Looking back at all the Star Trek I’ve seen over the years, it’s difficult to point to any one film, series or episode that gets everything right. Even the really good, really classic entries (of which there are many, believe it or not) feature some situation or alien species that, when considered thoughtfully for more than a few seconds, turns out to be scientifically problematic or just plain ridiculous (see: pretty much all of the innumerable time-travel episodes, or “The Trouble with Tribbles”). But we Trekkies understand that, despite halting speech patterns, broken laws of physics and the apparent fact that almost every single extra-terrestrial race is only cosmetically different from homo sapiens, the beauty of Star Trek isn’t in the specifics; it’s in the thoughtful consideration and exploration of the human condition, and that’s something it almost always has gotten right (see: Star Trek: The Motion Picture and episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Mirror, Mirror”).
Thus follows my most urgent problem with J. J. Abrams’ new film: Star Trek is almost entirely devoid of any moral, philosophical or scientific debate whatsoever. It’s epic; it’s gripping; there’s even a love triangle (are you serious?). It’s everything a good movie should be, but it’s missing the heart of what the franchise has been for over forty years. This is excusable only on the assumption that the inevitable sequel(s) will return to those roots; otherwise, what’s the point? All you’re left with is a massive sci-fi franchise with years of cultural baggage that tries to reconcile scientific realism with the limitations of an hour-long TV drama. Tough enough for any sci-fi, even without setting your show centuries in the future with characters who routinely travel the breadth of the Milky Way galaxy.
To be fair, other highly-acclaimed Star Trek titles have foregone the usual existential pondering; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for instance, focuses primarily on Khan’s revenge on Kirk for marooning him on a dead planet, but instead of remaining a well-filmed but depressing Moby Dick remake, it throws in healthy portions of personal loss, mortality, and humans meddling with powers of creation, which makes for a tear-jerking but satisfying finale. Come to think of it, Star Trek is in large part a remake of Khan, complete with brain-burrowing bugs — but without the brain-boggling moral dilemmas. The villain Nero (Eric Bana) is angry, sure, but it’s hard to tell what for until we’re well into the movie. Hell, I didn’t even know he was a Romulan until they actually said so. Anyway, the rest of my complaints are relatively minor, but they all add up to be fairly irritating: the unnecessary and unexplained romance between Spock and Uhura (are you serious??), the repeated use of the term “black hole” to describe what could only be a wormhole (they’re different things, godammit!), Kirk, Sulu and a Redshirt jumping into Vulcan’s atmosphere in nothing but spacesuits (Abrams is apparently unfamiliar with planetary reentry) and a giant fiery-red monster-thing that has somehow developed and survived on a planet that is completely covered in snow (Abrams is also apparently unfamiliar with the basic concepts of evolution).
Despite all this, I really enjoy the new movie. Many of the characters are spot on, particularly Zachary Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as McCoy (whose diction and irritability very nearly resurrect DeForest Kelley). The feel of the space travel, too, is familiar though updated, such as the eerie beeping of the starships’ computers or the quiet tension as the Enterprise zooms at warp speed toward a few moments of intense battle (with a Romulan ship that looks scary but, even allowing for some cultural differences, makes no sense). Abrams’ decision to create an alternate timeline is honestly the only option that can both allow artistic freedom and avoid enraging hordes of Trekkies to the point of spontaneous combustion (a concept which, amazingly, Star Trek has not dealt with to my knowledge). And of course, who can complain when Leonard Nimoy unexpectedly appears in an ice cave to save his old friend Kirk? It might be preposterously unlikely, but then, so are stable wormholes, upon which the entire story is based. Thank god for suspension of disbelief…
So, the characters are present and accounted for, the excitement of hurtling through space with a comfy armchair and a big-screen TV has been successfully revived, but I’d still like to see a lot more thought put into the next installment. Star Trek is usually full of heart and plagued by flawed writing; this time it’s the other way around. An ironic paradox, one might say. At any rate, if there’s anything Star Trek must emphatically not become, it’s another mindless sci-fi franchise fueled by special effects and want of more revenue; George Lucas has already got that genre well in hand.
4 stars of 5.