So. This Star Trek film? It’s pretty goddamn excellent. It’s sort of like the second time that a good play gets performed and the new casting is better than the old casting, the new staging is better than the old staging, the dumb lines and unworkable scenes have been edited out, the dramatic narrative shifted in good ways. It’s still recognizable as the old play, but way better in many respects.
If you haven’t seen it yet, but you’re planning to see it based on the trailer, I’m guessing you already recognize the excellence of casting Simon Pegg as Scotty. You probably are already impressed at the look of the film. Well, your presentiments are spot-on, only it’s even better. The cast nails the essence of the characters without ever sliding into a Rich-Little-style impersonation, except maybe Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy, but his McCoy is so right that it’s never an issue. The Kirk-Spock relationship is freshened up (K/S fans have some new wrinkles to work with: more in a minute) but even better, all the supporting characters are given great defining bits. Chekov in this version, for example, is so much better as a character than he ever was in The Old Show.
When the credits roll at the end, I think just about everyone will be clamoring for a sequel.
So what’s the problem? Well, there isn’t one, if we’re just talking about it as an entertaining film or even as an attractive, sustainable version of Star Trek. No bashing the film for being fun and watchable here.
No, what I’m wondering is whether geeking out about the plot is part of the fun or not. Spoilers follow from here on.
J.J. Abrams makes stuff that you’re meant to geek out about. He does geek service and feeds off of geek service. So in that sense, you’d think the welcome mat would be out for thinking about the plot, the setting and all that. But in this case, I’m worried not so much that plot holes are large, but that thinking too much about them might actually deflate some of the pleasure of the film.
There are the traditional Trek gripes to have about the film, maybe preserved as much as homage as anything else. (The film has tons and tons of great little Easter eggs: McCoy calls out for “Nurse Chapel” at one moment, there’s a tribble in a cage on Scotty’s desk, and so on.)
Trek has never ever had a “total mythos” that makes any sense. Starfleet makes no sense as an organization, the Federation makes no sense as a culture, the future that Trek shows us is plainly a cardboard cutout for the fun characters and schticks to perform in front of. This film keeps with that tradition. I could just barely find a way to rationalize a Romulan mining ship from 130 years in the future being armed to the teeth with photon torpedoes that can wipe out Klingon and Federation ships with ease, and for that ship to be 50 or 75 times bigger than ships in the past. It’s one thing to be a Somali pirate overhauling a supertanker, but if a supertanker with 100 well-armed crewmen and deck guns was coming to crash into an East African port and a little pirate speedboat was given the mission to stop it, that would be another matter, and maybe comparable to the situation that the Enterprise is in. But on the other hand, it’s pretty hard to come up with an explanation for why any single Starfleet captain has all the passwords to permanently turn off every single defense that the Terran solar system possesses and why (as usual) there isn’t a constant hum of interstellar traffic (military and otherwise) around both Earth and Vulcan. A lot of Trek films treat Earth and Vulcan more like they’re the most isolated, underdeveloped and undefended locales in the entire galaxy.
Like I said, this kind of plotting is a Trek tradition. With the exception of DS9, no Trek show has ever paused long enough to work up any consistent representation of its overall setting or tried to make a single world or culture really make sense. It’s not the point of Trek, something which the original writer’s bible made clear by expressly declaring that the show would not ever return to Earth as a setting and where questions about the cultural, religious or social nature of the Federation would not be welcome. Still, at least Abrams saved some Trek traditions for the next film (or two), such as the fact that every admiral in Starfleet is secretly a power-mad authoritarian, budding lunatic or screaming incompetent.
Geeking out about all that is just the usual thing. The real issue is the choice to “sideboot” the franchise with a complicated time travel story. Time travel is NOT one of Trek’s better traditions, though it’s occasionally spawned a good episode. Russell Arben Fox has a nice entry about the way the film plays with time, causality and history in the context of Star Trek. I was thinking about some of the same issues as I watched, and in many ways, this approach was just as troubled as I suspected it might be.
One of the few clumsy bits of exposition in the film involves the central storytelling conceit: Spock pauses and comes pretty close to breaking the fourth wall to deliver the word about what to expect from Abrams’ version from here on out: that nothing is predictable about what will follow, that anything could happen, that the characters have been cut away from their prior histories.
If you look at the way the film handles the reboot with a deeply geeky eye, that declaration doesn’t really follow. The only person whose history is changed by Nero’s original timejump is Kirk. Instead of being a conventionally ambitious scion of a military family, he’s a rebel without a cause. This leads him to a bar on a night when Starfleet cadets are in town (it’s not entirely clear why they’re in Iowa: to visit a ship construction site, maybe?) which leads to a barfight which leads to him meeting Captain Christopher Pike which leads to Kirk meeting Leonard McCoy aboard a recruitment ship and enlisting in Starfleet Academy.
