My Star Trek Critic Cred (Or Lack Thereof?)
First a disclaimer: Some may feel that I have no business writing an article like this, and from their point of view they may have a point. On a Trekkie scale of 0 to 100, I probably rate about a 65 at best. That said, my guess is that I'm probably a far bigger fan than the average person on the street. I'm a lifelong Star Trek enthusiast for sure. But again, from the most ardent fan's perspective my fan credentials are probably not the most impressive:
- I'm sure I have viewed all of the The Original Series TV episodes over the years. (Most of my generation probably have if they enjoy the show.)
- Of the TOS feature films I've seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. (Only half of them.)
- Of The Next Generation I probably watched more than half of the series faithfully, although my interest started to wane toward the end; best I can recollect, I missed most episodes in the last 3 years or so. (Again about half.)
- Of the TNG feature films I have seen only Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Nemesis. (Half.)
- I've seen none of the other series i.e., Deep Space 9, Voyager, and Enterprise. (Batting .400 here.)
- I've never read a book related to Star Trek or attended a convention, etc.
- I have of course seen the two recent reboot films, Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness or I wouldn't be writing this.
So clearly I am not the most devoted or thoroughly versed Star Trek fan to come down the pike. I do love the fictional universe, however. And I was delighted to see it resumed with the two recent films.
Oh, also!--before continuing I want to make clear that I'm not going to assert that what I happen to like is somehow "best" for everyone else! That would be asinine. You have your own tastes for the reasons you do, and I have mine for the reasons I do.
Why I Lost Interest in Star Trek During the 90s
There's a reason that my interest began to wane in the 90s for this franchise. That special charm or spark that worked so well for TOS as a TV show when it was truly original and fresh started to feel worn for me in the feature films. The TOS TV show worked like a champ within the conventions of the medium for its day. We could easily look past the papier-mâché boulders and cheesy prosthetic make-up and costumes (certainly by today's standards). The acting was sometimes melodramatic. But again that was par for the course at that time in television. Overall, the show's light-heartedness and unbridled sense of adventure was utterly irresistible. And TOS's wonderful characters, pretty much all perfectly cast, had some of the best chemistry that television has ever seen.
I wish I could say that sense continued for me in the TOS feature films. But sadly, for me, it did not. For one thing, I started to have trouble with immersion given that standards for science fiction films having a greater sense of visual realism really begun to blossom with films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a decade later Star Wars to name just a couple of standard setters. For example, the TOS feature films continued to show analog technology on the bridge. I realize that this was an attempt at continuity from the TV show, but for me it was a fail.
The uniforms just looked terrible to me.
And here is probably the main thing that put a dagger through the heart of my enjoyment of Star Trek: the franchise has always been mainly built around the ship's captain. And as people age they typically 'become more who they are'. Not so good news then regarding "the Shat." Intensification of personality traits with Shatner kind of made me recoil.
To his credit, and endearingly, Shatner has always poked fun at himself for his penchant for overacting. (E.g., his recording of narrated Beatles songs is a essentially a self-parody.) But as Shatner aged in those 80s films (and one in '91), what he would eventually develop into the Denny Crane persona seemed to increasingly assert itself around the edges. (This has nothing to do with how Denny Crane worked in its own right: it was a brilliant character, for sure.)
Shatner's Kirk as Young Swashbuckler is Great... Afterward Not So Much
Anyway, I just didn't like middle-aged Kirk much by comparison. The television show's Kirk was a suave, charismatic swashbuckler in the vein of Errol Flynn. And the same swagger didn't translate well to the older character (for me--and again I respect if your experience is different).
Let me reemphasize that the TOS television show will forever hold a special place in my heart. But for some of the reasons I have given above, I can't enjoy it anywhere nearly as much as I did watching it as a youngster. I haven't seen an episode in years, and honestly have no interest in doing so. I'd only be sort of bemused by it now if I did. The TOS show is like a fond memory at this point. That was a different time and place, both for our culture and me personally.
And incidentally, for me pretty much the same criticisms about a lack of technical sophistication to the production apply for TNG and its films. For example, the show never imparted upon me a convincing illusion that the crew was really aboard a space ship. Rather, the set looked and felt felt like a studio set. I certainly liked Captain Picard much better than aging Kirk in the TOS films. But after several seasons of watching the show I started experiencing a similar difficulty buying-in as I did with the TOS movies. My willing suspension of disbelief had simply eroded. Mid-way through TNG I lost interest in the Star Trek franchise altogether.
