Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
What if Kirstie Alley had played Saavik through the first six Trek movies?
Wasn’t Kirstie Alley cool in Star Trek II? More than any of the characters invented for the original-series movies, Alley’s Saavik won over the Trek faithful and allowed her entrance into the most hallowed ranks of Trek characters. The Next Generation movies have distinguished themselves with solid guest stars in every movie, most notably the fantastic hat-trick of Alice Krige, James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard in First Contact. Hell, even F. Murray Abraham and Malcolm McDowell didn’t suck that much.
But the original-series movies offer no such new memorable characters, except for Kirstie Alley’s Saavik … and only Kirstie Alley’s Saavik. Who else can the first six movies offer? Decker or the bald babe in the brain-draining first movie? I guess Stephen Collins didn’t suck too much, especially next to William Shatner. (And don’t get me wrong – Shatner is a better actor than anyone realizes, but he needs a director to curb his overacting and tap into his considerable charm, as both Nicholas Meyer and Leonard Nimoy proved adept at doing. Robert Wise, a fine director, just didn’t know how to direct Shatner. Or any of the Trek cast.) Persis Khambatta gets points for playing one of those un-human aliens that marches around the ship asking goofy/quaint/terrifying questions about humanity in a roboticized voice, but any goodness she adds is negated by the two and a half hours of boredom that surround her performance. (And, well, Khambatta also gets points for being painfully beautiful to behold.) Paul Winfield was OK in part II, but he didn’t make half the impression he did in The Terminator. Christopher Lloyd can certainly play a villain – Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? springs to mind – but his performance as a renegade Klingon in the surprisingly sturdy Search for Spock is merely workmanlike – a leading-man role foisted on a brilliant character actor. Catherine Hicks is solid in The Voyage Home, especially when you consider that she’s playing a character whose sole animus is a psychotic love for whales. I mean, she does nothing but talk about whales. If she utters a non-whale-related sentence, will she turn into a marshmallow? Puzzling choice: Hicks’ character – a cetacean biologist, a whale expert, a humpback whale expert – gets on a starship at movie’s end, when the only two humpback whales alive are on Earth, the very same humpback whales she fought her whole life to protect and with whom she traveled right the fuck through time to save. Did she turn into a marshmallow when she boarded her “science vessel” and asked her first non-whale-related science question?
Let’s not even get into the cheek-flapping fart that is Spock’s “half-brother,” played by some dude in the so-bad-it’s-got-lightning-shooting-out-of-its-eyes fifth movie/shitpile. This actor, whose name shall go un-IMDb’ed by me, farts his farty performance at the center of a movie whose awfulness dwarfs the sickest porno gorefests of Ed Wood’s latter years. (Lord, what happened with Star Trek V? It’s a good idea – religious fanatic hijacks the Enterprise on a mad quest to find Heaven – but for my money, the movie’s most offensive blunder isn’t the giant head that shoots lightning eyebolts, but it’s how the Enterprise crew rolls over for this gooshy, New Age, half-assed, Scientologist-Vulcan moron who claims to be able to remove your pain by simply reminding you of the shitty thing in your past that caused the pain. Memo to William Shatner, director and story-generator for Trek V: You are a fucking idiot.)
Which leaves us with chapter six, The Undiscovered Country – a movie that’s ageing very well – which features Christopher Plummer as a decent bad guy and Kim Cattrall as a very cool Vulcan.
But I can’t praise Cattrall for her performance because it should have been Kirstie Alley’s (more on that later – it’s the thrust of the article).
And for those of you out there jumping up and down, wagging your index fingers at the monitor and shouting, “What about KHAAAAAAN?!” Let me remind you that he was of course introduced during the original series, so he doesn’t count.
So why can’t I praise Kim Cattrall in part VI? Or Robin Curtis as Saavik in parts III and IV?
Well, for starters, Curtis just plain sucks as Saavik, and as for Cattrall: as much as I admire her performance as the turncoat Lt. Valeris, rumor has it that an early draft of The Undiscovered Country had Saavik reappear to replace Sulu at the helm and frame Kirk for assassinating the Klingon head of state.
