to cross a treacherous space boundary at the heart of the galaxy in order to find God. There’re some intriguing ideas and scenes here, in particular when Sybok shows McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Spock their fears. But the way it’s all delivered is such a mess, with awkwardly staged and conceived action scenes, and a clunky plot full of unnecessary moments.
The final act is a great example of this, when the prospect of meeting God becomes more real. There’re some brilliant pieces of dialogue (“What does God need with a starship?”), but they’re lost amongst the really shoddy visual effects and badly-paced scenes.
An easy conclusion to make would be that this is the fault of William Shatner, who took up the director role for this one movie after Leonard Nimoy had directed the previous two – but I think that’s unfair. The actual cinematography is decent and as I say, there are standout moments. But budget constraints and production issues clearly hit this film hard, and the rough edges are all-too-visible.
All in all, the chemistry of the cast was enough to still make The Final Frontier enjoyable to a degree, but there’s no doubt it’s a below-average Star Trek movie, particularly relative to the other movies with the original cast.
After The Final Frontier, there’s the concern that the original Star Trek crew are going to have their story peter out in disappointing fashion. Not to worry, though, because The Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer returns to direct an exceptional send-off.
When the Klingon home planet undergoes a disaster that leaves it soon-inhabitable, these long-time enemies of Starfleet seek to mend bridges to ensure the future of their race.
This is not easy for some people – such as Kirk himself – to get to grips with, and indeed, there’s discontent on the Klingon side too. There are obvious parallels between the warmongering Klingon Chang (Christopher Plummer) and the unease surrounding real-life historical events such as the Cold War in the 1980s/1990s.
The Enterprise is framed for an attack on the Klingons, and this leaves Kirk and McCoy taken to a Klingon court to be sentenced. Meanwhile, Spock and the rest of the crew lead an investigation on the Enterprise to attempt to prove their innocence. These two stories are intertwined in a well-paced manner and give the whole crew time to shine, with everyone getting at least one key moment in their last film together.
I love how aged and seasoned the Enterprise crew is- their chemistry is so natural, and their confidence in their actions so assured, that it makes the big crowd-pleasing action moments wonderfully cathartic. That’s also why I rank this below The Wrath of Khan, however, as the crew never feels in quite the same extreme peril that they did in that film. Plummer delivers a charismatic performance as Chang, full of Shakespearean references, but isn’t given the time to develop into the sort of rival Khan was.
The visual effects are superb, in a nostalgic sweet spot between model work and CGI. Furthermore, the return of the Excelsior – now piloted by Sulu (George Takei) is a fantastic continuity-based addition. Also, the soundtrack continues to develop, with modern action motifs merging into a punchy, rousing rendition of the original theme.
It really feels like The Undiscovered Country toes that line between the old and the new, just like the story has Kirk realising he needs to open up to new ideas of peace that he never expected before. The dialogue between Kirk and Spock about their place in the universe is poignantly done – indeed, the film allows itself to bring in new ideas even at this stage, and show that the characters are fallible and still learning. It’s a bold theme for your big send-off movie, and it pays off, because the film allows itself to properly explore the idea through these familiar characters.
The quality of The Undiscovered Country even makes you wonder if this cast had more films left in them, but it was the right time to stop. This Enterprise crew end on such a high, and the signatures in the credits are a classy touch. I think this might be where Avengers: Endgame got inspiration for their credits, actually, and that gives an idea of the importance this franchise and characters have.
It makes me imagine how amazing it must’ve been to experience this in theatres at the time; as a final adventure, capped off with Kirk’s inspirational ending dialogue, this is an exceptional and fitting way for the original cast to sail into the distance.
Thanks for reading about my thoughts on the first six Star Trek films, as told through reviews! If you haven’t seen them yourself, I highly recommend you seek them out. Next up will be my reviews for the era of The Next Generation!
Have an amazing day!