What’s Future Is Prologue
Here at last, on the heels of the brief Star Trek review I put up the other day, are
some expanded thoughts on the franchise and the film...
I suppose I’m a Trekkie. Star Trek’s original series aired in reruns as I grew up, and
my mom introduced me to it. The Saturday-morning cartoon incarnation that debuted in 1973 was on as well — I recall most vividly (and not irrelevantly to the subject at hand) the episode in which Spock goes back in time and meets his younger self on Vulcan. The Next Generation was just about the only television I watched in college regularly besides the news and SNL, and I sampled every subsequent series out of affection for the concept. Heck, I’ve read episode guides and maybe a half-dozen of the hundreds of novels, but I’ve never dressed up in a Starfleet uniform, memorized the kind of minutiae some fans have, or engaged in other behavior that I tend to associate with the more serious enthusiasts who allegedly prefer the name “Trekkers”.
And if you’d asked me a decade ago whether recasting the original crew was a good idea, I’d have emphatically said no. What’s the point? They had a fine run in the movies, popped up in subsequent series effectively on a few occasions, and, most importantly, were inextricably bound to the actors who played them. Capt. Kirk and clan weren’t characters like Batman or James Bond, open to interpretation, recognized as raw material by creators and the viewing public. William Shatner was Kirk, and so forth down the line; a large part of the crew’s appeal 30 years on was how they aged, their familiar traits magnified, even if the passage of time meant that ultimately they wouldn’t be seen anymore. They were delightful comfort food.
The problem with comfort food, of course, is that pretty much by definition it isn’t flashy or attention-getting. But spicing up the recipe can be a dangerous prospect, too, whereas introducing something new that echoes the familiar may hit the sweet spot of marketability. So after a brief attempt at reviving Star Trek for television, which instead led to the 1979 feature Star Trek: The Motion Picture (widely derided in fan circles as The Motion Sickness, since almost everything about it beyond actually seeing our old friends reunite was considered upsetting) and four more popular films, Roddenberry & Co. were shrewd in setting the 1987-94 Next Generation series nearly a century after the original, with an entirely new roll call.
While highly profitable in first-run syndication, Capt. Picard and his shipmates never quite captured the wider zeitgeist the way Kirk’s gang did. The box-office ranking of Trek movies [bad link] is bottom-heavy with Picard-era pics — Nemesis, the fourth and final, ranking dead last whether adjusted for inflation or not. When it became clear that The Next Generation’s spinoffs/successors wouldn’t make the jump to the cinema, and with the 2001-2005 UPN prequel series Enterprise the first ratings disappointment since the original’s run on NBC, one wondered how the franchise would survive.
The answer turned out to be, as the hip kids say, “rebooting” the whole thing. And by the time it was announced that J.J. Abrams was, as the Hollywood types say, “attached to direct”, I was guardedly optimistic. I’d been a loyal Alias viewer to the end and his co-creation Lost is currently, as the flappers say, “the cat’s pajamas” [note from later:
I changed my assessment there, drastically, at least as regards the final season]. He’s apparently gotten a rap as a top idea man who then leaves his ideas in either lesser or greater hands, but that’s the price one pays for more work from an in-demand talent (not that I haven’t lamented the departure of many guiding lights on comic-book and TV series myself). Given that Abrams crafted cool group dynamics on Alias, that he directed bang-up big-screen action on the third Mission: Impossible film, and that the screenplay was assigned to his Fringe partners Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci, well, that was good enough for me. If somebody had to do it, this seemed like the guy.
