Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

O, Ye of Little Faith

Or, How I Thought the Latest Star Trek Movie Was a Violation of Every Trek Rule In The Book… Till I Actually Watched The Thing.

 

During the previous entries in this blog, there may be one detail which has not come through loud and clear. Faintly, perhaps, but not at all in the heavy-handed way that it should. That detail is that I am a Trekkie… a Trekhead… a Trek nerd… whatever the current term is, I am him.

Since the age of 9, not only have I been entertained by this phenomenon – I have gotten quite good at details like, Captain Kirk didn’t always wear the yellow shirt, he sometimes wore the slightly more green-looking wraparound jersey, and besides, the shirts only looked yellow on TV, they were actually much more green if you saw them in person while filming was going on, even though I obviously never saw the filming in person, but I read about that in a pretty official-sounding book when I was 13.

To be equally clear, when I went to my first Star Trek convention, during the “Next Generation” era, I went largely to hear Patrick Stewart give the keynote speech. I did NOT wear a full Starfleet uniform like the people sitting next to me on the subway, a family of four who were also going to the Con. I have the books, the CDs, the videos, and the Internet bookmarks … but I also have my dignity.

And although The Original Series was clearly done on a shoestring budget, with only the cinematic technology of the 1960s (only slightly more advanced than the stuff my fifth-grade best friend had in his basement), and even though the entire last third of the series sounded like it was written by someone who wasn’t smarter than a fifth-grader, a lot of it is still a heck of a great basis for an American entertainment franchise. It has a terrific (if unrealistically Utopian) philosophy: lots of different-looking people (and non-humans) working together for the common good – on a spaceship with lots of fun blinky lights.

A lot of the writing on the “Next Generation” series (after the first year or two, when they’d figured out that Captain Picard would never say that!!) did what great science fiction should do: it told stories (thinly-veiled or not) about current controversial issues – and slid their social commentary in right under the noses of whatever TV network was distributing it. “Deep Space Nine” did a version of that, taking on religious issues as well as the Bosnia/Herzegovina situation of the years of its production; “Voyager” was an interesting concept (kick the cast halfway across the galaxy and introduce a whole new set of adversaries and situations) and featured the wonderful Kate Mulgrew as, essentially, Captain Katharine Hepburn; and “Enterprise”… well, perhaps best not to delve too deeply. (I liked the idea of using that pop tune as the theme song, but I might have been the only person in the world who did.)

And that seemed to be the trend. The further away from the original series the Trek franchise got, the more diluted it seemed to get. Or maybe that was just the response of the fan base. The movies tried hard, and occasionally succeeded, in getting things right, but for every great Trek moment, there was a truly awful one. Are the people making these films, these TV shows, aware that there is a history here, a canon, that needs to be followed, or at least understood?  (Talk about a subject about which there has developed a corps of True Believers…)

 

So, a few years ago, word came down that J.J. Abrams was making the next Star Trek movie. And it wouldn’t involve Captain Picard. It was going to be a re-boot. Re-invent the franchise. Start from Kirk and Spock again. Get younger actors to play the parts. Some fans rejoiced (“oh hey, J.J. Abrams!”). Some fans despaired (“oh Lord, J.J. Abrams!”). After all, the last two decades of American filmmaking have been littered with re-boots and re-imaginings and re-envisionings of Classic American Entertainment Franchises. I’m not sure I was the only fella who went to see the Dan Ackroyd/Tom Hanks movie version of “Dragnet” and actually chuckled at it, but I might have been.

I awaited the movie release with guarded interest. I saw the opening episode of “Lost” and it looked interesting, after all… so maybe this Abrams fellow would have the same effect on the Trek franchise as Nicholas Meyer did with “Wrath of Khan”. I was willing to hope.

But the more images of “Star Trek” (2009) that I saw via the Internet – even as I desperately attempted to avoid finding out too much about it because I hate spoilers – the more skeptical I got. To wit:

[] The Starship Enterprise was built on planet Earth? Not true; it was built at a shipyard in Earth orbit. It was supposed to be too big and too heavy to land on a planet and then get off it; that’s why Gene Roddenberry invented transporters.

[] The Enterprise bridge looks like an Apple Store? Me, I was kinda hoping that the basic look of the bridge, and the rest of the ship, would look like the 1960s version, but with more blinky lights because we now have the money and technology to build sets that look and work realistically. The rail around the edge of the bridge isn’t red? What is this?

[] Spock and Uhura are kissing in a turbolift?! A Vulcan and a human are in a relationship? Not tr– … oh, wait, Spock’s parents were Vulcan and human, respectively, so that’s not so far-fetched. But the last I heard, Spock was desperately trying to fight down his human half and would never, ever, in a million zillion years, smile at humans, let alone smooch them. Have ye not known, have ye not heard about the “Nurse Chapel is hopelessly infatuated with Mr. Spock” recurring subplot?

