Robot 6

Young as when the world was new

Grumpy Old Fan

Grumpy Old Fan

This space is ordinarily reserved for my views on DC Comics’ superhero line, because those books take up the bulk of my comics purchases.  Today, though, we’ll be talking about what is probably my first great love.

For this longtime fan, the new Star Trek movie (directed by J.J. Abrams, as if you didn’t know) is a revelation. It is a terrifically busy movie, full of running and shouting and frantic working of high-tech controls. Phasers are fired, shields are battered, and great starships endure severe poundings (as do their commanding officers). However, ST ’09 is not a mere popcorn film, designed to capitalize on the familiarity of corporately-owned characters. (As if to drive home this point, the movie was playing with trailers for G.I. Joe and the Transformers sequel.) It reintroduces the archetypal crew of the Enterprise convincingly, with winning performances from all involved.

Now, let’s be clear: this is not really a review. A review would talk about the film’s technical aspects, and I’m not ready to do that just yet. Actually, I’m still in the “remember that? That was awesome!!” phase.

Nevertheless, I do have something to say — but first:

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Star Trek (2009).

4

3

2

1

ST ’09 draws considerably from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, and appears to take a good bit of inspiration from one of that film’s signature moments. You know the one: Kirk and company are, in Khan’s words, “marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet.” Spock (aboard a crippled Enterprise) tells Kirk the situation is grim. Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant Saavik (resigned to a lonely, lingering death) asks Kirk (who’s munching nonchalantly on an apple) how he, as a cadet, dealt with Starfleet Academy’s impossible-to-solve Kobayashi Maru simulation. Kirk reveals that he reprogrammed it so that a solution was possible.

David Marcus, Kirk’s estranged son, laughs cynically. “He cheated!”

“I changed the conditions of the test [and] got a commendation for original thinking,” Kirk counters, adding “I don’t like to lose.” Indeed, Kirk then whips out his communicator, hails the now-ready-for-battle Enterprise, and arranges for everyone to be beamed back to the ship.

Looking back at Saavik, Kirk repeats, “I don’t like to lose,” and chomps emphatically on that apple.

Make no mistake about it, 2009′s Star Trek cheats — or, perhaps more accurately, “changes the conditions of the test.” For too long, Trek as a whole has allowed itself to be defined by its continuity, having reached the tipping point where continuity is more burdensome than fun.

I’m a second-generation fan, having grown up with ’70s syndication and (eventually) the Kirk movies. Back then the “official” Trek universe expanded very slowly, at the rate of one movie every few years. To quench my thirst for Trek knowledge, I’d read a novel, comic book, or one of the Best Of ‘Trek’ fanzine compilations. Therefore, after the cliffhanging events of The Search For Spock (the Enterprise destroyed, the crew fugitives), I was thrilled to see that DC’s Star Trek comic was picking up directly from the movie. That series made the wait for The Voyage Home easier (and also introduced me to the Direct Market, which is another essay). The debut of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was even more valuable: another weekly TV show, where everything was fresh and new. Sure it was set several decades after the then-current movies, but they were still connected, right from the beginning, what with the Enterprise lineage (whither the -B and -C?) and Dr. McCoy himself giving the new ship a proper sendoff. You can imagine how eager I was for Kirk and Spock to show up.

However, after three seasons and six (and change) movies set in the 23rd Century, twenty-one seasons and (just under) four movies set in the 24th, and four seasons in the 22nd, Trek had accumulated so much baggage that there didn’t appear to be much room left. It was something of a no-win scenario itself. The new had to honor the old, and seem at home alongside it, while remaining accessible to those hypothetical new viewers. To accomplish this, every modern TV sequel jettisoned something of its predecessor’s. “The Next Generation” got rid of the original ship and crew. “Deep Space Nine” traded a vast starship for a vast space station (at least initially). “Voyager” was free to ignore TNG and DS9′s Alpha-Quadrant continuity and politics. “Enterprise” chucked the 23rd and 24th Centuries entirely.

