Star Trek Marathon
The first six Star Trek features, screening Saturday in a marathon at the UC Theater in Berkeley, provided the sci-fi film viewers of 1979-91 a more or less secular-humanist alternative -- optimistic but not mindlessly so -- to the dominant genre trends of the day. Gene Roddenberry's original vision, basically intact in these movies, was not at all the sentimental mysticism of Lucas and Spielberg, nor was it the dark dystopian vision of "tech noirs" like Blade Runner, RoboCop, and the rest. In the late 1960s the TV show was at one with the zeitgeist with its groovy fashions, swinging captain, and liberal parables of civil righteousness; by the 1980s Kirk and Spock and company were quite clearly fuddy-duddies in their belief in progress, rationality, and science.
For all their corniness, however, most of the Star Trek films were quite popular. The whole Star Trek ethos, like that of much postwar science fiction, assumes God's absence, but isn't fazed by it. Thus the key Star Trek movie is the much-maligned first in the series, Star Trek -- The Motion Picture (1979), directed by Robert Wise, who'd done similar work with the humanist classic The Day the Earth Stood Still back in 1951. The series' other key element is the battling buddies relationship of pals Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest. The early films, like much of the original series, are built around one or another sentimental affirmation of the crew's love and loyalty to each other: Spock's death, at the end of Star Trek II, makes that film one of the great male weepies. Of the first six movies the lightly comic IV (the one about the whales, largely set in San Francisco) works the male-bonding angle the least -- this may be why it was the most popular. William Shatner's infamous V (1989), overcompensated in response, with its ludicrous scenes of the boys singing "Row row row your boat." It also bucked, with its vain attempt to confront the crew with God, the can-do spirit of the rest of "classic Trek." But then that's exactly what the post-Roddenberry films and TV series (Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and so forth) of the late 1990s have done, in their rudderless pessimism and the general sense they give of being evermore lost in the cosmos. In the first Next Generation movie, they even killed off Kirk. He dies in the complete absence of the buddies who'd said they'd be with him when it happened, way back in V. Star Trek fans are more loyal to the franchise than the franchise has been loyal to them.