(Trek-geek side note: Seriously, Cattrall’s great in part VI. Great. And she deserves special praise because Vulcans are deceptively hard to play. Of the many Vulcans we meet in the Trek universe, very few actors really emanate warmth the way a Vulcan should. Yes, they’ve sworn off all emotion, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re good, valiant, caring people. Clearly, Leonard Nimoy is the gold standard, and to see how important his performance is, watch the first two movies back-to-back. Watch how director Robert Wise fucks up part I by keeping Spock in a pissy mood the whole time; then pop in the virtually flawless Wrath of Khan to see how Spock’s friendship with Kirk and McCoy – MIA in part I – makes that movie. Cattrall, for her part, manages to fill Valeris with menace, prejudice, jingoistic hatred and vulnerability, all while retaining the crucial Vulcan removal from those emotions … but Cattrall’s performance isn’t in question here.)
So let’s take a closer look at what the Saavik character might have been, positing a parallel universe where Kirstie Alley played Saavik in parts III and IV, as well as in an alternate-universe part VI that brought Saavik back as the main Vulcan-besides-Spock instead of introducing a new one.
(At the same time, don’t be surprised if I delve into some suppositions regarding an original-series cycle of movies that gives our heroes more realistic career tracks.)
First: Let’s discuss Kirstie Alley’s excellence in The Wrath of Khan.
“Self-expression doesn’t seem to be one of your problems,” Kirk tells Saavik. And indeed, Saavik has a temper. In the opening scene, when confronted with the infamous, unwinnable, Kobayashi Maru test at Starfleet Academy, Saavik mutters, “Damn” under her breath when she figures out she’s fucked. Soon after, when Kirk prickishly reminds her that every captain might have to face a no-win situation, Saavik shoots a hard, pissed-off glance to her right – the kind of glance that would get her drummed out of the Academy if a superior officer actually saw it. Skip to 1:30 to see:
Alley also taps into Saavik’s sexuality. Unlike Jolene Blalock, who has the benefit of enormous breasts and a skin-tight costume to sex-up her Vulcan character on Enterprise, Alley makes Saavik alluring with everything but her body. Example: when Saavik quotes a non-existent regulation in a bid to tag along with an away team, Kirk calls her on it, and Saavik responds with what can only be called a fetching look.
I’m not saying Kirk brought her along because he wanted to fuck her, but man, I sure did.
(Side note: Another scene suggests that the Trek creative types were setting Saavik up as a sex symbol: Saavik bumps into Kirk on an elevator (“turbolift” in Trek parlance), wearing a long-sleeve, slightly low-cut top and with her hair down around her shoulders. Kirk asks her if she’s changed her hair. She says her hair conforms to regulations. Later, when Saavik leaves the turbolift and McCoy enters, he immediately asks if she had changed her hairstyle; to which Kirk nonchalantly replies that he hadn’t noticed. Light moments like this – two senior officers gossiping about the hot new lieutenant – add to Wrath of Khan’s luster. The scene is expendable, but Nicholas Meyer and company wisely decide to keep it, well aware that’s it as important to show what these people are like as well as what they do.)
Alley also exudes an unsettlingly asexual Vulcan hotness when, trapped in the terraformed innards of planet Regula, she asks Kirk how he famously defeated the Kobayashi Maru test as a cadet. She purrs her question (“Can you tell me what you did? I would really like to know”), somehow coming off as woman-of-the-world and horny babysitter at the same time; and she does it with her hair pulled back in an unflattering bun and her body buried under a parka-esque Starfleet-issue field coat. (The only real look we get at Alley’s tight, pre-morbidly obese body is a brief glance while she changes out of the aforementioned parka and into her duty uniform.) The scene inside Regula is right out of The World According to Garp – hot young coed flatters the experienced, famous older man in a bid to fuck him – except that Kirk never nails Saavik (which puts the good lieutenant into a pretty elite group).
