J.J. Abrams I can only hope you one day read this.
I need to thank my friend Dave for suggesting this theory and helping me flesh it out. You will have to search long and hard to find a guy with more nerd credibility. Anyway, he and I have been discussing Star Trek for years and are both of the opinion that the most recent Star Trek, while definitely more polished, is still not as good as TWOK. Yes, I know. It has better special effects, casting, and arguably acting. It’s just not as good a story (also they made the bridge look like a giant Apple store, a move that I think will prove to be a lot less timeless than they might think, especially in a couple years when Apple opts to redecorate all their stores). All the other movies do not even bear considering in the same discussion. What is it, then, that makes Khan so much better than everything else?
It all boils down to scope. You see, almost all the other movies some how have the fate of the Earth or the universe in the balance. In Star Trek it’s vengeful Romulans from the future dropping black holes onto planets. In Nemesis it’s Picard’s clone bent on the destruction of the Federation. Out of the basics of human decency I won’t mention anything about Insurrection, but First Contact was about the Borg trying to go back in time and wrecking humanity. Generations was about Malcolm McDowell destroying an entire planet and civilization to live in the ultimate virtual reality. Undiscovered Country was about a conspiracy to cause a massive war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The Final Frontier had something about discovering God(?). The Voyage Home was about whales destroying Earth. The Search for Spock was of less galactic import, but the religious overtones (Spock as Jesus, etc) kind of expanded the scope of the film. Even The Motion Picture had V’ger hell bent on wrecking the universe.
The Wrath of Khan, however, was the story of a personal vendetta against Kirk and his crew and their desperate struggle to survive against massive odds. This sounds decidedly unimpressive until you remember that something like 99% of the greatest episodes from any of the five TV shows were about the captain and crew in a desperate struggle to survive against massive odds. Very rarely did they have to save the entirety of the Federation or humanity and even when they did it was as part of a larger effort (Errand of Mercy, for example). Sure you could argue that the Doomsday Machine would have eventually reached Earth or the failure to stop the Romulan Bird of Prey in Balance of Terror would have plunged the galaxy into war, but it was never a matter of stopping a dumb rocket with seconds to spare from wrecking a planet.
The fact is, Star Trek has always been less about the story and more about the characters, which is why thousands of people go to conventions every year and dress as the one they most identify with. When the story is about a giant planet of people you never see and can’t really care that much about you don’t get invested in the outcome. All the Romulan black holes in the universe dropped on any number of populated planets can’t compare to watching Spock stick his face in a radioactive warp drive in order to save the lives of his friends and crew. It just has more impact. Furthermore, the animosity the villain displays gets spread too thin when directed at the universe in general, or even more than a few people. If you were to take all the hatred and bile from all the assorted villains from all the movies it wouldn’t compare to one minute of the intensity that Khan displayed whenever interacting with Kirk. His laser like focus just burned hotter.
It’s not just Star Trek. I can name any number of other good examples of movies that rule when it is personal and tend to suck when the hatred gets shared around. Die Hard is a perfect one. The first movie had John McClane fighting to save his life and the lives of a few hostages (most importantly his wife) but the second had him running around an airport trying to save hundreds of people flying in the sky above. The best of the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back, was a personal journey for each of the characters in a dangerous universe while the Return of the Jedi was the struggle of the Rebellion against the Empire. Speed 2, Matrix Revolutions, Predator 2, Mad Max Beyond Thuderdome; in almost all cases the films lost focus on the characters the audiences cared about and expanded them into something bigger and so ridiculous that we kind of lost interest to an extent.
The fact is more is not always more. What does this mean for the Star Trek franchise? Not much, unless Abrams or one of the writers happens to be reading this. If that is so, then please consider the fact that the Enterprise doesn’t always have to save the universe from yet another ridiculous form of impending doom. Sometimes it’s OK to show them struggling to save their own asses and see how they interact in the face of almost certain death. Maybe it’s space pirates who want to steal the Enterprise’s warp core. Perhaps Spock’s family is involved in some kind of personal feud against another family (Vulcan Hatfields and McCoys) and the Enterprise gets sucked in. Also, just because someone has s personal vendetta against someone in the crew does not mean he or she has to also want to destroy the universe. Back off, lighten up, and repeat the mantra “less is more”.
TWOK image courtesy of the Star Trek T Shirt category, by the way.
Thanks for reading. I hope at least some of you agree with me, but if not feel free to comment here. Follow me on Twitter @Nerdkungfu. If you have a specific question or suggestion feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will try to see something tonight and write a review for it tomorrow morning. Have a great day.