Even so, each new installment continued to expand the overall Trek knowledge base. “Deep Space Nine” ran from January 1993 to June 1999, producing over 170 episodes (including three two-hour installments). This turned out to be Trek’s most prolific period. During those six-and-a-half years, TNG (and its movies) and “Voyager” nearly matched DS9′s output. Keeping up with “the franchise” had its rewards, but looked increasingly impractical for a casual viewer.

And here is where I have some sympathy for the die-hards, because I’m one myself. As with any data-intensive (no pun intended) venture, there is a certain pleasure in mapping the limits of one’s knowledge, discovering unexpected linkages, and simply reveling in whatever minutiae pushes one’s buttons. “60 Minutes” just did a story on Bill James, the baseball statistician whose unconventional crunching of the game’s numbers eventually led to his advising the Boston Red Sox. Likewise, Star Trek fans have devised their own theories about the series and its characters. (Mine uses Admiral Cartwright’s conspiracy to explain why Kirk got NCC-1701-A and Harriman got NCC-1701-B.) Obviously I can’t speak for all of us, but I wonder if fan “ownership” doesn’t really reflect the mental energy we’ve spent over the years just thinking about the darn thing. It’s one thing for producers to wink at fans with Easter eggs and continuity; but it’s quite another to confirm what we’ve suspected for years. I’m pretty sure a fan thought up Uhura’s first name (actually, I’ve seen two contenders), and I hope that fan is a little happier today.

Of course, that degree of intellectual involvement, combined with Trek’s own desire for internal consistency, can cause the fans to judge each installment according to its consistency — and that’s a set of rules which may be not only personal to each fan, but also rather incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Upon learning that the first episode of “Enterprise” would focus on Earth’s introduction to the Klingons, many fans dismissed it for contradicting references in TNG’s “First Contact” episode and the Original Series’ “Day of the Dove.” The historical account that “Enterprise” attempted to dramatize didn’t match the earlier episodes’ secondhand impressions. Still, why shouldn’t the fans — who kept Star Trek alive through the dark days of the early ’70s — have their own rules? It is tempting to say that such an attitude is only logical.

Ah, but Star Trek ’09 is hardly on the side of logic — and I’m not talking about the plot. Screenwriters Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman have crafted a movie dedicated to provoking emotional responses. Spock’s classmates taunt him into showing emotion. Spock goes on to run the fear-inducing Kobayashi Maru test; and when Kirk beats it, Spock verbally wounds Kirk by mentioning his father’s death. Kirk then goads Spock into a violent rage (using Spock’s mother’s death) in order to get command of the Enterprise. Finally, Spock’s older self advises him on managing his emotions. (I can’t remember the exact line.) Likewise, all the in-jokes and references to previous Treks are designed to produce emotional responses in us, the audience.

I saw ST ’09 twice over the weekend, and the more I think about it, the more it seems to treat us longtime fans as the “logical” ones. It has a good bit of respect for us, but in the battle between “logic” (i.e., the Trek we know) and the emotion of this new beginning, it’s siding with the emotional, impulsive James T. Kirk. Logically — “by the book,” you might say — the story of Kirk’s rise from cadet to Captain would involve a whole cast of characters other than the familiar bridge crew and Christopher Pike. There’s Mallory, Finnegan, Ruth, Kodos, Carol Marcus, Gary Mitchell, Number One; probably Kelso, Alden, and Dr. Piper; and who knows, maybe a reference to Boothby, the Academy’s future gardener.  Oh, and Kirk’s time aboard the starships Republic and Farragut.  It could be a good story, and it’s been told at least a couple of different ways: in DC’s first Star Trek Annual (by Mike W. Barr and David Ross) and in Vonda McIntyre’s novel Enterprise: The First Adventure. Regardless, that story is just not the Star Trek people expect to see … because honestly, it’s not the Star Trek which would push a lot of people’s buttons.

