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Star Trek, part 2: Not Quite a Review

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May. 9th, 2009 | 02:19 pm

Let's trek some more!  Ransom spoilers possible!

OK, we're talking about J. J. Abram's reboot of the Star Trek franchise, titled (logically enough) Star Trek (no roman numerals, subtitles, or other qualifiers necessary). Actually, one interesting thing about this reboot is that in all the interviews and stories I read before it came out Abrams adamantly refused to call it a reboot. He danced somewhat coyly around the topic, saying just that the main themes and characters were intact, he had changed some stuff, but nothing essential, and the fans would like it. I think he was trying to cover his tracks a bit, keep speculation down, and let the movie speak for itself. Trek does, admittedly, have one of the more rabid fan bases, and Abrams shrewdly, I think, wanted to avoid alienating anyone. On the other hand, let's call it what it is, a reboot--and let us be eternally thankful to Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Speaking as an old-time fan who can vaguely remember the original series before it went into syndication, I think old-timers will like it. As to the younger crowd to whom Star Trek means Captain Picard or Captain Archer, or who may even (heresy!) have never seen a Trek show at all--well, I think this movie will make believers of them.

Rather than summarize the plot (if you've not seen it, go and make it so! Or, if not, you can get a synopsis from other reviews), I'm going to discuss some of my impressions of the movie.

Cast: Excellent. No one is imitating the old cast, but everyone really has a good handle on the characters. Chris Pine has got Kirk perfectly as boyishly charming, in a James Dean sort of way, a little bit of a loose cannon, and a brilliant commander. He shows us why Kirk became the youngest starship captain in the fleet. Zachary Qinto, of Heroes, is picture perfect as Spock. Of all the new cast, I think he has the greatest physical resemblance to the corresponding original cast member. More importantly, he conveys well the constant tension between the human and Vulcan sides of his psyche. Karl Urban is a great "Bones" McCoy--crotchety, slightly technophobic, but with a heart of gold. After all these years, his well-known backstory--joining Starfleet after a career as a civilian doctor and a nasty divorce, are finally made fully canonical. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is finally given a lot more respect and a lot more to do than just saying, "Hailing frequencies open, sir!" or "Captain, I'm frightened!" As we'd expect, she is a skilled linguist as well. Some may be a bit surprised by the romance between her and Spock, but I'm not. Look at early episodes of TOS where Uhura is hanging over Spock, casting eyes at him and singing as he plays the Vulcan lyre. Something there--the potential just became actual in the new 'verse! As to the rest of the cast, all were great. Sulu did his samurai smackdown (he put his fencing skills to use!), Chekov mangled English and was excitable and handy, Scotty managed to pull the ship through, etc. etc.

The only classic cast members that did not appear were Yeoman Janice Rand, Nurse Christine Chapel, and Transporter Chief Mr. Kyle. Rand was never developed much, anyway--she was a love interest for Kirk, and when that didn't seem to work, they dumped the character. While I have always liked Majel Barrett Roddenberry, and found the Spock-Chapel dynamic, well, fascinating, I can see the logic of not having her here. The only reasons for the character were 1. She was the producer's wife and her character in the original pilot (Number One) was not popular with test audiences, and 2. As a love interest for Spock. With the Spock/Uhura thing, there's not really any logical need fo the character. Sure, I love Nurse Chapel, no offense to the character or the late, lamented Majel Barrett (who did the computer voices for the movie as her last Trek-related role)--I'm just talking about the dramatic logic. As to Kyle--well, he was pretty minor and you have only so much time in a movie.

Story: Excellent. It really got to the heart of what the characters were all about. It was by turns gripping, touching, heart-rending, slam-bang exciting, and, to coin a phrase, fascinating. The only real weakness, in my view, is that the explanation of the McGuffin (the red-matter black-hole-making-thingy) and the destruction of Roumulus was a little sketchy. However, by the standard of techno-babble or "crazy crap" (to use the David Letterman Star Trek-themed Top Ten from last night) in the Trek franchise, this is mild, indeed, and easily forgiven. Most importantly, this was really about characterization in a way that has been missing from many of the movies. Since we are coming in on the characters at an early stage of their development, we need to get a little insight in to why they are as they are. We see the aimless, reckless life that the fatherless Kirk leads until getting his head on straight and joining Starfleet. We see the bullying and prejudice Spock endures as a half-human. We see how Scotty's hotshot brilliance has landed him in major trouble, and why he's so excited about a chance to serve on a starship. These vignettes and more really flesh out the characters we've known and loved for so long.

