My Thoughts on Star Trek

A few years back I sat on a panel and we were asked to discuss what we’d do if we could revitalize Star Trek. My answer was to do what Gene Roddenberry did. Go to the leading futurists and figure out where we were headed technologically and then extrapolate from there and build a new 23rd century. Keep Roddenberry’s optimism about mankind and life among the stars and tell stories ripped from today’s headlines along with rollicking good action.

Director J.J. Abrams and his team might have been taking notes in the audience since their vision of the 23rd century looks like it has a straight line from today, not 1966. The reinvention of Star Trek comes at a time when aging franchises from James Bond to Sherlock Holmes have been dusted off, reconsidered, recast and released to great acclaim. Because this has never been done before, Star Trek devotees were concerned how this would spoil the memories they grew up making, of seeing those first episodes and the then the movies. Captain Kirk and Spock were indelibly William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Well, there are some who never got over Sean Connery so yeah, it’s an adjustment but if done right, you get past it pretty quickly.

The well cast, well directed Star Trek movie moves at warp speed and you sign right on, enjoying the shiny future that might await us. I found myself smiling all the way through, loving the film going experience.

The diehard fans have to understand, though, that despite all the pre-release comments that this doesn’t gainsay Roddenberry’s 1966-1969 series, that a plot element sends the story on a divergent timeline, that’s not quite the truth. From the moment Nero arrives in the 23rd century there are countless things already not in synch with what we know not only from the original series but from the lackluster prequel series Enterprise (would that series was retconned out of existence). The technology, for starters, and ship designs are clues that we’re dealing with a very different universe. Then there’s the absence of Sam Kirk in Jim’s life, another clue we’re starting in some other reality. No doubt, someone has a list somewhere, proving the point further.

Okay, I got it. I can move beyond that and say this is a fresh start. Not everyone can be so accepting so Abrams wisely used Spock, the first, as a storytelling device to tell everyone else this is a new starting point, and if he’s okay with it, so can you be.

Having said all that, let’s move into the film itself. One reason I delayed until now was for the people who really wanted to see it to so get there and I can discuss plot points without spoiling the fun.

It’s a fun film. Everyone’s clearly having a good time aboard the good ship Enterprise. But boy, the science makes no sense and the story has some major plot holes.

This red matter can create a singularity, a black hole in space. How large and for how long? Because when Vulcan is obliterated by the red matter, nothing is said about its moons or its star or how it affected nearby solar systems. Given how the Enterprise managed to free itself, we can conclude it was not very powerful but it’d be nice if some attention were paid to the physics.

That one of the founding worlds of the United Federation of Planets has just been vaporized is also a plot point that no one addresses or memorializes. It takes the original Spock to find a new homeworld for the 10,000 remaining Vulcans.

While the story moves at a nice clip, there are times you stop and wonder, huh? Spock tosses Kirk off the Enterprise? That had to be in violation of seventeen different regulations. Also, Kirk’s landing on the same world as the old Spock and Scotty stretched credulity to the breaking point. And when Spock counsels him on how to relieve his younger self, wouldn’t it have been easier for Kirk to get McCoy to declare Spock unfit for duty given the loss of his mother and people? No, we needed a fight between the friends.

The notion that a ship full of cadets takes over the Enterprise (along with other ships) doesn’t speak well for the ranks of Starfleet as the movie opens. Once the CMO died, cadet McCoy suddenly became the chief medic? Similarly, who was running Engineering before Scotty beamed aboard?  Gaping holes that should have been neatly tied off in the script.

And yet…bringing the core crew together is nicely done and for the most part, true to the characters as we recall them. Much is being made about the Spock-Uhura relationship but those with long memories may recall how she got away with her flirtatious teasing in the earliest episodes so this is a nifty extrapolation.

Abrams’ casting is pretty top notch. I find no fault with the command crew and would love to have seen Bruce Greenwood do more as Chris Pike. The secondary roles are largely also well cast despite Jennifer Morrison having too little to do as Kirk’s mom. The only one I had trouble with was Ben Cross as Sarek, who lacked the gravity that Mark Lenard gave the character.  Eric Bana’s Nero was a colorful look at a Romulan but he really doesn’t have enough time to do much but whine or snarl. Just what did he and his crew do for 25 years?

