03 May, 2009

Mirror, Mirror

So here's the thing.

For many years in geekdom, there was a well-known, authoritative rule that you could absolutely rely on. This was the "even-numbered Star Trek film" rule.

The basic principle of the rule was simple. The even-numbered Star Trek films are all excellent, or at least very good. If you're watching an odd-numbered Star Trek, it will be at best an average film, at worst it may make you lose your will to live.

Think about it:
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Terribly slow and tedious, with a pacing closer to 2001 than Trek (and I do love 2001, but it's an entirely different thing to Trek). Plus, the climax doesn't even involve the original characters at all.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan - The standard by which all Trek films are judged. Just brilliant. And it has one hell of an ending.
- Star Trek III: The Search For Spock - Probably the best of the odd-numbered Trek films, in that it's pretty average rather than actually bad. It's not bad, it just is.
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - In my view it's the least of the even-numbered films (it's preachy, the fish-out-of-water comedy is frustratingly broad and obvious at times, and it is terribly dated these days), but despite that, it's a very enjoyable film.
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - No. Just no. ... No.
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - The end of the Cold War interpreted through Trek. Complete with a murder mystery, some great action, and some nice commentary. An all-round excellent film.
- Star Trek: Generations - Who cares about the rest of the film, we were only watching for Kirk to meet Picard. Instead, Kirk vanishes ten minutes into the film, and only reappears right at the climax, where Kirk and Picard make breakfast before Kirk dies in a bridge collapse. Major disappointment. And the rest of the film is pretty average as well.
- Star Trek: First Contact - The Borg. On the big screen. And time travel back into Trek's past but our future. And James Cromwell is in it. What is there not to like?
- Star Trek: Insurrection - Just bland, a film made solely for the purpose of making a Trek film. There's no cinematic scope to the film, nothing to distinguish it from dozens of Next Generation episodes.

And then they had to go and ruin such a perfect pattern by releasing Star Trek: Nemesis, a bad even-numbered film. I rewatched it recently, just to see if it was as bad as I remembered, and it really was. The film felt like an exercise in cynical filmmaking, as though throwing a bunch of explosions and space action was enough to fool us into believing we were watching a good film. The film itself is well-made, but the core of the film, the script, just felt underdeveloped and empty, with a collection of potentially interesting ideas that never go anywhere. In the end, the film just lacked a soul.

And, if that wasn't enough, early reports of the new Trek prequel film, Star Trek, sound like this could be a great odd-numbered film. And if that proves to be true, it puts a final end to the even-numbered-Trek rule.

But back in 1999 I noticed a much more interesting pattern developing in the Star Trek films, even though that pattern was, by its very nature, only half-developed at the time. The pattern was, to me, more interesting than a simple odd-number-bad-even-number-good rule, largely because it draws on the core plot elements and character motivations that underpin the different films. Over the last ten years, as another two Star Trek films were released, I've looked to see whether the pattern would survive. And it's a pattern that, with the release of the new Star Trek film, has reached its completion. To the best of my knowledge, I'm the only person to have ever noticed this pattern. I've certainly never seen it referred to anywhere else. Which is a shame, because I find it rather interesting.

Think of it as "The Mirror View of the Star Trek Films".

The basic idea is that every Star Trek film (with the exception of Star Trek VI, for a particular reason) reflects one of the other Star Trek films in some fairly fundamental aspects.

Let me explain. The reason why Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country doesn't reflect any other Trek film is because it is the mirror point. The pattern is revealed by moving backwards and forwards film-by-film from Star Trek VI. Make sense?

Here's what I mean. If we start at Star Trek VI, the film before that one was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In that film, the villain was on a quest to find God. Now, at the same time, the film after Star Trek VI was Star Trek: Generations. In that film, the villain was on a quest to find the Nexus. Which means nothing, until you realise the Nexus was a place where people live forever, happy and content in a wonderful perfect paradise. Basically, the Nexus was a non-theistic heaven. So basically, in one film, the bad guy is trying to find God, in the other the bad guy is trying to find heaven. In my view, there's a pretty strong similarity to those central ideas.

Let's move along one step. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek: First Contact are the time travel films. In both films, the crew of the Enterprise deliberately travel back in time to prevent the destruction of Earth in the future. Given the fact that (with the exception of the new film, which reportedly uses time travel in a very different way) these are the only two time-travel films in the run, again, that seems like a strong similarity to me.

As I say, I first noticed this pattern in 1999 with the release of Star Trek: Insurrection. In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Enterprise crew deliberately defied a Starfleet order. (This was not a minor plot point - it actually led to them having to steal the Enterprise as a result.) Plus, the film revolves around the Genesis Planet, a planet that actually brought Spock back to life. In Star Trek: Insurrection, the crew of the Enterprise also deliberately defy Starfleet orders (not a minor plot point either - it's actually reflected in the film's title, Insurrection), while the film revolves around a planet that has life-rejuvenating, fountain-of-youth-type properties. Life-giving planets, open defiance of Starfleet orders? Yup.

Having noticed this pattern, I eagerly awaited Star Trek: Nemesis, to see if the pattern would hold out. And it did. The climactic point of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan had the most logical member of the crew, Spock, choosing to sacrifice himself to save his crewmates. But, before he dies, he implants part of himself in Bones' mind, which allowed him to come back in the later films. In Star Trek: Nemesis, the most logical member of the crew, Data the android, chooses to sacrifice himself in order to save his crewmates. But, earlier in the film, he downloaded all his memories into the Data-prototype android B-4, offering the obvious suggestion that Data could be recovered. (Indeed, in the recently-released Star Trek: Countdown comics that acts as an official prequel to the upcoming film, we discover that this has indeed happened.)

And so we come to the new film. And where Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the first film for the original crew of Kirk, Spock, and Bones (as played by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley), the new film, titled simply Star Trek is also the first film (indeed, the first adventure) for the original crew of Kirk, Spock, and Bones (albeit played now by Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban).

Plus, here's the really great thing. I was always a little worried by this pattern because it breaks down after 11 films. After all, there's no film for the 12th film to reflect. But instead, based on reports of the new film (which I obviously haven't seen yet), the appearance of Leonard Nimoy as the older Spock acts as a perfect finish to the existing films, while the time travel element reportedly establishes this in a different timeline to the original series. In other words, the mirror pattern applies only to the films that relate to the original Trek timeline, and this film puts a fairly definitive end to the pattern. I don't need to worry about whether the 12th, 13th, 14th Trek films will reflect the other films, and how that will damage the pattern, because in my mind at least, there is a definite break between those films and any future Trek films.

Anyway, that's the mirror Trek pattern. I think it's quite cool, I'm rather proud of noticing it, and I hope you found it interesting.

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