May 8th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

Star Trek.  As for so many other people around my age, those two words have had a special meaning for me since I was old enough to remember.  I have vague memories of watching the original series a couple of times when it was first on the air, when I was four years old.  However, it was a few years later when the show went into syndication that it really became a part of me.  When I was in elementary school, the local TV station started airing Star Trek in the late afternoon, an hour or so after I got home from school.

I was never quite a complete fanatic.  Mostly, I just enjoyed the show. I went to Star Trek conventions occasionally, but I was never the guy you’d see in costume or wearing fake pointed ears.  Sure, I can quote an awful lot of trivia at you, but that has more to do with how my brain sucks up information in general than it does with anything about the show itself.  Star Trek was my introduction to science fiction in general, and I liked how it took the subject matter seriously instead of playing it for laughs like certain other shows such as Lost In Space.

To Boldly Go Where A Whole Bunch of People Went Before But Hopefully In A New And Interesting Way

A few years ago, word started to spread that Paramount was looking to do a new Star Trek movie featuring an all new cast and centered around the characters’ time at Starfleet Academy.  Variations of this idea were bounced around until ultimately it was announced that J.J. Abrams, producer of the TV shows Lost, Alias, and Felicity, as well as movies like Mission Impossible III, had been signed up to create the next movie, and also that yes, this new movie would start things over at the beginning.

Abrams’ reputation was enough to generate a lot of excitement in the community, but die-hard fans were unconvinced about the idea of starting over with a brand new cast.  Also, the idea of bringing all the characters back to their Starfleet Academy days raised a number of questions about how true the new movie would be to the existing continuity.

The new movie is essentially a reboot of the original show. I’ll try to avoid giving away major plot points, but there may be a spoiler here and there, so beware!

The New Crew

The cast is top-notch across the board.  I thought everybody did a great job.  Chris Pine manages to be Jim Kirk without channeling the mannerisms of William Shatner.  At least for the most part… there were a few moments here and there where I thought I saw a glimmer.  This is undeniably the right approach for him to take.  Exaggerated versions of Shatner’s mannerisms have been a standard feature of many comedians’ routine for decades.  Any overt attempt by Pine to replicate them would have turned the role into a parody instead of a redux.

Most of the cast seem to be approaching their roles with only minimal attempts to channel the mannerisms of the original actor, but there are notable exceptions.  Karl Urban owes most of his performance as Bones McCoy to DeForest Kelley‘s example, and he manages to pull it off without being mocking or tongue in cheek.  It’s not perfect, however.  There are a few moments where he seems to be trying a bit too hard, but you gotta love him for trying at all.

Anton Yelchin was 18 years old when he got the role of playing navigator Pavel Chekov, and yet he’s still a little older than the character he’s playing.  We’re seeing a slightly younger Chekov than we’re used to in this movie, since the whole thing takes place about 5 years earlier than the timeline of the original show. Yelchin adopts a Russian accent that, if anything, is actually STRONGER than that originally used by Walter Koenig. Aside from the accent, Yelchin doesn’t otherwise seem to be emulating Koenig’s performance.

Simon Pegg‘s version of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott is a bit more manic and a bit more irreverent than James Doohan‘s version.  If I had to change anything at all about the new cast, it might be to have Pegg dial it back in just a notch or so.  I thought he played Scotty just a wee little bit too big.  On the other hand, anybody who’s at all familiar with Pegg’s past roles will probably be relieved that he didn’t play it any bigger.  His role as comic relief was way too obvious, and it certainly didn’t help that they gave him what amounted to a pet monkey either.  (Yah, I know… he’s a little sentient alien dude.  But for all practical purposes they could have cast a monkey and not had to change the script at all.)