The uniforms, sets, gadgets and score are all swell (except maybe for engineering). I was captivated by the visual inventiveness. I appreciated Abrams slipping in the Easter Eggs from his other productions and caught, I suspect, most of them.

In the end credits, the film is dedicated to Gene and Majel Roddenberry which is appropriate. They created a vision of the future that spoke to a generation and made us work a little harder to make it a reality. With luck, the revamped franchise will spark that same excitement in another generation of fans who can work with the previous ones so we can all boldly go….

21 comments

  • Tom Galloway

    The bit with cadets taking over the Enterprise for one mission amounts at this point to a movie tradition; I think the TOS movies only once had an Enterprise that wasn’t some combination of on a shakedown cruise/manned by cadets or inexperienced crew/with a skeleton crew.

    On the other hand, the ending with regards to that was beyond silly. Based on one mission and maybe 6 hours of any flight service, admittedly in command, they’re bumping Kirk from cadet to Captain, putting him in command of any ship, and putting him in command of the fleet flagship? That’s just insane. Ditto for all the other cadets jumping straight to flagship command crew and head of department positions. They really needed to have a medal and commendations ceremony, then a “Five Years Later” caption screen, then a quick scene where it’s made clear that the crew is reuniting as the Enterprise crew after getting experience to warrant those positions. That, or you literally have to wipe out just about every flight officer in Starfleet to justify these inexperienced naifs being bumped that far instantly.

  • Jim Rhule

    I think the film was generally well done and agree with you on several points you made but I do disagree about McCoy. Per the original series McCoy was older than Kirk to begin with, he had a private practice before joining starfleet. The fact that he was married and divorced as he told young Kirk when they met indicated he was older. He must have been doing alright as well indicated by the statement the ex-wife got everything and left him nothing but bones. As far as his being a cadet he was still already a doctor which means he had to have been through Med school & residency which would place him higher on the age chain than the other cadets. The determining factor of his becoming the senior medical officer would have to be not his ranking in starfleet but rather his abilities as a doctor.

    With regard to cadets being promoted to active positions with the appropriate rank there are plenty of precedent in various wars that have taken place in real life for this to be believable – although I agree the promotion to Captain was a bit of a stretch.

    Finally, I don’t know how many people are going to see this film in Imax but with J. J. Abrams fondness for jumpy camera action shots I personally wouldn’t want to see that in Imax!

    • McCoy clearly is older not only in looks but when he refers to himself as part of the senior medical staff; credit for his years as a private MD clearly pushed him up the ladder a bit.

  • Sam was Jim’s older brother, right? And technically, we only saw one scene of Kirk’s childhood before he joins Starfleet and nothing showing who he lived with or grew up with. So I see no reason to conclude that Sam isn’t around in this past. I mean, we didn’t see Mama Kirk after the first scene, but we don’t have to be forced to conclude that she died.

    That being said, I was already considering that this was either already an altered timeline due to all the manipulations that occurred during ENTERPRISE. OR this black hole/time storm thang sent Spock and Nero into a completely parallel universe, though not one as extreme as the mirror reality.

    Concerning red matter, if a single drop creates a small focused singularity that’s just small enough to suck in a planet from the inside and they had a whole FRIGGIN’ VAT, then I’ve gotta believe that was one hell of a nova that was happening in the future, one certainly large enough to threaten the entire universe. I recall more details about this nova and the red matter (as well as who actually made Spock’s ship) were covered in the comic mini-series. I’ll have to re-read.

    Concerning the planet, I assume Spock sent him there because 1, Jim had shown he was potentially dangerous during a serious mission and that normal methods don’t work with him since he was able to somehow sneak onto a starship sent on a military mission (Spock wasn’t told about McCoy’s trick), and 2, Spock would no doubt be aware that there was a Federation outpost there and I’m guessing intended for Kirk to wait there until authorities came to pick him up. Perhaps whoever sent out the escape pod just missed the mark by a mile, since Spock’s cave was not terribly far. Also, young Spock WAS emotionally driven and not completely reasonable at the time, having just lost so much.

