I’ve resisted writing about Star Trek (2009). Here’s why – to paraphrase Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory:
“It’s a [Star Trek movie]. Like pizza or particle accelerators even the stinky ones, still pretty good.” Trek is Trek, I say to my semi-Trekkie friends. They roll their eyes.
It’s a hard thing, rebooting a franchise.
Star Wars had similar problems – but a totally loyal and rabid fan base sustained one and a half crappy additions to grow a new fan base and love for the original trilogy of movies, plus a really cool CGI show (Clone Wars) which is super-popular on Netflix and comic book presence that rivals that of mid-level Marvel characters.
Now you have the Trek fans trying to do the same and get behind a series of Nu Trek movies, but it’s just not clicking (and even the comics are somehow off).
If rebooting a franchise is hard, imagine the uphill battle Orci and Kurtzman faced trying it with one as beloved as Star Trek. This ain’t no Love Boat.
There’s nothing worse than a critic without solutions, in my mind. Anyone can complain, but I think it takes a real fan to be truthful and honest and then tell you how to fix it.
Having written and produced my own audio drama Trek, I know first-hand that the criticism can make you want to break your pencil in half and chuck it at your reviewers. Even so… I still get asked at least once a week what I think about Nu Trek.
Lemme get one thing straight: my only only qualm with Star Trek (2009) is the writing (and only then in the omissions). They literally could not have found more perfect people to cast. The set designs, new ship designs, interiors, uniforms, props, editing choices, special effects, music, sound effects, all gorgeous (even the lens flares and J.J. Abram’s awesome reasoning: “I loved the idea that the future was so bright it couldn’t be contained in the frame”).
Most of the writing I thought was pretty cool. Romulus being catastrophically destroyed by a super-supernova? Cool. A misguided interstellar revenge plot that creates a temporal paradox to explain the new cast? Cool. Old Spock stranded in time, Vulcan destroyed, and a whole slew of in-references? Sweet.
My only qualm is what was omitted from the writing – but as it turns out, what went missing was a critical component of Star Trek. While you can recreate the trappings of the entire Trek universe, if you don’t include the ethos, the strong characterization, and get the treknology down, you’ve fouled up the three most critical pieces of writing Trek.
The problem starts (and this is a common refrain from Trekkies) when Scotty invents transwarp transporter technology to beam halfway across the galaxy. Effectively, we’ve just rendered Warp Drive totally useless. They then do it again with Khan in Into Darkness and I still can’t figure out why.
Why not let something be crazy awesome about Delta Vega to explain why Scotty was able to make a one-way trip halfway across the galaxy? (This is a common theme in Star Trek – oh Phlox wasn’t really assimilated because these nanoprobes were weak and he irradiated himself almost to death.)
A lot of Trekkies fault Into Darkness for having a starship under water. Considering on Voyager or DS9 starships entered gas giants, the pressure under water is actually well within the capabilities of a starship. Creative license, people!
The real problem continues when we get to Uhura’s characterization. Uhura is a strong, powerful character. And you feel like Zoe Saldana could get there if she had a few more opportunities.
Nichelle Nichols proves as much during almost any appearance in her 3 seasons on The Original Series. In Nu Trek, Uhura seems overly concerned about Spock and she doesn’t seem to give a damn that her friend and roomie, Gaila, has just been killed. Nu Trek Uhura doesn’t have nearly as much presence or strength of will as TOS Uhura, and she easily could have with some simple writing changes.
Let Uhura be the inspiration that allows Sarek and Spock to express grief and bond so they avoid the same relationship-killing disagreement as in Trek Prime. Let her be the one on the mining platform kicking butt (but not for a man as in Into Darkness, instead to save the day) or stalling with Nero for more time with some witty dialog.
While we’re at it, why on earth must we see Dr. Marcus in her skivvies?
Star Trek is filled with strong, willful, powerful, and smart women characters. Where’s Winona Kirk (Kirk’s mom) after the first scene? C’mon. Where are our women, Nu Trek?
Orci and Kurtzman produced two seasons of Alias together, they saw and helped create a world where Jennifer Garner’s character kicked ass while being sexy (not in lieu of it).
Nero is never identifiable as a villain, even though he should be – because he’s too stupid and violent to have depth. Maybe that was a character choice, but we only find out about Nero’s pregnant wife for about 2 seconds – AND, besides wanting to wipe out the enemies of this timeline’s Romulus so they’d be safer, he never stops to think that they’d have 100+ years to prep this time, that even having wiped out Romulus’ enemies, the super-supernova would still occur? Or maybe just lay low and find a stasis chamber and sleep for a while, then evacuate your pregnant wife (and crew’s family) this time?
Romulans have been many things in the course of Trek, but stupid is not one of them – even in their non-military personnel. They’re a Republic, with senators and representation of the public will over the military, and inter-species race relations that are complicated and beautiful, and they’re tremendously violent but never without purpose and consideration.
So how is it that we got a thug with thug crewmembers and not one of them says a damn thing about this tremendous opportunity being squandered for 25 years?
