There is a point towards the end of the successful new Star Trek movie where the Enterprise is stuck in a black hole’s gravity well and can’t escape, and Captain Kirk gives the order to jettison the ship’s warp core, its main source of fuel.
It is a climactic moment in a movie full of cliff-hanging intensities. And it’s also symbolic of what has been done with the Star Trek franchise.
By God, Jim, they jettisoned the Warp Core.
I’ve waited long enough to comment on J.J. Abram’s long-awaited adaptation of the Star Trek, intended to revive the flagging and much-loved franchise. I waited so that I can include all the spoilers I want. So if you don’t want me ruining the movie for you, and you haven’t see it, then Stop Reading Now.
I’m not going to offer a detailed review. I will say that I thought the move was very entertaining. The key thing I like about this reboot is that the script and the director really capture the essence of each of the main characters. I loved the casting, and really enjoyed the acting and the script. For the first time in a long time, a lot of fans feel like the franchise is in good hands.
But I’m writing here not so much to praise J.J. as to wonder about what was lost. And I don’t actually mean LOST. I mean lost.
Overall, I think the utopian future message of Star Trek, which many fans would claim to be at the heart of Trek’s appeal, appears in only very faded out fashion. Like a pair of faded old dungarees, tried on for size at the very end of the show, with Nimoy’s sonorous voicing over the retro old Star Trek soundtrack. For the old timers, who made it to the end.
I know, I’m old school, but I was disappointed. With so much going on in the world today, the film doesn’t really offer any sort of vision of a future where we can actually see a united Earth, with people actually united together. A guy with a Russian accent on the bridge doesn’t for Diversity make. And lots, and lots of white people everywhere. Turbans? Burkas? Nah. The occasional alien appears, just as the occasional non-white person appears. But the basic canvas, the mass, the average, is lily white.
And how about that 23rd century environment? Am I supposed to believe that we are still driving cars down dirt roads in the 23rd century? No public transportation?
The idea of a para-military force that unite the Earth? Nah, not really. Star Trek looks a lot like Starship Troopers. “Join Star Fleet, see the Stars.”
Ditto with the idea of “credits” and Star Trek’s veiled socialist utopia, where people only work by choice. The economics of the future escape me entirely. They’re just kind of irrelevant. This is entertainment, not philosophy. Yes, Star Trek’sgrand messages could sometime get a little annoying. But they also were inspiring. Especially, I think, to kids.
If there is any big message here that Gene Roddenberry would have put his stamp on, I don’t see it. In fact, I’d venture to say this isn’t the same Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry created. It is “loosely based upon” some of the ideas in Star Trek. It lacks the authentic Star Trek cred. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me. But I don’t see it. Casting Leonard Nimoy to deliver a few old lines about his friendship with Kirk doesn’t make this “real” Star Trek. Then again, maybe “real” Star Trek died along with Gene Roddenberry.
This is a gutted Star Trek movie, a Star Trek without ideology. It isn’t about technological utopianism. It isn’t about a united earth. It isn’t about an optimistic, hopeful, guiding vision of the future. This is all about relationships, special effects, suspense, entertainment, humor, and adventure. That’s what J.J. Abrams does well with Lost. That’s what he does well in this movie. But it’s not really all that Star Trek is about. This is Star Trek as space opera. Star Trek as Star Wars without the mysticism.
Compare that with my favorite Star Trek movie, the 4th one, called The Voyage Home. Aka, “the whales” Star Trek movie. Although its fashion and references are dated, the message in that movie is just as current as it was when Leonard Nimoy directed it. In our time of environmental crisis and culture clash, I was thinking that a new Star Trek movie had an opportunity to make a statement about a positive future. Maybe even insert some insight into the difficult relationship between the environment and technology–something that the original series avoided.
But, clearly, Gene, that’s what got jettisoned. The hope. The long speeches. The worn-on-the-sleeve optimism. The difficult, ever-imperfect struggle to work through a troubled past to an idealistic future.
And it’s interesting to wonder both how and why this happened.
How does one universe shift into the other? Well, through a weird kind of reboot. We are told that this movie is set in an alternate universe. So it’s not really the “real” Star Trek that we all know and love, but something new.
An alternative reality explanation basically gives the producers the latitude for lots of riffing: “Shut up, fanboy, it’s an alternative universe. We can do what we want here”
But that doesn’t really account for major disjunctures like personal cars and motorcycles in use.
What is amazing to me is how many little a-ha, nice, compact, meaningful, character-laden explanations for original series mysteries manage to get stuck into the film, even though it’s supposed to be an alternative universe. Kirk as a bar-brawler makes sense in light of the original series. It explains why there are so many fist fights in that series. Maybe it even explains why Kirk is always part of the landing party. Because he’s the best fighter on the ship, dammit.
Bones as a desperate, divorced alcoholic also makes sense. Actually, Kiwi actor Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. McCoy was among my favorites. It was a worthy tribute to DeForest Kelly. Spock’s schooling is also very right. I also really liked how young and bright they made Checkov, and how they made Sulu an expert sword-fighter–that explains his swordplay in series’ episodes. The new, hot, purring Uhura is also a great extension of the original character. Huge plusses for these characters. There’s a new authenticity to them, their accents, their demeanor, their backgrounds.
Kirk and Spock hating each other at first also makes great sense, and although fans seem to dislike it, I loved the confrontation scene where Kirk makes Spock break down. How many times has he done something like that in the original series. Jeez, what are friends for?
So there are these interesting intersections of this Star Trek 2 universe–which are fun and explanatory–and the old Star Trek that we all know. Why are they there? If Kirk’s dad dies, and changes the whole universe and the way that this story progresses in the process, then we don’t actually need those connections.
That leave the Why question. Why don’t we have Gene’s utopian vision in this movie?
- Because talk is boring? Who needs another set of big long speeches, the kind that Star Trek became infamous for? Because action leaves no time for reflection? Because we don’t need Hope and Change anymore?
- Because you can’t have everything in a sequel?
- Because the producers and director decided to make a big, clean break from the fan base in order to wider the franchise’s appeal and aim for a young, hip, target that doesn’t worry about the future like those Boomer and Gen X kids of the past did?
Maybe Star Trek the Franchise was stuck in its own gravity well, its own black hole. That’s probably true.
But I keep wondering if the optimistic utopian vision of Gene Roddenberry was what really needed to be jettisoned for the series to get unstuck? It seems to me that, like the 60s, we are entering a time of crisis where we crave powerful myths and visions of the future.
Or maybe not. Maybe we’re just living in the moment. Enjoying the relationships. Willing to jettison whatever to get wherever. And to me, that’s a very scary thought.