May 10, 2009

A New Trek


Star Trek, the original series, was one of the glues that held my childhood imaginings together. The original show (ST:TOS as referred to by fans) began the year before I was born. The last episode aired when I was not yet 2 years old. My birthday is smack dab between the airing of "Catspaw" and "I, Mudd."

My mom loves speculative fiction. I had Star Trek imprinted on me at an early age. I reinforced an early imprint with Star Trek reruns which were on day after day, after school. It was never a surprise when people would observe that Star Trek was on the small screen somewhere in the world at any given moment. There were both fewer channels back then and less of a syndicated TV archive. Thus, a Sci-Fi-hungry population was steeped in Trek.

For me, as a kid, Star Trek was part of a template for all sorts of "let's pretend" games. Just as kids before us would play "cops and robbers" or "cowboys and Indians," we played Star Trek. Just like an episode of the show, we threw our own contexts together within a thinly structured universe that existed only for the purposes of adventuring. We could explore some new planet (which was, in reality, that same hill in the woods we explored last week). We could rescue a missing crewman (our friend from down the street who hadn't come out yet). We could use what we had at hand to form whatever outlandish adventure was desired with very few boundaries and no apologies.

A discussion of the character dynamics could fill a number of blog posts. Suffice it to say that Star Trek provided bold character types which gave plenty of play time material to draw from. It was OK to be as different as Spock and Kirk and McCoy were. We explored individuality and common purpose. It's a complex dynamic that people struggle with even as adults as we seek to apply our personal skills in the best possible way.

As the years passed, many would come forward to criticize Star Trek, and tell us how this or that was better than Trek. Personal preferences aside, they just didn't get it. As we got older, we understood the power and compelling nature of story arcs in the serial fiction we enjoyed. We understood that special effects could be spectacular. But to the frustration of Trek-haters, the U.S.S. Enterprise hasn't been easy to supplant. The aspects of ST:TOS which were rooted in the past made us feel nostalgia; the aspects that were timeless made it into a mythology.

Over the years, the keepers of televised Trek have done a decent job exploring and extending that narrative space. My daughter's ST:TOS is Star Trek: Voyager. Is it a coincidence that the series she took to the most was the one which began just before her birth? Like us, she saw them mostly in reruns, and like us she mentally digested the world of Trek and recreated it in her own mind.

So, how can someone go and reboot the entire universe on us?

Star Trek has always been about adventure. We rebooted the universe every time we played in the woods, keeping the general outlines the same. The question was, "are we having fun?" If we weren't, we'd go off and do something else. The mythology can't get in the way of the fun. And stuffy reverence is rarely fun, even if it does get longtime fans to clap on cue. And that's what Trek movies had lost, ever since somewhere around Star Trek IV.

The new Star Trek (2009) is definitely fun. It begins with an event which explosively notifies every Trekkie that almost everything they know about the past is wrong. Casual Trek fans, on the other hand, will just see an exciting and emotional birth of a new franchise. It's as if J. J. Abrams is telling us from the first scene "Just so you know, I'm in the driver's seat. If you relax, you might enjoy the ride."

From then on, it's time for us to absorb this new Star Trek universe which is much like the old universe except for the fact that the adventures can be all new, all different, and you don't know what's going to happen. It blows up the persnickety details of the mythology but keeps everything else. Mythology has always co-evolved with the needs of culture, with common elements represented even when gods become fused with each other to absorb stories from disparate regions. Here we find a deliberate, modern take on the practice, with the time travel rationale already built in to the Star Trek universe and used so many times before.

For the fan, it's important that you know these characters and recognize what you liked about them in the first place, not that you know how everything turns out. The new actors do a wonderful job recreating the impetuousness, curmudgeonry, inner struggle, wit, and exceptionalism of the Enterprise crew plus their knack for making their own luck.

In this new Star Trek, nobody whines about the future having been changed, and nobody even thinks to put it aright. This is something we can all relate to: you have to deal with your own future by facing your problems in the present, solving them and moving on. Not only are we going to move on, but we're going to kick ass.

I don't know about you, but that's how I want to look at the future, and that's how I want to feel when I leave a movie theater.

Posted by James at May 10, 2009 10:13 AM
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That sounds like a good, fresh start.

I've deliberately avoided knowing too much about this movie in advance (managing expectations), and thought I might put off seeing it, out of concern that I wouldn't like it. But now I want to see it sooner rather than later. :-)

I know Star Trek is about the future and not the past, so I don't want to get too hung up on minor canonical matters. (I've probably forgotten more canon than I can remember, but I'm still worried I might get distracted by it anyway.)

I'm happy enough that they stuck with the color scheme for the uniforms - I've always been obsessed with that. I can probably live with a lot of other stuff as long as they don't screw with the damn uniforms!

Posted by: Julie at May 10, 2009 11:48 AM

On watching it a second time, I really notice how much action they pack into it. I read that they looked to Star Wars for the pacing; they must have been very wary of creating a boring film. It has a "people caught up in events" feel to it.

I'm eager to see what they'll do with a story where all the characters are already established.

Posted by: James at May 10, 2009 4:59 PM

Nice review of a movie I was hesitant to see (not out of reverence for ST:TOS - I was never a fan - I'm a Star Wars kid). I was concerned it would be as bad as the other ST movies - happy to hear it has promise. Bumping it up the list a bit.

Posted by: Leslie Poston at May 11, 2009 12:12 PM

Great Review. I remember taking in Star Trek in large doses at distinct parts of my youth, but never really considered myself a Trekkie either.

I'll admit that I can be a bit stuffy - I'm also very turned off by modern Hollywood remakes because I think it is a growing sign of marginalizing original thought in favor of telling an old story with updated CGI.

Your review (and most others I've seen) tells me differently though, and I'll probably end up seeing this. I'm willing to bet it'll be stag, though.

BTW, did you catch Leonard Nimoy's cameo on SNL's Weekend Update? Cracked my ass up...

Posted by: Bull at May 11, 2009 1:47 PM

This movie is equivalent to Iron Man for me in terms of quality. It has a few "Star Trek movie" moments that I wish they'd skipped, but only a few. Generally it was really good. It's not really a remake. Or maybe a movie is only a remake if it's bad. ;-) (Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, Land of the Lost, I fear...) Why would anyone look at that crap and say, "Oh, yeah, those were some inspiring characters and situations, let's remake that." Or even, "That was hilariously funny, we need a laugh..." What were they thinking?

Posted by: Maggie at May 11, 2009 2:34 PM

Nimoy was hilarious on SNL!

Posted by: James at May 11, 2009 9:44 PM

They all were hilarious. It was definitely a smart move to load up the new Star Trek cast with some actors who don't need 20 years to learn how to laugh at themselves!

Posted by: Julie at May 11, 2009 10:28 PM

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