This weekend, my lovely wife and I ventured to our local Regal Cinemas, plunked down some $25 bucks for a pair of matinee tickets and snacks, and settled in to watch – neigh, absorb – Star Trek, the eagerly anticipated film in which director JJ Abrams supposedly “reboots” the original series. If you haven’t yet seen the film and don’t want to be inundated with major spoilers, then click here to read an interesting article about bunnies instead.
Still with me? Excellent. You might want to grab a cup of coffee.
Now, let me preface the rest of my lengthy synopsis by giving you a snapshot of my long and varied history with Trek. When I was a kid, living in the sticks of rural Tennessee, the TV in my house got exactly three channels: CBS, ABC, and PBS. Needless to say, I survived largely on the scraps of bootlegged VHS movies that my parents had scavenged here and there. Among those were the first three Star Trek movies, and I watched them religiously. As I grew older, I continued to follow the additional films and really came to admire the spin-off series, including The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise (I never really got into DS9, but Ginny claims it’s the best of the bunch). I’ve also managed to catch most of the episodes of the original series, which let’s admit, seem a little cheesy by comparison to everything that has come along since. I’ve also read a couple of the Trek novels, but I’m not an big fan of anything that attempts to shoehorn itself into the existing canon of a series (which is why I’m still brooding over the Star Wars prequels). While I don’t have a Starfleet uniform hanging in my closet or anything, I do have a lot of respect for the foundations of the Trek universe, the rich tapestry of its characters, its history, and its reputation for weaving together a logical and intelligent storyline.
I was lucky enough to marry a woman who’s an even bigger Trekkie than I am. You know you’re with a good one if you can watch Trek with her, and you’re with the right one if you can discuss the finer points of the episode in bed after the movie is over. That’s Ginny. She’s a bit cautious by nature, so she already had some misgivings about the upcoming film, but I went into this movie with my signature plucky optimism intact. I wanted it to be good. I really did.
On paper (and in previews), it looked like a perfect storm: a great cast (especially Zachary Quinto as Spock), one of the hottest directors around, top-notch special effects, a very mysterious script, and characters (Kirk, et. al.) that even non-Trekkies actually seem to care about. There was a ton of buzz around the movie, and Rotten Tomatoes even gave it a 96%. They must have watched a different movie.
As a movie, it looks great. The acting is superb, the sets are vast, and the CGI is indeed beautiful (I’ve never before seen so many lens flares in single shot). It’s replete with little in-jokes and nods to the original series. The story, however, is a wreck from start to finish. When writing the Star Wars prequels, sci-fi god George Lucas went to very convoluted lengths not to trample on the canon of his beloved characters’ universe; Abrams went completely the other direction. It’s as if he said, “To hell with it, let’s just rip out the guts and start over.” Which wouldn’t have been so bad in and of itself (that worked exceptionally well with the recently-ended Battlestar Galactica series), but he chose to do it in a curious way…via yet another time-travel storyline (groan). This is what I saw (you can skip ahead if you want, but you’ll miss the rapier wit of my play-by-play commentary):
The story opens on the USS Kelvin, a curiously exotic-looking starship with a single warp nacelle (weird, since nacelles are supposed to be in groups of two or more to create a warp field between them). The Kelvin is commanded by Captain Redshirt, who is killed almost immediately by the rather obvious villain, the Romulan Captain Nero (BTW, Eric Bana is completely underutilized in this rather flat role that makes Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Soren look deep and complex), leaving Kirk’s father in command as a much larger and better armed Romulan behemoth called the Narada proceeds to tear the tiny Federation ship apart. Papa Kirk manages to get all hands to shuttlecrafts, including his wife who is simultaneously giving birth to baby Kirk, before sacrificing himself in a vain effort to destroy the attackers with his crippled ship. This scene just oozes with drama, but it feels more than a little contrived. It’s like Abrams is beating the audience over the head, saying, “Hey, this guy was literally born in the thick of battle.”
Flash forward to Iowa several years later. Pre-teen Kirk is out for a joyride in his stepdad’s boosted Corvette (they’re not on the best terms), blasting Beastie Boys on a Nokia-branded all-in-one media player (along with Budweiser, one of the few companies to survive the nuclear holocaust and even thrive in a non-commercial future society). When he’s tailed by a motorcycle cop, he ditches the car in the deepest gorge I’ve ever seen in Iowa (seriously, it’s like the Grand Canyon). There was an old joke about how Kirk was better than Picard because he could almost drive a stick shift; I have to believe this scene was included as a subtle nod to that rather lame joke.
