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Monday, May 25, 2009

Star Trek: Abrams Delivers -- Now Bring Back the Show!

Among the reasons I love my wife (if love needs reasons): she thinks driving to Brookings to see Star Trek is a cool way to celebrate our anniversary. (Long Harpersesque post ahead: love does that to a guy!)

* * *
I was as excited to see the new Star Trek movie this week as I was to see the first Kirk-Spock-McCoy-Enterprise film 30 years ago.
The future is always beginning: visions 30 years apart.
The trailers (lines, visuals, and music) for the new film gave me goosebumps and rang in my brain all winter. I read with interest yet restraint the local reviews—interest because this is my mythos, restraint because I didn't want to get too many spoiler details. But, just like Bob Ellis, I loved Star Trek before it was movies. Space! Starships! Aliens! Phaser battles! What more could a five-year-old want? KSFY reruns at 4 p.m. were a childhood joy. (Nothing better has ever been on in that time slot.) In every incarnation—TV and movies, Kirk, Picard, Sisko (not so much), Janeway, Archer—I revel in the characters, the quotes, the cool details we get to add to this hopeful imaginary world (a world yet to be!).

So I felt all five-year-old happy-jumpy as we headed for the Cinema 5 on Tuesday. (I actually feel and act like a five-year-old quite often—just ask my wife.) And I suffered only one disappointment: that there was not more. Director J. J. Abrams has made a good movie, and good Star Trek, good enough that I want him to bring the TV show back.

* * *
Why did I like this movie? (This is your one and only spoiler warning: if you still haven't seen the movie, stop reading now.)

The opening. Rule Number 1 of directing: grab your audience, get them invested in the show right away. Abrams does that with a great cinematic short story, a teaser that could stand on its own as a work of art. We see the USS Kelvin, a Federation starship that looks like a real ship: busy, bustling, packed with crew members, rich computer data displays (we're running a starship here: Abrams recognizes that we need a heck of a lot more data than a nice view out the window), and a massive, steamy, pipey bowels that shout, "This is not a soundstage; this is a big dang ship."

We then see that big dang ship dwarfed by a menacing, tentacled ship that shouts, "We are the bad guys and you are toast." Usually Star Trek shows us our starships up close, big and beautiful. Seeing the Kelvin as a fly-speck facing this fearsome marauder reminds us of how tiny we are and the courage it takes for us to face the universe and all its dangers.

If Fastidious thinks Captain Picard is hot, Captain Robau must turn her warp core to protoplasm. Expect a flood of fanfic featuring Captain Robau, Star Trek's own Chuck Norris!
In maybe 60 seconds of screen time, Captain Richard Robau faces down this evil and takes his place as a new icon of Trek studliness. First Officer George Kirk then takes the big chair for his fabled 12 minutes and sacrifices his ship and his life to save his crew, his wife, and his newborn son. In a moment that seems to reference the calls from Flight 93, Kirk stays in touch with his wife from the doomed Kelvin via communicator. In the face of death, he hears his son's first cries. He tells his wife to name him after her father. He tells his wife he loves her.

A movie usually doesn't get me to tear up until the end. The spectacle and storytelling of these first few minutes watered me up before the opening title. The opening scene gives us profound bravery and loss. It gives us memorable characters. And it assures us that, yes, the director gets the Star Trek ethos.

The characters. Star Trek is about teamwork. The Enterprise saves the universe time and time again not just because Captain James T. Kirk is the bravest space cowboy in the Alpha Quadrant, but because he commands the best darn crew in Starfleet. Of course, representing this teamwork cinematically is a challenge: how do you tell a good focused story and still capture the characters and the meaningful contributions of even seven principals?

Yet Abrams succeeds, more so than Dr. Schaff gives him credit:
  • Where Schaff sees a discordantly flippant young Kirk, I see a logical change in a young man deprived in this new timeline (more on that below) of his father and only recently redirected to his destiny by a new father figure, Captain Christopher Pike. We also get to see Kirk get knocked around more and look more terrified (running from ice monsters) than the Shatner incarnation ever did.

