Sunday, May 17, 2009

Born Again Trek

Note:  I have some minor qualms, now, borrowing the title of Julia Ecklar's song about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, having read her blog and seeing that she did not like the new movie.  However, that's the nature of creative works: they mean different things to different people, so I'm sticking with it.  I've planned to use the song ever since I -- ever so slowly -- began to hope that maybe, maybe, Star Trek would be...good.

Also, this will be long, because I have this need to justify my opinions that is ridiculous, as everyone's opinion is, of course, valid.  It's just that I've been involved in fandom long enough to know that everything -- anything -- can be hugely polarizing and I know that for every me (and Wil Wheaton, ahem) there is a Julia Ecklar.

Naturally, there will be massive spoilers below.

Star Trek has been a huge part of my life for a long time.  When I was five, my dad -- a longtime fan and early tech adopter -- was testing out his new VCR and showed me a tape of "The Trouble With Tribbles."

The first movie I saw in a movie theater was Star Trek III: The Search for Spock -- I had recently seen (and been traumatized by) The Wrath of Khan at home.

I will never forget the day a couple of years later, sitting with my dad and his parents (his dad was also a fan), watching a c-band satellite feed of "Encounter at Farpoint" while a nine-month-old Patrick wailed in the bathroom as he was getting a bath.  He could point to all the characters in both shows before he could talk.

For years, on Saturday mornings, I would get up early (anyone who knows me knows what that says about how I felt about Trek) to watch c-band feeds of TNG, then Deep Space Nine, then early seasons of Voyager.

Meanwhile, George Lucas released the prequel movies, and I saw a fandom -- of which I was not a part -- explode with rage.  I never quite got it -- but, then, I was never a huge fan of Star Wars.  By the time I saw Phantom Menace, I'd seen A New Hope three or four times and the rest of the trilogy once.  I was -- and am -- a fan of the music, but that was about it.  I didn't hate the prequels, or the re-released movies, because they weren't violating something I cared about as deeply as a devoted Star Wars fan would.  I didn't get it.

Then Enterprise premiered, and the creative team behind that betrayed Star Trek as thoroughly as some believe George Lucas betrayed Star Wars.  Why betrayed?

Because it was evident, in the first two minutes of the show, that the producers either didn't know or didn't care about Trek history.  The people writing a prequel -- a story about Trek's history -- didn't. Get. It.

Only a couple of years earlier, Deep Space Nine's creative team payed homage to Trek's 30th anniversary by writing "Trials and Tribbleations" -- a brilliant blend of new and old that forever changed my perception of the scene where all the tribbles fall on Kirk's head, because I know that the last few stragglers falling out of the hold are actually being tossed by Dax and Sisko as they desperately search for a bomb.

That episode also has a short, brilliant scene in which Bashir, O'Brien, and Worf observe the classic bar fight.  When they realize who the guys in the bar are, they are massively confused.  "Those are Klingons?" they ask, referring to the utterly human-seeming aliens.

"We do not discuss it with outsiders," Worf replies stiffly.

That meshes beautifully with Trek history.  In The Motion Picture, the Klingons are beginning to have small bumps on their foreheads.  By The Undiscovered Country, the Klingons there resemble Worf and The Next Generation's Klingons.

Except that in the first two minutes of Enterprise, a Klingon running across a field on Earth looks like he could be Worf's long-lost cousin.  This is not a time traveller from the future, which I could have forgiven.  This was how they had Klingons look.


Either they had never seen an episode of the original series, or some bean counter had decided that new Trek fans themselves had never seen an episode of the original series and therefore would not know that the person was a Klingon, and they went for expediency rather than logical story telling.

To be fair, in the fourth seasons, new consultants (and Trek novelists) Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens managed to at least explain the discrepancy, but by then it was too late.

I understood, then, how Star Wars fans felt when Han shot first, or know.

With that bitter taste in my mouth, news that the new Star Trek would be a "reboot" of the original series, with a whole new cast playing the iconic characters worried me.  Surely it would be better to explore some distant future on the Enterprise-H, or to mine, say, the conflict of the Dominion War with an entirely different ship, if you really wanted to make a new Trek with a new cast.

At that point, I wasn't even sure I would see it in theaters, particularly when J.J. Abrams said that he wasn't really a Star Trek fan from the beginning.  What he did say -- and what didn't resonate with me until I saw it mentioned in Wil Wheaton's review here -- is that he was a Star Wars fan, and probably felt as outraged by the prequels and re-issued editions that most die-hard Star Wars fans felt, and therefore understood.

At the time, he didn't know Trek, but he knew what it was to have something you loved be ripped to shreds.

And then, they revealed the writers.

Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

Y'see, I knew those names.  They were staff writers for at least Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and possibly Xena as well.

At one point, they wrote a hilarious, self-referential episode called "Yes, Virginia, There is a Hercules."  It was brilliant, I admit, even if the male writing staff did end up -- ahem -- humming the theme song while doing their...personal bathroom the restroom.