Next, flash to Vulcan (not a specific place, just the planet, ‘cause nobody would know where K’Plahr province is anyway), and we get to see some “Vulcan bullies” (yep, that’s actually how they’re credited) teasing a young Spock for being a half-breed and calling his mom a whore. They’re just trying to get a rise out of him to see if it’s possible, like it’s a science experiment or something. Anyway, we get to see what a green bloody lip looks like, and Sarek counsels Spock about the importance of controlling his emotions and embracing logic. We also get to see a couple of brief scenes of Winona Ryder as Spock’s human mother; some years later, she counsels him on the importance of making your own choices and being true to yourself, emotions and everything. No wonder the guy is so conflicted. He blows off his acceptance to the prestigious Vulcan Science Academy in favor of joining Starfleet.
Back to Iowa, a twentysomething Kirk hits on Uhuru in a bar (proving there’s still no cure for alcoholism or pick-up lines in the 22nd century) and gets his ass handed to him by some Starfleet cadet meatheads. Enter Captain Pike, who knows Kirk’s family history and sees potential in the misguided young man. He urges Kirk to join Starfleet and turn his life around. During a motorcycle ride down by the old shipyard (cause they build all the starships on Earth, in Iowa cornfields, within easy driving distance of Kirk’s childhood home), he looks wistfully at the Enterprise under construction and decides to take Pike up on his offer.
In one of the best scenes in the entire film, we get to see Kirk meet the crotchety Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (a character who, because of his sardonic demeanor, always seemed much older than he probably was supposed to be). I always loved Bones, because he was such a contrast to both the daring, hotheaded Kirk and cold, logical Spock, and in this film, he’s adeptly portrayed with that same attitude that made him so popular in the original series. We find out that he’s phobic of space travel, which perhaps makes for an odd career choice, he’s divorced, and his wife took everything but his bones. Ok, a couple of problems here: how do you take everything from someone in a non-materialistic society (can’t you just replicate another couch?), and I always thought he was called Bones because, you know, country doctors were often called “sawbones” back in the day. But I digress. It’s the start of their lifelong “bromance.”
Jump ahead a couple more years, and Cadet Kirk (totally channeling the Shat) aces the supposedly unwinnable Kobiyashi Maru training scenario that Spock has devised by hotwiring the computer, which doesn’t sit well with the emotionally constipated Vulcan. As Kirk is on the verge of getting expelled from Starfleet, a mysterious distress call is received from Vulcan. The bulk of the fleet is in a remote sector at the annual Starfleet picnic and beach volleyball tournament, so it’s up to the cadets to saddle up and head out. Bones infects Kirk with an alien flu virus that makes him instantly sick and allows him to stow away on Pike’s ship, the USS Enterprise, as his patient (and hilarity ensues). We get to meet the more of the original crew, including Sulu, who humorously forgets to take off the parking brake (and probably saves everyone on board from being killed in the surprise attack), and 17-year-old wunderkind Chekov, who manages a slightly more annoying accent than the original. The Enterprise has a state of the art voice recognition system, but it’s baffled by his thickly Slavic enunciation of “Wictor, Wictor.” Uhuru has a little thing going on the side with Spock, reducing her previously strong female role as communications officer to “Spock’s girlfriend” for the rest of the film. Nice.
En route from Earth to Vulcan, which seems to take about 10 minutes at warp speed, Kirk realizes that the fleet is flying into the same trap that destroyed his father’s ship, and he persuades Pike to drop the ship out of warp ready for the fight. Of course he’s right, as Nero and his Narada have decimated all but the late-arriving Enterprise and left a battlefield that makes Wolf 359 look like a slap fight. And now they’re drilling a hole into the core of the planet. The Enterprise is no match, but because Nero recognizes the ship’s designation, he decides to spare them (he’s got his motives). Pike promotes Spock to acting captain and, much to the chagrin of all the other hard-working cadets down the chain of command, appoints Kirk as his first officer (WTF?). Then with Kirk, Sulu, and Cadet Redshirt secretly in tow, Pike takes a shuttlecraft over to the Narada to negotiate surrender terms. The cadets base jump from the low-orbit shuttlecraft with the intent of landing on the suspended drilling platform to disable it. Guess what happens to Chief Engineer Redshirt. Sadly (and somewhat stupidly), he was the only one with charges.
