Thrusters on Full: A Review of Star Trek

On September 8, 1966, a young Gary Westfahl watched the first episode of a new television series, Star Trek (1966-1969), and while not terribly impressed by what he saw (no one would describe “The Man Trap” as one of the series’ finest moments), he resolved to continue watching the series, hoping that it would improve (as it did). Never did he imagine that forty-three years later, after four additional Star Trek series and ten Star Trek films, he would be called upon to review an extravagant cinematic effort to recapture the magic of the series that debuted on that night. For those wondering if the effort was successful, the quick answer is “yes”; unquestionably, producer/director J. J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have crafted a film that will be satisfying, and at times deeply moving, to those who have long been devoted to the first series, while it will also entertain filmgoers who know little about Star Trek, since they can enjoy the show without being troubled by understated references to past glories which the fans will revel in.

Admittedly, I was initially skeptical about this project, having noted elsewhere that the Star Trek franchise, like other science fiction epics, has been strangely unwilling to advance too far into the future, or in this case, to advance beyond the hundred-year leap forward of the second series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). This fear of the future was first evidenced by an increasing tendency to bring back old characters and storylines and the recurring device of having crew members spend their leisure time in various past eras by means of the holodeck; then, there came a full-fledged attempt, with the series Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005), to completely lurch backward into the franchise’s prehistory. A story about the early days of the original crew of the starship Enterprise did seem another curious exercise in nostalgia, a new way for the franchise to avoid its purported mission “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” And it is striking to notice that, in this film, the villain is the future — taking the form of a sinister Romulan warship from 129 years in the future which must be opposed by the virtuous inhabitants of the film’s present.

Yet, while opposing a decision by the fledgling Enterprise‘s Acting Captain Spock (Zachary Quinto), a young James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) does scream, “I will not allow us to go backward,” and Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman have devised an ingenious way for their relaunched Star Trek to avoid being imprisoned by the franchise’s complicated past. For it turns out that when the future Romulans intruded upon the past and changed the course of history, they created a new “alternate reality” wherein the series’ familiar characters could have unfamiliar experiences. So it is that in this new timeline, among other things, Kirk’s father was killed on the day of his birth and the planet Vulcan was later destroyed. Thus, this new Star Trek can enjoy the best of both worlds: if Abrams and company wish aspects of their story to coyly accord with events in the original series, they are free to do so, such as having the first captain of the Enterprise, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), end up in a wheelchair, exactly as he was last seen in the two-part episode “The Menagerie” (1966). But because these characters are in an “alternate reality,” they can also depart from previous patterns so that, for example, Spock and Uhura (Zoë Saldana) can indulge in romantic behavior that was never observed in the original series. Thus, unlike Star Trek: Enterprise, this film and its already-planned sequel may ignore or contradict the sacred history of Star Trek in any way Abrams sees fit; indeed, even though the filmmakers were careful to destroy the two intrusive vessels from the future, the records of their amazing powers, as well as the knowledge within the head of a survivor from the original future, an elderly Spock (Leonard Nimoy), would only make it logical that this new future will advance more quickly, and perhaps in different directions, than did the franchise’s original future.

This business of an alternate reality might also function as an explanation as to why some of the refashioned characters, most prominently the new Spock and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), strive so visibly to look and act precisely like younger versions of their predecessors, while others seem less committed to replicating the performances of the original actors; perhaps, one might say, unpredictable repercussions from changes in events slightly altered the genes and upbringings of some future Enterprise crew members more than those of others. To be sure, from a practical standpoint, Quinto was under special pressure to be a youthful duplicate of Leonard Nimoy, since he would be acting alongside that venerated performer, but I wish that Urban had felt freer to offer more of his own interpretation of McCoy instead of imitating every gesture and expression of DeForest Kelley. Certainly, it is evident that Pine, Santana, and John Cho (portraying Ensign Sulu) elected to play their parts as if unaware that actors William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei had ever existed, while Simon Pegg (as Montgomery Scott) and Anton Yelchin (as Pavel Chekov) adopt the accents and basic attitudes of James Doohan’s Scott and Walter Koenig’s Chekov without otherwise attempting to mimic those actors. And if you’re curious about how Majel Barrett Roddenberry’s character of Nurse Chapel was handled, that simpering relic of ancient sexism is briefly heard (one line) but never seen, effectively written out of the crew as she was written out of all but the first Star Trek film (though the late actress herself is heard, for the last time, as the voice of the Enterprise computer and, charmingly, as the voice of a spaceship from the future which appropriately recognizes Spock’s voice).

