Friday, May 22, 2009

Star Trek: The Search for Logic

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released one fine late fall day in 1979, I went with 16 of my closest friends in Millburn High School to a screening at Essex Green. We had to be there when Admiral James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise reunited on the bridge. And if the loving shots of the ship took too long, and if the movie itself was little more than a regurgitated TV episode (most obviously relying on a 2nd-season episode called The Changeling), so be it. Many of had seen all 79 episodes of the original TV show, many, many times. After all, Star Trek aired in re-runs every night on Channel 11, right at dinner time.

Three decades later, Star Trek has long since passed from being “must see.” The movies got better, for a while, including with the brilliant Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Then came the TV shows. Star Trek: The Next Generation was the first and best; besides making a catch-phrase of “sexy bald man,” it became compelling in its own right. The final episode of that show, All Good Tings… was, to me, as good as anything in the Star Trek canon.

The last 15 years, though, have not been so kind to Star Trek. First, they killed Kirk… and it wasn’t even good drama. Unlike with Spock, they couldn’t figure out a way to bring Kirk back, either. Then, they killed the Borg. Ok, that was cool. I could watch that again. Resistance is futile! Hell, that was worth watching just to see Data and the Borg, well… ok, not going there. But “Star Trek” was eventually diluted with mediocre TV spins (Deep Space Nine) dreary TV spins (Star Trek: Voyager) and finally TV spins that nobody watched (Enterprise). The most recent movie not only wasn’t “must see,” most people – myself included -- didn’t bother. Nemesis was the lowest grossing Star Trek film to date.

So, imagine my shock last fall when I started seeing the trailers last fall. At first I thought it must be some parody: here’s a young man claiming to be “James Kirk,” and the other guy is saying he’s “Leonard McCoy.” Can’t be!! But then, there’s the Federation symbol, so… ok, a prequel!

Certainly, it seems to have been well-received. Over at Rotten Tomatoes it is scoring 95%, including 91% among the professional critics. Few movies ever rate higher. In just two weeks, it has already grossed more than $150 million, easily surpassing Star Trek IV as the highest grossing film in the Star Trek series. The action is usually compelling enough (except for one totally ridiculous chase scene), the back stories of the familiar characters are engaging and sometimes even funny, and the special effects are great.

So, why didn’t I love it more?

I think, for me, it may come down to time travel. Not that I mind time travel. Star Trek IV works in large part because of the time travel; All Good Things… also involved a form of time travel. Then again, so did the dreadful Generations, as did First Contact. If anyone’s counting, and, well, I am counting, 4 of the last 8 Star Trek movies have used time travel. And I’m thinking that that’s probably 2 too many.

But it’s not so much the time travel itself that is problematic for me. It still has to pass the "kill your grandfather" test... or, I guess in this case, the "watch mommy die" test. That is, it's what the time travel does to the timeline and whatever remains of the underlying logic of everything that once was Star Trek. This movie is popularly being called a “prequel,” but it is not. The timeline populated by everything from the original TV series and at least the first 6 movies (ok, 7, counting Generations, so I guess count 'em all) is utterly obliterated by the events of this movie. Obliterated, as in, can’t be mended by a future TV show or movie; that timeline and everything in it is now reduced to being in an alternate reality, or, as Patrick Duffy might once have said, "a bad dream."

That’s not to say all is lost here. The characters are engaging. Chris Pine demonstrates Kirk’s wilder side, bringing back every memory of Kirk putting on his shoes by the bed of his latest space conquest. Zach Quinto is credible enough as a much younger – and much taller – Spock (though, let’s be frank, there was a bit of a quantum leap when Leonard Nimoy appeared on the screen). The script is sharp. We get a version of how Bones got his name, and finally we get a worthy part for Uhura (played by Zoe Saldana, in a role that must have made Nichelle Nichols jealous).

Some scenes of young Kirk are fun enough. First he trashes a vintage Corvette. Then, we see how Kirk passed the Kobayashi Maru test, made famous in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This movie pays homage liberally to both the original TV show as well as the original cast movies. The references are far too many to count. The catch phrases are almost all there: Yes, Bones uses the “I’m a doctor, not a …“ line and yes, Scotty struggles with dilithium crystals to give the ship more power, and yes, we get Checkov’s attempts at saying words with v’s in them (never mind that Checkov probably shouldn't be there at all, it's still funny), and yes, we get Sulu displaying his fencing skills. There's a red shirt, a character with Yeoman Rand hair, and Sarek – Sarek!! – reusing a line from the original TV series. I missed hearing “He’s dead, Jim” and “Beam me up, Scotty,” but that might have been just my attention span flagging. When Nimoy first appears on screen, he starts out by quoting one of Spock's most famous lines – the very one that first appeared after Spock acknowledged trying his own version of the Kobayashi Maru test. We even get a scene in which Kirk goads Spock in to a fight in order to force Spock to become emotional, a scene that is pretty much straight out of the first season episode This Side of Paradise. On the other hand, perhaps that is part of the my struggles with the film: too much of it seems pat.

All of which brings me back to a question: If the nostalgia trip is so good, if the nods to the old TV episodes and the original movies so much fun, then why murder the timeline? Why, essentially, take an exacto knife and slash it up? It's not as if Trekkies were going to force literal remakes of all the old TV episodes, after all, but it might have been nice to retain some sense of the memory, in more than just the mind of Spock prime. And it’s not just that specific movie events render episodes such as Journey to Babel or Star Trek IV to be impossible without mending the timeline (and, really, there’s no credible way to mend the timeline even to make A Balance of Terror, Tomorrow is Yesterday or The Immunity Syndrome plausible, let alone the Jane Wyatt episodes), but it doesn’t even make sense either by existential logic or by plot. If, after all, the timeline is altered in the manner suggested, then “Spock Prime” can’t exist in the form given by Leonard Nimoy. And, further, if the timeline alteration is as presented in the movie (itself a bit of an homage to the “black star” effect of Tomorrow is Yesterday), then there is a far more obvious solution for the other time traveler than to be going all Darth about it (or is that more Khan?). After all, he has the red matter, he can make sure it is used to save his planet when the time comes. DUH!! And while I expect that Nero wouldn’t have thought of that, surely Spock would have.

And, that, finally, is where it falls apart for me. In Tomorrow is Yesterday, wherein time travel was first introduced (by “a black star of high gravitational attraction,” with the famous backward ticking clock at Sulu’s console), the characters went overtime to try to mend the timeline. In City on the Edge of Forever Joan Collins was allowed to die, rather than to alter the timeline. Other examples are plentiful.

The conundrum was explained from the start of Tomorrow is Yesterday:
Spock: Suppose an unscrupulous man were to gain certain knowledge of man's future? Such a man could manipulate key industries, stocks, and even nations. And, in so doing, change what must be. And if it is changed, Captain, you and I, and all that we know, might not even exist.

Kirk: Your logic can be most... annoying.
Clearly, it seems the intent of the filmmakers here to remake Star Trek entirely, to tell whatever stories they wish to tell, unencumbered by any details from the original TV show beyond the names and personalities of the main characters. I suppose that they can have a lot of fun with two Spocks in real time – sure beats the days when Spock was just a katra in McCoy’s brain, I guess. And, in a sense, that’s ok. It’s worked well enough for the comic-book prequels, and for the moment it has returned Star Trek in to the “must see” category. But it is at a cost. Logic might have dictated a different course. Annoying as it may sometimes be.