To blandly go where everyone has gone before

With the new Star Trek movie coming out next week, I decided to resurrect my old review of the 2009 Star Trek reboot, which contrasted everything that was good about the old Trek with what’s lacking in the new Trek. I have little hope that the new sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, will be any better than its predecessor, but we’ll see. 

Star Trek used to be about people. It began on television ostensibly as an action-packed five-year mission to journey to far-off places and encounter new life—as creator Gene Roddenberry once put it, a sort of Wagon Train to the stars—but like most enduring fiction, it was really about the human experience. Strip away the alien planets, warp drive, and phasers, and what you had was a story about three men. Deeper than that, what you had was an interplay between three basic aspects of human nature.

Spock, whose alien features and aloofness intrigued audiences, was often seen as the embodiment of rationality. But Spock was much more than that. As half-human and half-Vulcan, he represented the eternal struggle between man’s two halves: the animal and the spiritual. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock with distinction for more than four decades, noted that Spock’s popularity took off after an original series episode entitled “The Naked Time.” In this episode, a virus spreads through the ship causing the crew to behave as though they were intoxicated and had lost their inhibitions. As Spock was forced to contend with his emotions, we realized his cool and controlled demeanor masked a violent internal struggle and deep sadness. Many who watched the show identified with his pain.

McCoy was perhaps the least complicated of the three. Though he was nominally the curmudgeon, McCoy represented human compassion, warmth, and softness. But he was by no means weak. McCoy possessed competence, intelligence, and grit—when an alien virus threatened to wipe out the crew, he always rose to the occasion. His flaw was a tendency to lose sight of his rationality, and this often placed him at odds with the calm and rational Spock.

Kirk was the glue that bound the three men together. As the alpha of the group, he represented essential masculinity: drive, passion, and strength, both physical and emotional. He was the embodiment of command. We admired his ability to weather a crisis. We trusted him to stick it to the villain and save the crew. We admired his loyalty to Starfleet, but much more so his loyalty to his ship, his crew, and especially his friends. So inherent were these qualities to his character, that we could tell instantly, even before the crew, when Kirk had been compromised by an alien interloper.

For decades, this trifecta served as the basis of the entire Trek universe. What made Trek interesting weren’t the plot contrivances that brought these three men to any particular place or time, but what they did once faced with their circumstances. Consider the definitive episode, “City on the Edge of Forever.” Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are forced into America’s past at a time just before the second world war. McCoy arrives first, and his presence threatens to set off a chain of events that will ultimately prove to be catastrophic. All three encounter a woman named Edith Keeler who runs a men’s shelter. She’s compassionate, intelligent, and remarkably insightful. Believing the three men to be homeless, she takes them in and cares for them. As Spock struggles to return them to their own time, Kirk falls in love with Edith. Spock is able to discern future events in the altered timeline and discovers that Edith’s pacifism will influence the United States government into delaying entry into the second world war, with a resulting loss of millions of lives. It didn’t happen in the original timeline, but McCoy allows it to happen in this one by preventing Edith from being killed in an accident. Spock tells Kirk that Edith must die. Kirk knows, but is tormented by the decision he must make. The defining moment comes at the end when a distraught Kirk prevents McCoy from saving Edith’s life, and allows the woman he loves to be killed. Furious, McCoy exclaims, “Do you know what you just did?” Kirk is unable to answer. Spock calmly replies on his behalf, “He knows, doctor. He knows.” Kirk recovers himself, and the three return to the Enterprise and their own time. Spock, despite his emotional reserve, understands the pain of Kirk’s sacrifice, and so do we.

This gets to a point that is central to the human experience. Since pain is unavoidable, most of us want to know that the pain we experience is endurable. We see the travails of someone like Kirk and are comforted that he is able to take this pain and not only endure it, but turn it into strength. The fifth Star Trek movie, though widely considered to be the weakest of the original-cast films, contains one beautiful moment of truth. Spock’s long-lost brother, Sybok, who has the ability to pacify people by liberating their pain and guilt, tempts Kirk with a life devoid of pain. Kirk refuses. “You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves! I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” We are comforted that it is endurable, and that it is necessary.