The audience doesn’t get to see anything about the Klingons that are mentioned in the Behind The Scenes stuff, either – so a long time goes by and Nero has been held prisoner and biding his time, and the first thing he does when he breaks out is open a can of whoop-ass on the Klingons then return to his path of vengeance?
Even if revenge was the primary motivator, you could have had a 30 year arc just by Nero taking off after wiping out the fleet, wherein the Romulans get a Technological jump on a juvenile Starfleet that’s, again, just been wiped clean by a mining ship from 200 years in the future.
And if I’m sitting here, thinking this, and other fans are no doubt thinking up their own storylines, and we’re all wondering why our villain is so stupid, why is our villain so stupid?
So with weak characterization on one side and little-to-no motivation on the other, Nu Trek feels less like a shining vision of the future where smart, curious explorers brave the final frontier and more like milquetoast teens bickering over their numerous, vapid problems.
I’m really frustrated by this point, since – again – Orci and Kurtzman produced two seasons of Alias together, and there was barely a stupid villain to be found in the entirety of the show.
Trek has never pandered to the low-brow. Even the Ferengi had their own twisted kind of intelligent humor and reasonable motivations.
Let’s not even get into rehashing The Wrath of Khan (or that death is reversed thanks to Khan’s blood – or that Spock getting Khan’s blood wasn’t even necessary to the plot since you had other, albeit frozen, Augments).
If you want to nitpick, let’s talk about Spock Prime’s inability to obey the Temporal Prime Directive. Let’s talk about Starfleet’s elevation of a Cadet (apparently joining Starfleet from Cadet to Command School to promotion to Lieutenant Commander – minimum rank to command a starship – takes 3 years) to starship Captain. Let’s talk about Sulu being portrayed as someone who can’t remember to turn off the 23rd century equivalent of the parking break. Let’s talk about Chekov being promoted to Chief Engineer when Scotty stands up to Kirk – even though Chekov has zero training on how to run a starship’s engine.
But we’re not here for that, right? What I really care about is the fact that there’s no moral ambiguity or hard decisions or topics of the day being discussed.
Yes, the thing that makes Trek heady can also be the thing that makes it edgy – whether we’re talking about the depths of depravity in war (DS9‘s In The Pale Moonlight) or assisted suicide (TNG’s Ethics) or treatment of veterans on the front lines (DS9‘s The Siege of AR-558) – Trek doesn’t have to be action-packed to draw an audience and the inclusion of action doesn’t preclude moral exploration (Insurrection, First Contact, Nemesis).
Even Enterprise, reviled for trying to retool Trek’s beginnings and for being so dark it was hard to watch, delved deep into treatment of those suffering from AIDS, using clones for body parts, genetic engineering, treatment of prisoners, and even the treatment of the GBLTQIA community.
In fact, despite J.J.’s love of a future so bright it doesn’t fit on screen, we didn’t get to see the future being bright, hopeful, or cheery.
We got to see an armada get destroyed. We got to see Starfleet (Section 31)-sanctioned warmongering, with torture, genocide, and slavery implied in Into Darkness. We got grayer shades of ethics and morality thrown out the window in favor of a black and white diatribe where the villain is almost totally justified and our good guys are the bad guys and revenge a common and accepted practice among Starfleet (first Kirk on Khan about Pike, then Spock on Khan about Kirk) and violence just another box to check off on our daily to-do. We got to see Kirk being pervy, drinking a LOT, and being a grade-A jerk. We get to see women objectified and not treated as equals. We got to see our heroes beat the crap out of nameless faceless baddies because they don’t wear uniforms like ours. We got a story that set up a minimal ethical arc, little-to-no morality play, weak intrigue, and very little besides run-and-gun action for 4 hours.
You just can’t ignore the biggest part of Trek and expect us to feel good about it (or you know, throw an epic level hissy cuz you played with our favorite toy and broke it). You can, in fact, get everything else right and still screw up the bit that makes Star Trek worth watching.
So what would I have done differently? Three things:
- Write stronger female characters (they’re not that hard to write – in fact, the ones we have in Nu Trek are fine, they just need better opportunities) and going above and beyond the Bechdel Test. Not objectifying ’em at every opportunity would be a good start, too. Remember that TOS Kirk loved women, but bent over backwards to be at least respectful.
- Introduce a stronger moral/ethical arc. I’m not talking Shakespeare-level stuff here; neither Nero nor Khan had the depth of character to be truly epic baddies in the same way as Shinzon, Gowron, The Borg, The Founders, or TOS Khan were.
- Fix the Treknology plot holes (Khan’s blood, transwarp transporter technology and why it’s not now in daily use…)
Literally everything else is forgivable. In fact, both movies are still entertaining and watchable, passable Trek – but if we’re trying to revive Trek’s future, we can’t throw out the most important thing Trek does: challenge our society to be better and show ’em how it’s done.
There’s one more movie in the series. I’m crossing my fingers they at least do one of the three above.
(Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/aBjKck)