Star Trek Motion Picture Trilogy – Blu-ray Review

With Paramount turning their STAR TREK vaults upside down and shaking out everything having to do with the original cast in preparation for the release of the (spectacular) J J Abrams film, there has been an embarrassment of riches for fans, bringing us Blu-Ray releases of the ’66-’67 series and the first 6 films, available as a complete set or a smaller, 3-picture ser featuring THE WRATH OF KHAN, THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, and THE VOYAGE HOME, which is the version sent out for review. When revisiting these films, it’s fun to look back at the occasionally rough road that the original cast had in their voyage to the silver screen. The series’ cancellation should have put an Amen to the whole venture, but buoyed by popular syndicated reruns, the first fan convention occurred in January of ’72 and was followed the next year by a well-written but very cheaply produced animated series featuring the entire cast reprising their roles.
Paramount smelled money, and talks with creator Gene Roddenberry began to bring the show back to television. Star Trek: Phase II was weeks from the start of production when the studio pulled the plug because of poor advertising pre-sales. But once Star Wars vacuumed up the entire nation’s disposable income, Paramount moved the property from their television deptartment to the feature film deptartment, expanded the Phase II pilot episode to feature length and brought in Oscar-winning director Robert Wise (of The Day the Earth Stood Still, among others) to helm Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. The ambitious special effects ballooned the budget to $46 million (in 1979 dollars), and the rush to make a December release date compromised Wise’s final edit, but the film grossed huge numbers in spite of its lukewarm critical reception. Wise could be a brilliant director (and was more often than not), but he was probably a poor choice – particularly at the end of his career ; it’s undeniably fun to see the show’s severely limited television production scale expanded to the scope of an expensive feature film, but the meager plotting strains to sustain the inflated running time, and the pace lagged terribly in the second half.
A sequel was certain, but Roddenberry was locked out, and producer Harve Bennett and acclaimed writer-director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time) were tasked to start from scratch for the second film, in addition to working with significantly less money. Meyer and Bennett decided to sequeilize a story from the show’s first season about a 20th century tyrant, born via genetic engineering designed to make him both intellectually and physically superior to other men. Marooned with his closest followers following a world war and drifting for 200 years before being thawed from hyper sleep by the Enterprise crew, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) narrowly missed taking over the ship from Captain Kirk, who left Khan and his party on a nearby class-M planet. The episode title, “Space Seed,” came from a question raised by Spock at the show’s end where he ruminates how interesting it would be to return to Khan’s planet in later years and see what became of the seed planted by Kirk. In the summer of 1982, we found out.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Not just the best Star Trek film, but easily one of the best sci-fi films ever made, The Wrath of Khan only gets better with age. Director (and uncredited writer) Nicholas Meyer added (much to Roddenberry’s chagrin) a more militaristic, naval feel to the costumes, language, and shipboard routine, essentially creating a Horatio Hornblower space opera. Meyer is a lover of literature, and he pumped The Wrath of Khan with all manner of classical references, from Spock’s birthday gift to Kirk of an antique volume of A Tale of Two Cities to Khan’s last line, spitting out one of the closing passages of Moby Dick (“From Hell’s heart I stab at the…”) that actually allude to the plot rather than existing as high toned window dressing.
Meyer and producer Harve Bennett take the crew off the antiseptic Enterprise of the previous film and junked the Logan’s Run-inspired costume design in favor of the familiar tunics that were used in the subsequent films featuring the original cast. And instead of the warp-speed science lab of the previous film, the The Wrath of Khan Enterprise is very much a ‘ship of the line’, as Kirk is greeted with the 23rd century equivalent of a Navy Bosun’s whistle. James Horner’s music is also ferociously good, and could easily be re-used for a submarine thriller without alteration.