  • Spock throttles Kirk... and can you blame him?
    Dr. Schaff is also bothered by Spock's much more obvious human side. But the more human Spock makes sense as a younger Vulcan still dealing with his mixed heritage (see also Spock's human behavior serving under Pike in "The Menagerie"). His romantic involvement with Uhura mirrors his respected father's affair with human Amanda. His antagonism with Kirk makes logical and emotional sense. Kirk cheated and beat the Kobayashi Maru, a test Spock designed to be unbeatable. With his Vulcan mental powers, he may have sensed that Kirk lusted after Uhura. Kirk represents a vigorous challenge to Spock's Vulcan ideals and human ambitions. It's no wonder Spock would take a moment mid-crisis to order still-suspended cadet Kirk "Out of the chair." And yet they develop a friendship in which Spock can accept Kirk's rightful place in that captain's chair. Their relationship and our understanding of it is richer for what Abrams gives us in this film.
  • Uhura is a passionate and talented woman liberated of the restrictions of male-dominated 1960's television production. That she's an expert in xenolinguistics makes a lot more sense than her waiting until Star Trek VI to learn Klingon. We see her overcome her clear distaste for Kirk to provide key information that supports him over Spock and helps save the ship as it races into battle. Character and conflict! (And dear Fastidious, while I shared your misgivings from the trailer about her bra, Uhura was arguably less sexualized in this film than the Orion slave girl, Zarabeth and her leather lingerie, and other bombshells from the original series... and let's not even mention Uhura's own embarrassing strip tease in Star Trek V. If there is a feminist critique to be made, it lies not in anything new but in Abrams's adherence to those darn miniskirts.)
  • Chekov is the eager young ensign whose Russian accent is still so thick the computer can't understand him (funny, but wait—what happened to the universal translator?). He's Mr. Can-Do: in a thunderbolt of inspiration, he races to the transporter room to solve the gravimetric fluctuation problem and saves Kirk and Sulu.
  • Scotty is funny, brilliant, and great under pressure. After six months living on rations on Hoth—oops! I mean, the Delta Vega ice station—it's no wonder he loves the Enterprise ("I like this ship! It's exciting!"). But that love won't stop him from blasting the warp cores into space to save his crew.
  • Sulu, the best swordsman in Starfleet, trades in the rapier for the folding katana sword (scha-winnggg indeed!). Alongside samurai charisma, he also gets comedy, forgetting to pull the Enterprise parking brake at Spacedock.
  • McCoy, as Dr. Blanchard rightly notes, is superb. He is perhaps the wartiest of the crew. We learn he joined Starfleet not out of a sense of duty to the Federation or humanity, but because he had nowhere else to go after a bad divorce. Yet McCoy recognizes Kirk's abilities and is instrumental in making sure Kirk makes it to his date with destiny... and the captain's chair on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Places to go, things to do, cosmos to save!
Running. Let me put it bluntly: people haul ass in this movie. People move as if the fate of the universe hangs in the balance... and it does! Ships haul, too. When ships warp out, boom! they are gone. No more majestic, streaking stars: starships roar like Jimmy's stepdad's Corvette (just ten billion times faster) through violent subspace distortions. When they throw on the brakes, they blast right into the middle of the battlefield... or the clouds of Titan! Our filmmaking technology has advanced beyond the practical restrictions of static soundstage shots and toilsome stop-action shots of static models. In our stories, we can better capture the movement of people—sorry, how Earth-centric of me—of beings, of characters on the big canvas of the galaxy.

The title and credits. The mark of an attentive artist is that he paints the edges of his canvas. For directors, the edge of the canvas is the credits. Abrams paints to that edge in a way that shows his deft combination of respect for the past and embrace of the new future. The title shot—almost black and white, with a big metal (duranium?) block carving of the Starfleet emblem and Trekkie font, feels distinctly retro. The closing credits offer the classic voiceover ("These are the voyages...") by Nimoy. But they go further, offering what none of the previous movies have dared: they return to that wordless soprano solo and theme of the original series. But that siren song plays over brilliant CGI images of strange new worlds whoosing into view. Ah, more movement!

Hmmm... homage, continuity, and creativity. Symbolic of our next issue:
The continuity... and disruptions thereof. Can James T. Kirk drive a car? Compare the well-known Corvette-off-the-cliff scene with this clip from the original series. Star Trek fans freak out over apparent inconsistencies like this, not to mention the fact that young Jim had a cliff to drive off in the first place. Where did he find a canyon like that in Iowa? (Ah, but watch closely: he drives by Iowa farm fields, and that canyon is actually a quarry, surely mining starship materials for the Riverside shipyard—perfectly consistent!)

Star Trek directors and writers face a unique challenge in maintaining continuity with the storytelling that has preceded them in the fictional universe of the Enterprise and the Federation, a universe arguably more richly populated and detailed than any other literary opus. But Star Trek isn't Lord of the Rings, with Tolkein working individually to craft the map, the language, and the story into a unified vision. Star Trek is a grand narrative enterprise shaped by thousands of writers, directors, set designers, actors, and others who were often just trying to do their jobs, not create a coherent fictional universe. How much loyalty does a new practitioner of the Star Trek art owe to a canon shaped as much by diverse minds, studio budgets, commercial demands, and limited 20th-century filmmaking technology as by any overarching artistic vision?

