Okay, folks, let’s talk about Star Trek.
When I was a kid, I was really into fantasy books. I loved The Chronicles of Narnia, The NeverEnding Story, and the Oz books (Tik Tok of Oz was my favorite) and I read them over and over again. Then, the summer after I turned nine (1996, if you care), I spent the days with a trio of home schooled boys and their mother, who ran a de facto home daycare out of her home. Our days were pretty structured, with outdoor time and reading time, and we would watch a movie every day after lunch; frequently, this consisted of watching various Star Trek films, usually Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, or The Undiscovered Country (I had actually seen The Voyage Home many times before, as it was one of the few VHS tapes we owned, but had never connected it to a larger franchise, thinking of it only as “the whale movie”).
An obsession took root and hollowed me out. When the local NBC affiliate started syndicating reruns of The Next Generation in the afternoons, I suddenly had direct access to the franchise every day. My family didn’t have a lot of money, but they did their best to help buy action figures of the characters; the ones I didn’t have I made out of Happy Meal toys by painting Starfleet uniforms on them. I built a custom bridge playset out of discarded scraps from my father’s woodworking and created new worlds for my favorite characters to explore. We didn’t have UPN, so my aunt who lived in Raleigh would record episodes of Voyager on tapes and mail them to me, and I watched those same twelve episodes until I could recite them by heart. I lived, ate, and breathed Star Trek for the better part of a decade, much to my father’s chagrin, with only occasional bouts of superhero interest. Later that year, I was taken to my first convention (with guest George Takei!) at the now-defunct Baton Rouge Hall Convention Center, where I was one trivia question away from winning an original script from the filming of classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror.” Knowing that the captain of the Reliant was Captain Terrell was not enough; knowing that McCoy’s daughter was named Joanna was not enough. Can you imagine how much smaller my student debt would be now if I had a Takei-signed copy of a “Mirror, Mirror” script? My developing brain learned a new lesson that day: every bit of information about Star Trek must be absorbed and stored, for the rest of forever, in case it came in handy again.
After the premiere of Battlestar Galactica, I had to take some time away from Star Trek. BSG was just so unlike it (or anything else) and so steeped in the contemporary political landscape that, to my cynical teenage self, Star Trek seemed immature in comparison. It didn’t help that the last TV series, the prequel Enterprise, had been reprehensibly awful for nearly all of its run; Star Trek was a dead franchise. There’s a reason that I wrote my master’s thesis on Battlestar and not Voyager. And so, with the last two feature films with the cast of NextGen being colossal failures (Insurrection received mixed reviews initially, but 2002’s Nemesis was the lowest grossing ST feature of all time), the well was capped in 2005, with the airing of the series finale of Enterprise. For the first time since 1987, there was no new Star Trek.
I’ve touched on this briefly in a few other things I’ve written here (and on my personal blog, and on bathroom walls, and interjected verbally into conversation without invitation), but Star Trek is an optimistic, progressive vision of humanity at its very core. From 1966, when the original pilot for the classic series saw a woman as second-in-command of the ship (an idea that NBC executives immediately rejected) and the series proper showed POC and women in positions of authority and respect, the show has tested the boundaries of social stigmas by pushing against them. The original series saw the first scripted interracial kiss on television in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” and, despite being a Cold War product, saw a passionately patriotic Russian crewman take his place on the bridge alongside characters representing various ethnicities and backgrounds. The show was not without flaw in this arena; on the one hand, instead of casting a real Indian woman as Lieutenant Rhada in “That Which Survives” and “Requiem for Methuselah,” it appears that they cast a white actress and put her in brownface and a bindi. On the other hand, given the era in which the series was being broadcast, it’s commendable that some effort was made at all. Another example is Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban, who was cast as Indian Khan Noonien Singh; although this is problematic in that it it endorses the idea that POC of different ethnic backgrounds are interchangeable, it was groundbreaking and progressive for its day, and that humanism and progressivism is Star Trek’s best quality. No other media franchise has done so much for the cause of representation. In her autobiography Beyond Uhura, Nichelle Nichols called the series “a vehicle for [progressive] ideals about equality, freedom, and personal accountability,” for “audiences to enjoy, cherish, and incorporate into their own hopes fot the future and humanity.”