And, of course, it left me with this image of Orci and Kurtzman.  (And, yes, I know it was a sendup...still....)

Here Orci and Kurtzman are shown living in a storage room at the Renaissance Pictures offices.  And while I realize this is satirical and self-referential...somehow, it was hard to picture them writing blockbuster movies.

Meanwhile, other casting news trickled out.  
Zachary Quinto as Spock -- who, although he does bear a remarkable resemblance to a young Leonard Nimoy, is mostly known for playing a psychopathic, sociopathic serial killer.

Winona Ryder, of all people, as Spock's mother Amanda.

And...Karl Urban as McCoy.

Now, I realize that to most of you, "Karl Urban" equates to "Eomer" in Lord of the Rings

Having spent several years watching Hercules and Xena with Patrick, "Karl Urban" means two things.

First, Karl Urban means Cupid:

And Karl Urban also means Caesar, Julius Caesar -- which is how he always introduced himself on the show.

As the reviews trickled in, I simultaneously tried to avoid being too spoiled while still seeking out the opinions of people whose opinions I trust.

Many were positive.  Some, like Wil Wheaton, were outright ecstatic.

Of course, there was also some talk about a "fan backlash."  But the thing is -- fandom is like that.  

Some people like the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Some were ready to crucify J.K. Rowling for it.

Some people think Dollhouse is great.  Some think it's sexist drivel.

Just try asking people who the best Trek captain is, or whether Trek is better than Babylon 5 or Star Wars and vice versa.

There is very little uniformity of opinion in fandom.  I still remember the venomous disagreements between X-files 'shippers and "no-romos," or people who were convinced that focusing on the characters' relationship would destroy the soul of the show.

So I tried to go into the movie with an open mind.

It.  Rocked.

Okay, there were some plot holes, the most glaring of which to me was why a pregnant woman would be on a starship of that era -- TNG's Enterprise was supposed to be the first to carry families, and this was happening before Nero's timeline-altering incursion into the past. 

I could buy a turbine in a starship if it is some sort of coolant, though that seems...suspicious.  

Then, of course, there is the strange chain of command issue where a cadet can become captain, but this is Star Trek.  Even the original Kirk was the youngest in the fleet.

Star Trek had the feel of the original.  One criticism I had skimmed over mentioned that it wasn't moralistic in the way of the original show -- and mentioned the original's (get this) subtlety in its message.

Yes, you read that right.

Star Trek, of "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" fame.  Subtle.

Uh huh.

Frankly, I always found the "here comes the message" moments distracting and over the top.  "Let That Be" being the most egregious offender, but hardly the only one.  TNG's episode "The Outcast" comes to mind, as do countless moments in other shows.

Star Trek's greatest strength, in terms of its message, was what it didn't say.  It was in the fact that it didn't comment on Uhura's presence on the bridge, or Chekov's, or Sulu's.  It was in the quiet moments, where the message was there for us to absorb if we wished.

I would argue that this Trek has a message too, in Nero's quest for revenge.  It's interesting that there are moments that hearken back to Star Trek II -- the slug (in the mouth, not the ear, but ewwww), the Kobayashi Maru, the death of a planet (oh, Vulcan!), and Nero's quest for revenge that takes the planet but is ultimately about Spock.

Nero's quest for revenge takes so much, and he is ultimately killed by his own weapon.  He's killed by his own desire for vengeance.

Much of what I liked about this movie was in the little moments: the copious references to 47, McCoy's "green blooded hobgoblin" and "you're out of your Vulcan mind," Spock's delighted reaction (though he tries to hide it) when Kirk almost literally falls on him from out of the sky, Spock later watching as Kirk gets his first medal (which, my mother reminded me, hearkens back to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home -- if your plan doesn't work, you get a court martial; if it does and you save the world, you get a medal, a commendation, and a ship to command).  

Unlike the writers of Enterprise, Kurtzman and Orci at least know their Trek: McCoy joined up when his wife divorced him, Kirk beat the Kobayashi Maru by cheating, and the names -- many of which were never stated in their entirety in the show.  Pavel Andreivich Chekov.  Hikaru Sulu (though we might have gotten a Hikaru in one of the later movies; not sure).  Nyota Uhura (I'm virtually certain we never heard Uhura's first name).  Kohlinar.

The movie also had a good story, that followed the classic Trek formula -- teaser, credits, story, ending on the bridge.

It's also a classic Trek story with an interesting distinction -- Spock failed.  When was the last time Spock failed?  

Of course, he ultimately succeeds, and goes on to help rebuild Vulcan society.  

I appreciated the flash of humor that "live long and prosper" might seem self-serving, as well.  Clearly Old Spock has grown quiet comfortable with himself and who he is since last we saw him in "Reunification."

