So the big debate that rolls out every time one of these rebooted Star Trek movies comes along is “Yeah yeah, it’s a fun sci-fi action movie, but is it Star Trek?” The question is essentially, does this actually hold true to the vision of Gene Roddenberry or is it just a new sci-fi franchise with a Star Trek character mod stuck on top of it. The problem with a question like that is that it doesn’t have an actual definitive answer, because the reality is that it’s both.
Here’s some of the stuff that works:
It is Star Trek.
What I like about Star Trek ‘09 and Beyond, is that both of them really have a sense of fun and joy to them, of delight in exploring the universe and the unknown. Beyond especially, likely because it is unfettered by JJ Abrams wanting it to be Star Wars, really hammers in the hope that all cultures will be stronger through unity and respect. It’s the central conflict that villain Krall has with the Federation. Krall is presented as a relic of an earlier, more combative, more conquest-focused human race. He’s from humanity post-warp, pre-Federation. The reveal of Krall being a human makes the story so much more about humanity fighting to escape its own brutal past, a theme that is hardly new to Trek.
An Updated Vision Of The Future
I personally am fine with the updated technology, I can suspend my disbelief on that, I don’t need to pretend for sci-fi sake that technology that exists now but was inconceivable in the 1960s doesn’t exist in the 2200s. I also have the maybe blasphemous opinion that it’s okay to have continuity-breaking technology if that means going whole hog on creating beautiful, intricate space stations, or on peppering in more alien races to the Federation personnel that don’t just look like humans with whatever random facial prosthetics the makeup department has lying around. I like seeing a significantly more diverse Federation. I like seeing ships that look like they were made in the future. I like seeing the concept of what space looks like around a ship that is traveling via warp.
Kirk Has Grown As A Character
One of the major character conflicts in Into Darkness was the idea of Kirk diving head first into decisions, regardless of whether they fit Federation regulations or if they’re potentially devastating for his crew. In this film, his crew seems to be his first priority, and while he’s still brash and well, Kirk, when the trouble starts he puts them first. While he dives into the action, he cooperates with everyone he can to ensure success, like with the rescue mission to get the crew back from Krall, or even the final climax where he depends on his team and trusts them to have his back with the environmental systems while he combats Krall.
Crew Member Shuffle
One of the go to moves on Trek series, or really any ensemble piece, is to generate new or interesting stories by sticking together two characters who don’t always get to be seen interacting and giving them stuff to do with each other. Sending Major Kira and Doctor Bashir into the Mirror Universe together on Deep Space 9, for an example that came to my mind immediately. Beyond does a lot of this. Kirk crash lands with Chekov, Spock and Bones are stranded together, Uhura is locked up with Sulu, Scotty hangs out with.. well apparently one of the dark elves from Thor The Dark World. It’s a good way to see that this is an active crew whose lives are intertwined. Well, sorta, we’ll get back to this later.
What Doesn’t Work:
It Is Not Star Trek
This is not an overreaction, Paramount is terrified of these Star Trek movies being too Star Trek-y. While Simon Pegg and Doug Jung have written a script that feels way more like The Original Series than either of the last two movies did, they did it still under orders from Paramount to write a more inclusive script that would appeal to a broader audience. This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. The Next Generation movies are pretty Star Trek-y, and only one of them is actually a good movie. Part of the nature of reboots is to tell new stories with familiar characters, but it still can be a bit of a red flag when the studio making a franchise is afraid of the actual property being made.
Your Formula Is Showing
Each of these reboot movies have had essentially the same plot. One central angry villain with a superior level of technology who is prepared to unleash destruction. In the first one it was Nero, in the second it was a misdirect from Khan to be Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus, and then becomes Khan again. Now it’s Krall. If you include Nemesis, that’s the last 4 movies in a row. There are other ST plots to cannibalize besides Wrath of Khan. Where are some Space Gods? Where’s some unexpected interstellar phenomenon? Where’s a first contact scenario with a strange and wondrous new species?Where’s a peace conference? And for the love of it all, where are some goddamn Klingons? What’s the point of setting a series during the classic time period if you’re only gonna use them as a damn cameo in one movie!? Get Ronald D. Moore’s ass in there if you need to!
STOP KILLING THE ENTERPRISE
In every Star Trek iteration, the ship (or station!) is a member of the cast. Whether it’s the quirks of adapting Cardassian technology to Federation protocols, or trying to get the ship working at full capacity while on the other side of the known galaxy, the ship matters. This is never more true than when it comes to the Enterprise. There have been three TV series set on some form of it, and three different film franchises, too. It has an almost fetishistic status among the captains who serve on it. Kirk literally tells Picard, “Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you. Don’t let them do *anything* that takes you off the bridge of that ship” Treating the Enterprise like a red-shirt crewman makes it feel like a disposable commodity. There are other ways to signify danger, there are other ways to cut the crew off from Starfleet or strand them.
I Honestly Don’t Care About A Single Character
This, I think, is the single biggest problem with these movies. I don’t really feel like the stakes are there for any character whatsoever. In the beginning of the movie we find out Kirk has applied for a Vice-Admiral Position that we know he’ll never take, he mentions it to nobody else, and he doesn’t take it. Aside from the heavily expository opening where he’s a bit melancholy while talking to Bones, he doesn’t seem to wrestle with his issues during the rest of the movie, except for Krall to spit it back at him in a fight in a way that changes no stakes. What if Krall had broadcasted his Captain’s logs to the entire crew, tried to sow seeds of doubt in them towards Kirk? Then Kirk would have had to struggle to gain back their trust and confidence.
Meanwhile, Spock is considering leaving to go make a bunch of Vulcan babies, which gets stronger once he learns that his future, alternate timeline self has died. This has no impact on the plot other than to give him something to chat about with Bones. Apparently in this movie, Bones is a conduit to give exposition to the audience. We apparently don’t need to know how Uhura feels about her breakup with Spock over the fact that he wants to bang a bunch of Vulcan chicks and sow his oats, but she must be over it when the movie ends and he’s like “Hey about that, I’m good.”
Meanwhile Sulu, Chekov, and Scotty are also in this movie. That is about all I can say about what they’re dealing with. They all have scenes and say things. Scotty is a little more important because he deals with alien girl Jaylah, who is more important to the plot than any of the three crew members listed here.
Maybe I’m a bit spoiled on this because the Star Trek I grew up with was The Next Generation, and got to experience what I feel is the best version of Star Trek, Deep Space Nine (angry comments in 3…2…1…). The thing about both of these series, and yes, Voyager too, is that the ensemble mattered, there were deep, interesting arcs for all of these characters; it wasn’t just the Captain and some other folks. And maybe that’s the problem with just taking an action movie franchise and sticking in the Star Trek characters, because while the movie ends with a timelapse of the NCC-1701-A being built and sent into space, and uses a voiceover of all the crew speaking the opening monologue of the series, a scene that legit gave me goosebumps, I just really wish the rest of this film, and the two before it, had been as concerned with making the crew important enough to have earned this.