Kirk and Sulu face-off against some burly Romulans who are defending the platform. One of them has a sword, but luckily, so does Sulu (a standard-issue Starfleet sword?). It’s a shame he didn’t bring a phaser instead, cause he could’ve just shot the guy. They manage to dispatch the guards and disable the drill, but it’s too late. The Narada injects its payload into the planet’s core, and all hell breaks loose. The planet starts to rip itself apart.
Thanks to some mad video game skills of one Chekov, Kirk and Sulu manage to beam back the the Enterprise seconds before smacking into the planet’s surface. Spock beams down to the planet to save the Vulcan High Council from the impending disaster. He manages to get most of them, except the really old, slow ones that get flattened by some toppling statues, and surprisingly his mother, who falls off a rocky precupice (note to Vulcan architects: handrails). Back on the ship, Spock and team watch helplessly as Vulcan is consumed from within by an artificial black hole. OMG, they actually destroyed Vulcan! Not some backwater planet like Veridian 3, but Vulcan. That’s kind of an important planet.
There’s some obligatory exposition between Nero and Pike, who he’s torturing for tactical information (turns out that Khan isn’t the only villain who knows how to use space bugs to get prisoners to spill the beans). We learn that the Narada is indeed from the post-Next Generation future, but it’s actually a simple mining ship (albeit rather well-armed for such a mundane task). After Romulus was destroyed and he lost everything, Nero and crew decided to exact a little revenge in the past by picking off Federation planets, and Earth is next on his list.
Back on the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock have a spirited disagreement about their next move. Spock wants to regroup with the fleet, while Kirk thinks a full on assault is the way to go, and he ends up on the receiving end of a Vulcan nerve pinch. Apparently, Spock decided that the brig was too good for the likes of the mutinous Kirk, who wakes up in an escape pod on Delta Vega, a nearby ice planet and all around knock-off of Hoth. There’s a Federation outpost nearby, so Kirk decides to hoof it amid some truly remarkable and frightening GCI creatures that are completely unsuited for life on an ice planet. There’s even a bit where one ginormous beast chasing Kirk gets clobbered by an even more ginormous beast, which in turn, starts chasing Kirk. Didn’t we already get to see this same bit in The Phantom Menace?
Kirk is saved from certain death by none other than…Spock (what in the hell are the odds?). But this isn’t young Spock; this is really old Spock (who shall be known henceforth as “Spock Prime” to avoid confusion, and because it sounds like an awesome Transformer). Spock Prime has recently found himself marooned on the ice planet as well and just witnessed the destruction of his nearby homeworld of Vulcan. It’s just so amazingly fortunate that the one guy in the galaxy who could explain it all to Kirk happened to be right there at the right time. He mind-melds with Kirk to bring him up to speed: in the future, Spock Prime was trying to save Romulus (what, no love for nearby Remus?) from a supernova using an exotic substance called “Red Matter.” He was too late to save the planet, but managed to create a rift in space-time that sucked the Narada and his own ship back in time, although he arrived 25 years later than Nero and company (you know how temperamental those rifts can be). Nero was waiting for him when he emerged (hopefully, he hadn’t just be flying around in circles all that time), promptly captured his wee little science vessel, and used a tiny portion of the Red Matter on board to destroy Vulcan and teach Spock Prime a hard lesson (never try to help out Romulans).
The pair make their way to the isolated outpost and find none other than Montgomery Scott. Because he vaporized an Admiral’s dog in a transporter accident, Scotty has been relegated there to babysit a rocky Oopma-Loompa creature (who, despite being a sentient being, gets treated rather like a pet). Spock Prime immediately begins calibrating the station’s transporter to beam Kirk and Scotty back to the Enterprise, which is zipping along at warp to a rendezvous with the fleet (no easy task, even in the future). Apparently, Scotty Prime developed the trans-warp beaming technique at some point down the road, and since Spock Prime feels he hasn’t done enough already to pollute the timeline, he shares this information with young Scotty. I wish they’d hung around on Delta Vega a bit longer, because who knows what other amazing plot holes they might have found there.
