Set Phasers to Awesome: Star Trek

Star Trek movie poster


Like the 1966 Corvette a reck­less young James Tiberius Kirk com­man­deers in an early sequence, the new Star Trek is precision-crafted for speed, sex appeal, and total awe­some­ness. Kirk launches that beau­ti­ful machine off a cliff, but thank­fully direc­tor J.J. Abrams never does the same with the movie. Star Trek (the first in the fran­chise to go by the per­fectly terse name of the orig­i­nal TV series) joins the rar­i­fied ranks of the few other mod­ern block­busters that thrill and enter­tain (not to men­tion cost and earn mas­sive piles of money) yet have last­ing merit. Make room on the DVD shelf for a new entry in the canon, along­side Jaws, E.T.: The Extrater­res­trial, The Lord of the Rings tril­ogy, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Spider-Man 2.

Trek has a long tra­di­tion of uti­liz­ing the sci­ence fic­tion con­ceits of time travel and alter­nate dimen­sions to play­fully sub­vert its char­ac­ters and mythos. The orig­i­nal series intro­duced the Mir­ror Uni­verse, giv­ing the cast the chance to rein­ter­pret their goodly char­ac­ters in hairier, eviler alter egos. Two of the best movies brought the Enter­prise back in time, first to save the whales in the 1980s (in the light­hearted Star Trek IV: The Voy­age Home), and later to wit­ness Earth­lings’ first con­tact with an alien race in 2063 (in the under­rated Star Trek VIII: First Con­tact). Two of my per­sonal favorite Next Gen­er­a­tion episodes “Yesterday’s Enter­prise” and “All Good Things” tasked Cap­tain Picard with course-correcting an Enter­prise skip­ping through time, no mat­ter the sac­ri­fice. The fun in these kinds of sto­ries comes not just from their brain-teasing sci-fi con­cepts, but in enjoy­ing new twists on the estab­lished char­ac­ters fans love. But any real inno­va­tions were always only tem­po­rary, the sta­tus quo always quickly restored in time (so to speak) for the next episode.

Anton Yelchin, Chris Pine, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Zoe Saldana in Star Trekall hands on deck

Thus, the Star Trek fran­chise has man­aged to main­tain a sin­gle (albeit mas­sively com­pli­cated) time­line across six TV series, ten movies, and count­less nov­els and comic books. There’s even a niche mar­ket in the con­ti­nu­ity data itself, as evi­denced by pop­u­lar wikis like Mem­ory Alpha and ref­er­ence tomes such as Star Trek Chronol­ogy: The His­tory of the Future. Such cat­a­logs of the incred­i­bly com­plex future “his­tory” in which Trek is set are use­ful not only to obses­sive fans, but also to the writ­ers charged with cre­at­ing new sto­ries that don’t con­tra­dict what came before, at least too badly.

A cer­tain degree of renewal was already built right in to Star Trek. When any one premise ran out of ideas, an ensem­ble aged beyond plau­si­bil­ity, or rat­ings dipped, the pro­duc­ers could always start over with a new ship, a new space sta­tion, or in a new year. The most rad­i­cal depar­ture yet attempted was the ulti­mately dis­ap­point­ing final series, Enter­prise. The pre­quel, set years before Kirk would take the helm, got off to a great start with a Starfleet crew a world apart from any we had seen before. As many have pointed out over the years, Star Trek cre­ator Gene Rod­den­berry may have mod­eled Starfleet on the Navy, but the orig­i­nal 1960s series was basi­cally a West­ern set in space. The 1980s The Next Gen­er­a­tion recon­ceived Starfleet as kind of trans-species peace­keep­ing fleet, a kind of U.N. of The Milky Way. So, set between Earth­lings’ rough-and-tumble early space­far­ing years and the later ide­al­is­tic inter­galac­tic coöper­a­tion, Enter­prise fea­tured a bunch of cocky cow­boys brazenly tak­ing their val­ues out with them into space, base­ball caps firmly screwed on heads, and phasers defi­antly set to kill. The series seemed poised to be a some­what obvi­ous but fruit­ful metaphor for an arro­gant, George W. Bush-era United States forcibly spread­ing democ­racy where it wasn’t wel­come. But its qual­ity (both in writ­ing and in spe­cial effects bud­get) bot­tomed out in just a few episodes, and even the smoking-hot, well-endowed Vul­can T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) couldn’t keep the show on the air.

Zoe Saldana in Star TrekUhura mod­els the lat­est in 23rd Cen­tury Blue­tooth fashions

The entire Star Trek fran­chise seemed all but dead after Enter­prise’s can­cel­la­tion, not unlike the no-win sce­nario Spock devises as a test to tor­ture Starfleet cadets to see how they cope with fail­ure. A cher­ished part of Star Trek lore is that Kirk doesn’t believe in no-win sce­nar­ios, and thus cheated in order to win Spock’s unwinnable test. Para­mount evi­dently learned a les­son from Kirk’s lat­eral think­ing, for the first they they have given the OK to an irrev­er­ent new cre­ative team to per­ma­nently reboot Trek from top to bot­tom. Nearly all of Trek’s metic­u­lously main­tained con­ti­nu­ity (except­ing, iron­i­cally, the failed Enter­prise, set chrono­log­i­cally before any of the events of this movie) has now for­ever been rede­fined as belong­ing to an alter­nate time­line. At least, that is, until the next reboot. As the heavily-advertised appear­ance of Leonard Nimoy as the orig­i­nal “Spock Prime” attests, noth­ing nec­es­sar­ily pre­cludes the reap­pear­ance of any beloved orig­i­nal actors or other kinds of crossovers between time­lines (any­thing in pos­si­ble in sci­ence fic­tion). But Star Trek does mark a very clear end to Star Trek as we knew it.

After 40 years of unre­li­able qual­ity con­trol and dimin­ish­ing box office, such dras­tic mea­sures were arguably essen­tial to pre­serve Trek as a viable fran­chise. But I do sym­pa­thize with the grum­bling of long­time fans upset at scrap­ping every­thing and start­ing over. And this is not even to men­tion the many writ­ers, direc­tors, and actors that cre­ated the no-longer canon­i­cal sto­ries. All of which hasn’t dis­ap­peared from our real­ity, and will be enjoyed for­ever on DVD, but this film does ren­der pretty much every­thing that came before it as second-class Trek. I can’t help but won­der how all future spin­offs are now going to be han­dled on a prac­ti­cal level. For instance, if there are to be future comics or nov­els fea­tur­ing the char­ac­ters from The Next Gen­er­a­tion, are the phys­i­cal prod­ucts going to have to be labelled as tak­ing place in the now-depricated orig­i­nal fic­tional uni­verse? How does “Trek Clas­sic” and “Neu Trek” sound?

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star TrekSpock has had enough Kirk and can’t take it anymore

But back to the topic at hand: the totally awe­some new movie is packed with glossy art direc­tion, gen­uinely excit­ing spe­cial effects, fight scenes, chase sequences, and attrac­tive young actors young and attrac­tive enough to strut about on the big screen in their space scant­ies. Despite all this gloss, it some­how man­ages to not be totally stu­pid, which is more than This Dork Reporter can say about your typ­i­cal sum­mer movie (*cough* Trans­form­ers *cough*). How­ever, I can’t help but point out a few, for­give me, illog­i­cal plot ele­ments, espe­cially in the mad rush towards the end:

  • Why does Kirk bother fir­ing upon Nero’s ship as it’s being torn apart by a black hole? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe Kirk feared Nero would time travel yet again to cre­ate mis­chief in yet another time­line (hey, there’s always the inevitable next reboot in a few years).
  • Starfleet is busy else­where in the galaxy, so we see the cadets mobi­lized into a strike force to con­front Nero. So why is the Acad­emy still full of stu­dents when Nero’s ship reaches Earth? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: maybe they were Fresh­men not qual­i­fied to do more than merely swab the decks.
  • It’s wildly implau­si­ble for young Spock to maroon Kirk on the same planet that Nero did Spock Prime. The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: nope, I got noth­ing. I mean, really, come on! (but still, the movie is awe­some, just go with it)
  • The hard­est plot point to swal­low is why Spock Prime does not accom­pany Kirk back to the Enter­prise. Would he really risk the fate of Earth because he thinks it’s more impor­tant that Kirk and his young self forge their des­tined friend­ship? The Dork Report’s No-Prize answer: yes.

