Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The Special Edition DVD contains interesting commentary from Nimoy and others, interviews and documentaries on the film. Robin Curtis, looking radiant, does a funny Christopher Lloyd imitation. There's detailed discussion of the evolving Klingon language: the prefixes were modeled on Himalayan languages, which is especially apropos in that years later, Dan Curry would develop Klingon weapons and costumes from similar sources.

I especially enjoyed two additional documentaries. In an informative examination of proposals to terra-form Mars, Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center says bluntly that the idea that if we ruin our planet we can just go to Mars and start over is never going to work. If we can't keep the earth going, we won't be able to accomplish a terraformed Mars, or keep it going.

In "Terraforming and the Prime Director," science fiction writer David Brin provides a unique broad commentary on Star Trek in a larger science fiction context. Cultures used to believe that the Golden Age was in the past, he said, but our age is the first to think of the Golden Age as in the future.

"It's not in its mechanical aspects that science fiction achieves its most powerful influence," he says. "It's more in the area of warnings and enticements. Especially dire warnings, because the most powerful form of science fiction is the self-preventing prophesy---prophesies that scared us with a failure mode." He names the films Fail-Safe, On the Beach and Dr. Strangelove as some "that frightened us into taking extra measures to prevent accidents." Soylent Green inspired environmentalists, and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four gave us the universal symbol of Big Brother. By warning us of the costs of errors such as abusing the planet, or of continuing to abuse the innocent and act immorally, they suggest that "maybe we should do better" in the future. Which is the vision of Star Trek.

The Star Trek III novelization by Vondra N. McIntyre adds a romance between David and Saavik, and some scenes with Carol Marcus and Spock's mother Amanda that somewhat account for their absence from the film. But there is a lot of fill, including more attenuated intrigue among the Klingons, and some fairly lame earthside family business for Scotty. The actual plot of the film takes up a fraction of the pages, though many of the key lines are reproduced accurately. While there is some useful elaboration (especially on Kruge's thinking when he realizes Kirk has destroyed the Enterprise) it doesn't often seem to perform the other useful service of novelizations, which is to explain (or at least rationalize) holes in the on-screen story. We don't learn, for example, why Saavik doesn't seem to know anything about the katra.

A few final comments: The alien McCoy is talking to in the bar inverts his word order in a way reminiscent of another alien who first appeared four years earlier in The Empire Strikes Back, except this one isn't a wise and noble sage, but a mercenary with a ship for hire....The science ship Grissom is evidently named after astronaut Gus Grissom, who was one of the first astronauts in space, and also one of the first in the space program to die, in an Apollo program pre-flight test accident. Grissom's reputation had been unfairly tarnished when it appeared that after splashdown, he opened his Mercury capsule's hatch prematurely, causing it to sink. Although I never met him, he won a special place in my pantheon when, as a freshman editor of my high school newspaper, I printed a picture of the first three Mercury astronauts in space (Alan Shepard, Grissom and John Glenn), and sent a copy to each of them. I never heard from Glenn, I got a nice letter from Shepard, and from Grissom I got a thank you note and the photograph I'd sent him---with his signature, and Shepard's and Glenn's. That thoughtfulness for a teenager far away was enough to make me a Grissom fan for life, and I was happy to see Star Trek honor him in this movie.

Star Trek III is the middle of an unplanned trilogy, and in other ways a transitional movie, so it doesn't get as much respect as it deserves. Its virtues include some surprising shifts in tone, as well as memorable moments. It's intriguing how many individual moments and especially lines of dialogue stand out in this film as well as the later transitional Trek movie, Generations.

Another sort of transition begins to occur towards the end of this movie, when a certain new comedic tone starts to emerge. It is self-effacing, ironic, yet it doesn't take us too far outside the action or the Star Trek universe. It's there in McCoy's "hell of a time to ask" aside, but even more in Kirk on the Bird of Prey. "Help us or die," he says in standard Kirk fashion to the last remaining Klingon. "I do not deserve to live," the Klingon says solemnly. "Fine," Kirk says, "I'll kill you later." And later, when the Klingon wants to know why he isn't being killed, Kirk says, "I lied."

Shatner delivers this lines quickly, unceremoniously but with aplomb. I always believed that Shatner may have discovered this style in his funny self-parody of Kirk as Commander Buck Murdock in "Airplane: The Sequel" in 1982. In any event, it was the beginning of a new tone for Star Trek films that would flower in the very next outing. Though in other ways, Star Trek IV was going to be different. Very different. And still, perhaps the best exemplar of Star Trek yet.

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