Derreck’s recent article about the Star Trek: Pacific 201 Kickstarter campaign got me thinking about Star Trek again. It’s a topic I generally avoid because I am fairly passionate about it, and really disappointed with how the property has been handled in recent years. But now that I’m thinking about it again, I feel the need to write it out so I can (hopefully) move on fairly quickly.
In case you have to ask, there will be spoilers aplenty here.
I know people that dislike the JJ Abrams Trek movies purely because of the use of the alternate timeline in order to ‘reset’ things. I’m not a huge fan of using that particular storytelling device as permanent change to the storyline, but alternate timelines have a very long tradition in Star Trek. My problem with these movies is that they just don’t feel like Star Trek to me. They’d be perfectly adequate generic science fiction movies. But trying to copy/paste names, ship designs, and world details into these movies…well…more often than not, it infuriates me.
I think the easiest way I can express why I feel this way is by comparing arguably the best Star Trek movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, against (in my opinion at least) the worst Star Trek movie, Star Trek Into Darkness.
Somehow, I managed to win a pair of tickets to see Into Darkness a couple of days before the general release of the film. I never win anything, so this was rather surprising. So I and a friend went to see the movie, and about halfway through it I couldn’t enjoy the movie anymore.
What I Hate About Star Trek
Kirk and Spock spend pretty much the entire movie sniping at each other, despite seeming to come to some sort of understanding at the conclusion of the previous film. From a certain point of view, Spock directly stabs Kirk in the back towards the beginning of the film.
Towards the beginning of the movie, an admiral says to a room full of Starfleet officers “You are the captains and first officers of all of the ships that could get here (to Earth) quickly.” Yet at the end of the movie when two ships (one definitely belonging to Starfleet, and the other bearing a similar design but probably not in any Starfleet database) begin shooting huge chunks out of each other…where are those other ships? The admiral said they were close by. The Enterprise made it to the Klingon homeworld and back, while also being stranded for a while with engine problems. Why were none of the other ships here, or able to arrive at some point? When those two same ships start crashing into the Earth’s atmosphere,why are there no defensive systems present to prevent one of those ships from colliding into the capital city of the Federation? Especially since the villain of the movie, the previously mentioned admiral, had explicitly stated his intention to start a war with the Klingons. So…his plan was to start a war with a very warlike race, when Earth itself was almost literally undefended. That sounds like a GREAT plan.
The absolute worst part was Khan. Benedict Cumberbatch is a tremendous actor, and I don’t blame him for it. The problem is the script. The writers really want Khan to be the bad guy here, because he was the villain in Wrath of Khan. The problem is that so much of what he does in this movie seems quite reasonable, given what the admiral was doing and the threats the admiral had made against Khan.
At one point I had a glimmer of hope that Khan would help defeat the admiral, but then quickly kick Kirk and Scotty back over to the Enterprise (via transporter), and basically say, “I used to think that I needed to rule the human race. Now I find myself in a galaxy full of aliens, and I know some of them at least want to see the human race destroyed. And you’re too principled to respond appropriately before it’s too late. So I’m going to take care of that problem for you. Until next we meet…” It would have been a fresh take on Khan, allowing the character to exhibit some growth and change as a result of the altered timeline. Which, hello, is one of the big points of using an alternate timeline to begin with!
Instead we’re treated to Kirk being overly suspicious of Khan for pretty much no reason. Kirk shoots Khan in the back when, to my memory at least, Khan hadn’t done anything yet to draw serious suspicion.
Then there’s the whole role-swapped death scene between Kirk and Spock, which didn’t feel earned at all. Because the two of them spent so much of the movie explicitly NOT being friends. Followed by McCoy discovering a cure for DEATH by using Khan’s blood. But for reasons that are never explained, it has to be Khan’s blood they use (so they can’t kill him), instead of any of the other 40+ genetically modified humans that they have safely in suspended animation.