The Reboot: Improved CGI AND a Return to the TOS TV Show's Magic
So that brings me to the reboot--and why I am so excited that we have it. First of all, with Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness I can now finally relax and completely ‘willingly suspend disbelief’ for this fictional world due to the extraordinary CGI developments over the last couple of decades.
The fictional world can now feel to me both normalized as something that could very much exist as an everyday reality at some point in humanity’s evolution, and astonishing in depicting a world that we can as yet only dream of in our imaginations. (Whereas for me earlier forms could not, although I didn’t mind that as a teenager watching TOS.)
Wonderful Character Chemistry and Relationships
Secondly, I’m extremely flexible in my willingness to see the TOS characters somewhat reinterpreted and to have their shoes filled with new actors. I actually really like seeing the characters refreshed as such. I know this is heresy to many Trekkies, but I actually prefer the Christopher Pine version of Kirk to Shatner’s. Or at least I prefer Pine’s to Shatner’s feature film portrayals of the character. For me it’s basically a draw between reboot Pine-Kirk and TOS TV series Shatner-Kirk. But even there, I now give the nod to reboot-Kirk.
But Wait... Kirk Promoted to Captain Before Even Completing Star Fleet Academy?
Some have criticized Star Trek (2009) for, at the film’s end, having Star Fleet promote cadet Kirk to Captain of the Enterprise before he even officially completes his academy training, regarding this as implausible. This did not bother me. James Kirk has just literally saved planet Earth! His promotion had Captain Pike’s endorsement (and indeed is likely happening mainly because of it). Pike is evidently held in the highest esteem by Star Fleet (note that he had been given command of the flagship vessel of the fleet). But above all, Kirk is truly an epic character. In his own fictional universe Kirk is on par with any of the Greek heroes in theirs. He is destined to go on to become one of the most important men in the history of human civilization. He is special.
Christopher Pine is obviously not William Shatner. And whereas Quinto and Urban happily were able to do extraordinarily good jobs at channeling their inspirations from TOS, I think Abrams was wise to simply 'let Pine be Pine' as a thoroughly engaging version of young James T. Kirk. As fun and endearing as Shatner’s youthful Kirk is from the TOS TV show, I actually find there is more heart to Pine’s reboot Kirk. He’s a bit more humble and three-dimensional as a person, and has more vulnerabilities. I like actually him better as a person than TOS Kirk.
Leonard Nimoy as TOS TV series Spock is essentially impossible to surpass. But for my taste Quinto has done him justice and matched him about as well as is humanly possible. And again, for reasons about to be elaborated, in some aspects I actually like Quinto’s version better now. (To throw more fuel on the heretical fire.) The reboot depiction of Spock as truly half Vulcan and half human, in closer to equal measures, is just more compelling to me than one we’re accustomed to in which his Vulcan identity supremely dominates by successfully repressing his emotions and emotional connections. We’re used to seeing Spock as about 95% Vulcan and 5% human. Youthful reboot Spock is more like about 75% Vulcan to 25% human. And it’s just more interesting (to me). He’ll probably evolve to bury his human side almost completely. But until he does, I like this guy better.
Karl Urban as Bones is such a pure pleasure to watch in channeling DeForest Kelley, that I actually think I enjoy him more as well (if just for the sheer uncanniness of it). Reboot Bones is a bit darker and edgier in certain ways. He seems more obviously bitter and twisted up, it. And for me that works well to pique my interest about what makes Leonard McCoy tick.
Uhura has been hugely reinvented, with the character’s importance elevated above that of Bones’. At first I wasn’t sure if I cared for that. But in the second viewings of both reboot films I found myself going with that flow; and I very much enjoyed the acting performance of Zoë Saldana and the re-imagined character identity and backstory for her. In the TOS television show, as "chief communications officer," she was basically the ship's hot secretary. In the reboot she is a badass action figure.
Similarly, while I was at first dubious about Simon Peg’s reboot version of Scotty I have come to accept him. One thing I come away with from Pegg's Scotty is that he almost seems to more clearly to be in love with the ship than Doohan's version. And he has more humor to him. (Well, it's Simon Pegg, so of course.)
John Cho is fine as Sulu, although the actor is of Korean descent whereas the character is supposed to be Japanese. In any case, I'm happy to see Cho in the role. I definitely look forward to seeing the character developed.
Chechov is a character that doesn’t matter much to me either way. But reinventing him as a curly-headed blond 17 year-old seemed a little strange, actually. Anyway, I did find the meme-generating "I can do zat!" Checkov endearing.
