Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek: Reviews and Ruminations

I’m a pretty casual Star Trek fan. I watched a lot of Next Generation as a kid but never got too invested in it beyond “This is a show I watch because it is on.” It’s only been over the last few years that I got into the original series (or, if you must, The Original Series); and that, my friends, is a rad show, and you can and should watch it here. But I’m still not a hardcore fan. I know a lot of trivia (because it is my way to fill my head full of useless facts instead of knowing, say, how my company’s prescription drug insurance plan actually works), but I guess I’m not really emotionally invested in it the way Trekkies/Trekkers are. On the continuum of Geeky Things I Care About*, Star Trek is somewhere below Red Dwarf and above the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

So when I heard about J.J. Abrams spearheading a Star Trek reboot/revamp, I was pretty cool with the idea; never got into Lost or Alias, but I absolutely loved Mission: Impossible III. I even thought the way they tried to tie it into existing continuity but spin it off into an “alternate universe” was unnecessary. It works better in the movie than I thought it would, but I still think by paying lip service to What Has Gone Before, they’re inviting fans to pick apart inconsistencies; better to pull the Batman Begins Lever and tell people just to deal with a clean reboot, I say.

I saw the movie the other day, and I thought it was A Good Time. Basically, all those positive reviews you’ve heard are true. It was a lot of fun, it moved along at a nice clip, and probably most importantly, it didn’t take itself too dreadfully seriously, which is probably the biggest problem with recent revamps like Batman Begins and Halloween. I missed the original actors somewhat because you associate them so greatly with the roles (Spock kind of loses something without that wry, bemused quality Leonard Nimoy played him with), but I was glad the new guys didn’t just copy what came before like Superman Returns did to its detriment.

So yeah, I enjoyed it. But…

…I can empathize with the fans who didn’t.

Anytime anyone says something bad about this movie on the dreaded internet, they get pegged as Bitter Nerds Who Hate Anything New. And, yeah, there is a lot of whining about “Oh, Scott would never say that” or “The Enterprise was built in San Francisco, not Iowa,” but I kind of feel some legitimate criticisms are being dismissed by Geeks Who Are Trying To Act Like They’re Cooler Than Other Geeks (motto: “Jeez, just enjoy the explode-y goodness.”)

When Old Guard Trek Fans** say “This just doesn’t feel like Trek” or the like, the counterargument is generally that the original show relies on just as much plot contrivance and shoddy science as the new stuff. This I can get behind: from the technobabble last-ditch solution, to pushing buttons in an exciting manner, to big blustery villains, to invariably humanoid aliens, to black holes not really working like that at all, on its surface, there is not much to differentiate this from the original series.

The thing is, as faithful as the movie is to the superficial elements of the old show, I think the new movie misses the heart of Star Trek, as silly and sentimental as that may sound. And the heart, at least as it appears to this casual fan, is twofold.

1.) Star Trek is a series of simple morality plays.
2.) The future is a better place to live.

I just watched “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” the other day online. It’s the one where Bele (an alien who’s shoepolish black on the right side and pancake white on the left) and Lokai (an alien who’s pancake white on the left side and shoepolish black on the right) each have an irrational hatred for the other. Eventually it turns out they’re the last two survivors of their planet, the populace wiped out in a race war, but they keep fighting anyway because their hatred is all they have.

There’s an exchange in the middle of the episode with Bele (played by my favorite Riddler and yours, Frank Gorshin), Kirk, and Spock. Earlier in the episode, Bele tries to seize control of the Enterprise through some sort of alien willpower with all the attending villainous bluster, but in this scene Gorshin gives a very earnest delivery by contrast—it’s actually quite affecting, smack in the middle of an action/sci-fi show:

BELE: “It is obvious to the most simpleminded that Lokai is of an inferior breed.”
SPOCK (plainly): “The obvious visual evidence, Commissioner, is that he is of the same ‘breed’ as yourself.”
BELE (almost as though he feels Spock is joking): “Are you blind, Commander Spock? Well, look at me. (Pause.) Look at me!”
KIRK (also plainly): “You're black on one side and white on the other.”
BELE (as though he shouldn’t even have to explain this): “I am black on the right side.”
(A long pause as Kirk and Spock look at each other in quiet confusion.)
KIRK: “I…fail to see the significant difference.”
BELE (quickly): “Lokai is white on the right si--All of his people are white on the right side!”

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t subtle stuff. It is staggeringly obvious to the point of absurdism, and I think that’s what makes it work so well. It is a ridiculous premise, and that’s kind of the point. Bele is being ridiculous. The show doesn’t even allow for any complexity to the problem -- it just straight up tells you, “You see how idiotic this conflict looks from the outside? Trust us, it looks just as stupid as when you do it.” Very simple, very nice.

There is also a cool sequence where Bele’s taken control of the Enterprise, and Kirk arms the self-destruct mechanism and basically has to play chicken with Bele, and I think it is a totally rad accomplishment that this is a show that can handle both of these elements equally well.

That’s point #1. On to point #2: Star Trek is pretty cool for its time because you have a multinational, multiethnic crew working together and nobody mentions it as being anything other than ordinary. (Of course, the leader is a white Christian American dude who is always right, but I did say “for its time”). The Federation is a united humanity, and they’ve even got a half-alien and a bloody Russkie aboard! And it’s a golden age of peace and prosperity. The message is: “This is what happens when we all stop fighting and work together.”

The problem is, you don’t get that as strongly in the new movie because it is forty years later. Of course, prejudice still exists, but society as a whole holds this as deviant, at least in theory -- a black woman shown working side by side with white men is not as novel as it was in the 60s. In fact, we are at a point where a spaceship crew made up of all white men would seem weird --even token black characters and token women serve as an acknowledgement that someone felt some sort of need for inclusiveness.

As a result, there’s nothing really daring about the crew of the Enterprise today. This is where I thought the movie ought to have been free to chuck out What Has Gone Before and try something new. Leave Chekhov and his Comedy Russian Accent out of it, and bring in someone who registers with an audience as Muslim and have him working side by side with someone who registers as Jewish and never address this in any way. Openly LGBTQ crewmembers where this is not an issue for anybody as well. (In fact, New Doctor Who’s Captain Jack is basically what a 21st-century Captain Kirk ought to be.)

Is it obvious? Yeah, and that is the point. Push the envelope just a little bit past what some people may be comfortable with, and tell them to deal with it, because this is the future, and there’s no room for your prejudices and preconceived notions. They’re not just exploring uncharted space, they’re also exploring what society could be like if we’d all try a little harder not to hate each other.

So, you know, I enjoyed this movie very much, but I hope the next one will aim a little higher.

*--One of these days I may actually draw out this continuum.
**--It has only just struck me how many Capitalized First Letter things I am doing here.

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