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.

Offi­cial movie site: