The clever reboot of Star Trek sets up a coming-of-age saga for the Obama generation.
Let's get the straight-up politics out of the way up front.
Barack Obama, as he says himself, grew up on Star Trek. And both the new Spock, young Heroes TV star Zachary Quinto, and the classic Spock, Leonard Nimoy, each of whom star in the new movie, backed him for president, with Quinto campaigning around the country.
Obama even flashed the Vulcan hand sign -- not so easy to do the first few times you try -- at Nimoy at an Obama fundraiser in, for those of you who were johnnies-come-lately, January 2007.
Leonard Nimoy talks Star Trek, and Barack Obama.
Now for the part that's not quite so obvious. This Star Trek hinges on the original captain of the Enterprise. But not the one you're thinking of.
In rebooting the saga, the new stewards of Star Trek have neatly set up a classic coming-of-age journey for a new generation, the Obama generation.
J.J. Abrams and company go back to the original captain in this new, rebooted version of the Star Trek saga.
The original captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's series was not James T. Kirk, it was Christopher Pike. It's only because Roddenberry penned an overly cerebral pilot, which NBC rejected, back in 1964, that you ever heard of any Captain Kirk.
Played originally by Jeffrey Hunter, who had big roles in a lot of movies, most notably as one of the title characters (with John Wayne) in John Ford's classic The Searchers, Pike is a little older than the Kirk we met in the original TV series. And considerably older than the new Kirk.
The first time around, Pike, as penned by World War II bomber pilot Roddenberry, plays as a semi-burnt out World War II bomber pilot in outer space in a pilot called "The Cage." In an encounter with aliens who are powerful illusionists, he relearns that he needs to live life "as it happens to me, meet it head on and lick it." NBC liked the character but didn't like the pilot, wanting a more action-oriented take. Hunter decided he didn't want to shoot another pilot, and opted out of the project.
In the original '60s series, Spock explains to Kirk that he is immune to the effect of tribbles.
So the cast changed but for the Spock character, who was Pike's original protege. In came writer Samuel Peeples to pen a new pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," with a new captain, James T. Kirk. Peeples, who had been a writer on the TV Western series that launched Steve McQueen's career, Wanted: Dead or Alive, gave Kirk some of McQueen's swagger, along with the obvious JFK imagery. And the rest was history.
In the reboot, everything is changed by a major alteration in the timeline. And in this version, Christopher Pike -- played by Bruce Greenwood, JFK in the Cuban missile crisis thriller Thirteen Days -- is the captain. Instead of being a name fondly remembered by Kirk, he is Kirk's mentor. In fact, he personally recruits Kirk, an aimlessly talented young hothead, into Starfleet, helps him get through the academy, and makes him first officer of a starship called the Enterprise.
Without Pike giving him direction in life, Kirk is a boozily-brawling, skirt-chasing, motorcycle-riding young screw-up.
Time travel has been a regular plot device in Star Trek since the classic first season episode "City on the Edge of Forever," in which a trip to the past wiped out the crew's future. Kirk and Spock had to re-set the timeline to bring back their present.
This time there can be no re-set, though there is some timely manipulation to bring the original crew together, albeit much sooner than in the original series and in different ways.
It's really the only way that director Abrams, creator of Lost, Alias, and Fringe, and his TV colleagues and writers of this movie, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, can reboot the franchise. After ten feature films and five live action TV series, all of which I've seen, Star Trek was trapped in the entropy of its own continuity. By going back to the strongest iconic crew of the Star Trek universe, and liberating them from their past -- and the potential audience of the need to know all the ins and outs of Trekker canon -- Star Trek has the fresh start that a standard prequel can never have. All you have to do is think of George Lucas's Star Wars prequels grinding their way to the story we all know.
So how is the movie? Set phasers on stunning. Okay, enough of that. It's good, fast, funny, and has a lot of heart. But it's not Citizen Kane. Which is over-rated, but you get the gist.
The JFK era obsessions of the original ... the Peace Corps, Special Forces, and space exploration -- are intact, if recast. This Pike tells Kirk, as he recruits him into a life of service in Starfleet that "It's important, a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada." A very Obama-like way of putting it. (The movie was conceived a few years ago, but shot during the height of Obama's dramatic move during last year's presidential primaries.)
That's Chris Pine as James T. Kirk and Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard McCoy.
Incidentally, Chris Pine, never heard of him before, is very good as Kirk. He plays off of Harrison Ford in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Tom Cruise in Top Gun. He doesn't copy William Shatner's classic embodiment -- or. that. interesting line. reading -- but he captures the arrogant confidence. If not the air of command. Of course, this Kirk is still a very young man in his twenties.
Speaking of kids, Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov -- as well as the iconic young Kyle Reese in this month's Terminator reboot -- is a brilliant teenager, a native Russian with a comic Russian accent. The rest of the rebooted young cast is also very good. Quinto as Spock, of course, Zoe Saldana as an Uhura with a lot more to do, John Cho as Sulu, a comic young Scottie played by Simon Pegg, and especially Karl Urban as a letter-perfect Dr. McCoy. All of them on bright sets recalling the 1960s original through the design aesthetic prism of the Apple Store.
A word about the very fine score, which is by Michael Giacchino, who has done very different and equally fine work for Lost and Alias. I collect film scores and this, while not quite Jerry Goldsmith, is very good. Strikingly, his theme for Kirk is not a young man's theme at all. It's aspirational, dark, and duty-oriented, more than hinting at the journey to come for the brash young man we see in this reboot.
The new Star Trek's teaser trailer invokes the idealism of the 1960s.
One of the most compelling things in this dark time about Star Trek is that it presents a positive future. All these things we worry about now -- and which are reflected in our super-mass scifi entertainment -- new world disorder, religious and ethnic differences, economic contradictions, environmental challenge, technological overreach -- are in fact managed and surmounted and we pursue the deepest and most positive of human instincts, curiosity, in a quest for exploration and understanding. The American spirit of Indiana Jones continues forward, adapting to new circumstances.
I think of all the popular potential futures, in which I'd rather not, as it happens, be a mutant or someone fighting a civilization of killer robots, being in Starfleet looks the best. Although, I certainly wouldn't mind being the Doctor in Doctor Who.
Star Trek's message, focusing on a future not one of dystopia but one that works -- of diversity, teamwork, and technology, appropriately used -- is especially attuned to the Obama era. But it's hardly just Democrats attracted to it. Republicans like former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell and former John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger campaign director Steve Schmidt are big Star Trek fans, too. Though I don't think Rush Limbaugh's a fan.
The rebooted Star Trek looks like a hit to me, both for the old audience and a new and younger audience that doesn't know a tribble from a tricorder. As they follow along in this coming-of-age saga for Generation O, I hope they learn the moral lesson of the original Star Trek pilot. To beware the linked dangers of powerful illusion and living in one's head. Just one of a number of timely messages to be had.