Since I wasn't one of the fans who watched the movies when they were first screened in theaters, my relationship with them has been developing over time. You may have heard from more than one fan that The Wrath of Khan is the best of them, while The Voyage Home was undeniably the most popular and The Final Frontier least. I've learned that I tend to approach them differently from other fans, but I won't really get into that so much here as the ways each of them added to the legacy of the first incarnation of the franchise. Here then is my list:
- Kirk is replaced as captain of the Enterprise for the first time. (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979) It's odd to think of the first film in this way. Most fans were pretty ecstatic when the film was first released, and equally excited to forget it once the second one proved more satisfying, and yet there was a considerable amount of character growth and story development put into The Motion Picture. Everyone remembers V'ger, the probe that turned into a sentient cloud and went on a rampage to find its creator, but the two new characters introduced in the movie (other than eventually inspiring Will Riker and Deanna Troi in The Next Generation) include Decker, who has replaced Jim Kirk as captain of the Enterprise. Of course, much of the movie is about Kirk's own irritation about this fact, but it becomes near unthinkable for anyone else to sit in that chair, especially considering that the next five movies very pointedly don't, even though of course Kirk continues to age. The franchise does make a point of keeping subsequent captains of other incarnations pretty humble (Harriman most especially in Star Trek Generations, Garrett slightly less so in "Yesterday's Enterprise") until his worthy successor Picard.
- Kirk has a son! (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982) Perhaps the greatest overlooked legacy of the movies is the introduction of Jim Kirk's son, David Marcus, who is at the point we meet him pretty much the age Kirk was at the start of the original series. Perhaps it's because David dies in his very next movie, or maybe he's all but a retcon (in comics "retcon" is changing continuity in order to suit the needs of the current storyline), the product of one of Kirk's many affairs, which was a running joke in the series and suddenly laden with consequence. The theme of this particular movie is about unexpected consequences, though, whether that means the return of Khan or the death of Spock. The revelation of Kirk having a son from a relationship that was never before referenced, much less the son himself, is a pretty major development in itself. So far the movies have not been kind to the captain's ego...
- Sarek becomes a regular member of the ensemble. (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, 1984) The original series was made during a time when storytelling was very different, especially as regarded science fiction. Events from one episode to the next, much less entire mythologies, didn't matter. Sarek first appeared in "Journey to Babel," and there was every expectation to believe that he would never be seen again. And yet, after Spock's death, Kirk is very much thinking about lost family (which as noted previously becomes ironic in Search for Spock, because he regains Spock in the same film where David dies), and so it becomes only logical for Sarek to appear again. This opens up a number of possibilities for the character, who subsequently appears in The Voyage Home and The Undiscovered Country as well as, famously, in The Next Generation, as the first regular emissary of the previous generation, in an eponymous episode. He is also a prominent presence in Star Trek, no doubt owing to the increased significance of the role owing to this appearance.
- McCoy condemns modern medicine. (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986) It should perhaps be notable that the country doctor of the original series, when brought out of the future and into the comparatively primitive past, is disgusted by what he finds. The context, of course, is a trip to modern times necessitated to bring whales back to the future in order to communicate with a probe that will otherwise decimate Earth. Chekov has been wounded in his efforts to leach fuel from a nuclear "wessel," and McCoy steps in to prevent the barbaric treatment he's horrified to discover awaiting his friend. So, let me say it again: the character best known to be the good 'ol country doctor, who hated technology so much that the transporter terrified him in The Motion Picture, suddenly clings to all those newfangled ideas and rejects the methods of the past that until this moment he probably believed were superior. Well, at least that's how fans probably would have seen it, if they'd thought it out. That's his reputation, and yet in one scene we find out the truth. Turns out "Bones" just acted the part of the country doctor.
- The Star Trek trilogy. (The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home) I think plenty of fans are aware of this, but it hardly ever comes up in conversation about the franchise, but this really happened. In the midst of the six films to feature the original cast, three of them are part of a single story. Wrath of Khan gets the most attention from fans because they love seeing the duel between Kirk and Khan. Search for Spock is its inevitable sequel (unless you're Wrath of Khan's director, Nicholas Meyer, who resisted the effort to undo the death of Spock). Voyage Home, apart from being about whales, also deals with the final consequences of everything that's happened to that point. Part of me has always been a little annoyed by the fans who talk about Wrath of Khan outside of this context. It'd be like Star Wars without Empire Strikes Back, or Batman Begins without The Dark Knight. (Yes, in this context, Sarek is basically Yoda, making my third point all the more intriguing.) I think half the reason why Final Frontier was considered such a dismal failure was that it had nothing to do with the trilogy, whereas Undiscovered Country did. It was a disappointment to fans who'd begun viewing the movies as a continuing story.
- Star Trek talks about religion. (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, 1989) The original series was known for its social commentary. Aside from the overt environmental concern of The Voyage Home, the movies backed away from that context until Final Frontier. It's perhaps telling that the first of the movies to let the characters be comfortable being themselves again (the one real link between this movie and the three that preceded it being Spock reintegrating himself into the friendship with Kirk and McCoy) is also the one where they tackle something that's far bigger than themselves but isn't blatantly threatening all life in the universe. It's the most intimate of the movies, even though it seems like it's another of the late 1980s movies that tried too hard to be epic. While some episodes from the show certainly touched on religious topics like what happened to the Greek gods, the old taboo of talking about religion rather than judging it paved the way for Deep Space Nine, which based much of the arc of its main character, Benjamin Sisko, on an even more complicated exploration of the topic. Final Frontier was released at a time when televangelists were a popular phenomenon, so perhaps it's not so surprising that it tackled such a subject. Most fans thought it was a little much, and the film does end with much the same kind of conclusion as the episodes that came before it, but not before forcing everyone to talk about it.
- Resolution of the Klingon problem. (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, 1991) The fall of communism happened around the same time as the release of Undiscovered Country, so it was only natural that Star Trek finally come to some conclusion to its own ongoing cold war, which the films had been teasing for a while, and The Next Generation had already by this point demonstrated as a thing of the past, with the Klingon Worf being a bridge officer under Picard. The Klingons were one of the more recognizable recurring elements of the original series, making several appearances, and were even featured in the first film, their bold revision being one of its lasting elements. Search for Spock made them the undisputed enemy of the Federation, but one looking for a future. Even in Final Frontier they were inescapable; Kirk had to decide if it was more important to keep them as an enemy or use them as an ally. Finally, in Undiscovered Country the loss of the Klingon Empire's main source of energy was lost and it could no longer support itself. Kirk needed to overcome once and for all his own ego (thereby bringing the whole film series full-circle), and lead the charge to peace, even if it meant spending time in a Klingon penal colony and exposing a deadly conspiracy that included officers aboard his own ship.