These experiences helped shaped what is arguably Kirk’s defining characteristic—his resilience—which served as the linchpin of the second and third Trek movies. Faced with certain death at the hands of fanatical nemeses, Kirk never concedes defeat. Even after his son is murdered in cold blood, he refuses to yield. He may doubt himself momentarily, as he did after destroying the Enterprise in The Search for Spock (“My God, Bones … what have I done?”), but McCoy understands Kirk when he observes, “What you had to do. What you always do: turn death into a fighting chance to live,” an echo of Spock’s sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan.

Few can forget Spock’s compelling sacrifice to save the crew of the Enterprise in Khan. The titular villain, insane with rage, had suicidally set the Genesis device to go off, knowing it would also destroy Kirk, who was aboard the crippled Enterprise. The only way the Enterprise could achieve warp and escape was for Spock to enter the propulsion chamber and subject himself to lethal doses of radiation while making repairs. It was a logical choice, but few doubt that it was also a choice born out of love for his fellow crewmen, especially Kirk and McCoy. This was followed by the most poignant scene in all of Trekdom, the final moment between Kirk and Spock, separated physically (and perhaps also symbolically) by the glass shield, bidding farewell to one another. The circle is complete when Kirk observes that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life, an idea presaged earlier in the film when we learn of Kirk’s unique approach to the no-win situation of the Kobayashi Maru.

Perhaps ironically, the most cold and aloof of the films—the first of the series, Star Trek: The Motion Picture—touched on the deepest of human yearnings. In this movie, Starfleet is faced with an enormous and implacable entity that is headed straight for Earth. In desperation, the Enterprise is launched to intercept. We learn that the heart of the entity is comprised of an artificial life-form with ties to the Earth. Spock is drawn to it because of its colossal mind of pure logic. He travels from Vulcan to rejoin the crew in its pursuit of the entity, called Veejur. Veejur is entirely mechanical in form, but it has acquired so much knowledge that it has become self-aware, and is asking the inevitable questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Is this all that I am? We learn, to our astonishment, that this monumental intelligence is returning to Earth in search of its creator, desperate for a purpose. It is fitting that of all the crew, it is Spock, representing duality and inner struggle, who is most drawn to Veejur. In the end, the creator and the created merge to form something far beyond our comprehension. This story spoke to the deepest of human needs: to feel connected, to know who we are and why we’re here.

Star Trek has endured for over four decades, from campy television to sweeping cinema, because of its unique approach in addressing the human condition and in speaking to our fears and weaknesses, to our hopes and strengths, and to our need for connection with one another. Everything we admired about Trek was lovingly packaged with a veneer of science fiction, and rounded out with action, excitement, and humor. We enjoyed the cultural affectations of Scotty and Chekov, the feminine allure of Uhura, and the swashbuckling soul of Sulu. We were entertained by the strange planet surfaces, the scanty female costumes, the exotic villains, and especially the patented Captain Kirk flying kick. But that’s never what Star Trek was really about. It was always about the human condition, and precious little of that was apparent JJ Abram’s reboot of Star Trek.

As a hardcore Trekkie, I was compelled to see the new film for no other reason than it bore the Star Trek name. But as much as I love Trek, I’m not a purist on the molecular level—I wouldn’t care if the nacelles were the wrong shape or if incidental details about the characters were changed. I only hoped for the spirit of the old Trek, but in this regard I was sorely disappointed. I realize the limitations imposed on reintroducing complex characters with long histories in just two hours, so my expectations were modest: I wanted early incarnations of my favorite characters and a reasonably compelling story. What I got were hollow caricatures with familiar affectations draped over a bare thread of a story. Oh, look, there’s young Kirk! What a rebel, that Kirk, for stealing a car and driving it off a cliff. Wow, doesn’t that Heroes guy look just like Spock? And Scotty’s still got his funny accent.

