"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
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).
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.