With our second re-view of Star Trek 2009, Sarah Kremen-Hicks bemoans how the parts that were Star Trek weren’t new, and the parts that were new weren’t Star Trek. But hey, at least we have Discovery now.
I have been a Star Trek fan since I learned how to wiggle the rabbit ears on my father’s tiny black-and-white TV, so you better believe I was in the theatre for J. J. Abrams’ 2009 nuTrek reboot, Star Trek: The Complete Lack of Subtitles, the weekend it opened. And I have been in love-hate with it ever since.
2009 was a dark time for Trek fans. Enterprise had ended four years earlier, after only getting four seasons (we’d been spoiled by seven seasons each for Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager), and it was also responsible for releasing That Theme Song into the world. We hadn’t been without a Star Trek fix since Next Generation had started in 1987, and now we were adrift in the void, without even streaming video services to help us weather it.
And here was a movie. 126 minutes of brand new Star Trek adventure. Except … it wasn’t. The parts that were Star Trek weren’t new, and the parts that were new weren’t Star Trek. Sure, we got characters with familiar names, but it was like reading fanfiction with tone-deaf characterization. And so many space battles! Star Trek had never been about space battles on this scale. Yes, there was the odd encounter with a Romulan Bird of Prey that strayed into the Neutral Zone, but the heart of the show was always either on the ship or down on strange planets. It’s almost as though J. J. Abrams wanted to make an entirely different movie. Something about a … war? Among the stars?
Where Star Trek, especially the original series, had always been about exploration, boldly going, and Space Joy, nuTrek gave us Space Cynicism. “Live long and prosper” has been said with a number of different inflections over the years, but it has always clearly been an important part of Vulcan culture. As well it might be—the hand sign for it was derived from the Jewish priestly blessing, and it retains some of that gravitas. The first time we hear it in nuTrek, however, young Spock says it to the head of the Vulcan Science Academy when he rejects an offer to join their ranks, and it clearly means “fuck you.” That’s how we know this is a dystopian timeline—Spock Prime might disrespect individual Vulcans, but he would never disrespect Vulcan culture like that. That tells you everything you need to know about nuTrek’s approach: no one is exploring here, they’re just responding to deadly force with deadlier force in space.
Moreover, the movie tries to cut corners by relying on nostalgia that it never earns. It banks on us being so glad to see Jim Kirk again that we won’t notice that it never takes time to develop his character. It tells us he’s brilliant, but we never see it in action. All we see of him is a bad boy who gets in bar fights and has PG-13 underwear romps with aliens. If that’s genius, I’m going to have to reevaluate a whole lot of my high school classmates.
Ultimately, there isn’t enough time to create any kind of bond with the characters, and so the big emotional payoffs don’t work. Kirk and Spock aren’t friends? Oh, okay, I guess they’re going to punch each other again. It’s nicely choreographed, and the blood is oh-so-pretty against the stark white bridge set, but the very fact that the technical details stand out means it isn’t working. When they suddenly become friends and decide to work together, it’s all for the convenience of the plot, and I don’t have any sense of happiness that the band is back together. This comes to a head in the sequel, Star Trek into Darkness, when Kirk dies in the inverse of Wrath of Khan’s climactic scene. When someone screams “KHAAAAAAN” into space, and I don’t cry—well, honey, you’ve got problems.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t pretty. Zoe Saldana and John Cho may be two of the most beautiful humans ever to grace a screen, and Anton Yelchin was more adorable than a basket full of baby hedgehogs. The Enterprise bridge set shows off how far special effects have come since 1966, and what you can do when you have an actual budget. I’d be willing to bet that none of the costumes in the film were made from shower curtains. But everything is so sleek, and smooth, it doesn’t feel like Star Trek anymore. Leonard Nimoy’s face might have been contoured to the edge of what the human mind can handle in the original series, but it still had geography. Zachary Quinto, on the other hand, just looks like he’s been mummified under layers of primer.