What I’m getting at here is that I’ve spent large portions of my life thinking about the world of this franchise, its implications, its role in society, it’s fictional society’s role in the text, etc., for better or worse. I’m not a Star Trek fan, I’m a Star Trek academic, with all the intense scholarship and rigorous thought that such a term implies. I’ve spent time pondering the role of the capitalism-free Federation in the larger galactic economy, what it’s like to serve aboard a starship as a civilian scientist, and whether or not it makes any sense that Sisko’s father could really run a Creole restaurant in the French Quarter (represent!) given that no one uses money. I’m a proponent of considering Galaxy Quest the tenth Star Trek film in order to maintain the integrity of the odd/even law of quality. If you want my quick rundown: the original series is Star Trek at its purest, NextGen is Star Trek at its best, DS9 is Star Trek at its smartest, Voyager is the Star Trek with the most squandered potential, and Enterprise is Star Trek at its most tired. Wrath of Khan is undoubtedly one of the most literary science fiction films ever made and is a personal favorite. My favorite author in the extended universe is Peter David, and his New Frontier series is a delight for a long term fan; I also highly recommend Greg Cox’s Rise and Fall of Khan books and anything by Diane Duane. The best fanseries is Star Trek Continues, although Renegades is laudable for its concept even if its goals are a little lofty, and Of Gods and Men gives me the warm and fuzzies. Are we all on board now? Are my credentials well established? Ok.
I considered watching and reviewing all of the Star Trek films that came before in the leadup to Star Trek Beyond, which will premier this summer. I ultimately decided not to do so, not simply because there are so many and the time between now and then is so short, but because the last thing(s) the internet needs are more reviews of the Star Trek movies. If you took all of the reviews of the films that that have ever been written, then printed them out at size ten font on a strip of ticker tape paper, the text would go all the way to Romulus and back (don’t question my math or astronomy). That’s a fact.* I do think it’s a good time to talk about the reboot in general, however, with the sequel looming on the horizon and a Bryan Fuller-produced TV series set to begin airing next year. So, let’s talk about JJ Abrams.
Abrams is a real, Spielbergian film-maker. I know that there are some who consider this heretical, and I understand their objections on the grounds that their output is of significantly different qualities. Cloverfield may have had equivalent cultural impact to Jaws, one could argue (in that both hit theatres and changed the landscape for years afterward with regards to style and tone), but it couldn’t come close to having the same kind of longevity and quality. As much as Super 8 (a movie that is 95% perfection) apes E.T., it had no hope of ever being as well-beloved. Until The Force Awakens, nothing Abrams made had the kind of staying power that Spielberg did; this is despite the similarities between the two men. I touched briefly (in my Blood Massacre review) on the fact that Abrams wrote to Don Dohler and composed the music for his Galaxy Invader, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his interest in getting into film from an early age. Abrams is undoubtedly passionate about his work and his features are generally enjoyable if fleeting in their relevance.
Was he the right man to reintroduce Star Trek to the masses? Even in hindsight, it’s not really clear. The last time the franchise had any real mainstream penetration was with Deep Space Nine, as both Voyager and Enterprise were considered niche television in comparison to the relatively well-known shows that had preceded them. As a result, it had been nearly ten years since anyone outside of insiders had thought about Star Trek in any real way, and Abrams was riding high on the surprise success of Cloverfield when his name was bandied about to direct the reboot. To look back at the franchise’s history for a comparison, consider what happened British novelist Nicholas Meyers was hired to take over the film series and direct the first sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The first film, Robert Weiss’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, wasn’t well-received critically but generated sufficient revenue to warrant a second picture; Meyers had a reputation as a man who could bring a film in on time and under budget, so Paramount tapped him to bring the entire Star Trek franchise to its conclusion. The young director had never seen a single episode before, so he watched the entire series from start to finish to get a clearer idea of how to pay homage to the show and create something that would appeal to the masses and long term fans.
To do so, he chose to bring back longtime favorite villain Khan and make the film a direct sequel to the 1967 episode “Space Seed.” In it, Kirk and company find Khan and his acolytes in suspended animation in space, genetically engineered supersoldiers left over from a catastrophic war on Earth in the dark days of the 1990s (time marches on). Khan and his coterie attempt to hijack the Enterprise; when Kirk eventually defeats him, he mercifully maroons Khan and the others on an idyllic world where they can live out their lives in relative freedom rather than in a prison cell. Meyers took this idea and turned it into Paradise Lost writ large across the Star Trek universe, interpreting this as Kirk literally casting Khan down from the heavens and crafting his film around the return of Khan as a somewhat sympathetic figure of evil who seeks Ahab-like revenge against Kirk. The truly genius thing about the narrative is that the knowledge of what happened in the series adds to the intrigue but is not required for the enjoyment of the film overall; as a result, the film was such a critical and financial success that Paramount decided to make more sequels, extending the franchise and leading to its further growth.
In comparison, JJ Abrams’s Star Trek is not as successful. Abrams freely admitted that he didn’t spend much time revisiting the Star Trek of yesteryear for thematic or narrative inspiration. Instead, his first film focused more on echoing the cinematic aesthetics of the original 1977 Star Wars film, including the destruction of planets, frenetically energetic action scenes, cantinas with strange aliens, and other ideas that, arguably, don’t belong in Star Trek. There was a distinct lack of the philosophical humanism and social commentary that characterized what this franchise is supposed to represent. So did I hate it?
