Saturday, May 16, 2015

Discussing the Trek


  I've recently been re-watching a lot of Star Trek, the original movies, the new movies, and some of the shows as well. The one thing that I've noticed though, browsing internet forums and message boards, is that there is a huge majority of new Trek fans who swear by the Abrams movies, and can't understand why Trek fans who grew up on the originals, dislike the new ones. Now, granted there is no one singular type of fan. There are fans who love all the Trek movies, and then there are fans who subscribe to the 'even-numbered' nonsense. So, I'm not addressing Trekkies (or Trekkers) in general, I simply mean to explain why longtime Trek fans ended up so massively disappointed in Star Trek Into Darkness. Or at least how I see it.

  The nature of Star Trek was always about discovery, exploration, and adventure. Wide-eyed wonder and the mystery of the unknown. In execution, it was about marrying high concept science fiction with allegories relevant to the world and society as it is. It was a a trendsetting property from the outset. Having a culturally and racially diverse crew on TV in a time when that was anything but acceptable. It showed a vision of the future that more and more people were willing to get behind. In Star Trek, as a race, humanity had evolved past petty in-fighting and the need for material gain. Collectively, we focused our efforts on exploration, and bettering ourselves as a species.

  The movies, even on their worst day, usually had something to say. The Motion Picture was a high concept sci-fi adventure, devoid of a cliche power-mad antagonist. It pitted the crew of the Enterprise against a massive space faring cloud-like entity on a destructive search for it's own maker. Even when the plots for these movies did focus around a central antagonist like Khan, or Commander Kruge, the movies had moral and emotional points to them. In The Wrath of Khan, it showed the danger of wielding god-like power, and how that should never be in anyone's hands.

  The Search for Spock, despite being an entry simply revolving around bringing back a fan favorite character, was a great companion piece to Wrath, and furthered the point that dangerous power like that ruins everything. It also had something to say about loyalty, and friendship. Bonds that transcend things like rules and regulations. The trend didn't stop there either. The Voyage Home was a massive (albeit heavy-handed) PSA about how we're destroying our own planet and should take better care of it and the creatures that live on it. The Final Frontier was a discussion about belief and an individual's concept of god. The Undiscovered Country was about racism, and letting go of antiquated notions that lead to hate and killing. It preached peace and understanding.

  And that was just the first six. After Kirk and crew hung up their uniforms, Captain Picard and his crew took over the silver screen adventures from that point on. I could fill up another article talking about those, but the point is, the best Treks had a message or two. They made you think long after the credits rolled. They were always more intellectual than their competition in franchises like Star Wars. Even on a basic action level, Star Trek was modeled after a naval-like concept of a space faring military. Star Trek was submarine warfare when it came to the action scenes. It would always boil down to a strategic battle of wits and calculation. Sonar readings, torpedoes, and the like. Star Wars on the other hand modeled itself more after the whiz-bang speed of WWI dogfights. Soaring fighter planes shooting at each other full blast, zipping past each other at speeds that would make your head spin.

  Star Wars gave audiences a very difference pace. Beyond the energetic trendsetting pacing, it was a classical fairy tale with futuristic sci-fi trappings. Knights who wielded swords made of light and energy, blasters instead of crossbows, and in addition to all of that, it still revolved around rescuing a princess with the help of an old wizard in their quest to overthrow an evil emperor. Star Trek didn't subscribe to such basic themes, it was a much more political, timely, and complex property (not always, but it tried). Keep in mind, I'm not saying one is better than the other, I'm simply highlighting the difference between the two properties because it's about to get real relevant.

