Since there isn’t much home video news to report this week, I’ve decided to make this edition of The Digital Wire a special one. In light of the recent deaths of Leonard Nimoy and producer Harve Bennett this week’s Wire will be devoted to a list of the five best films in the Star Trek franchise starring the legendary Original Series cast available to own on Blu-ray.
Each title provides a link to its corresponding Amazon page so you can order a copy of your very own if you choose (you can also get the 6-film Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection, which comes with a bonus disc). Also, although this is a special edition of the Digital Wire, I’ve still provided a list of this week’s major releases on Blu-ray and DVD, complete with their own purchase links. We would greatly appreciate it if you use those links to order because a small percentage of each order helps keep this website running at max power.
Possibly my favorite film series of all time, the Star Trek movies continued Gene Roddenberry‘s greatest and most enduring creation onto the big screen with its grandiose themes, beautiful optimism, and characters so warm and relatable they felt like family thankfully intact. After the original crew of the Enterprise literally signed on at the conclusion of 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the reins of the feature film series were handed to the Next Generation crew and things were never again quite the same. The four films made with Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard in command had their moments of greatness, but few of them could hold a candle to even the worst entries in the first six cinematic adventures with Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and their trusted and loyal companions leading the way into a glorious future.
The beginning….was a little difficult. A Trek movie had been in development for years, but it wasn’t until the blazing box office success of Star Wars that the project was catapulted over a myriad of production hurdles and onto the fast track towards becoming a reality. Robert Wise, who directed the sci-fi masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still as well as the beloved musical blockbuster The Sound of Music, was placed at the helm of The Motion Picture. The entire original cast, including a reluctant Nimoy, were reassembled for the most spectacular adventure the crew of the Enterprise ever undertook. The budget was larger than any studio film had ever spent since the dawn of cinema, with most of the funds going toward hiring a crack team of special effects artists including Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) and John Dykstra (Star Wars) to deliver a mind-blowing feast of visuals worth every penny, chief among them an Enterprise fit for the widest of theater screens. The cult of Trek fans was growing into an audience that could no longer be ignored. The Motion Picture had “guaranteed hit” written all over.
Unfortunately what it didn’t have as principal photography commenced was a completed script. It was being rewritten on a regular basis and lacked a solid ending. Creating the effects was a task easier said than done; as late as mere days before the film was scheduled to premiere the major sequences were only close to being finished. Because of the studio’s concrete release date Wise was unable to edit The Motion Picture fully to his satisfaction, but in spite of the unfinished nature the inaugural big screen voyage of the Enterprise was a holiday box office smash. Over two decades later Wise was finally able to finish his edit, with certain effects brought to fruition through the subtle use of CGI. The resulting “Director’s Edition” was released on DVD in late 2001 but as of this writing there are no plans for upgrading it to high-definition. The Motion Picture Blu-ray currently available contains only the original theatrical cut. It’s a mess sometimes, but what a mess! The ensemble cast’s performances run the gamut from good to uncomfortably stiff, but the ambitions and emotions on display and some special effects that stand the test of time result in a viewing experience that the franchise never quite had the courage to attempt again. It’s a lot of fun to sit back and absorb the atmosphere and mystery and the hauntingly operatic score composed by Jerry Goldsmith carries us over the roughest patches in the narrative.
The best of the franchise bar none and easily in my top five favorite films of all time. Though I have a soft spot in my heart for the entire series, Wrath of Khan gets everything right from the moment it starts with a great opening credits sequence scored to the magisterial soundtrack composed by a young and fresh James Horner. Writer-director Nicholas Meyer was no fan of Trek but that turned out to be a huge plus in his favor; under his stewardship the series was able to break away from Roddenberry’s demands for rigid fidelity to his implausibly optimistic vision of the future early on and that bled into future sequels, ensuring the franchise’s longevity.
