Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Review of "Star Trek" [2009]

This review was originally published on Loaded Couch Potatoes in May 2009.


The best thing I can say about J.J. Abrams’ stupendously entertaining Star Trek is that I saw it twice in one day, and not only did I enjoy it more the second time than I did the first, but I could very happily have seen it again the next day.  It is a remarkable piece of entertainment, one that is likely to make Trekkies out of millions of people who could not, with a gun pressed to their temples, tell a Cardassian from a Kazon.  (Yeah, that’s right, I dropped a Voyager reference; whatcha got ta say about it?  Incidentally, alternate comparisons considered include: Bajoran from a Betazed, Maquis from a Mugato, Tribble from a Talaxian, android from an Andorian, and holodeck from a Horta.  I made the right choice)
And for the millions who already were Trekkies (Kirk doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, and I don’t believe in the word “Trekkers”), it’s likely to prove a source of heated debate for decades to come, with most viewers loving it and a very, very vocal minority carping about the many ways in which it deviates from the previous incarnations of the franchise.

[Bryant's note from 2013: I am both pleased and disappointed to note that that prediction came true 100%.]
Therein lies my difficulty.  Do I critique this movie on its own merits, or do I critique this movie as a shiny new coat of paint on an old, well-loved car?
Well, I'm not known for holding back, so the answer, of course, is "fuck that, I’m doin’ both."

A couple of summers ago, when Transformers came out and was greeted with the sort of wild enthusiasm that a shark shows for a bleeding leg, I went on many a rant trying to convince people that no, seriously, that wasn’t the best movie you’ve ever seen, it was passable at best and insulting to your intelligence at worst.  “Chill out,” I’d get told; “it’s just a movie, and it was fun.”  Yeah, okay, I’d reply, but it didn’t have to suck.  It’s perfectly possible to make a big, effects-driven popcorn flick that manages to be fun and substantial at the same time; I should know, I saw many of them back in the day, and still occasionally see one (last summer brought at least two in Iron Man and The Dark Knight).
Well, here comes Star Trek to help prove my point.  Not by any means perfect on the storytelling level, this movie is close to perfect on an entertainment level, and if the box-office gods are smiling, it’s going to put many a butt in many a seat this summer, and sell many a tub of popcorn covered in butter-flavored goo to help make all those butts ever so slightly larger.
Ironically, the movie was written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who also wrote Transformers. Star Trek, however, has at least one powerful weapon that Transformers didn’t have: J.J. Abrams.  Abrams began his Hollywood career as a screenwriter on projects such as Regarding Henry, Forever Young, and Armageddon, but he came into his prime on television, creating or co-creating Felicity, Alias, and Lost.  He directed episodes of all of those series, and when Lost became a cultural phenomenon during its first season — thanks in no small part to the Abrams-directed pilot (as good a first episode as network television has ever seen) — he was tapped by Tom Cruise to take over the directing chores on the long-gestating Mission: Impossible III.

J.J. Abrams

In Star Trek, his second feature as a director, Abrams showcases a very cinematic visual flair, but he also retains some small-screen virtues: the ability to work well with an ensemble cast is one, and a keen sense of pacing is another.  Those elements combine with Abrams’ now fully-formed visual sense to create a truly spectacular piece of entertainment.
We begin by seeing some sort of strange, whirling metal, which as the camera pulls back is gradually revealed to be a passing starship, the Kelvin, which has been dispatched by Starfleet to investigate strange gravity fluctuations, or some such nonsense.  They discover what appears to be a black hole, with what appears to be a ship emerging from it, and they make the fatal mistake of not doing what any sensible starship would do upon seeing something coming out of a fucking black hole: they fail to immediately head at top speed in the opposite direction.  Truthfully, the captain doesn’t get much of a chance to turn tail and run, because this ship — a Romulan ship, the Narada, which looks like something straight out of hell — more or less immediately begins blowing the Kelvin into tiny bits.

The Narada hails the Kelvin, and a pointy-eared tattooed fellow appears on the screen and tells the Kelvin's captain to get himself into a shuttle and head on over...which he does, but not before promoting a buff Lieutenant named Kirk to captain and ordering him to wait fifteen minutes to see what happens; if bad things are afoot, his orders are to get the crew evacuated, set the ship for a collision course, and rip this powerful new enemy a new one.  Kirk, huh?  Eeeeenteresting.
The captain, of course, gets killed, but not before the Romulans try and get him to tell them where they can find Ambassador Spock.  He’s no help, and is even less help with a chest full of sword.  The Narada begins hammering the Kelvin again, and Captain Kirk Sr. orders the evacuation of the crew.  Among the crew: his pregnant wife.  She looks like Dr. Cameron from House, which might also explain why she is a good actress.  Most movies would have lousy actors in small roles like these, but she is great, and so is the guy playing Kirk Sr., and so is the captain of the Kelvin.  (Abrams also brought over from his television work an insanely good casting sense.)

[Bryant's note: "the guy playing Kirk Sr.," of course, was Chris Hemsworth, who is nowadays most famous -- and justifiably so -- as Thor in various Marvel Comics films.]

Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk

Captain Kirk Sr. discovers that the autopilot has been disengaged, and that the only way to save the departing shuttlecraft is for him to manually take the Kelvin into a collision course.  This, of course, means he will never get to see his baby boy, who is, during the final few moments of his father’s life, given the name "Jim."