John Cho, as Lt. Hikaru Sulu, must have the best agent of the cast, because he somehow managed to end up with top billing here.  I guess he’s the most “established” star in the cast.  I always thought that George Takei‘s version of Sulu was strongly influenced by the times in which the role was created.  His Sulu was very much a traditional “inscrutable” Japanese male and while presented in a positive light, perhaps a tad stereotypical.  Cho’s Sulu is a bit more modernized and more generic than stereotypical.  To be honest, Sulu’s part in this movie makes it hard to compare the two, given the situations the script puts him in.

Zoe Saldana as Lt. Nyota Uhura was just wonderful, and had a much bigger role here than most of the other secondary characters.  It seemed that she had more to do in this movie than Nichelle Nichols did in the other movies combined.  I especially got a kick out of the bit where she wouldn’t reveal her first name to Kirk, echoing the fact that the character’s first name was never actually established on screen until this movie.  (Yay for finally officially recognizing “Nyota” as her first name after it’s been used unofficially in books and other materials for decades!)

Of course, in many people’s mind the big question about this movie is how will Zachary Quinto do in the role of Spock?  Perhaps moreso than any other Star Trek character, the role of Spock is identified with the original actor, Leonard Nimoy.  Furthermore, the role places unique demands on the actor, since it’s necessary for him to present an unemotional detached face and yet still give the audience that sense that the emotions are there under the surface.  Quinto does an excellent job in this regard, but except for his vocal inflections in a few places, I never got the impression that he was doing a direct impression of Nimoy.

It is to Quinto’s advantage that we’re seeing a Spock that’s a few years younger than what we’re used to.  Since the movie is taking place 5 years before the timeline of the original series, Quinto can play Spock as a bit less mature and perhaps a bit less in control of his emotions.

Eric Bana plays Captain Nero, which turns out to be an important, but not otherwise very big role.  He has perhaps the least to do of any Star Trek movie villain to date.  He really only has a few scenes in which he has more than a line of dialogue at a time.

While the main cast is largely made up of newcomers, there are a few more well known faces in smaller roles.  Winona Ryder plays Amanda Grayson, Spock’s mother, but has so little dialog you have to wonder why they bothered to cast a known actor.  Bruce Greenwood has the important role of Captain Christopher Pike, the very first character of Star Trek from the original TV show pilot.

If you look closely, you’ll see a few of Abrams’ standard crew of actors in small roles, such as Amanda Foreman as the communications officer that gets replaced by Uhura.  And Greg Grunberg from Heroes has a voiceover as Kirk’s stepfather early on.  And comedian Tyler Perry has a small role as a Starfleet Admiral.

The Story

The storyline was very well done, although I do have a number of issues that I’ll mention later.  I really do like the way they managed to give the original series credit where credit was due while still giving themselves room to break new ground.

Spoiler Alert! The story is wrapped around that most Star Trek-ian of story devices, a temporal anomaly.  To briefly sum things up, some 10-15 years in the future from Star Trek: Nemesis, a Supernova threatens the home planet of the Romulan Empire.  Ambassador Spock intends to use a bit of new technology to shield the planet, but it doesn’t get deployed in time and the planet is destroyed.  Spock’s device ends up creating a  black hole, and his ship as well as a Romulan mining ship headed by Captain Nero are pulled through the black hole and end up traveling back in time.  Nero ends up 152 years in the past, just before the birth of James Kirk, while Spock comes through 25 years after that.  Nero becomes convinced that Spock’s interference and the Federation’s inaction are the cause of his race’s demise, and plots his revenge.

Nero’s appearance in the past causes changes in the timeline that form the basis for the movie’s reboot of the whole Star Trek universe from that point forward.  A number of things are changed as a result, including Jim Kirk’s childhood and eventual entry into Starfleet.

Die-hard fans will have to remember to keep the timeline reboot idea firmly in mind while watching the movie.  That reboot explains almost every little thing that might otherwise be a genuine continuity glitch, like why the Enterprise is being built a few years later than what you’d expect, or why it’s being built in Jim Kirk’s backyard in Iowa instead of the Utopia Planetia shipyard on Mars.

