Well, this is it. The end of the line. The last installment. And ironically, it’s all about a new beginning.
It’s been a while now since I first introduced my nine-year-old daughter Maddie to Star Trek, watching the entirety of Seasons One, Two, and Three of The Original Series with her, followed by The Animated Series and then the first six movies. Now, I’ve introduced her to the 2009 relaunch.
Before we got to that, though, I showed Maddie some key episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, particularly “Unification,” the 1991 two-parter guest-starring Leonard Nimoy as Spock, since the 2009 movie picks up on where Spock was left at the end of that storyline.
Maddie’s assessment of The Next Generation is pretty much the same as mine: it got off to a horrendous start with “Encounter at Farpoint”—Maddie absolutely hated the episode, and I found that it was even worse than I remembered. (Its only real highlight: the lovely scene of Data giving the 137-year-old Admiral Leonard “Bones” McCoy a tour of the Enterprise-D. Remember, Maddie loves McCoy!) But later episodes showed a lot of improvement, and some were downright terrific. (For the record, we also watched “The Measure of a Man,” “Q Who”, “Déjà Q”, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, “Sarek”, “The Best of Both Worlds”, “The Inner Light”, “Relics” [guest-starring James Doohan as Scotty], “Tapestry,” and the excellent series finale, “All Good Things…”)
With my “Next Generation sampler” out of the way, we were primed for the start of the new era.
An alternate timeline is created when the Narada, an enormous Romulan ship from the year 2387, is thrust back in time more than 150 years and destroys the Starfleet vessel U.S.S. Kelvin. This disruption in history has a profound effect on the life of James T. Kirk, who is born during the Kelvin’s final moments, and whose father was in command of the ship when it was destroyed. Growing up without a father to inspire him, young Kirk faces a future as an aimless, reckless rabble-rouser, until he’s recruited by Captain Christopher Pike to enlist in Starfleet. Twenty-five years after the destruction of the Kelvin, the Narada reappears, its commander bent on wiping out Vulcan, Earth, and the Federation itself. The only thing that stands in his way is a new Starfleet vessel on its maiden voyage: the U.S.S. Enterprise. James Kirk, fresh out of Starfleet Academy, is aboard this new ship and believes he knows how to stop the Narada—but he faces strong resistance from a rival who neither respects nor trusts him: the Enterprise’s half-Vulcan, half-human science officer, Commander Spock.
* * *
I give Star Trek a thumbs-up, but with a few reservations.
Director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman had a specific goal for this movie: to restart the franchise by going back and focusing on the iconic, beloved, original characters. And they wanted to do it without being locked in to the series’ definitive continuity and canon, established not only in the 79 episodes of The Original Series and the first six movies, but also in the spin-off TV shows The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.
It made perfect sense to go back to the original crew. With the TNG crew played out after 2002’s execrable Star Trek: Nemesis (the only Star Trek movie I ever wanted to walk out on halfway through), and none of the other spin-off shows warranting a promotion to the big screen, Abrams and company really had only two choices: create an entirely new crew and concept and risk audience apathy, or go back to the familiar but put a whole new coat of paint on it. Let’s face it: it was not that difficult a choice to make.
Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov are still the best-known characters of the franchise. And it would have been very difficult to pass up the chance to tackle these classic characters and put a fresh new spin on them and the universe they inhabit.
In taking this approach, Abrams and company did neither a total reboot, a la the Sci-Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica TV series, nor a proper prequel that ties in directly and adheres faithfully to the established continuity. Their Star Trek is a little of both—they tried to have it both ways. And for the most part, they succeeded.
Abrams and company managed to show respect for and incorporate what came before, but they also managed to make a break from the past and take things in a new direction—one in which the futures of these characters are not set in stone. Anything can happen to them. Some can die young, or leave Starfleet in a huff, or lose a limb. This adds a tremendous amount of suspense and drama to the proceedings, because you CAN’T rely on prior knowledge—what you know from the TV series and the movies is no longer applicable.
