Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Memories and Moments

The guest stars were extraordinary: stage and screen veterans Christopher Plummer and David Warner, another young actress playing a Vulcan before she became famous (Kim Cattrall as Valeris, following Kirstie Alley as Saavik), and Iman, whose confident performance matched perfectly opposite William Shatner, plus both new and familiar supporting actors. Rosanna DeSoto--the feminist Klingon with a Canadian accent--played an important role as Gorkon’s daughter.

But today we focus on the original cast. They all got to play their characters again beyond the time frame of this film (in Generations, in another Trek series, or in independent films like New Voyages and Of Gods and Men.) But this is the last time they are together.

They all had their memorable moments. There was the surprise of seeing Captain Sulu in command of the starship Excelsior, where George Takei’s commanding voice finally gets to issue some commands. Then a sweet bit of repartee with Grace Lee Whitney as Rand, when she asks whether they should report the explosion on the Klingon moon. “Are you kidding?” Sulu says, as only this Sulu can.

James Doohan had some breezy lines, and one indelible image. It’s the coda on the scene of the Enterprise leaving space dock—and these Star Trek movies properly start only when the Enterprise begins its mission. There’s a fleeting image of Scotty in engineering, beaming like a proud father as the Enterprise gets underway.

Scotty and Chekov make key discoveries in solving the mystery (and an overconfident Chekov has a comic moment when he tries to match the killer’s gravity boot to a crewman with webbed feet.) Uhura, Chekov and Scotty and do another comic scene of dubious credibility but it’s funny anyway, as they page through huge Klingon language dictionaries to fool a Klingon outpost.

DeForest Kelley has probably his most sustained sequence in the movies, as Kirk’s sole companion in trying to revive Gorkon, then in capture, trial, captivity and escape. We get his rueful irony, pride and poignancy—and his priceless take when Iman visits Kirk in his bunk.

But as usual the strongest character arcs belong to Kirk and Spock. As the movie begins, we see Captain Kirk pretty much in the same mood as we will meet him in the Nexus in Star Trek: Generations: touchy, sardonic if not cynical, a little weary of saving the galaxy. The entire bridge crew is a bit weary and near retirement. Aging and mortality, and what they tell us about what we value, were themes in nearly every Star Trek feature. (For those who now say their ages were unrealistic--they wouldn't be for senior officers on a flagship today, let alone the 23rd century.) But they are being given a challenge that requires change.

The idea of making peace with the Klingons hits a nerve in Kirk, and he reacts with verbal violence. The prejudiced comments in this script that belied their years of holding different attitudes troubled the cast (Nichelle Nichols refused to say one line, and probably James Doohan should have refused one of his.) Kirk’s initial vengeful attitude justifiably bothered William Shatner. The hostility the crew feels right to the end is overheated, the movie’s biggest flaw. But the emotions and prejudices that lie beneath our conscious beliefs is a theme that plays out in various ways in this film. They also mirror the Cold War with embarrassing accuracy: prejudice is a ready tool for demonizing the Other.

Shatner got through this revealing moment (it shocks Spock, and in one take it even shocks Kirk) and then he played a lot of colors in Kirk’s self-examination, especially in his mono-Captain’s Logs. Though outrageously and self-consciously comic on one level, Kirk fighting the shapeshifter in his own image—Kirk against Kirk—mirrors his inner conflict.

In a key scene in Spock’s cabin late in the film, Kirk points out that he’s a great one for acting before thinking, while Spock is a great one for logic. This describes their roles in this story (and throughout the series), as Kirk careens from one adventure to another, and Spock becomes Sherlock on the Enterprise. Yet in many ways, Spock has never been so active and energized.

That’s partly because his relationship to logic has changed, as we learn in that early scene in his cabin with Valeris. We’d already seen her first look when she saw him enter the bridge—it was so sexual as to be almost predatory. Something was going on between them under their Vulcan masks.

Valeris believes in absolute logic, yet everything she does shows repressed emotion, including ambition and the need to please her officers. She examines a Marc Chagall painting on Spock’s wall, “The Expulsion from Paradise,” a reminder to Spock (he says) that “all things end.” She invokes logic to oppose a peace treaty, but Spock succinctly expresses the outcome of his journey, which we’ve watched through the series and five features: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom,” he insists, “not the end.”

But Spock’s journey isn’t over, as no one’s ever is. He has ignored his feelings blinding him to the character of Valeris, and his anger erupts in several scenes of violence (especially for Spock), which are partly reactions to realizing his own hubris. Dealing with the unconscious, the shadow within, is a never-ending process.

But there is another element to that scene between Spock and Kirk.

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