And when Spock -- our Spock, old Spock -- began the final narration...I confess that I gasped.  I hadn't even noticed it was missing until he began speaking.

Other random things I really liked:
  • Uhura and Spock.  There were, if you were so inclined to look, references to perhaps something going on in TOS -- Uhura singing as Spock played his lyre, for instance.  A couple of books made slightly more of it.  I didn't find it disturbing at all.
  • Kirk's reaction to Spock knowing Uhura's name -- and Spock's response (something along the lines of "I have no comment on the matter").
  • The rescue pod telling Kirk that it was dangerous to get out, and him promptly getting right out.
  • Sulu having an expandable sword.  That was just too cool.
  • That Kirk grew up in Iowa.  It's just a tiny throwaway line in The Voyage Home -- "I'm from Iowa; I only work in outer space" -- but again, it just shows that the writers knew their stuff.
  • The Enterprise.  That's one pretty ship.
  • The warp nacelle on top of the Kelvin's bridge.  I don't know why, but that just tickled me.
  • Flying to the Enterprise for the first time, when McCoy puts aside his fear and is mesmerized enough to call for Kirk's attention.
  • Spock and Spock talking.
  • McCoy and Spock talking after Kirk gets thrown off the ship.
  • Uhura asking Spock, "What do you need?" and her reluctant but tearful acceptance of his honest answer.  There's a scene in the novel Uhura's Song where Spock catches Uhura emulating Vulcan emotional control.  When he calls her out on this, she points out that everyone expects him to adapt to and understand them, but no one thinks to do this for him.
  • Spock's "fascinating" as the control chair in the little ship rotates itself.
  • The look on Kirk's face when he asks Spock about his father in the other timeline -- you can see the simultaneous longing for that reality and the resolve settling in to do what he must in this one.
  • "I'm givin' her all she's got, Captain!"
  • There's a fun symmetry with Old Spock giving Scotty the right formula for his new technology -- which hearkens back to Star Trek IV's scene in which Scotty gives the scientist the formula for transparent aluminum.  (This is headache-inducing, but...well...Our Enterprise Crew took the whales back into the past so they are existing in a past without Nero's timeline changes, but this crew will in the future be different from that are there whales in San Francisco or not?)
  • These people write Vulcans better than any Trek writer has in a long time.  Tuvok was insufferably arrogant and superior, and T'Pol was...well, T'Pol.  (Granted, the Enterprise writers decided that Vulcan culture had...well...corrupted Surak's teaching, but anyway....)
  • The scene in the Vulcan school reminded me strongly of the scene in Star Trek IV where Spock is "re-training his mind" -- drilling with a computer.
  • Calling out for Nurse Chapel -- it was a tiny touch and one they didn't have to include, but they did anyway.  Yay for them.
  • I'm sure there are more, but I've been writing this for a while and I don't want to forget to add my...niggles.
Okay, so, the majority of Star Trek was great.  I did have a few problems with just a few tiny things:
  • I did have one "oh, God, it's Sylar" moment -- when, naturally, Spock was talking with Amanda.  It shoved me right back into Sylar speaking with his mother.  Whoops.
  • Of all the cast, I sank easily into seeing Zach Quinto as Sylar, Chris Pine as Kirk...almost everyone.  I haven't totally bought into Scotty yet, and the one I had the most trouble with was, surprisingly, Sarek.  To me, Mark Lenard is Sarek, and that's that.
  • McCoy, Leonard McCoy.  Seriously.  I swear to God.  He introduced himself as McCoy, Leonard McCoy.  I was trying not to think of Caesar, thank you very much.
  • And, on that subject, Karl Urban's accent slipped here a lot more than it ever did as Caesar -- my only explanation for that being that in attempting McCoy's southern drawl, Karl Urban's Kiwi slipped out instead.  Whoops.
Really, that's just about it.  Destroying Vulcan was horrid but probably only because Spock's World is one of my favorite Trek novels, and the thought of it being gone, of Seleya crumbling into just too horribly sad.

I'm planning on seeing Angels and Demons next week, but for the first time ever, for any Trek movie, I'm planning on seeing it again. 

I did see Undiscovered Country twice, but mostly because I was brought along the first time and then went with my grandparents so my grandpa could see it the second time.  This time, it's my decision.

Also...this may be the movie that causes me to get a Blu-Ray player.  It was absolutely gorgeous...though somewhat heavy on the lens flares.

I know "re-boots" are the thing lately, and I liked that Trek accomplished this one without destroying the original continuity.  They found a way to start again without invalidating what came before.

Julia Ecklar wrote "Born Again Trek" after seeing Star Trek II, but that feeling of...invigoration is what sticks in my mind after this movie.

Deep Space Nine might be the most dramatically interesting and consistent Trek series, and TNG holds a special place in my heart because it's the Trek I grew up on, but...this felt right.

It was like visiting old friends for the first time.

I can't wait for Star Trek 2.