Back to Saavik’s temper: Apparently an earlier draft of Wrath of Khan specified that Saavik was not a full-blood Vulcan, but was in fact half Romulan. OK, seeing as how I’ve totally outed myself here as a complete Trek twit, I might as well reveal that the Romulans – famous Trek bad guys – are in fact an offshoot of the Vulcan race that many ages ago broke away from the main population because they didn’t want to conform to the growing Vulcan obsession/commitment to purely logical thought. This offshoot went on to found the Romulan Star Empire and generally be a constant pain in the Federation’s ass. So it follows that Saavik, having that anti-logic side to her upbringing, would also have to contend with a more volatile personality than the average Vulcan.
That said, let’s jump ahead to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Lt. Valeris, the turncoat Vulcan who conspires to thwart peace proceedings between the Federation and the Klingon empire. Her co-conspirators include a Federation admiral, the head of the Klingon military and the Romulan ambassador to the Federation. In Trek’s mythology, this side of the Milky Way is controlled by the Federation, the Klingons and the Romulans, so it makes sense that the Romulans would try to ruin an alliance between the two other biggest kids on the galactic block. And it would further make sense that a half-Romulan Saavik would be very likely to join such a conspiracy. (One important event in part III would further motivate Saavik, but we’ll get to that later.)
Now, as I’ve already conceded, Kim Cattrall is great as Valeris. The character’s shortcomings aren’t her fault. What holds Valeris back from being a truly great Trek character is her convenience. Early on in part VI it’s revealed that one of the conspirators is on board the Enterprise, and we all know that the Trekbrass wouldn’t have the balls to hit us with a twist as interesting as, say, Uhura or Chekov being one of the conspirators – certainly not in the original series’ swan-song movie. So that leaves them with the only other main character on the Enterprise: Valeris. Yes, Cattrall’s compelling performance makes her betrayal resonant, but structurally it’s too obvious – she’s a red-shirted ensign whose name makes the opening credits.
And while replacing Valeris with Saavik might not solve this structural problem, it would alleviate it somewhat. Imagine how dramatically satisfying it would be to see Saavik come back for one more movie with the main cast, and then to use her in such a powerful way. Hell, the Trek creative team did something similar with another recurring character: Brock Peters’ Admiral Cartwright. Cartwright appears as little more than an important Federation guy in The Voyage Home, but then he becomes one of the conspirators in The Undiscovered Country! I submit that using Saavik in a similar way would add power to her betrayal in part VI. She would have already appeared as a staunch ally in three previous movies, so using her as the chief traitor in part VI would defray the red-shirted-ensign-ness of the character’s batrayal while keeping all the main players in the good guys’ camp.
Indeed, the screenwriters for part VI had Saavik so much in mind that they did little more than change her name. Before leaving spacedock, Valeris quotes a regulation to Kirk that recalls Saavik’s similar indiscretion in The Wrath of Khan. In another scene, Spock instructs his crew to lie to Starfleet command so they can remain in deep space to help the imprisoned Capt. Kirk. Valeris instantly asks him if he’s lying (unacceptable behavior to a logical Vulcan). Spock shrugs it off, calling it an omission. This directly echoes a similar moment in The Wrath of Khan, where Saavik calls Spock out for lying, and Spock quips, “I exaggerated.” On this note, I invite you to reconsider this great scene with Lt. Valeris – but imagine it with Saavik instead:
Even then, the Trek writers were setting Saavik up as a potential successor to Spock. An early scene in part VI shows Spock naming Valeris as his successor in a grok-like Vulcan ritual of beverage sharing. It would have been better with Saavik sharing water with Spock.
Now let’s drop back to the third and fourth movies to see how a Kirstie Alley performance would improve them. Saavik plays a major role in part III, The Search for Spock, as one of the principal Federation scientists studying the newly formed planet Genesis. There’s a lot to discuss in part III, but I’ll focus on the two major events that affect Saavik in this movie:
1. She fucks the teenage, regenerated Spock. Back story: Spock dies at the end of part II, and they bury him on the newly formed planet Genesis, created with an experimental bomb that can apparently turn nebulas into planets. The planet’s undoubtedly screwy ecosystem regenerates Spock’s dead body and causes this new body to age very fast. Annnd every seven Earth years, Vulcans, like, have to ball something or they die. Saavik, who discovers the regenerated Spock, does just this when his accelerated aging gets him to the first have-to-ball stage of his life.
