It’s been a long time since T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Star Trek Lives!” were current, but Hollywood is nothing if not consistent and systematic in its attempts to revive and re-imagine its classic franchises.
And that’s exactly what has happened to Star Trek, as it warps back onto movie screens May 8. But this Trek has a decidedly different look and feel — — courtesy of director J.J. Abrams, screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and an all-new cast..
Even as anticipation rises, there still are some fairly major speed bumps the movie must overcome before it becomes a success.
The biggest reason to be worried about Star Trek, is the track record of the moviemakers. Kurtzman and Orci scored a huge hit two summers past with Transformers. But robots kicking the snot out of each other, is about as far from Star Trek’s cerebral approach to sci-fi and character interaction as you can get.
But even they’ve got more experience than Abrams, who has the most padded resume in genre fiction. He’s only directed one film “Mission: Impossible III”, which was the best film in the series but that’s not saying too much.
On the TV front, he’s best known for creating the angst-filled college drama Felicity, the angst-filled and campy spy drama Alias, and helped launch Lost before getting off the island (and out of the way) of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Yes, his current show Fringe, is so far so good, but so was Alias before it was afflicted with an increasingly improbable series of plot twists that included memory lapses, resurrections and flipped loyalties and reduced the series to a pale shadow of its best self.
Given Trek counts such talented guys as Ronald D. Moore, who managed to turn something as campy as the original Battlestar Galactica into one of the best TV shows of the 21st century, that Paramount went with Abrams is definite cause for concern.
I love my iPod, but all the Apple Stores I’ve visited are located in the 21st century, not the 23rd. Made of frosted plastic shades and lawn furniture borrowed from the local Pinkberry, the bridge looks built to handle scenes of Kirk negotiating a kegger with the Vulcans more than the sparking explosions and flying bodies of the original.
One can imagine Kirk, trying to sweet talk his latest alien conquest, and the bridge’s iTunes shuffle mode kicks in.
OK, the new Battlestar Galactica worked. But it’s the exception that proves the rule established by a very long list of flops from Matthew LeBlanc’s “Lost in Space” to Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes”.
As prequels go, Star Trek has been down this road before. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wisely avoided trying to recast his classic crew by boldly going into the future of the Trek universe with The Next Generation — a move that paved the road for hundreds of episodes and two sequel/spin-off series. The attempt to go back and do a prequel lead to Enterprise, which was poorly received and become the only Trek series since the original to be canceled.
With the show itself proclaiming the need to boldly go where no man has gone before, going back to exactly where we’ve been before seems like an obvious problem.
Director Abrams stated that he was always a bigger fan of Star Wars than Star Trek, and set out to make the former more like the latter. The results are obvious in the trailers, which are dominated by big action sequences and space battles with lots of explosions.
It makes you wonder if Abrams or his writers have seen such outstanding episodes as ‘The Corbomite Maneuver’ or ‘Balance of Terror’, in which the day is won not with bigger guns but bigger brains and, in Kirk’s case, a bigger ego.
Do we need another Star Wars rip-off? Competing with the classic original trilogy is pointless at this point, because nothing can ever replace it in the hearts and minds of an entire generation for whom seeing Star Wars for the first time is as significant a moment in their lives as losing their virginity. Why try to compete?
Star Trek may be old, but that doesn’t mean its brain has to get flabby. The trailers indicate Abrams intends to make this a big, muscular action movie and you can’t help but feel like the franchise crossed over at some point in the time stream with both “Transformers” and “Fast & Furious”. That may bode well for things from a marketing standpoint, but Trek was always smarter than just blowing everything up.
Classic Kirk almost never won any battle on the basis of superior firepower — it was always a bluff, a con or just plain outthinking the enemy. Same with Spock, who rarely admitted it, but took great delight in finding loopholes in regulations. Scotty also saved the ship more times than you could count because in his time off he both drank scotch and read his technical journals. Even the greatest battle in Trek history — Kirk vs. Khan — was won by Kirk’s brain instead of his fist or a fully charged phaser bank.
Really, it was the only thing that was going to work for Kirk, whose physique stretched both his gold and green tunics as well as credibility during his ridiculously showy fist fights. It was part of the original optimism Gene Roddenberry gave the show — the idea that we could think ourselves to a better future, using logic and education to eradicate war, poverty and hunger. Under Abrams, it appears that only logic and consistency have been wiped out, with the tie going to big explosions.
As for the rest of the crew, they all seem to get the undignified end of the stick. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura not only gets hit on by unruly young Kirk, but then has to watch him rise quickly to the captain’s chair while she’s still answering the phone. Plus, she’s stripped to her bra in another trailer scene. It’s a far cry from Nichelle Nichols, whose professional performance prompted Martin Luther King to ask her to stick with the show when she considered quitting because of the example she set for African-Americans and women.
But that’s nothing compared to poor Sulu, who swings a sword in a scene ripped out of Pirates of the Caribbean. Yeah, Sulu famously swung a fencing foil in an early episode of the classic series — but it was only because an alien disease made him act like he was drunk! Do you think Sulu enjoys that memory?
And poor Bones — the cranky but good-hearted country doctor’s gentle eccentricities are reduced here to extreme space sickness, a fresh-from-the-homeless shelter look and being forced to ride with the cadets half his age and meeting Kirk over a swig of liquor.
Abrams’ take is unsettling similar to a proposal for a Starfleet Academy movie put forth 20 years ago. Made by Trek movie producer Harve Bennett, came after the Shatner-directed “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” disappointed fans and failed to meet box office expectations. His idea was to go back and tell the story of how the original crew all met, casting new actors in all the roles and perhaps using a framing sequence with Shatner and Nimoy to set it all up.
The idea was floated to fans at conventions and immediately lumped in with Police Academy in Outer Space on the list of good ideas for movies. That Paramount wasn’t tempted to try this even after seeing “Star Trek V” should let you know how low studio standards have fallen the past few decades.
The most difficult character to pull off in Star Trek is Spock. He was the original break out character, the one who made Star Trek unique — and it was done through good writing and treating the character with respect and, well, logically.
The Abrams version appears to be more about — surprise! — Angst than logic. Hence, the trailers’ focus on Spock’s dual nature and needing to find his own way. Both of which were elements of the original character, but they were actually subtle and came slowly through the excellent performance of Leonard Nimoy.
Filling Nimoy’s shoes is tough – Zach Quinto certainly has the eyebrows for the gig. But the elegance of Spock and his logical approach to life appears at least a little off in Abrams version, where trailers and clips show Spock getting in a fist fight and obviously losing his temper at least a bit in his first meeting with Kirk (and watching the scene, who can blame him?).
Where classic Spock would have met fists with a nonviolent nerve pinch and a jerky kid with iron clad logic, Abrams has an uphill battle selling fans on Quinto’s slightly arch and far less subtle version as a replacement.
At the heart of all this is James Tiberius Kirk — the captain, the leader and the ladies man. And you can’t envy actor Chris Pine in taking on this role, one of the best loved (and most mocked) in TV history thanks to the oversize personality and talents of William Shatner.
Classic Kirk also had good genes. Based roughly on the charm and exploits of President John F. Kennedy, Kirk was intelligent, conscientious and well read — capable of quoting Dickens or Shakespeare and described in an early episode as “a walking stack of books with legs” during his academy years.
But Abrams seems to hit only one note — if you haven’t picked it up yet, that means angst with a capital A. So new Kirk, kind of like new Coke, is apparently on track to be less satisfying than the original by virtue of his intention of squeaking through life with a level of unjustified bravado and cocksure smirking approaching Tom Cruise levels. Here’s hoping
One thing that’s hobbled Trek movies in the past is the villains. While Khan rocked, Sybok flopped. The Borg roared while V’ger bored. So Eric Bana’s Romulan nemesis, Nero, has a pretty high bar to meet.
Unfortunately, it looks like he’s not doing anything terribly original, going back in time (done in Trek IV and First Contact) and imploding planets (which Malcolm McDowell pulled off in Generations). Not to mention that the Romulans were the villains in the last Star Trek movie, the TNG outing Nemesis, which ran the series into temporary retirement.
And then there’s one of the bigger continuity questions: The Romulans and Starfleet didn’t meet face-to-face until the classic episode ‘Balance of Terror’, which revealed their resemblance to the Vulcans and caused all kinds of trouble for Spock.
In the end, however, Star Trek is about optimism, and it’s possible that when fans finally see the film this list of worries will be for naught. Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, as Mr. Spock would say. And should Trek meet that, it may very well once again live long and prosper.
'Star Trek' opens this Friday in theaters everywhere.
Tom McLean is a freelance writer who's written about comics, genre entertainment and film for Variety, Newsarama, Metromix and the Los Angeles Times. His current blog is Bags and Boards and he also is the editor at Animation Magazine's website.