Since the airing of the last episode of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005, and the release of the last movie, Star Trek: Nemesis, all the way back in 2002, the Trek franchise has lain dormant. One of my friends whom I went to watch Star Trek with had never seen anything from the franchise before, so I found myself explaining that there had already been 10 Star Trek movies and 5 TV series comprising 28 seasons worth of shows. And that I had watched nearly all of it. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I’m a trekkie – not one fanatical enough to dress up in costume, nor even one who gets all sensitive about the distinction between the terms “trekkers” and “trekkies” – but one who nonetheless can hold his own during a sci-fi trivia night and one who has a certain attachment to Trek along with a sense of protectiveness about what it stands for.
When I heard a couple years ago that Paramount had green-lit an eleventh Star Trek movie, I was convinced it was going to be a piece of crap. Somewhere along the line, the concept shifted so that the new movie would feature the characters from the original series but with an all new cast. I was even more aghast. What they were proposing amounted to desecration! But then J.J. Abrams came on board to direct and when I saw the trailer and understood what he intended to do with the movie, I suddenly became optimistic.
The idea behind the eleventh Trek movie was to do a reboot of the franchise. Rebooting franchises seems to be fashionable as of late (eg, Batman, The Hulk, Battlestar Galactica, and Superman), but to reboot something which has had a continuous heritage spanning over four decades is a risky and perhaps foolhardy endeavour. But Trek has not been without its problems.
A large problem with Trek is that, while it cultivated a strong and loyal fanbase, there were some things about it which held it back from mainstream acceptance, more and more so as time went on. By “acceptance”, I mean the common notion that you had to be “into Star Trek” to enjoy the movies and episodes. Audience sophistication has increased since the 60s, and consequently, story-telling methods have also moved on. The traditional story-telling method maintained by all of the Trek TV series – loose to zero continuity between episodes (leading to the so-called “reset button” being hit between each episode), and an almost naive way to approaching some themes – looked and felt increasingly outdated. This was combined with a certain nerdy stigma (not helped by treknobabble and the more rabid elements of the fanbase), and a long history which perhaps was more a barrier to entry for new watchers than a mark of quality (“Do I need to have seen Star Trek before to enjoy the new movie?”). Star Wars was only 6 movies. But with Star Trek, where do you start? Who wants to wade through the quaint 60s episodes of the Original Series to get to know Jim Kirk and his crew? The grand sentiment behind Star Trek – Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of advancement towards a better future for humanity – should be universally accessible, but Star Trek itself was becoming increasingly inaccessible.
In order to become once again relevant to the next next generation, Trek needed to be modernised. Whether it was to become more gritty like the Battlestar Galactica reboot, or more tongue-in-cheek like the Stargate series, the franchise needed to feel a bit more “real” and less contrived. The Star Trek: Enterprise series tried to do this, but failed. And now the same task was being attempted by Abrams and co. The new Star Trek movie was purposely named without any number or subtitle (it’s just “Star Trek”) to dump the baggage of the old series and introduce, or as the case may be, re-introduce, Trek to this generation and our children’s generation (holy crap, I’m moving into the next generation up… that’s scary). This is all well and good, but the difficulty lies in doing this without pissing off the Trekkies.
Ok, enough background rambling. Did the movie deliver?
To me, it did. Speaking with my friends after the movie, they found it understandable, fun, and weren’t turned off by any nerdiness or treknobabble. And by not taking itself too seriously, the movie didn’t feel like it ever degraded into cringeworthy corniness. Creating a reboot by changing the timeline is a bit of a contrivance, but handling it with a measure of self-conscious, self-referential humour instead of trying to sweep it under the carpet is the right way to deal with things (well, at least I though that the not-subtle-at-all spelling out that this is a new reality and that these people will make their own destiny constituted self-referential humour). And importantly for me, the reboot was respectful to the fans.
Now for a shotgun approach to reviewing the movie (no spoilers).
Some fans called the movie Star Trek 90210, in reference to the young cast and elements like the Apple iBridge. A lot of people commented disfavourably on how young the cast was. But I liked this. After all, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were young once (when Scotty was actually thin) – and if you want to make a franchise which is relevant to a young generation, why use old- or middle-aged characters that are difficult for them to relate to? Even Matt Damon was turned down for the role of Kirk because he was “too old”. What we got was a great cast that captured the vibrancy and freshness of youth, under the mentorship of the experienced. Yet the characters remained essentially true to their roots – talented, brash, and ambitious. The new cast was believable, and they wisely spent a good chunk of the movie on character development and introducing us to the characters.