All right, so they found someone to play Spock who was the spitting audiovisual image of Leonard Nimoy in 1967. The rest of it looked suspect to me. And, as I have been out of the habit of going to see movies in the movie theaters over the last several years, I therefore knew I’d wait for the thing to come out on video. And then I didn’t even have the grit to buy the DVD. After all, I gave “Star Trek: Nemesis” the same treatment, and Patrick Stewart was in that one. This Abrams re-boot didn’t have a prayer.

 

I discovered some more details. It didn’t give me a lot of hope.

[] Kirk’s father died without meeting his son? Not true. Not according to the “Star Trek Concordance”, a tome assembled in the 1970s to package all the known facts about the known Trek story (all 67 episodes and no movies yet, at the time).

[] Kirk and Lt. Uhura and Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock all knew each other before they got aboard the Enterprise? Not true. Besides, what are the odds? Starfleet’s a huge organization. What are the odds of me being on the same teaching staff as someone I knew in third grade? Remote, thanks.

[] The entire crew is intact from the start? Hmm. The Enterprise‘s first crew, in the original pilot episode, “The Cage”, featured many characters, but not: Kirk, McCoy, Scott, Sulu, Chekov or Uhura. The Enterprise crew in the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, features more of the well-known regulars but still not McCoy or Uhura, and Chekov was added only during the second Trek season in 1967 as a response to the accusation that no Russian was aboard the ship even though the first man in space was a Soviet cosmonaut (and that Trek needed a younger, “Beatle”-looking cast member). Everybody knows that.

[] No Romulan has ever had a name like “Nero”. Or had a tattoo. And no Romulan ship has ever looked like that.

[] The planet Vulcan is destroyed before the movie is 45 minutes old? If they plan to do lots more Trek movies or even TV, you’ve just lost a huge part of the Trek universe in which or about which to tell stories. Wise?

Then I heard that Leonard Nimoy was in this thing. That should, logically(!), have given me happy pause, but then I remembered that he was in “Star Trek V”, which was awful in nearly every way, and he was heavily involved in the creation of “Star Trek VI”, which had more than a few little details and large performances that went spectacularly against the original Trek canon. Nimoy’s presence did not necessarily guarantee quality or authenticity.

 

Then, a friend of mine suggested to me that “if you liked the original Trek, you’ll like this one.” And eventually herded me in front of a large-screen TV, sat me down, and forced this thing on me.

It takes a brave guy to admit he’s wrong.

So. I was forced to be brave.

I liked it.

A lot.

Partly, the story involves time travel, which, from the moment of James Kirk’s birth, throws the Trek universe into an alternate timeline. Granted, this plot point was not explained unto the audience till more than halfway through the movie, so the first 75 minutes of the thing had me appreciating a lot of the nice touches but still maintaining my air of jaded skepticism – I know Trek, after all. I had to admit that the sound effects alone started the process of dismantling my defenses within the first five minutes of the film. But out of some desperate need to defend the Original Version of the Original Intent of the Original Series, I remained safely guarded.

But as soon as prime-universe-Spock told the film’s backstory, I got the idea. Within this story, it’s okay (even helpful) for some things to be slightly different, to be slightly “wrong”. I’ve been a fan of alternate-reality stories for a long time, and Star Trek has done them at least as elegantly as any science-fiction franchise (the Original Series’ first-season award-winning “City on the Edge of Forever” and Next Generation’s “Parallels”, for starters).

And, as soon as the movie was finished, I realized that Abrams and his writing team had managed to include every famous Trek line of dialogue, integrating each “logically” and appropriately into the story. “Captain, we’re being hailed,” says Uhura. Doctor McCoy gets more than his share of the fun: in his first scene, he gets to deftly and canonically-accurately foreshadow his “Bones” nickname. “Green-blooded hobgoblin,” he mutters sotto voce, after asking Spock, “are you out of your Vulcan mind?” As Spock explains a plot point, McCoy responds, “Dammit, man, I’m a doctor, not a physicist!” There’s a 15-second riff on Chekov’s Russian accent. In his first scene wearing the yellow captain’s jersey, Kirk bounds down the bridge steps and calls out “Bones!” in a manner that is vintage Kirk and yet not precisely a William Shatner impression. At the last moment, Spock gets an opportunity to say, “Fascinating.” And, gloriously, in a Scots accent that is in fact finally authentic, Chief Engineer Scott cries out from the engine room, “I’m givin’ ‘er all she’s got!!”

Which, in the end, it looks like J.J. Abrams might have been saying, too.

Yes, the film is heavy on ferociously-paced action sequences and a bit low on the classic Trek philosophical and ethical themes, but I suppose I can hope this was because Abrams needed to use this film as setup for some other ones he wants to do, in this new, slightly revised Trek world. And those Trek ethics lectures could be a bit long in the tooth, way back when.

I was even a little bit wrong about the musical score of “Star Trek” (2009) as well, but that’s a thought for another day.

 

It’s possible that there may be a lesson in all this (speaking of philosophical and ethical lecture opportunities). But for the moment, I’m content to sit down every about couple of weeks and screen this movie again, and just chuckle. The kids are alright.

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December 27, 2011 - Posted by | entertainment, film, media, movies, science fiction, technology, television, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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