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John Scalzi – The Star Trek Movie Cheat Sheet

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This week the 11th Star Trek movie hits theaters. And while this new chapter is meant to be a “reboot,” you’ll still need to know a bit about its predecessors to get the most out of the experience. But if you’re dreading the thought of a 20-hour Trek movie marathon, fret not: Here’s a cheat sheet (complete with Haiku!) to catch you up.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Plot Haiku:
Alien space cloud
Looks for its mommy but gets
Captain Kirk instead
The Background: Paramount had been kicking around the idea of making a new TV version of Star Trek, but went with a movie after Star Wars raked it in at the box office. They spent $35 million making the move (equivalent to $100 million today) and grossed $82 million (about $230 million today).
The Fan Line: It’s slow and boring and mostly exists to out-special effect George Lucas.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Plot Haiku:
Kirk learns true meaning
Of Kobayashi Maru
When Spock dies nobly
The Background: Paramount hacked the budget for this one and brought in Nicholas Meyer to direct. Leaner budget plus tighter script and more focus on characters equaled box office only slightly less than the first flick — and set the production template for the series.
The Fan Line: Indisputably the best, with the best villain (Ricardo Montablan’s impressively chested Khan), best Kirk emotional outburst (“KHAAAAAAAAAAAAN!”), and of course, best death of a series character.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Plot Haiku:
Hey, Spock is alive!
Let’s all steal the Enterprise
And go get him back!
The Background: The filmmakers wanted to bring Spock back from the dead; actor Leonard Nimoy agreed only if he were allowed to direct. This is the first movie where the series nemeses, the Klingons, are extensively used.
The Fan Line: It’s not a bad time-waster, and they do get Spock back.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Plot Haiku:
Crew goes back in time
For songs of the humpback whale
Or else Earth goes boom
The Background: Nimoy back again in the director’s chair for the funniest and lightest chapter of the franchise. It’s the only Star Trek movie (so far) to crack $100 million in its domestic theatrical run.
The Fan Line: The favorite after Wrath of Khan, and the one that even those clueless in the ways of Trek can enjoy.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Plot Haiku:
It’s a search for God
But there is no God in here
Just Shatner’s ego
The Background: After Nimoy, William Shatner wanted a turn in the director’s chair — and they gave it to him (he also co-wrote the story). This one made half of what Trek IV made, and is the least financially successful “original series” flick.
The Fan Line: Lots of eyerolling and agreement to never speak of it again.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Plot Haiku:
The Klingons need help!
Can Kirk put aside his hate
To save the ridged ones?
The Background: Writer/director Nicholas Meyer returns to put a capstone on the “original series” era of Trek and to dovetail the series into “Next Generation” movies.
The Fan Line: Does what it was intended to do and ends the Kirk era on a high note.

Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Plot Haiku:
It’s Kirk and Picard!
They get together, and not
In a fanfic way!
The Background: The first movie to feature the “Next Gen” cast also lets fans know what happened to Kirk after Trek VI. While he was always intended to die helping Picard save the universe, his death scenes were actually reshot to make them more heroic.
The Fan Line: It’s not bad, but fans were hoping for something more.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Plot Haiku:
Those creepy Borg dudes
Try to mess with the time stream
Picard says: Uh, no
The Background: Picard’s Number One Jonathan Frakes takes the director’s chair. This was the most financially successful of the “Next Gen” Trek movies at $92 million domestically and $146 million worldwide, and also featured the (to date) largest opening weekend for the series: $30 million.
The Fan Line: Best “Next Gen” movie hands down, in no small part to the Enterprise crew kicking all sorts of Borg butt.

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Plot Haiku:
The fountain of youth
Defended by our Trek pals
Who, well, sag a bit
The Background: Frakes is back in the director’s chair, and there’s not much else to say, except that once it came out, both fans and filmmakers agreed that the franchise needed some shaking up.
The Fan Line: It’s a perfectly cromulent Trek flick, and that’s about it.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Plot Haiku:
Picard’s nemesis
Turns out to be his clone
It’s, like, confusing
The Background: Paramount recruited Gladiator screenwriter John Logan and director Stuard Baird to revive the series. It didn’t work: The script was confusing and needlessly dark, and Baird makes a better editor (two Oscar nominations) than a director. The lifeless box office killed the series until now.
The Fan Line: The only real question is whether it’s worse than Trek V.

And now you’re caught up!

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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