Other than the variety of little nitpicks I’ll mention later, my only real complaint about the script was that I thought the humor was a little too broad at times.  It also kind of felt to me like there were places where the comedy in the script was driving factor behind other things I didn’t care for.  Like for example, would we have had big water pipes running through the Enterprise engine room if we didn’t have that bit where Simon Pegg, as Scotty, gets trapped inside one?  I suspect that we might have otherwise had an engine room that looked more like what fans expected.

Does It Look Like Trek?

Well… yes and no.  Parts of it look very much like classic Star Trek, but other parts, not so much.  This isn’t an entirely bad thing, but unfortunately it’s not an entirely good thing either.

I can appreciate Abrams’ desire to put his footprint on things, but there were places where I felt he threw out some of the traditional design ideas of past Trek for no good reason.  For example, the special effects were sometimes quite… jittery.  A lot of the space combat scenes looked like they threw a camera out of an airlock during the battle.  I kept thinking that the footage looked like it was recovered by a forensics team from a destroyed camera after the battle was over.  Again, I can understand Abrams’ desire to update things and do the effects a bit differently, but I think perhaps he went a step or two too far with the idea.

And speaking of special effects, it seems Abrams wants to replace the traditional notion of warp speed with something closer to the “hyperspace” mode of travel as it exists in other franchises like Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica.  In this new Star Trek, ships basically just blink out when going into warp speed, like they do in Battlestar Galactica, and while in warp speed they appear to be traveling in a tunnel of light, unable to see what’s going on in the “regular” universe, as in Star Wars.  I’ll admit that the “going into warp” effect was kinda cool, but it was also just wrong.

J.J. I really like most of your work, and I really like most of this movie.  But you gotta get it through your head that there’s just certain things you shouldn’t mess around with just for the sake of messing around with them.  If your new take on warp speed was integral to the plot, even in some fairly minor way, then I might say “OK, I can see why he did that” but as it stands it seems like nothing more than the result of your desire to put your footprint on everything.  Stop trying to fix that which isn’t broken.

I wasn’t completely impressed with the art direction either.   I’m not talking about the way a lot of things were more “gritty” or “used” looking than what we’re used to seeing in Star Trek.  That is something I have no problem with.  But I felt like in other ways, the way things were designed was a wee bit schizophrenic.  I loved the parts where we’d see some part of the Enterprise that was shiny and ultra high-tech just like we’d expect, like the bridge, or sickbay, or the turbolift, but then the next moment we’d see something like the engine room which looked like an abandoned oil refinery, with pipes going every which way you could imagine.  I didn’t really have any specific preconception of what things would look like, but when exactly did the Enterprise’s warp engine become water cooled?  And why would that huge pipe have a big release valve over the middle of the floor?  This is what I meant earlier when I suggested that the comedy in the script pushed the set design in a certain direction.  When you see the movie you’ll know what I mean.

I also was not really impressed with the score.  It wasn’t bad, but I expected more.  Star Trek has a long history of excellent theme music.  Maybe not every movie in the past has hit the ball out of the park, but we’ve had some amazing themes, from the original by Alexander Courage, to the Star Trek: The Motion Picture / ST: The Next Generation theme by Jerry Goldsmith.  And what about the excellent scores for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan by James Horner or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home by Leonard Rosenbloom?  Unfortunately, the music here was just… blah.  Except, perhaps, for the end credits score which incorporated the original show’s theme.

Boo-Boos Big And Small

Aside from the issue of matching the established continuity, there are several other things about the story that strain the bounds of what’s credible.  Aside from the more obvious science-fiction aspects of everything, that is.  Warning, more spoilers!

I’m not sure this is really a boo-boo per se, but I gotta ask: why is Pavel Chekov already a commissioned officer (not even a cadet) at the age of 17?  He must be some kinda frickin’ super genius or something, which is not something previously attributed to the character.  (Although to be fair, that idea is hinted at in the movie.)