The moments that seem to be trying to channel ’60s camp look out of place on an Enterprise bridge that feels like walking into an Apple store. The primary-colored uniforms, which now seem to be made of sports mesh, don’t so much seem like a callback to the original series as they do a study in “how to pop against white walls.” The riot of color and spinning lights is missing from the bridge, and the uniforms read differently because of the lack—instead of fitting in, they stand out, and that makes the ship, for all its fancy special effects, fade into the background.
That speaks to the worst part of nuTrek: there’s no poetry. To be fair, Spock does quote Sherlock Holmes, but where’s my Shelley? My classical allusions? Where’s my Shakespeare? In the opening sequence when Kirk is born, his mother suggests that they should name him after his paternal grandfather, to which his father replies “Tiberius? That’s the worst!”—a flat denial of the classical thread running through earlier versions. In contrast, the original series crew once beamed down to a planet where they were held captive by Apollo. Original series titles included “Who Mourns for Adonais,” “Is There in Truth No Beauty,” and “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.” When J. J. Abrams refashioned the franchise as a summer blockbuster, he named it … Star Trek. He swapped Shakespeare for the Beastie Boys and called it classical music, and while I do love Ill Communication, it just isn’t the same.
But none of that could entirely overcome that fact that in 2009, if I hadn’t had this film, I would have been Trek-less, and that seemed worse. After all, a thing with Spock is always demonstrably better than a thing with no Spock, especially when that Spock is occasionally Leonard Nimoy. Star Trek had gotten me through tough times before, and I couldn’t face not having it to help me through a toddler who treated sleep as an arch-nemesis. So I spent ten years trying to rationalize why nuTrek wasn’t so bad. Maybe I was just being a fussy fan, hating that this new thing wasn’t like the other thing. Maybe I needed to appreciate its study of the effects of a dystopian alternate reality on character dynamics and how it impacts Kirk and Spock’s journey toward friendship. Maybe I just needed to chill and enjoy the lens flares. And I’m so sorry, Gene Roddenberry—sometimes I believed it.
NuTrek is like the person you start dating when you aren’t really over your ex: you’re getting laid on the regular, they’re really pretty, and they’re kind of nice, even. Maybe, without anyone else to compare them to, you could really fall for them. You tell yourself this is fine, this can work, and sometimes that’s good enough. But when you’re honest with yourself, there’s just no spark. You’re just in this because you’ve gotten used to Thai food for two on Saturday nights, and you don’t want to go back to having to decide on a single dish. But the thing is, eventually, you’re going to meet someone who sparks again, and then you’re going to realize that an extra plate of Swimming Rama doesn’t make up for the fact that you’ve just been enduring this relationship, not enjoying it.
My friends, let me introduce you to Discovery. Sorry, nuTrek, I don’t need you anymore.
In 2017, Star Trek returned to the small screen with a show starring Spock’s human sister and a bridge crew chock full of women, POC, and the first openly gay characters in the TV version of the franchise (suck it, Rick Berman). Discovery clearly adores its source material—you can see that in the set design of the Enterprise in season two. The vibrant colors are back, and the weird spinning thing, and there are nonsensical lights flashing everywhere because that is how you science. And with episode titles like “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry” and “Such Sweet Sorry,” I’ve got my poetry back as well.
Discovery’s Spock may not have eyeshadow, and that is a damned shame, but Sonequa Martin-Green sporting I’m-going-to-eat-your-wife-in-every-sense-of the-word red lipstick as she faces down the season one big bad with cleverness instead of photon torpedoes is everything I’d forgotten I needed.
If Discovery is a love letter to TOS, nuTrek is a 2am string of texts consisting of a dick pic and increasingly aggressive demands for attention, culminating in “fuck you, bitch, you’re fat anyway.” And, sweetheart, I do not need your validation, because I’ve got my Space Joy back.
— Sarah Kremen-Hicks