Now, that’s touching enough just as a bunch of words, but on the screen, it’s instantly a classic scene.  The camerawork is hectic and realistic, and even when you see a bug-eyed alien nurse, she feels like a real character, because the camera doesn’t dwell on her; it doesn’t scream at you “Hey, lookit the goofy alien!”, it just glances at her for a moment and then looks away.  Abrams drops the sound effects away and lets composer Michael Giacchino take over, and if you don’t get choked up during this scene, then you stand a great chance of being accepted to the Vulcan Science Academy.  Is this the single best scene in any Star Trek movie ever?  It might be.
The Kelvin, of course, crashes into the Romulan vessel, wounding her badly enough for the crew to make their getaway.  The sequence ends with a gorgeous shot of the Narada burning from the damage and listing to one side while the shuttlecraft, silhouetted against a sun, flee from it.  Giacchino’s score is awesome during this scene, also.
The significance of this opening sequence is that it tells you right up front that what’s going to be important in this movie is people.  Yes, the action is thrilling; yes, the CGI is great, and the sound effects are cool.  But what matters is the emotion of that birth, and the sad fact that it has to be bought by a sacrifice.  You may also note — even though nobody at any point says anything to tip it off — that what Captain George Kirk does is imminently logical.
Flash forward several years, and we are re-introduced to young Jim Kirk, who has at some point become an auto thief.  We are also introduced to young Spock, who starts a fight with some Vulcan juvenile delinquents who apparently have nothing better to do than give him shit about having a “human whore” for a mother.  (Those young Vulcan toughs are one of the least effective parts of the movie; they seem like they’re just kids in makeup, who would rather be playing Rock Band than filming roles for this doofy movie.)
Cut to Spock all growed up, and he’s still taking shit over his mom: this time from the Vulcan Science Academy, who applaud him for overcoming his difficulty (i.e., his mother).  They’re basically a bunch of racist dicks, and Spock tells ‘em thanks but no thanks, he’s heading for Starfleet.
So, what you get from this sequence is the idea that Kirk and Spock are both troublemakers, and that -- despite being literally worlds apart -- they share a sort of kinship.  Why is Kirk being such a tool?  It’s not clear; we can probably assume that it’s due to having no father, since the uncle who calls him on the phone — glad to see Nokia made it through the recession all the way to the 23rd century — sounds like a bit of a turd.  As for Spock, well, he’s obviously a momma’s boy, but also one who knows when to stop taking it and start aiming for the teeth, so he’s got our sympathy from the get-go.
We next catch up with Kirk in a bar, where a bunch of Starfleet cadets-to-be are partying like it’s 2999.  He’s — understandably — trying to get one of these cadets, a gorgeous lass named Uhura, to sneak away with him for a game of dock-the-shuttle, but she’s having none of it, and some red-shirted thugs whoop on his ass a little bit to show him how dedicated they are to peacekeeping and humanitarianism.  Captain Pike breaks it up, discovers that the farmboy who just got his ass whomped is the son of the heroic Captain George Kirk; Pike tries to talk this bruised young man into enlisting.  Kirk is scornful, but thinks about it a bit, and realizes that Starfleet is exactly what he wants to do. Thankfully, there isn’t an elderly Momma Kirk hanging around for Kirk to talk to about all of this for five minutes before deciding to take off; Abrams avoids all of those cliches, and whatever is going on in Jim’s head stays right there.  Many a reviewer has pointed out the similarity between this and the seminal Luke-stares-at-the-binary-sunset moment in Star Wars, and I’ll join them.  Unlike them, I’ll add why it’s effective: due to the fact that it isn’t overexplained, it not only allows but practically begs us to put ourselves in Kirk’s shoes, to imprint our own feelings onto the scene.  That’s what cinema is all about: that entry into another person’s point of view builds strong bonds between audience and film.  This is an approach Spielberg has also often used to great effect, and Abrams pulls it off several times without seeming to even strain himself.  That’s a good sign for his cinematic future.