Beyond each character’s re-imagining, casting, and the acting performances, what I really love about the reboots is the emotional character interaction and the various personality chemistries–both of which work so wonderfully in these two films. The bond between young Jim Kirk and Spock… the surprising “shipping” of Uhura and Spock… the growing friendship trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones… these are all immensely satisfying to me. I love learning the backstories for these characters, and how their relationships were established. It doesn’t bother me that the reboot doesn’t deal with any complex social or moral issues. I’m simply enjoying learning who the characters are all over again–but with surprises along the way! I have discovered that I want to be surprised, that is.
So anyway, all of this is more than enough for me in terms of content. At least for now, at this particular stage of the overall evolution of the Star Trek fictional universe via this reboot.
The humor in these films (particularly Into Darkness) is also subtlety interwoven into the fabric of the film a very satisfying way. I found myself smiling and chuckling a lot in the second viewings, and appreciating how well the films’ jokes flavored the main course.
Notwithstanding that a retelling of the Khan story wasn't the best move to begin with (why tell this story again?)... Regarding the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Into Darkness: he is miscast, pure and simple. Cumberbatch is always entertaining, and he does his usual impeccable acting job despite the miscasting. But the Khan character that we have come to know via Ricardo Montalban is regal. He is a proud, sauntering lion who conveys tremendous gravitas in his physical presence and charisma. Cumberbatch’s Khan is more reptilian by comparison, like a sneaky snake. This is one case where I do feel that the reinvention of the character did not work so well. But in any event, this casting choice fail wasn’t enough to ruin the experience of the film for me.
What's Next: Star Trek: Beyond - To "Boldly Go" or Morally Preach?
The exhilarating opening scene of Into Darkness demonstrates how in terms of improved set design, practical effects, makeup, and CGI we can now see alien civilizations that look utterly convincing.
And I know my next comment is sure to alienate most Star Trek fans... but I'm not so much into the social commentary of Star Trek, which often struck me as preachy. Or perhaps a more accurate statement is that I have nothing against it in principal--I just prefer the sheer adventurism of the TOS television series in comparison. The Enterprise was embarked on a five year mission to seek out and explore new worlds and civilizations. That's what I loved about it: never quite knowing what was around the next bend in their space exploration. What exotic creatures, civilizations, and tales the crew would encounter next is what I looked forward to. If Roddenberry and his writers artfully and subtly sneaked in some social commentary in the bargain, not a problem. But that isn't what I watched the show for.
The Adventuring Party
I'm also a bit of a D&D nerd and I've noticed a core similarity between the appeal of that form of entertainment and Star Trek: use of an adventuring party that, working together as a team, creatively combines their individual skills to overcome challenges. This of course fosters camaraderie between team members. Star Trek is very much about the bonds that develop between characters as they work together to overcome the threats they face (and to keep things interesting, the frictions that can develop as well, e.g., McCoy and Spock). How those problems not only call forth each character's strengths but also highlights their weaknesses creates dramatic tension. It also makes the characters more relatable, and then people that we care about--and what happens to them. Anyway, to sum, there is a kind of identification process that takes place for the viewer as we relate to that camaraderie that forms within the band of adventurers.
(This is, I think, is deeply rooted in our DNA. The human species survived by becoming social creatures that banded together into groups in order to capitalize on our greater intelligence and use of inventive problem-solving skills, including: creation of tools (especially use of fire); the mental capacity for abstraction in order to orchestrate and plan increasingly complex strategies; use of language and written communication; development of agriculture and civilization, etc.)
In all events, in the upcoming third film of the reboot series, Star Trek: Beyond, I'm really hoping for a return to--and also in many ways a reinvention of--that adventuring spirit, and wonderful sense of discovery, first and foremost.
The Star Trek series gives us a vision of what actually might lie out there in the Cosmos if only we had the means to explore it. Unfortunately it can only be imagined. But thankfully, through the medium of film it can be artistically created, shared, and experienced almost as it it were real. And that will always keep me enthralled.
Some key points I feel a need to reemphasize:
1) I have tremendous admiration for the TOS TV series, but because for me there is a sense of 'you can't go home again' with TOS, I'm now enjoying the reboot films more. (I don't care for the TOS feature films, though.)
2) The original TOS TV series and the reboot films are for me really almost apples and oranges now because the standards for what makes them good during their respective times are different.
3) I'm not positing which is "better" objectively but rather explaining why I (subjectively) like one more than the other.