Steady As She Goes: A Review of Star Trek Beyond

by Gary Westfahl

To a remarkable extent, Star Trek Beyond is a film designed to appeal to aging fans of the original series; certain moments – the repeated references to the late Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of the elderly Ambassador Spock, a photograph of the original cast, the sound of the first series’ fanfare, and the concluding recital of the iconic Star Trek oath (“Space …. the final frontier ….”) by all seven of the new cast members – might even bring tears to the eyes of individuals who watched the first episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) fifty years ago. Certainly, they never could have imagined that fifty years later, after four additional series, twelve films, and innumerable novels, comic books, video games, and amateur productions, they would now be watching the thirteenth major film derived from Gene Roddenberry’s modest dream of creating a television series that would last five years.

Of course, “aging fans” are not the demographic that contemporary filmmakers covet, and one can rest assured that Star Trek Beyond also includes ample doses of the explosions, fistfights, and chaotic chases that are said to most entertain young filmgoers, though these scenes invariably bore and confuse this no-longer-young reviewer. It is thus a film that is likely to appeal to a wide variety of audiences, albeit for different reasons.

For example, to some viewers, the courageously leisurely opening sequence crafted by screenwriters Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, and their uncredited collaborators might seem tedious; but it is a part of the film that I especially enjoyed. There is a bit of comic violence that recalls “The Trouble with Tribbles” (1967) more than your standard space epic, as Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew fend off the attacks of diminutive aliens; Kirk muses at length about the ups and downs of everyday life on a starship; and the Enterprise docks at an immense space habitat called Yorktown for routine maintenance, providing the crew with a period of rest and relaxation before the inevitable crisis ensues. We are reminded that, even if there aren’t any loathsome aliens around poised to destroy the galaxy (the menace eventually unveiled in this film), there can be something interesting about the singular experience of living on board a starship, finding ways to fill the time and dealing with minor conflicts and problems. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) was especially inclined to intriguingly explore such quiet moments on the Enterprise, and one can imagine an entire film of a similar nature. Unfortunately, Hollywood executives would not be amused if Pegg and Jung, pitching concepts for a future Star Trek film, announced, “Hey, here’s a wild idea …. How about a Star Trek film in which nothing really happens? You know, just a few typical days in the lives of Captain Kirk and his crew ….”

In another respect, Star Trek Beyond is truer to the spirit of the original series than one might expect, and it relates to a key difference between the Star Wars franchise and the Star Trek franchise. As I noted while reviewing Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) (review here), the world of Star Wars is relentlessly melodramatic: some characters are entirely good, and other characters are entirely evil; the drama always involves the entirely good people successfully defeating the entirely evil people; and the only possible transformations are that an entirely good person might suddenly become entirely evil, or an entirely evil person might suddenly become entirely good. In contrast, Star Trek consistently insists that situations are never as simple as that: apparently evil people might have perfectly reasonable motives for their actions; at times, they might be right, and the benign Federation of Planets might be wrong; instead of rushing into battle with them, one should instead make an effort to understand, and reach agreements with, all of their foes.

What makes the character of Krall (Idris Elba) fascinating is that he is simultaneously a spokesperson for the attitude of Star Wars and a refutation of it. Because the Federation is always seeking to avoid conflict and achieve peace, Krall argues that its people have lost their spirit and become weak; to rediscover their true greatness, they must return to warfare, to be reinvigorated by constant struggles against their enemies. And, as if to illustrate the virtues of this philosophy, Krall emulates the typical Star Wars villain by doing one despicable thing after another, guaranteeing that, following the dictates of Hollywood morality, he ultimately must be defeated and destroyed.