Captain Pike has told Kirk he could become an officer in four years; Kirk, upon joining, tells him he’ll do it in three.  Cut to space, and the title card “Three Years Later.”  Subtle.  But instead of Kirk, we see Nero, who has apparently been waiting around doing nothing for a long time.  [Bryant's note: a subplot was cut from the film that explained that what Nero had been up to was rotting away in a Klingon prison.]  He’s been waiting on Spock to emerge from the same black hole from which he himself emerged; Spock does, and Nero orders his ship captured.  This can lead to nothing good.
But back on Earth, sure enough, Kirk seems to be making satisfactory progress at Starfleet Academy — especially when it comes to picking up Orion women — but something is bothering him: his inability to pass the Kobayashi Maru test.  It’s a no-win scenario involving being stuck between angry Klingon warships and a civilian freighter whose crew needs evacuating.  This scenario has some vague similarities to the situation George Kirk faced when he died saving the crew of the Kelvin, and it seems likely that this is in Jim Kirk’s mind when he reprograms the test so that he can win.  Again, none of that is made explicit, not even a little bit; instead, the scene is played for laughs, and once again does a great job of empathetically putting us in Kirk’s shoes.  Uhura, who previously caught Kirk making time with her green-skinned roommate, is especially spiteful, and Kirk is especially cocky, and the scene gets some big laughs.
Kirk gets brought before the Academy Supreme Court or some similar board to answer the charges of having cheated.  Apparently, it’s a rule that whenever a cadet gets brought up on charges, the rest of the Academy’s cadets have to be in attendance, which seems like a waste of good class time.  Tyler Perry shows up to (convincingly) play the head of the Academy, and he brings out Spock (who programmed the Kobayashi Maru test) to confront Kirk.  Things don’t seem to be going too well for Jim when somebody walks in and informs the Academy that Vulcan has issued a distress call.  The entire fleet is apparently away on business elsewhere, so the cadets are all dismissed and assigned to starships and dispatched to the relief effort.  They don’t know what they’re relieving, but they’re prepared for anything.
Kirk’s name isn’t called out when assignments are handed down, and he’s bummed, so McCoy makes him sick with a shot and gets him onto the Enterprise on the grounds of needing medical attention.  Meanwhile, Uhura has been assigned to the Farragut, but bullies Spock into putting her aboard the Enterprise.  Seems like that’s the place to be.
It’s being led by Captain Pike, who has a fresh-faced Russian crewman named Chekov inform the crew — via video displays hung throughout the ship — what they know about what’s happening on Vulcan.  It’s not much, but Kirk recognizes some of the descriptions of lightning-like effects as being similar to effects described on the day his father died.  He intuits, somewhat improbably, that the same ship has reappeared and is attacking Vulcan, and that the Enterprise is heading straight into a trap.  Pike is initially dismissive, and so is Spock, but Uhura sets them straight: the day before, Kirk, oddly attentive while in the middle of being cockblocked, had overheard Uhura talking to her roommate about having intercepted a Klingon transmission involving a devastating attack on a prison planet.  She’s persuasive, and everyone decides to believe Kirk’s wild hypothesis.
Good thing, too, because the second they come out of warp drive, the rest of their fleet — which is now in little pieces — greets them.  (The only reason they weren’t there to be blown away is that Sulu forget to take off the ship’s parking brakes when putting the ship into warp; convenient.)  The Narada incapacitates the Enterprise, and Nero tells Pike to come aboard.  Uh-oh; we know how that tends to end.
Meanwhile, the Romulan ship has lowered a mining platform into the atmosphere of Vulcan, and is using a beam of some sort to burn into the core of the planet.  Pike takes Kirk, Sulu, and Chief Engineer Olsen — who is dressed in a lovely red spacesuit — with him on his shuttlecraft, and dumps them off along the way; they do a space jump onto the mining platform, which they intend to disable so that communications and transporter use can be reestablished.  Olsen’s red suit serves him poorly; he dies immediately.  Kirk and Sulu kick some Romulan ass and disable the platform.
Meanwhile, Pike is taken prisoner, and Nero puts a creature into his body which will force him to give up Starfleet defense codes.  Nero orders the “red matter” be dropped into Vulcan’s core.  This red matter is nasty stuff; it creates a singularity — otherwise known as a black hole — which will consume the entire planet within a matter of minutes.  Spock, understandably distressed, beams down to the surface of the planet to rescue his mother and father.  His mother is lost when the ground gives out beneath her and the transporter loses the lock on her.
This is one of the most effective scenes in the movie, and it’s one which promises to have major implications for future sequels.  It establishes both Spock and his father as members of an endangered species.  It also prompts one of the movie’s big revelations, which is that Spock and Uhura are romantically involved.  She tries to comfort the obviously-grieving man, but has little success.
The Narada takes off, leaving the Enterprise to flee from the imploding planet, with Spock in the captain’s seat.  He orders the ship to set course for the rest of the fleet, but Kirk wants to take the fight to the Romulans, and is very vocal in his opinions.  Spock doesn’t want to hear it, and orders security to put Kirk in an escape pod, and strand him on a nearby ice planet where there is a Starfleet outpost.
Kirk flees from a giant ice monster, and encounters Elderly Spock — or, as he’s billed in the credits, “Spock Prime” — who drops a big fat bunch of exposition through a mind meld.  He’s Spock from the future, and in that future, he fails to save Romulus from a supernova.  Nero therefore blames both Vulcan and the Federation for the destruction of his homeworld, and intends the worst type of revenge. Nero has stranded Spock on this planet so that he can see the destruction of Vulcan.  Apparently, the two planets are so close together that Spock can see the implosion of the world without any type of telescopic aid, but not so close that the gravitational effects of an entire planet going missing would be felt.  That’s not entirely believable, is it?

Spock Prime and Kirk head out for the Federation outpost, where they find Scotty and a weird dwarf alien who likes to climb on top of things.  Spock gives Scotty an equation for transwarp beaming — using the transporter over long distances to beam people onto ships moving at warp speed — which the engineer will create in the future.  Kirk and Scotty beam themselves onto the Enterprise, where Kirk, following Spock Prime’s advice, angers Spock the younger so much that Spock nearly chokes him to death, thereby activating a highly convenient clause in Starfleet regulations stating that officers who become emotionally compromised must be removed from active command duty.  Nobody seems to remember, or care, that Kirk is chasing down his own father’s killer; no way he’s emotionally compromised.
Now in command of the ship — Pike had, implausibly, promoted him to first officer before taking off for the Romulan ship — Kirk orders pursuit of the enemy vessel, which is headed for Earth, presumably to destroy it.  Communications, apparently, are not active.  Chekov comes up with a plan, and is able to get the ship to Saturn in a way that avoids detection by the Romulans.  Scotty then beams Kirk and Spock — who talks for a minute to his father and then is apparently fit for duty again — over to the Romulan ship.
Kirk and Spock fuck up a few Romulans, then Spock takes off in Spock Prime’s captured spaceship, which — despite housing all of the red matter — is left unguarded.  Okay, then; if you folks say so.  Meanwhile, Kirk frees Pike.  Pike must have puked up that mind-controlling bug; he seems fine now.  Spock plays a game of chicken with the Narada, and smashes it with the remainder of the red matter.  As you might suspect, this creates a whole bunch of little black holes that quickly grow into a larger black hole.  The Romulans are sucked into it; Kirk offers to help them (much to Spock’s consternation), but they refuse, and nobody seems to mind giving them a helping hand into the black hole by firing all weapons at them.
The Enterprise barely escapes the black hole; they can only get away by Scotty ejecting the ship’s warp core, which causes a shockwave that pushes the ship free.  IT PUSHES THE SHIP FREE OF A FUCKING BLACK FUCKING HOLE. I guess that whole “nothing escapes a black hole’s gravity” thing doesn’t apply to antimatter.  If you say so, fellas; if you say so.
Back at Starfleet Academy, Pike gets promoted to Admiral, and Kirk gets promoted to Captain of the Enterprise, all wrongdoing in the Kobayashi Maru incident apparently forgiven.  With that, the Enterprise sets off on its next mission.
You can probably tell from all the snark that there are plot holes in this thing big enough for the Death Star to fly through, but honestly, who gives a shit?  Not me, that’s for sure.  Most of the plot “problems” can at least kinda be rationalized.  For example, why is it that Kirk ends up marooned on Delta Vega in basically the exact same position as Spock Prime?  If you want, you can make the argument that — unlike on the current season of Lost – changes can be made to the timeline … but when changes are made, the timeline will work to restore as much of the original timeline as it can.  This is an argument for a type of predestination, and it’s not dealt with in the movie as such, but certain scientific theories can at least tenuously back up such claims.
Either way, the sheer entertainment value of this movie will soldier all but THE most prone to nitpicking past all the plot problems and inconsistencies.  So much is going on here, visually, that you’d have to be an enormous grump to not be carried away by it.  The film practically bursts with gorgeous designs; the CGI is terrific; the acting, across the board, is memorable; there is a lot of fun dialogue; the score by Michael Giacchino (who did great work on The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Speed Racer, as well as each episode of Lost) is excellent.  We go to movies to be carried away by visceral storytelling like this.
Here is a movie that deals with serious issues, such as loss, abandonment, and the triumph of persistence over those setbacks, but it does so without becoming heavy-handed or grim.  It’s been a long decade, and like another space-opera blockbuster of yore — not Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but Star Wars, which similarly came along during substantially troubled times — J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek might be delivering audiences a heaping helping of fun just when they need it the most.


