I had to be in Santa Rosa on Tuesday so I spent Monday evening with my father and brother as my parents live in Guerneville. We all like Star Trek, maybe partially inspired by the namesake, so we ventured out of Guerneville to the Windsor cinaplex for our pop culture fix. As I said before, I had trepidations about the marketing of the movie (“not your father’s Star Trek”), but in the end I was only mildly annoyed with the direction they took. It was entertaining and the actors obviously had fun reinterpreting the characters not going overboard for the most part to make them hip. The homage to the original sound effects and set designs was fun, though some of us are left wondering why the ship’s weapons capabilities exceed the enterprises supposedly in its future. And it seems that with each successive interpretation, the hand phasers become less and less effective for those of us who remember the original series where the phaser would completely disintegrate out of existence any human shaped object. The necessity of more interesting gun fight scenes have trumped continuity really since The Next Generation where the phasers didn’t even put a dent in the rocks or trees they hit.
Let me just start off another of what Cristina affectionately refers to as my “fanboy rants” by clarifying. I’m not a continuity nazi who notices and takes exception to some plot development which impacts the canon of say, Federation/Romulan history established by a line in the script of an episode aired sometime in 1967. Actually, I have to congratulate the franchise for its creativity – a plot twist in the latest movie which should (but probably won’t) put an end to the whining from here on out. The twist is also an effective technique in throwing us off as certain plot developments we don’t believe will happen (because we think we know the history) do so, and actually become permanent. Once these events happen, they lay it out for us, or Mr. Spock does anyway. I can’t go into more detail without giving much away, and it’s not all that deep, not even for a fanboy.
My complaint about the new movie, and really pretty much everything since the original series, has more to with the loss of emphasis on exploration. I miss the Five Year Mission, the emphasis on the new worlds and civilizations. Specifically I want to be brought somewhere I haven’t been, as promised, where a writer has really attempted to step outside the known to present a vision of an other and different reality which not only expands our idea of what may be, but by virtue of the contrast also teaches us about who and what we are. The original series was created and released just as real life space exploration was getting underway, and also when many Americans were exploring potential frontiers in social change, spiritual discovery, and cultural innovation. The science fiction of the time was steeped in a sense of wonder and anticipation. A few years later it corresponded with some of the disappointments and slid into a phase of creative dystopianism, which was in turn followed by the unfortunate side effects of the innovative Star Wars in reducing science fiction to primarily a sensual experience of special effects and rather predictable action sequences; characterizing most of the genre ever since.
Star Trek has endeavored to cater to the modern expectations while holding the fan base interest with some of the higher end elements of the original concept. The problem with the movies, and even to some degree the subsequent series, is that the writers are obligated towards the grandiose. It’s hard to find time to explore when you’re busy saving the Earth from catastrophe, trying to prevent or fighting wars, uncovering conspiracies, or subduing a bad guy dressed like an adolescent punk rocker (the latest is about the third or fourth – it’s old already). Each new series has started off promising, but would eventually devolve into more mundane plots.
The Next Generation series kept with it for most of the series, but to keep our attention they felt we needed the occasional multi-episode distractions of intra-Federation political conspiracies or Borg wars. But it ended on the proper note, and perhaps the franchise should have stopped right there.
Deep Space Nine took a different approach. It took place on an immobile space station near a “wormhole” to another side of the galaxy. They didn’t go to the universe. The universe came to them. Unfortunately, the last half of the series was about war with a civilization on the other side. But the villains weren’t all bad, and the Federation wasn’t all good, especially in teaming up with Klingons and Romulans to defeat the common enemy – sort of a utopian laced dystopia. Star Trek’s ideals had been rooted in the Great Society notion that with ample opportunity, a cultural norm based on a cosmopolitan view of the universe, universal recognition of the value of the accumulation of knowledge, and maybe some social engineering people worked well together and perhaps even improved on some level. When faced with danger the Enterprise crews always thought before acting, the mantra being “we need more information.” Sometimes they didn’t have to fight their way out of situations when the dispute turned out to be a cultural misunderstanding which they managed to resolve by expanding their own horizons. DS9 posed the question – was there a base human nature which lurked beneath the thin veneer of social evolution, or is there hope that once we reach a certain plateau that even when the material conditions for the cosmpolitan ethos collapsed we might still maintain that level of humanity? DS9 stood for the latter proposition as the Federation when facing its own destruction decided to forgo an opportunity of genocide (by biological warfare) even to save itself; the premise being that there were certain things a truly human civilization would not do under any circumstances and to surrender the ethos was to surrender everything worth fighting for. It was a utopian proposition certainly and ahead of its, as revealed in real life a few years later by certain acts now in the headlines in response to much less than the destruction of our civilization.
Then there was the Lost in Space “Voyager” series which involved forced exploration, but the writing and plot creativity standards had sunk so low I lost interest within a few episodes. The last series was actually a prequel series entitled simply “Enterprise” which began well with exploration but soon devolved once again into multi-episode storylines in which the crew’s exploration mission was tabled to save the Earth from reptilian and insectizoid aliens who attacked without provocation. They did a little exploring along the way, but floudering ratings brought the series well into the tried and true.
With one or two exceptions all of the movies revolved around catostrophic threats or serial villains albeit well-played villains. The latest movie is no exception. It’s fun to watch, like Star Wars, and the Mummy. It’s not the best Star Trek movie. Maybe second or third (Riccardo Montelbahn’s villain remains the best and the others have been modeled after him). The plots are all about personal revenge, differing from other science fiction operas only in that there are grey areas in the villainy and in the heroism. There’s some good action and some very tedious scenes such as an unecessarily long flight and fight sequence where Kirk and Sulu are trying to destroy a big drill cutting into the planet Vulcan, and much like the monotonous fight scenes in the Matrix movies I found myself looking at my watch and waiting to see if they were going to do anything with them, and ultimately annoyed at the lack of resolution given the amount of time spent. To keep my attention to a form-over-substance sequence, the movement has to be plausible, and when basic physics and gravity should have all of the combatants falling over the sides at various points throughout the fight, I lose interest since I know Kirk and Sulu aren’t going to die and this movie alone has about half a dozen scenes in which someone is avoiding a big fall with his fingernails.
What I’d like to see is another series – one where each episode needn’t be devoted to keeping the attention of an ADD audience. But with Firefly’s demise I’ve given up hope. I don’t need the special effects. The original series used very low grade effects even for the time. They actually relied more on the viewer’s imagination, the few space battles looking more like submarine than air warfare and often you didn’t even see the other ship. It worked for the geek base, those with vivid imaginations used to reading books who don’t need their hands held throughout the viewing (though some may need it through real life). And where the extent of space exploration these days consists of the Space Shuttle program dedicated to such innovations as sending up the first Hispanic barber or whatever, I guess it makes sense that we lack the sense of wonder to sustain a series about exploration.
The upside is that special effects are cheaper now and we’re just starting to see what other cultures do with the technology, and what they were doing even before it was available. Give me Pan’s Labrynthe or Man Facing Southeast. With the exception of a few bright spots here or there, American science fiction film is mostly dead in the water. Until the independent film makers take up the challenge, I’ll probably wait for the DVDs of any further films.
Addendum: Our own Captain Future has a thoughtful review. He’s right about the actors stepping into the roles nicely, and unlike him I was even impressed with the minor characters. He addresses more about the presentation in the review above, and some of the philosophical issues in this post. It appears he’s a little more charitable than I with the latter issues.