    Spock being on the same planet was, by itself, a coincidence I could buy since Nero wanted him nearby to watch Vulcan go away and that Spock was toss Kirk to the nearest planet to get rid of him. Scotty also being there stretches it. It would’ve made more sense if Spock and Kirk went to the outpost, grabbed a shuttle, went to a nearby station where Scotty was, etc. Then again, Spock’s amused reaction to Scotty’s presence implies fate, that even with the altered timeline, the universe seems to be bringing the proper people together. Whether you like fate or not is personal preference. 🙂

    How some of the crew get their jobs IS rather silly. I would’ve liked it if McCoy at least was already chief medic, an older friend of Kirk’s who was finishing his final year by the time he and Kirk met. But the fact that everyone hit the right note with their characters and that the film was so fun, made me figure “screw it” and move on. 🙂

  • Some quick points of my own:

    I think we’ll continue to have to agree to disagree re: Enterprise and its role and quality in the scheme of things.

    As for the divergences, I’ve suspected that the black hole that dumped “Spock Prime” and the Narada into the start of the movie also dumped it into a parallel universe…and it won’t have been the first such visited by any of our heroes from previous series, as we both well know. It’s good to have the additional factual ammunition to justify claiming that this is not reboot, but really a further expansion of this particular playground of fiction. More ammunition for further sequelae using both versions of Trek, from where I sit, so I’ve no complaints at all on that score.

    As for the mass slaughter of qualified officers Tom suggests as being necessary from a plot standpoint…well, we had that in the film itself, didn’t we?

    Here’s to a now-literally multiverse-sized future for the Franchise!

  • As for the “red matter”/black hole physics…I suspect that Christopher L. Bennett or David Brin can work out a rationale that makes sense as to how a singularity could be rigged to self-destruct after consuming “x” megatonnes of matter. Especially David Brin, I think, given his work with such things in his novel Earth.

  • Great review! I felt pretty much the same way about the film. The corny plot holes you mention were a major distraction, but overall it was still fun. I really liked Karl Urban sorta doing a DeForest Kelley impersonation, but still making Bones his own.

  • That wasn’t an impersonation, man. That was Channelling the Ghost!

  • Laura Lawrie

    I’ve only seen the film once so far, so I could be wrong about this, but I thought that all of the other starships were destroyed by Nero before the Enterprise arrived on the scene near Vulcan. So who in any position of seniority/experience would have been left once Kirk and Co. defeated Nero? Made sense to me that the guys who won the day got the big commission. Stuff like this happened in TOS all the time. It’s one of the reasons that I always loved TOS: logical but not.

    • A few lines putting the loses at Vulcan into context could have helped explain why a crew of cadets were just being given what Pike called “the fleet’s newest flagship” rather than some crew shuffling. There should have been a lot more moments of explication with an eye towards these plot lines and character arcs.

  • Tom Galloway

    Re: wholesale slaughter of Starfleet. People, this wasn’t a Wolf 357 destruction of the whole fleet. Around 8 ships total were sent to Vulcan. And at least some of them were sent staffed mainly with cadets (which is another “huh?” moment; apparently Vulcan has no ships of its own, nor does Nero need any defense codes to bypass Vulcan defenses nor are any Starfleet ships posted nearby), because we were told the bulk of the fleet was busy/posted elsewhere. It was a Romulan mining ship, not a Borg cube after all.

    Yes, there are holes in Starfleet’s command structure. But not at the level where the entire command crew of its flagship, not just a random, minor PT Boat level, ship, gets made up of not graduated cadets who have roughly a total of 100 hours of *any* shipboard duty time other than perhaps Spock (was unclear how much ship time he’d logged before being an instructor). That was explainable in the emergency situation, but not when Starfleet is deliberately assigning these kids to the posts and ranks on a permanent basis.

    This is the equivalent of grabbing 8 West Point seniors and putting them in charge of Baghdad. Ain’t gonna happen.

  • As with the recent Wolverine film and the continuity/cannon issues folks have with that I’m following in the philosophic steps of Connecticut’s favorite (historical) son Samuel Clemens and unequivocally say that I’m not one to let facts (or continuity) to get in the way of telling (or watching) a good story.

    I enjoyed this film, and I believe that it has given this crusrty old franchise a much needed kick in the Dilithium Crystals.