The great thing about Star Trek — the franchise, as opposed to Star Trek the movie — is that it’s an enormous universe, and you can pick and choose how involved you want to get in it.  For the most casual fans, there are the movies, which offer more or less self-contained adventures.  Next level, the television series; if you don’t feel the need to see all of them, that’s fine, pick any single one of the five, and you can get a seasons-long experience.  Next level, completist urges toward seeing all five series; that’ll set you back about a year even if you watch several episodes each day, but you may find tantalizing connections that reward that type of commitment.
From there, there is the expanded universe of the hundreds and hundreds of original novels, comics, and games, which will take you literally years to fully digest.  After that, Trek ceases to become a hobby, and becomes instead a full-fledged lifestyle.
Any new Star Trek production has to sort of choose where it wants to land on the fan-level spectrum in terms of its appeal.  The new movie has clocked in at the first level, opening itself up to untold millions of people who never wanted to get involved in the franchise before (some of them may not have any clear idea that there even is a franchise outside of this movie).  This is the first time in a long while that that has been the case; the last was probably 1987, when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in syndication.  Each successive film and series has been insular in a way that kept most audiences at arm’s length.
In deciding to reboot the franchise, Paramount has made an interesting decision: they’ve risked the abandonment of the most devoted fans in favor of courting an entirely new fan base.  The initial announcement of the reboot idea drew widespread ire from the fan community, who were unclear how anyone could even consider casting new actors for the iconic roles of Kirk and Spock?
If this gamble had failed, not only would Paramount have failed to win over new fans, it would probably also have lost the existing fans forever.  This was no mere gamble; this was a game of Russian roulette.
Luckily, the people making the movie — director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — were canny enough to realize that that gamble was just too great.  So they set about tailoring the movie to appeal to new audiences, while simultaneously bringing along old fans by casting the new movie not as a reboot but as an alternate-universe tale, complete with the inclusion of Leonard Nimoy as Spock, thereby making the movie a sequel (from a certain point of view).
So the question is now hanging out there: did they succeed?  I’ve already given you my thoughts on how successful the film is as a standalone film (very).  So how is it as a part of the Star Trek franchise?
The short answer: terrific.
The long answer follows.
First things first.  This movie is a departure from the pre-existing stories, and in major ways.  Star Trek canon has now been fundamentally split into two parts.  For the record, we will refer to everything prior to this movie as having occurred in Universe A; this movie’s setting is in Universe B.  Also, I will refer to this movie as Star Trek '09, and to the original series as Star Trek: TOS (The Original Series, for those of you unable to parse acronyms).  Fuck…!  When you’ve got to glossarize things in that fashion, you know you should probably find a new hobby.
The most fundamental change to the franchise made in the creation of Universe B is the style of the filmmaking.  Star Trek '09 feels rather like a response to the documentary-style approaches of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica '03, both of which have siphoned off significant portions of the Trek mystique over the past few years.
First, Firefly became the Little Show That Could; its followers were so rabid that they convinced Hollywood to make a movie out of the show only a few years after Fox canceled it.  This level of fan devotion and organization was territory Star Trek: TOS had always claimed as its own; its tales of letter-writing campaigns of yore were, after Firefly, no longer quite as legendary as they once had been.
Then, Battlestar Galactica '03 became a darling amongst fans, critics, and the media for dealing with social issues in a unique, provocative way.  Man, that show was relevant.  When was the last time Star Trek had been socially relevant?  All of the spinoff series took occasional stabs at it, but rarely did anyone take notice outside of fan circles; now, here was a new show, getting mentioned in Time magazine and getting its cast and crew invited to the United Nations to give a lecture on humanitarianism (!).
One common denominator between Firefly and Battlestar Galactica '03 was that sort of shaky-camera visual approach, as well as a greater realism in the cinematography, effects, and acting.  Oh, and no doofy-looking aliens with bumpy foreheads. This had been coming in space-based sci-fi television for a long time.  In a very real way, nearly every sci-fi show from the late ’70s on was a reaction to Star Trek: TOS in one way or another. And mostly, they could only approach Trek by going away from it.

Battlestar Galactica (the original circa-1978 version) was probably the first significant American post-Trek television show set in outer space.  (I'm ignoring Space: 1999 and the one-season Planet of the Apes, but we'll have to be Zen with that.)  And it was mostly an attempt to cash in on the success of Star Wars, not Star Trek; but in doing so, it quickly turned to Trek's planet-of-the-week format for story ideas, most of them strictly barrel-bottom in quality.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted in 1987, refined some of the ideas of Star Trek (original) by expanding the types of jobs the crew performed; that show also put families aboard the ship, and advanced the technology to reflect the ’80s idea of what the future might hold.  Up to this point, Trek was still the primary idea of what televised outer-space sci-fi could (and should) be.