So this movie is not really a prequel in that it doesn’t set the stage for The Original Series. You can’t watch this film and then sit down and start watching TOS and the first six movies and have it feel like a seamless fit.
That doesn’t bother me, really. Why bother going back to Kirk and his crew and making new movies about them if we already know exactly how their lives are going to play out over time?
What I DO have a quibble about—and this is the kind of thing that could ONLY come from a longtime Star Trek fan who’s very familiar with the material—is the WAY in which Abrams and his team got to where they wanted to go.
The movie treads on some of the same ground that we saw in TOS episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” as well as the TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and even the TNG movie First Contact. Yet in those previous stories, the challenge for the Enterprise crew was to try to undo the damage to the timeline and set things right again. In this film, however, it’s accepted that what’s done is done, and that a new reality now exists as a result—a new reality in which we will now move forward. Instead of trying to undo the damage inflicted by the villain, Captain Nero (played by Eric Bana), the challenge for our heroes is to stop Nero from causing any FURTHER damage.
That’s fine—but why wasn’t that the case in any of the previous stories? What makes this new history-changing incident different? Why is it no longer a priority to restore things to the way they were? Why, in this case, is an alternate timeline created that exists alongside the original one?
But unless you’re a longtime Star Trek fan, you won’t think twice about this. You’ll just accept what the film tells you and move on—and that’s probably for the best.
Thankfully, this movie doesn’t negate or wipe out what has come before. Abrams and Co. make it fairly clear that the original timeline is still in place, still intact. It hasn’t been wiped out. We even get a nice new detail about Kirk’s personal backstory as it exists there.
But to really make the point that this is a whole new ballgame, Abrams and Co. don’t pull their punches. They’re not afraid to upset the apple cart and depict sweeping, drastic, and, quite frankly, shocking events that bring significant changes to the Star Trek universe as a whole. That alone sets this movie apart from just about anything that’s been done with Star Trek since writer/director Nicholas Meyer last worked on the franchise in 1991. Let me put it this way: even this longtime viewer—who has written Star Trek professionally on numerous occasions—found his jaw hanging open at one point while watching this movie the first time.
I must admit to a lack of enthusiasm about the look of the new Enterprise.
I feel it lacks the grace and beauty of the original—and especially the revamped version as seen in the first six movies, which remains my all-time favorite spaceship design.
The interiors of the new ship did not particularly impress me either. The bridge is too BUSY. There are too many people working on it, and too many duty stations and consoles. The previous versions were much simpler, much easier to comprehend, and it was easier to figure out where everything was and where everyone was stationed.
Also, the new engine room is, shall we say, quite a departure from what we’ve seen in the past. Not a deal-breaker for me, but I certainly didn’t love it.
The musical score is effective enough, with a stirring main theme. But it doesn’t quite measure up to the work of Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, whose remarkable compositions on the original series of films (especially the first three) remain the standouts to this day.
All that said, there’s a lot to like. For one thing, the first third of the film is damn near PERFECT. The opening scene, which essentially acts as a teaser, is one of the most gripping and powerful sequences in Star Trek history—no exaggeration.
Orci and Kurtzman definitely did their homework and what was a very pleasant surprise was how much stuff they actually kept, in terms of the details about the characters’ lives. For example, McCoy’s backstory, developed for the TV show in the 1960s but never dealt with onscreen, is finally addressed—and very effectively, I might add. We also learn a couple of new things about Uhura—one that shouldn’t be too shocking to anyone who’s read the novels published by Simon and Schuster over the last 30 years, and another that caused a lot of controversy amongst fans (see Maddie’s comments below).
As for the cast—by and large, they’re all really strong.
Chris Pine shows us a somewhat different James Kirk from what we’re used to, which is only natural given the nature of the film, but by the end, you see him settling in to being the Kirk we know and love.