But enough com­plain­ing. Did I men­tion the movie is TEH AWESOME? There’s not one bad per­for­mance to drag things down (a notable prob­lem with Watch­men — read The Dork Report review). Despite being tasked with recre­at­ing char­ac­ters beloved by fans for over 40 years, no one attempts an out­right imi­ta­tion or car­i­ca­ture. The most faith­ful is Zachary Quinto as Spock. Beyond his eerie phys­i­cal resem­blance to Nimoy (maybe not how he actu­ally looked in 1966, but how he might have), he has a fresh take that plays up the character’s inter­nal strug­gle between emo­tion and logic. Chris Pine art­fully embod­ies Kirk’s blend of right­eous nobil­ity and brash rule-busting atti­tude with­out aping William Shatner’s famously hammy style (for which we all, admit it, love him). Karl Urban nails Bones as a sea­sick pes­simist, and Zoe Sal­dana and John Cho bring wel­come sass and phys­i­cal action hero prowess to Uhura and Sulu, two char­ac­ters often left on the side­lines. Only Anton Yelchin and Simon Pegg come close to over­do­ing it. Pegg mugs and shouts, play­ing Scotty as much more of a mad Scots­man than James Doohan ever did, and Yelchin overex­ag­ger­ates Chekov’s accent for pure com­edy. But that’s not to say both per­for­mances aren’t hugely enter­tain­ing, just like every­thing else on display.

Simon Pegg in Star TrekPegg gives Scotty’s accent all she’s got, Captain!

Star Trek goes much much fur­ther with Spock’s half-human nature than any of the Trek I’ve seen. Spock was such a key ingre­di­ent that almost every ver­sion of Trek that fol­lowed was oblig­ated to include a sim­i­lar char­ac­ter: most obvi­ously the android Data (Brent Spiner) in The Next Gen­er­a­tion. We are reminded the Vul­can species is not nat­u­rally emo­tion­less, as many casual fans assume, but rather a deeply pas­sion­ate peo­ple that holds its war­like nature in check by ele­vat­ing logic to the level of reli­gion. A purely devout Vul­can would be about as dra­mat­i­cally inter­est­ing as a robot (but it must be said that even Spock’s father Sarek (Ben Cross), a high-ranking Vul­can elder, pri­vately admits to being moved by the irra­tional emo­tion of love). The aged Spock Prime is prac­ti­cally jovial, seem­ingly hav­ing come to terms with his dual­ity. It’s actu­ally rather heart­warm­ing for a long­time fan to see him at a place of peace with himself.

I have room for one more small com­plaint: there’s an over­re­liance on clichéd father issues as easy story short­cuts to define char­ac­ter, for which I blame J.J. Abrams. Both Kirk and Spock are torn between rebelling against and own­ing up to their respec­tive heroic, accom­plished fathers. Abrams also built his TV series Alias and Lost upon the same dra­matic crutch, in which seem­ingly every char­ac­ter is pri­mar­ily moti­vated by strained rela­tion­ships with absent and/or bad fathers (e.g. Syd­ney, Jack, Locke, Kate, Miles, etc…). One won­ders, sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, how many peo­ple in the world actu­ally do have such com­pli­cated rela­tion­ships with their dads. Maybe those that do are just more likely to make their careers writ­ing scripts for Hollywood.

None of the many Trek sequels, pre­quels, or spin­offs to date have ever reached the mythic sta­tus of the orig­i­nal series and its core dynamic duo Kirk and Spock. Star Trek makes a bold bid to reclaim what made the orig­i­nal such a phe­nom­e­non: it goes back to the orig­i­nal sce­nario and char­ac­ters, and thor­oughly remas­ters, rein­vig­o­rates, rein­vents, and gives them a swift kick in the ass. It restores the names Kirk and Spock to the realm of leg­ends and icons.

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