Don’t call it a reboot. In our first of three re-views on Star Trek 2009, Max DeCurtins examines the cluttered nature of adaptation as he looks back on J.J. Abrams first foray into the Star Trek franchise, which itself looks back into the past to imagine a future that is, unfortunately, not very different from today.
“…To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no-one has gone before…”
This was me ten years ago, preparing to move from California to New England for grad school, having accepted an offer from Boston University right around the same time that Star Trek came out, wondering what the fuck I’d just done. I saw the movie at the Century 20 in Redwood City on a family outing for Mother’s Day, which my parents had excitedly suggested. For those who have never met my family, this sort of thing is about as common as uncensored press in Beijing.
Ten years later…
Stardate 72799.7: Expected civilization; got Boston instead. Life readings inconclusive—unless Red Sox fans count. If in danger, distract with Dunks iced coffee and beam out immediately. MBTA interfering with warp drive.
I remember liking Star Trek well enough—I remember the applause at the title sequence, with its fortissimo orchestral tutti and thunderous timpani, and at that first money shot of the Enterprise at space dock, gleaming new and ready to go. But my reaction to it came from a place of relative indifference to Kirk and Co., in the sense that TOS was never my jam. While I wouldn’t call myself a Trekkie, Trek does hold a special place for me. As a kid, having a babysitter over meant only one thing: mac and cheese from a box, and The Next Generation. I loved Mike Okuda’s design, the elegant simplicity of the refined uniforms introduced in the third season, and the very 1980s swoopy shapes of the Enterprise-D. I definitely watched some of Deep Space Nine as it replaced the void left by TNG, but I didn’t really watch it until college, and neither Voyager nor Enterprise held my attention in the way that the preceding series did. Among the Trek movies that have come out during my lifetime so far, I think I would like to forget that I ever saw Generations (1994) or Nemesis (2002!) at all, let alone in theaters, but see them I did.
To be honest, until Star Trek came along in 2009, I thought that Trek, after the garbage of Nemesis, was perhaps finished as a franchise, at least on the silver screen. We would thank Trek for its contributions (no, this isn’t the opening move of a Marie Kondo maneuver), put it on a shelf, and henceforth pull it out whenever we needed a Trek fix. To this day, this is how I enjoy my Trek: an episode of TNG or DS9 whenever I’m in the mood. To be even more honest, I thought much the same of Star Wars after the last credits had rolled on Revenge of the Sith back in 2005. Thank you, next.
Boy was I wrong. J.J. Abrams is here to reboot your shit. All your shit.
The reboot is dead; long live the reboot. Historically speaking, it isn’t at all unusual for different artists and composers to have offered their own versions of the same subject or story. Monteverdi, Charpentier, and Gluck all tackled the story of Orpheus in their own way. How many martyrdoms of St. Sebastian—in ascending order of sexiness and descending order of actual martyrdom—are there? Dozens? Hundreds?
The reboot is different, though, because its premise isn’t necessarily rooted primarily in a filmmaker offering their own take on a non-proprietary subject, but rather in “the search for more money,” as Mel Brooks famously cracked in Spaceballs. Unlike multiple interpretations of operas or paintings, however, the reboot stands in opposition to a particular set of performances by a particular cast made at a particular moment in time, which makes the reboot a distinctly modern phenomenon. Nobody prior to the invention of recording technology would have thought about operating in such a context: when the modern Bach revival began in 1829 with Felix Mendelssohn leading the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion in a century, there was no video of Bach’s original performance against which Mendelssohn’s could be compared.
But whether the narrative runs into a natural conclusion, or the cast decide they’ve had enough—or both—every cinematic or television project eventually comes to a stop. Rebooting signals that an idea, moribund since the end of its previous incarnation(s) and perhaps thought to have run out of steam, is potentially still commercially profitable. And, as we humans are fundamentally lazy creatures, much better to wring new life out of familiar material than to invent from scratch.
All this applies to Star Trek, but repeat after me: Star Trek is not a reboot. It’s an origin movie.
