First, some mood music.
STAR TREK is my oldest fandom. It was my gateway drug to science fiction. And for that, it will always hold a special place in my heart, warts and all.
So here’s a review of Star Trek Beyond from an unreconstructed Trekkie: I thought it was great.
Even the title, especially if we’re gonna continue to do the colon-less thing started by Star Trek Into Darkness, lays the difference between the two movies bare.
My thoughts below in no particular order. Spoilers off the port bow, Captain!
I appreciated the character moments and the camaraderie on display among the crew, something I felt was sorely lacking in the first two “Kelvin verse” flicks. I really, for the first time, felt like these actors really were the characters I loved. In particular Pegg, Pine, and yes, Quinto as Spock. I loved Karl Urban as Bones in the other flicks but I now kind of see his portrayal is the closest to caricature and was surpassed by the rest of the cast. Loved Anton Yelchin (RIP) and Cho (“Are you kidding me sir?”) for the first time. Really the most underserved was Zoe Saldana as Uhura…but Uhura being underserved in nothing new, unfortunately. She had some good moments but I thought she wasn’t really given much to work with. (Which, I mean, fine, it’s a big cast, but it always seems like the black woman is the one who falls by the wayside, doesn’t it? Unless of course she’s being defined by her relationship to Spock.)
Of all the pairings–Kirk/Chekov, Scotty/Jaylah, Spock/Bones (obvi)–I thought Uhura/Sulu was the weakest. I think the Krall reveal should have happened during this mid-point when they discovered that Krall had been watching Yorktown all along…that would have given time to explore and develop the idea more and helped a bit of a saggy middle.
Krall. There’s a kernel of an interesting idea there, but, as with most villains in Trek movies, they pay only lip service to his motivations and he’s a shallow character screaming for depth. I was initially baffled as to why they would hire an actor like Idris Elba only to bury him under one of the thickest latex appliances possible, but now I guess it makes sense cause they had to “hide” his face for the reveal to work. Though there was a certain degree of “Bane syndrome” with his voice.
I thought the design of the aliens were uninspired (including Jaylah, as good a character as she was) but I’ve never watched Star Trek for the exotic aliens and creatures…we have Star Wars for that. So I give it a pass.
My one quibble is the villain hell-bent on poorly-articulated revenge, trope. (See my post from last year on that subject.) I’m done with super villains and super weapons in my Star Trek. Absolutely done. I appreciate the difficulty of telling a compelling story when you’re firmly in big-budget, summer tentpole mode, but the fact that the last six Trek movies have had some variation on this same trope exposes its limits. At least this time the target wasn’t Earth, which is a step in the right direction…I guess.
Which brings me to Yorktown. I absolutely loved Yorktown. A wonderfully innovative design, beautifully realized. It was the first time in a long time that something in Star Trek really made me feel the excitement and optimism about humanity’s future in space that’s always talked about in EPKs but I never actually got. That, combined with some wonderful music during the docking sequence, actually gave me goosebumps. So kudos to Beyond for being able to approach that level of wonder and optimism, at least for me.
That said, the name Yorktown, while I realize is an homage to Roddenberry’s original name for the Enterprise, is a little North American-centric for a multicultural (multispecies!) outpost. I would have given it a pass just for the homage, but then the derelict starship they find is called the USS FRANKLIN? Come on, guys. What about the USS Tiananmen? Or the USS Gagarin? Especially seeing that the movie was a co-production with Alibaba and they’re clearly going after the Chinese market something fierce with this. (Actually, scrub Tiananmen then. But anything less overtly Western would be welcome…it just seems like such a missed opportunity to demonstrate that humanity is beyond our nativist squabbles. Instead, it reinforces the idea that American hegemony will win the day. Though, if you really want to get into the nitty gritty, Star Trek‘s Federation has always basically been a vision of American manifest destiny projected 300 years.
(It’s since been pointed out to me that the name USS Franklin was an homage to director Justin Lin’s father, Frank Lin. Which makes it much more palatable for me, but the point still stands.)
I actually enjoyed the destruction of the Enterprise sequence, and I was surprised that it actually tugged at my heartstrings a little bit (even though I’ve never been a big fan of the Ryan Church “hot rod” design…the proportions are all wrong and obscures the elegance of the original). I was disappointed that the 1701-A at the end didn’t depart a little more from the Church design, though I think the lines are a little different…it was hard to get a good look at her.
