The Evolution of Star Trek

12 feature films.

Nearly 50 years.  6 television shows.  Billions of dollars.  Millions of fans.

Innumerable video games, novelizations, toys.  An entirely fabricated language.  Conventions galore.

The cultural impact of Star Trek is staggering.  It has saved lives.  It has broken barriers, attracting Martin Luther King’s attention.  There is arguably no other modern, fictional universe so influential and so long-lasting.  Gene Roddenberry’s creation, a little stilted and hokey and Panglossian in its vision of the future, has grown into a vast commercial and literary and cinematic empire.  Whether you love it or hate it, Star Trek exercises a massive impact on the world.

From the perspective of film, despite the prodigious quantity of Star Trek movies, none of them has really been exceptional in terms of quality.  Granted, Star Trek is a niche product, but with a dozen movies to its name, you’d think there would be at least one great one just by chance.  Yet, the most acclaimed Star Trek movie–J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot–rates presently an 8.1 by IMDB’s metrics, occupying a pedestrian rank of 247th on IMDB’s list of the best films in history (given the propensity for recently-released movies to be temporarily boosted, its true position may be even lower).  Even though the films have been praised for lavish special effects and at times interesting cinematography, they’ve never really achieved widespread critical acclaim or broken through into the cinematic canon.

There is, however, another reason to examine them: time.  There’s no movie franchise, excepting James Bond, with as steady and persistent a historical record as Star Trek.  From 1979 to 2013, fully 12 Star Trek feature films have been released; the longest gap between films was only seven years.

Furthermore, whereas Bond has changed his setting and actors and style, there are common elements, both thematic and visual, throughout each of the Star Trek movies–for instance, the Enterprise itself.  To Star Trek’s enduring credit, the franchise has never really lost its charming, nerdy, futuristic individuality.  Even though actors have aged and been replaced, even though styles and fads have come and gone, some core principles of Trek have remained constant (more than some series can say).  Like the Ship of Theseus, Star Trek has maintained its identity, despite nearly every constituent piece having been replaced.


Visual Analysis

I digitized and examined 11 out of the 12 movies, representing the full span from 1979-2013.  In brief, this analysis consists of taking still pictures, one per second, from each movie, chopping those stills into small segments, and then storing the mean color in each segment for analysis (see here for more information).  Here’s some vital statistics on the movies, overall:

NameYear of ReleaseMetacritic ScoreGross Box Office (in millions of dollars)
The Motion Picture19794882
The Wrath of Khan19827178
The Search for Spock19845576
The Voyage Home198667109
The Final Frontier19894352
First Contact19967192
Star Trek200983257
Into Darkness201372228

(nota bene, I failed to digitize Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country)

Using such an analysis, we can examine several important traits for each movie.  Let’s start with brightness, or how light each movie is.  Take a look at these stills of the bridge of the Enterprise, a sort of common point of visual reference for each series of movies, and guess which movie is the brightest.


From top left, that’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the very first one), Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek Insurrection, and the 2009 Star Trek reboot.  If you guessed that the bottom right, that is the reboot, was the brightest of the four, you’d be right.  Indeed, look upon the overall trend of brightness in the movies, and you shall find…


… that it’s been pretty static over the course of the original cast and second generation movies, before abruptly spiking in Abrams’ retellings.  The two severe drops correspond to Wrath of Khan and First Contact, both reasonably dark movies (in both tone and setting).

Another statistic of interest is color speed, which measures how fast colors change throughout a film.  Looking at that produces a slightly different pattern.


Color speed increases strikingly throughout the run of films, to a significant extent.  Towards the end of the run–again, Abrams’ portion–Star Trek begins to exhibit levels of color speed characteristic of action movies.  Unlike in the last graph, however, when you remove the last two films, there remains a significant positive trend of color speed.  In other words, Star Trek movies were getting faster before J.J. Abrams ever sullied them with his populist hands.  Star Trek movies have been getting faster since the 80s, and Abrams’ reincarnation merely reflects that trend.


Star Trek Became Electric Blue

In a previous post, I found that a particular set of colors is especially associated with science fiction, so much so that a machine learning algorithm can accurately distinguish science fiction from non-science fiction using only those colors.  Foremost among those colors was electric blue.

Since I wrote that, I’ve kept a keen eye out for electric blue in movies of all kinds.  Looking for it in Star Trek, I found an interesting trend.  Take a look at the Enterprise’s main deflector dish, which is the round thing at the bottom of the ship (I am slightly ashamed of myself for knowing that, but you don’t watch as much Star Trek as it took to put this together without figuring out what a deflector dish is).


This picture is the first head-on depiction of the Enterprise (in the films, anyway).  Note its color, a sort of bland grey.  Now let’s fast forward to the fifth movie in the franchise.


The deflector dish has turned blue!  And not just any blue, mind you, but a beautiful fluorescent electric blue.  It has remained this color for the duration of the run, with few exceptions (e.g. Star Trek: Insurrection).  As it happens, a similar thing happened to the warp nacelles (oh god what’s happening to me…)…. these are the things sticking up at the back of the ship like ears (to the right in the below picture).

This one coincided with the beginning of the Next Generation era, that is the cast headed by Sir Patrick Stewart.

Just in case that wasn’t enough electric blue, all of the screens got a serious dose around the same time as the deflector dish.


Leave it to Abrams to take that trend up to 11:


Now the whole bridge is outlined in shades of electric blue.  Oh, and the reactor.  The bottom line is that Star Trek became more and more electric blue as the series has progressed, usually with the blue elements being attached to the most advanced bits of imaginary technology.


Brighter, Faster, Blue-r

The Star Trek movies form an incredible resource for examining visual trends in movies over the 40 years of their continued existence.  In this preliminary analysis, I’ve found three striking trends in the evolution of these movies.  First, the movies have gotten brighter, but really only due to the last two entries in the franchise, both directed by J.J. Abrams.  Abrams loves him some lens flare and explosions.


Second, the movies have gotten faster, which correlates well with pacing.  Unlike the above pattern, which was driven by the most recent outliers, the increase in pace seems steady through the whole, decades-long run of Star Trek.  Does that increase in velocity hold generally, for all movies?  A question to be addressed in the future, for sure.

Third, electric blue shows up quite strongly in Star Trek, usually with reference to a futuristic piece of technology such as the deflector dish or the engine nacelles or the warp core.  This occurrence reinforces the notion that electric blue is acting a bit like a subconscious signal of futurity (“here there’s science fiction things happening!”).  Given its outsize influence in the history of science fiction, I don’t think its outlandish to suggest that Star Trek’s early (1980s) embrace of electric blue may have primed viewers to associate the color with the genre in later movies.  Maybe that’s how the future became electric blue.

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