Abrams said in a recent interview for Time Magazine [bad link] that “Star Trek was always a little bit closed emotionally. I never connected to the characters.” Which proves his oft-repeated profession that he’s not a Trekkie in the least, because the movies and spinoff series used personality and cast interplay as their dilithium crystals. The director also got asked “Have you developed your own style, a J.J. Abrams touch?” and replied “I have no style.” Whether he’s wrong on this count I can’t say, but we did get some familiar Abrams motifs in the film: The white, 3D letters from the title card of Lost that likewise pop up to identify locations on Fringe could be seen establishing Iowa and Vulcan. His childhood friend and lucky charm Greg Grunberg made an off-screen cameo as the voice of young Jim Kirk’s stepfather. And central to the plot was a visual callback to Alias’s giant red ball. Now it’s time for the spoiler warning, as I’m veering into discussion of details; while I doubt anyone reading this wanted to see the film and hasn’t yet, there you go.
Word came long ago that the original Spock would be seen in the form of Leonard Nimoy, and more recently it got out that the villain of the piece would be traveling from a future point later than Nemesis — aging Nimoy’s Ambassador Spock roughly in real time since his guest role in the two-part Next Generation episode “Unification” — back to the era of a much younger Spock as played by Zachary Quinto.
Any Trekkie not utterly opposed to the project had to be as thrilled as I was by the news, because it allowed for in-story explanations of nearly everything from the new faces and sets to the concern of reintroducing suspense on a grand scale to an almost exhaustively documented fictional universe. The studio and creative hands could simply have decreed the new movie to be utterly separate and apart from what came before, keeping only whatever superficial touchstones they wanted the public to bring to the story, and still had much the same tale — minus Spock Prime, as the film’s end credits called him, with Capt. Nero as a present-day Romulan or any other interstellar threat. Using Nimoy brought them not only a certain gravitas and goodwill from even casual admirers but the chance to keep the film in Trek canon without continuity-obsessed fans having to fall back on the rationalization that every new story takes place in its own reality (although some did just that).
The casting of Quinto did not disappoint, and everything else already suggested a different enough framework that the other actors’ lack of resemblance to their iconic ancestors wasn’t an issue (with one exception, addressed below). It was lovely to hear Karl Urban sound so much like Dr. McCoy, while Simon Pegg’s sheer glee as Scotty washed away only the need to mimic Jimmy Doohan, not Doohan’s memory; that little creature, however, was dreadful. Chris Pine wisely doesn’t ape William Shatner’s line readings, but he owns the chair with Kirk’s trademark nonchalance and calls to mind his predecessor’s physicality. Aside from that, frankly, Pine struck me as a cipher — not what you want in your central character when he’s surrounded by accents and exotic attributes, and a problem that unlike other ensembles the classic Star Trek troupe never had thanks to the scenery-chewing Shatner. I trust that he’ll come into his own with the inevitable, anticipated sequels; until then when faced with a pretty-boy lineup I’ll remember that he’s the one who looks like a cross between Treat Williams and Neal McDonough.
With the designers breaking from the past in overhauling the Enterprise interior and other visuals — bringing the 23rd century up to date, if you will — I actually wish they had changed the uniforms a skitch more. Once the smart choice of putting those primary-color tops over black undershirts was made (instead of just giving the tunics black collars), someone should have ensured that the undershirts were if not attached to the slacks then at least severely tucked in to spare us a peek at Spock’s navel. The Starfleet uniforms worn by Kirk’s father and his shipmates on the Kelvin in the film’s opening were at least as tacky as first-season Next Generation, but I was surprised by the nostalgia I felt when newly promoted Admiral Pike appeared at the end in a grey-and-white jumpsuit like the one worn by Kirk in The Motion Picture.
References to Star Trek lore suffused the movie without being intrusive. There was a “red shirt” killed off in, technically, a red environmental suit, but we all got the wink at one of Trek’s most enduring contributions to pop slang. There was not only the Vulcan nerve pinch but what I considered an homage to the mythic “Vulcan death grip” when Kirk, full of piss and vinegar, was strangled to within an inch of his life by a raging Spock. There was even an on-screen staging of Kirk’s famed Kobayashi Maru test at Starfleet Academy, a part of the lore known only to Trekkies; the eponymous novel is among the few Star Trek books I’ve read — unfortunately, as the movie version was disappointing in comparison.