  When the Trek movies stalled out after Nemesis, it was deemed ripe for a reboot. Enter, 2009's Star Trek. Directed by J.J.Abrams. Their first order of business was to figure our why nobody wanted a Star Trek movie anymore. So they looked to Star Wars, and by their own admission aimed to emulate the tone and pacing of that property instead. Rather than going back to see what made the best Trek movies so successful, they abandoned that idea altogether and deemed Star Trek simply needed to be faster and more energetic. Guys, that was never it's problem. It never needed the pacing of Star Wars because it was so different in concept. So here it is, in their efforts to make Star Trek more appealing, they misdiagnosed the problem. They avoided giving the movies any moral message deeper than "revenge is bad" and "war is bad", which was the downfall of Star Trek: Nemesis to begin with.

  J.J. and co. got lucky with their first entry though. It served as a decent introduction to characters we know and love, brought to life with care and gusto by a near perfect cast. It was the passing of a torch from the original generation, to a new one. Despite being paper thin, it worked. Mostly. It was a foot in the door that got people's attention, made a legion of new fans, and had everyone focused on what was going to happen next. Namely... Star Trek: Into Darkness. Instead of expanding their scope, bringing back the notions of exploration and moral-political issues, they rehashed the most basic elements from The Wrath of Khan, and gave fans a bunch of stuff they adamantly did not want.

  We got a re-imagined Khan, who is nothing like the actual Khan character. He was dropped into this Trek movie with the grace of a bull in a china shop, and his inclusion was strange at best. There's a big reveal moment in the movie where Khan reveals that his name is not John Harrison, his name is in fact, Khan. Kirk doesn't know who that is. Neither does Spock. Why? Because they've never encountered him before. And neither has a lot of the new fans. In the Wrath of Khan, the story was essentially a sequel to an episode of the Original Series called Space Seed, which was Khan's original introduction. There's none of that in Into Darkness. It's clumsy. It doesn't work for new fans, or longtime fans.

  If that wasn't enough, the story, the plot, it's all exceptionally basic stuff. It's an elementary school level anti-war PSA. The last act revolves around repeating an emotional beat from the end of The Wrath of Khan, but with none of the surprise or originality. It was a manipulative scene at best that did no favors for the movie as a whole. It was fan-service that the fans didn't want. I heard audible groans coming from the knowing fans in the crowd when I saw the movie in the theater. It didn't feel right. Worse still, it didn't have the lasting impact that Wrath of Khan did. Within minutes, this shocking event was resolved and the movie ended a-ok.

  Star Trek Into Darkness also abandoned the spirit of Star Trek itself. In imitating the Wrath of Khan, they restricted themselves to familiar locations, familiar villains, and a familiar plot. There's nothing new in Into Darkness, and isn't the whole point of a reboot to show the fans something fresh and new? The entirety of the movie takes place been the Klingon homeworld, and Earth. That's it. Even the worst of the original movies made an effort to show us 'strange new worlds' and 'new lifeforms and civilizations'. The same stuff that they promised to show us with the trademark speech at the end of 2009's Star Trek. They seriously didn't deliver. With the entire galaxy out there, ripe for exploration, the much awaited sequel was reduced to a simple action movie of the most basic sort with no respect for what Trek was originally all about.

  But enough people got swept away by the energetic pacing and non-stop action scenes that they ended up loving Into Darkness, and were curious as to why Trekkies (or Trekkers) were moaning and bitching. This still leads to heated and juvenile internet arguments that devolves into name calling. One side is calling the other side "Retards!" and the other side is retorting with "Pagh DaSov toDSaH!" I'll let you figure out which fanbase is which. In short, there's nothing wrong with liking simple, basic action adventure. I love that stuff. But everything has it's place, and Star Trek was a property that was fundamentally built on creativity and the wonder of discovery. The new movies aren't anything like that. So for longtime fans of the franchise, these movies are quick to make a horrible impression. On an even more basic level, as movie goers shouldn't we start insisting on a little originality and creativity in our movies again? Even if they're launched from a familiar franchise, lets see something new. Let's see something we haven't seen before. Isn't that the whole point of fiction and movies in general? That also happens to be the founding concept of Star Trek.

  Hopefully, now you understand- from a Trekkie's point of view. (or Trekker. whichever.)
Live long... and may the force be with you.

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