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Star Trek XI

Star Trek

Organised by rank, and by how much they probably got paid

dir: JJ Abrams

Excitement might have been high in some quarters; dread might have been higher in others. The prospect of a new Star Trek film might have seemed inevitable to some, and downright puzzling to most. After all, the Trek flicks, either the ones with the ancient crew or with the still quite old Next Generation crew never really made that much money (certainly not blockbuster numbers), and the last hurrah critically and financially was back in the 90s.

And yet they kept putting out films as if there was a burning need in the public to see these same weak characters age poorly and deliver groan-worthy jokes that seemed outdated even back in the era where the only form of mass entertainment were cave paintings and hitting each other over the head with clubs.

As with a whole bunch of other franchises, properties, brands recently, they decided to bring it all back and to undertake a reboot / reinvention in order to rekindle interest in a largely apathetic public. And they handed the responsibility for directing this, the eleventh, or XIth, if you want to get all Roman numeral and classy, entry in the franchise to J.J. Abrams, the guy who, amongst other crimes, created the television shows Felicity, Alias and Lost, and directed the third Mission: Impossible flick.

I will admit to not being a fan of any of those shows, but I am a fan of Star Trek in all its forms, permutations and combinations over the years. Not a dress up and go to conventions kind of fan, not a buy-the-commemorative-merchandising kind of fan, not a true keeper of the flame screaming zealous murder against one flavour of Trek over the other kind of fan. But a fan all the same.

A fan who didn’t look forward to new films or rebootings or anything to do with Trek anew because the material itself, the characters and the depiction of this kind of space opera was just too tired and stale to ever appeal to me again like it did when I was younger. The films, as far as I’m concerned, should have ended with First Contact, because that’s the last time this shit looked even vaguely credible on the big screen. Even then I probably would have been happier if they’d never made any further films after The Wrath of Khan.

The films since they started making them with the Next Generation crew, as well as the various Trek series that have floundered about, boring and frustrating even the faithful to the point where none of us (I feel that I can confidently speak for all of them) ultimately cared if Trek finally died for good.

But no product, no franchise can be allowed to lie dormant, since income streams need to be guaranteed, massive profits need to be protected. And then Abrams came along, with a budget and relative creative freedom, and the latest iteration of Trek was born. Latest, meaning, they just had to go back and redo the origins of the whole Star Trek franchise with new actors (excluding one notable example) playing the original characters of Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura and the rest.

It sounded like a mistake to me, but what do I know.

It has all worked out pretty well. The story makes no sense, the technobabble elements are abundant, Eric Bana as the main villain is beyond generic and banal, and the trademark Abrams elements trying to make it all relevant to the kids of today who are all getting jiggy with it, apparently, are mostly grating. And a scene where a character haphazardly drives a 1950s convertible playing Sabotage by the Beastie Boys is inexplicable at best and crap at worst, especially since, considering the timeframe involved, it’s the equivalent of James Bond joyriding in a horse and carriage and playing a madrigal on his dulcimer at the same time.

Whatever, it introduces us to the character of James T. Kirk, who grows up to be a sullen and violent Iowan who clearly hates the Starfleet Academy jerks who drink at his townie bar. We get an inkling as to why in the high-action bit depicting his birth, on a shuttle, fleeing from the USS Kelvin, which is being destroyed by a ship captained by an angry guy with facial tattoos calling himself Nero (Bana). Kirk’s father saves the day but dies in the process, leaving his son fatherless.

Jeez, lucky that father figure substitute Starfleet Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) comes along and guilts / shames Kirk into joining Starfleet to live up to his father’s legacy (of dying on the job).

Young Kirk, post driving a vintage car off of a cliff, is as much of a hound dog skirtchaser as his original William Shatner incarnation. But he’s charming amidst the arrogance, whereas Original Shatner Kirk used to occasionally act like if the object of his pursuit didn’t put out willingly, he was going to use the 23rd century equivalent of drink spiking to get his wicked way.

This Kirk, who’s just as charming and arrogant (played by Chris Pine, who is not a familiar face and thus well cast to play such a well known character), seems like he wouldn’t be above begging for sex as a last resort instead.

In short order we are also introduced to a young Spock on the planet Vulcan, being hazed by other Vulcan children due to his mixed human / Vulcan parentage, and the gamut of other well known characters, like Uhura, Bones, Chekhov, Sulu and Scotty (eventually), when the evil vessel captained by Nero reappears and starts destroying planets just for laughs.

The USS Enterprise is launched with many of the people on board we’d expect, in a manner that is meant to establish one thing and one thing only: why Kirk is the right man for the job of captaining this ship in virtually any situation, and how inevitable it was that this crew would come together even with vast changes to the timeline due to the appearance of Nero’s nasty ship.