Art design: The look of the movie maintains the essence of TOS while giving it an update, especially in terms of technical plausibility in light of the developments over the last forty-three years. The Enterprise itself looks like a cross between the ship as seen in the old series and the refitted ship of the first six movies. It is the interiors that are a revolution. I am inclined to think the layout was influenced by the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. As I pointed out to my wife when that series debuted, it actually looked like the interior of a huge military vessel. Partly as a result of shoestring budgets and partly as an attempt at what was then thought of as “futuristic” design, the interior sets of the old Enterprise were simple, very small, almost cozy, and done in blacks and muted pastels. For those of us who grew up on it, a look that is always the “real” Enterprise; but not what you'd expect the interior of a real starship to look like.

The new Enterprise is full of noisy machines, chaotic passageways full of crew members running back and forth, catwalks, piping, and ramps and stairways. These latter are especially interesting. While the turbolifts still exist, they seem less extensive and mainly for rapid auxiliary access by bridge officers to other areas. This makes sense—as the set designers of the Roddenberry-inspired series Andromeda pointed out, in a real ship you don't want to have elevators be the main access. After all, if the power goes out, you're stuck! Ramps give quicker access in all conditions.

The bridge maintains the classic circular design, with the command chair at center and the other stations in the same relative positions. The color scheme is hugely different. No longer the pastels of TOS, the earth-tone and beige of TNG, or the blacks, browns, and silvers of the movies, but glaring, clinical white—this is the new bridge, which could almost be a surgical theater. On the one hand, I'm not quite sure I like the color scheme—it is much harsher, much less “homey” that that of TOS. On the other hand, a real ship is built for functionality, not coziness. Also, especially in the later series, the bridges of the various ships often seemed rather dark, to the point (by the time of Voyager) that one wondered how the crew could see what they were doing! The new bridge is probably more what you'd actually expect on a real starship.

The costumes are essentially slightly jacked-up versions of the classic uniforms, with all the old color schemes: gold for command, blue for sciences and medicine, and red for security, engineering, and ops. They are now two-layered. A high-collared black undershirt lies below the colored tunics. This is interesting, in that it goes back to the TOS episode “The Naked Time”. In this episode, we see (for the only time in the entire original series, as far as I can tell) a crew member with an undershirt. Spock is lying on the exam table and he has taken off his blue tunic, wearing a black t-shirt and his usual pants and boots. After the exam, he pulls the tunic over the undershirt and walks off. I had thought from seeing this that the shirts were the two-layer effect actually used in the current movie. However, every time Kirk got his shirt ripped, we saw his bare chest, and close examination of close-ups indicates that the black collars are sewn onto the rest of the shirt. Thus, the shirts were apparently one-layer (although McCoy seems to have a separate black shirt on beneath his scrub-top when he wears it).

The new tunics have the Starfleet logo embroidered into them in a tessellation. For me, that's a bit much, but it's OK. The logo on the tunic is now a badge, rather than a patch. The pants and boots seem essentially similar. Cadets wear black shirts, or red uniforms for dress occasions.

Random notes: We are finally given everyone's official names! Until the first movie novelization, we never knew what the T. in Kirk's middle name was. It wasn't until Star Trek VI, I think, that “Tiberius” was made official onscreen. In the current movie, we not only have James Tiberius Kirk from the git-go, but we learn why he was so named (after both grandfathers). Uhura's name has long been a matter of fan speculation. The first suggestion from fandom was “Penda”, from a Swahili root meaning “love”. Coupled with the surname “Uhura”, a slightly mangled form of the Swahili uhuru, “freedom”, her name would mean “Lover of Freedom”. The grammar, as people who actually knew Swahili pointed out, was a bit off, but this was the fan favorite for some time. Later, “Nyota”, from the Swahili for “star” was suggested. These two suggestions bounced around in fandom for decades—some even suggested “Penda Nyota Uhura”. The movie slyly references this debate, making her name an ongoing mystery until near the end when Spock addresses her as “Nyota”. So, after four decades, Lt. Uhura finally has a fully official name!

Sulu also had no first name in TOS. “Walter” had been suggested in fandom, then Vonda McIntyre referred to him as “Hikaru” in one of her novels. This name was finally referred to onscreen briefly in Star Trek VI; but in the new movie, we have it from the git-go. Chekov, for the first time, I think, is given a proper patronymic (the “middle name” which for Russians indicates the father), thus: Pavel Andreevich Chekov. All other main characters had previously been given first names in the series.

To do a bit of a wrap-up: I think, all in all, that Star Trek is everything we fans hoped it would be. It intelligently updates the old series in a way that fans can appreciate, and that newcomers can enter without fear of confusion. In many ways, this is the Trek movie that always should have been made, but never has been—until now! The franchise has now gained a new lease on life, and looks likely (pardon the reference!) to live long and prosper!

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