One of my all time favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is called “Tapestry“. In it, Captain Picard gets to travel back in time and use his wisdom and experience to remedy what he regards as a mistake he made in the days where he was an “arrogant, undisciplined” and “cocky” youth which led him to getting stabbed in the heart. However, changing that mistake had unforeseen consequences – that “more wise” Picard played it safe, and took less risks. He matured too quickly and the end result was a mediocre and obscure career. The new Trek cast successfully captures the raw talent, but impulsiveness and inexperience of youth – the exciting fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants, learn-by-making-mistakes, getting-back-up-when-you-get-knocked-down mentality. The new Kirk embodied tha. Essentially, we have a cast that could be role models that I hope young people can relate to.
The treatment of Spock’s mixed heritage was handled better than it ever has been handled before. As with many things in Trek, there is an underlying theme that people of mixed race and also second-generation migrants can relate to. Actually, all the thematic elements that I love Trek for came through in this movie without feeling too sanctimonious, unsubtle, or naive. It was also great having Nimoy back on screen one last time.
I thought the casting of Bones was spot on.
John Cho’s portrayal of Sulu was shaky at the start (it didn’t help that he slipped briefly back into his Harold persona when he screwed up when trying to jump the ship into warp), but he held his own later on. Abrams had some hesitation at casting an ethnic Korean as a Japanese character, but apparently Sulu is meant to “represent Asians” on the Enterprise… whatever that means.
The plot was fairly solid. The casting of Bana and selection of Nero as the villain was a particularly good call. Having Nero as not some supervillain or military officer, but a commander of a mining vessel with a grudge was intelligent. It also allowed his vessel to be powerful, but not too powerful (as can be expected for a mining vessel, it wasn’t that well armed).
Music was solid and the movie’s fanfare was good but not great.
The special effects were fantastic. Can’t complain about the eye-candy, either.
It was a bonus for me to see Starfleet Academy at San Francisco, while watching the movie in the Bay Area!
There were heaps of in-jokes for the fans, which was appreciated. Each time a character delivered a trademark line, half the audience at the cinema would laugh, and the other half would wonder why they were laughing. (There’s nothing inherently funny about, “Dammit, I’m a doctor, not a physicist!” unless you know the history of the line.) I also loved the scene where Spock gives Scotty his own formula for transporting at warp. In Star Trek 4, there’s a similar scene in which Scotty gives away the formula for transparent aluminum to a guy in the plastics industry, telling a disapproving McCoy, “How do we know he didn’t invent the thing?” Also, they’ve preserved the whole thing about red-shirts, away missions, and dying in a pretty hilarious fashion (well I thought it was funny).
Of course, I wouldn’t be a Trekkie without having my own set of nitpicks. Red matter? I mean, come on. Since when was Romulus ever destroyed in the original timeline? Kirk got promoted from Cadet to Captain just like that? And wasn’t Kirk supposed to get a commendation for original thinking instead of a reprimand for cheating the Kobayashi Maru simulation (although I thought including the scene where he actually does the cheating was great). I could go on, but I won’t.
All in all, I was thoroughly entertained. The movie worked, and it worked well. Star Trek leaves the door wide open for a credible new line of Trek movies.
There have been many episodes of the TV series dealing with alternative realities where we get a glimpse into a parallel universe (it’s a common device, and the premise for the sci-fi TV series Sliders). However, we never really get to stay in one of those alternative realities. It looks like we are staying in one now.
There’s something bittersweet about that – the feeling that the Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura we’re seeing aren’t quite the real deal. That we’re changing something that shouldn’t be changed, tampering with a past that should be preserved. People are naturally resistant to change, especially die hard fans and older people who have become entrenched in their ways. But today’s generation is more used to change. Look at how rapidly the world has changed since the 60s – the youth of today is a lot more mobile, a lot more connected, and a lot more flexible than their parents. The speed at which things move in today’s world can be breathtaking. Yet, the attractiveness of Trek is that it is at its heart about the future. It is about optimism and aspiring to reach for the stars, both literally and figuratively, and both in a personal and societal sense. As such, this sentiment will always be relevant to all generations. It is a message that is just as good as inspiring our generation, as it was for my parents, who saw man land on the moon 40 years ago on a black and white television set, or over the radio. All we have to do is ensure that the method in which this message is delivered remains relevant.
As Trek is about change and the betterment of humanity, Trekkies should understand those concepts as well as anybody. If Trek has to be changed to adapt to the sensibilities of the new generation, then, as long as we pay proper tribute to the hard work of the previous generations, that is a good thing which shouldn’t be resisted.
So now we have a fresh new version of the crew of the Enterprise, a fresh new timeline, and ultimately a refreshened franchise. Awesome.