Instead, ST ’09 “cheats” in the service of getting to the good parts: making us care not just about Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Scotty, but also about Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and (the relatively unknown) Captain Pike. (Heck, the opening sequence’s “I die to save our newborn son” is a shameless bit of emotional manipulation, but I got a little misty both times I saw it.) Because J.J. Abrams and crew want us to love these characters, the mechanics of their coming together are secondary to the fact that they do come together. Star Trek began as a way to tell “Twilight Zone”-caliber science fiction using continuing characters — and while the stories are hardly irrelevant, the characters have become far more popular. Moreover, the original Kirk/Spock/McCoy storytelling dynamic remains the standard by which subsequent series have been measured. Thus, Star Trek ’09 goes back to the beginning so that it can rebuild that dynamic and face the future as the original did, unencumbered by continuity. It’s like Spock’s eminently logical sacrifice at the end of Wrath Of Khan — which, you’ll remember, expresses his “solution” to the Kobayashi Maru test he’d never previously taken. The desire to bring Star Trek back to the masses (“the needs of the many”) outweighs the compulsion to preserve continuity (“the needs of the few”). When the choice is between logic and emotion, both ST ’09 and WoK state that logic must yield.

In this way, the new film makes a fine bookend to Wrath Of Khan. At the end of the latter, Kirk is shaken and demoralized, having finally faced the no-win scenario. “I know nothing,” he says. “I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my own ingenuity.” With David’s advice, though, he finally learns the lesson Spock tried to teach him, both on his birthday and (as revealed in ST ’09) all those years ago.

I’ve been watching Wrath Of Khan off and on all weekend, before and after seeing the new movie, and I’m convinced that Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are the younger selves of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Wrath Of Khan was the high point of the Kirk movies because it showed Kirk working through his mid-life crisis to get back his swagger, mojo, whatever you want to call it. Star Trek ’09 gives us a Kirk who’s full-to-bursting with that mojo, and whose cocksure natural leadership is enough to carry him from academic suspension to command of Starfleet’s newest ship. It might not be logical, and it might have changed the traditional rules, but it’s still great fun.

News From Our Partners

Comments

11 Comments

Great Piece Tom.

You should have a look at this:
http://www.empireonline.com/empireblog/Post.asp?id=514
The writer basically comes to the same conclusion as you (but without going into the detail) but imagines how it could be applied to other franchises.

I have to strongly disagree. Intelligent people cannot ignore the fact that the movie is one GIGANTIC PLOT-HOLE. To go into all of the plot holes would take longer than I have time for but suffice it to say that I would refer everyone who’s reading this to go read the second review of Star Trek on http://www.Tor.com and that pretty much sums up my views. This movie does not even stand up to the most cursory of scrutiny.

Finally, how can a supernova threaten the entire galaxy? That has got to be the most ridiculous mis-use of science in a science fiction movie ever.

Wow!…
“Fascinating!…”

Tom,

I basically agree with you and really appreciate your essay. Loved the movie–I have a similar background with the shows and movies and I thought giving Trek a new start was not only necessary but brilliant and I think the actors are mostly spot on and I look forward to future movies.

I had not thought of using the logic / emotion dichotomy to describe how Trek fans are reacting to this movie. I will have to sit on this some more before I decide how well it fits but it is an interesting idea.

As for those fans (like J Jonah) who are complaining about the plot loop holes, I have only this response–as someone who loved the movie, I too saw the plot holes but enjoyed the characters so much and felt that they nailed the spirit of the characters that I am willing to overlook it. Plus, are we really going to skewer this movie for gigantic plot-holes?–It’s Star Trek–it is built on gigantic plot holes–Star Trek, at it’s core and heart has never been about the science and the continutiy, it has been about the exploration of the human spirit and condition–that’s what the movie nails.

Lastly, for everyone who doesn’t want to acknowledge that this is now the new Trek reality or cannot stand the differences in this story and the established Trek lore, I say what I say to comic fans who go nuts everytime a character is rebooted or restarted–the Trek you love still exists, you can watch and read all the stuff you loved–it’s still there and can never be taken away, but all great characters and franchises must be able to grow and change with the times.

Loved the movie–love your blog.

@Argo Plummer: Even simple character reasoning and motivations are lacking. Nero goes back in time 150 years and doesn’t think to get help to prevent the disaster that killed his loved ones?

Star Trek 2009 is just too stupid for words.

J. Jonah–

Sorry you didn’t like it. You must have forgotten how to have fun.

Tom–

Excellent.