The films featuring the original cast got cheaper and cheaper (Many sets, like Dr. Carol Marcus’ Regula 1 science station, could have been taken straight from the original series) until the producers finally dealt with the problem by filming the Next Generation pictures like extended television shows rather than theatrical epics. But under Meyer’s direction, the sets are artfully lit and in many cases the lighting was darkened significantly – particularly in the bridge sequences (so tight was the budget, that many exterior space shots were actually re-used from The Motion Picture.)
Another new arrival to the Star Trek universe was the idea that space combat was more than just the pitching the bridge crew back and forth; the ship takes awful, scarring damage to the hull when Khan first attacks, and the young training crew are battered, mangled, and killed before our eyes – we remember being shocked by seeing the young engineer with horrific radiation burns. This gets us used to the notion that loss of life is actually a possibility in the universe. Little did we know…
The real surprise that Meyer and company had in store was the killing off of a major, beloved character at the climax. Spock’s death – brilliantly set up with Kirk’s line (“Aren’t you dead?”) immediately after the Kobayashi Maru test – was the film’s masterstroke. A tearful farewell with Spock trapped in a radiation-poisoned engine room, after giving his life to repair the warp engine, gave both Shatner and Nimoy their best on-screen moments in or out of their Starfleet uniforms. This upset many dedicated Trekkers at first, but the weight that it gave to the proceedings was undeniable; there wasn’t a dry eye in the house back in 1982, and even now it difficult to not be moved.
All of the original cast were spot-on their game here, inhabiting their roles under Meyer’s direction in ways that were subtle, but not skipping on the bombast (“KHAN!!!!! KHAN!!!!!!”) Even the supporting players had the type of moments that were typically denied them in future installments, like Walter Koenig’s palpable fear upon discovering the name of Khan’s ship, James Doohan’s reaction to a dead crewman (only in the director’s cut do we learn that this was his nephew – more on that later).
However, this show belongs to Ricardo Montalban; there must have been some hesitation in casting him as the villain while Fantasy Island was still in its prime, but from the moment he steps onscreen and slowly peels off his mask, we’re his. His command of the screen was then, and still is now, awesome to watch, and we have no doubt that a large number of men and women did indeed swear to live and die at his command. Paramount must have realized this towards the end of post-production as well, as evidenced by the theatrical trailer included here that focuses almost entirely on Montalban, making Shatner and Nimoy look like guest stars in their own film.
Our anticipation in finally seeing this classic on Blu-Ray was muted when we learned that it would not be the director’s cut, which was released on the previous DVD incarnation. Running just 3 minutes longer, the biggest single addition is a scene extension that identifies the soon-to-be-departed crewman as Scotty’s nephew. It’s just a beat, but it robs Doohan later on when we wonder why this one man’s death has affected him so. All the extras from the previous 2-disc edition have been ported over (in SD) with a couple of new HD additions, including a group of interviews with memorabilia collectors and a mock Starfleet informational film. We were cheered by the addition of a second commentary track with director Meyer, this time with former Enterprise showrunner Manny Coto. Meyer is expert at these, and is fantastically literate when discussing the production (and offering a very good explanation for Shatner’s performance level.)
But the real star is the sumptuous 1080p video, which was revelatory for this nearly 30 year old film. Khan always seemed a bit dark and dingy in its VHS and laserdisc incarnations, and even the image on the 2-disc DVD was a bit of a disappointment. This is, apparently, a new HD master as colors seem somewhat more muted than before, but with a staggering level of detail ( like the sweat dripping off Paul Winfield’s face in the Botany Bay’s cargo hold) leaving no doubt that this is how the film should look. We had never even noticed the broken Starfleet insignia that Khan wears as a necklace (that likely belonged to the Enterprise crewman who fell in love with Khan and went into exile with him), which now stands out clearly.  This is a first-rate transfer of one of the great space epics ever filmed and reason enough to buy the set.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