And yet, even as they gasp in horror at his latest atrocity, characters like Uhura (Zoë Saldana) are trying to figure out precisely why he wants to do all of these terrible things; unlike people in Star Wars, they refuse to assume that he’s simply No Darn Good. And by the end of the film, our heroes have learned these things: Krall was originally an admirable man; he has a perfectly good reason for hating the Federation; he sincerely believes that his seemingly harmful actions will benefit the Federation; and even as they watch him die, they are inclined to feel sorry for him, not despise him. Kirk’s summary judgment is not “The bastard got what he deserved,” but rather, “He lost his way.” In this respect, Krall represents a perfect illustration of the Star Trek philosophy, which was shared by Robert A. Heinlein, who repeatedly said that he didn’t believe in villains; people were not inherently evil, they simply had different ideas about what is good. And this also makes Star Trek Beyond an appropriate successor to Star Trek into Darkness (2013) – which, as I suggested in my review (here), was the story of Star Trek characters who found themselves being forced into a Star Wars plot, and not liking that at all. Here, those characters confront another Star Wars plot and, despite necessary concessions to Hollywood’s insistence upon colorful conflict, they effectively transform it into a Star Trek plot.

All this is not to say, by the way, that characters in Star Trek are hopelessly naïve, refusing to accept the fact that, in some cases at least, someone they encounter actually might be No Darn Good. Indeed, there is one character in the film that the Enterprise crew initially trusts but turns out to be genuinely evil. But Kirk figures this out soon enough to avoid lasting harm, and the film affirms the value of assuming strangers are trustworthy when Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) quickly forges an alliance with a new acquaintance, the alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), and her assistance proves essential to the crew’s final victory.

To sustain the Star Trek franchise, I believe, future films will always have to hearken back to the charitable beliefs that Roddenberry incorporated into his television series; but it will also be necessary to continue developing and strengthening his characters, now in the hands of a new generation of actors. Star Trek Beyond does this reasonably well, but only in some cases.

On the positive side, aided by close physical resemblances, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, have mastered the art of perfectly replicating the performances of Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, and it is delightful to watch them at work. Lacking close physical resemblances, Chris Pine as Kirk, and Pegg as Scott, have crafted somewhat different, but equally satisfying, personalities for their characters. There are a few novelties to report in this film. First, while one expects scenes foregrounding the relationship of Kirk and Spock, and Kirk and McCoy, Star Trek Beyond surprisingly emphasizes the relationship between Spock and McCoy, suggesting that theirs might be the strongest friendship on the Enterprise, despite their constant, good-natured bickering. (Then again, perhaps the characters are bonding because they are the ones that most resemble their original counterparts, in contrast to the others.) Second, Pine’s Kirk has finally been allowed to mature beyond the bad-boy image he nurtured in the first two films, and he now can complete a mission without being demoted or disciplined. Finally, as one might expect in a screenplay co-authored by the actor who plays the role, Scott has a more prominent role in the film, virtually establishing himself as the film’s fourth protagonist, and while his interactions with the alien engineer Keenser (Deep Roy) are fewer, there are hints of a budding romance between Scott and Jaylah.

The problems involve the other regular cast members – Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov – and what seems to be happening to them recalls what happened to the original characters. Star Trek planned to give each of its regulars recurring moments in the spotlight, and early episodes displayed their special abilities: Uhura sings! Sulu is an expert swordsman! But writers gradually gave up trying to bring these characters to life, instead focusing on the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on alien planets while Scott captained the Enterprise. Similarly, the first two films worked hard to create new and more distinctive personalities for Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov; but this film more or less abandons them. Saldana has a number of scenes, none of them really important, and at times she seems lost, as if she is losing her grip on the character; Cho is virtually invisible (though it is fleetingly indicated that he is gay); and Yelchin stands out only in a closing scene when he clumsily emulates the original Chekov’s purportedly humorous but actually annoying habit of asserting that everything was originally invented in Russia.

The case of Yelchin is particularly unfortunate: because of his recent death, one would like to report that he enlivened this film by providing a remarkable final performance. In fact, his Chekov had virtually nothing to do, and he didn’t do it particularly well. When producer J. J. Abrams announced that Yelchin’s character would not be recast, he suggested that he was doing so as a tribute to Yelchin’s talents; but it might be more cynically theorized that he was taking advantage of a tragedy to eliminate a character that simply wasn’t working. As it happens, the film introduces a promising character who might be recruited to take Chekov’s place on the Enterprise: the alien Jaylah, who will be entering Starfleet Academy in order to qualify as a crew member. Her strong point is that unlike McCoy, whose reflexive cantankerousness never conceals his genuine kindness and thoughtfulness, Jaylah can be sincerely irritable, and thus she might serve as a refreshing tonic for a crew that sometimes seems to get along a bit too well.

