The Star Trek movies are not Star Trek: they are the Star Trek movies. They have an identity, they have a statement that is their own, that is in a true sense based on the television series created by a great man. […] My Star Trek is: these are fascinating people, […] in the middle ages of their lives as I am. This is what I identify with, this is what the first movie did not have, here’s where the riches are. […] “Wow, it sure doesn’t have much to do with Gorns, and it doesn’t have much to do with guys with black and white faces,” and I say, “Correct.” And you are in a different world now. You are in Star Trek — The Middle Years, as opposed to the original series or Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Harve Bennett, in The Star Trek Interview Book
We’re getting closer to Grand Unified Theory, but I still have a few points to make about the 23rd Century.
When the Enterprise left the Genesis Planet at the end of Star Trek II, the series had a wide range of options. The junior officers could have their own command opportunities, like Chekov on Reliant. Saavik and/or David Marcus could head up a second generation of crewpeople. Spock’s return was advertised none too subtly, but the status quo need not have been restored.
More to the point, Kirk himself was arguably at his most fully realized, with the death of Spock having “freed” him (for lack of a better term) from the dramatic confines of an allegorical triangle, and even from being a starship captain. Nevertheless, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock had Kirk restore the former, if not quite the latter.
Although the volatile mix of Spock’s katra in Bones’ brain puts both in jeopardy, at the end of the movie Kirk makes it about himself. He tells Sarek “if I hadn’t tried, the cost would have been my soul,” and later tells Spock “the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many.” Before this devolves into an is-it-really-selfless-if-you-feel-good debate, in terms of the series it is, really, about Kirk. He can either go along with Starfleet and leave Spock’s and Bones’ fates to others, or he can chuck his Starfleet career — which, by the way, made those friendships possible — in favor of rescuing his friends.
Because he conceives the whole escape-to-Vulcan plan without Spock and McCoy, arguably TSFS demonstrates that he doesn’t need either of them to be the “James T. Kirk” built up by the series thus far. There are no Kirk/Spock/Bones debates in TSFS, obviously; and no Guest Stars Of The Week learn life lessons thanks to the Enterprise crew. TSFS is the first Star Trek installment that serves only the interests of the series itself. It showcases the characters as people, not Starfleet officers or plot devices. It destroys the Star Trek format in the name of preserving it.
The politics of TSFS, and Kirk’s reaction to them, also signal a paradigm shift for the series. Star Trek postulated that any starship commander (including the ones that went renegade) was, almost by definition, the arbiter of Federation policy out there on the edge of the galaxy. In so doing it set up the Federation itself as a utopian society guided by principles so strong they could be transmitted to strange new worlds solely through its Starfleet. That’s a pretty strong symbiosis between captain and home base, and it speaks to high levels of trust on both sides. It takes a lot for you to betray the Federation, because you have to think the Federation is made up of people with the same basic principles, hopes, and fears as you. Yeah, yeah, infinite diversity and all that, but with the Federation you figure at least all the policy decisions are well-reasoned.
To counter this notion, TSFS presents a trio of officers so devoted to rules and regulations that anyone would be crazy to follow them. This may well be Star Trek‘s answer to putting a new crew on the Enterprise: you want the ship commanded by one of these jokers? I’m sure their hearts are all in the right place (no jokes about poor Capt. Esteban, please), but come on. Kirk’s crew has apparently benefited from the five-year mission like none other in the entire fleet, such that it would be hard-pressed to find others similarly qualified to crew the Enterprise. As for a new generation, TSFS offers Mr. Adventure and Ensign Insensitive (“Will there be a reception?”) against David and Saavik, and by the end of the movie Saavik’s outnumbered.
In fact, TSFS hints pretty broadly that if this is what Starfleet, and by extension the Federation, have become, it’s no place for Kirk’s crew anyway — so why not go out in style? “I give, and give, and she takes!” Kirk once said about the Enterprise, but it wouldn’t be surprising if that applied to Starfleet as well. Can’t they see he’s better off with a healthy Spock and a refurbished Enterprise?
Not for a while — and maybe Starfleet isn’t too trusting of Kirk, either, but we’ll come back to that.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was, in many ways, a return to the classic format. There was social commentary, a guest-star helped by the crew, and the Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic, all framed by 23rd-Century sequences designed to get Kirk back in harness. TVH‘s two major accomplishments were making Kirk a Captain again, and launching the Enterprise NCC-1701-A. The first effectively ended Kirk’s yo-yoing up and down the chain of command (“don’t let them promote you,” he tells Picard), and the second made a lineage of Starships Enterprise possible.