What I Love About Star Trek
Right after I left the movie theater, feeling extremely dissatisfied, I wandered over the Best Buy. I had a gift card with nearly $20 on it, and I felt the need to watch something that I didn’t already have at home. The feeling was like needing to wash the taste out of my mouth.
As fate would have it, Best Buy had a Star Trek-specific display set up, and The Wrath of Khan was on sale. With tax, it cost just under $20. Worked out perfectly.
Do you know what I forgot about this movie? The first half of the movie goes out of its way to remind you that, above all else, Kirk and Spock are friends. Spock is supposed to be the captain of the Enterprise, but a mission comes up that Kirk has some personal involvement in (i.e. an old girlfriend). So they fight (verbally) about who should be the captain. In the JJ-verse, they’d be fighting for their own side.
But here, they understand what is at stake for each other. Kirk says Spock should remain the captain, because it is his assignment. Spock counters that Kirk is more heavily invested, and tells Kirk not to be worried about insulting his pride. Vulcan and Human, Starfleet officers, Captain and officer, above ALL of that, Kirk and Spock are friends.
That’s why Spock’s death at the end of the movie has meaning to it. Firstly, because it wasn’t reversed in the same movie 10 minutes after it happened. And second, because the entire movie had been crafted in a way to make sure you, as a member of the audience, understood and believed what close friends they were. I have yet to believe that the Chris Pine & Zachary Quinto versions of those characters are friends on any level. So far all I’ve seen is for them to, at best, barely tolerate each other.
Star Trek’s Missed Opportunities
I’m going to step away from the movie comparison now, to provide a rough outline of the Star Trek stories that I wish were being told now. A lot of it is based on where the Federation was left at the conclusion of the previous TV series.
In the final TNG-era movie, Nemesis, the Romulan government goes through not one, but two coups. Shinzon (a clone of Picard) kills the Romulan leaders that won’t do what he wants them to do and assumes control. Then he is killed towards the end of the movie. I think it would be very easy from the Federation’s point of view to essentially say that the government with which they made a treaty to not explore cloaking technology no longer exists.
In the wake of DS9, the Bajoran wormhole is now a bridge to a completely new area of the galaxy. For so many years, the Dominion had ruled that area of the galaxy. With the Dominion defeated, there’s any entirely new area of the galaxy to explore, new dangers to be encountered, and new questions to be asked and answered. And the Cardassians are severely weakened as well.
Finally, with Voyager’s return to earth, we get some of the biggest changes. Because Voyager not only returns home from the other side of the galaxy, but does so with starship weapon and defensive technology from 30 years in the future. The holographic doctor has become fully autonomous, thanks to the mobile emitter (also from the future), while the rest of the Federation happily makes use of holographic beings as something akin to a slave labor force.
Now, put all that together. Several of the biggest threats to the Federation are severely weakened. The Romulans and Cardassians have gotten it really bad, and the last time we saw the Klingons they looked more like allies than anything else. There’s an entirely new region of the galaxy to explore, with advanced technology to help accomplish that in, hopefully, a safer way.
In more general terms: the Federation is facing drastic changes in multiple levels of society: diplomatic relations with foreign powers (Romulans, Cardassian, Dominion, and even Klingons), technological and economic (tech from the future, new resources or opportunities beyond the wormhole), and perhaps most importantly social (holograms as a slave work force).
The kind of stories that could be told in that environment, where on the surface the Federation appears to be approaching a golden age but in reality is starting to split apart at the seams due to all of these converging pressures, fascinates me.
Those are the kinds of stories I always thought Star Trek was best at. The ones that took the science fiction premise and used it to comment on political, social, or economic issues, often that were somehow paralleled to issues we face today.
Those are the stories that I miss. We have a plethora of action-y science fiction movies and television shows. We have Star Wars movies coming up, for multiple years, that are going to fill my need for science fiction action quite nicely. Turning Star Trek into action movies as well, which is what it feels like we’ve arrived at with the JJ-verse, does a disservice to the kinds of stories Star Trek usually excels at telling.