Pine also carries himself well during the action and fight scenes, and he's good at portraying a rough-around-the-edges Kirk who’s developing his notorious magic with the ladies. He’s also good during the more comedic moments. And during his scenes with Leonard Nimoy as the elderly Spock, he more than holds his own. What I WOULD like to see in future films is Kirk portrayed as a bit more intelligent, more thoughtful, more cultured, and more strategic than he’s shown here. We get to see plenty of Kirk as a rough-and-tumble man of action in this movie, but there’s a lot more to the character than that.
As the young Spock, Zachary Quinto doesn’t quite capture the essence of Nimoy—I found his delivery to be a bit on the robotic side on occasion, and even arrogant at times.
It’s not a bad performance by any means, just a different interpretation of the character. In the future, though, I would like to see Quinto try to incorporate more of the wisdom, the dignified demeanor, and the gentle wit that Nimoy brought to Spock.
Karl Urban is absolutely WONDERFUL as Leonard McCoy, from start to finish. He captures the spirit of the late great DeForest Kelly marvelously. The irascible nature, the sarcasm, the irreverence, the nervous raise of his eyebrow—it’s all there.
One thing is certain: Urban MUST have a bigger, more central role in future films.
Zoe Saldana's Uhura is absolutely gorgeous—you can't take your eyes off of her. She carries herself extremely well, projects an air of confidence and ability, has a lovely speaking voice, and has good chemistry with both Pine and Quinto.
It's a really strong performance, and she’s given more to do and more of a characterization than Nichelle Nichols was given throughout her 25-year run as Uhura.
Anton Yelchin is very endearing as Chekov and has a great scene where he really shines. He’s a bit more childlike and eager than Walter Koenig was in the role—but it works, because this is a younger Chekov.
As Sulu, John Cho gets less of a chance to make a strong impression but has a few very nice moments and gets to take part in one of the film’s most thrilling sequences.
Simon Pegg's Scotty is more playful, manic, and mischievous than James Doohan's. He’s played mostly for comic relief here.
My main criticism with regard to Scotty is that he falls into his familiar place just a little too quickly and easily, given the circumstances surrounding his arrival aboard the Enterprise. The establishment of his relationship with Kirk—right down to Kirk calling him “Scotty”—came off, at least to me, as just a wee bit rushed.
Bruce Greenwood is very effective as Captain Christopher Pike. His performance is more or less consistent with Jeffrey Hunter's, and I’m pleased that he’ll be back in the sequel. His relationship with Kirk, as portrayed in this film, shows lots of potential for further exploration.
Eric Bana’s obsessed Captain Nero does not rank among the best-developed or most compelling antagonists we’ve ever seen in Star Trek. He’s certainly no Khan, who without a doubt remains the one to beat. But I also wouldn’t place Nero among the utterly forgettable and inadequate bad guys from the last couple of TNG movies, either. He’s okay. Nothing more, nothing less.
As for Leonard Nimoy… it almost would have been enough just to see him back as Spock after so many years. But to see him play such an important role—one that doesn’t give him a lot of screen time but is nonetheless absolutely essential to the story (unlike Shatner’s return as Kirk in the ill-conceived mess that was Star Trek Generations)—makes it all the more special and essential.
It’s clear that Nimoy had a good time playing Spock again. There's a warmth, a sense of comfort, and a level of gravitas in his performance that I don't think we've really seen since The Wrath Of Khan. Nimoy’s Spock (referred to in the end credits as “Spock Prime”) is shown the utmost respect and treated with dignity—again, unlike Kirk in Generations. And there are two moments—one between Nimoy and Pine and one between Nimoy and Quinto—that are really quite touching.
Overall, I found Star Trek to be a high-octane, fast-paced, exciting, funny, and even poignant adventure. It does what it set out to do, which is make Star Trek accessible to a new audience and forge a new direction without being constrained by the franchise’s history—while respecting and acknowledging everything that came before.
Essentially, it’s Star Trek filtered through a Star Wars mentality—still recognizable as Star Trek, but the energy level is amped up considerably, as is the emphasis on action and spectacle.