Or, how reasonable is it that you can join Starfleet Academy just by showing up and jumping on the shuttle that’s leaving from the shipyards?  It seems like we skipped over quite a bit here.  If Captain Pike is supposed to have smoothed the road for Kirk, great, but it’s not clear.

What happened to Jim’s older brother Sam?  We only changed history from Jim’s birth forward, so George Samuel Kirk should still be around somewhere.  At first I thought it might be Sam who was calling Jim as he was driving the Corvette, but that didn’t really make sense, as Sam was only supposed to be 7 or 8 years older than Jim, and later in the credits we see it was Greg Grunberg as Kirk’s stepfather.  Maybe Sam is off playing basketball somewhere with Chuck Cunningham.

I get the idea that his rage is irrational, but I never quite did understand why Nero was blaming Spock Prime or the Federation for the destruction of Romulus.  The planet was destroyed by a Supernova, and supposedly he was mad at the Federation for not helping.  What exactly did he expect them to do?  Even Spock’s on-the-scene attempt to help ended up not having enough time.

How is it that the planet where Nero abandoned Spock Prime was close enough for him to see the destruction of Vulcan, but yet not be affected by the black hole that destroys it?  And why would Nero deposit him just 14 KM away from a Federation outpost and then leave the outpost untouched?  And why would said outpost not even be equipped with a shuttle or runabout for emergencies?

Or how about this: Where was Vulcan’s sister planet T’Khut, as seen again and again in various TV episodes and movies?

Is it just me, or does Spock’s estimate that there are around 10,000 surviving Vulcans seem incredibly low?  I mean, that’s only 25 ships with 400 people each, and the planet’s had space travel for hundreds of years.   There’s got to be more survivors than that. A colony planet or two somewhere, at least.  I’d expect that a civilization that had faster than light space travel for hundreds of years would have many colonies and probably more people living off planet than on.

When Kirk and Spock Prime reach the outpost and discover engineer Montgomery Scott, they end up embarking on a plan to beam Kirk and Scott onto the Enterprise. They talk about the difficulty involved in performing a transport from a pad in normal space to a ship traveling at warp speed, but fortunately Spock knows the right equation to plug into the transporter to handle that. They didn’t mention it, but I guess Spock must have also known how to extend the range of the transporter by several degrees of magnitude, since in the original series, they had a transporter range of somewhat less than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Fortunately, that didn’t stand in the way of figuring out how to transport these two several light years.  And all without a hardware upgrade. If Spock can upgrade a 100 year old transporter (from his perspective) like that just by plugging in the right equation, I need to talk to him about upgrading my computer.

How plausible is it that neither Earth nor Vulcan have ANY ships at all that can shoot at the drill?  They don’t have to be Starfleet… ram a damn shipping container into the damn thing for god’s sake! How is it that neither Earth nor Vulcan have any sort of orbital defense platforms that can be brought to bear on Nero’s ship?  How is it that neither planet has any sort of weapons with which to attack the drill?  I mean, given that Kirk and Sulu managed to take out the drill at Vulcan with a couple of hand-held weapons, it seems unreasonable that there wasn’t anything else on the planet that could have been shooting at the drill.  Even if there were no capital ships around, there had be shuttles or runabouts or something.  My gosh, at the very least, if Jim Kirk had a ’68 Corvette, you’d think someone else on Earth would have an old F14 or J35 lying around.

If the Red Matter that forms the basis of Nero’s weapon can cause the creation of a singularity when Spock’s ship collides with Nero’s ship, then why was it necessary for Nero to drill a big hole down into the planetary core before inserting the Red Matter?  Couldn’t you have pretty much dropped it anywhere on the planet and gotten the same result?

The Red Matter from Spock’s ship created a black hole in what amounted to Earth orbit at the end of the movie… why didn’t Earth get sucked in?

In Conclusion

Boo-boos aside, I enjoyed this movie immensely.  Most of the things I’ve nitpicked at didn’t even occur to me until an hour or two after leaving the theatre, so they probably won’t bother too many people.   Now, of course, the big question is, where do we go from here?

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