Tuesday, April 27, 2004

To the Federation, Genesis was a powerful force for good: it was creative. But the Klingons saw it as the ultimate weapon: in the course of creating life on a world, it could destroy what life already existed. As a technology meant to create peace that haunted the world with its immense power for war and annihilation, it was the Federation's atomic bomb (as Nimoy and Bennett refer to it.) Science fiction writer David Brin, in his comments included on the DVD, saw it as a Frankenstein myth: in creating life, they created a monster. It is not the first nor the last time that Star Trek would caution that sometimes science and technology get ahead of human abilities to control them.

This sense of tampering with power too great to control, perhaps too close to the ultimate power beyond the legitimately human realm, adds to the underlying power of this story and the appropriately operatic approach.

But this is also a very human story. In giving each crew member a task and a small adventure to start the heroes' journey, Nimoy was using a standard tactic from television's "Mission Impossible" ( Nimoy had joined its cast for a year after Star Trek's cancellation.) But it is also a variation of such gathering in myths, like Jason and the Argonauts.

Nimoy also wanted to give his fellow actors outside the basic triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, their own moments, which they'd seldom received in the series. So Nichelle Nichols got to initiate some action, and after a surprising, deftly ironic and exhilarating scene, delivers a lovely line: "All my hopes..." George Takei got a jaunty action scene, as he sweeps in with a cape to improbably flip a much larger security officer, with a signature line: "Don't call me Tiny."

James Doohan got several nice moments, including some of his best movie lines ("And if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a wagon," "Up your shaft," and the admission that he routinely quadruples his repair estimates to maintain his reputation as a miracle worker) and a gleeful bit of engineer-geek sabotage that leaves the new hope of the Federation starship Excelsior (with its never to be seen in the film series again "trans-warp drive") coughing and sputtering in the old Enterprise's rainbow warp wake. Scotty observes that the more complicated the plumping, the easier it is to break it. It is a comic echo of the theme of technology getting too far beyond human scale.

Walter Koenig had some nice moments as well, but he would have to wait for the next movie to really have his own scene. Scenes like these remind us of the potential actors have that is too seldom used, but how often they rise to the occasion when given the chance.

The Enterprise streaks to the Genesis planet, where the science vessel Grissom is in orbit. The Grissom detects the torpedo casing that contained Spock's body on the surface, along with animal life signs. Two people beam down to investigate: Dr. David Marcus (one of the creators of the Genesis device, and Kirk's son, as he and we discovered in Star Trek II) and Lt. Saavik (the half-Vulcan officer.) At first they find only slug-like creatures, evolved at unnatural speed from microbes adhering to the torpedo. But then as they view the now empty coffin, and the ground shakes beneath them, they hear a cry.

As they discover the Vulcan boy who is the regenerated Spock, Kruge's Bird of Prey uncloaks and destroys the Grissom. Saavik and David know the Klingons are coming for them, and as they flee to shelter, they see that the Genesis planet is destroying itself. David admits that he used a powerful but unstable substance, protomatter, to make the Genesis matrix work. "Like your father, you broke the rules," Saavik says. This was a theme of Star Trek II: how Kirk beat the no-win scenario he faced as a cadet, the Kobayashi Maru, by secretly changing the conditions of the test. In this story he has broken the rules again by defying Starfleet to steal the Enterprise and head for the now forbidden Genesis planet.

But while the father succeeds in cheating death---and will again shortly---the son loses that gamble. "How much damage have you caused," Saavik says to David, "and how much is to come."

(Savvik is played by Robin Curtis this time. Though the conventional wisdom has become that Kirstie Alley was better in the role, I doubt she had the gravitas for Savvik in this film. Jeff Katzenberg, then also a Paramount chief, bet Leonard Nimoy that audiences would laugh at the scene of the suddenly adolescent Spock touching fingers with Savvik, in what was obviously foreplay to calming his Vulcan glands, on fire in the "pon farr" (or Vulcan in heat) that the series established all Vulcan males experience every seven years. As they rub their erect fingers there is definite snicker potential, but it doesn't happen. I believe it was Robin Curtis' characterization that made it work; with Kirstie Alley, Nimoy might have lost his bet.)

Like the Genesis device, which is both creative and destructive, the attempt to be direct, to break the rules, can be good, or in taking dangerous shortcuts, it can be fatally bad. In a poetic sense, David will pay for his rule-breaking's failure with his life, willingly. When Kirk arrives in orbit and David tells him over the communicator that Genesis doesn't work, Kirk asks, "What went wrong?" "I did," David answers. "I went wrong." In another sense, David redeems, or attempts to redeem his mistake, by offering his own life for Saavik's and Spock's, when Kruge demands that one of his henchmen with them on the surface kill one of them to convince Kirk to surrender the Enterprise. The Klingon knife seems pointed at Saavik when David defends her, and is killed.

When Kirk learns of his son's death, it leads to a dramatic scene that Shatner believed might be his best. Kirk is standing, and upon hearing the news, backs up, and stumbles. It is a unique and very effective bit of business, and Shatner's body language and voice as he repeats, "Klingon bastards, you killed my son," is powerful. We have never seen Kirk quite so vulnerable, and so close to defeated.

Now this jaunt to save his friend has suddenly exacted a cost. Thematically, it is another matched pair: to save a life has cost a life. To save his friend, has cost Kirk his son. But it is in some ways not as shocking as the loss that comes directly afterwards.

William Shatner's acting is more assured throughout this film than in the previous two (though he had many excellent moments in "Khan."). His reaction to his son's death has been justly praised, but no one has commented on a moment just as important: his skillful transition to action afterwards. For a moment, Kirk is grief-stricken and reeling. But the plot calls for him to immediately devise a clever strategem and carry it out.

The subtle transition Shatner makes is as impressive a piece of acting as the more obvious moment of reaction to David's death. From looking like he might cave inward, repeating his curse, Kirk starts to move. His eyes are still dulled, yet without exaggeration but with cold determination, he tells his stunned crewmates, "I swear to you, we're not finished yet."

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