From its opening scene all the way to its final scene, Star Trek gives us a view into the events that brought together the crew of the original Enterprise; in the chuckle-worthy words of James Doohan, “NCC-1701—no bloody A, B, C, or D.” It does so using a quintessentially Trek plot device: the alternate timeline, and at least Abrams does us the courtesy of waiting until slightly more than halfway through the movie, after a great deal of consternation, to spell it out. And while beloved TOS crewmembers Uhura (Zoë Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) all figure prominently, Star Trek, more than anything else, lavishes its focus on Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), and the rough-and-tumble development of their don’t-call-it-bromance relationship.
Star Trek begins with the circumstances of Kirk’s birth, proffers glimpses of both Kirk and Spock as kids with behavioral issues, then moves on to show something of Kirk’s years at Starfleet Academy with Bones and Uhura. When a crisis at Vulcan beckons, off they go under the command of Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who earlier in the film challenged Kirk to join Starfleet in the first place. Star Trek really wants you to think Kirk has daddy issues. This crisis at Vulcan, and Spock’s response to it, sets off a chain of events that, with the help of a little time travel, forge the bonds of a relationship for the ages. They’re BFFLs, my dudes, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Except, you see, it’s 2019, and anyone with a shred of zeitgeistliche awareness won’t fail to notice that Kirk’s entire ascent to the captain’s chair depends primarily not on his demonstrated ability, but often on being the loudest voice in the room. His irreverence oozes that quintessential nonchalance that often serves as one of the markers of male entitlement—only an entitled white dude hacks the Kobayashi Maru simulator test with nary a moment’s aforethought about the consequences. Uhura, a top student, has to browbeat Spock in order to get onto the Enterprise; Kirk, on academic probation, gets there with a bro-assist from Bones. What seems like mere hours later, Pike fast-tracks Kirk’s elevation, promoting him to first officer of the fucking flagship on the basis of one—admittedly crucial—constructive contribution. Probation? What probation?
You see, it’s 2019, and you can’t have watched a muckraking Trump bullshit his way to the Oval Office, or a dyspeptic Brett Kavanaugh get installed to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, and not draw parallels to how James Tiberius Kirk yells, provokes, and otherwise ignores the rules as he tries to assert himself within Starfleet. What’s more, Spock and the rest of the crew ultimately capitulate to Kirk’s behavior and view it as evidence of his worthiness for command. Star Trek glorifies this kind of boisterous, rowdy adventuring that, not coincidentally, draws a lot of influence from Westerns and men getting into manly scrapes. There’s not an exact parallel here, of course—Kirk is a fictional character, and the fact that Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court makes me want to vomit—but it’s pretty damned hard to watch Star Trek now without wondering if, two-and-a-half centuries into the future, we’ll still be watching a story we’ve seen played out a thousand times already. Even in 2258, we’re apparently still mostly failing the Bechdel test.
In addition to its utterly uncritical bro-centrism, Star Trek also suffers from some next-level plot issues, nearly all of which stem from one incredibly unfortunate source: “red matter.” Trek has rightly earned a reputation for its strained relationship with actual science, sometimes resorting to outright nonsense in order to make its plots work, and in this latter, “red matter” must surely rank alongside space-time-disrupting snakes.
For me, the biggest problems emerge from the sequence in which Nero destroys Vulcan. Spock beams down to try to save his parents as the planet is literally crumbling around him. One thing that has bothered me about this scene—apart from the absurd gravitational implications—is that he finds his parents and their fellow Vulcan elders in what appears to be a religious shrine. While Trek has long flirted with the Vulcans having a religious identity despite their famed devotion to logic, the idea that the thing that influential members of Vulcan society (recall, Sarek is a member of the elite Science Academy) would do when faced with danger is to—pray?—just seems like sloppy storytelling. On top of all this, the Vulcans don’t even put up a fight, or attempt to destroy the Romulan drill? This is…illogical.
It’s worth noting that I wrote this critique less than a week before I found myself staring, dumbstruck, at a live feed of horrifying cultural destruction in progress, in the form of a massive fire that consumed the roof and steeple of Notre Dame in Paris with terrifying speed. I felt slightly sickened watching helpless onlookers at a standstill, who knew they were powerless to do anything but cry or pray—or both.