Jonah:

No offense, man, because I can understand how you’d be upset, but have you seen the original episodes recently. Even over at Tor, as they’re re-watching them, there are some pretty major logic jumps. Heck, the whole premise of The Voyage Home has the same flaws as this movie. A giant cylinder the size of the moon is turned away by the song of exactly two whales. And they want us to believe that you can go back in time by flying around the sun really fast.

Those are the two examples I can think of because I happened to catch Voyage Home on TV last week, but Star Trek, whether headed by Roddenberry, Brennan and Braga, or now Abrams, has never let logic get in the way of a good story.

… and to add to what Argo Plummer said about still having the original characters to enjoy… I just popped over to Simon & Schuster’s Star Trek site, and it seems to be going strong on all fronts. New novels based in TOS, TNG, DS9, Voy, Ent timelines scheduled for later this year, plus the novel-only storylines. So there’s PLENTY of opporunity to enjoy the original characters.

Tom Bondurant

May 12, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Glen: Great minds think alike, I suppose. :-)

Jonah said: “Even simple character reasoning and motivations are lacking. Nero goes back in time 150 years and doesn’t think to get help to prevent the disaster that killed his loved ones? ”

“Star Trek 2009 is just too stupid for words.”

In spite of some of the slams people are laying on you, I can appreciate what you’re saying. I haven’t seen the movie, and I don’t have plans to see it later, mostly because the story does sound pretty weak. Even many (of the many) positive reviews have pointed this out. Same with Nero apparently being a a weak, not so interesting villain.

I know the film is supposed to be more about the crew coming together and all that, but there’s the rub. I said goodbye to original cast almost 18 years ago (not counting Generations, or Scotty in an episode of TNG) and I’m just not interested in seeing other people play the parts. I look at Chris Pine and I don’t think James T. Kirk. I think “Dawson’s Trek” instead.

Yes, Trek was collpasing under the weight of its own continuity. I agree. For me, Trek ended in 1999, when DS9 went off the air. That’s still my favorite Trek series of them all, and it was my favorite TV show ever — until Lost came along that is. The final season was a bit shaky, but for the most part it was intelligent, provocative storytelling that dealt with socio-political issues in a way few shows have. It certainly had more in common with TOS than TNG (though I loved TNG too) in that respect. And yet, DS9 was also the FUNNIEST Trek series of them all. Every so often they’d take a break and throw a good comedy at viewers, and they did comedy better than any of the other Treks. I wish Paramount had done more to promote that show… If they had, and if more people had watched, maybe they’d have gotten a turn on the silver screen. Alas.

Sorry for digressing there… My point is that while I understand why Abrams & Co. are changing the rules (and while I understand that DS9 was continuity-heavy), it doesn’t mean I have to like it. I’d be interested in learning more about Kirk’s time on the Republic and Farragut, and I’d REALLY like to see the styory of Kirk’s time on Tarsus IV as a teenager, one of the survivors of Kodos the Executioner’s holocaust. Instead, we get a snot-nosed Kirk who drives a vintage Corvette over a cliff while listening to the Beastie Boys. Fun? Maybe, but I don’t care to see it.

And then there’s the creation of an alternate timeline, erasing or altering everything I’ve seen Trek do over the years. Vulcan destroyed? Really? And while I can understand anyone wanting to hook up with Uhura, they paired her off with Spock? Honestly? I’m just not going there.

So, sure, maybe I’ve “forgotten how to have fun.” But you wouldn’t know that from the way I’ve loved movies like the LOTR trilogy, the Harry Potter films (OK, I was disappointed with the last one), Iron Man, the first two Spider-Man and first two X-Men movies. The Incredibles, and nearly everything Pixar’s done)]. Those were ALL fun! And even if the Nolan-verse Bat films aren’t considered to be “fun” movies, I sure as hell had fun watching them.

I’m sure Star Trek is fun if you turn your brain off for two hours and just enjoy the ride (my wife liked it), but I think I just carry too much baggage for that. That’s OK though… UP will be out soon, and Harry Potter 6 in July!

Leave a Comment

 



Browse the Robot 6 Archives