I’m interested in seeing where Abrams and his team take the series from here. It’s clear that they understand Star Trek well enough.
But I must admit that I’m a bit disappointed by some of the rumors I’m hearing about the sequel. Bringing back Khan would not represent a bold step forward. It’s a safe, unadventurous, unimaginative move. It’s the far less creative way to go. I’d rather see an emphasis on new characters, new situations, new locales, and new kinds of challenges. So I hope those rumors turn out to be false.
It’s also important to note that Star Trek isn’t just about good guys vs. bad guys. Going forward, Abrams and his team must remember that Star Trek is just as much about exploring the unknown, taking great risks, making incredible discoveries. At its best, Star Trek has something meaningful to say and makes you think. Action, spectacle, and special effects are all well and good, but that’s not enough for it to be good Star Trek.
There are some rough spots in this relaunch, to be sure, but Abrams and his team definitely gave Star Trek the shot in the arm that it was in need of for quite some time.
MADDIE: “I liked it. All the characters really fit the originals. Everything kind of fell into line with the original series.
“The special effects were tremendously good!
“It took a little while for me to understand that the movie was taking place in the past, but it explained it well enough that I could catch on.
“With Nero, I didn’t really understand why he was out to destroy the Federation and Spock.
“Seeing the guy who played Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as Kirk’s father, and seeing him be such a great captain but not live to see his baby born—I started tearing up.
“I though the woman who played Kirk’s mother (Jennifer Morrison) was very good. I liked the part when she and her husband are discussing what the baby’s name should be and he says, ‘Tiberius? That’s the worst!’
“The guy who played Kirk really looked like a young William Shatner. It was funny how in this movie, Kirk always ends up at the edge of something, hanging over a big drop, usually when he’s in the middle of a fight!
“I thought Spock looked a little too young. But it was cool to see him as a boy. They explained Spock’s character very well. It was a lot like how he was shown as a boy in The Animated Series (in the episode ‘Yesteryear’). But Spock shouldn’t be kissing Uhura!
“Spock really has it tough in this movie. Vulcan is destroyed and his mother dies. He can’t show how he’s feeling but he wants to and he wants to express his feelings to his father but he doesn’t think his father will understand—but it turns out that his father does understand. His father tells him that he married Spock’s mother because he loved her. That was a really sweet scene.
“I didn’t like that the Vulcans became an endangered species. I didn’t like that Nero destroyed Vulcan.
“McCoy was PERFECT. It was funny when he first says about Spock, ‘I kinda like him,’ and then, like 10 minutes later, he calls him a ‘green-blooded bastard’!
“Scotty was done very well, and Uhura really looked liked Uhura. As soon as she appeared in the bar at the beginning of the movie, I knew it was her!
“It was so funny to see Chekov. His hair was different, but the accent was spot-on.
“I liked seeing Sulu with the sword. It reminded me of the TV episode where everyone was acting silly and Sulu was running around the ship with his shirt off, swinging a sword (‘The Naked Time’).
“I liked seeing Captain Pike again. It was cool that they put him in a wheelchair at the end. It was sort of like the way he was in the original series, but it was different because it’s in an alternate reality.
“I thought it was really sweet that they brought back Leonard Nimoy as Spock. That was the cherry on top! That really made the movie for me.
“The Enterprise was really cool in this movie. It was nice to see ‘NCC-1701’ without a letter after it again!
“But the bridge of the Enterprise was too modern for that time period. It should have looked more like the one in the TV series. The bridge in this movie looked more advanced than the bridge in the movies we already watched!
“The music was really good. I liked that they used the original TV series music at the end—and that Leonard Nimoy did the ‘Space, the final frontier’ speech.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the next one!”
And so, the “Star Trek Through Fresh Eyes” series of blog entries comes to an end. I hope you’ve had fun reading them. Maddie and I sure had a whole lot of fun putting them together!
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.