When Babylon 5 came along in 1993, however, creator J. Michael Straczynski constructed a conscious jazz riff on those notions.  He made the setting a contentious, dangerous environment, as opposed to the plush, comfortable, (mostly) secure Starfleet trappings of The Next Generation.  Instead of characters who (mostly) got along all the time, he populated his show with characters who (mostly) never got along; sometimes, they were actively trying to kill each other.  This show was also set on a space station, rather than on a starship; the characters would have to actually deal with their problems, rather than fly away from them every week.  The biggest change was that Babylon 5 was (supposedly) a single long story, with a pre-determined beginning, middle, and end; this was a response to criticisms that on The Next Generation, the reset button got pushed at the end of each episode.

Debuting at about the same time as Babylon 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was also a space-station-set story, and this one was also somewhat grittier than The Next Generation, with characters who didn’t all like each other.  (Claims have circulated for years that Straczynski pitched his ideas for Babylon 5 to Paramount during the ’80s, and that they purloined that pitch for Deep Space Nine; the two shows do share some striking surface similarities, but they differ wildly in execution.)  Deep Space Nine had a spiritual element to it, something that had been mostly lacking in Star Trek up until that point.  Eventually, the show even became highly serialized, with stories taking multiple episodes to play out.  Its Trek-franchise successor, Star Trek: Voyager was essentially The Next Generation with a thin coat of character conflict; not by any means a terrible show, it nevertheless added very little to the brand.

Stargate SG-1 set its action on Earth, at Stargate Command … and rather than using a starship to send people out exploring, it used, well, a Stargate.  This story was not set in the future, but in our present, and featured military characters interacting with scientists.  There was plenty of character conflict, but the focus was still primarily on exploration.  Also, the show featured the same flat, television-style cinematography that all the previously mentioned shows featured.  It also featured aliens that weren’t particularly alien (with the occasional exception).  [Two spin-off shows, Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe, offered variations on the same theme, with varying degrees of success.]

Farscape turned that on its head somewhat, offering up both a richer-than-the-norm visual palette and an increased diversity in the type of aliens it portrayed.  It featured a wide variety of puppetry techniques courtesy of the Henson company, and while they might have always looked like puppets, they also generally looked like damn good puppets.  Really, really damn good puppets.

When Enterprise debuted, it offered up a slightly more advanced visual style, but it also returned to the same type of storytelling its Star Trek brethren had been doing for the past fourteen years; nobody was thrilled.  It was only during the show’s final season, when writers began trying to tonally link the show with Star Trek (original) that fans really began to embrace the show, but by that point there were too few of them left to make an impact on the ratings.


When Firefly and Battlestar Galactica (the remake, which began in 2003) came along, those show’s producers decided to ditch the concept of aliens altogether, instead focusing on the human characters and using every filmmaking technique at their disposal to create a storytelling universe people could very much relate to.  The widespread feeling was that the storytelling approach of shows like The Next Generation had become irrelevant.  Fans responded with wild enthusiasm.  All 37 of them.
That’s part of the sci-fi climate into which Star Trek '09 entered when production began.  (I've left a few series out, such as the Gene Roddenberry-inspired Andromeda, about which I know little.)  That’s the television side of the coin.  
The cinematic side included the successful but also very criticized Star Wars prequels, which seemingly sacrificed fidelity to the original series (and its fans) in favor of appealing to a new generation of children.  Apart from that series and the dystopian-action-flick trilogy of The Matrix and its sequels, sci-fi movies were more or less extinct.
Abrams and company seem to have paid close attention to all of these lessons, and they began by focusing on the visuals.  The cinematography in Star Trek '09 is rich, deep, unafraid of shadow and of “accidental” lens flares.  Abrams doesn’t go quite as far into docu-realism as, say, Battlestar Galactica '03, but he goes much, much further than any Star Trek series or film had ever gone before; and really, there’s no going back.  This is a good thing, as it beckons the viewer — the modern viewer, at least — into the story; the flat, blandly lit visuals of The Next Generation and Voyager and the two Stargate series have long since lost their appeal, and only a fool would fail to recognize that.  Abrams is no fool.
And yet, by making his film look so different from the many episodes of television which comprise the Trek era of 1987-2001, Abrams is in some ways blatantly disrespecting a sum total of 21 seasons worth of franchise continuity.  That’s bound to ruffle a few feathers, or at least to create a sort of optical disconnect for people who go back and watch those hundreds of episodes.
What Abrams has actually done is marry the docu-realism of modern sci-fi television with the hyper-colorful design approach which was frequently taken by Star Trek: TOS.  He’s toned both down, and met somewhere in the middle, armed with a $150 million budget and the good sense to not allow the CGI to overwhelm things the way George Lucas did in his Star Wars prequels.  The result, from a visual standpoint, is nirvana.
In order to make that goal a reality, Abrams has also had to refine the way many things within Universe B look in comparison to how the same things look in Universe A.  For one, he’s done away with the many years of changes to Starfleet uniforms: though this film’s costume designers make their own mark on the Trek franchise with their red Starfleet cadet uniforms (as well as black uniforms, and color-coded spacesuits), what we get in Star Trek '09 are essentially the gold, blue, and red uniforms from Star Trek: TOS.  This is both an implicit criticism of the Next Generation-era uniforms and a welcome return to the style of the ’60s, and it’s more successful than I’d have ever thought possible.  Abrams seems to have intuited that those designs mean something to people; it was a great decision.

Most of the other elements, though, are in for a major redress.  Sickbay looks basically the same, and the transporter room is simply a variation on the same theme, but the bridge is astonishingly different, and engineering may as well be a different thing altogether.  The bridge, with its shiny white surfaces, has been called an Apple store in space, and I was skeptical of it initially.