The most developed character was Spock. We witness the torment of his youth, the struggle with his dual nature, and his love for his mother, which he was regrettably never able to express as a grown Vulcan. There are hints at the Kolinahr, the final purging of all emotion, which he was shown to have eschewed in the very first Star Trek movie. It is appropriate that Spock is still not in full control of his emotions as a young Starfleet officer, as when he lashes out physically at a young Kirk, but *** spoiler alert*** his deliberate relationship with Uhura is inexplicable and wildly out of character. *** end spoiler ***

Kirk failed to move me in the least. I was hoping for some hint of his torment at the hands of his academy nemesis, Finnegan—which no doubt shaped much of his character as an officer—but instead the defining experience of his academy days is the reprimand for his solution to the Kobayashi Maru test. He is not portrayed as having much discipline or ability to follow, which is essential to command. And, as with most male characters these days, he seemed more boy than man.

The portrayal of McCoy (by Eomer!was probably the most faithful, but I missed his role as Kirk’s conscience.

Simon Pegg, who is generally wonderful, hammed it up as Scotty in a manic, campy homage. But I prefer the serious and stolid old Scotty, who was practically wedded to his engines.

It’s unfortunate that Uhura, who was given scant screen time in the series and movies, was also underdeveloped in the reboot. What I remember most about Uhura from the original series was her femininity and allure. It made her defiance in episodes like “Space Seed” and “Mirror, Mirror” all the more exciting. Like most of the Star Trek characters, you realized there was more to her than what you saw. But the new Uhura is as bland as a space-turnip. Not only are her characteristic curves missing, but her allure and strength seemed absent as well. She was soft and warm—irritatingly so—and this was offset by occasional bursts of spunkiness that seemed out of character.

The plot—what there was of it—was not compelling. I dislike intensely what was done with the timeline, which essentially wiped out decades of history in the Star Trek series and movies. No more will be said about this, lest I give away too much. Not that there is much to give away, because it hinges on the most boring and ill-motivated Trek villain since Malcom McDowell scampered around on Veridian III trying to get back into the Nexus. Face tattoos and shaved heads are not the defining qualities of scary villains. Nero and his henchmen looked like sulky Euro-skinheads who play vampire RPGs and glower to gloomy music. Nero lacked passion; his motivation was vague and unconvincing, and his spaceship reminded me of an immense space-cockroach.

Aside from the frantic camera work, which was dizzying, the technical aspects of the film were unremarkable: the CGI was good, but nothing to distinguish it from any other sci-fi movie.

In stark contrast with earlier Trek films, the soundtrack was utterly forgettable1. In fact, the entire movie was forgettable. In editing this review for its repost, I struggled to remember moments from this film, and the only scene that came to mind was the only scene with any emotional punch—the death of Kirk’s father at the beginning.

It’s tempting to consider this a case of the second law of thermodynamics applied to movies (if no creativity enters the system, things eventually fall apart)—after five television series and 10 feature films it’s certainly possible that there’s simply no creativity left to keep Trek alive. But I think the failure of the Star Trek reboot to resonate on a human level has less to do with entropy and more to do with the times in which we live. Star Trek started in the 1960s, when Americans had a different attitude about life; people who made movies and television during that time understood that there is a spiritual yearning in most people, and they created entertainment that resonated with it.

In the 1960s, science fiction was entering the mainstream, but it wasn’t until 1977, when Star Wars was released, that its popularity soared. Star Wars ushered in an exciting era of cinematic space fantasy and science fiction, because its creators somehow, either accidentally or deliberately, managed to tap very deeply into the spiritual yearning of its audience. The studio that owned Star Trek was clever enough to capitalize on the sudden mania for space action that Star Wars generated, and because of the enormous good will Trek had amassed through a decade of reruns of the old television show, the franchise was successfully launched onto the big screen. Looking back over six original-cast films, it’s surprising the franchise was able to stay true to itself for so many years. Some of it was schlock, but most of it managed to maintain its original appeal, because it never strayed too far from what made Trek great. Sadly, the virulently humanist element that has pervaded Hollywood for the last 20 years doesn’t understand spirituality, which is why so much of what’s on television and in movies today seems flat and unengaging—including the Star Trek reboot. The essence of Star Trek has been lost, and the name simply exploited by sticking it on what is otherwise a generic action movie.

[1] A day after I saw the movie, I could not for the life of me remember a single note from the soundtrack. This is how it used to be:

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