Star Trek: A film-by-film primer

Categories: Nerdery
In a sci-fi scene overrun with pessimistic -- often apocalyptic -- visions of humanity's future, Star Trek has illuminated the dystopic darkness for almost 50 years.

Created by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek is about a space-faring future where humanity has united to explore the universe. Rather than warring over patches of land and squabbling about celebs in internet talkbacks, humanity has devoted ourselves to exploring strange worlds and seeking out new life and civilizations.

Because of that optimism, Star Trek has risen above its cheesier qualities (like alien races distinguished only by their forehead ridges, or Captain Kirk battling a Gorn lizard man) and become a pop-cultural touchstone for people who believe that humanity should aspire to more -- and can achieve amazing things through teamwork.

On Wednesday, director J.J. Abrams's highly anticipated Star Trek: Into Darkness beamed into theaters (in 3-D, the film opens nationwide this Friday), after an ad campaign that highlighted its edgy action and moody color palette. It also disguised its villain's true identity (what a CON!).

As a pre-show Star Trek primer, we've reviewed the new flick's cinematic forebears for you. Classic characters only. Sorry, Picard.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Tagline: "The human adventure is just beginning."

Summary: A HAL-like intelligence named V'Ger is threatening Earth, and Admiral James Tiberius Kirk, having left his command after the Enterprise's original five-year mission, resumes his captainship to save us all. The jumpsuited team's all here; Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, and Sulu all pop in.

Why It's Awesome: After a 10-year hiatus, this movie was a bad way to restart Star Trek. It's a total snorer whose late-'70s creation was motivated by Star Wars. Unfortunately, there's not much fun here. "The motion-less picture" is more interested in lingering on beauty shots of the Enterprise than in telling a good story. We get it, guys, you spent a lot of money on special effects!

Cheese Factor: A hot bald woman in a skintight jumpsuit. A climactic light show that wishes it were a scene from Stanley Kubrick's 2001.

Importance to Canon: Neither as fun as Star Wars nor as intellectual as 2001, it's mostly important because it required an immediate reboot of the Star Trek movie series.

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Tagline: "Beyond the darkness ... beyond the human evolution ... is Khan ... "

Summary: Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered cult leader wronged by Kirk and his cohorts 15 years ago, escapes from exile and exacts his revenge on the Enterprise. He also shows off his man boobs.

Why It's Awesome: Director-writer Nicholas Meyer returned Star Trek to its roots. In Khan, we get a Star Trek movie that has plenty of swashbuckling space action, like the original series, but that also examines important sociopolitical issues (like genetic supermen and their hurt feelings) on the down-low.

Cheese Factor: High, but manageable. Everybody loves Kirk shouting "KHAAANNN!!!" into the inky depths of space. Also awesome: Khan's hilariously huge, bare pectorals, and his affinity for hamming it up Shakespeare-style as Kirk writhes on the deck of the Enterprise. Between Khan and Kirk, this movie has so much cheddary ham.

Importance to Canon: While good, Khan established an unfortunate trend in Star Trek, similar to James Bond films, where there's always an over-the-top big bad who has a dastardly plan.

Oh, by the way, [SPOILER ALERT (not really)] Spock dies at the end.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Tagline: "The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many."

Summary: It turns out that, before Spock died, he transferred his soul (or "katra") into "Bones" McCoy. When Kirk and co. learn that Spock's body has re-generated on the terraformed planet of Genesis, they steal the Enterprise to return Spock's freaky katra to his revitalized Vulcan body. In the meantime, they fend off a band of Klingons led by Christopher Lloyd (as Commander Kruge).

Why It's Awesome: Directed by Leonard "Spock" Nimoy, Search is the centerpiece of a Star Trek intra-trilogy opened by Khan. You gotta admire a movie that, after it dubiously resurrects a major character, has the balls to destroy the Enterprise. You win some, you lose some. The shot of the Trek crew watching from Genesis as their iconic ship explodes above them is stunning.

Cheese Factor: Medium-stink cheese that includes Bones' possession by the spirit of Spock and Spock 2.0's hyper-dramatic re-birthing. Christopher Lloyd's climactic blue-screen plunge into the flames of Genesis is also great.

Importance to Canon: Spock is back. The Enterprise is kaput.

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