Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Even more emotional, and certainly more controversial, than David's death was the destruction---the self-destruction---of the starship Enterprise (which, if you're counting, more or less ends the movie's second act.)

When he saw this in Harve Bennett's script, Gene Roddenberry was adamantly opposed. Bennett justified its function in the story with an historical example (quoted in Gross & Altman's 1993 book, "Captain's Logs: The Complete Trek Voyages"): Oliver Hazard Perry, America's first naval hero, won the battle of Lake Erie by scuttling his ship. Shatner, in his book on the Star Trek films, suggests that Roddenberry's experience was with World War II bombers, which were like airships with their own names and personalities, while Bennett's military experience was with helicopters in Korea, which were treated as expendable machines. But the source of Roddenberry's trepidations might be found between the lines of his counterproposal, which was to destroy the saucer section but leave the essential stardrive intact (and in the final film, though the drive section is badly battered, it isn't blown to bits like the saucer.) It could well be that Roddenberry feared the destruction of this Enterprise would mean the end of any Enterprise at the center of Star Trek. He may have suspected what others have since intimated, that Bennett intended future Trek missions would be in the Excelsior.

In a sense the sting is taken out of the self-destruction of Enterprise because it was established in the first minutes of the movie that the 20-year old starship was going to be decommissioned as obsolete. But as Kirk's desperate yet characteristically bold and clever solution in the face of defeat, it works brilliantly---especially because it happens so fast.

Kirk orchestrates a simultaneous beam-out to the planet as the Klingon boarding party transports into the Enterprise, where they are caught in the spectacular self-destruction. Watching its fragments streak across the reddened sky from the surface, Kirks says, "Bones, what have I done?" "What you had to do," McCoy says. "What you always do: turn death into a fighting chance to live."

Faced with the prospect of Spock dying a second time if he stays on the planet that is rapidly and violently coming apart, Kirk finds a Klingon communicator and taunts Kruge with the deaths of his crew on Enterprise. It has Kirk's swagger but the hint of revenge that extends Kirk's reaction to his son's murder (and would flare into anger in how he finally dispatches Kruge.) He tells Kruge he has to beam them all up to the Bird of Prey to get the Genesis secrets now. Instead Kruge catches them off guard by beaming down. He orders his last remaining crewman to beam the Enterprise team aboard, except for Kirk and the now fully grown but unconscious Spock.

Kirk and Kruge wind up in a classic Trek "bare-knuckle fist-fight" as Roddenberry would call it, as recalcitrant special effects limited the planned action. Yet Nimoy creates a strong sense of the planet's violence, particularly with shots of roiling fire. Everything about this climax is predictable, including the fact that Spock is rescued at the precise moment that he looks just like Leonard Nimoy, and that Kirk wins the fight and is beamed up just as the place where he was standing disappears in fire and brimstone. (It's the kind of climax Star Trek would employ again, so effectively satirized in "Galaxy Quest" when that crew of actors successfully defuses a dangerous device with time to spare, only to see it click down to the last possible second before it stopped, because that's always how it happened on the show.) Yet, as always, it works.

Now the real rescue can begin, as our heroes race to Vulcan aboard the captured Bird of Prey. They take Spock's body to the mountain temple for the ceremony that they hope will extract Spock's katra from McCoy, and reunite it with his body.

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