Star Trek: shaking off leper status

ST 1-ShtThe funniest thing about the reviews for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot is how comically everyone is dancing around the question of being a “Star Trek fan.” I can’t count the number of reviews and online responses I’ve read where the author confess to having watched most of the original series, or most of The Next Generation, or all of the movies but not the recent TV shows…but then qualifies their description with “but I’m not a Star Trek fan.”

That should tell you something about the leper-like status that being a Star Trek fan carries in this day and age. It can’t just be that Star Trek’s obsessive, costumed uberfans tainted the series’ reputation; Star Wars nerds are every bit as crazy and yet it’s still cool to like Star Wars (or so I tell myself). And at its most successful, the Star Trek films and television shows were actually reasonably popular. No,  the problem is that the Star Trek franchise reached such a state of stale, boring pointlessness that only the obsessive could possibly have still given a damn.

I stopped giving a damn a long time ago. I got hooked on the Star Trek universe when I was 10 or so, mostly thanks to my mother (who was a big fan of the show in the 1960s – she even remembers taking part in letter-writing campaigns to save the show). I lasted through the oft-spectacular Next Generation and its films, but even then the seeds were sown for Star Trek’s “with a wimper” end. The personalities of the crews got weaker and less complicated, the scenarios to keep things interesting were anything but, and any sense of sex or danger vanished. DS9 and Voyager lost me early on, and I never saw a single episode of EnterpriseNemesis was the last straw. To see Picard’s crew given such an  abhorrent sendoff was downright offensive. Trek was dead to me.

I so was prepared to let Star Trek go gently (VERY gently) into the night that I met the news of an impending “reboot” with trepidation. The idea of recasting younger actors as Kirk, Spock and company is nothing new – it was the original concept for Star Trek VI, actually. I thought it was a bad idea then, and I thought it was a risky idea now. Despite its success with James Bond and Batman, I was quite skeptical of the reboot as a narrative tool for Star Trek mainly because its characters aren’t like those from comic books or novels that have been reinterpreted over time. They were all defined by their original performances – James Kirk is William Shatner, Spock is  Leonard Nimoy, and Leonard McCoy is DeForest Kelly.

Not anymore.

J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is probably the most complicated reset operation yet seen on film – an attempt to go back to square one with the series’ original characters while still respecting continuity to appease the most obsessive corners of the Trek fanbase. That it doesn’t collapse under the weight of that task is shocking enough; that it manages to succeed thrillingly is something of a revelation. There’s more energy and imagination in a single frame of film than anything Trek has churned out a long time. No wonder it’s being heralded as the most accessible Trek movie in years (if not ever).

The plot is mostly servicable – although villain Eric Bana chews it like it’s pure beef – and the film really isn’t “about” anything; this holds back the film from being a truly great standalone piece, but in putting all of their energy towards properly reintroducing the Enterprise crew, Abrams and his team have redirected the Trek franchise towards the character dimensions it had long since forgotten. While there’s a couple of thrilling action scenes – most notably the opening, detailing Kirk’s family history with far more emotional weight than I expected – they really aren’t the core of the film.  Star Trek could easily have been subtitled “When Kirk Met Spock,” and it provides us with a more interesting, complicated take on their relationship than we’ve ever seen before.

And it’s so awesome.

The cast deserves a lot of the credit. When reviewers are calling Chris Pine’s Kirk a “star-making performance,” they aren’t kidding. This kid’s only concern after this is not having “Kirk” overwhelm his career; he literally bleeds charisma in every scene. Zachery Quinto’s Spock is still wrestling with balancing his human and vulcan halves, and his tempermental tension with Kirk is palpatable and constantly enthralling. They begin the film hating each other; they end the film ready to discover where their friendship might take them.

Everyone else is secondary, but everyone has their moment too. There’s a great beat where the entire ensemble of characters is on the Enterprise bridge for the very first time, and even though they’re still bickering and arguing, it feels like a jigsaw puzzle falling into place. It feels like Star Trek approaching its best, and light years (warp speed?) from its worst.  But the real joy comes from realizing that this is just the beginning; one salivates at what this creative team and this cast can do once they’re fully free from the shackles of set-up and backstory, the adventures they can tackle and what conflicts they’ll encounter.

So bring on the strange, new worlds…the new life and new civilizations…for the first time in decades, Star Trek isn’t just going for the sake of going. It’s bold again.

Watch: Star Trek trailer

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One response to “Star Trek: shaking off leper status

  1. Absolutely spot on Mcnutt. While there was a boat load of Deus Ex’ on hand to tie it all together I’m blown away by how well it all worked. Moreover, I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. It was plain, old summer blockbuster fun.

    Also when you speak of the Kirk family history as delivering surprising emotional weight, I have to admit that at the opening I got a little choked up myself. Star Trek IV is one of the first movies I can remember my father bringing me to as a child. So the symmetry of bringing my father to see this ‘new’ Trek held a special meaning to me, an experience many people will likely share this weekend. I doubt this inter-generational connection was lost on the screenwriters of this excellent ‘reboot’.

    Congratulations Mr. Abrams et al. you have once again brought a little magic and wonder back to the art of entertainment.

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