I’m not sure I appreciated ten years ago just how slyly Abrams slips something rather stupendously upsetting into his narrative—or the likely extent of the banality with which viewers received this set of events. Trek has sometimes grappled with the ethical complexities of genocide, notably in the TNG episode “I, Borg” and in the story arc of final-season DS9 that deals with a virus created by Section 31 to wipe out the shapeshifting founders of the Dominion. Star Trek, though, treats it as just another plot point; the narrative focus remains narrowly trained on a micro-level, that of a cross-temporal personal vendetta of Nero against Spock, while the enormity of the macro-level stays dully and incomprehensibly out of view. So there you go, kids: J.J. Abrams just casually dropped some casual genocide in your breakfast cereal, just to support an explanation of how Kirk and Spock came to be lifelong friends.
This is all not to say that Star Trek isn’t without its selling points. It’s generally a fun film; I’ve re-watched it more over the last ten years than I usually re-watch most films. I appreciate that Abrams makes being in Starfleet feel a bit dangerous—a contrast to previous incarnations of Trek that typically papered over the very real possibility of death on the job with some slightly patrician, “dulce et decorum est”-type pablum. For this reason, some longtime Trek fans disparaged Star Trek for being more action-oriented, with less of the cerebral/philosophical ethos traditionally associated with Trek. While I generally don’t agree with the recent critical trend of assuming that “dedicated fan” is just a euphemism for “hater,” I do think that action and philosophical depth aren’t mutually exclusive. Credit where credit is due—Abrams nudges Trek toward something that feels a little more realistic. They may still not be shown on screen, but I have less trouble believing that this Enterprise has bathrooms.
Contributing to this sense of increased realism, Dan Mindel’s cinematography does its best to remind the viewer of the relative size and scale of things; shots of the Narada and its drill are done particularly well. Michael Giacchino’s score, while perhaps not particularly memorable, is capably executed and brings the right kind of grandeur and rowdy energy to the movie. We have the requisite heroic brass cues, as well as the erhu performing its usual role as a musical marker of the exotic—in this case, for the Vulcans. (For my money, the most musically interesting cues actually happen during the closing credits, where Giacchino blends the famous TOS theme with cues from his original score.) The performances, broadly speaking, are similarly solid in execution. Star Trek could plausibly bear the subtitle The Apotheosis of Spock, and Quinto rises to meet the challenge of the movie’s focus on his character. Simon Pegg, as Scotty, delivers perhaps the most colorful performance of the film. The weakest performances belong, somewhat strangely, to the Romulan villains, especially Eric Bana’s anemic Nero. In many ways, the Romulans are more like incidental antagonists than villains. And, as a final point in Star Trek’s favor, it must be said: Pine’s Kirk is several orders of magnitude hotter than Shatner’s.
Still, all of these things don’t necessarily point the way to a new future for Trek. If anything, the film self-consciously nods toward the past. This feels particularly evident, for example, during Chekhov’s mission briefing, delivered as the Enterprise is on its way to answer the distress call from Vulcan. Yelchin, shown struggling to distinguish “v” from “w,” arguably performs a caricature of Russian-ness straight out of the Cold War that most of us today would probably deem culturally insensitive, à la the Chinese restaurant from A Christmas Story. For those with sharp ears, this little scene also gives fans one last chance to hear Majel Barrett, widow of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, as the voice of the Enterprise computer, a role she regularly inhabited over the course of decades. (She died within weeks of recording this single line.)
Oh, and lest we forget, the OG Spock himself shows up at strategic moments in the film like a fairy godmother, quietly working to make sure everything turns out all right in the end, such as by casually providing Scotty with the equation for achieving trans-warp beaming. Leonard Nimoy was the Kelvin timeline’s living, breathing link back to Trek canon—not exactly what you want if you’re trying to establish a raison d’être for a new crop of Trek films.
I grant that it’s no enviable task, taking characters known the world over and giving them a prelude or postlude whilst trying to seem creatively fresh. And Abrams comes damn close. But, for all its lens flares and alternate timeline machinations, Star Trek, while fun to watch, doesn’t actually make a creative case for more Trek, just as The Force Awakens doesn’t really make a creative case for more Star Wars. If, as Manohla Dargis writes in her New York Times review, Pine and Quinto have distilled the characters’ respective “Kirk-ness and Spock-ness,” then we are ultimately dealing with familiar characters who in theory will respond to events in familiar ways. They’re just a bit younger now, is all. How about a radically different kind of Trek, such as one written from the point of view of any of the non-human races? What would they talk about? What would be important to them? How would they handle situations? Can Trek even be Trek if it’s not written from the Federation’s perspective? How can we anchor a fresh narrative with references to familiar ground, without robbing it of creative energy?