At Paramount’s behest, an insert was shot and edited into the film during McCoy’s encounter with Spock just before entering the radiation chamber: Leonard Nimoy reaches his hand to DeForest Kelley’s face and says, “Remember” – just in case The Wrath of Khan proved popular enough to warrant another Star Trek sequel. Director Nicolas Meyer was a bit aghast at the studio pulling a bait and switch on fans, so the director’s chair was filled by Leonard Nimoy himself (a non-negotiable condition for his return) and the Enterprise cleared her moorings once more.
The Search for Spock picked up just hours after The Wrath of Khan ended, with the battered ship and exhausted crew returning to Earth. Kirk is soon met by Spock’s father, Sarek, who assumes that Kirk was in possession of his son’s Katra – Spock’s spiritual and intellectual essence that is traditionally passed on through a mind meld prior to death. The audience knows that it’s really McCoy who carries Spock’s Katra around, much to the doctor’s annoyance (“It’s his revenge for all those arguments he lost”). Kirk risks his career to save the minds of his two closest friends by going back to the now-quarantined Genesis planet where Spock’s body was laid to rest, not knowing that the Genesis device has rejuvenated more than just a dead planet…
The Search for Spock is a perfectly enjoyable film, which shouldn’t be lumped in with the “odd-numbered Trek movies suck” theory. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t feel like a cheat while you’re watching it, but it’s difficult to avoid the notion that that for the sake of a sequel, all the well-earned pathos of The Wrath of Khan’s conclusion was simply tossed out a window.
Leonard Nimoy’s direction is fine when concentrating on the original characters, and his stabs at humor mostly work (unlike Shatner’s The Final Frontier, with “humorous” scenes that will send you running for the hills). Unfortuantely, Nimoy is less adept at focusing on the wider Star Trek universe. The Genesis planet sequences where Kirk’s wimpy son, David, and Lt. Saavik find and protect Spock as he ages rapidly from small child to adult are photographed in a very dull style on unconvincing sets propped up by sketchy matte paintings. The film’s big surprise was, of course, the destruction of the beloved Enterprise (ruined by ads that actually showed her burning hull and claimed that the film was “The final voyage of the USS Enterprise”), but it’s treated a little more matter-of-factly than this fan would have liked.
The Search for Spock is a film that’s really for hardcore trekkers only, as it lacks the action and story strength of The Wrath of Khan. But cheat or not, the film’s final moments after Spock’s body and soul are reunited on Vulcan pack an emotional punch for people who grew up with this cast, and we’d be lying if we said that the raised eyebrow that closes the film didn’t always bring a tear.
Though not quite the image revelation that The Wrath of Khan was, The Search for Spock is made all the more watchable by the excellent HD transfer. Once again, the image appears to be somewhat darker over all, but not unpleasantly so. The key here is detail, which is a sword that cuts both ways; facial details are remarkable good, but other things – like Christopher Lloyd’s Klingon makeup, some of the ship models, and the aforementioned Genesis planet effects – are revealed to be likely victims of cost-cutting.
As with The Wrath of Khan, all the extras from the previous 2 disc DVD set are present in SD, with a handful of new features added in HD, including a lengthy talk with producer Harve Bennett conducted at Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum, and another Federation film clip. We also have the previous commentary track from director Nimoy (who track-manner is very pleasant, thank you very much) intercut with producer-writer Bennett and Robin Curtis (Lt. Saavik) and also a new track featuring Ronald D Moore and Michael Taylor, both of whom worked on the later Star Trek series but have no connection with this film – resulting in an entertaining fan track from a pair of insiders.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

