Shiny Shelf

Star Trek

By Lance Parkin on 10 May 2009

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

‘Star Trek’ is a franchise that, instinctively, ought to be strong and vibrant but which had ground to a halt. Anyone set on reviving it had to deal with the Catch-22 that a big part of the problem was that there had been already too many trips to the well in recent years.

The most pressing issue, though, was that ‘Star Trek’s future has come to seem inherently old-fashioned – its boast that by 2264 a black person might rise to the rank of switchboard operator is weak beer in the 2009 of Obama’s inauguration. In an era of sophisticated, problematic identity politics, ‘Star Trek’ still saw the solution as hiring token minorities, be they, as ‘Futurama’ put it, ‘black, white, Klingon or even female’. Recent movie and TV iterations of ‘Star Trek’ have looked old hat, with staid camerawork and direction, repetitive stories and one-attribute characters with no nuances. The instinct was to ‘go dark’, but ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (devised by ex ‘Star Trek’ staffers) demonstrated that all you’d do then is create something beloved of fans and no one else, with nothing to say except ”look at how dark it is”, rooted in the Bush years so inflexibly that the finale already seemed almost comically incoherent when it was broadcast days into the Obama era.

What the studio has always wanted from ‘Star Trek’ is a visually-stunning epic with broad appeal (over thirty years ago, when they were planning the first movie, three ideas they worked with were a threat to Vulcan, weaponised black holes and an ambitious time travel story). What the fans wanted was respect for the original. What the general audience wanted, of course, was a movie they’d actually enjoy watching.

The new movie resolves all these tensions and demands. It does so, and this is almost certainly not a coincidence, in exactly the same way that the Russell T Davies revival of ‘Doctor Who’ did: by having successful storytellers who are also big fans of the series going back to basics and just showing us why they love these characters and their world, a show that celebrates the original while not being afraid to smash a few icons. ‘Star Trek’ is a strong idea, and the solution wasn’t to bury, repurpose or deconstruct that idea, it was just to articulate it using modern methods.

The casting of this movie is superb, every single performance perfectly balances the demands of the current movie with the honouring of the past. Zachary Quinto’s Spock forces the audience to become poker players, every single tell and microexpression speaking volumes. Simon Pegg plays Spud from Trainspotting, to great effect. Anton Yelchin makes Chekov into a likeable Wesley Crusher type, a paradox greater than anything the Romulans engineer. John Cho, Karl Urban and Zoe Saldana lay the foundations for characters you just can’t wait to see more of. Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Pike has the decency and gravitas to make you wish there was a series all about him, which is appropriate enough, when you think about it. Eric Bana’s Nero, contrary to what a lot of reviewers have said, is exactly what’s needed – a brooding, dark presence in stark opposition to Kirk, with basically the same backstory. The icing on the cake is Leonard Nimoy in full Obi Wan Kenobi mode. It’s a shame that making his appearance a surprise isn’t possible these days – if we hadn’t been tipped off, it would have been as startling a moment as if Alec Guinness had stepped onto the screen in ‘Attack of the Clones’. Of all of them, Chris Pine has the hardest job. Not just the Shatner comparison thing, but the task of literally taking command of the movie, surrounded by quirky, distinctive characters with great lines. Shatner himself was often overshadowed by Spock in the original series. Spock (or Spocks) could so easily have become the heart of this movie, too, but the script, Kirk and Pine wrestle it back from him. It’s a precocious, hubristic, brilliant performance.

When ‘The Phantom Menace’ came out, Patrick Stewart (Picard in ‘The Next Generation’, natch) understood that the next ‘Trek’ movie couldn’t ignore it. Sadly, the result was ‘Nemesis’, a movie that tried to marry modern movie SF visuals and editing with old-fashioned ‘Star Trek’ storytelling, with the result that it managed circle the square and move incoherently fast while also being leaden and ponderous. ‘Star Wars’ could have been the spectre at the feast, but they resolved this by giving the movie to someone who clearly loves ‘Star Wars’ more than ‘Star Trek’.