Trek actually accomplished this once before: Deep Space Nine kicked off its narrative with the Battle of Wolf 359, a pivotal part of “The Best of Both Worlds,” the two-part story that ends TNG’s Season 3 and opens Season 4 (and still, in this author’s humble opinion, one of the better cliffhangers). It provided just enough background to introduce a fledgling DS9 audience to Captain Sisko, and for the most part DS9 avoided further references to TNG, developing its own distinct ethos and exploring Trek as a serial, rather than episodic, project. To be sure, this is an imperfect example, given that two of TNG’s major characters—Michael Dorn as Worf and Colm Meaney as Miles O’Brien—also figure heavily in DS9, lending it a direct linkage to a prior incarnation of Trek. Though it debuted with TNG still on the air, DS9 undeniably went its own distinctive way, prophets and wraiths and all.
The point still stands, though. What if we had a Trek project written from a Romulan perspective? It could reference battles with the Enterprise or other known encounters between the Federation and the Romulans, but not freight them with the burden of having to fit into existing Trek canon beyond a few superficial details. Or what about introducing and centering an entirely new culture? What kind of interesting challenge to liberate ourselves from a human-centered narrative, to make humans the Other. Such an approach seems especially relevant now, when the jury’s out on whether we can coexist with people of differing cultures and convictions (and no, bigotry is not a matter of conviction) without endlessly screaming obscenities at each other or being suspicious of those who are different. Such an approach can broaden the canon of Trek material without retreading well-trodden paths or demanding that the central characters and their stories be targeted for what capitalism blithely calls “creative destruction.” I’ve disgorged no small number of words throughout several of my 10YA re-views in which I’ve tried to work through my own feelings about being—to some degree, anyway—a canonist in a canon-buster’s world. And I think, perhaps, a lot of those feelings come from a deeply anti-capitalist place. Because Mel Brooks was right, of course. Had George Lucas stopped after Return of the Jedi and not foisted Episodes I–III upon us, dayenu. Had Peter Jackson made two Hobbit films instead of three, dayenu. Had Disney made Pirates of the Caribbean and not followed it with four (and counting) sequels, dayenu. The quality of the stories is obviously taking a back seat to the lure of more profit, and if that’s going to be the case, I’d rather those movies not be made in the first place. Time and money not spent on making Episodes X–XIX is time and money maybe spent on giving someone else’s ideas a chance. I’m not gonna part with my hard-earned dollars just because someone thinks I should. I will not sign up for CBS to get Trek, Disney+ to get Star Wars, and Netflix for everything that’s not on Amazon. I will not shut up; do not take my money.
With more Trek series to come and a veritable deluge of Star Wars projects on the horizon, I feel saddened for both creations, for each feels rendered undead: they do not exude a vital energy, but they also refuse to be left alone, to be retired with dignity. Temporally speaking, the Kelvin timeline lingers still, being neither wrapped up as an alternate reality nor definitively finished as a commercial venture; with Abrams having already passed the torch, without Pine as Kirk, and especially without the late Anton Yelchin as Chekhov, it’s hard to see the Kelvin timeline boldly going anywhere.
The irony in all this is that Roddenberry accepted as his starting premise that humanity had survived its adolescence, matured, and done away with a lot of the material and moral evils that plagued us in preceding centuries. Capitalism, by definition, is anathema to this kind of utopian project, and yet the present state of Roddenberry’s own creation now exemplifies capitalism in perhaps its most ridiculous, unrepentant form.
Star Trek strikes me, ten years later, as more like Mary Poppins Returns than the start of something fresh over-promising to bring Trek to a new generation, especially given that the franchise has skewed ever more heavily toward a pre-TOS Trek—rumors of a new Picard-focused series notwithstanding—even as the chief audience for Trek feature films and rent-seeking CBS streaming series grows ever further away from people old enough to remember when TOS Trek was the only Trek. I haven’t seen Star Trek: Discovery, but I know that its era is the era of William Riker’s grandfather—if not great-grandfather. Like Mary Poppins Returns, Abrams’ Star Trek shines as a paean to the magic of the original creation. Like the former, I wish the latter could feel satisfied with that achievement.
