Norditorial: Where's All The Trekking Gone In STAR TREK?
Right off the bat, I can think of three things wrong with the above poster, and it ain't Benedict Cumberbatch. I'm sure there are STAR TREK posters in the past that have used guns, but I certainly don't remember any using them so prominently. And before I'm accused of being some kind of anti-gun nut, I'm not. This has nothing to do with that. Sure, we can dismiss the above poster as another Photoshop hack job. But I think the problem is more than that. Frankly, this poster just isn't STAR TREK. It's not the TREK I remember watching on television, or seeing in the previous films. And I really think something has been lost.
Before many new fans get up in arms, I love the first J.J. Abrams STAR TREK. I happily own it and have watched it several times. I plan on popping it in again before the movie opens. I like everything I've seen so far of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. The trailer looks fun. I'm a Cumberfan. I think there's a camaraderie among the principal actors that's very reminiscent of the original cast - if it's not to that level yet, it's because Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Nichols, Takei, and Koenig have made such a mark on those characters that two movies will likely never take away. But the cast Abrams assembled is terrific in their own unique way.
I have not seen the new film, so many will feel that I'm making a premature judgment call, which I am not. I can't wait to see it. What I'm lamenting is something different entirely - the loss of that sense of exploration and wonder that was fully there in the original series, in the Next Generation series, and even the original films. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE is unfortunately considered something of a failure in comparison to the films that came after it, but people forget that it made a profit. Trek fans lined up for months after it opened in 1979 and TMP ended up making over $80 million at the box office, from what was at the time an exorbitant budget of $35 million. Yes, it's slow. Yes, it probably relies too much on movies like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and special effects spectacle. A movie like THE WRATH OF KHAN - still the best of the franchise by a long shot - is streamlined while TMP is plodding and long-winded at times. It's not a perfect movie.
But it's far from the worst TREK movie. I'd put it up against THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK, or THE FINAL FRONTIER, or any of the Next Generation movies in quality. THE MOTION PICTURE was quintessentially STAR TREK, filled with ideas, great character moments, and what is probably the best performance of Leonard Nimoy as Spock in the entire series. In TMP we see a full character arc from Spock, from the emotionally distant, cold Vulcan to a man who has made peace with his dual nature, finding the value in emotion and in human connection. It's such a strong arc that we see Nimoy continue it in the later films, as Spock becomes more comfortable in his own skin, even showing compassion and caring to Kirk in his final moments. There is a nobility to Spock in the films that Nimoy brought to the character, and I don't think it would have been there if Spock hadn't gone through the character changes in TMP.
I'm also fully aware that STAR TREK needed a jumpstart. J.J. Abrams gave it that boost, not really replacing the wonder of the originals, but giving it a sense of modern urgency and Joseph Campbell hero's journey storytelling. Abrams always was a STAR WARS guy and he fills STAR TREK with those story beats, and what could have been a jarring tonal shift from what fans expected instead brought a whole new group of admirers to these stories and characters. Abrams was absolutely necessary to keep the franchise alive, and I'm thankful for what he's done, and I wish him all the luck with STAR WARS. It still feels weird that STAR WARS and STAR TREK are connected like that. I never would have expected that to happen.
But these new films also operate very much like WRATH OF KHAN - throw in a compelling villain, notably one with revenge on his/her mind, use many of the same beats as TWOK, and shake. Like trying to capture lightning in a bottle again, all the TREK movies since KHAN have tried to reproduce that chemistry, because that's what fans seemingly wanted. But fans just want good stories, and even Nicholas Meyer knew better than to replicate what he'd done in KHAN with THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, telling a story of political intrigue instead of yet another revenge fantasy. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are obviously huge fans of WRATH OF KHAN, but have failed to replicate what made that movie work so well. In STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, if rumor is true, they may have dipped their toes a bit too deep into that well. I hope they didn't but I've prepared myself if it is. If Cumberbatch indeed plays Khan, as many insist that he is, it will only confirm what I'm afraid of - that STAR TREK is no longer about what Gene Roddenberry created almost 50 years ago.
For many, that's fine. For many of you, this story iteration is completely satisfactory. STAR TREK 2009 is a perfectly good movie and the filmmakers have nothing to apologize about. But I still mourn a bit about what STAR TREK was and once Abrams leaves for a different, dual-sun horizon, I hope that Paramount pulls a SKYFALL of sorts and brings back those old story tropes - where the human adventure is just beginning. It would be nice if the series continues with that in mind. Even when the original films became more about the crew than actual exploring, they were still full of ideas - from KHAN onward, STAR TREK explored moral questions and ideas of what it truly meant to be human. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS looks like a lot of fun. But STAR TREK was, for me, more than fun - it was educational, enlightening, rich with great characters and emotion, and full of wonder at what might be. "There are always possibilities," Spock is fond of saying, and although this current trek that STAR TREK is on is enjoyable, I'd love for the movies to get back to that essential truth: to boldly take us all to where we've never gone before.
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