There are people who are predisposed to disliking this film, and they’re the kind of people who (like me) can’t help themselves when they watch a story that doesn’t conform with what’s known as the canon, or the established history / timeline of a story universe. It’s this knee-jerk response that kicks in and compels you to think stuff like “but that’s not right, they’re not supposed to meet Romulans until blah blah, and there shouldn’t be hot green women from Orion at Starfleet yet, and what’s with transporting people light years onto ships at warp, and black holes aren’t the same as wormholes, and what the heck is red matter supposed to be anyway, and sending dilithium warp cores into black holes wouldn’t etc etc”. So continuity nerds and dogmatic sticklers will be driven to absolute distraction by this flick.

Which would be a shame, because it’s the best Star Trek flick since at least First Contact. It eschews the dowdy high seriousness that arose through the Next Generation flicks, but it also doesn’t embarrass its actors with attempts at levity and humour completely inappropriate to the actors and the situation. It does the funny stuff well and the action stuff even better.

Sure, so it doesn’t really make sense why any of the overall plot is happening for any other reason apart from as an overarching explanation for what we’re seeing, as if the average punter gives a damn as to why this “origin” story is being told, and why it differs from the established story. No-one except the nerds who are going to nitpick this shit to death give a good goddamn anyway.

Really, why this flick works is because the actors, remarkably, do such a good job with their characters. Even actors that I expected absolutely nothing decent from. As surprised as I am that Karl Urban plays Bones, Dr McCoy, so well, considering the fact that he’s only ever used one facial expression in all of the flicks he’s ever been in, Zachary Quinto does a superb job with a young and fiery Spock.

I have a deep-seeded revulsion towards Quinto arising irrationally from having watched him play the supervillain in the television series Heroes, and I never thought I could accept him playing a character as iconic in science fiction as Spock. He not only does well, he’s a great Spock without having to give an impression of Leonard Nimoy. My misgivings evaporated pretty quickly after initial uncertainty as he soothed my concerns with his confidence and style, just like my last trip to the proctologist.

The film wisely, in my opinion, spends more time sowing the seeds of the dynamics of the relationships, especially the dynamic between Spock, Kirk and McCoy, the big three, instead of wasting time on a plot and on a villain that just don’t matter.

Kirk is, I think, and this flick reminds us, a one-of-a-kind character, though it doesn’t mean only one man can play him. It’s not like the Bond films, where a new actor can play Bond in a completely new way, with “Bond” being little more than a job title.

Kirk is the sui generis ship’s captain, harking back as he does, as the series did, mixing its naval metaphors with its Western – pilgrims – settlers spreading throughout the galaxy themes. Even here, even with a new young lad playing the role he continues to exemplify the burden of command; the have-at-them eagerness to attack any enemy no matter how much more powerful; the willingness to get his hands bloody personally; the trust in his senior officers; the ability to synthesise disparate bits of information into a tactical and strategic framework; the supreme confidence; all without having to make a big deal about it. It makes me shake my head and chuckle to see this character resurrected again, reminding me as he does of some unholy cross between Admiral Nelson, Captain Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower and a young Elvis.

Shatner, for all his virtues (or lack of them) was always a ham of the highest order, and his lack of contribution here is not missed at all. Chris Pine does a wonderful job of reminding us of the character of Kirk, without having to imitate the actor. He can do brash and driven without getting smarmy or annoying, and hopefully he won’t grow into the scenery-chewing, scenery-fucking and co-star alienating monster that Shatner became.

This kind of character, and this kind of rendering of the Original Series redone, trying to make it more physical and less cerebral (credibly), is certainly entertaining enough as a re-introduction to the crew of the Enterprise. If every flick is like this it’ll get boring fast, but it’s more than fine for now. The deep philosophical and humanistic ideals that permeate the decades of Star Trek in its various forms can take a background seat for a while.

Even as a re-booting, there’s almost a tragic amount of detail meant to satisfy the most tragic of Trek obsessives. The quintessential no-win situation that we’ve been hearing about since Wrath of Khan actually gets a fair amount of play here, as we get to see a very happy with himself Kirk take on the simulation and ‘win’, when he’s not supposed to.

Just mentioning Kobayashi-Maru should be enough to make avowed trekkies expire into puddles of goo. Either that or they’ll be screaming “Worst Episode Ever!” at the top of their lungs.

The effects look great, the reverence was there, the respect for the characters and the history (even as they refute it) everything pretty much felt right. Even the music, which I generally try to block out in most flicks, works by being old-school, bombastic and clever without drawing too much attention to itself.

I enjoyed it. I probably shouldn’t have, but I really, really enjoyed it, far more so than most of the Trek films I’ve seen. Let’s be honest, they’re mostly crap. This is both a palate-cleanser and a game-changer. If it works then there might be some bold new adventures worth watching as they go where a few people have gone before. If it doesn’t, well, it’s not like J. J. Abrams or the estate of Gene Roddenberry need more money.

More please.

8 times I thought this was the best Trek film I’ve seen since Galaxy Quest out of 10

“Hi, Christopher” – for some reason this was one of the funniest moments of the film for me, Star Trek.