Abrams isn't the only one making new Star Trek.
Responses to that challenge vary widely. Consider Phase II/New Voyages, an independent fan-film effort that began in 2003. The five episodes Phase II has released online so far strive for continuity not just with the story but with the look and feel of the original Star Trek series. Even while reaching out to capture elements of the later series and movies, Phase II situates itself as an immediate continuation of the original series, as if NBC had renewed the show for a fourth season... and as if a couple of Macs with special effects software had dropped through a time warp into the Desilu/Paramount studios in 1969. (I consider Phase II a smashing success: see in particular their "World Enough and Time," an episode as dramatically sound as the best Star Trek episodes, and nominated for a Hugo Award.)

Watching Phase II helped prepare me for a discontinuity that I once would have thought inconceivable: actors other than Shatner, Nimoy, et al. playing these mythic characters. When DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, and Mark Lenard died, I had the sad feeling that we would never again see a new story with Dr. McCoy, Mr. Scott, or Sarek. Phase II helped me realize that no one actor owns the characters of the Star Trek universe, any more than Sean Connery owns the role of James Bond. I love the Connery Bond, but there are good Bond stories that we cannot tell with Connery but can with Brosnan and Craig. Similarly with William Shatner: he was a great Captain Kirk. We could still use him to tell fascinating Trek stories on the screen: stories of an old Kirk on an alternate timeline or an Emperor Tiberius from the Mirror universe. But as the Abrams movie shows us, there are still great Trek stories to be told of the early Enterprise, and for that, we need a young Kirk.

And then there's time travel. With one deft sci-fi conceit, bad guys come from the future and change the course of history 25 years prior to the main canonical events of the original series. Kirk more flippant? Different computer technology? No planet Vulcan for the events of "Amok Time"? No problem: this is a new timeline. Abrams and other Star Trek creators are as free now (maybe freer) to play with these characters and their universe as Branagh was to set his Hamlet in the 19th century. Nitpicking over stardates, clutches, and details of Vulcan culture can be fun sport, but it can also stand in the way of telling an entertaining, inspiring story.

Enterprise bridge, 2009: I wish my office looked this good.
For all this freedom, Abrams still shows remarkable fidelity to the letter and spirit of Star Trek. We still have phasers, transporter beams, and warp drive; they all just look more vivid, more real—a remarkable achievement for imaginary devices (and think for a moment: how many other literary works have created imaginary devices that everybody recognizes?). We still get Vulcan neck pinches, mind melds, and Spock's cocked eyebrow. Starfleet Academy is still in San Francisco. Kirk is still a cad, eying every lady who walks by. Spock is still a child of two worlds, struggling with his identity. Captain Pike is still alive (and that last shot with Pike in a wheelchair, recovering from his ordeal, is a clear nod to Pike's fate in the original timeline). And mankind's greatest hope is still a starship named Enterprise and a brave, smart crew to fly her through the galaxy. That's more continuity than Deep Space Nine gave us. That's all the continuity I need.

* * *
As I said at the top, my only disappointment with the Abrams Star Trek is that there is not more. I want to explore every corner of this gleaming new ship and every strange new world of the galaxy it will sail. I want to learn more about these characters and how they confront the challenges of their world. An experience that rich cannot come from a handful of movies stretched out over a decade or two. The full panorama of the future I crave can come only from a television series.

The Star Trek movies have delivered some fine moments. Kirk's eulogy for Spock in The Wrath of Khan, with that pause before the last word, redeems William Shatner for any bad acting or singing, past, present, or future. For all its flaws, The Undiscovered Country was a fine coda to the original series and the Cold War, complete with Klingons, battles, and Shakespeare.

But Trek movies are not free to explore the smaller, more personal details of the Star Trek universe. To sell the movie to the studios and the box office, the fate of the Earth or universe must hang in the balance. Ships and planets have to blow up. Trek movies must aspire to blockbuster status, so they can't be quiet, gentle stories that focus on the characters.
Raise a family, learn to play the Ressikan flute... not in the movies.
Some of the best Star Trek TV episodes, like "Amok Time," "The Inner Light," and "Data's Day," would never have made the big screen. Yet episodes like those give time for us to see the small things happen that make the characters who they are. "Amok Time" told us about Vulcan biology and courtship and gave Nurse Chapel time to show her love for Spock with soup. "The Inner Light" shows us Captain Picard living the last decades of a doomed planet in 20 minutes and ends with his playing a sad flute solo. "Data's Day" takes us to Chief O'Brien's wedding, reveals Dr. Crusher's secret past as the "Dancing Doctor," and shares some insights about being an android. All fun television, all good storytelling, but none of it big enough for the big screen.