However, in the finished film, this new bridge becomes far and away my favorite starship bridge of the entire franchise, mainly due to how very busy it is.  There seem to be about a dozen people working at various stations at any given time, and somehow you get the sense that what each one of them is doing is of key importance.  But the layout is basically the same, with the captain’s chair still commanding the center of attention.  Firefly and Battlestar Galactica (2003) had done away with this style of ship’s bridge design, but Abrams correctly realizes that that would have been a major miscalculation for a Star Trek movie.
Best of all is the new viewscreen.  The viewcreen in the previous series had always been just large, multifunctional computer screens which could receive video signals.  This one is also literally a window onto space; when it’s not in use, you can see out of it (or into it from outside).  There are some great background shots of the ship’s hull as seen from the viewscreen; this gives a tremendous amount of depth to the image, and is a huge step in making outer space seem realistic.  Whoever made this decision deserves applause.

viewscreen from inside

viewscreen from outside
As for engineering, it is likely to prove to be the most controversial design element in the film.  [Bryant's note:  Yep.  Nailed that prediction...]  It appears to be a redressing of a factory, or some other industrial site, but I suspect that the thing is just a set made to remind us of an industrial setting.  [Bryant's note: not true.  It was a brewery.]  There are pipes running every which way, and the whole thing has a lived-in, cluttered look that is entirely alien to Star Trek.  Truthfully, I haven’t yet decided whether I like this as a Star Trek design element.  But on their own, I like the lower-deck sets quite a lot, so I’m inclined to go with it.
The design changes to the Enterprise itself, of course, have been widely debated by fans.  The nacelles, which are oversized and perhaps reminiscent of hairdryers, are the major point of contention.  Personally, I do not care about these elements.  I never much liked how the Enterprise-D looked, nor did I care for the Voyager design; didn’t stop me from liking those shows, and I’d say this new Enterprise design is more successful than either of those ship designs.
Other refinements include Abram’s approach to the way Star Trek aliens look.  Firefly could skip having aliens; Star Trek cannot, and should not.  But they don’t have to look like garbage, and Abrams seems determined to avoid that trap without falling in the alternative trap of overly-CGed aliens that you get in, say, Attack of the Clones.  I mentioned in the first part of my review how much I like the alien nurse in the opening sequence; I’d like to reemphasize it here.  There is also a CGI alien on the crew of the Kelvin; he looks a bit like Lt. Arex from the animated series.  The only other particularly alien aliens we see (that I remember, at least) are a brown-skinned alien on the Enterprise and Keenser, Scotty’s colleague on Delta Vega.  Both of these are full-head makeup jobs, and they both look quite good.  Otherwise, we get a green-skinned Orion and bunches of Vulcans and Romulans whose ears look surprisingly good.  And the Romulans — thank  you, J.J., — do not have the stupid forehead ridges they had during the Next Generation era (nor do they wear those wretched gray suits with shoulder pads).
But enough of how Abrams has changed the look of the Trek universe.  The big question on a lot of people’s minds prior to the movie’s release revolved around what, if any, changes Abrams might have made to the philosophical underpinnings the franchise always had.  Roddenberrianism, we’ll call it, by which I mean: the fundamental belief that by the time in which Star Trek: TOS is set, mankind will have solved its societal and political problems, united under one worldwide government, and become a progressive-minded race which roams the stars not for militaristic or economic gain, but for scientific and cultural purposes.  In other words, human civilization has become a utopia, and one which holds as its highest law the principle of the Prime Directive: thou shalt not interfere with the development of alien civilizations who have not yet achieved warp capability.  How, many fans wondered, would J.J. Abrams and his writers integrate these fundamentally Roddenberrian philosophies into the new Universe B?