I couldn’t help thinking about Lost’s time-travel adventures and Fringe’s alternate-reality subplots while watching their co-creator’s Star Trek, which incorporated some
of both. Previous Trek films and many pivotal episodes had not only shown that time travel was possible but suggested, unlike the hypothesis of “whatever happened, happened” on Lost, that history was malleable and that remnants of one timeline could be left behind if it were rewritten by another — echoes of memory, for sure, yet also objects and people. The much-loved Next Generation episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” found history suddenly altered and Lt. Tasha Yar, who’d died earlier in the series, alive once more; as in most timeline-altering Trek plots the reality that the viewers knew was determined by the characters to be the proper one, and thus important to restore, so Lt. Yar traveled through a temporal rift to ensure that history played out as it should have. We learned in later episodes that this Lt. Yar hadn’t vanished, actually bearing a daughter years before Yar herself was to be born. In that vein, Spock Prime retains all the memories of his 24th century after traveling back to the present of the new Star Trek, and much like Yar is stranded; to a degree, we’re seeing the equivalent of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” from the opposite perspective. But instead of setting things right, Spock Prime, while helping place young Kirk and Spock on a path to prevent further destruction, is (to crib a catchphrase from Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck) trapped in a world he never made.
One could see this as the last canonical appearance of the four-decade-strong Prime Star Trek timeline, itself not without the sort of internal inconsistencies that Trekkers are almost duty-bound to rehash and reconcile, and the birth of a new one. Screen-writers Orci & Kurtzman deliberately plucked the long-lived Spock from well after his appearance in “Unification”; I can’t speak to whether he was seen or referred to later in the thriving prose-novel realm, but such stories are generally considered if not outright apocryphal then certainly secondary and non-binding to the core TV and film series. That being said, however, Orci & Kurtzman contributed to Countdown, a comics prequel to the new movie set in the Prime universe that describes the involvement of Spock, Picard, and an Enterprise led by Capt. Data in the effort to stop the destruction of Romulus and then halt Nero’s rampage, backstory only briefly related in the movie by Nimoy’s Spock Prime to Kirk.
I choose to think that Nero at the very least created an alternate, divergent timeline from the moment of his appearance in the 23rd century rather than overwriting the one in which Picard saw Nero and then Spock vanish — and that he most likely traveled to a parallel universe altogether, because some elements of the new film are obviously different even prior to Nero’s battle with the Kelvin. Since James Kirk is born shortly after the temporal rift is opened, any character older than he is should (at least eventually) be physically identical to the characters we recall, just as any moment in history prior to Nero’s emergence from the rift should be consistent with established Trek chronology. Anton Yelchin’s lack of resemblance to Walter Koenig is therefore no problem, and the fact that Kirk meets Pike, Spock, et al. under different circumstances is understandable, especially given the death of his father in this timeline. Spock’s father Sarek as portrayed by Ben Cross, on the other hand, looked quite unlike Mark Lenard’s Sarek in Trek canon to date, and it nagged at me due to that character’s prominence in the oeuvre.
The main reason why I choose to believe the future I remember is still unfolding is my relationship to Next Generation as a great set of stories that I watched and discussed with friends. Of course any story exists, just as imaginary and just as real as any other, as soon as it’s told — at least, without delving too deeply into metaphysics, as long as it’s remembered. Despite the fact that some folks took my quickie review last weekend more critically than it was meant, I truly enjoyed this new Star Trek for the bittersweet frisson I felt in the theater, for the exposure it’s giving to a worthwhile worldview, and for the memories it’s prompted. I don’t think I’ve seen an episode of any Star Trek since the Enterprise finale several years ago, but, yeah, I’m a Trekkie. Or to paraphrase the Spock we know and love: I have been, and always shall be, a fan.
Star Trek logo and characters TM/® CBS. Images © 2009 Paramount.
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