The second best –remembered of the film series, Star Trek IV might have easily been titled “Star Trek: The Funny One with the Whales,” but is actually called The Voyage Home. Long considered the completion of the II – III – IV trilogy, the film is actually far more of a self contained story than The Voyage Home.

We pick up the story on Vulcan, where the crew has just voted to return to Earth and face court martial for violating orders and stealing and destroying the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Spock’s spirit has been reunited with his Genesis-revitalized body, and he’s slowly re-educating his mind in the Vulcan way and back-burnering his human half. On the way home, the crew discovers that an alien probe orbiting Earth has disrupted all power and communications and targeting its signal at Earth’s oceans. After filtering the sounds to hear how they would sound underwater, it’s discovered that the probe is actually the whale-song of Humpbacks. But the Romulan in the pantry is that the whales have been extinct for over a century and without an answer, the probe’s signal will soon destroy all life on Earth, so the crew decide, quite reasonably, to slingshot around the sun and generate enough speed to travel back in time, pick up a few whales, and then hop back. No problem.

Why 20th century Earth seems a better selection than, say, a few thousand years ago, isn’t elaborated upon, nor are the myriad difficulties, unlikelihoods, impossibilities and just plain coincidences that pepper this lighthearted story, and none of it matters the slightest. After two heavily dramatic pictures in a row, Nimoy (returning to the director’s chair) and producer Harve Bennett (who co-wrote the script with Nicolas Meyers) made a conscious decision to give the fourth film a much lighter tone, without any heavy themes, deaths, or even villains (the closest this film gets to a “bad guy” is a punk playing his radio too loud on the bus to Sausalito.)
Humor is the order of the day here, and anyone unsure of what a perfectly formed comic creation The Voyage Home is need only to look to the embarrassing pantomime that Star Trek V almost immediately deteriorated into. The humor is blessedly character-based, drawing on the history of the characters rather than mugging and pratfalls. Characters that too often fall into the background each have moments here, like Scotty’s Prime Directive-defying negotiations with a plastics company (“How do we know he didn’t invent the thing?”) or Chekhov’s interrogation after being captured aboard an aircraft carrier.
However, Nimoy and Shatner really carry the show here; their banter is the carefully cultivated result of more than 20 years playing their respective characters. Simple exchanges, like the scene when the two are picked up near the Golden Gate bridge by whale expert Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks, quite good, incidentally) are absolute gems of comic timing. Even better is the The Voyage Home’s handling of the “message” of conservation; in each of its incarnations, Star Trek, could occasionally have given a master class in the heavy-handed delivery of socio-political messages woven into the sci-fi material. If the black & white cookie aliens of “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield” represent the nadir of un-subtle delivery, then The Voyage Home would easily be among the best.
We loved seeing Mark Lenard getting a juicer-that-usual role as Spock’s father, and we especially loved seeing him go toe to toe with the Klingon Ambassador played by Robert Altman-favorite John Schuck. Other standouts include Brock Peters, adding considerable class as a Starfleet Admiral, and Jane Wyatt, returning to the role of Spock’s human mother for the first time since the second season of the original series (also look for series semi-regulars Grace Lee Whitney and Majel Barrett at Starfleet HQ.)
As the newest film of this particular troika, The Voyage Home possesses the least demonstrable change in image quality from DVD to Blu-Ray. This isn’t to say that the new Blu-Ray is unappealing – quite the contrary;  it just looked better than the other two films did to start with (the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.) Paramount’s 1080p picture is lovely, showing the years on the weathered faces of the cast (or at least the makeup that covers it), and the image has a real sense of depth to it. Though it doesn’t directly relate to image quality, it’s interesting to see Nimoy get so much more comfortable with widescreen framing than he had been in The Search for Spock.
As with the other two discs in this box set, all previous extras have been ported over, including the commentary track featuring Nimoy and Shatner (which is unfortunately subdued.) The bonus track this time around features Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers of the JJ Abrams film, and it’s a shame that it’s the much more interesting of the two tracks. There are also a few new HD extras, the best of which features Walter Koenig reminiscing on Chekhov’s big moments.

Conclusion

This set represents a nice way for the more budget conscious get a taste of HD Star Trek. Of the missing three ‘original cast’ films, we don’t miss Star Trek V: The Final Frontier one bit; each time we’ve tried to convince ourselves that it can’t be as bad as we remember, it turns out to be even worse. We have a soft spot for the first film, but we don’t know which version has been released (there are at least 3 distinct cuts of Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and we’re happy to wait and see whether Paramount has fixed the hysterically bad framing job that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country suffered in previous home video incarnations (though it too was slightly re-edited by director Meyer, and it looks like only the theatrical version is on the Blu-Ray).
Very highly recommended.
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