Saturday, May 09, 2009
Star Trek -- For a long time it seemed we had lost Star Trek in a slow leaching off of what made the original 1966 series special. From the high points of its second life (Wrath of Khan; the TNG episodes Best of Both Worlds Parts One and Two) it was all an agonizingly slow downward spiral. The series finale of TNG was a great, emotionally satisfying tribute to the unlikely success of the first sequel series, but instead of leading into a brilliant new movie era featuring Picard and company, it was the last real gasp of creative honesty in the 1990s for "the franchise."
Generations had an awesome opening 15 minutes followed by tedium, bad writing and the worst mistake in Trek history, the ham-fisted death of James T. Kirk. Not that Kirk necessarily shouldn't have died on-screen, but the unconscionably bad writing of his death scene (and the even worse writing of the earlier draft, available for viewing on the Generations DVD) should have been a signal to all involved that they had traveled far down the wrong road and needed to rethink the entire journey.
Despite that, director Jonathan Frakes managed to make the next cinematic outing, First Contact, into a fun adventure movie that demonstrated moments of genuine wit and human insight (mostly in the Cochrane storyline; the Picard-as-Ahab metaphor is as heavy-handed and tedious as any Roddenberry conceit one could name). The less said about Insurrection and especially Nemesis, the better. The latter was literally the worst Star Trek entertainment ever produced, with less creative spark and more embarrassing moments than the worst of the Gold Key comic book series. And like Generations, it goes not boldly but wrong-headedly down the same stupid path of creative immolation by killing off Data, probably Roddenberry's last great contribution to Star Trek entire.
And oh, the other sequel series; Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise all have something to offer despite their enormous flaws (Colm Meaney's acting, the Holographic Doctor and all of Season Four, respectively), but compared to the '66 and '87 iterations of Trek, they demonstrate the slow death of an idea. In 1964, when Roddenberry conceived the series that would be refined and redefined by the other writers brought in (Fontana, Ellison, and dozens more), the series was about exploring both space and what it means to be human and alive. By the time Voyager launched, Star Trek had literally become a series about Star Trek. Enterprise grew a pair in its final season, but by then the fact that the franchise had been in the wrong hands for many years was crystal clear. Berman, Pillar, and the rest were the bad guys as far as I was concerned. They had taken away Star Trek and replaced it with a very poor substitute.
And now J.J. Abrams and company have given it back.
I don't remember how Roger Ebert justified his 2.5 star review, and I don't care enough to go look and grab a link. You're good with the Google and I trust you to know if you need to see for yourself. But for me, the new Star Trek is 3.5 to 4 stars of greatness from beginning to end. It has everything I love about the '66 series, from laughs and melodrama to the costumes and pageantry of Starfleet as a vision of the best humanity (and other races) have to offer.
Is it perfect? No. The performances of the actors playing Sulu, Chekov and (yes) Scotty all wander over territory ranging from cipher to parody, even if their individual charms still won me over. Does the plot make sense? Is the science sound? Probably not. Is that really Spock, though, being played by Zachary Quinto? Is Chris Pine really Kirk? Hell, is Bruce Greenwood really Captain Christopher Pike? Yes, yes, and much to my amazement, yes.
Is it too shiny? Yes, the lens flares are a distraction and will look as goofy in ten years as the ones in Ellis and Hitch's Authority comics do now. But the passion with which this story is told, and the little character moments that pepper it throughout, feel more true to the essence of what the original series accomplished than any moment of Trek since The Wrath of Khan first reminded us that Star Trek was fucking loaded with the potential for great storytelling, hammy actors and bad special effects be damned.
Leonard Nimoy's first scene as Spock is astonishingly well-acted, drawing upon the actor's 45 years of experience playing the character. Quinto makes Spock his own, but at no time does the new version feel discordant with Nimoy's lifetime of contributions to the canon. The moment when Spock materializes on the transporter pad and realizes what he has lost on Vulcan is one of the most powerful in the character's history, twisting some of the most beloved moments of the original series into a new form and setting the character on a new path. And it never feels like anything other than honestly-won drama that works on every level.
Chris Pine completely inhabits the ideal of Kirk as a character and as a legend-in-training. He doesn't feel like a Luke Skywalker-type Hero with One of a Thousand Faces, but rather he comes across powerfully as a new, divergent path for the character Shatner portrayed for decades, struggling to get where we know he belongs, on the bridge of that ship. And Pike is a special case for me: I have been obsessed with the original pilot's captain (and actor Jeffrey Hunter's performance) for over thirty years. The first time I saw The Menagerie (the episode that wove footage from the original, Kirkless pilot with a new Kirk/Spock story), I was fascinated by the idea that the ship had had another captain before Kirk, and even more riveted by the question of what the series could have been like with Pike, not Kirk, at the helm. Bruce Greenwood does an amazing job of making Pike his own, and having a new story on film involving this great, semi-lost Trek character feels to me something very much like a gift.
The movie throbs. It shines and sparkles and shakes with energy and movement. It propels you through its story and leaves you so, so ready for more Star Trek. Personally, I want to see more of the world Nimoy's Spock comes to this movie from (see the IDW comic book prequel Countdown for a hint), but if all we ever get is more of this new type of Star Trek, I'll be very happy. It's a brave new canvas Abrams and company have created, and Trek hasn't felt so filled with potential since Spock's coffin landed on the Genesis Planet all those years ago. For the first time in a long time I am asking the essential storytelling question, what happens next?
I can't wait to find out.
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