All in all, I had a lot of fun watching it. It’s a well-made film that entertained the hell out of me and pushed a lot of my Star Trek buttons that the previous outings hadn’t. We know that this was a rushed script, and I think it might have benefitted from a little more time in the oven (the saggy middle might have been saved by moving up the Krall reveal and the thematic threads better tied together with all the imprisoned races banding together).
Something interesting that Annalee Newitz (formerly of io9) pointed out:
In Star Trek Beyond, Kirk’s emotional issue was being bored with his job. His character arc was taken from a “manchild comes of age” comedy.
— Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen) July 25, 2016
I’m not bothered by that arc per se, but it seems all wrong for a Star Trek film. Makes the continuing mission seem petty and managerial.
— Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen) July 25, 2016
That’s an excellent point, but overall I’d say that this depiction of Kirk was closer to TOS Kirk than the XTREME Kirk we saw in last two movies.
All that said, I’m amazed the script was as good as it was given the time constraints. For me, it was an overall win. Kudos to director Justin Lin and writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung. (Jung actually had a little cameo as Sulu’s husband, by the way.)
Oh, and the fact that this is an afterthought just speaks to how well it worked: I loved the moment where Sulu embraced his daughter and husband on Yorktown. Completely natural and understated and absolutely an awesome thing to do. I was a bit taken aback by George Takei’s objections, but I thought that Simon Pegg’s response was absolutely spot-on. As someone who is not a gay man, I had to pause and really consider where Takei was coming from. But in the final analysis, no, I think he was just wrong on this one.
(I know this is a semantic point, but it really rubs me the wrong way when people talk about how they “made” Sulu gay. Nobody made him anything. We never even really got a hint at Sulu’s sexuality in TOS, so to say that they made him gay is to assume that he was never gay until now. Which implies that in the absence of evidence he must be straight by default, cause straight simply is the default unless you’re, ya know, deviant.)
…we have cleared the spoilers.
I’ve read a lot of knee-jerk reaction decrying Beyond as Fast and the Furious in space, which I think is unfair, and something I doubt they’d be saying if they didn’t know the two franchises now shared a director in Justin Lin. As I said before, if you’re going to try to do Star Trek as a big budget summer tentpole, this is pretty much how it should be done.
Which raises a question, doesn’t it? How should Star Trek be done in 2016/2017? I tried to tackle this a year and a half ago when Simon Pegg was announced as a co-writer of the new movie. But now that we’ve seen Beyond, and we know more details about Bryan Fuller & Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek: Discovery series for CBS All Access, I have some further thoughts.
(You’d be forgiven for not wanting to read another thousand or so words on Star Trek written by some guy on the internet, but here it is anyway, ’cause my website.)
Frankly, I’m not really sure what Star Trek should be in 2016. Beyond is one mode: an action/adventure romp with Star Trek accoutrements. It’s the “theme park” version of Trek, which is fine, but I don’t know how much beyond that it can go. (Nice pun, I’ll keep it!)
You can’t really do Star Trek without the iconography of Star Trek, which means things like beam me up and aliens with pointed ears and funny foreheads. Things that I think science fiction has moved past since the 60s, but without them it’s not really Trek.
Star Trek is a fundamentally 1960s vision of the future, very much a piece with the Kennedy era of optimism and space as the new frontier, and that progress will be furthered by advances in technology. (This allowed it to present a classless vision of the future that ultimately sprang from a capitalist system, which has some interesting implications that Trek has never touched.)
It’s also interesting that the individual human being is still front and center in Trek’s future. There’s no AIs that have taken over the world, no transhumanist vision of man blurred with machine…no, people are still front and center, calling the shots. And while this is definitely a function of its 1960s origins (computers the size of buildings!), I think it’s an optimistic perspective that we can carry forward. It suggests that, at some point, we make a choice to value people and determined what our relationship to machines would be. We could have an AI running the ship, but we choose not to. We could have a neural network that links up all our brains, but we choose handheld communication devices instead. That’s not necessarily an anachronistic vision of the future, it can be read as a humanist one, which I think is pretty cool.