I’m heading into deep geekery now, so follow only if you dare. There are a lot of small but important changes which now follow on this shift. McCoy and Kirk are fast friends from the very beginnings of their career and serve together from the first moment onward, which was not true before. Presumably because of this, Kirk does not become close friends with Gary Mitchell. There’s no mention of two of his known girlfriends at this point in his life (Ruth and Carol Marcus), presumably because Rebel Kirk is even more of a devil-may-care horndog than Ambitious Kirk, and also because Gary Mitchell isn’t pimping for him.
Sulu, Chekov and Scotty still have character histories that could well be consistent with what they were before, given that we knew nothing official about them. But Spock and Uhura, on the other hand? There’s never been even the slightest hint in the old continuity that they were romantically involved. This is a nice touch, but it means that Spock’s personal history is also different at a moment in time when there’s no reason for it to be. (As is Uhura’s.) So even the rules of the premise, so loudly and mechanically declared three or four times during the film, are being broken.
By film’s end, everybody’s history is different. They’ve all come together at an earlier date in their lives than they did before. Kirk is captain of the Enterprise even earlier than he had been. Christopher Pike is not horribly disfigured and as far as we know, has never visited the planet Talos IV. Spock and other Enterprise stalwarts don’t serve with Pike. We may have glimpsed Number One briefly, but none of the cast members appear to serve with her. Gary Mitchell is not part of Kirk’s circle or one of his officers. Kirk takes command as an unrepentant rebel and hotshot with no real service record prior to becoming captain. As far as we know, the experiences that he is known to have had prior to being captain in the old continuity have not happened: he hasn’t seen a massacre of colonists by Kodos the Executioner or encountered a vampiric space cloud which kills his captain. Spock now has a completely different backstory: his mother is dead, his planet gone. Scotty’s been given technological knowledge that comes from his future (actually, have we ever seen that kind of transporting in any version of the show?). When the Doomsday Machine shows up, does Kirk even know Decker? Presumably he’s not been the butt of Finnegan’s jokes: it’s hard to imagine Rebel Barfight Kirk putting up with that kind of crap.
You get the idea. This sideboot of Trek is a bit like DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earth series, which promised a simplifying reboot of DC’s superhero comics and ended up a bleeding narrative wound, a storytelling Rube Goldberg machine. Precisely because it insists that these are the characters you already know, in the universe that they were originally situated within, but now changed by a single intervention in their timeline, it means that every story that happened to them before is now an open question. If Pike doesn’t go to Talos IV, who will? If Kirk and company don’t go to the edge of the galaxy and have a crew member endowed with incredible psychic powers, will anyone? Who will discover the Guardian of Forever now? Hard to see this Kirk as having the gravitas to fall in love with Edith Keeler if it’s this crew that does find it. Presumably there is no all-Vulcan starship to go inside a giant space amoeba and die. There’s no Vulcan to go to for pon farr, in fact, which is doubtless going to lead to horny, violent Vulcans wandering around the galaxy in confusion like a bunch of salmon confronted with new dam construction.
Then there’s the biggest headache of all: Old Spock. I was kind of stunned that they didn’t find a peremptory way to get rid of him at the end of the film: send him back to his future, drop him ambiguously into a black hole, or just outright kill him. At the least, send him off to exile. But no, he’s right in plain sight, hanging out with the surviving Vulcans, without even the fig leaf of a secret identity. (Kind of hard to do when you’re hanging out with a telepath who is your father.) So on Nova Vulcan, there’s a genius who knows how to make black holes, the Genesis wave, transwarp drives, the USS Defiant, and so on. He knows the locations and useful secrets of many planets and cultures which the Federation has yet to explore. He knows about the Borg. He knows about the Dominion. He’s trying to save the heritage and culture of the Vulcan people, so he can’t afford to be sanguine about galactic-level threats that he’s aware of. Besides, once the word goes out (and can it possibly be kept a secret) that there is one person who is the key to total power somewhere on Nova Vulcan, every galactic nutcase and conqueror will be hunting for him.
And so on. With a clean reboot, none of those questions come up but the good storytelling directions of this movie as an origin story would still be in force. So why do it? Well, there’s the obvious reason of trying to keep the old continuity viable as an intellectual property (same reason DC Comics didn’t just start every single comic over with #1 with Crisis). But I almost wonder, given that Abrams likes to see geeks laboring in the narrative saltmines, if the purpose wasn’t precisely to give Trek fans all those unbelievably nerdy questions to fret and debate about, to launch a thousand convention panels and fanfics. I’m just not sure that this is much fun, compared to trying to learn Klingon or trying to figure out the backstory to green Orion women.