  • Peter David

    Regarding Sam: Since it was never specified, and although we’re supposed to assume it was a stepfather, I decided that the guy who was yelling at young Kirk about the car was, in fact, Sam. Were I writing the novelization, Sam would have been an older half-brother from a first marriage that went bust.
    .
    PAD

    • The credits clearly state Greg Grunberg was the voice of Kirk’s stepfather. His dialogue also said “your mother may be off planet…” again confirming this was not a sibling. I’m just saying….

  • Setting aside the question of how exactly this “red matter” creates the singularity in the first place, there would be no appreciable effect upon the rest of the Vulcan system. Just because all the mass of Vulcan collapses down to a single point doesn’t change the amount of mass or its gravitational pull. As far as the physics are concerned, the planet is still there, with the same center of gravity… it just no longer has a surface to prevent you from falling in toward the center.

  • Eric Bana’s Nero was a colorful look at a Romulan but he really doesn’t have enough time to do much but whine or snarl. Just what did he and his crew do for 25 years?

    There was a deleted sequence that showed that Nero had been imprisoned by the Klingons on Rura Penthe. I don’t know how or why the Klingons would have captured him; given that the Narada destroyed an armada of 47 Klingon ships, it’s a safe bet that the Klingons didn’t take the Narada by force. My guess is that Nero willingly let himself be captured by the Klingons and forced into hard labor, but I can’t imagine the motive.

    The missing twenty-five years, by the way, is going to be chronicled by IDW in a series entitled Nero that starts this summer by the same creative team as Countdown. That would make the continuity around the comics and the films run thusly:

    Spock: Reflections –> Countdown –> Nero –> Movie

  • Jonathan Eigen

    I just assumed that Kirks parents still had sam earlier that since the timeline had shifted and Kirk now grew up witha stepfather instead of a father that his relationship with Sam may not have been the same.

  • Alan Coil

    I haven’t read the comic book series. I shouldn’t have to to enjoy the movie, which I did. But if you are putting key information in the comic and not in the movie, you are failing at your job as a storyteller. (In a recent television animated show, character A calls character B by name, even though character B’s name had not been previously revealed in the show.)

  • I don’t know if McCoy could’ve declared Spock unfit for duty purely on the whole mother/planet getting destroyed thing… but he definitely could’ve done it based on the fact that Spock makes the most illogical decision a Vulcan could make, and decides to marroon Kirk versus just throwing him in the brig.

  • I can’t say I liked it much: I don’t know about later series but for me, Star Trek was always about using the sci-fi device to explore human themes and moral dilemmas. My favourite was always The Motion Picture which did it perfectly. Here however, the ‘villain’ is empty and unsympathetic: He doesn’t have any kind of argument (and why would he think Spock was responsible?), so the heroes didn’t have to face any kind of moral quandries – they just had to get in there and kill him. And the ‘bad guy blowing up planets’ plot lacked invention (especially when the Red Matter isn’t explained at all. Finally, while the Star Wars prequels, for all their flaws, did explore in all kinds of ways the circumstances which led up to what we know, Star Trek missed this opportunity in it’s rush to ‘get the team together’ – Vulcan culture is illustrated by some Vulcan Children doing maths, while Star Fleet is explained in only one line: “The peace-keeping armada” – when did they become that? Then why at the end does their mission become ‘seeking out new life forms’ again? Mind you, the way they ‘scramble’ from Earth to Vulcan and back negates the whole ‘voyage’ element of the premise – they are hardly explorers at all.

  • Tyson Durst

    I saw it on digital projection and it was a lot of fun. There are certainly some holes and stretches but Abrams was juggling so much to make it work that I could forgive them.

    I even got used to the Apple store bridge contrasted with the bizarrely antiquated engine room. I thought McCoy was a scene stealer and I loved that we finally get an explanation for his famous nickname.

    And I think Star Trek has always taken some artistic license in the science and plausibility department from time to time anyway so I can give those liberties a pass here too, especially considering the goals and ambitions attached to this film.

    The Nokia product placement in a Star Trek movie was…fascinating, as Spock would say.

    Abrams and the cast and crew deserve a ton of credit. When was the last time that people who had little or no interest in Star Trek were talking and buzzing about it with enthusiasm?

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