It is curious to me that Star Trek attaches such significance to the name Enterprise and the NCC-1701 registry. In series terms I think these have to do with propaganda. Each starship has its number painted on the hull and well-lit. Each probably broadcasts its name and registry electronically, as well. Now, regardless of whether the various Enterprises through the years have all looked alike, at least subconsciously, seeing that 1701 probably resonates with the Klingons, Romulans, Tholians, Gorn, etc., who have encountered an Enterprise or two. (Yes, like the “Batman dresses like Superman” argument.) Of course, this means that every Enterprise has to live up to its predecessors, but if Starfleet only puts the best on whatever ship has that name, that ought to go a long way.
So, the end of TVH finds the newly-demoted Captain James T. Kirk in command of the new U.S.S. Enterprise — but why is he joined on the bridge by Captain Spock and Captain Montgomery Scott? Again, I think this is Starfleet engaging in a little public relations. Starfleet has to deal with six troublemakers and a Vulcan whose katra has just been put back in its body, but it can’t really punish them, because they’ve just saved the capitol of the Federation. Why not put them all on one ship? Don’t demote Spock, because he was an innocent bystander throughout all the rule-breaking. (He did do something similar in taking Captain Pike back to Talos IV in “The Menagerie,” but it’s not clear whether Starfleet ever found out about that.) Don’t demote anybody else, in fact, because they’ve all had pretty clean records. Most importantly, they can all keep their eyes on Kirk, who now doesn’t outrank Spock or Scotty.
In terms of series format, I really don’t have a lot to say about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, except to note that it was the first opportunity to have a classic-format adventure that didn’t have to worry about major structural changes to the series. I will say that the Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic is on full display in TFF, and that Kirk’s speech about dying alone speaks clearly to his recognition of how important his two friends are to his life.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was, in some ways, the first “Next Generation” Trek film, because it was made against the backdrop of TNG’s growing popularity. It showed the crew moving on, and doesn’t quite say how long it’s been since they’ve all been together. (Sulu’s been captain of Excelsior for three years, and Kirk still has to ask where he is.) It is the tale of an era’s end — not that Klingon glasnost means that Kirk’s crew has lost its motivation for exploring, but it does provide a capstone of sorts. The Klingon ambassador’s “There will be no peace as long as Kirk lives” from Star Trek IV makes the viewer wonder if that prediction will bear out, especially since TNG’s backstory describes that peace.
Therefore, TUC serves as both a sendoff to Kirk’s crew and a lead-in to TNG’s future. There is some social commentary with the Klingon/Soviet parallels, but it’s not as prominent as TVH‘s ecological message, and it’s wrapped up pretty quickly with Kirk’s speech to Azetbur.
As for Kirk/Spock/Bones, once again Kirk and Bones are separated from Spock, with the latter spending most of his time guiding Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov through the conspiracy investigation. Still, near the end of the movie Kirk and Spock share a few moments about growing old and becoming irrelevant, with Kirk (naturally) brushing aside Spock’s concerns. It’s nice to see, given Kirk’s own midlife crisis in TWOK.
TUC‘s conspiracy within Starfleet does, however, help bolster my theory about keeping Kirk and his troublemaking associates on one ship. The aftermath of that conspiracy’s exposure also suggests that a lot of otherwise qualified officer candidates were court-martialed, making way for one John Harriman to ascend to the captaincy of NCC-1701-B.
And speaking of Star Trek Generations, for all its flaws it does present a Kirk who finally cedes the spotlight to the actual Enterprise captain. In Generations, Kirk pulls a Spock and sacrifices himself for the sake of the ship — and that’s just his first death. He dies alone twice, but the second time he gets to impart career advice to another Enterprise captain. Don’t do anything that gets you out of the captain’s chair, he tells Jean-Luc Picard, because it’s the only place you can truly make a difference. Be the Decider, he might as well have said. He doesn’t know anything about Picard except he’s the current Enterprise captain, but somehow he knows that qualifies Picard as the Decider.
By the time of Generations, Kirk has been reduced somewhat, simply by virtue of his place in history. Like Christopher Pike before him, Kirk is now “an” Enterprise captain, and not “the” captain anymore. Once the spotlight was no longer exclusively on him, the series’ dramatic perspectives changed accordingly. The uniqueness of Kirk’s crew had ended a year after Star Trek IV, when “Star Trek: The Next Generation” premiered. TNG and its successors would attempt to take Star Trek back to its storytelling roots, but they would each have to abandon key elements of the Trek format to do so — and that’s where the Grand Unified Theory will start to emerge.