Still, if Abrams and his performers have managed in some ways to provide a fresh take on the adventures of the starship Enterprise, they have not entirely escaped the iron grip of the past, particularly the inflexible rules imposed by the financers of all Star Trek films; for while a television series may enjoyably tell all manners of stories — both grand and small, both bombastic and gentle — all the smart people know that a blockbuster science fiction film must be Big, Big, Big in every respect. Those dreaming of profits especially like stories in which the fate of an entire world, preferably Earth, hangs in the balance; hence, this qualifies as the fourth Star Trek film focusing on a powerful starship advancing toward Earth, seemingly intent about the planet’s destruction, although (spoiler alert!) the people of Earth are invariably saved by the amazing heroics of the crew of the starship Enterprise (surprise, surprise!). (Here, I’m counting Star Trek: The Motion Picture [1979], Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [1986], and Star Trek: Nemesis [2002], though I suppose Star Trek: First Contact [1996] could also be regarded as a variation on the same theme.) Also, nobody making these films wants characters who are only mildly concerned about one thing or another; their emotions must be Big, Big, Big as well, a favorite theme being the character embittered by tragedy and driven by a desperate desire for vengeance: recall among others Khan angered by the death of his wife in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Kirk and the Klingons despising each other for various misdeeds in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1992), and the cloned Picard holding a grudge against the original in Star Trek: Nemesis. Here we have not one but two characters understandably upset by the destruction of their home planets — young Spock, and the Romulan Captain Nero (Eric Bana), who blames Spock and the Federation of Planets for the destruction of Romulus and hence seeks to obliterate every Federation planet, beginning with Vulcan before moving on to Earth; in a characteristic understatement, Nimoy’s Spock calls him a “particularly troubled Romulan.” One also notes that the young Kirk at first appears hell-bent upon self-destruction due to lingering anger about his father’s death, and it is perhaps significant that he first boards the Enterprise not as a crew member but as McCoy’s patient, suggesting that he is not quite fit for duty. And all of these powerful emotions in play provide a pretext for the inevitable quota of vicious fistfights and exploding spaceships which the genre of the summer blockbuster demands. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home remains the best Star Trek film because it shoved its obligatory planet-in-peril plot into the background and instead focused on gentle comedy and calmer conflicts; and as Abrams and his collaborators ponder the storyline for their next film, one hopes they remember that many of the original series’ best episodes, like “The City on the Edge of Forever” (1967), “Metamorphosis” (1967), “The Trouble with Tribbles” (1967), and “Requiem for Methuselah” (1969), had little to offer in the way of cosmic catastrophes or pyrotechnic violence.