Speaking of tonics: showing a prissy concern for modeling good behavior to younger viewers, Roddenberry eliminated all of the drinking that distinguished the original series in Star Trek: The Next Generation; this film brings it back with a vengeance, as Kirk, McCoy, and Jaylah are all observed enthusiastically imbibing. (Oddly, the one Star Trek character who was most likely to get rip-roaring drunk, Montgomery Scott, only briefly holds a glass for a toast.) As another gesture to tradition, the leader of the Yorktown space habitat, Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo), is surely supposed to be an ancestor – the grandmother? – of Tom Paris, a crew member in Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). Less admirably, the film also repeats an unsuccessful joke from the worst Star Trek film, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989): in that film, Scott is saying that “I know the Enterprise like the back of my hand” just as he hits his head on an overhead beam; here, Kirk says that he has “a good nose for danger” just as he steps into a trap. Another reference to that film comes when McCoy says, “at least I won’t die alone,” recalling Kirk’s statement, “I’ve always known I’ll die alone.”

Star Trek Beyond offers one striking addition to the Star Trek universe – the unusual space habitat Yorktown, which is completely unlike the space stations seen in earlier series and films. Within a gigantic translucent sphere, metal filaments extend in various directions, with numerous structures and environments (including a lake) attached to their sides where residents live and work, held in place by Star Trek’s ubiquitous artificial gravity. The logic behind such an enormous undertaking can certainly be questioned: when McCoy wonders why they bothered to build it, Spock replies that a neutral site was necessary, since placing the settlement on a planet would have shown favoritism to one side or another. But an isolated, uninhabited planet would seemingly have worked just as well. Perhaps the production designers were simply trying to outdo the elaborate space habitat depicted in Elysium (2013) (review here). Perhaps it represents a subtle dig at Star Wars: after all, the characteristic Star Wars plot involves the heroes’ efforts to destroy a huge evil sphere; here, the heroes are striving to protect a huge friendly sphere.

Yorktown’s apparent impracticality may reflect the fact that the film’s voluminous credits, while incongruously acknowledging an “international political advisor,” do not include a “science advisor,” and there are other scientific aspects of the film that seem implausible. The Enterprise’s mission is to rescue stranded space travelers within a “nebula” consisting of huge chunks of rock almost next to each other; the materials in actual nebulae are widely separated. When the Enterprise is attacked and destroyed, both its intact saucer, and any number of escape pods, crash into the surface of a nearby, extremely mountainous planet; yet even though these vehicles smash into several peaks along the way, the crew is still able to activate systems on the Enterprise, and none of the pods are damaged (though Spock sustains an injury). Later, when they escape from their alien adversaries and get another starship in working order, their takeoff again involves hitting several mountain peaks without harming the ship or its occupants. And the “bioweapon” that Krall wants to use against the Federation is never really explained; to me, it looked more like nanotechnology.

Finally, I am disinclined to discuss the themes that the film incessantly foregrounds – the need to strive for “impossible” goals, the importance of finding one’s true self, the value of achieving “unity,” and so on – because they all seem so forced, so inorganic to the film. When Spock says, for example, that the crew of the Enterprise “will find hope in the impossible,” that is manifestly the voice of the screenwriters, not the voice of Spock. But Hollywood’s tried-and-true formula for box-office success, obviously, includes “lots of uplifting platitudes” as one element, and they fortunately pass by quickly enough so as to not become a major annoyance. As indicated, the valuable message of Star Trek Beyond is embedded within its story, not its dialogue, and it is a message that one would like to hear more often in contemporary films.

Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press.

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