I may be talking out of my butt here because I haven’t seen the latest Star Trek movie, but here’s why I’m having doubts about the whole “reboot” enterprise. (Warning: There is an unavoidable BIG spoiler coming, regarding Into the Darkness. I will give two more warnings.)
When I saw, the first Abrams’ version, I liked it because it offered the promise of new adventures with the original characters. Not only that, but because it was a reboot – anything could happen. Characters we love could die without messing up the old timeline because the old timeline had already disappeared, which is not the same as saying it never happened. It did. Old Spock is proof of that.
Did I have reservations? Sure. I hated the idea that Spock – moral, upright Spock, was somehow responsible for the destruction of his entire planet – or rather setting in motion, inadvertently, the forces that led to its destruction. That felt like too much for him to bear. But it was an entertaining movie, and the parts I might have thought about went by too quickly for me to think about them.
However, this past weekend the better half and I watched Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home, and combining that with reading meh reviews for Into the Darkness, I’ve been thinking about what might have gone wrong.
We don’t love original, old-timey Star Trek for the cheesy sets, the mini-skirts or the way the computer screens light up. We love it because of the accidental chemistry between Kirk and Spock. We love it because as Edith Keeler said to Spock regarding where she thinks he belongs, “at his [Kirk’s] side as if you’ve always been there and always will.”
It’s about the characters, stupid.
And here’s the thing about iconic fictional characters, the more we get to know them, the deeper we love them. Experience changes them. Maybe not in big ways, but in subtle ones we watchers and readers track. We learn information over time. Holmes has a brother, Moriarty is his mortal enemy. There are cases that don’t go the way they should and these leave a mark forever. For Holmes, Irene Adler will always be “the woman.” Picard takes up an alien flute after his probe experience, and is never the same after the Borg’s get him. We know what it means when he plays that flute. Spock takes Jim out of “this damned place” (Spoiler is coming on next page. There’ll be a final warning!) and back the future after Jim causes (by not allowing McCoy to prevent) the death of the aforementioned Edith Keeler, and saves the world. Years later, Spock will sacrifice himself for the crew – the good of the many outweighing the good of the few. And then Kirk will risk everything to save him, and the cycle will continue with both of them saving the planet by bringing back whales.
Meantime, in another timeline – we have what? Some attractive young people with familiar names and a few leftover mannerisms. Because the timeline change happened twenty-five years before the events in the first film, even their personal histories aren’t the same. Kirk grew up without a father and is a little more of a bad boy and less of a boy scout.
I can’t invest in these new people. It took many hours of television (several seasons) to establish the relationships and the rhythms. After the series was cancelled, we waited years for the movie and they didn’t get it right. Why was the original motion picture a failure? Simple. It was about the effects and not the people. They got it right in The Wrath of Khan, kept it right in The Search for Spock and nailed it completely in The Voyage Home.
Some people dismiss The Voyage Home for being too light. However, it’s earnestness and message – We better start saving the planet NOW because Kirk may not be there to go back in time and save us later – seems both relevant and true to the brand. All of the humor was character based – Scotty getting to work another engineering miracle, and getting to say, “Thar’ be whales here.” Chekov trying to find the “nuclear wessels,” Kirk never being as suave as thinks he is – you can take the boy out of Iowa but …
The fate of the earth is at stake but there’s no arch-villain, just a bunch of pissed off Klingons. The probe that may destroy us was on a peaceful mission. It was humanity’s own shortsightedness and greed that led to the crisis. It’ll be teamwork that gets us out. All this is consistent with Roddenberry’s vision.
There’s even more for a trekker to love. Gillian Taylor, the whale expert, is the kind of dame Kirk falls for hard. Like Edith Keeler she’s smart and forward thinking, and even, like that mission gal, has a thing for “hard cases.” She’s also out of the past, but at least this time Kirk doesn’t have to watch her die. I’m certain the writers were conscious of this, and imagine Shatner, was too.
Granted seeing the line between Edith and Gillian is not necessary for the enjoyment of the film, but for those in the know it deepens it. It’s my personal favorite Trek movie because it has everything I want in a Trek movie – drama, adventure, a little romance, referential humor, and a positive message about the future, or as Edith Keeler put it back during the depression “the days worth living for.”
Which brings back to Into the Darkness. The reviews mention the bad guy played by Benedict Cumberbatch goes by the name Harrison, but turns out to have a name we already know. It took me one guess and five seconds on the Internet, and I thought, “That’s lame.”
(Final warning! ABORT NOW if you don’t want to know.)
The arch-villian turns out to be Khan. I’m not sure why I thought it was lame, probably because it was so easy for me to guess. In one sense, it was clever. The events that led to Khan’s going into the deep freeze happened long before the timeline changed, so The Botany Bay would still be floating somewhere out in space, but here’s the thing – Ricardo Montalban was iconic in that role. He may have been playing a Sikh, but he brought an incredible Latin passion to the role, not to mention a rather well-developed physique. We cared about him in The Wrath of Khan because he was so memorable in his debut episode. It was genius to construct a sequel film around him, and around his interactions with Kirk. The plot of The Wrath of Khan, made it clear his hatred of Kirk was personal. While Kirk thought he was doing Khan a favor – finding an uninhabited planet on which to set him down with his followers, Khan viewed it as a curse. In the original episode, Kirk was doing a very Kirk like-thing, what he thought of as the right thing, which led fifteen years later to tragic consequences. That was the arch and that was why the movie worked.
Khan is much less interesting when played by anyone other than Ricardo Montalban, and when you take away his wrath and his relationship to Kirk.
So, if you’ve never understood the appeal of the series to begin with, might I suggest heading over to Hulu, not to binge watch the whole thing, but to take in a few of the better episodes, starting with City on the Edge of Forever?