1: It’s 70 minutes long (the limit is 30 minutes)
2: They built their own set
3: They use professional actors
4: They use non-CBS props and costumes
Some of the interviews I’ve read indicate that the writer/producers feel they were grandfathered in – but that designation is a bit in the gray space.
The setting is 10 years before Kirk and friends launch on their 5-year mission. Commander Robert April is having family issues as he and his wife are trying to work out their marital problems. April is being offered command of a Constitution class starship, but he flatly refuses.
Meanwhile, a deadly alien force is killing people in the solar system – just because. And they are on their way to Earth with designs to kill everyone. It is up to April’s friend Captain Colins to take a not-quite-ready NCC-1701 Enterprise out to prevent the deadly force from succeeding. For some reason, April is on board the Enterprise to help Colins get the Enterprise ship-shape.
Long story short – Colins is incapacitated and it’s up to April to take the Enterprise and it’s not-quite-ready crew into the unknown to save the Earth.
ST:FF is more like Star Trek: The Original Series than anything we’ve seen since Star Trek: The Next Generation. In addition to capturing the technology of the 22nd century, the look of the original pilot(s) [The Cage/The Menagerie and Where No Man Has Gone Before], the pholosophy, and the general atmosphere of the original, the special effects are modern and yet still true to the orginal.
The acting is quite good and consistent with what we became enamored with in the late 1960s Star Trek universe. Certain elements relating to women as being weaker than men and gender issues are updated for modern tastes. I believe even the costumes (though very true to the ST:TOS pilots) were upgraded to be less obviously exploitive.
I believe this production built their own sets. And they are beautiful. The sets look like our familiar Enterprise, but somehow fresh, clean, and new. Special attention was paid to lighting the sets that made the bridge bright but not garish.
The script calls back to many of the same themes that made Star Trek iconic. We have a conflicted captain, an existential crisis, modern themes of the roles of men and women (in the workplace as well as husband and wife working in the same office space).
To the writers’ credit, this script felt very much like classic Trek. The word choices, the conflicts, the characterizations all reflect the original series and could easily have been written by someone of that era. The Star Trek Continues and Star Trek: Phase II fan-fic episodes included veteran Star Trek actors, writers, and directors. Still, ST:FF supersedes them all by having a script that captures the essence of ST:TOS.
A big complaint of mine with the production of ST:FF is the audio. There’s a mish-mash of ST:TOS and ST:TNG music. And it seems as if the music is unrelenting. It is constantly running. At times when silence and just the humming of the engines would be both familiar and suspenseful, there’s a soundtrack and a cacophony of beeps and bleeps playing over the dialog.
Which brings me to my second biggest complaint – the audio was randomly variable. This film needs a serious overhaul in audio editing. There are times I cannot hear the actors’ words because of all the noise. And some actors seem closer to the microphones while others are further away – making it hard to hear important plot points.
While the practical effects are quite good, some of the interior-shot CGI left much to be desired. Some of the sets were green screen backgrounds and the actors had that “halo” effect that is a distraction. Also, there were problems with scale (especially surrounding the shuttlecraft – sometimes the shuttlecraft dwarfed the actors).
The alien being was particularly bizarre harkening back to 1950s horror films and Outer Limits. The eyes were especially confusing as they seemed to jiggle around on the alien’s head. It’s not clear if this was intentional or designed to reflect a 1960s special effects aesthetic. This alien didn’t seem to belong in a Star Trek universe. It seemed more like a Dr. Who reject.
ST:FF stayed scrupulously close to canon – except where it didn’t. I got the impression that the Federation had not yet ventured far out into the void. Yet, there were a large number of aliens on board – and even in command of the virgin Constellation class starships. I seem to recall that it was quite novel for Spock, an alien, to be on the bride of the ST:TOS Enterprise. Yet Capt. April’s Enterprise was quite literally crawling with them.
Many of the Hollywood and the fan-fic Star Trek franchises suffer from a nauseating amount of fan service in the form of call-backs to ST:TOS. In particular, we see tribbles, Tranya, Romulan Ale, etc… scattered randomly around the sets of modern incarnations of Star Trek. We don’t see a lot of that in ST:FF.
But there are an alarming number of “stolen” themes. April hides the ship in asteroid field noting that “we won’t be able to see them, but they won’t be able to see us either” which echoes Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. The alien ship must lower its shield before it can fire its weapon – much like the Romulan cloaking device of ST:TOS. The all-evil, unconvinceable aliens remind me of the Borg. Even the final line of the film is a cut-and-paste from earlier Treks. These are just a few of the many “feels” that were borrowed from other Star Trek incarnations.
Perhaps my biggest complaint is the aliens and the general theme of the episode. The aliens are pure evil with no clear motivation. We never really see a conversation with them. Gene Roddenberry insisted that aliens have some sort of humanity such that we could identify with them. These aliens are bent on the destruction of anything in their path – for no apparent reason.
In both ST:TOS and ST:TNG we would often see Kirk or Picard debating with the alien force. There was always a human element to the conflicts with alien forces. The captains often wondered if perhaps, this was a misunderstanding and that the enemy could be turned into an ally.
But here, the alien is a mere prop to allow us to establish Capt. April and his crew as the first Five Year mission. There is no real moral to this story. While April finds his place in the stars, there’s not real point to the story. And as such – it falls flat as a proper Star Trek story. As much as I liked Star Trek First Frontier, I think they squandered a huge opportunity to capture the essence of Star Trek – our humanity.
You can watch the full feature on Youtube.com here: Star Trek First Frontier