Back on the ship, Kirk and Spock exchange more blows, but Kirk finally gets the acting captain to admit he’s frazzled and relinquish command. Finally in control of his ship and crew, Kirk sets out to stop Nero and save Earth. I still can’t help but wonder if there’s not someone on the entire ship who outranks a cadet with a field commission, but that’s beside the point. Kirk still looks like a kid who’s sitting in the driver’s seat of his dad’s car.
From there the movie unfolds like a run-of-the-mill action flick. Off they race to confront Nero, who is already busy drilling a hole into the San Francisco Bay. Equipped with his newly acquired teleportation skills, Scotty (BTW, when Kirk calls him that, it comes off a bit smug, especially considering they just met) drops the dynamic duo directly onto the Narada’s bridge. The bridge consists of vast platforms, separated by bottomless chasms and lots of smoke. Romulans must not have an equivalent of OSHA, or somebody would’ve at least installed handrails. Some really exaggerated fight sequences ensue, and Spock boosts his future self’s vessel (Red Matter still in tow). He proceeds to launch his own counterattack against the Narada and even the odds a bit. In the end, Earth is saved, Pike is rescued, the Narada is destroyed. Captain Kirk gets a shiny medal, a formal commission, and command of the Enterprise. Roll credits.
When the film was over, Ginny and I exchanged a look of disbelief. What the hell just happened here? Did they just shred the timeline of the original series, dance on its grave, make out with its widow, and send its kids away to boarding school? Let’s forget about all of the plot holes for a second.
Time travel is always a tricky concept, especially in a sci-fi universe like Trek, which is typically pretty heavy on the “sci.” It can be a great storytelling tool, to be sure, but it’s like playing with wildfire. To be effective, you have to decide early on about the rules and then stick to them. One popular school of thought says that you can’t change the past, because the past determines the future (otherwise known as the Novikov self-consistency principle). The other says any trivial change in the past instantly creates a new branch in an ever expanding multiverse. This is apparently the path that Abrams and team chose to follow, starting with the arrival of the Narada and the destruction of the Kelvin. From that point on, it’s a distinctly different timeline than that experienced by the original series, all of its spin-off series (excluding Enterprise), and the first ten movies.
If you want to create an alternate history so your characters can have different adventures, that’s fine, but don’t do it at the expense of 40 years worth of Trek history. By bringing Nimoy’s Spock into this universe, Abrams attempted to link his movie to the original series and overwrite some of its key elements. Also, it’s curious how it’s still basically the same Trek universe we all know; despite experiencing extremely different circumstances (for instance Kirk growing up without a strong father figure), all of the core characters still end up on the same Enterprise in basically the same roles. If the story elects to subscribe to a branching multiverse, then every small change creates a ripple (the so-called butterfly effect), which ultimately produces a vastly different outcome. It would have been more realistic (and I use that term loosely) to end up with a completely different crew on the Enterprise.
Think about it for a second. If a Romulan ship blatantly destroyed a Federation vessel during a time of peace (and left survivors to tell the harrowing tale), then the Federation would’ve likely evolved along a more militaristic path over the next 25 years. There would’ve been increased focus on the development of defensive technology, and it’s likely that there would’ve been a lot of tension with the Romulan Empire. Maybe the Federation would’ve even negotiated an allegiance with the Klingons against this formidable foe. By the time Kirk got around to enlisting in Starfleet, he might just as likely have ended up as a space marine on some defensive outpost in the Neutral Zone instead of the captain of the Federation’s flagship.
The multiverse (especially considering the destruction of Vulcan) also precludes the likelihood that many of our other favorite Trek events will ever happen, including the events of Amok Time, City on the Edge of Forever, V’ger’s homecoming, Khan, Spock’s death and resurrection, Planet Genesis, the whales, and so on. Forget about Picard and company, Q, and the Borg. Then again, I suppose we also get to lose Spock’s Brain and Sybok. Maybe that’s not such a bad trade after all.
With this film, Abrams has essentially laid the groundwork for the Mirror Universe. Maybe in the next sequel, Spock will have a goatee.