2. She witnesses the murder of Kirk’s son at the hands of Klingon renegades.
As for number 1, all I can argue is that Kirstie Alley, who had already demonstrated that she could radiate Vulcan sexuality in part II, would have played the scene better than the bland, essenceless Robin Curtis.
But it’s number 2 – watching a Klingon murder Kirk’s son – that matters most, and would dovetail the best with a part VI that had Saavik. In The Undiscovered Country, Valeris eavesdrops on Kirk as he confesses to his personal log that he could never forgive Klingons for murdering his son. Valeris later uses this log entry against him when Kirk is unjustly on trial for assassinating the Klingon head of state. After she’s exposed as a conspirator, Valeris reminds Kirk of his son’s murder. “Let them die, you said,” Valeris says, using Kirk’s words against him.
Imagine if a half-Romulan Saavik – the same Saavik who had witnessed this murder; the same Saavik who was forced to tell Kirk via communicator that his son was dead – had reappeared in part VI; a Saavik who had grown up admiring Kirk and his brash ways; a Saavik who burned with intense loyalty to the Federation and intense hatred for Klingons after watching them murder the son of one of her heroes … not only would it add dramatic heft to her betrayal, but it would make more sense.
(Oh, Saavik appears in part IV for a few lines. I can’t really argue that Kirstie Alley would greatly improve her cameo, but she could only be better than the flavorless Robin Curtis.)
So having established that Kirstie Alley rocks as Saavik in general, and that adding her to parts III, IV and VI would greatly improve the series, let’s talk about a systemic problem with the original-series movies: the creative team’s refusal to break up the original crew.
To satisfy the fans, of course.
In only two cases do we see them actually following accurate career trajectories: Chekov as a first officer in The Wrath of Khan and Sulu as a captain in The Undiscovered Country. And both of these choices work well. Hell, seeing Sulu command a starship was a huge hit among Trek fans, and I submit that seeing the others move onto greatness in Starfleet would have been received just as enthusiastically.
OK, I know I promised to concentrate on the first six movies, but all of this is leading to an idea I had to improve part VII, the torch-passing Star Trek: Generations. In this one, the writers do all these crazy time-vortex backflips to get Kirk and Capt. Picard (from the Next Generation series) together – only to have them huffing and puffing around a fire escape bolted to a mountainside to stop a madman from doing something crazy. They chose to have the two most popular starship captains do this in their big-screen team-up instead of, oh, I dunno, commanding starships.
Now go with me on this one: Kirk at one point was a full admiral. Admirals, besides running Starfleet from on high, command fleets of ships. True, Kirk got busted down to captain in part IV, but what if the time-traveling nonsense in Generations had led to a situation where Kirk finds himself on the bridge of the original-series Enterprise, and by necessity in command of a fleet of ships that includes the Next Generation Enterprise (commanded by Picard), along with:
The Excelsior, commanded by Sulu.
The Farragut, commanded by Uhura.
The Nelson, commanded by Chekov.
Suddenly Kirk gets a field-promotion to commodore or admiral and must command all these ships to victory. I don’t know what the circumstances would be or what would be at stake, but as much as I like Generations, I’m still disappointed that they didn’t brainstorm a bit longer to come up with a way to get Kirk and Picard onto the bridges of starships in their big-screen meeting.
In any case, I realize that all kinds of behind-the-scenes problems kept Kirstie Alley from reprising her role as Saavik (her commitment to Cheers most likely the culprit), and that budget restraints kept the writers from putting Kirk and Picard into a huge space battle in Generations … but it’s fun to dream of what might have been, especially when what might have been could have so greatly improved an already excellent cycle of movies. Well, except for Star Trek V.
But that’s a whooole other essay.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.