Star Trek, the original vintage, is really an anthology series that poses ethical and moral questions through sci-fi action/adventure. (And often crosses over into fantasy. Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development, anyone? Omnipotent God-like beings floating around every other nebula? Fucking time travel, even? Things like this aren’t really palatable to a contemporary audience expecting science fiction, but they’re a part of what makes Star Trek STAR TREK. So you have to figure out how those elements factors in to a contemporary take.)
Gene Roddenberry never set out to create an overtly utopian vision of the future with the original series, but the progressive ideals that he (and many others) couldn’t help but inject into the show were embraced by fans who projected that vision on to it.
Roddenberry learned from them and built upon it, which leads us to TNG. Replacing the brash Captain Kirk is a bald, thoughtful European dude who values diplomacy over force. By any measure, TNG is definitely more overtly utopian than TOS, and doesn’t let you forget it. To the point where even having interpersonal conflict among the Starfleet crew was verboten. This does not necessarily make for good television, but as that show developed over the years, they took it as a challenge and figured out how to balance it out.
DS9 was a reaction to this. A more serialized show by its very nature, DS9 was in a lot of ways a deconstruction of the perfect human of the 24th century. (And mostly successful at doing so, in my opinion.) It’s also the beginning of 90s grimdark in Trek that worked so successfully in First Contact and reached its apex in the 2000s.
Voyager, in my estimation, was TNG-lite, only worse. I found it generally bland and consistently uninteresting. But it did have the first woman captain in the franchise, and I know many women who came of age in the 90s for whom Janeway was an inspiration. So it wasn’t entirely worthless, I just can’t stand it.
(As an aside, my favorite illustration of this is in the episode “Flashback,” which brings back George Takei as Sulu and revisits events from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Captain Janeway notes:
“Space must have seemed a whole lot bigger back then. It’s not surprising they had to bend the rules a little. They were a little slower to invoke the Prime Directive, and a little quicker to pull their phasers. Of course, the whole bunch of them would be booted out of Starfleet today. But I have to admit: I would have loved to ride shotgun at least once with a group of officers like that.”
Well, shit, I want to watch that show!)
And then you get Enterprise in 2001. They tried something that could have been pretty daring in making a prequel to TOS, giving you Trek that still allows for recognizable and “relatable” 20th century humans, interpersonal conflict and all. Debuting two weeks after 9/11, Enterprise was defined by the grimdark, TELL ME WHERE THE BOMB IS kind of stuff that was being reflected in popular culture at that time. Eventually in its final season, it course corrected and became what some might call fanwank, essentially becoming a show overtly about Star Trek. (Which, as a fan, was fine by me, but I can acknowledge its shortcomings for a general audience.)
Then Star Trek goes away for a few years, only to be reborn as a big-budget summer movie franchise. Which is fine and good if you do it properly (bare-knuckle fistfights and pew pew space battles have been part and parcel of Trek since the beginning), but in retrospect, as decent a flick as JJ Abrams Star Trek was, it doesn’t amount much more than his demo reel for Star Wars.
So I come back to the question: what should a Star Trek series be in 2016? What we do know for sure about Star Trek: Discovery is that it’s going to be set in the so-called Prime Universe of the past series, and it’s going to be serialized as is de rigueur for television right now. So we don’t really know that much.
Hypothetically, if someone handed me the reins to Star Trek and told me to do whatever I wanted with, I’d probably do some version of the following: set it maybe a century after the TNG era to have a good buffer between it and established continuity. Have the ship look familiar enough to be of the same lineage as the Enterprise, have familiar looking alien races and such, but basically be far-removed from the continuity of the TNG era. (Kind of the same relationship that the first couple years of the revived Doctor Who had to its classic incarnation.)
Then I’d look to the best writers doing literary science fiction today, like Alistair Reynolds, James Corey, China Mieville, Liu Cixin, Charlie Jane Anders, and basically anybody writing for Tor Books, and set them loose. Like a Black Mirror but Star Trek, with some overarching continuity that comes together at the end of every season.
But no one asked me, of course. Time will tell what the future of Star Trek holds in the capable hands of Bryan Fuller.
I, for one, am not worried.