I don’t know yet if Trek is headed for the same fatigue that recently prompted Slate writer Sam Adams—no relation to the Boston brewery— to ask: “How can I miss Star Wars when it won’t go away?” I have no objection to these corpora as living works of art, but it feels like each additional entry is fighting for a piece of the same turf when there’s more than enough space for everyone to coexist without infringing upon another’s territory. But the fact that the fatigue not only exists, but has become a meme, should signal that perhaps we’re deluding ourselves just a little bit when we talk about “reboots” and “bringing [franchise name] to a new generation.” This bland phrase, with its convenient openness to interpretation, remains above all a euphemism for testing the limits of profit-making. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m here for diverse characters, and I’m not about to throw out the representational baby with the capitalist bathwater.) Beyond the avarice of a few companies wealthy enough to have acquired the intellectual property rights to some franchise or other, I hope that we come to realize that the reboot itself is mostly a lie. When you reboot your computer, the only data you might lose is anything that hasn’t been written to persistent storage; otherwise, your files are the same, right where you left them. They don’t go away unless, well, you delete them.
I dearly hope that someday soon we can come around to a more KonMari* way of looking at franchises. Trust me, you don’t need a series about Wedge Antilles or a movie that officially kills the Picard-Crusher relationship (yes, I’m a shipper). Your imagination, to say nothing of prolific internet fanfic, will serve you quite well. Abrams and Co. have so far not shown any interest in revisiting TNG, and I can only hope that when the nostalgia train comes for the Enterprise-D, at least we won’t have to live through Lwaxana Troi again.
* I’m not actually a Marie Kondo fan. Somewhere in that KonMari craze, people seemed to forget that you have to be privileged enough in the first place to have enough stuff to need pruning and tidying up. But “thanking” things for their contributions has entered the lexicon by dint of Kondo’s surge in popularity, and that ain’t nothing.
In doing a wee bit of research for this re-view, I find myself stunned by how many reviewers engaged in wanton armchair psychology with regard to Kirk and Spock, and by how many reviewers—often the same ones—just plain got their facts wrong about the time-travel device that even makes the movie possible. Nero doesn’t intentionally travel back in time to fuck with past Spock any more than Old Spock travels back in time for the purpose of imparting wisdom to his younger self. It was accidental, y’all, and Old Spock says so: he was trying to stop a cataclysmic supernova (let’s not even mention how a single supernova cannot possibly threaten a meaningful chunk of the galaxy) from destroying Romulus, but he was too late; he created the black hole using the “red matter” and somehow neither he nor the Narada could avoid getting sucked in. It’s only after the Kelvin’s Captain Robau (Faran Tahir, who slayed as Richard in Commonwealth Shakespeare’s Richard III last summer here in Boston) tells Ayel the current stardate that Nero, realizing what has happened, goes apeshit and impales Robau on the spot.
It’s time for a short astrophysics lesson, kids. Most of you know that a black hole consumes anything that strays too near its enormous gravitational pull, including light. Exactly at what point this gravitational forces becomes inescapable is commonly called the event horizon—more properly known as the black hole’s Schwarzschild radius. This radius increases linearly with the mass consumed by the black hole (for non-rotating black holes, anyway).
So what’s my point?
My point is that drilling to the center of a planet is totally fucking unnecessary. The Romulans could have detonated the “red matter” literally anywhere on the surface and the black hole would have consumed that matter, grown larger, sucked up more planet, grown larger, until poof!—no more Vulcan. It doesn’t matter where you drop the stone in the pond; it still creates ripples. But then we wouldn’t have gotten that baller special effects shot of Vulcan cannibalizing itself. Check.
Also, if it only takes a tiny droplet of “red matter” to collapse an entire planet, why is there a giant fucking globe full of the stuff on board Spock’s Vulcan ship? Would you ever, ever travel with that much of something *that* dangerous? Wouldn’t you just take a couple of pre-made charges? Dear Vulcans, the illogic is killing me. And, incidentally, it’s killing you too.
— Max DeCurtins