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Paul Snyder

Paul Snyder

Posted: May 11, 2009 04:02 PM

Forget Everything You Thought You Knew About Star Trek

What's Your Reaction:

In some ways the tart title Star Trek seems ridiculous for the eleventh movie in a series plus six television series, almost ignoring the episodic nature of the franchise. Director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are obviously and admittedly no Trekkies, and they bring back a young Kirk and Spock without exactly making it an origin story, in the alternate-dimensions/Marvel multiverse mode (ala Batman Begins), which the series has never exactly done before. But despite the action-movie makeover Star Trek appears on its surface, the title suits because the movie is about the franchise.

Anyone who's ever seen a Star Trek before knows its aesthetic feels weirdly dated for a series set in the distant future. Continuity with Gene Roddenberry's original creation has always trumped cool spacegear; even the small advances have been justified by setting subsequent series further ahead in spacetime. But the series has always been contemporary as an allegory, making analogy to current events, ethics and philosophy. The integrity of that analogy has always been more important than kinky duds, and its effect on ratings may be one reason the latest series "Enterprise" was canceled.

This Star Trek doesn't take enormous liberties with costume, starship or even Spock's hair, but it does action and storytelling in a dramatically different way. The way it's lensed and color-corrected instantly shout "this ain't your daddy's Star Trek". Kirk and Spock do a lot of punching, for Kirk and Spock. This is Star Trek with the Beastie Boys in it. People get naked.

Like Captain Kirk, the series is reborn young, sexy and a lot less sensible. The story centers around a tiny blob that creates black holes called 'red matter', which, having falling into the wrong hands, has led to the creation of... black holes. It's so silly a plot device they had to have Leonard Nimoy explain it to the audience. A far cry from the meditative Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this Star Trek's moralizing doesn't hold a lot of red matter, so to speak. It gives an obligatory gloss over what it means to be Vulcan -- whether intellect and emotion are mutually exclusive -- but it's not a really important struggle in the world today, a superabundance of logic, whatever Maureen Dowd says.

Despite its departure from the rest of the series, in some ways Star Trek is a paean to nerdom. Ironic as it is to be sentimental about a Vulcan, the film is most deeply felt in its reverence for Nimoy as Spock -- plus he's given the best jokes at the end. There's an inexplicable scene where Scotty accidentally beams into the plumbing (because nerds love schematics, right?) and after a cheap laugh about fencing, Sulu saves the day with his incredible swordsmanship. Those little episodes are done with unabashed style, giddy with invention, and they reinforce the fact that Star Trek has its nerdy cult for a reason: it's great entertainment.

But the biggest shift is that Star Trek, as a prequel, reworks characters and events in the Star Trek universe, even to the prohibition of events from previous movies. Entire planets don't exist anymore. We can infer that Spock gets laid. More importantly, if Shatner isn't Kirk, what is Kirk? Apparently being raised by a single mother has made him flamboyantly angsty. And the rest of the crew: is eastern European really an archetype? Is that why Chekov is suddenly a child prodigy? Just mention a wormhole and the audience forgives these leaps, but it makes very clear that they're not continuity problems they're reinventions, that the franchise has nowhere to go but everywhere, and that this isn't meant to be the series' origin story so much as a re-origin story.

Star Trek actually does go where the series has gone before... but it boldly goes. If there is a cohesive philosophy underwriting Star Trek, it's discovering a way to win whatever the odds, and that sometimes the best logic is to behave erratically. And as the new Kirk fights harder and thinks less, so does Star Trek, and it certainly finds its way to win: beating expectations, the box office, and inaugurating a new era for the franchise. While it isn't the series' most nuanced message, its masterstroke is that the new crew's brash ethos is completely endemic of the film itself, which makes it a hugely satisfying package.

 

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