There’s not a scene in this movie I would change or delete. William Shatner does some of the best acting of his entire life. Bennett, a longtime television producer who was hired by Paramount to shepherd a cheaper Trek sequel, guided his demanding star into delivering a memorable performance by flattering the Shat with comparisons to one of his acting idols, the great Spencer Tracy. Nimoy was lured back to the series after the prolonged and uncomfortable experience of making Star Trek: The Motion Picture with the promise of a spectacular death scene, but his acting throughout the film is sublime and presents Nimoy at his absolute best. It was Bennett’s idea to bring back the devious genetic superhuman Khan from the classic Trek episode “Space Seed” as the villain of the sequel and have Ricardo Montalban reprise the role. He is superb as the revenge-obsessed madman and the fact that he and Shatner generate scorching intensity with their limited interactions despite never once meeting in person on screen is a testament to the enduring strength of both actors when they were at their absolute finest.
Even during its release there was no question that Wrath of Khan would be a tough act for any further sequels to follow. The seeds had been planted for an amazing continuation of the adventure with its emotions, wit, and danger kept intact and expanded upon. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which arrived in theaters two years later, had enough positive qualities to justify its existence, but it also served as an understandable reason why the odd-numbered Trek movies are often regarded as the worst. Nimoy made his feature directorial debut on Search and for the most part he performs his duties admirably with competency and craft.
In comparison to the drab interior visuals of Khan the third movie exploded with a rainbow of vibrant colors. The Genesis planet was a lush tropical paradise whose environmental wonders concealed a darker menace built in by its misguided creator. The cast returns, as does composer Horner, and everyone does a fine job trying to live up to the promise of Khan while avoiding becoming a carbon copy at every turn. There is death, resurrection, and the iconic destruction of the Enterprise still has the power to chill. But Christopher Lloyd‘s blustery Klingon baddie Kruge, while having his moments, is still pretty weak sauce compared to the demon that lurked behind Khan’s burning eyes. In the wake of Nimoy and Bennett’s passing The Search for Spock should be deemed worthy of reappraisal. You can’t go wrong with a movie that climaxes with a knockdown fist fight on an exploding planet.
Humor has always been one of the cornerstones of Star Trek and it has come mostly from the interactions of a principal cast so used to each other’s quirks and rhythms that watching them engaged in front of the camera is like observing a family enjoying Thanksgiving dinner without incident. After battling obsessive foes and turning death into a fighting chance to live Kirk, a rejuvenated Spock, and the rest of the trusty Enterprise crew were plunged into a lighthearted trip back in time to the late 20th century to find a pair of humpback whales. Why? The continued existence of the human race of course.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home once more found Nimoy in the director’s chair, only this time with increased confidence and a greater command of his craft (not to mention a droll script loaded with priceless visuals and fascinating ideas co-written by Nicholas Meyer). Everyone looks to be having a ball and as the crew splits up to accomplish individual tasks each cast member is given at least one standout moment. The real comedy gold in The Voyage Home comes from seeing our seasoned space travelers encountering a world more alien to them than any they have ever encountered – San Francisco, circa 1986. This is a wonderful gateway into the world of Star Trek for newcomers and for longtime fans just another reason to love the franchise.
The less said of the troubled, cheap-looking but sort of underrated Star Trek V: The Final Frontier the better. It’s not a bad film, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a good film either. Frontier was initiated with the best of intentions, but budget cuts, a rushed release date, and competition at the box office that included Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ensured total doom for the end result. The franchise’s future started to resemble a barren post-apocalyptic wilderness until Nimoy came up with the general idea that fueled the creation of the cinematic swan song for the original Trek crew. In time for the 25th anniversary of the television series that started it all Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country gave Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Scotty, Uhura, and Chekhov the memorable sendoff they richly deserved.
Nicholas Meyer was brought back to direct their final adventure on the big screen, a politically-charged conspiracy thriller that directly referenced current events by turning the fearsome Klingon Empire into the former Soviet Union of the cosmos. Peace between this warlike race and the Federation finally seems possible, but virulently opposed forces are determined to derail any hope for a lasting truce. Undiscovered Country definitely delivers on the action front and has a juicy supporting turn from the great Christopher Plummer as the Enterprise’s latest Klingon adversary, the Shakespeare-quoting General Chang, but the plot and the mature themes of bigotry, tolerance, and maintaining the status quo recall classic Trek episodes of the past. To this day it’s rare to find crowd-pleasing entertainment that challenges the mind and inspires discussion as much as it thrills the soul. Kirk and company could not have picked a higher note on which to go out.
Out This Week
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb: Blu-ray|DVD
The Sound of Music: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray|DVD
The Breakfast Club: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray