I’ve grown up with Star Trek, in its various incarnations. Reruns of the old original series as a kid, and then “Next Generation” when it started its run. For the best part of my childhood, there was a new Star Trek movie every three years or so. And then there was “Deep Space Nine,” bringing a darkness to that universe just as I was entering high school. It felt, with the conceit that makes us all feel stories are our own, that the series was growing up with me.
The sheer longevity of the series, combined with a dedication to treat all previous series and films as canon, made it something truly special. New generations of writers came and went, not retelling the same story, but building onto it, creating this magnificent and complex universe that is only potentially matched in popular culture, though in different dimensions, by Star Wars and “Doctor Who.”
That has made JJ Abrams’ take on the Star Trek universe a challenge for me. For the first time, we are retreading ground, returning to old characters and old times and stories. The first film was not a reboot by virtue of time travel creating an alternate time line, a tool I appreciate since it keeps all of the old material canon even while allowing a revisiting of the original series.
Yet it would almost be easier to watch these new films if that wasn’t the case, because every characterization invites comparison to the old versions of those characters. When Spock’s character simply acts differently than Nimoy’s Spock would have, it’s a fair criticism to note, because the story itself has been written so that this is supposed to be the same character, not an updated version. But that is a particular frustration that us hardcore fans must endure.
Star Trek Into Darkness is both a fantastic space action film, and an excellent Star Trek film. The two are not necessarily coterminous, and they could easily be mutually exclusive. There are battles, a mystery to be unravelled, Benedict Cumberbatch utterly nailing the role of both villain and sympathetic foil to Kirk, a scattering of comic relief, and repeated call backs to the previous films of the franchise. And those call backs work most deeply because they are not simply references but partial reconstructions of scenes such that the new and old resonate like tines of a tuning fork.
There are problems that I really wish that Abrams would shore up in future films, because they drive insane anyone with the most basic understanding of the universe. Over the course of the film it becomes apparent that the Klingon home world is approximately a ten minute flight from Earth. And that the edge of the neutral zone is actually within human-eye view of the Klingon home world. One of the most fantastic things about space is that it is so monumentally large that it dwarfs every comparison we can comprehend. And yet according to the film, the writing staff apparently think it’s about the size of a Chile’s parking lot. I’m not sure why the Enterprise would need 5 years to seek out new life and new civilizations, given the apparent physical size of this universe, they should wrap up a complete exploration of the cosmos before lunch.
This isn’t just over-educated hairsplitting. It’s a film opting for unimpressive and mundane fiction in the face of staggeringly impressive reality, for no reason other than ignorance. Do everyone a favor and just have Neil deGrasse Tyson read over the next script and make his changes. It will require you to change nothing of substance in your story, while making its universe ever so much more amazing.
And yet for all that, this second film in particular gets at precisely what a true fan’s complaint has been about nearly all the films, even dating back to Shatner and company. There’s an old geek observation that something catastrophic happened in the Federation between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan. The uniforms are no longer jumpsuits, the ships no longer primarily scientific, the missions no long exploratory. Between those two films, the Star Trek universe militarized. The Captain who once led the longest mission of space exploration in history is instead distrusted by scientists and his own son as being part of the military industrial complex. The source of the answer of course is in our world, not the world of the story.
Star Trek has always shifted to reflect our culture, in ways not always clear until clarified by hindsight. In the 1960s it was a beacon in some of the darkest times of the Cold War, when the very idea of a story about a future in which we don’t destroy ourselves was the most daring one could tell. And Star Trek Into Darkness gets that, and tries to make its own contribution. It gives us terrorism and the threat of war, it brings the space combat that the audiences pay to see, but it wraps it up in a rejection of letting that violence define us. The repeated refrain, from character after character, is that they are scientists, not soldiers. That this fleet is one of exploration, not of war. And for all of Abrams’ attention-grabbing claims that he never watched “Star Trek,” or the criticisms that this is just a Star Wars movie with phasers, that framing of the story demonstrates that Abrams intuits the spirit that Roddenberry invested in his creation.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.