Gene Roddenberry

This is a difficult issue to wrestle with, in some ways, because the franchise’s approach to Roddenberrianism has not always been consistent.  Even during the three-season run of Star Trek: TOS, the Prime Directive would occasionally frequently be forgotten about, and the series completely dodged answering questions about how humanity had gotten to this utopian ideal...or about how human society actually functioned back on Earth.  Few, if any, fans seemed to care, either.  Count me among them, mostly; since any answers to those questions are bound to be flawed, it's probably best to not worry about them much.
By the time Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came about, Roddenberry had been forced out of the franchise by Paramount.  They brought on board a new production team, headed by Harve Bennett, who was a complete Trek neophyte.  In developing the movie, Bennett brought a more militaristic edge to the proceedings, one which viewed Starfleet as being something of a naval force in space.  These elements were not heavy-handed or belabored, and fans bought them immediately … perhaps because the original series episode “Balance of Terror” (long a fan favorite) had already contained such elements.  Bennett was simply emphasizing one of the elements he himself responded to most strongly when he finally got around to watching the series.
Over the course of the next few films, the militaristic aspects would be more subdued, but they certainly made a return in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  In this film, Starfleet personnel collaborate with Klingon traitors to keep peace talks between the Federation and the Empire from succeeding.
In part, this film was a reaction to the Roddenberry-created Star Trek: The Next Generation, which jumped forward decades into the future, and contained elements such as a Klingon Starfleet officer.  In virtually all respects, The Next Generation represented a refinement and furthering of Roddenberrianism, sometimes (so go the complaints of dissenters) to the detriment of the series.  The show was often criticized for having a lack of conflict between its key personnel; the characters, some said, were simply too perfect to be interesting.  (This isn’t the venue for me to explain why that opinion is a load of horseshit, but it was a frequent complaint, and a perceived problem for the franchise.  Also: a load of horseshit.)
The Undiscovered Country does not play terribly well when viewed through the lens of Roddenberrianism.  The notion that a widespread conspiracy could exist within Starfleet and the Federation runs completely contrary to that philosophy.  Even worse, Captain Kirk — though never himself a conspirator — spends the first two-thirds of the movie on a racist rant against the Klingons, due to the death of his son at their hands three films earlier.  This is not the James T. Kirk I know and love.  Members of his crew follows suit; this is not my Enterprise crew.  Valeris, a Vulcan, is a key member of the conspiracy; this is not my brand of Vulcan logic.  The Undiscovered Country is what happens when you completely forget the principles upon which the franchise was founded.  An entertaining film in many ways; but also a morally bankrupt one, in comparison to much of the rest of the franchise from which it was spawned.
Roddenberry died in 1991, and it was not long after that the franchise began to show signs of wanting to drift away somewhat from his philosophies.  By the time the second spinoff series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, premiered, the producers were actively seeking out ways to side-step Roddenberrianism.  If we can’t have a troubled human society, they figured, we’ll just set the series near a troubled alien planet.  Deep Space Nine would eventually encompass all manner of societal defects that the other series could never fully wrestle with, and that is likely a big part of the reason why many fans hold this as their favorite of all the series.  The militarism runs rampant, as well; the Federation even becomes involved in a series of major wars, offering many opportunities for battles both in space and on land.
I, too, am a Deep Space Nine fan, but I have to wonder: if you have to run away from the Roddenberrian philosophies, are you truly doing Star Trek anymore?  For my tastes, Deep Space Nine strays too far too often to be fully satisfying as a Star Trek series.  Both Voyager and Enterprise are more restrained in their approach to that subject; they try to defeat the curse of being stale and emotionless (a complaint unjustly tossed at The Next Generation during its seven seasons) by bringing in more sex, more character conflict.  They were mildly successful in retaining the Roddenberrian ideals, but for all intents and purposes, the ideals died with the man.
Which brings us to Star Trek '09.  In some ways, Abrams has dealt with the issue of Roddenberrianism by simply not dealing with it.  At no point is the Prime Directive mentioned in this film.  Starfleet is referred to as a “peacekeeping and humanitarian armada.”  What does that mean?  It seems to mean "an armada that is dedicated to peace but totally prepared to open up a can of whoop-ass if opening up a can of whoop-ass is necessary."  To me, that seems to be a direct return to how Starfleet was portrayed in the original series: vaguely.  These people seem to be, essentially, well-armed scientists; that fits in nicely with Roddenberrianism as seen in, say, “Errand of Mercy.”
Most importantly, Abrams has allowed the characters to be thoroughly flawed (or otherwise complicated) and, therefore, interesting.  I say “allowed,” but he’s really just amplified their original characteristics.  Kirk here is a brash hothead, but he’s generally not wrong; Spock is wrestling with his human side; McCoy is a bitter, paranoid divorcee; Uhura is a brilliant linguist with a compassionate nature; Scotty is a work-obsessed genius with an obliviousness to social niceties; Chekov is a wet-behind-the-ears whiz kid (who has as much in common with Wesley Crusher as he does with the Chekov of Universe A).  Only Sulu here is bereft of any real character traits, unless badassery is a character trait; perhaps sequels will do better by him.
There have already been complaints from long-time fans over the depictions of some of these characters.  Spock’s emotionalism, and his romantic relationship with Uhura, have drawn the most complaints.  But the humans in general are more rough around the edges, and less idealized, than maybe we’re used to seeing in Star Trek.  The bar full of brawling cadets, for example, might seem a bit out of place.  Until, that is, you remember the bar full of brawling officers in “The Trouble With Tribbles”; and those fellows were Starfleet graduates.
The fact of the matter is that J.J. Abrams has changed nothing, from a standpoint of Roddenberrianism.  What he’s done is to make the characters more recognizably human, and by doing that, he actually makes the whole endeavor seem more optimistic, more bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm for the future.  Those people are us! They’re not just some futuristic version of us; they curse, they drink, they fight, they fuck, they get sick, they get angry … but they get the job done.  They know their stuff, and they concentrate on doing what needs to be done.  And when they do their jobs well, they’re rewarded for it.
I was initially thrown off by the apparent ease with which Kirk (and some other officers) are promoted during the course of this movie, but then I thought about it.  Kirk, during the events depicted here, literally saves Earth, and possibly the entire Federation.  If that doesn’t merit an instantaneous promotion to Captain, well, I don’t know what does.  And if Pike’s ability to recognize that potential in him doesn’t merit an instantaneous promotion to Admiral…?  Same deal.
There is, of course, a lot to pick through in this movie; we’ll be doing it for years to come.  But here are a few more points I want to briefly touch upon before winding this thing down:

*     The casting, top to bottom, is perfect.  Chris Pine is an excellent Kirk, and an instant movie star; Zachary Quinto, though not blessed with Nimoy’s awesome voice, makes a wonderful Spock; Karl Urban is perfect as McCoy; Zoe Saldana is sexy, empathetic, and wonderfully  snarky as Uhura; Simon Pegg makes for fine comic relief as Scott; Anton Yelchin makes me actually like Chekov; John Cho does fine as Sulu, though he has little to do; Bruce Greenwood makes you want to see a prequel series with him as the star; Eric Bana is menacingly effective; Leonard Nimoy, though obviously an elderly man at this point, is dignified and funny and moving; Chris Hemsworth and Jennifer Morrison make fine parents for Kirk, while Ben Cross and Winona Ryder make fine parents for Spock.  I also enjoyed seeing Rachel Nichols as a scantily-clad, big-bosomed Orion lady; Clifton Collins Jr. as a Romulan; and Faran Tahir (of Iron Man) as the ill-fated captain of the Kelvin.  And heck, even Tyler Perry did fine in his role as the head of Starfleet Academy.  J.J. Abrams is a genius when it comes to casting; I’ll probably never doubt his instincts again.
*     If you had told me a year ago that the Beastie Boys song “Sabotage” would be included in this film, and that I would not only accept it, but feel like applauding while it was playing, I’d have said you were all kinds of “Naked Time”-like crazy.  Well, silly me, because that scene is fucking awesome.
*     The casual racism of the Vulcan sitting at the head of the Vulcan Science Academy (that’s W. Morgan Sheppard, who played the warden of Rura Penthe in The Undiscovered Country, and also played the first Soul Hunter on Babylon 5) is not the most plausible plot point this film has to offer.  Racism would never be logical to these people, and while I understand the necessity of that sequence to the film’s overall structure, I don’t think it works very well.  Therefore, I shall now pretend that that fellow was a Romulan in disguise.  (The scene is, however, a nice callback to “Journey to Babel.”)
*     The destruction of Vulcan (and death of Amanda) is a monumental event in Trek history.  Again, if you’d told me a year ago that this was happening, I’d have crapped in my hand and then slapped you.  But as amusing as that might have been, I’d have been wrong.  The potential for stories for sequels (and potential television spinoffs) is bountiful, and since the strain of being the member of an endangered species will almost certainly result in added pressure on Spock to honor his Vulcan heritage, it’s going to be interesting to see where Abrams and co. take this.
*     McCoy is depicted as a divorcee in this movie … will we get to see his daughter, Joanna?  Joanna is never mentioned in this movie, and might well not exist in Universe B; hell, she didn’t technically even exist in Universe A!.  She is a character in at least one novel, and one of the episodes planned for the never-filmed season four of the original series was for Captain Kirk to become romantically involved with McCoy’s daughter.  Might Abrams go down this road at some point?
*     Admiral Archer’s beagle, huh?  Now, this comment is interesting for at least two reasons.  One: it means that Enterprise can be considered canon for both Universe A and Universe B, as the events depicted in this movie could have had no impact on what happened during the course of that series (excepting the Next Generation sequences of the series finale).  Two: this cannot have been Porthos that Scotty beamed out of existence, since he would have been much too old to still be alive.  Also, might we see Scott Bakula reprise his role at some point in a future sequel?  Probably not, but such fun ideas are part of the appeal of this franchise.
*     I love that they slapped a uniform from Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Pike at the end of the movie.  But I’m confused; am I supposed to assume that he has been crippled, or is this merely a callback to “The Menagerie”?  Pike appears to be walking, though with help, when he and Kirk are escaping the Narada, so until I get proof to the contrary, I’m going to assume that he’s not crippled.  Like I said, the prequels are calling you, Bruce.
*     The Kobayashi Maru sequence is nearly perfect … except I’d like to know how Kirk cheated.  Did he reprogram the test himself?  Was Gaila the Orion somehow implicit?  (Also, is she now dead?  What ship was she assigned to?  What is her phone number?  Is she into fat dudes at all?)  Kirk eating the apple is a fantastic callback to The Wrath of Khan, and is one of the best bits of staging in the movie.  Kirk is so confident that he brought a snack; now that’s cocky.  On the other hand, why are the cadets during this sequence wearing Kelvin-era uniforms?  I get why they’re doing it from a thematic point of view (to emphasize that Kirk is thinking about his father); but why are they doing it from a plot point of view?

Rachel Nichols as Gaila

*     Nero’s obsessiveness is believable because, as Spock says, Romulans and Vulcans share a common ancestry, and as Sarek says, Vulcan emotions run deeper even than human emotions.  Thus, both Nero’s blind fury and Spock’s more contained fury feed off of each other and achieve believability in the process.  You can argue that it doesn’t belong in Universe A, but over here in Universe B, it suits me just fine.
*     The bar in Iowa serves something called “Budweiser Classic,” which is cool.  They also serve the Abramsverse drink Slusho, as well as a Cardassian beverage.  But aren’t the Cardassians too far away for the Federation to have encountered them at this stage of warp-speed development?  Isn’t that a plot hole?  I’m just sayin’.
*     Love the new transporter effect.  Love it.


At the end of the day, I find it hard to call this movie anything other than a complete success.  A few minor plot points aside, this is a dynamically entertaining film, one that re-energizes the franchise of which it is a proud new component.  After the twin failures of Nemesis and Enterprise, it would have been easy for Paramount to let the whole endeavor fade away into memory, but instead, here we have a probable smash hit that will almost certainly make Trekkies out of millions of new fans.
Some of those new Trekkies are bound to become smitten by the original series and movies, and by The Next Generation and its movies.  Some of them will even discover Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Enterprise – which has the virtue of being the most recent of the series — is also rediscovered in a major way.  In all respects, this is a new lease on life, not just for the franchise overall, but for each of its individual components.  Even if this new film chucked the entire history of the franchise out the window, it would have been worth doing if regenerating the rest of the franchise had been the result.  The fact that the new movie — and Universe — is instead respectful of what came before it, well, that’s icing on the cake.
It’s a good time to be a Star Trek fan.


  1. "From there, there is the expanded universe of the hundreds and hundreds of original novels, comics, and games, which will take you literally years to fully digest. After that, Trek ceases to become a hobby, and becomes instead a full-fledged lifestyle."

    Yep. Livin' La Vida Trek ain't for part-timers!

    "And the Romulans — thank you, J.J., — do not have the stupid forehead ridges they had during the Next Generation era (nor do they wear those wretched gray suits with shoulder pads)."

    Man, amen times a thousand. I was just reviewing "Contagion" the other night and was chuckling to myself remembering the rant I over-emoted when that episode originally aired. And tho I grew to enjoy the Romulan ship design (space pretzel), those uniforms and the bizarre physical mutations we saw on TNG (and in Nemesis) never clicked with me.

    This is a great review of both the film and the history/ context of its appearance. I tip my cap - tough to put all of this in one blog without it feeling bloated, but you pulled it off.

    "The Undiscovered Country is what happens when you completely forget the principles upon which the franchise was founded."

    Yep. Times a thousand. "Did someone fire a phaser???" Oh God, shut up.

    Roddenberrianism, as you cover pretty well, was always kind of a flawed philosophy. Like Nicholas Meyer said when he came into conflict with him over Wrath of Khan, what he took away from TOS was a future we all want to live in, but one where we take our basic flaws and inconsistencies out there with us, and do the best we can. The idea that Starfleet was "never military," as Roddenberry insisted many times, is immediately contradicted by the rank structure and several hundred lines and moments from TOS. But, like you also say, this never bothered me - who cares?

    1. The idea that Starfleet is in no way military is just incorrect. Period. There's no room for argument on the subject. The amount of military-ness waxes and wanes depending on the needs of the story, but right there in the very first episode -- "The Cage," which was as purely Roddenberry as possible -- the crew has a portable laser cannon that they can use at a moment's notice. If that isn't a weapon, I don't know what is.

      And yeah, the military-style rank system is a dead giveaway, too.

      Pardon me, but I must depart this comment early; I have a sudden hankering for a pretzel...