No, actually. The 2009 Star Trek film is delightful, in my opinion. Yes, it’s different from the canon. Yes, it’s not “my” Star Trek. Yes, it makes a lot of mistakes. Yes, its reboot/requel nature means that the only element of the franchise that remains in canon is the regrettable prequel series Enterprise. Yes, a lot of the elements make no real sense (why the hell would you build a starship of that size in a quarry in Iowa instead of in orbit?). Yes, it’s loud and kind of dumb. Yes, it was sexist in ways both obvious (nuKirk isn’t just a horndog, he’s a straight up creep) and small (Starfleet crewmembers’ rank is shown by the pleating on the wrist; by making women’s uniforms sleeveless, the film literally strips them of their rank). I’m not ignorant of or necessarily “okay” with all of that.
But for me personally, the first film in this new series did not have to be philosophical in the way that the original series and its descendants usually were (First Contact is a straight up zombie body horror movie set in the Star Trek universe, and I love it despite its tonal inconsistency with the rest of the films). Abrams’s Star Trek had one job: to get people interested in Star Trek again, to bring to the masses a sense of excitement and majesty and wonder about this world and its characters. And, hey, mission accomplished. The movie didn’t have to address human nature or racism or the inherent evils of totalitarianism or the rights of sentient technological intelligence or the importance of tolerance. The film needed to grab attention, so that Abrams could address all of those things in the next film, returning Star Trek to its humanistic and optimistic roots.
But Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t do that. Instead, it doubled down on the blockbuster elements of the first film, with more fights and more out of character moments. Having Spock fly into a rage in the first film, in defiance of what that character should do, was an interesting moment, but having him do the exact same thing in Into Darkness was a huge mistake; how is the audience supposed to set a baseline expectation of who the notably stoic and logical Spock is supposed to be when he flies off the handle in every appearance? Having Uhura pester Spock about their relationship in the middle of a mission damages all of the positive work that was done expanding her character in the first film. And, worst of all, they made Khan a white guy. And not just any white guy; the most British, whitest, most casually ableist, classist actor out there: Benedict Cumberbatch (I’ll be writing more about this soon, when I finish a write-up about why we won’t be performing an Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review of Doctor Strange until after the film is out of theatres). Yes, as discussed above, Khan was originally played by a Mexican actor and not a Hindu one, but that was progressive for its time, and casting a white actor in a Hindu role, the way that Into Darkness does, would have been regressive two decades ago. There are a lot of fun moments in Into Darkness (and if you don’t have a fetish for Chris Pine in a wetsuit, get ready to develop one), but it failed utterly on the whole to be Star Trek, instead just being a forgettable sci-fi action adventure wearing its clothes. As The Mary Sue recently asked, where are the radical politics of modern Star Trek?
In recent months, we’ve heard very little about the upcoming third film in the reimagined franchise. Concerns that were raised early in the production, like those that arose from Abrams handing the reins over to Fast/Furious franchise director Justin Lin, were largely put to bed when it was revealed that cast member (and notable “one of us” nerd Simon Pegg) would be working on the screenplay. Since then, there’s largely been a dearth of information about the film. That’s not a good sign. This year is the franchise’s 50th Anniversary (and the 20th Anniversary of my induction into the fandom), but where is the hype? Compare this to the lead up to the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who from a couple years back, which featured retrospective specials, an anniversary team-up, a new line of merchandise, and the introduction of a new direction for the franchise. We’ve got a new film coming out in less than three months, and so far we’ve had one trailer, which was met with a collective “meh.”** As Gizmodo recently asked, why aren’t we hearing more about this movie?
Overall, as a Star Trek fan, I’m cautiously optimistic. Beyond could be the return to form that we’ve been waiting for all this time. But to be honest, I’m more excited about the upcoming television series, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, the film franchise will continue to be beholden to the skeleton of the original series, which means sticking to the characters from that show and not being able to expand as much as a new series would. For another, a new series means more material, with new Star Trek to watch every week rather than every few years. Further, Bryan Fuller has previously said that, given the opportunity to helm a Star Trek TV series, he would love to cast Angela Bassett as the captain, which is an idea that I am so on board for. More recent news has led to speculation that the new series will not be a continuation of the NextGen chronology but take a step back to cover the adventures of the Enterprise-B under the command of Sulu’s daughter Demora; this would be set during the middle of the century jump from Kirk to Picard, and would also be the first time that we had an Asian (specifically Japanese) captain. (News that Demora will be mentioned, and perhaps even seen, in Star Trek Beyond has further fueled this belief.) In even more recent news, Nicholas Meyers, who brought Star Trek back from the edge of death before, has been announced as a consultant on the new series; frankly, there’s no reason to suspect that the new series will be anything other than perfection, and I’m really looking forward to it.
What are your thoughts on Abrams’s Star Trek, and the Star Trek that is to come? Are you excited about Beyond?
*No, it isn’t.
**It’s time for everyone to accept that there will never be a sci-fi/Beastie Boys mashup better than the BSG music video treatment of “Sabotage”. Here’s the side-by-side comparison, just for your edification.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond