Despite some major issues I still have with Star Trek Into Darkness, which debuts on Blu-Ray & DVD today (9/10/13), one significant achievement of JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK films has been their fuller use of the original series’ supporting crew. For me, this distinguishes them from most of the original 79 episodes as well as the movies.
The increased significance of Zoe Saldana’s Nyota Uhura and her odd romance with Spock is the most obvious of such changes. I would almost call the character unrecognizable as currently depicted, if not for the sad fact that except for her race and gender, Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura was almost a blank slate to begin with. Still, it’s not surprising given the character and Nichols’ ties to the Civil Rights Movement and to Martin Luther King, Jr., himself. Alas, as the only recognizable woman consistently on the bridge up to now (anyone remember Yeoman Janice Rand?), the storytelling conventions and audience expectations of the times rightfully demands her role’s expansion.
Arguably the most significant of the bridge crew after Kirk and Spock (and sometimes McCoy) even on TV, Jon Cho’s Hikaru Sulu finally has the chance to shine as more than just a tool of exposition and periodic comic relief. His skills as a would-be fencing champion is straight out of TREK’s first season and, in 2009’s STAR TREK, goes from the source of underplayed humor to a brief, yet dazzling display of action heroism. INTO DARKNESS continues the trend with Sulu’s impressive bluff from the captain’s seat and, later, his leadership and embodiment of crew loyalty and solidarity in refusing to abandon the sinking ship.
Though more for laughs, even Chekhov shines anew as played by the young Russian actor and alleged wunderkind Anton Yelchin. At nineteen years of age while starring in the 2009 film, he is the brains behind the scheme to board Nero’s ship undetected. Now, in INTO DARKNESS (only a year later in narrative time), he takes over for Scotty as Chief Engineer during the new film’s tense second act. All of that just brings me to what I consider to be the crown jewel of the supporting crew: Simon Pegg’s hilarious and even moving performance as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott!
Though he appears only briefly in the 2009 film’s last act as comic relief and future-facilitator of the plot’s trans-warp solution, next to Spock, Scotty is INTO DARKNESS’ moral center and tactical hero from the word GO… or the command to, “Punch it.” Despite the sometimes distracting sidekick called Keenser, Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott still sees the proverbial darkness creeping up on the Federation before just about anyone else when he realizes that his trans-warp transporter has been commandeered by the enemy within. While its full merit could probably be debated, Scott’s act of civil disobedience in refusing to approve the mysterious torpedoes and subsequent resignation early in the film is a true reflection of the original series’ cultural importance and creator Gene Roddenberry’s theme-driven storytelling.
Like Scotty in INTO DARKNESS, STAR TREK in the sixties was firmly of its time of radical social change. It snuck past fearful network censors and subtly became the socio-political and cultural barometer and commentator that REAL science fiction is at its best. As the current franchise’s primary writers are said to return and a new guide is likely to take Executive Producer JJ Abrams’ place in the director’s chair for a third film, it is my hope that this trend, at least, will be continued and expanded upon. With any luck, the franchise will finally meet its potential by moving slightly away from some of the obligatory action-spectacle and more towards the sort of true ensemble science fiction glimpsed in this year’s outing.
It’s a shame that studio politics and the obscenely high and rising costs of production nowadays might prevent us from ever seeing this crew’s five year mission truly fleshed out on the silver screen. Nevertheless, the opportunity to once again use STAR TREK to honor the legacies of everyone from H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov to Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison and, of course, the Great Bird of the Galaxy, himself – Gene Roddenberry – is still waiting to be seized. With more ideas and perspectives to be conveyed through compelling storytelling and dynamic character development, there’s virtually no better way to do it than through the diverse and interesting inhabitants of the U.S.S. Enterprise… euphemistically likened in the past to starship Earth!