To boldly go where no Trek should ever have gone
Star Trek: a collection of television series and films about exploring space. Diplomacy. The delicacy of dealing with alien species. Pondering the moral choices in life. Hard, speculative science fiction. This latest film, a reboot, is not about these things, but about running around and strangling people.
There are two ways to approach this movie. As a Trek purist there is much, much to hate. As a newcomer or someone who would welcome change to a formula, much to enjoy. The story begins when a catastrophic event takes place involving Mr. Spock. Yes, the actual, classic, Leonard Nimoy Spock. Due to this, time itself is reset (don’t ask how or why, this isn’t the film for that) and the lives of Kirk and the gang change course. Instead of becoming a respectable Starfleet captain, Kirk grows up a rebellious teen after losing his father, and must be nigh press-ganged into service.
Here he meets with his once life-long friend Spock, who deals with memories of childhood bullying because of his mixed heritage. The two square off as enemies as they fight for captaincy of the USS Enterprise. The situation is dire, as rogue Romulan Nero means to wipe out all Federation planets with his giant mining vessel from the future (don’t ask why it is like that). He has obtained the deadly Red Matter, which is capable of creating a black hole within a planet (seriously, stop asking questions this movie won’t answer).
It should be clear by now that Star Trek reneges on every virtue and asset the Trek universe has carefully built over the decades. With a single stroke of the pen, principle characters have become dumb or angry bullies and entire careers are erased from the timeline. Gone is the fight against Khan. Gone is Spock’s sacrifice, the events on Genesis. Perhaps even gone the entirety of Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine. Maybe these things will be replaced in the movies to come. I’ll be very curious to see how the new crew handles the Borg.
What it boils down to is a genre switch: this isn’t the serious sci-fi of yore, it’s become a space opera like Star Wars. Zooming ships and CGI creatures, not to mention giant black holes and bigger plot holes, take the forefront. Who cares that it’s impossible for a supernova to ‘threaten the entire galaxy’, or that it makes no sense to drill to a planet’s core when you have a bomb capable of generating a black hole? As long as people run convincingly and strangle with gusto, we’re good.
Lest you think these are just the grumblings of a sci-fi grognard, there is also an objective criticism to make. Star Trek continually chooses for dramatic resonance, i.e. for what is emotionally the most powerful thing to happen to the characters. But it does so consistently at the cost of world building. Those are two sides of the same coin: relinquish any one at your own peril. So we get a scene where Spock orders Kirk to be removed from the Enterprise after a fight and shot down to an ice planet. That is dramatically thrilling, but undermines the credibility of the world: Starfleet would never allow such flagrant disregard for the wellbeing of its personnel and Spock ought to be court-martialed for the crime. Afterwards, Kirk just happens to run into the exact cave where Spock Sr. is hiding. Again, good for the characters, bad for believability. This is a big problem when you’re trying to create a franchise. How can you build upon a rotten foundation that nobody can trust? Star Trek shoots far and wide over this line.
That’s not to say this isn’t a fun movie. It is. It’s highly enjoyable and the characters are pretty interesting. Spock especially has been well reimagined. It’s hard to take the film seriously as sci-fi. Despite planets imploding and Earth being threatened, it’s a trifle and nonsensical at that. But then again there are beautiful lens flares and wacky hijinks to marvel and laugh at. The pacing is fast and well done. The proceedings are peppered with winks and nods to the source material; from classic phrases to references to old plot lines. Maybe that’s all we can hope for from this classic franchise, for the time being. A different, a next generation might reignite the intellectual spirit of Trek. For now, the preservation of the name in people’s imagination is enough.