While this Star Trek will thus appeal both to devotees of the first series and to unenlightened audiences seeking this weekend’s thrill ride, there is one group of viewers who may be displeased by Abrams’s work, and they are the people who did not especially cherish the original series and instead preferred Gene Roddenberry’s later reinvention of his work, Star Trek: The Next Generation — an attitude most vigorously championed by Roddenberry’s acolyte and successor, Rick Berman, who devoted his decade of controlling the franchise to efforts to erase the original series from our collective memory and instead enshrine Star Trek: The Next Generation as the quintessential Star Trek experience. Yet after two dismal and unpopular films featuring its characters drove Paramount to fire Berman and seek out Abrams to revive the franchise, his campaign must be regarded as a failure, and by endeavoring to ignore what happened in the Star Trek universe after the original series shut down — indeed, by employing the device of an “alternate reality” to remove all later events from its story’s future — Abrams’s film functions as a stinging repudiation of Berman, whose name is conspicuously absent from the credits. It may just be my own biases showing, but in the way he made this film, I envision Abrams effectively saying to Berman, “I despise all your boring, self-involved characters, your holodeck, your Ferengi, your platitudes and high-minded moralizing — everything about the first series was better, and I am therefore going to revive the franchise by rejecting your handiwork and bringing the original Star Trek back to life.” The very starkness of Abrams’s title — no Roman numeral, no subtitle — bespeaks a desire to ignore all predecessors and go back to the beginning, as does the conspicuous omission of the rousing Jerry Goldsmith theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, also used as the theme for the second series and heard in later films; instead, the film concludes with the old Alexander Courage theme from the first series and with credits using its style of lettering. Still, perhaps unavoidably, there were a number of references to the later Star Trek series and films, including a mention of Cardassian liquor, an alien race unseen in the original series; a reenactment of Kirk’s singular success in beating the Kobayashi Maru exercise, first described in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; one use of the title “Ambassador Spock,” which is how the character was described in the two-part “Unification” episode (1991) of Star Trek: The Next Generation; a reference to the crewmen attacking a Romulan platform as the “away team,” a term only introduced in the second series; having one of the Vulcan elders portrayed by an African-American, possibly to be regarded as an ancestor of Tim Russ’s Tuvok from Star Trek: Voyager (1994-2001); and asking Nimoy, when reciting the series’ original opening one more time (as he did in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), to adopt Captain Picard’s politically-correct “where no one has gone before.”

However, recalling that evocative oath brings to mind a larger problem with this film that might bother Star Trek fans of all generations; for Roddenberry’s words can serve as a useful checklist for all writers who endeavor to follow in his footsteps. That is, to test whether a proposed story is right for Star Trek, one need ask only three questions: does it involve exploring strange new worlds? Seeking out new life forms, and new civilizations? Boldly going where no one has gone before? Despite their already-noted concessions to conventional Hollywood wisdom and various other flaws, the first nine Star Trek films all contrived to meet at least one of those tests, but both Star Trek: Nemesis and this film do not, as in each case the Enterprise simply rushes back to Earth to protect the planet from hostile Romulans (here, re-imagined as biker skinheads with tattoos on their faces, presumably so we can hate them even more). Except for the humanoid Vulcans and Romulans, the aliens in this film are observed only briefly, are purely decorative, and are completely devoid of personality, including Scotty’s friend Keenser, who looks far too much like an Ewok to be engaging in his own right. In the next film, then, instead of another assignment to annihilate some genocidal villain, the crew of the Enterprise should be given the opportunity to display a genuine interest in alien races and novel experiences — and one might even dare to hope for a story actually based on an intriguing idea.

In other specific ways, aspects of this film seem less than true to the original spirit of Star Trek. For instance, perhaps the fatherless upbringing of this version of Kirk understandably led him to develop a different sort of personality, but one would like Captain Kirk to be a little more sincere in offering assistance to his defeated Romulan adversaries, and a little less delighted to blow them to bits. I grew really tired of seeing Kirk dangling from the edge of one precipice or another; in fact, in order to employ this hackneyed scenario one more time, the filmmakers present us with the most idiotic starship design ever imagined, a vast chamber of hovering platforms without handrails from which any Romulan crewman making one misstep can plummet to his death (as occurs in the film). As if someone feared that the film wasn’t exciting enough, Star Trek hits its low point by having Kirk chased across the surface of a snow-covered planet by an implausible dinosaur-like creature, a sequence apparently copied from an equally ridiculous dinosaur pursuit in the routine popcorn epic Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008); did no one recall that on the one occasion the original Star Trek encountered a murderous monster (“The Devil in the Dark” [1967]), it turned out to be a mother protecting its young, the sort of clever twist that contemporary movies seem incapable of imagining?