The JJ Abrams showrunning is obvious, and not just from blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from people and concepts from other JJ Abrams work. If you’ve seen anything by JJ Abrams, the swooping cameras, lens flares and running and jumping around won’t come as a shock (There’s a lovely double in-joke when the Kobyashi Maru scene is shot in a much more static like-the-TV-shows way). There is a shock of recognition moment for ‘Alias’ fans when the fuel for the superweapon is revealed. Abrams has long been the guy that actually does all the things Joss Whedon’s fans only imagine their guy does – that Abrams launched a ‘Star Trek’ movie that’ll outgross all the ‘TNG’ movies put together, saw its sequel greenlit and ‘Fringe’ renewed all on the very same Friday that ‘Dollhouse’ finally died in a ditch settles it, we can declare a winner and all move on.

Although the movie is deeply informed by the ‘Star Wars’ movies, Abrams’ love and respect for ‘Star Trek’ and its fans is obvious. If they decide to do nothing else, a die-hard fan could spend the whole movie spotting details like the vacuum cleaner from ‘The Wrath of Khan’ or Pike’s uniform at the end. Fans use the term ‘fanwank’ to describe it when makers of things like this do something purely for the fans. This ‘Star Trek’ is more like fanbookingintoafivestarhotelroomwithapairofhornysupermodels – each previous film gets at least one visual and verbal nod, but each one is seamlessly part of the story and feels fresh and clever. So, Mr Scott becomes the beneficiary of a ‘transparent aluminum’ style time paradox, for example, but it quickly moves on to become another moment in which Kirk’s bravado, luck and destiny converge to help save the day. Again, it’s the ‘Star Wars’ influence, exactly the same ‘symphonic’ storytelling used in the prequels.

There’s a key to what’s going on, and why this can only be a ‘Star Trek’ movie, and it’s this: Jim Kirk is the best person to be Captain of the USS Enterprise and he already is when we first meet him. Like Bond in ‘Casino Royale’ (and unlike ‘Star Wars’), there’s no ‘character development’ or scenes where he comes to understand the true meaning of Christmas or discovers some plot token to alter him a little to get him nearer to his goal. We see him at Starfleet Academy, but it doesn’t change him, merely makes him better at being himself. Kirk has all that rebellious outsider society failed him, broken home stuff … but the solution is that by him becoming part of that society, both he and society gain something and lose nothing.

Reviewers who see his rapid rise to command as implausible, because a hierarchy like the Federation would never allow it, have missed the point. In contemporary society, they would be right, but the Federation is so perfect a utopia the whole point of it is that everyone can be an individual, that it doesn’t ask you to conform, it simply asks you to reach your potential – and that puts the onus back on you, leaves you with no excuses. You will have to work, you will have to challenge yourself, you will have to step up to the plate, but there is nothing holding you back except yourself. In the end, Kirk is … well, the transformed man. He becomes everything he can be. It’s that wonderful sort of Kennedy-era American Dream version of the communist utopia that’s right out of Roddenberry. It is right that Kirk takes command of the Enterprise – he is ready, he is exactly the person with the skills, background and personality to defend the Earth from the threat it faces. The Federation is set up in a way that this can be recognised and implemented.

I wanted a ‘Star Trek’ movie that combined ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Master and Commander’ without losing the controlling idea of the original series – the optimism that the human race will get better. I didn’t think it was possible to balance all that, but JJ Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ movie hits the target and makes it look so easy. To borrow a phrase, ‘Star Trek Lives’.

Seeing as I got exactly what I wanted this time, I’ll say what I want next time: I would like the second movie to be an ambitious attempt to tell a more philosophical, allegorical story that takes a big idea and articulates it. To update that mode of ‘Star Trek’ for 2011, without lapsing into cornball or cliché, without losing any of the pace or energy or the character-driven nature of this first movie. That’s a challenging movie to make. Abrams has assembled a superb cast and crew, though, and if it can be done, they can do it.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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