Directors and writers only have time to tell us those stories in the 23-show run of a TV series, hopefully renewed for several seasons. And only a TV series can provide us fans with the experience of living and growing with the characters. Think how different another great Abrams endeavor, Lost, would be if instead of 120 episodes over six years, it were only six two-hour films spread over a decade. A purely cinematic Lost, like a purely cinematic Star Trek, could still be great, but it would be different, and much of the lore would be lost.

Various aspects of the new Star Trek story cry out for the treatment that TV could offer but the big screen likely cannot. Consider the destruction of Vulcan. A founding planet of the Federation is gone. A race of six billion wise and decent beings who were mankind's first alien contact and best ally is now reduced to an endangered species of maybe ten thousand. This single plot point offers rich material for some valuable storytelling:
  1. How does Spock (young and old versions) deal with the loss of his homeworld and his mother? How does Sarek?
  2. How will the decimation of their race affect Vulcans' position in the Federation?
  3. How will the old Spock deal with his responsibility for triggering this entirely new timeline?
  4. How will Chekov's guilt over not being able to rescue Spock's mother with the transporter affect his relationship with Spock?
  5. Will Spock's loss drive him closer to Uhura or make him resist personal commitments?
  6. How will young Spock's interaction with old Spock (Spock Prime, as the convention is developing) affect his personal development?
These topics all offer interesting narrative possibilities. But as even the current movie demonstrated, Trek films don't have time for such personal storytelling. We get a little: Kirk provokes Spock's emotions over the loss of his world to prove Spock unfit for command and win the captain's chair (an arguably heartless personal gambit that deserves a whole conversation and episode of its own), but by the end of the film, we get a cheery announcement that Spock Prime has identified a suitable homeworld where the Vulcan survivors can start rebuilding, and poof! We're off to the ship for more adventures. I want those adventures... but I also want to hear more about the aftermath of this genocide a thousand times worse than Earth's 20th-century Holocaust. That's a story that could resonate, a story from which we all could learn. But I don't think Hollywood movies can tell it.

"Live long and prosper"—Spock Prime blesses young Kirk, Nimoy blesses the next next generation.
So Mr. Abrams, think about it. You've done good work in both TV and film. You know the strengths and limitations of each. And you and your writers have a pile of amazing stories to tell. How will you do it? I hope you'll bring us another big screen Trek spectacular (my wife and I have many anniversaries to come!), but I also hope you'll find a way to tell the small personal stories that make Star Trek such a rich and inspiring universe.


  1. Here's one where, "Read more >>>>" would be appropriate. Wow! That reminded me of Reed Eaton's class years ago at DSU. Get him talking about Nixon or Sioux City, sit back and take a snooze.

  2. Hey, I warned you at the top! Besides, it's a long weekend: we've all got plenty of time to read... or hold down the PgDn key a second longer. :-)

    But enough about me; what did you think of the movie?

  3. CAH, a little long for my short attention span but one of the best reviews I've read on Star Trek yet.

    It too was a date for the Epps, with young Matt coming along with Dr./Mrs. SD Watch and me. We all loved the movie.

    My review to Donna was much shorter than yours but just as enthusiastic: "Awesome."

    I can't wait for more either. I thought the treatment of all the major characters from the old series was brilliantly balanced with both familiarity and surprise. And I thought the casting was outstanding. Loved "Bones" McCoy. Crotchety and cynical even as a twenty-something. My kind of guy.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Todd Epp
    SD Watch http://www.southdakotawatch.net

  4. Happy aniversery To the Heilelberger's and I hope you have many more

  5. We watched it Saturday and truly enjoyed it. I've always enjoyed SciFi, but when my wife says it was good, you know they've done a nice job appealing to all segments with the story.

  6. Some days I am convinced you guys who go berserk over movies just don't have enough to do.

    I couldn't write that many words about a movie even if I were being paid by the word.

    But the last sci fi movie I watched in a theater was 2001 and reassuring voices ala HAL still give me the creeps and we have moved about 8 years past that.

    Just in time to worry about polar ice melting and polar bears being alive only in zoos being shut down because of an energy crisis as usual crops also fail or being butchered in zoos so hungry city folk can ease the pain of starvation.

    Listen to the whole scary NRA telephone sellathon fundraiser and sleep tight.

  7. Thanks, Tim! I hope for both many more anniversaries and many more Star Trek stories.

    And Douglas, what can I say—it was a long weekend? ;-) Actually, holiday or no, I likely would have written this much about Star Trek. There are much weightier essays, even entire books, on Shakespeare's works. I would suggest that Star Trek is our modern Shakespearean opus, or perhaps our new Greek mythology or Gilgamesh, a growing body of narratives whose plots, heroes, and villains help us understand who we are and what we aspire to be. (Hmm... maybe that will be my next essay! :-) )


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