If in these respects Abrams’s film has failed to capture the essence of Star Trek, one cannot fault him for inattentiveness to its minutiae. All of the dates are exactly correct: James Kirk was born in the year 2233, as was established in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home; he enlists in Starfleet at the age of 22 years (2255), and the events of the film occur three years later, in 2258, seven years before the start of the original series; and the intruders from the future come from the year 2387, eight years after the last Star Trek adventure, Star Trek: Nemesis. In one scene, a nameplate identifies a character as “Admiral James Komack”; as it happens, an Admiral Komack was referenced in “This Side of Paradise” (1967) and appeared briefly in “Amok Time” (1967), and James Komack was also the name of the noted actor-director who directed the comic episode “A Piece of the Action” (1968). In his scenes as Spock (which qualify as more than a cameo appearance, and are the parts of the film most likely to bring tears to the eyes of old fans), Leonard Nimoy perfectly recaptures the character of the mature Spock, and while it won’t happen, an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor would serve as a fitting tribute to the franchise’s most memorable performer. The filmmakers remembered that Sulu was an expert fencer and gave the character an opportunity to display his skills, and Uhura is displeased when Spock initially assigns her to the starship Farragut, which was cited as Kirk’s first assignment in the episode “Obsession” (1967). At one point, McCoy grumbles about the disease of “Andorian shingles,” reminding us of the original series’ notorious blue-skinned aliens with antennas. Since a longstanding Star Trek tradition has been to give cameo roles to fans and friends of the series, it was nice of Abrams to call up Randy Pausch, the now-deceased computer scientist noted for giving his “Last Lecture” after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and to offer that long-time fan a small role in the film as a crew member of the starship Kelvin. Abrams also has a bit of fun with the original Enterprise‘s most frequently criticized feature, religiously maintained in later incarnations: the absence of seat belts, causing crew members to absurdly careen across the bridge whenever the starship encountered any turbulence. When Kirk boards a ship to carry him to Starfleet Academy, he fumbles a bit with its seat belt; James Kirk, it seems, doesn’t know how to fasten a seat belt. And at the end of the film, preparing for the Enterprise‘s next voyage, Kirk tells McCoy to “buckle up,” suggesting that with the freedom brought by his “alternate reality,” Abrams might finally remedy this safety lapse in the next film. And if anyone is unwisely impressed by all of the trivia I am bringing up, I am confident that those who are really experts on Star Trek will be noticing many other references to past episodes and conventions that have escaped my attention. (Abrams can also be praised for seeking out expert advice: though I recall no uses of the Klingon or Romulan languages, the film does credit Marc Okrand, creator of the Klingon language, as its “language advisor,” and noted astronomer Carolyn Porco was on board as “science advisor,” though one doubts she contributed to, or approved of, the film’s preposterous device of black-hole-engendering “red matter.”)

In sum, while there may be many things for purists to complain about, J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek should primarily be a cause for celebration in the Star Trek community, an effective and respectful refashioning of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision (indeed, the film is dedicated to the memory of Roddenberry and his wife). I was initially puzzled by the final words of Nimoy’s Spock as he observes Kirk being officially named the new captain of the Enterprise: “thrusters on full.” But it made sense to me when I realized that, after two disappointing films and a stagnant fifth series, it does seem like the venerable Star Trek franchise has recently been stalled in outer space, inching along on battery power alone; but this film, finally, is getting the old starship back to advancing full speed ahead. And all one needs to say to its new helmsman, J. J. Abrams, is “Steady as she goes.”

Gary Westfahl’s works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent book is an edited collection of essays by the late science fiction scholar Frank McConnell, The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science (2009). His forthcoming works include a co-edited collection of essays from the 1999 Eaton Conference and a study of films about space travel.
Directed by J. J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, based on the television series created by Gene RoddenberryStarring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoë Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, and Winona RiderOfficial Website: Star Trek | Official Movie Site

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